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Lacanian Psychoanalysis and the Subversion of the Split Subject

Graph IV

Graph of Desire

Today, I would like to expand on my previous post on Lacanian psychoanalysis and the Wound of Split Subjectivity by understanding its relationship with the Graph of Desire. I am well aware that this is the graph that makes people who wish to learn psychoanalysis to run the other way. The Graph of Desire was presented in an essay called “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious” which consists of a lot of ideas that Lacan had developed over many years. It was also where Lacan attempts to situate the “scientific subject” as the “unconscious subject”. This post will provide my own interpretations of the graph because this is what happens when you leave Bobby in his room for 7 weeks. I won’t aim to extrapolate every detail of the graph because there are many ways to read it.

I strongly encourage you to read my previous post on Lacan before you start this one (hyperlinked again here). This is because it provides the foundations for everything that I will be talking about in this post. But in case you are lazy, I will summarize and refresh some of the ideas that I had introduced. This post is also significantly longer than average (around 6000 words). I tried my best to make it digestible.

In my last post, I introduced the fundamentals in the ways which the subject must “give up” on some of their desires in order to become a subject who is always wounded and incomplete. The subject begins from the mirror stage and moves from the ideal-ego to their ego-ideal as their experiences are mediated through symbolic laws which functions like a filter. I gave many pedagogical examples of how this symbolic filter works, such as the employee’s subjectivity and how they are represented by their company or institution (filter), yet their employee identity is not who they really are in their private lives. In the same way, the words we use to represent ourselves through language is not who we really are, but the becoming subjectivity that is never complete. The speaking subject who can only express themselves through language (i.e. “I am X”) is never “whole” and complete. Thus, subjectivity is always “split” because they are filtered through the symbolic laws that they must always conform to. Identity and subjectivity is a wound that can never be healed because one is always already a speaking subject who is divided by what they can and cannot desire. In turn, this produces the “split subject” who must always share a relationship with the filter of the symbolic “Other” (super ego / unconscious mind).

Today, I will focus on how language functions as the symbolic filter because this is what Lacanian psychoanalysis is about. The moment we speak or write a sentence, our language becomes the symptom of the symbolic Other (repression; or unrealized unconscious actions, etc.). The things we say offers us the clue to our unconscious mind and its thinking patterns. Since psychoanalysis studies the unconscious mind, its entire goal is to ask “What does the Other want?” (“Che Vuoi?”) by analyzing the things people say through free association. These associations can be random things, it can also be dream fragments and narratives that people tell others about, or stories that people identify as who they are as a human being.

Above all, this notion of filtering that passes through the symbolic Other (language) is what Lacan refer as “castration complex. Castration is a never ending process that happens all the time in our lives. As I had pointed out in my last post, you are being castrated the moment you read this text. Recall that the child begins with their imaginary “ideal-ego” who goes through the castration complex (filter) which produces the ego-ideal (this is important, we will return to this). It is through our relationship with language which develops the ego-ideal. For example, the speaking subject must always follow the rules of language in the same way that they must follow the rules of society which leads to unconscious desires. The subject’s relationship with language and other people is a relationship with their own Other (i.e. their unconscious desires). When the subject speaks, parts of who they are appears through language (the symptom), and the repressed desires goes missing (I will return to this later on). In the same way, the reader who is reading this text always gets filtered through language and symbolic laws.

This is why Lacan was famous for being called an “anti-philosopher”. What constitutes philosophy and its notions of truth has to do with the unconscious mind. Philosophy is the symptom of the unconscious. The subject must be mediated through language to produce philosophy. Hence, in order to speak about “Being”, one must subtract something from Being. Despite being influenced by Martin Heidegger, this is why Lacan will never be a Heideggarian. Heidegger had set out a task to retrieve fundamental being from the past. He was obsessed with a missing “Being” (lack) that is fundamental to all beings. There is always something missing in Being that makes us desire for Being.

Split subjectivity is central to psychoanalysis. Another example that Lacanians uses to describe the symbolic filtering is the train which moves through the train station. The train station does not move because it consists of symbolic language, laws and rules that are always in place (i.e. in language, we must follow the rules of grammar, etc. as we express who we are; just as a human being has to follow the written and unwritten rules of society). Meanwhile, it is the train / subject which moves through the station. The subject must invest energy to speak through language in order to express themselves. The train station (language; filter) is the site of differences and signifiers that the subject must pass through. As Lacan might say, the train station (Other) is the “treasure trove of signifiers [words]” which the subject must depend on in order to communicate and express themselves—even if this communication is directed to themselves (introspection). The subject is always mediated by symbolic language (signifier; “S”). We are split subjects because we are speaking animals.

Graph I

Graph I, “Elementary Cell”

In Graph I, we have two trajectories. The horizontal trajectory that flows from the left to right as S—>S’ implies the movement of signifiers such as this sentence which moves from the beginning to end (there are deeper implication to this such as the sliding of signifiers and the “anchoring point”). In order to understand the beginning of the sentence, we have to read what lies throughout the entire chain of significations towards the end of the sentence. It would make no sense for me to start a sentence and not finish it because that would not provide sufficient signifiers for me to understand its meaning.

Meanwhile, we have the vertical trajectory that is shaped like a horseshoe which loops over the horizontal trajectory backwards from right to left. The reason why Lacan loops it backwards is due to Freud’s ideas on “afterwardness” which suggests the ways which we analyze a sentence after we have articulated it (it also has to do with what Lacan calls the “quilting” of signifier and signified). The triangle represents the beginning of subjectivity, such as the subject as an animal, who crosses over the horizontal trajectory (symbolic language) twice and ends up producing the split subject ($) on the other end. What we see through this horseshoe trajectory is how split subjectivity is produced and mediated through language.

An example of this horizontal and vertical movement could be the mother who tells the child to clean up his room (horizontal trajectory). The child begins at the triangle who interprets the commands of their mother and produces the split subject who must give up certain desires to meet her mother’s command (perhaps they wanted to go outside to the playground). In the same way, since castration is never complete and occurs until we die, the graph could also represent the reader as the split subject who is currently interpreting this sentence as they get filtered through language.

By itself, the symbolic language is inanimate because it relies on the subject to give these words specific meanings. Thus, the vertical trajectory also represents intentionality. Here, we see something that is very interesting in regards to phenomenology (which studies intentionality), deconstruction and psychoanalysis because Lacan offers us a psychoanalytic way of interpreting intentionality that is not only influenced by inter-subjectivity, space, and time, but by our unconscious desires. This unconscious desire which motivates intentionality can only be experienced through the effects of the signifier. 

The horizontal trajectory could be the representation of the “other person” who speaks. Whereas the horseshoe trajectory represents the subject who interprets what the other person says. Remember how the split subject’s relationship with the other person is actually a relationship with their own Other (i.e. unconscious desires and repression). In my view, the two positions of the horizontal and horseshoe trajectories are interchangeable. The other person who speaks (horizontal) could also be the one who returns “afterwards” to interpret what they had said (horseshoe). I would like to consider two different perspectives between the one who speaks (horizontal) and the one who analyzes and interprets (horseshoe). I will focus more on the the horseshoe trajectory and touch on the horizontal one near the end of this post.

Before we proceed to Graph II, I would like to point out the two junction points where the horseshoe crosses through the horizontal trajectory. These two junctions are important because the first one represent the “filtering” where the subject is mediated through the “treasure trove of signifiers” (symbolic language; Other) to formulate meaning. The first junction is where the subject produces “split subjectivity” by being mediated through language. It is here, where we first encounter the symbolic Other and the “filter” (or train station). As we will see, the Other is represented as “A” (Autre in French) in Graph II:

Graph II

Graph II

The new bottom section of the graph is basically a visual representation of the mirror stage. “i(a)” is the image of the other person (alter ego) or the person that I share my experiences with when I have conversations with them (notice how it is a one way movement from right to left). Such experiences, as I had already mentioned, is a relationship with my own ego (m) that is actually a relationship with the Other who defines the laws and meanings [s(A)] that I must live by (because as a split subject, I must be mediated through language). The relationship with the other person is a relationship with the split subject’s ego-ideal, which is the ideality given by the Other (A).

Recall from my last post when I said that it is not enough to see myself as an ideal human being because I need the approval of the Other. For example, I need lots of likes and approval by others on social media and my narcissistic selfies because I need to live up to the Other’s expectations that I am a superstar hottie or pro nature photographer on Instagram. It is like looking at yourself in the mirror, but recognizing that there is also the other Other person who is unknowingly standing behind you and sees who you are in a certain way (parents, boss, girlfriend, boyfriend, strangers, government, police, social media, etc.). The symbolic ego-ideal is the recognition of an outside beyond who you are (m; ego) as you evaluate yourself (you judge yourself; recognize your insecurities because the Other sees you in certain ways since they are the one who represents the laws, etc.). This is why the image we uphold to ourselves is not who we really are. As split subjects, we are trying to satisfy the desires of the Other. In other words, we are upholding a certain narrative or image of what we imagine the Other sees in us (i.e. imagining what other people think of us). Later in Graph III, we will encounter this imagination as Lacan’s famous fantasy formula: $<>a.

Unlike Graph I, Graph II presents us with the response of the Other that is found through the matheme of s(A). Let us suppose that the horseshoe trajectory is a child who is responding to the demands of their (m)Other. Once the split subject gets filtered through the Other (A), they acquire the Other’s response of s(A). This leads to a complex relationship between subject’s demand and the Other’s response. Another way to put it is that s(A) is the meaning created by the other (Other) that the subject interprets from their response (their chain significations from the horizontal trajectory).

I think there are at least two ways of reading this movement from A [Other]—>s(A) [Other’s meaning] —> I(A) [ego-ideal]. The first consists of the relationship between the infant who demands their needs from the mother that takes position as the Other (only later in the infant’s life does the Other transform into the symbolic language and the laws of society). An example of this would be the infant who demands milk and love from the (m)Other by crying. The response that the (m)Other makes (horizontal trajectory) is to tell the child and offer them milk or her breast. However, as the infant grows older, they realize that the mother cannot offer the kind of (sexual) love that she offers to her father because the law prohibits incest (Lacan’s maternal and paternal figures, just like femininity and masculinity, are positions that the subject takes—they are not restricted to biology). As a result, the infant’s demand for love becomes an impossibility—it becomes the remainder which transforms into an unconscious desire that makes the child ask: what does the (m)Other want? Or simply, what do I need to do in order to receive love from her?

This is why, in the adult split subject, desire is not just about the object that the split subject desires (their romantic partners, etc.). Unconscious desire traces all the way back to the infant’s desire for the sexual love that the Other did not want and cannot give. Certainly, the split subject is not conscious of this fact, because they have already repressed such thought into their unconscious. Hence, desire is never about the object of desire because it is the relationship with what is missing that is causing the split subject to desire. I have provided an example of this in my last post about a man who desires a woman, but what is causing him to desire this woman is not the woman but the lack that he does not consciously recognize (object a).

The second interpretation comes from the idea that, since the split subject must always pass through the Other’s discourse and express their demands through language, their demands are never completely expressed and therefore, cannot be completely met. This leads to the same outcome of never figuring out what the Other wants because one has already gone through the Other’s discourse. Furthermore, the ways which the split subject interprets the Other’s response also involves castration (filtering) and are influenced by their unconscious desires that can never be satisfied. The way we read Lacan for example, always leaves us with something left to desire in his work. There is always more meaning to extrapolate from his texts. This is also true to say, our interpretation of literature and life events.

Desire is the surplus of demand. Desire is what remains when demand fails to be completely satisfied because the mother cannot offer the child the love she offers to her father. Desire is also found when the split subject fails to make their demands through language. Demand is related to our needs. Such as our need for food. Desire is what separates humans from animals. As humans, we don’t just demand to eat, we also desire for objects that has nothing to do with our biological needs.

Since desire is the surplus / remainder of demand, the enjoyment that comes from the satisfaction of desire is partial. Enjoyment is only experienced partially after the subject has been mediated through the symbolic law (after the subject has been filtered and mediated through language and what they are permitted to consciously desire). A classic example: since the first symbolic law states that I cannot copulate with my mother, father and siblings (for Freud, the first law is the prohibition of incest), I can only unknowingly sublimate theses desires to my future partner and other objects that I encounter in my life. The only real and impossible form of pleasure that can never be completely experienced is what Lacan famously calls “jouissance” which translates into “enjoyment” or “orgasm”. Through desire, we can only receive the remainder of jouissance (we will return to this later on once we get to the sex drive). The split subject cannot experience jouissance at its fullest potential because they are always filtered through the symbolic Other. This is why jouissance is related to the real (of what Lacan famously calls “lalangue” or the mother tongue). The symbolic is what paradoxically grants and prohibits jouissance.

Nevertheless, Graph II shows us that in many cases, the Other responds and offers meaning to the split subject as they pass through the horizontal trajectory through A and s(A), which produces the I(A). In this case, the subject recognizes the Other’s desires and tries to fulfill the ego-ideal image that the Other imposes upon the subject, such as trying to live up to the Other’s demands. Clean your room! Become a doctor! Become a rich capitalist! Live up to your own self image defined by your new Other as social media! Hence, as I mentioned last post, the subject’s desire is the Other’s desire. As I gaze through social media, it tells me what I should desire to become (to gather lots of likes from people, take mirror selfies, share memes, be cool, etc.) [now, think of this under the context of marketing, advertisement or political correctness].

The horseshoe trajectory (the arrow) in Graph II is a representation of our demand which gets filtered into desire when the child recognizes that the sexual love they seek from their parents is not possible. By passing through the Other (A), the split subject recognizes this, but still unconsciously desires for such occurance. Thus, they unknowingly seek for it through their interactions with other people (i.e. in their future romantic partners, friends, or objects that they buy, etc.). This is why you might notice how couples will often have partners who, in some ways, resemble people from their family. This can either be really obvious or not at all. This is because we are all unique individuals (split subjects) who makes different identifications with the Other which attracts and arouses us. It can be something as obscure as one of Freud’s patient who was obsessed with the shine on a woman’s nose. There are also instances where you might notice how couples look like each other. In this case, there is a chance that they are narcissists. Although I must point out that narcissism is actually part of human relationships because we relate to the image of the other (Other) with ourselves (this is what makes identical twins interesting). For example, I see similarities between myself and the other person when I have conversations with them, so we become friends. This is why I once said that our relationship with other people is actually a form of fantasy relation with ourselves. Everything functions like a mirror (recall in the mirror stage: “the other person in the mirror is me!”).

The transformation from demand to desire leaves us with an important question that all psychoanalysts seeks to answer: What does the Other want? In psychotherapy, it is about figuring out this conflict between the Other and the unconscious desire of the split subject. The difference lies between what the subject wants versus what the Other wants from him or her. What does the Other want to say? What if the Other never tells us who we are? What happens when the employee does not know what the boss demands? Or when the subject does not know what they want or who they are because the Other does not offer any response? What happens when what we want from the Other can never be acquired because our demands cannot be met?

But because there is no absolute answer to the Other’s desire that desire will endlessly re-manifest itself into different objects through our drives, such as our romantic partner, the new commodity we just bought. I can for example, desire to buy this new car because I unconsciously identify it with my mother. Yet, after buying this car, I stop desiring for it overtime because I realized that this is not what I actually desired because I unconsciously wanted my mother. Keep in mind that I am using the classic Freudian examples for my own amusement. In practice, our unconscious desires could be many other things.

We now have sufficient information to understand Graph III:

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Graph III

 

What we see in the new upper section of this graph is the introduction of “d” which represents desire as the remainder or “surplus” of demand after it passes through the Other. This new graph is relatively straight forward in the sense that it is trying to suggest what happens when the Other provides no response to the subject’s demand—which is basically all the time because we are castrated / filtered subjects who are mediated through language. Hence Lacan writes “Che vuoi?” meaning “What do you want?”—or, “What do I need to do to satisfy the desire of the Other?”

Furthermore, I believe the upper section of this graph also represents what occurs unconsciously. It takes place beyond the signifiers of the Other deep within the split subject’s mind. To put this in another way, the upper section takes place beyond the reader’s interpretation of this sentence as it happens unconsciously. We can see that there are actually two arrows that split from the Other (A). The outer arrow loops and points towards $ (split subject). The inner arrow points towards object a. Together they form $<>a which is the symbol for fantasy.

For the sake of simplicity, I will say that because the split subject does not know what the Other wants, they must imagine or fantasize the Other’s desire. Object appears in this fantasy formula because my desire as the split subject is the fantasy of what the Other desires for me (remember from last post, desire is produced through object a). Simply ask yourself, what do you fantasize about? My desire and fantasy comes from the Other’s desire. Yet, I always misunderstand the Other’s desire (i.e. my desires and fantasies) because I am always already a split subject. This is why our dreams offers us a way of understanding our unconscious mind because it is related to our primal fantasy and the Other’s desire. The analyst’s job is to help the analysand “traverse” this primal fantasy.

Let us move into the final form of the graph:

Graph IV

Graph of Desire (Completed)

In Graph of Desire, Lacan introduces the formula for drive as $<>D (D is for demand), and S(A) which implies the lack of symbolic meaning within the signifying chain (there is no Other of the Other). Remember that every time we speak, parts of who we are is revealed through language, and the repressed material goes missing. S(A) represents what is missing from the signifying language which makes the split subject ask “What does the Other want?”. From the reader’s perspective, it is the question of what your unconscious mind is trying to say as you are filtered (castrated) through these words (i.e. what does the meaning you extract from this text inform you about your Other?). Notice how after desire (horseshoe arrow) passes through the lack of symbolic meaning of the Other S(A), we get to fantasy $<>a which involves fantasizing what the Other wants. Because the Other lacks a signifier (i.e. I don’t know what the Other wants), I seek to fantasize what the Other wants. This fantasy moves down the graph and resurfaces as the Other’s response / meaning of s(A) [even when we do not know what the Other wants because we are split subjects].

In my last post, I explained Slavoj Zizek’s joke on “coffee without cream” and how the missing content of the coffee constitutes our perception of the coffee. I also explained Lacan’s interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story called “Purloined Letter” and how the stolen letter functions as a lack by which all other signifiers surrounds it like a vortex. Both coffee without cream and the empty content of the letter is represented by the signifier of the lack of signifier. In this case, S(A) is the signifier of the lack of signifier. This is where we encounter Lacan’s controversial “phallic signifier” (ф) which is related to the “name-of-the-father”, “paternal metaphor”, and the formation of sexual difference known as “sexuation” (found here, from Seminar XX on feminine sexuality). In fact, it would be naive for me to not elaborate on sexuation because a big chunk of psychoanalysis is about sexuality.

Basically, the phallic signifier (ф) shares a paradoxical relationship with the lack of the Other S(A)—the lack of the phallus—namely, the feminine. The signifier (ф) of the lack of signifier (-ф) is the phallic signifier (ф). This is why in the sexuation graph, Lacan crosses out the La as in “the woman” because feminine sexuality can exceed the limitations of the phallic signifier. This is known as the “Other jouissance” which characterizes “feminine writing” (Helene CixousThe Laugh of the Medusa is a good example of feminine writing; James Joyce’s Ulysses is another good example). There is however, a certain way of reading Lacan where it appears like he privileges the phallic signifier. This suggests that all symbolic languages that the subject mediates through are fundamentally phallic and masculine (patriarchal) which follows Freud’s phallocentrism. This interpretation situates Lacanian psychoanalysis into gender politics and it is part of what made him controversial. However, I would say that this is a misreading of Lacan. Slavoj Zizek is quite famous for addressing this misreading (here). For now, I will not go into the details of sexuation because it is another very difficult topic.

Regardless, let us return to the Graph of Desire. If we continue to follow the horseshoe trajectory, notice how this missing signifier of S(A) appears after it passes through the Other (the filter; A) and drive ($<>D). After desire is produced from the surplus of demand, it is recognized within $<>D, or the drives of the split subject. Basically, drive is another word for sex drive (libido) which shouldn’t always be thought under the context of copulation. This is because there are many things in life that offers “enjoyment” such as happiness, listening to music, reading, writing or speaking—basically anything that gives us pleasure.

For Lacan, all drives are partial which represents partial objects that attracts and arouses the split subject (common examples would be the breast, gaze, voice, etc.). In this sense, it is through these partial drives where we recognize our desires. But because conscious desire arises from being filtered through the symbolic, the drives can never reach its goal since it is not what the split subject unconsciously desires. Drives can only circulate around object a (i.e. the lack / unknown repressed material). Another reason that drives never reaches its goal is because its functions are a bit “mechanical”. The drive is like a circuit, or train tracks which involves having the libidinal energy push the train (subject) through the station / filter. It consists of—as we will later see—a form of repetition. It is like listening to your favorite song on repeat which offers you partial jouissance. You can never get enough of the partial enjoyment that it offers.

Finally, let us read the top horizontal trajectory which moves from Jouissance –> S(A) —>  $<>D —> Castration. This trajectory is important not only because it is the visual representation of castration from the perspective of the subject who speaks, it is important because it mimics the chain signification of the lower portion that moves from Signifier —> Voice. This upper unconscious trajectory points out how speaking and the creation of meaning which is the result of filtering, prohibition via symbolic, still allows for a certain level of enjoyment satisfaction.

This is why Lacan once famously said that speaking is like having sexual intercourse. We gain enjoyment and satisfaction from talking to other people which traces back to our relationship with the Other (Lacan’s statement also has to do with the concept of “sublimation” where we substitute one for the other). Furthermore, this top horizontal movement from jouissance to castration also emphasizes on what is missing [S(A)] is also paradoxically found within our drives $<>D as the symptom.

Once again, I pointed out that every time we speak, part of our subjectivity is found in language, and the unconscious desire goes missing. The things we say is the symptom of our unconscious desires. Hence, language consists of a negative (-1) and positive (+1) dimension. This formulation is represented through S(A) [lack] which consists of a -1, and $<>D [drive] that carries the +1 of the signifier. It is also recognized through sexuation of the -1 / the lack of phallic signifier, and the +1 of a phallic signifier. Simply put, the top horizontal trajectory emphasizes on the partial drives that motivates the split subject to speak (their desire to speak). It is through the signifiers of the Other—such as what is said through symbolic language by the split subject (the symptom)—where we recognize the effects of their unconscious mind.

What got Lacan banned from the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) comes from the way he attempts to make specific “cuts” through the analysand’s (patient) free association. Lacan achieves this by interrupting the double movement between the conscious Signifier —> Voice and the unconscious Jouissance —> Castration. Here, the cut is an attempt for the analyst to help the analysand produce new ways of thinking and restructure their unconscious patterns (new train tracks, new circuit). It must be noted that these interruptions and cuts that the analyst makes are not random. The analyst is aware of the analysand’s unconscious patterns via free association (i.e. the way they speak).

***

Essentially, Lacan is trying to formulate ways to address what lies beyond the symbolic signifying language. Humans are not only conscious talking animals, they are unconscious subjects who experiences enjoyment (jouissance). This is what separates humans from artificial intelligence. It makes films like Ex-Machina fascinating because it emphasizes on human attempts to assign sexuality to robots. Humans are sexual beings where sexual difference is inscribed at the heart of the split subject as a form of contradiction: between the -1 and +1 of signification (of what is signified through language and what is missing in it). All beings are sexual. This is why sexuation is such an important component to Lacanian psychoanalysis. There is no such thing as a being who is emptied of their sexuality.

All of this takes us to the dialogues between gender theorists and psychoanalysts. I won’t get too much into this today, but it can be seen in the famous debate between Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler that took place in the 90s. Their differences lies in their views on how subjects are related to the symbolic. Butler’s theory of gender performativity reduces the Lacanian symbolic into performative acts which challenges the privileged gendered acts that are enforced by history and social laws (gender as a social construct). By producing new performative acts through the symbolic, Butler thinks it could disrupt existing symbolic laws. For Zizek, Butler creates her arguments at the expense of forgetting that the performative acts which seeks to disrupt dominant symbolic acts are part of the symbolic Other. In other words, “liberating” performative acts is also the product of the symbolic Other who restricts such liberation. The performative subject who is supposed to challenge symbolic norms is found within the limitations of the Other and the split subject. Alenka Zupancic explains these differences very well in her book What is Sex? (2017) [p. 39-44].

With this aside, there are many concepts that I didn’t get to include in this post such as the concepts of sadism, masochism and fetishism / perversion. Enjoyment (jouissance) is not restricted to ideological norms such as happiness. It could be things that causes us pain and suffering. In fact, Lacan relates jouissance to a form of suffering. Jouissance is a big complicated concept that deserves specialized attention because it is related to Freud’s infamous concept of the “death drive” and “repetition compulsion” (from a book called, Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Jouissance is a form of repetition that can be experienced through the partial drives. Remember that the partial drives are “mechanical” because it constantly repeats—like replaying your favorite song or film. The reason you replay it is because you are always only partially satisfied.

While jouissance cannot be fully recognized, its presence can be experienced in bits and pieces through speech and writing. But because we are always castrated speaking subjects who are prohibited by the laws of the Symbolic Other, we can never fully experience jouissance. Jouissance is like the engine of desire that gets filtered through the symbolic and are found with our partial drives as it circulates the object cause of desire (a). The closer we are to object a (or pure jouissance), the more anxious we get because this is where we encounter our primal repression where no symbolic language can represent (this is what Lacan refer as the “real” in every sense of the word).

Perhaps some of you might ask whether or not Lacanian psychoanalysis actually works—or whether any forms of psychoanalysis works at all. The short answer is that it works, but it takes a lot of time. In general, it seems that psychoanalysis has been a discipline which existed “on the side”. It is definitely a lot more popular in France and other European countries (they teach it as mainstream psychology). In North America, the scientific methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are much more popular choices. There are also other things that makes clinical psychoanalysis not as popular as CBT and ACT. First, psychoanalysis is really intense because you have to meet with the analyst 2-3 times a week. This means that second, it gets really expensive and not many people can afford it. We also have to factor in compatibility because the analysand must feel comfortable with the analyst since they have to open up to them.

There are also many other psychoanalytic concepts that needs to be accounted for in a clinical setting, such as transference and counter-transference which becomes one of the key concepts to learn. In a clinical setting, it is the analysand who directs the sessions, not the analyst. The analyst sits behind the analysand to avoid transference.

The type of psychoanalysis that most scholars study are often referred as “theoretical psychoanalysis” which is a little different to “clinical psychoanalysis”. The obvious difference is that a clinical analyst won’t be like “hey, you actually want to sleep with your mother” (not very therapeutic). In reality, the clinical analyst’s job is to identify and restructure the analysand’s unconscious patterns, defense mechanisms, and help solve other problems that the analysand experiences (i.e. psychosis, trauma, etc). Ultimately, psychoanalysis holds the view that we are all neurotics because we can never figure out what the Other wants. It’s just that some of us are more neurotic than others. This leads to interesting questions such as whether or not if there is such thing as someone who is “mentally healthy”. Regardless, the psychoanalyst’s goal is to reduce your neurotic symptoms by studying your unconscious thought patterns, primal fantasy and engage with the dialectics of desire.

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Commentaries, Contemplation, Popular Posts

Lacanian Psychoanalysis: The Mirror Stage and the Wound of Split Subjectivity

“I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there’s no way to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it is through this very impossibility that the truth holds onto the real.”
— Jacques Lacan

Psychoanalysis attempts to study the way we perceive reality by engaging with the structure of the unconscious “Other” (super-ego) which influences our consciousness. Psychoanalysis also studies the fundamentals of our desires that has been repressed into the unconscious. The tricky part is to understand the way the study of desire is closely associated with language, such as the desire to write or read this text. The most difficult aspect of understanding Lacan’s psychoanalytical writings—especially his seminars—is that the text does not privilege itself. In other words, Lacan applies his psychoanalytical ideas into his own writing as he tries to explain them. Since the reader (you) is a human being with an unconscious mind, he wants to make them experience the psychoanalytical discourse as they interpret the structure of the symbolic language.

As such, the reader (you), who begins to recognize their desire is, in reality, their (your) desire for the recognition of desire as such. Without desire, one would not be able to recognize desire which grants the possibility of psychoanalysis, or any forms of discourse (i.e. science, philosophy and the desire for “truth”). Therefore, we can say that to psychoanalyze is to “desire desire desire”: to desire the intricacies of desire and how it desires an object. The act of speaking and writing is a form of desire (i.e. to communicate, pass on knowledge and relate to “others”). The paradox that we will see is how the desire to speak and write—the desire to articulate symbolic language—is a repression of desire, and therefore, the symptom of the unconscious mind.  

Today, I will use everyday examples to talk about split subjectivity and some of the relationships between the “Ideal-Ego” and “Ego-Ideal” that is established in Lacan’s “mirror stage”. I will also introduce Lacan’s famous “Schema L” diagram and discuss some of its contents as this post progresses. Although I tried to tailor this post towards the general audience, I feel like it might be more difficult than some of my other writings on Lacan. There is a part II to this post where I explain Lacan’s famous “Graph of Desire” here. It builds off of a lot of the psychoanalytic ideas I introduced in this post. 

Last edited: January 9, 2020. Revised some of the paragraphs and clarified various sentences.

 


 

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The Borromean Knot

When the baby is born, the first thing they encounter is the “Real” which consists of chaotic fragments that surrounds them. The mother is the first figure who takes position of the “Other” (super-ego), where the child tries to figure out what it is that she wants with all the gestures that she makes (“what does the (m)Other want?”). When the infant reach 18 months, they begin to not only recognize themselves in the mirror as “me”, but as the “other” person (“the other person in the mirror is me!”). During this time, the infant develops the “Imaginary” through the recognition of themselves in the mirror which constitutes the “Ideal-Ego” (ego = “I”)But as the child gets older, not only do they establish themselves in relation with their imaginary Ideal-Ego (this image I see in the mirror is who I am—as ideality), but in relationship with other people—namely, his/her relation with their parents. This “Symbolic” relation with others which consists of the dimensions of the social, law and language, is what constitutes the “Ego-Ideal”.

It is through the child’s relationship with others where they develop the symbolic ego-ideal. As they establish their relationship with others, they begin to learn what they can and cannot do (i.e. the parents will say they cannot eat this or that, they must follow house rules, etc.). The child must give up certain parts of what they conceived as their imaginary ideal-ego in order to enter the symbolic, which revolves around relationships with other people. This “giving up” of self is what Lacan calls the “split subject” (or “barred subject”, often represented as “S” with a line crossed through it). It is like starting a new job and learning all the policies of the company where the subject is forced into certain structural relations with others (co-workers, boss, etc.) while repressing their unfulfilled desires into the unconscious (i.e. to establish work etiquette; they cannot do this or that while working, etc.). Another example might be to think of a time where we desired to say something that would offend another person, but we end up not saying it because of the disapproval by social etiquette and others.

The symbolic is like a filter where the ideal-ego must pass through to create the split subject. This filter gets to “choose” and pick what part of the subject is acceptable when they engage with other people in society. In fact, the symbolic, as we will later see, is what constitutes subjectivity. In order to establish social relationship with other people, the infant is forced to give up on certain pleasures that they always had, such as certain relationships with their mother (i.e. sucking on mother’s breast, etc.). By “giving up” on such relations, they are repressing these thoughts into their unconscious. This is why the Other is always a woman, since the desire for the Mother is the first thing that gets repressed into the unconscious. The subject’s symbolic relations with other people is a relationship with their own Other (repressed unconscious desires) which—if one traces far enough—goes all the way back to the mother. As the child gets older, they move from the ideal-ego towards the ego-ideal, who gives up parts of themselves in order to enter the symbolic which shapes the split subject (i.e. they enter and participate in the laws of society). This occurance sets out the movement from the imaginary ideal-ego: my ideal self that I see in the mirror as perfection; to the symbolic ego-ideal: once I consider my relationship with others, I am not the ideal human being that I imagined myself to be, since such ideality can only be determined through the agreement with others. 

We can recognize the split subject in Lacan’s “Seminar on the Purloined Letter” where he famously analyzes Edgar Allen Poe’s detective short story called, “The Purloined Letter”. In the narrative, a secret letter is stolen from the Queen by the Minister, which in turn is stolen by the detective. The letter which was stolen twice goes through three characters who had already established their relationship with each other and developed their split subjectivity. This letter gets stolen when the Other (person) is not looking. While the Queen turns her back, the Minister steals it, and as the Minister turns his back, the detective purloins it. The point is to emphasize on the way the subjects / characters are constituted through their relationship with others as they avoid the symbolic Other from seeing them steal the letter (breaking the Law). We will return to this later on.

Taking all of these pedagogical examples in mind, we now understand the fundamentals of split subjectivity. Just like our relationship with other people, the structure of language also consists of rules and laws (i.e. grammar, syntax, lexicon, etc.) where the subject is forced into its system to create the ego-ideal. Instead of social structures or relations with others, we also have the system of language which also functions like a filter. Therefore, since certain aspects of the subject’s ideal-ego are given up as they articulate language, what is given up on becomes the “lack” within language. It is through the splitting of the subject (or giving up) where language forms. Thus, where there is language, there is also the lack of language—i.e. a “negative” side to language, a “-1”. There is something in language that is missing / given up on from splitting the subject. When the subject speaks, parts of their ego appears as language, and the repressed material goes missing. All of this happens unconsciously without the subject’s awareness. In other words, the ego which can be recognized through language is the symptom of the split subject because it is a filter of the ideal-ego into the ego as such. In this sense, one can think of how our entire society functions as the symptom. Civilization is created through the splitting of the subject. One can say that the biggest symptom is society itself (we are basically a bunch of talking animals).

This filtering, splitting, or “giving up” that we have been discussing is formally known as “castration complex” (or in Freudian terms as the “Oedipus Complex”—there are significant differences between Lacan and Freud’s version of castration). It is also this relationship between the split subject and the unconscious ways they interact with their lack which constitutes the experience of anxiety. For Lacan, castration is the symbolic lack of the imaginary signifier. To be sure, the mirror stage does not only occur during childhood, but continues until death. Hence, castration is never complete. The splitting of the subject always takes place every time they engage with symbolic language or society—which is pretty much all the time in our daily lives. The symbolic language becomes the symptom of castration because it takes the place of what lacks / repressed. Language is the symptom of the Other’s desire—of what we truly desire by concealing this lack within its own system (i.e. speech / writing). And of course, if we ask Freud what the split subject really desires, he would tell us that we unconsciously desire our mother. Within the Freudian discourse, the prohibition of incest is the first symbolic law that is imposed on us.

Lacan says, “it is not man who constitutes language, but language that constitutes man”. It is through what has been repressed / given up on within language which not only marks the field of the Other (unconscious), but determines how the split subject interprets and situates themselves within the language before them—such as how you are reading this text. Lacan points out, “I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object”. In other words, the relationship with our own lack / repressed desires influences the way we interpret speech and written objects—just like the objects and people around us in reality. The split subject (you) are forced into this text (discourse) as you read it (you are filtered and split through this text). What gets repressed in the unconscious will unknowingly reveal itself through language which functions as the symptom of repression (i.e. the meaning you extract from this text). When we speak / write, one is speaking about their own repressions. Lack is what constitutes the split subject altogether—namely, subjectivity (or ego).

The most confusing part is that, once the subject gets split and filtered through the symbolic, their relationship with their own lack and repressed desires can only be imagined and recognized through the ego, which is witnessed as a language after the subject had already split. This is why Lacan famously said that “the unconscious is structured like a language”. The ego (i.e. subjectivity) is the symptom of the unconscious which reveals itself through language. The desires which had been repressed into the unconscious Other can only be imagined, but never accessed through consciousness (it is called “unconscious” simply because we are never aware of it). As seen in Lacan’s “Schema L” diagram, the subject’s relations (S) with “other” people (remember: “the other person is me!”) is in close relation with their own imaginary ego (“me!”; “I”) which has been split and influenced by the Other (the lack / repressed desires). A simple example is to think of how we relate to “others” when we have a conversation with them. If I wish to connect with someone, I must find ways to relate to their experiences with my own. This relationship that the subject establishes with the other is actually a relationship with their own imaginary ego (i.e. their own experiences) which functions as a symptom that is associated with the Other.

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Schema L

Since it is lack which constitutes subjectivity, one of the main goals of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to figure out this missing part through the subject’s relationship with the symbolic. We can see this with the popular example from Slavoj Zizek’s joke about a guy who walks into a restaurant and asks: “Coffee without cream please.”, the waiter responds: “I am sorry sir, we are out of cream, could it be without milk?”. The gist of the joke is to emphasize on the word, “without”. Here, we have the symbolic signifier, “without” (as you read it), which symbolically signifies an imaginary “without” that is missing from its signification. What is missing (milk or cream) in the coffee constitutes the coffee and changes how the subject perceives it. It is like drinking distilled water without knowing someone spat in it. But once you realize it, your entire perception of the cup of water changes. On one hand, to articulate the word “without” is to refer to something missing. On the other hand, the moment the word “without” gets articulated through language, it is no longer “without”, since it becomes the symbolic signifier that represents something that is “without”. The word “without” functions like a metonymy for another missing signifier. This is why in Alenka Zupancic’s book, What is Sex?, she refers “without” as “with-without”: the coffee without cream / milk will always include a “without”—namely, a lack which constitutes it. It is the missing spit in the water that constitutes the water, not the cleanliness of distilled water.

In the same way, the split subject and their articulation of speech always includes a lack which constitutes them. This unconscious lack (repressed desires, sublimation, etc.) structures the “other side” of the split subject and is famously associated with what Lacan calls, “objet petit a” (object little a), or the “object cause of desire”, insofar that the subject desires such lack, whatever it might be (i.e. when the subject desires what they have repressed in their unconscious). Object “a” is not the object of desire, but an elusive phantom object that unconsciously causes the conscious subject to desire for the object. For example, a man is dating a woman who functions as his object of desire, even when what is unconsciously causing him to desire this woman is due to how he is unconsciously in love with himself and he is unknowingly associating various signs of her with himself (narcissism) [or, we can use the classic Freudian example where we all unconsciously desire our mother]. The point is that the split subject’s desire is the Other’s desire—it is the unconscious super ego’s desire. This is one of the reasons why the psychoanalyst sits behind / out of sight of the patient during a therapy session. The analyst functions as object as the patient free associates and desires (a) to figure out their ego which appears as their symptom (in Schema L, notice how the ego is placed in brackets beside object a).

Nevertheless. it is this lack which allows for the possibility of Rene Descartes’ famous line: “I think therefore I am”. But since the symbolic paradoxically conceals the subject’s repressed desires by splitting the subject, Lacan famously says the opposite:

“I am thinking where I am not, therefore I am where I am not thinking . . . I am not, where I am the plaything of my thought; I think about what I am where I do not think I am thinking.” (Ecrits, 430).

The symbolic language filters the subject’s ideal-ego by forcing it to split while governing its subjectivity (i.e. what is allowed to pass through language and the law). Therefore, the subject who appears through symbolic language is not who the subject really is. Instead, it is through what is missing within language (repressed desires in unconscious, or desires that had been sublimated / diverted) which constitutes the subject. Once you become familiar with all the policies at your new job, you are defined by the company or institution (symbolic) that you work for—which we all know is not who you really are. Or, when the job interviewer requests you to, “Tell me about yourself”, you respond with, “I am XYZ and I think this contributes to the current job position that I am seeking”. Many of us are aware of how “fake” these interviews are because we basically filter our language and say things in certain ways in order to get the job. Only that in our psychic lives, we unknowingly do this all the time through our relationship with the symbolic (i.e. the rules in language and the laws of society).

In the same way, your subjectivity is represented by the structure of language as who you are (“I am Y”)—which isn’t who you really are. Yet paradoxically, language is the only way to articulate who you are. This is why, in The Title of the Letter, Lacan’s split subject is what Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe famously refer as, “the impossible subject”. The subject is forced into the symbolic within the field of the Other. On one hand, to articulate language is to produce subjectivity and set out a communicative discourse and relation with other people (i.e. to tell people who you are, obey laws like everyone else, etc.). On the other hand, the subjectivity / ego produced through language becomes the symptom of repressed desires: who you are via the articulation of symbolic language is not who you really are, but the product of a becoming subjectivity that is “not-whole”. Ironically, we can even see this when the subject goes to see a psychologist who begins to categorize them via tests and prescribe XYZ medication for you because you fit into the criteria of A, B or C. By doing this, they are forcing the subject into various symbolic structures.

This concealment of the lack in language can be seen in Poe’s “Purloined Letter”, where the contents of the stolen letter were never revealed. The entire narrative (such as its written signifying words) circulates around the missing information of the letter—namely, its lack. The stolen letter functions as the signifier of the lack of signifier (just like “coffee without cream”). For Lacan, the reader’s experience as the split subject is exemplified by reading Poe’s story. I highly recommend you to read and experience it yourself (i.e. notice how as you read the story, your consciousness of the narrative circulates around this letter as the empty signifier like a vortex). In fact, Lacan’s “Seminar on the Purloined Letter” was so important that it was placed out of chronological order as the first essay in his one and only published book titled, Ecrits (“writings”). Consequently, this out of chronological placement lead to a sharp response by Jacques Derrida in a famous essay / lecture called “For the Love of Lacan!”, which was published in Resistances of Psychoanalysis (also see Derrida’s, “The Purveyor of Truth”).

As we now know, the ideal-ego gives up parts of itself to establish social relationship with others and repress their unfulfilled desires, which becomes the symptom via languageThis is one of the reasons why desire can never be satisfied. The “thing” (“das Ding”; lack) we desire will always be missing because it is repressed and concealed by symbolic language and/or within any objects that takes position as the subject’s unconscious desire. This missing thing (lack) which functions as the “objet petit a”, traces back to the desire for the mother who must be given up on in order to enter the symbolic (like what Freud would say). Language which takes the place of the phantom object a, becomes the symptom of this lack. We can see this through the articulation of every word in this sentence (i.e. there is an unconscious reason as to why I desire to explain Lacanian psychoanalysis to you). In Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, Lacan multiplies his borromean knot into “the ring of string” to show how the moment lack (i.e. repressed desires, sublimations, etc.) reveals itself within a signifying word, another signifier would immediately conceal it by articulating the next word in the sentence. As a result, this makes the former lack no longer lacking. Every “positive” signifying word is carried out by a “negative” lack (-1) that is linked to another “positive” word from the beginning to the end of every sentence. This is where Lacan deviates from the traditional approach to clinical psychoanalytical methods, which had always revolved around the patient who lies on the couch to free associate their thoughts via speech for 50 minutes. Lacan infamously invented the “variable sessions” where he would sometimes abruptly end his patient’s sessions in an attempt to make the “cut” and interrupt their signifying chain as a method for diagnosis. If I remember correctly, this is one of the main reasons why Lacan was infamously “excommunicated” (banned) from the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA).

With everything considered, we now understand the reason why Lacan was against ego psychology where it focused on reinforcing an ego that is “not-whole” (I purposely used the term “not-whole” to allude to Lacan’s later ideas on sexual difference that is inscribed into the way the subject interacts with language; how the subject gets unconsciously split / castrated determines sexual difference). The more ego-psychologists enforces the ego which has been alienated from the Other’s desires, the stronger this alienation becomes. The ego is the wound / symptom that is created through its relationship with the symbolic Other (i.e. a relationship with what the subject had given up on / repressed). It is through this wound where we recognize the unconscious mind and our subjectivity of existence. You cannot heal this wound.

“…Desire, a function central to all human experience, is the desire for nothing nameable. And at the same time this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation. If being were only what it is, there wouldn’t even be room to talk about it. Being comes into existence as an exact function of this lack.” —Jacques Lacan

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Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

Last Edited: June 12, 2020 (added new links to my other Derrida posts)

“No one will ever know from what secret I write and the fact that I say so changes nothing.” —Jacques Derrida

Reading Derrida is no easy task. Today, I will show you an easier way of understanding some of the major components to Derrida’s project on “deconstruction”. We will be looking at the “problem” of interpretation and why there are infinite interpretations to any texts.

To give you a background about myself, I have studied Derrida for the past 6+ years. I am relatively fluent in a lot of his ideas such as trace, differance, hauntology, and their relationship with our own “Being” in a Heideggarian sense. Before I was known by my peers as the “Derrida guy”, I extensively studied many works written by Jean Baudrillard. I will try and keep this post up to date as frequently as I can because my ideas on Derrida does change over time. You can also find this post on my “Popular Post” menu.

Although this post will be quite “intense” (just like me when I talk about philosophy in real life), it supposes that the reader knows nothing about the history of philosophy, Ferdinand de Saussure’s general linguistics, semiotics and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. This means that I will be trying to explain Derrida’s thoughts in layman terms, which is not easy. Despite my attempts in simplicity, this post will gradually get more difficult and abstract due to the nature of the topic such as time-consciousness and the way you are experiencing this piece of writing.

An Overview on the “Problem” of Interpretation (Not a Problem)

Derrida is known for showing that there are infinite number of interpretations to any text or events. As soon as any (philosophical) book leaves the original author and gets distributed to its readers, the reader becomes the author where they reproduce their own unique interpretation and meanings of the text. What this “meaning” consists of will depend on the reader’s contextual framework that takes place as they read the book. Now, suppose that the readers of this first book becomes authors who responds to the original author; and the people who reads this new author’s works becomes authors. As a result, we end up creating more books based on our “unique” interpretations of other texts which eventually leads to centuries of books, novels, and every single piece of writing on the planet.

Since interpretation and meaning is determined by context, in order for me to fully understand the intentions of the original author, there is a demand that I must understand their contextual background or “where they are coming from”. Thus, if I want to understand this brand new philosophy book, I will have to read all of these other books to develop a more “accurate” interpretation of the author. As a result, I end up chasing the entire history of philosophy because that is what the original author did. This is where Derrida takes a jab at philosophy since nearly all philosophy books are a response to other philosophers (and all books are influenced by other books in general—particularly literature).

Now, the complexity of this lies within the way which language functions differently through different periods of time. For example, certain words might appear offensive in today’s usage, while it would be considered normal and polite from another point in history. As individuals, we are always fixed and located within a predetermined set of linguistic-structure of our time where these existing syntax, lexicon, conditions, rules and traditions influences the way we interpret texts differently than those who lived in a different space and time.

Another problem with closely interpreting these texts in the book is that the inscription of writing also consists of a series historical contexts which transformed itself into English language as such. Every language is a translation, mediation, and a combination of other historical languages. Therefore, we encounter the same problem where, in order to understand certain terms and words within the book, we also have to understand its historical background: the etymology of words. As we attempt to do this, we will discover that language and translations are actually full of holes and gaps known as an “aporia” , where the meaning of certain words becomes undecidable. The most famous example is from Derrida’s Plato’s Pharmacy, where the English translation in some of Plato’s works shows how the word “Pharmakon” can mean “poison”, “remedy”, and “scapegoat” at the same time. This is why Derrideans likes to play with translations, since these aporias reveals the contradictory nature of interpretation. It is also one of many reasons why Derrideans are often found in comparative literature and literature departments rather than philosophy departments in universities.

Essentially, it is impossible to acquire the entire context of any book since they are based on a “unique” interpretation of the previous (historical) authors, where these authors are based on readings of other authors, and to infinity. There is no such thing as an “accurate” interpretation of a book that is identical to the intentionality of the original author—including Derrida’s own “deconstruction” of the text. This is the fundamental nature of interpretation regardless of how clear someone’s writing is. Even if you read a book closely (i.e. “deconstruction”) the reader will discover the author’s contradictions and the instability / uncertainty of their thoughts. At the same time, the reader will also encounter their own interpretive contradictions as they closely read the author’s work. When you read Derrida, you are reading him read other people’s works. The frustration people get while reading Derrida is part of what he is trying to show you when you close read any text. But this does not mean that one cannot establish meaning or interpretation to any readings. Rather, meaning (i.e. truth) is defined and established by a contingent historical framework that is unique to the individual subject which can never be temporally “pinned down” with precision due to the phenomenological experience of time-consciousness.

On Language: Speech and Writing

“Socrates—he who does not write” — Friedrich Nietzsche

In the most general sense, language consists of two forms: speech and writing. Let us begin by considering how you are reading a written transcript of my spoken words in this post. Three phenomenon occurs (I will use some of these as a point of reference later on):

1) This writing becomes the representation of my spoken words where I would have communicated to you in spoken form if you sat in front of me. This argument traces back to Plato, who suggested that writing is only used to represent speech, whereas speech is more authentic than writing because it is representation of our mental thoughts. This argument as we will see later on, is false.

2) As you read these words, you are supplementing my absent being as a presence. You are reading this text as if I am speaking / communicating to you, even when I am not speaking / communicating to you before your eyes (I will get to this in the next point). This supplementation happens all the time. For example, when we read a novel, we are reading it as if the characters in it are present in our mind, even when they are absent. You are reading Samuel Beckett, even when you are reading an inscription of a ghost who died 30 years ago. The news reporter appears to be talking to you on the television, even when they are absent and you are looking at a black screen. Writing consists of an element of absence. There are times when we recognize this absence within writing—such as when a stranger sends you an email, text message, post card or a letter and you fail to supplement their absence since you do not know who they are. Another instance where this absence becomes apparent is when we encounter a word that is untranslatable.

3) When you are reading this text, I am actually not talking to you because you are talking to yourself. The presence that you supplement for my absence is not me, but yourself, the reader. You are the speaker of my (your) words. This phenomenon will be very important for us to understand once we get to Husserlian phenomenology, where we will learn why “the reader becomes the author”. Essentially, “silent reading” is never silent because we are always talking to ourselves through internal monologue.

Sounds (Phonemes) and Images (Graphemes)

Now that I have roughly sketched out the premises of our discussion, let us quickly learn Saussure’s general linguistics. I began by saying that, language consists of two forms: speech and writing. Let us consider these forms by isolating them from each other.

Speech by itself consists of individual units of sounds. These individual units can be anything from a baby uttering non-sense, all the way to you talking to your boss about how incompetent they are. In short, speech is heard and not seenOn the other hand, writing consists solely of visual elements. Just as a baby who utters units of sounds which makes “no sense”, she can also scribble visible lines on a piece of paper in unintelligible ways. Writing is what we refer as image, which is the visual elements of language. What is unique about images is that it is not restricted to “writing” or any forms of inscription. Images also includes everything that we see. For example, the physical cup that is sitting beside my computer which I can visually see is what I phonetically call “cup”. This is why Derrida will often say that writing is everywhere since everything we see are images.

If unique sounds are not seen, and unique images are without sounds, then how do we know certain sounds relates to certain images? We know that specific units of images refers to a specific unit of sound because we are aware of the “concept” of language. I know that, the image “A” is associated with the sound “A” because I already understand the concept—which is that of English language.

Saussure referred semiotics as “general” linguistics because he saw how “sounds” can be represented with even more specific sonic units known as “phonemes”; and “images” into specific “graphemes” (and within these, we can create even more units such as glossemes, cheremes, etc.). In effect, this turns language into an object that can be studied as a science, such as linguistics. For Derrida, expanding general linguistics into phonemes and graphemes does not solve any of the fundamental problems of language in relationship to “being” in the Heideggarian sense. This is because Derrida saw how linguists are just going to create more conceptual sounds and images to represent our current system of sounds and images. We must be cautious here, because Derrida is not trying to critique linguistics.

Signifier and Signified

Ultimately, these varying units of sounds and images are what Saussure calls “signifier”. Whereas the “concept” is how these specific sounds and images creates meaning—of what we shall call the “ideality of sense”. It “makes sense” that the sound and image of the word “tree” coincides with each other. Yet, there is no particular reason why the sound “tree” is linked to the image of a tree. Their relationship is “arbitrary”. This is known as the “arbitrariness of the sign”.

Before we move any further, let us once again, return to the beginning where I said that language consists of two forms: speech (sounds) and writing (images). What we begin to see is how the fundamental properties of speech and writing are required in order to represent the concept of language. In other words, speech is actually a form of writing and vice versa, since they are both representing the same language that we already know. Thus, Plato was wrong when he said that writing is only used to represent speech, and that speech is more authentic than writing since it is closer to our thoughts (refer #1).

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The complication arises from the influence of Louis Hjelmslev at the Copenhagen school of linguistics, who points out that the signifier (sound-image) is characterized as physical forms, whereas the signified “concept” is a mental concept. For example, we get a mental concept, such as an image of a tree in our minds, when we physically read the signifier “tree” as it appears before your eyes on this page. This “material” external form of writing (i.e. this text) along with the external sounds you hear (i.e. when someone is talking to you) are combined together as an mental “internal” concept. Everything that is visually external to you, along with every sound you externally make / hear, is only possible because of how your brain processed it internally. When someone is explaining to you how thunderclouds are formed at a coffee shop, you are creating an internal mental image of what they are externally signifying as they speak.

Differance

The twist Derrida puts into all this, are two things. First, this internal signified / “mental concept”, is actually just more signifiers that rapidly expands (the inflation of “language” as signifier). [we will not fully understand why this is the case until we get to Husserl’s phenomenology and temporality]. For example, if I write the word “poop”, in your head you will be thinking of poop in conjunction with speaking to yourself the sound “poop”. This mental “poop”—the “mental concept”, which is an image of a piece of poop—is just another signifier, and not a signified. To explain this simply, Derrideans often uses the popular “chasing the dictionary” example. Every signifier I search in the dictionary (i.e. poop) will lead me to its definition (signified), which is just more signifiers that are used to describe the signifier I searched for. Suppose that, within this definition, I do not know what another signifier meant, and I begin to search for that signifier and the same thing happens. As a result, I endlessly chase the dictionary around for signifiers, only to find out that there are near infinite amount of signifiers that represents other signifiers (also, when I search and look into the etymology of these signifiers, I find more signifiers). These signifiers which leads to different signifiers is where the idea of difference comes from (it is also found in Saussure’s text, I cannot recall where from memory). The fact that I know poop is not the same as dog or table, chair, etc. allows poop to have its meaning.

Derrida deploys the word “differance” (a spelling mistake) to describe how the signifier’s meaning is established by what it is not, where meaning is never completely stable due to these differences. In addition, differance is also used to show how the presence of meaning is only possible through its own absence via differences, which is nevertheless still “present” (something we will not understand until later on). The reason why Derrida changes the “e” to an “a” is to show that writing can actually do more than speech. In French, the proper spelling of “difference”, and the spelling mistake “differance” verbally sounds the same. Their differences can only be recognized in writing. Here, Derrida is taking a “revenge” on Plato for calling writing secondary even when it is not. There are complications to this when Derrida deconstructs Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There are also more reasons why Derrida calls it “differance” such as its play on the words “differ” and “defer”—I will not talk about these here (See his essay called, Differance).

Second, while Hjelmslev thinks only the signified is an internal mental concept. We now see how—since the signified is just more signifiers—even the signifier becomes internal. This will be a contradiction that we will encounter in the next few sections between Husserl’s external “indication” and internal “expression”. It is why Derrida points out that, “the outside is the inside” and “there is no transcendental signified”. This “transcendental” is what lies outside of us as subjective being, such as this text. There is no outside signified because they are just internal signifiers expanding infinitely in our minds via differance as you read my writing. I will demonstrate the concept of differance under our experience of time-consciousness later on.

Indication (Signifier) and Expression (Signified)

We will now add another twist to all of this by introducing the Husserlian terms: Indication and Expression which is more or less equivalent to the Saussurean Signifier and Signified. Recall how the signifier represents an external physical form of sound-image, whereas the signified represents an internal mental concept—which, for Derrida, is just more signifiers. Coincidentally, Husserl also makes a similar distinction between the indicative sign which is external, and the expressive sign which is internal.

For Husserl, indication “points” to an expression (indication is what Derrida sometimes calls, “the point of the finger”, or “monstration” as in “de-monstration”). The best example of indication is this piece of writing (or language in general). But if I write “asfopfaddsg”, this external indicative sign points to an expression which we do not know (a word / indication that we don’t know its “meaning” / expression to). Similar to what we already know, Husserl saw how indication (signifier) functions as a physical medium which serves as a form of communication such as speech and writing (i.e. this writing). All indications are entangled with an expression (signified) since we are already familiar with the English language.

Indication / expression is quite complex. Through Husserl’s thoughts, Derrida associates indication / expression with not just speech and writing, but with the movement of our physical bodies. This will be something which I will not explain because to really understand it, you have to be somewhat fluent in Husserlian phenomenology.

Inner Monologue, Expression and Animating Intention

“We are all mediators, translators.” — Jacques Derrida

Let us look at this piece of writing very carefully. Not many people visit my blog—only those who wish to stalk me or is genuinely interested in the things I write would come here. If no one reads this writing, this text does not exist—it is literally, “dead”. Indication (writing) by itself is dead. But as soon as someone (i.e. a living being such as yourself) reads and interprets this writing, indication is animated by the person (you) as an expression (refer #2 and #3). This animation of indication into expression is what we shall call intentionality. Every time you animate this text, there is always an intention, even if this intention is of no intention.

Let us once again recall that indication (signifier) is external; expression (signified) is internal. For Derrida, since expression (signified) consists of more indications (of signifiers established by differance), indication is also an internal phenomenon. The complexities between indication and expression lies in how they are two sides of the same coin. When I indicatively write this post (or when I speak), I have an intention to express something from my internal mental thoughts into external indicative writing. At the same time, I am also expressing myself while I internally indicate (speak) to myself. Internal expression is entangled with “external” (internal) indication because I am internally talking to myself as I write; and this is what makes “inner monologue” as such. In the same way, when you (the reader) are interpreting this external indicative text, you are reanimating my writing with your own internal expressions and indications—i.e. you are talking to yourself as you read this text (refer #3). My external indicative writing becomes your internal expression / indication as you reanimate it with an intention that is uniquely your own. To help you understand this, I will share a diagram from my notebook:

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As the author, I am someone who attempts to communicate by animating internal indications which occurs in my mind as expressions. The author passes from internal expression (indication / speaking to myself) externally as indicative writing. Inversely, when you read this indicative writing (“text”), the reader (you) reanimates my indicative writing into their (your) own internal expression / indication (refer #3). The word “intention” that is written on top of the arrows on both side of author / reader are heterogeneous—they are of different intentionalities.

This is where we understand one of the reasons why there are infinite interpretation to any text. Pure intentionality cannot be transmitted through speech / writing. Furthermore, this is also where we discover the difficulty of translation since we can never fully inherit the intentions of the original author. Hence, “pharmakon” which can translate into “remedy”, “poison” and “scapegoat” becomes undecidable. We simply do not know which word Plato meant. And whether it is one or the other depends on the intentionality of the reader / translator. Most importantly, this “pure” intentionality cannot even be expressed within our internal minds due to the effects of differance and temporality because it is always influenced by the reader’s unique contingent historical context and how they are always situated within a certain linguistic-epistemological framework.

Trace, Differance, Spacing and Temporality

“Time is out of joint” —Hamlet

We will now take one step further and integrate some of Derrida’s thoughts on how the signified (expression) is just a bunch of signifiers (indication) that occurs internally in our mind which is characterized by differance. We will also be drawing relationship on how this physical external indication which represents the phenomenon of space (“spatial”), entangles with our internal expression which is related to our consciousness of time (“temporal”). This will lead to a famous Derridean passage in Of Grammatology, on how our consciousness opens up the notion of “spacing”, which is “the becoming time of space [external] and the becoming space of time [internal]”. Just as external indication (space) is actually an infinite internal expression (through time), for Derrida, space and time are inseparable because they constitute each other as such (this is also true in physics).

The common perception of time is that it runs linearly in sequence, such as: “1…2…3…4…5…”, etc. In this case, while numbers are a representation and measurement of time, it does not account for how we experience time from a first person perspective. The best example of understanding our experience of time is to compare it to how you are reading this text which also appears as a linear line (this is an idea from Heidegger that Derrida borrows from). Temporality consists of three main aspects. First (1), there consists of this very moment of “now”—of every single word you read in this sentence which is characterized as “the present moment”. The second (2) is the idea of “retention” where every single recognition (repetition) of this now is retained in our brain as what had just past. The third (3) is protention, which is the anticipation of what is to come in the near future which can never be fully predicted.

The complexity of this phenomenon is how every signifier you just read constantly refers itself to a retention / past—of what I shall now vaguely call as “history” (or historical context). In order for me to understand this sentence, I have to retain the words at the very beginning. Just as, if I want to understand this post, I have to retain the information that was first introduced. Above all else, if I want to “understand” Derrida, I have to retain and understand the historical context of Husserl, Heidegger, Saussure, etc. who in themselves defers to more historical philosophers, poets, scholars and to infinity.

For Derrida, retention is a combination of all sorts. It is not a simple retention or short term memory of this moment, but an infinite deferral of a past / historical discourse that has always already been influenced by our imagination, memories, and our linguistic-epistemological framework (i.e. how we use words synchronically vs diachronically). If I remember correctly, Derrida refers to retention as “Now X” as in “undefined”; and not “A” like in my diagram below. Another words, this present moment is only possible through the retention of the words you had just read—which is influenced by your own pre-established historical discourse. This is where we see differance taking full effect through its own absence.

The infinite movement of differance that occurs in our internal conscious mind is the absence of this word that you had just read as you move forward in time. Indeed, what allows for a “presence” of meaning to establish is characterized by what had just disappeared into “space” as you read it through time—namely, of what this word is not (as you just read it through time). Yet, this disappeared word still nevertheless “appear” to be “present” through our consciousness via retention (of X), even when it is absent. This quasi appearance of presence that reveals between the spaces of words as we read this sentence, is what Derrida famously calls, “Spacing” (of time). Essentially,  meaning is divided by the past and future becoming of time (the words you had just read and the words you are about to read).

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In this diagram, the straight long arrow represents the linearity of time. What we see is how the “Now” (B) is only possible through the retention of A (or “X”, as Derrida would put it since it is a retention of all sorts). B is “B” because it is not “A”. And what sits between the space of B, A, and C is referred as spacing. This is why Derrida points out how the empty white space in this page takes on an importance. Our interpretation of every word relies on an abstract and absent mode of a historical past that has already been “written” before the subjective reader engages with the text (i.e. your unique contingent historico-linguistical-contextual framework which allows you to establish meaning as you interpret every word in this text). This abstract and absent writing of space is what Derrida calls “archi-writing”, the most originary and unique form of writing that plays among differences of words. Thus, to “interpret” is “to read what wrote itself between the lines” which is a radically different “organization of space” than what appears as linear before our eyes. This is one of the reasons why the first part of Of Grammatology is called “Writing before the Letter”.

Now, the trickiest part of all this is how retention is also influenced by protention as we read this text. Retention is influenced by the future becoming of time. Another words, what allows for our articulation of this present moment is not only that it is never “present” since it refers to a past, but it is also always moving towards a protention—such as your anticipation of the next word as you read. This “phenomenon”, if we can call it that (we can’t since this idea precedes phenomenology), is what Derrida famously calls, “Trace”. This “concept” of trace (not a concept), which is very similar to differance, is an abstract term devoid of any presence (I have demonstrated enough times on how this moment is constituted by differance, which is also a trace towards a past / anticipation). Trace is what Derrida refers as “the unity between retention and protention”. Trace is the unity of past and future. What Derrida is attempting to highlight here is that the future changes how the past / retentional significations are perceived (i.e. like how a 21st century reader would read a 18th century book differently than a 19th century reader). The past and future of time divides and produces the identity of the subject which is always subject to change from the future to come.

In Derrida’s later works, you will see how he puts trace into action with his famous ideas of a “democracy to come”. You can also see this in his essay, “For the Love of Lacan!” where he tries to predict what his readers would say in the future after his death by continuously saying, “What would Lacan have said!”. Derrida’s famous concept known as “hauntology” that is found in his later work, Specters of Marx, is also an example of trace where the past Other haunts the present from the future. Finally, Derrida also situates the notion trace with Emmanuel Levinas and his famous phenomenological “face to face” ethics.

Metaphysics of Presence and Origin-Heterogeneous

“Metaphysics of presence” is a term Derrida borrows from Heidegger (physics studies reality; metaphysics studies what lies beyond reality—the term is hard to explain unless you already know what it is). Basically, Derrida thinks we have always privileged a form of immediate presence via metaphysics, which forces a “closure” in language by establishing a stable meaning. Derrida often refers to this presence of closure as “logocentrism”. One of the reason is how there is no meaning that is “stable” due to the temporal effects of differance, trace, and the shift in the ways we use language over time. Every time we conceive of the “now”—the metaphysics of presence of the present moment—is always already a past. In other words, there is never a “now” moment (the presence of the present), since time is always moving between retention (past) and protention (future). Another reason for this notion of logocentrism is the idea that we tend to focus on retention of the past instead of opening ourselves up to the future to come.

Recall how, when we read a book and attempt to understand it, we end up chasing the entire history. What we are really doing is we are trying to look for the “origin” of the author’s intentions in order to read them “accurately”. We often think we have found this “origin” through our interpretation of their book (and their influences) while privileging the “metaphysics of presence”; even when this origin cannot be found since it is based on our contingent historical discourse of a past that is always moving towards the future as new knowledge is acquired (which might change how one interprets the past). Then there is also the problem of intentionality which cannot be transmitted through speech and writing.

Let us apply everything we have learnt: your interpretation of the word—“origin”—implies how there are no origins since it is established by your retention which traces to all sorts of past along with future that is always to come which might change how you see this past. This is what Derrida calls “origin-heterogeneous”. Trace is the origin of your  (the reader’s) interpretation of the word “origin”. Trace is an absolute singularity because its concept does not exist. This is the most fundamental concept of deconstruction. Thus, “deconstruction” deconstructs itself.

You were reading a somewhat retro loveletter, the last in history. But you have not yet received it. Yes, its lack or excess of address prepares it to fall into all hands: a post card, an open letter in which the secret appears, but indecipherably. What does a post card want to say to you? On what conditions is it possible?

Its destination traverses you, you no longer know who you are. At the very instant when from its address it interpellates, you, uniquely you, instead of reaching you it divides you or sets you aside, occasionally overlooks you. And you love and you do not love, it makes of you what you wish, it takes you, it leaves you, it gives you.

On the other side of the card, look, a proposition is made to you, S and P, Socrates and Plato. For once the former seems to write, and with his other hand he is even scratching. But what is Plato doing with his outstretched finger on his back? While you occupy yourself with turning it around in every direction, it is the picture that turns you around like a letter, in advance it deciphers you, it preoccupies space, it procures your words and gestures, all the bodies that you believe you invent in order to determine its outline. You find yourself, you, yourself, on its path. […]


If you enjoyed this post, I have written about Derrida in many of my other posts:

Another commentary on Derrida which focuses on other parts of Of Grammatology.
A close reading of Derrida’s book, Voice and Phenomenon (or Speech and Phenomena).
Meaning as Soliloquy: Responding to Criticisms of Deconstruction.
A reading on one of Derrida’s early lectures on Martin Heidegger and his first use of the word “deconstruction”.
A response to Stephen Hick’s critique on “Postmodernism” and Derrida; I also expand on some of the ideas presented in this post..
A response to Geoffrey Bennington’s lecture on Derrida.
A response to Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson’s debate where I address the contingency of Nature through Derrida’s conception of trace. 

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Contemplation, Popular Posts

On Jordan Peterson: Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction and Phallogocentrism


Last edited: May, 11, 2019.

Note: Before anyone reads this post, please keep in mind that it is out of date (my views on Peterson had changed). I am not going to bother editing it anymore—nor will I delete it because some of the ideas on here are still helpful on deconstruction. I invite you to read my recent response between Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson’s debate, here, and some of my other posts on Derrida here, here, here, and here.


From Jordan Peterson’s interviews, it is clear that he knows very little about Jacques Derrida’s intentions and the surrounding discourses which constitutes his project on deconstruction. For reasons which I will soon elaborate, it is not my goal to address the political aspects of Peterson’s thoughts because what I will discuss in deconstruction shall be conceived as the condition which grants the possibility of politics. In this post, I will analyze some of Peterson’s arguments through Derridean ideas in conjunction with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis to show you Peterson’s misunderstandings of deconstruction. Other smaller topics will include feminism, sexuality, and speech / writing. In addition, I will provide numerous hyperlinks in brackets which are not essential unless you wish to study the subject mentioned further.

To begin with a summation, Peterson’s arguments on Derridean ideas are at best, a hypocritical endeavor. Peterson manages this by agreeing with Derrida that there are infinite interpretations to any given event and text—something which he takes for granted and ignores in his own argument. The biggest problem of all is Peterson’s interpretation of postmodernism that involves generalizing every 20th century intellectual discourse as if it had a Marxist agenda. To put this in Peterson’s own words, Peterson radically overplays his own hand through a generalization that can only impress those who has never picked up a 20th century continental text. This naive gesture, while appearing to be intelligent when interpreted by the masses, will also strike many as dishonest, ignorant and inconsiderate due to his misunderstandings of many 20th century continental ideas.

This is not to say that Peterson’s arguments are outright incorrect. As we will see, there are similarities between Derrida and Peterson that are only differentiated by context and intention. Contrary to expectations, one can even see similarities between Peterson and Marxism. For example, Peterson’s argument that schools are teaching children Marxist ideologies is actually a famous Marx / Engels argument against capitalism (Base and Superstructure). Unfortunately, my attempts at maintaining this post at a relative length will restrict me from speaking about Marx today.

Deconstruction and Meaning

One of Derrida’s most important argument is how there are infinite interpretations to any given event and text (I wrote an article on this here). This is the result of how the extraction of meaning is based on our subjective phenomenological intentions (in this case, your intentions). Derrida famously makes this claim by deconstructing Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology in his key text called Speech and Phenomena published in 1967. Phenomenology is the study of intentionality through consciousness and the temporal manifestation of space and time (Cartesian Meditations and Logical Investigations)

Let us examine the famous Derridean saying, “Deconstruction deconstructs itself” and how it can possibly yield to political thoughts. Due to the temporal effects of your intentions as you read this text, the meaning of “deconstruction” is only possible until you interpret this word through your own intentionality. Regardless of this phenomenon, “deconstruction” is a translation of Martin Heidegger’s term “destruktion” which in several other instances, Derrida also translates as “solicitation” and “shaking up”. As a result, deconstruction by itself (the word in-itself) is not a political tool. Rather, it is you who would possibly interpret deconstruction (or Derrida’s ideas) as a political tool through your own intentions. Deconstruction “is” the interpretative gesture (the act; verb) of reading a text or event and how such gesture undermines itself as one reads through phenomenological and ontological intentions. At the very interpretative “center”—that is, at the center of your intentionality as a function in relation to other centers—the deconstructive project has nothing to do with politics. Instead, it is this gesture of interpretation relating to other interpretations (differences) that is responsible for constituting politics (though I am sure some Derrideans would disagree with me and argue that there were politics since the very beginning of Derrida’s thoughts). Another words, what a subject does ethically, politically, or philosophically will depend on how and where one situate themselves within these centers of interpretations (Structure, Sign, and Play). For example, of how you interpret the word “deconstruction” (i.e. whether it is political or not)—which deconstructs itself as you interpret the word.

Accordingly, Peterson agrees with Derrida’s argument of infinite interpretation, but only that we as interpreters of the world and texts, should only extract the “good” and “useful” things which helps guide one to living in our society (Peterson says it here). Certainly, this is already (at least) two ways of interpreting a text. And as I have already pointed out, Peterson does exactly this: interpreting Derrida and postmodernism under a Marxist lens. Whether one reads the text through pessimism or as a way to live amongst other people is also determined by the reader’s intentions. It isn’t that one should not interpret anything “useful” or “good” out of literature, but rather, one should be cautious of what they interpret and claim as “useful” or “good” because the two terms are subject to “pure morphology”—that the possibility of a meaningful discourse (or the possibility of a truth), whatever it may be (political, surreal, sexual, etc.), is born from your interpretation of these words.

If we understand how Peterson interprets Derrida and the entire postmodernism through a Marxist lens based on his own intentions, we will understand Peterson’s claim that people interpret the world / texts through the means of facilitating their own acquisition of power—precisely, of what is “good” and “useful” for them. The acquisition of power is only possible through one’s desire for power (something which will be crucial once we get to Lacanian psychoanalysis). Most of the things we do are self-serving towards individual desires which often undermines others. For Peterson, this is what we see amongst the postmodernists, as he points out that feminists desires for the acquisition of power / rights. However, this argument on the acquisition of power merits truth not only towards postmodernists and feminists, but for everyone including Peterson. Indeed, one should go as far as questioning Peterson’s interpretations of Derrida and his own arguments: are not Peterson’s political maneuvers directed towards his own desire for power? But let us not pursue this any further, for my intention is about Derrida’s thoughts. Nevertheless, we can begin to see that Peterson’s argument on one’s desire for power is also apparent in Derrida’s thoughts: since there are infinite amount of interpretations to any event or text, the reader only read what they desire to read out of any particular event or text. Here, Peterson and Derrida appears to be making similar arguments (because I think they are), even when they are speaking about them under very different intentions.

Postmodernism as Post-…

Marx is a big precursor to postmodernism and no one can deny this. I think it is partly true that postmodernism is a re-branded term for Marxism because some postmodern thinkers such as Louis Althusser were greatly influenced by him. Perhaps Marxism is most apparent in Frankfurt School even if its scholars are usually not considered as postmodernists. Most Frankfurt scholars were (and still are) incredibly influential amongst the humanities and fine arts disciplines.

It is not surprising that the term “postmodernism” is such a vague term that many of the figures that are categorized in it do not associate themselves with such label. The fact is, many mid-late 20th century continental philosophies are not about Marx, but a response to Husserl’s phenomenology, and to a great extent, on Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure and G.W.F Hegel. Even Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which influenced many 20th century “postmodern” scholars, was written dedicated to Husserl “in admiration and friendship” (Heidegger was Husserl’s student). To name a few more: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty can all be considered as post-phenomenologists. The former three were also hugely influenced by Heidegger and Nietzsche. Then there is Jacques Lacan who we will discuss momentarily, that is influenced by Freud (especially), Hegel, and Heidegger. Finally, there are others like Gilles Deleuze whose magnum opus, Difference and Repetition, was influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of “the eternal return”.

(Phal)Logocentrism and the Psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan

There is a very long and complicated relationship between Derrida and Lacan. The two actually don’t agree with each other in many levels (i.e. Derrida is a critic of Lacan and vice versa). I am just going to highlight some ideas between the two because it is really hard to introduce them unless you have actually put in the time on learning their ideas.

The word logocentrism (“logos” is the ancient Greek word of “λόγος” which means “reason”, “speech”, “word” and “discourse”) focuses on how civilization privileges speech over writing. As Aristotle puts it: “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words”. This implies that speech is the primary mode of acquiring truth since it is closest proximity to our mental thoughts (inner monologue). For Derrida, such idea is eclipsed once we recognize how speech is overlapped by the fact that when one reads a text, the text is also in direct relation with one’s spoken thought through “hearing-oneself-speak” (auto-affection). Another words, one hears their own speech in their heads as they read the text (i.e. as you read this text). To put it simply, the “binary opposition” between speech and writing are one and of the same contradiction. Speech and writing just different forms used to represent the same (English) language.

To be logocentric involves two main aspects: First, logocentrism is to ignore the historical practice that all production of truth and knowledge are acquired through the interpretation of writing or language in general—namely from interpreting books or events (this is to say that inscription is only one form of writing and that everything around us that we see is also a writing). Second, this privileging of logos (reason) is when one favors the system of logical grammar as they constitute meaning based on their phenomenological interpretation of texts. Another words, we don’t just interpret anything from texts and events, we privilege on extracting the logical (grammatical) aspects of it. This latter idea is from G.W.F Hegel (Lectures on the History of Philosophy) which Derrida cited in his early seminars from the 1960s.

With logocentrism, phallogocentrism (phal = phallus) is combined with the thoughts of Jacques Lacan who rebuilt Freudian psychoanalysis into his own school known as Lacanian psychoanalysis. Lacan is infamously renown for proclaiming the absence of feminine sexuality. The passage, “there is no such thing as woman”, is one of the most misinterpreted and controversial sentence of Lacan (Seminar XX). To help us understand this claim, let us understand two crucial points. First, phallogocentrism points to the idea that the construction of language and meaning is privileged towards the masculine and is phallic in nature (from readings of Freud; the symbolic). This meaning is known as the master signifier which functions as an anchoring point by fixing a specific meaning in place (Seminar XVII). Therefore secondly, the claim that there are no feminine sexuality was made not because there are no feminine sexuality, but because there are no symbolic language which can describe it. In order to explain feminine sexuality, one must go in excess (surplus) of the signifier which in this case, is what lacks within the signifier (I will get to this). Expanding from Freud’s ideas of woman’s penis envy, Lacan thinks it isn’t the actual penis woman desire, but the symbolic and patriarchal power behind the phallus. Part of the reason why no one can describe feminine sexuality is because (many) feminists desires for the symbolic power of the phallus. Thus, phallogocentrism points to how our intentions of interpreting the world and the way we construct meaning / language are inherently phallic from the beginning. One privileges and desires for phallic (patriarchal) power and meaning for their own gains—even if one is a self-proclaimed feminist.

Due to this, feminist Helene Cixous developed a “woman’s writing” (ecriture feminine) that tried to challenge masculine-privileged construction of meaning by—as Lacan would remark on James Joyce“stuffing the signifier” with literary allusions. For Lacan, Joyce is the perfect example of woman’s writing because it shows the excess point where the signifier can no longer sustain itself due to the abundance of literary allusions. By compressing allusions into signifiers, one will recognize what lacks in them—namely, the contradiction of the missing literary allusions (this excess lack [of phallic signifier] is where feminine sexuality arises). Certainly, one may think that Joyce is a man (with a phallus) who can’t possibly produce a woman’s writing. For Lacan, sexuality is not determined by our reproductive organs, but by how one experiences sexual enjoyment (Jouissance and Beyond the Pleasure Principle). To be sure, sexual enjoyment can be experienced in all sorts of ways through sublimation, and not just via methods of copulation with object (object cause of desire; objet petit a) that can never be attained. In context of Joyce, the stuffed signifier is our object of desirewe desire to understand the allusions and meanings that Joyce compresses in his writing which can never be anchored as stable “phallic” signifiers. Through sublimation, reading and speaking becomes a form of desire for sexual satisfaction. This is why Lacan once famously said, “For the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking.”

[Note: Alenka Zupancic showed a new interpretation of Lacan by saying that femininity is the phallic signifier (What is Sex?, 2017). A similar strand of thought can also be found in Slavoj Zizek’s writings (both Zupcancic and Zizek are Lacanian Hegelians).]

Phallogocentrism, as Peterson says, relates to how “culture is male dominated” which he thinks is a “radical simplification of the historical story”. As we can see, not only is psychoanalysis far from being a simplification of history, Peterson’s claim that feminists desires for the acquisition of power is reaffirmed by Lacan: that they (we) desire for symbolic phallic power that is inherent in language / meaning. Phallogocentrism is not “exactly” used to describe how the male dominates the female under the the historicity of economical conditions as Peterson thinks (though I do not doubt this claim under his intentions). And despite that Derrida had always been a critic of psychoanalysis (Resistances of Psychoanalysis), phallogocentrism speaks about the problems in the history of philosophy under the context of Husserl, Heidegger, Lacanian psychoanalysis and the privileging of phallic signifier over the lack of one in a woman. Yet, we must not rule out Peterson’s argument (on men being economically marginalized) with Lacan’s thoughts. In order to speak of Petersons argument from Lacanian perspective, one would have to begin with what Lacan calls the Master’s discourse (or Capitalist discourse) in conjunction with his readings on G.W.F Hegel’s master-slave dialectic (Seminar XVII). Something which I shall leave for another time.

What I am trying to point out in this post is the differences in disciplines and how there is a whole history behind psychoanalysis and Derrida’s deconstruction that Peterson had never thought of simply because he was not trained in it.

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