Commentaries, Popular Posts

Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

“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.

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 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 temporality: our first-person experience of time.

An Overview on the “Problem” of Interpretation

Derrida is known for showing that there are infinite number of interpretations in 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).

The 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 found in comparative literature 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 (via aporias, etc.). At the same time, the reader will also encounter their own interpretive contradictions as they 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. But this does not mean that one cannot establish meaning or interpretation to any text. Rather, and once again, meaning 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 (you will see why later on).

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 (hence, it is “creepy”). 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 inner monologue.

Sounds (Phonemes) and Images (Graphemes)

Now that I have roughly sketched out the premises of our discussion, we will 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 stupid 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 and it is the dominate form of language. For example, the physical cup that is sitting beside my computer which I can visually see is what I phonetically call “cup”. The photo you see in my “About” page is Bobby, etc. 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”. 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. Another 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, is of two things. First, this internal signified / “mental concept”, is actually just more signifiers (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—such as its oppositions—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 which 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 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. Thus, Derrida’s famous passage: “there is no outside text”. I will demonstrate the concept of differance 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 will sometimes call, “the point of the finger”). 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 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 fluent in Husserlian phenomenology, which can be quite difficult (Derrida is already difficult enough).

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 visits my blog—only those who wishes 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 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.

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 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.

The common perception of time is that it runs linearly in seconds, such as: “1…2…3…4…5…”, etc. In this case, while numbers are a representation of time, it does not account for how we experience time from a first person perspective (this is what phenomenology tries to study). 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 call as a “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. And 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 and memories (if I remember correctly, Derrida refers to retention as “Now X” which means “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. Indeed, what allows for a “presence” of meaning to establish is characterized by what had just disappeared into “space” as you read—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 of temporality 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).

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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-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. 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 in Of Grammatology is called “Writing before the Letter”.

Now, the trickiest part of all this is how retention is also a mixed with protention as we read this text. 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 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”—of a past and “what is to come”.

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 refers to this presence of closure as “logocentrism”. But as we can already see, there is no meaning that is completely “stable” due to the temporal effects of differance and trace. Every time we conceive of the “now”—which is the metaphysics of presence of the present moment—it is always already a past. In another words, there is never a “now” moment (the presence of the present), since time is always moving between retention and protention.

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 under temporal movement (and there is also the problem of intentionality which cannot be transmitted through speech and writing). Let us apply everything that 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 and a future that is always to come. This is what Derrida calls “origin-heterogeneous”. Trace is the origin of your interpretation of the word “origin”. Trace is an absolute singularity because the 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 in 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. […]

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Commentaries

On Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Language, and Popular Posts

In, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud famously pointed out three humilities in human history:

1) Earth is not at the center of the universe (Nicolaus Copernicus).
2) Humans are nothing special but animals amongst nature (Charles Darwin).
3) Humans are not the masters of their own mind (Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts).

This post consists of further elaborations on some of my past writings that talks about Lacanian psychoanalysis (I will get to a little bit of deconstruction and Jordan Peterson at the very end). It will not be very well structured because I wrote it over night (I was bored). I do not consider myself to be well-read on Lacan, but I think I am competent enough to talk about his ideas. In my opinion, Lacan, along with Melanie Klein, are the most important post-Freudians in psychoanalytic theory, and clinical psychoanalysis. What you will learn is not only how crazy Lacanian psychoanalysis is, but how our everyday spoken / written language is actually full of holes and gaps ready to be psychoanalyzed. It is important that you understand the basic concepts which I have introduced from my previous posts before you read this one (hyperlinked in the large subtitles below)—though you can probably get by without reading them. This post is also very long (around 5000 words), and relatively dense.

On Love: Philosophy in Lacanian Psychoanalysis

At first, I contemplated on whether I should publish the post because love is the most cliche topic in history. But it turned out that many people liked it. This is probably because I had to water down a lot of psychoanalytical ideas in order to reach a larger audience. As such, my writing would be a disappointment for those who wish to understand psychoanalysis at a deeper level. The majority of this post will satisfy you with some complex psychoanalytical concepts that I intentionally skipped (though I won’t cover every single concept entirely). Before I begin, there are three basic ideas that we should understand from the original post:

1) I showed that in Lacanian psychoanalysis, “objectification” is inevitable. Objet a (object cause of desire) takes position as the object in-itself where our relationship with the other is actually missing. Love is what fills in this non-existent relationship which allows us to accept the object for itself.

2) Lacanian psychoanalysis and science has a complicated relationship. Lacan sometimes refers to psychoanalysis as scientific, and other times not. Certainly, the scientific folks will say that psychoanalysis has not past the rigor of the scientific method and therefore it is a pseudoscience (that is, if Lacan claims it to be a science). But at the same time, scientists are also the ones who did not consider what allows their “scientific method” and “knowledge” to surface into their conscious mind. Psychoanalysis attempts to articulate how we experience the fabric of reality through subjectivity. In Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan briefly talks about a man who frequents the coast. One day he “discovers” that the tides of the ocean are influenced by the moon, even when his unconscious mind had already discovered this phenomenon long before the thought had surfaced into his consciousness.

3) Psychoanalysis is unlike modern psychology which focuses heavily on scientific inquiries in the brain, hormones, body, behaviors, cognition, etc. A psychoanalyst also does not prescribe medicine so you can conceal the symptoms of your neurosis or psychosis. A psychoanalyst reveals and makes you confront your symptoms by looking for the origins of your neurosis or psychosis from your childhood experience (in psychoanalysis, a lot of adult psychological disorders originates from childhood). Another words, psychoanalysis tries to tell you the truth about your personal problems. One can already see that psychoanalysis is not for everyone. Not only does it take a long time to see results, it is also significantly more expensive than medication. The patient must be ready to learn about themselves, connect the missing dots in their lives, and confront all of their unwanted repressed thoughts and feelings.

The Symbolic and the Split Subject 

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The main problem of my original post is that I focus mostly between Imaginary and Real, with little emphasis on the Symbolic order which represents language, law, the big Other, and the unconscious mind. Lacanian psychoanalysis is largely about the Symbolic order because “the unconscious is structured like a language”. It is therefore, impossible to talk about Lacan without addressing language. The challenge is that, the moment I incorporate important ideas from the Symbolic, my writing will no longer be as beginner friendly. This is because, (1) the Symbolic order involves the “the subject of the unconscious”. (2) The word “subject” consists of several connotations in relationship to philosophy, legal law, and Freud. (3) Every Symbolic word I speak is always already influenced by the unconscious subject. Every signifying word from the spoken / written subject reveals to a psychoanalyst a series of symptoms of the person, including this text. The relationship between the subject of the unconscious and the Symbolic is the heart of Lacanian psychoanalysis.

Let us begin by understanding the difference between subject and ego, which is the most important distinction that we must be able to tell apart. Lacan was against Anglo-American ego-psychology where these psychologists places the ego (“I”) as the subject—that it is our egos which gives us an agency to choose. For Lacan, the ego is actually an object, and not a subject. The ego is an Imaginary entity without any agency. Basically, the ego is our Imaginary and progressive construction of our identity through Lacan’s three orders (Real, Imaginary and Symbolic). The ego is a richly made up narrative about ourselves which includes our mannerisms, behaviors, how we will act in certain situations, and who we are and the roles we play. Whereas the subject is the subject of the unconscious. Unlike the ego that makes up all these Imaginary things about itself, the subject “avoids” the ego from fully capturing its identity (as the ego develops). There are things we can find out about the unconscious subject through the language of the ego (i.e. this text), but what we can know about the subject is never complete. This incompleteness is also caused by, as we will later see, the infamous castration complex and other concepts such as “the big Other”. Hence why Lacan reveals that every subject is essentially split or “barred”, since the subject is incomplete through the ego (split subject is represented with an “S” with a strike through it). Any sense of wholeness of this split subject is just a projection from our Imaginary ego. Ultimately, the ego alienates the unconscious subject by splitting it. As such, the ego is the symptom of neurosis and psychosis that needs to be analyzed. The stronger this ego gets, the more it alienates and represses the subject. This is why Lacan was radically against ego-psychology because making the ego stronger will alienate the unconscious subject even more.

To put it in another way, the unconscious subject speaks through the ego without revealing itself. The subject is a negative entity that remains in the unconscious where we can only see “half” of it through the ego when it speaks—hence the “split subject”. What the ego says about itself, its behaviors, etc. reveals about the unconscious subject. For example, if someone wonders why they always forget their car keys, but no matter how hard they try not to forget them, they always leave it behind at work, etc. All of this reveals something about the unconscious subject of this person, but never completely. At this point, the psychoanalyst might think, there is something about these behaviors that satisfies (pleasure wise; will get to this) their unconscious mind (split subject) which is causing them to consistently do this over and over again. To be sure, one can never figure out what the unconscious subject is thinking, hence this subject will always be split and incomplete—this wound cannot be healed.

The split subject is unconscious where we can only see parts of it through the ego. But also, the split subject is the effects of language, and we will gradually learn a little more about this as we move along. Let us quickly piece together Lacan’s words, the subject is “the subject of the unconscious”, “the unconscious is structured like a language”, and finally, “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other”. In short, the split subject belongs to the Symbolic order which is constantly influenced by, of what we will soon see, the almighty and tyrannical, “big Other”.

Simply put, the conscious words that we speak and write everyday represents what our unconscious mind is thinking, where we, as conscious speaking (split) subjects are not completely aware of. Every word (signifier) we articulate marks the “split” of the unconscious subject where parts of it reveals itself through language. Most of us tend to think that the language we articulate is complete, even when it is full of gaps and holes that we substitute with signifiers (i.e. the Freudian slip). This is why Lacan likes to play with the phrase, “the subject that which is represented by a signifier for another signifier”. Ultimately, this split subject is complicated by a bunch of other psychoanalytic concepts such as jouissance (“pleasure”; this French term is intentionally left untranslated), the big Other, mirror stage, the-Name-of-the-Father, and the castration complex—these are ideas that I will get to.

The big Other

This leads to the problem on how vague I was in regards to psychoanalytic therapy where I pointed out, “the analyst’s job is to reveal what the patient has repressed in their Symbolic order via free association”. The Symbolic order is closely associated with the “big Other”, which is where the unconscious subject resides (one can even say that the Symbolic is the big Other). The primary goal of psychoanalytical therapy is to find out what the big Other wants (desires) when the split subject speaks through the ego. The big Other that is represented with a capital “A”, is loosely translated to what Freud calls, the superego. For Freud, the superego was developed from the creation of rules by the “Primal Father” in a tribe, which is derivative to the laws and social orders of civilization. The big Other is a radical alterity that mediates with the split subject and the ego; who basically forces you to ask how society and other people would judge you by what you are doing with your life. The big Other is a tyrannical subject (almost “God like”) that imposes the Symbolic law upon the ego and the split subject which keeps you in line with society. As such, the big Other will significantly influence how the ego is progressively formed through the Imaginary, which begins with the mirror stage in childhood until death.

To be sure, the Lacanian big Other is different to the little other who is distinguished with a lower-case “o”. Similar to object a, the little other is represented with a lower-case “a“. The little other is often seen as the “other person” even when this other “Real” person is just a mirror of our Imaginary alter-ego (i.e. when we empathize for others, this little other is doing work). Whereas, the big Other interferes with this little Imaginary other and the split subject through the Symbolic order. The big Other is the law which remains unconscious to the split subject through the discourse of Symbolic language. Essentially, Lacan thinks language comes from the big Other / unconscious mind. And what is spoken / written always obscurely shrouds the big Other as a radical alterity. This is another reason why the subject is always “split” as they articulate words, since they do not know what the big Other is thinking. The big Other is what mediates and shapes the split subject and the ego because it is the true mastermind of humans.

Since language is always influenced by the unconscious mind, Lacan will use algebra and other mathematical symbols known as “mathemes” to represent psychoanalytical concepts (for example, this is the graph of desire, and here is the graph on sexual difference, you won’t be able to understand them unless you read his seminars). Following closely to the philosophers Alexandre Koyre and Gaston Bachelard, Lacan thinks that by using mathematical formulas, he can transmit his knowledge on psychoanalysis to others. Furthermore, it is also why Lacan is so hard to read because the language that is articulated by the speaker (and interpreted by the reader), is always influenced by the unconscious. Hence, Lacan tries to counter-act this problem by presenting his work in strange ways.

The Mirror Stage, Castration, and the Oedipus Complex

The first figure who takes position as the big Other—the Real Other—is the mother who represents authority (the law) for a child to care for him/her. Thus, the big Other is always a woman. We can say that the first question the child asks is “What does the (m)Other want?” (by “want”, I mean, “desire”). The newborn child attempts to figure out the mother’s gestures who is either too loving or too withdrawn. The child becomes anxious for this Real Other because he/she cannot figure out what the mother wants. It is not until the child begins the mirror stage where they realize that the mother lacks a signifier and confronts the Oedipus Complex, which is closely related to castration. Here, Lacan is cautious to not fall into the traditional “every family has a mother and father” and that “they are of different biological sexes” trap. For Lacan, the maternal and paternal figures, like sexual difference, are positions that the parents take. As we will soon see, the castration complex will not interfere with this idea since castration is the Symbolic lack of the Imaginary phallus—not the lack of a Real penis (organ).

One of the most important contribution Lacan made in psychoanalysis is the famous concept known as “the mirror stage”. This is the stage when the child first recognizes themselves in the mirror—that the person he/she sees in the mirror is “I”, the Imaginary ego. The mirror stage marks the beginnings on the developments of the Imaginary (Ego; and Fantasy) and Symbolic order (split subject; language; law). To be sure, the mirror stage isn’t just a “stage”, but something that continues into adulthood.

When the child goes into the mirror stage and develops their Imaginary and Symbolic order (i.e. they begin to learn language and who “they are” as the ego, etc.), the child begins the castration complex and discovers how this Real Other which embodies the mother, is actually lacking a Symbolic signifier (there are three types of lacks: privation, frustration and castration; I am going to jump to castration). This is an idea that originates from Freud where the child discovers how their mother does not have a penis. Lacan takes Freud’s idea further by saying that, what lacks is not the Real penis (organ) in the (m)Other, but the Symbolic lack of the Imaginary phallus (the phallus is represented as ф).

Thus, the mother qua Real Other, is always Symbolically lacking the Imaginary phallic signifier. The child learns how their mother, who embodies the big Other, does not have any phallic signifier assigned to her. The mother (woman) is she who lacks a Symbolic language. This is why, the way we articulate Symbolic language through signifiers is always missing the signifier of the big Other since it always “slips away” the moment one tries to anchor / stabilize it. Nothing in Symbolic language can represent the Other (who is always a woman), because the only signifier (language) that exists is the phallus. As such, Lacan crosses out the big Other and refer to it as the “barred Other” (A) because she cannot be represented in language. This lack which is synonymous to castration, is what causes desire to arise.

The-Name-of-the-Father

From this moment, the famous Lacanian “Name-of-the-Father” comes into play as the “paternal metaphor” which replaces the lack of signifier from the maternal mother. The Real father appears and establishes the Symbolic phallus that was lacking within the Imagination of the child (there is a difference between Symbolic father, Imaginary father, and Real father, which I won’t talk about). Recall in my original post, that the moment we try to identify the Real through the Symbolic statement such as “red wine is made of grape juice”, the statement slips into the Imaginary of the “Real” which is not the actual Real in-itself, i.e. I am Imagining red wine is made of grape juice, which is not the Real irreducible red wine before my eyes. Here, something similar happens, where the Symbolic Name-of-the-Father substitutes for the Real (m)Other; where in a Freudian sense, the Symbolic-Imaginary phallus of the “Real” takes the place of the Real penis (as a “surplus”)—even when it is still fundamentally missing. This is why the castration complex is never complete in anyone, which marks the basic foundation for neurosis. Hence, we are all neurotics who tries to protect ourselves from castration.

On another note, the-Name-of-the-Father is an idea that originates from Freud, which was infamously known as the “Oedipus Complex” . Freud thinks every man represses the idea that they want to kill their father and have sex with their mother (though Lacan is not as extreme as Freud). The Lacanian Father, is equivalent to the Freudian Oedipus complex who says “no” to the taboo of incest—kind of like how incest is a crime in our society. The Father, who represents the Symbolic law (the phallic signifier; where its derivative develops into the laws of civilization, and what one might call “patriarchy”), is the substitution of the missing signifier / lack that the child desires from the (m)Other. As a result, our desire for the mother is repressed in our childhood and is replaced by the law (phallic signifier) of the Father. The-Name-of-the-Father is important because it is the right of passage for the child to enter the structure of society and its laws—along with every structure such as the socio-linguistic aspects of language. This is where the big Other begins to organize around and takes position as society, law, and language.

By articulating language, we are also articulating the lack (big Other) that is inherent within it. This is why Slavoj Zizek uses this to talk about money (See. Incontinence of the Void). The more money (signifiers) we accumulate, the more we paradoxically feel the lack and the more we desire for it (or as Arthur Schopenhauer said, money is like sea water, the more we drink it, the thirstier we get). In a Lacanian sense, the more signifiers that cannot be substituted or “anchored” with the phallus, the more feminine the writing—as we will see with James Joyce later on.

Ultimately, what we express through language represents the castration complex of substituting signs for the lack of the Other. Once again, this is why language is actually full of holes and gaps. It is also another reason why the subject is always split. Without this Symbolic law of the Father—this phallic signifier, which anchors and stabilizes the illusion of meaning, there would not be any meaning. This “anchoring” is famously known as “le point de capiton”, which is often left untranslatedNevertheless, this is why all Symbolic language is phallic, even when at a fundamental level, signification arises from the missing signifier of the mother. Thus, the active paradox of language is that: the phallic signifier of language also consists of the (m)Other. This mother (woman) qua Other is without Symbolic language, yet she is the origin of the Symbolic language—a language that is inherently (non)phallic.

Finally, we must understand that, for Lacan, both the boy and girl goes through the same Oedipus procedure but in the opposite timeline. For the boy, the-Name-of-the-Father is the exit of the Oedipus complex (who never really exits castration) where he separates from the mother when he recognizes that it is the father who is the Symbolic law (phallus). Where as for the girl, the-Name-of-the-Father marks the entering of the Oedipus Complex where she recognizes how the mother lacks the phallic signifier and begins to turn towards the father. The girl has to take position as the boy since there are no signification that belongs to the mother. Another words, the girl must speak and signify phallic language to substitute the lack in the (m)Other. It is only later where she develops feminine sexuality, which for Lacan, is closely related to “hysteria” and infinite jouissance (I will dab on infinite jouissance later on, but I won’t be talking too much about feminine sexuality because this post is already really long; See. Seminar XX).

The Pleasure Principle and Jouissance

Let us move on to address the sexual experience. While it seems like two people are having sex with each other, the only thing they experience are two things: (1) the Imagination of the other person which makes it appear like they are having sex, even when they are having sex with object a; (2) the only thing we experience during copulation is our own jouissance (pleasure) which takes us away from the other person—not closer. It is love that fills in the void of the other in a “sexual relationship”.

At last, we arrive at one of the most important concept of psychoanalysis—of what Freud famously calls the pleasure principle. Lacan calls it jouissance for reasons which I will try to explain later. For Freud, humans live according to the pleasure principle which is carried out by the unconscious mind. That is to say, the unconscious mind has the tendency to achieve and satisfy the pleasure principle. Hence for Freud, one turns towards the subject’s dreams since he saw how dreams seeks to satisfy our desires in strange latent ways. The trick is that, to experience pleasure does not always mean copulation. Freud saw how our sex drive becomes sublimated in civilization due to the effects of the superego (the law / big Other that prohibits us from doing this or that, such as incest, etc.). The most common form of pleasure that humanity attempts to achieve is happiness. An easy way is to think of the sex drive as a river. If a wall (the Symbolic law; the big Other) blocks off the flow of the river (sex drive), the water will flow elsewhere around the wall (or accumulate behind the wall in which case enhances neurosis and psychosis). This change in flow is called sublimation where we redirect the energy of our sex drive into other things such as, for Lacan, the articulation of language and signifiers (which is always missing the pleasure of the big Other due to castration), and for Freud, other daily activities such as work, hobbies, music, art, etc. This is one of the reasons why, the more laws we impose on people, i.e. the more we reinforce the tyrannical big Other which shapes our ego, the crazier and violent people gets due to the alienation of the unconscious subject (i.e. political correctness). Furthermore, our civilization today is largely based on achieving infinite jouissance as an end-in-itself and there are too many examples to count. This idea is famously known as Freud’s “libidinal economy” (an economy based on our libido).

The most controversial part of the pleasure principle is when Freud discovers how it actually tries to exceed into its opposition (See. Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Another words, there consists of another drive of what Freud infamously calls, the death drive. To put it in a quasi-Freudian and Lacanian way, Freud saw how our unconscious mind / subject (influenced by the big Other) seeks for all sorts of pleasure—including things that causes us suffering and painNot only do we want to live a happy life for pleasure, we also have an instinct of wanting “to return to the inanimate” (for real, Freud is not saying you should kill yourself, so please don’t). This is where the concepts of Sadochism, Masochism, and Fetishism are introduced because we all share certain aspects of these concepts in one way or another. For example, the most common form of fetish is kissing. Nevertheless, Lacan’s jouissance is the combination of both sex and death drive. Jouissance is a type of pleasure so powerful that it exceeds itself. Lacan refers to it as “pleasure” and not “enjoyment” because enjoyment implies that pleasure has a limit. Whereas jouissance does not have limits because it will lead the subject towards self-destruction.

Now you see how all of these psychoanalytical concepts overlaps each other as we near the end of this post. What we begin to see is how, for Lacan, the articulation of language and signifiers are a form of jouissance that is related to all the other concepts I mentioned (the Oedipus and castration complex, etc.). Lacan famously calls this, lalangue, which is an amalgam of libido and signifier. Another words, writing this post gives me jouissance. Speaking and articulating language gives jouissance. Reading this post and not / half understanding it gives jouissance.

I think part of the reason why jouissance is left untranslated is to leave us with a sense of dissatisfaction on how the signifier is incomplete which brings us “frustration” and pleasure. Furthermore, this untranslated term “jouissance” also marks castration within the Symbolic signifiers of the split subject, due to the lack of the Other. The jouissance of the Other within the Symbolic is impossible to acquire and we have to give up this jouissance (here, we recognize how the saying, “we want what we can’t have” lives up to its words because we can never have it). This is where object fills in the missing jouissance of the Other / other.

On Jordan Peterson and Post-Struturalism

My writings on Jordan Peterson and Post-structuralism has been by far, the most frequently visited, re-blogged, and referred. In general, my position on Peterson’s views on post-structuralism remains the same—even if my views on Derrida has slightly changed. To be honest, I think Peterson’s arguments against Derrida are quite pathetic and hypocritical. In general, the only thing I agree with Peterson is how political correctness is a huge problem.

In the original post, I covered Lacan’s infamous idea on how “there is no such thing as woman”, where feminine sexuality can only be recognized through the stuffing of the signifier, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses. If you recall on how the big Other, who is a woman that lacks a signifier, you will see why I said there are no language which can represent “woman’s language” due to the castration complex. But above all else, the paradoxical reason why Joyce’s Ulysses represents a woman’s writing is the result of infinitive signifiers where meaning constantly “slips away”. There appears to be a lack of (phallic) signified meaning when the reader tries to anchor the meanings (allusions) of the novel. On one hand, what allows signifiers to stabilize is the Symbolic law, the-Name-of-the-Father, who with a phallus, fixes signifiers in place to produce an illusion of meaning. On the other hand, because the text is bloated with signifiers, the anchoring of meaning becomes impossible. The phallus becomes impossible because it cannot anchor any illusions for a fixed meaning. Thus, the text presents itself as a “woman’s writing” where signifiers continues to slide to infinity and cannot be pinned down. This infinite movement of the signifier is also the infinite aspect of woman jouissance.

The recognition on the lack of a signifier is where feminine sexuality arises which is contrasted by masculine sexuality through fixed meaning. This is why feminist Helene Cixious wrote the way she did in her famous work: The Laugh of Medusa. When Derrida speaks of the term “phallogocentrism”, where the phal = phallus, as in the Symbolic, and not “penis” (as in the Real organ), we are dealing with a Bobby interpreted, quasi-Derridean criticism on psychoanalysis where people privilege and choose the position of masculine language, over the feminine “stuffed signifiers” of language (remember that sexuality, like the maternal / paternal figure, are merely positions that one takes).

Finally, I also mentioned that Derrida is a critic of psychoanalysis which is true. To be honest, I never read the Derridean book I cited, called Resistances of Psychoanalysis. Though if I were to take a wild guess, Derrida will probably talk about the problem on interpretation of the signifier in psychoanalysis and maybe the problem of the word “drive” translated from “trieb”. Derrida practices a specific type of phenomenology that is neither Husserlian or Heideggarian. One should not confuse phenomenology with psychoanalysis because they are polar opposites. In fact, Husserlian phenomenology challenges a lot of the assumptions made in psychology in general, particularly regarding the use of logic (See. psychologism). If you hate psychoanalysis but are still interested in French philosophy, a good anti-psychoanalytical text is Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia who focuses on the “micro-politics” of desire. This was the book that Lacan banned from his psychoanalytic institution. I have read a chunk of the book and it is pretty weird—almost as weird as me.

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My Unique One

“This is what never could happen to us, don’t you think, my unique one, my only, lonely one, and not only because I have no doctrine to transmit, no disciple to seduce, but because my law, the law that undividedly reigns over my heart, is never to borrow your name, never to use it, not even in order to speak to yourself, only in order to call you, call you, call you, from afar, without a phrase, without a consequence, without end, without saying anything, not even “come,” now, not even “come back.””

—Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Plato and Beyond.

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One Moment a Child, the Next an Old Man

“You love the accidental. A smile from a pretty girl in an interesting situation, a stolen glance, that is what you are hunting for, that is a motif for your aimless fantasy. You who always pride yourself on being an observateur must, in return, put up with becoming an object of observation. Ah, you are a strange fellow, one moment a child, the next an old man; one moment you are thinking most earnestly about the most important scholarly problems, how you will devote your life to them, and the next you are a lovesick fool.”

—Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life.

 

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Recommended Philosophy Books

This month marks my 7th year in studying philosophy on my own. Here are some of my favorite continental philosophy / theory books that I recommend. I will rank the difficulties of each book from a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = very easy; 10 = very hard) to give you an idea on which ones you might want to try. Most of these texts changed the way I saw the world and how I should live my life, I hope they will change yours too.

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All for Nothing
  by Rachel K. Ward

Difficulty: 4

“The truth needs no author and no defense. This text has been given to you and what does not vanish is not ours.”

This was one of the the first philosophy / theory text I read in my life. It was originally a PhD thesis from the European Graduate School that got published as a book. The text gives a profound critique on the decadence of human desire and our tendency towards hedonism. It is written in fragments / aphorisms that touches on many different topics such as philosophy, love, work, fashion, architecture, academia, art, vanity, inheritance, privilege, politics and truth. While this book is the least famous on this list, it is really good. I still reread it every once a while.

Civilization and its Discontents  by Sigmund Freud

Difficulty: 4

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

This is Freud’s most popular and accessible book where he talks about how humans struggle for individualism in a society which prohibits it. As a result, civilization causes all forms of mental disorders, leading to the birth of the super-ego which controls our ego. It is in this famous text where Freud indirectly proclaims that we are all neurotics (depressed, anxious, etc.). The foundation of civilization is based on neuroticism. We are a bunch of crazy talking animals who are trying to control our own craziness. It is also in this book where Freud famously responds to why communism will never work due to humans being naturally aggressive (“Homo homini lupus”). Overall, this is an excellent book for those who are into mental health because there is no such thing as someone who is mentally healthy.

Recommended:
The Interpretation of Dreams
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
A Case of Hysteria: (Dora)

The Birth of Tragedy  by Friedrich Nietzsche

Difficulty: 4-9 (depending on how closely you read)

“You must have chaos within you in order to give birth to a dancing star.”

A famous book by Nietzsche that I find preliminary to 20th century continental philosophy—especially Freudian psychoanalysis. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche talks about two fundamental aspects of humans that are represented by two Gods: Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo represented structure, logic, and order (i.e. law and society). Dionysus represented irrationality and chaos (i.e. art, music and dance). Nietzsche saw how dangerous outcomes will follow if our society had one overpowering the other. A society that is focused solely on Apollo will lead to a society of depression and isolation. Whereas a society focused solely on Dionysus would lead to insanity.

For Nietzsche, the balance of Apollo and Dionysus created the tragedy of Ancient Greek myths where they represented an authentic form of suffering which has now been lost. Contrary to what our society perpetuates today, Nietzsche thinks we must not avoid and repress suffering, but to confront it. For Nietzsche, suffering makes great human beings (think about people like Martin Luther King, Virginia Woolf or Franz Kafka).

Look for English translations by Walter Kaufman.

Recommended:
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (this book is where the quote I used comes from)
Beyond Good and Evil
The Gay Science
Human, All too Human
Genealogy of Morals

A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments  by Roland Barthes

Difficulty: 4

“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive and impoverished.”

A Lover’s Discourse is Barthes most famous work where he talks about the experiences of love from a first person point of view. It offers a great blend between literature, critical theory and philosophy. Barthes pushes the structure of language to the limits where love cannot be described through its own signification and becomes semi-utterances. This book is influenced by a lot of philosophical ideas that went on during the 70s—most notably deconstruction.

Recommended:
The Death of the Author
Camera Lucida

Infinite Thought  by Alain Badiou

Difficulty: 5

“Philosophy privileges no language, not even the one it is written in.”

Badiou is one of the most famous intellectuals in France today. His ideas are often discussed amongst continental philosophy departments and others such as English and Social Sciences. This is a great intro book to Badiou’s famous philosophy on multiplicities of truth by using set theory. It is a book that is written clearly with great rigor. Badiou’s ideas were heavily influenced by Jacques Lacan. So if you are into psychoanalysis, you might like Badiou.

Recommended:
Being and Event
Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
In Praise of Love

Limited Inc.  by Jacques Derrida

Difficulty: 7

I strongly recommend this book if you wish to learn deconstruction because Derrida provides a simpler way of explaining his ideas in the first essay titled, “Signature Event Context” while showing the problems of J.L Austin’s speech act theory (you can also find this essay in some of Derrida’s other works such as Margins of Philosophy). In it, Derrida also talks about the impossibility of transmitting our intentionality through communication. This is an argument that is explained with much more detail in Voice and Phenomenon—a book, like Of Grammatology, that you should not read if you are new to Derrida (I will talk about these in the next section).

Recommended:
Plato’s Pharmacy

The Courage of Truth  by Michel Foucault

Difficulty: 3

A series of lectures given at the prestigious College de France (AKA the “Harvard of France”) by Foucault who died shortly after. I think this book shows some great thoughts on how we should be more accepting of new / opposing ideas and that the truth is never what we think it is. Foucault also responds to some criticism by his fellow French intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida. It is a lecture that I can appreciate and respect, even if I am not a fan of Foucault.

The Unnamable  by Samuel Beckett

Difficulty: 5

“It’s a lot to ask of one creature, it’s a lot to ask, that he should first behave as if he were not, then as if he were, before being admitted to that peace where he neither is, nor is not, and where the language dies that permits of such expressions.”

There is a reason why Beckett won the Nobel Prize of Literature, and the reason is quite vain (that’s the point). The Unnameable is basically existentialism under the guise of literature where its hypnotic text is nearly incomprehensible. The story was written from the first person perspective by an unknown narrator called “the unnamable”. The book is a good example of stream of consciousness narration that you also see in other renown 20th century writers such as James Joyce.

Recommended:
Waiting for Godot
Molloy

Malone Dies

Seduction  by Jean Baudrillard

Difficulty: 7

“For nothing can be greater than seduction, not even the order that destroys it.”

Jean Baudrillard is Roland Barthes’ most famous student. Baudrillard was known as a provocative cultural critic and is sometimes referred as “the high priest of post-modernism”. He was infamous for publishing a text called Forget Foucault where he sent a copy to Foucault and asked him to read it.

Seduction was one of my first few critical theory books I read which left a lasting imprint on me. Although this book does talk about seduction through appearances, the text is definitely not your how-to-guide on seducing your love interest. Seduction talks about a ritual game and the play of signs, an advantage that woman always had which undermined all of its oppositions throughout history. The book also consists of Baudrillard’s incredibly provocative criticism on feminism (especially Luce Irigaray), as he writes, “yesterday they were diverted from the truth of history, today they are diverted from the truth of their own desires”.

Recommended:
Simulacra and Simulation

Fatal Strategies
The Conspiracy of Art
The Gift
by Marcel Mauss (Baudrillard was influenced by him)

Difficult Books that I Recommend

The following are what I consider as “high risk, but high reward” books. I am listing these (in no particular order) because they are very good if you are up for a challenge. I do not recommend any of them unless you have a background in philosophy or are a serious reader.

Being and Time  by Martin Heidegger

Difficulty: 10

“Only he who already understands can listen.”

I never got the chance to finish this book due to its difficulty (I will finish it one day). In it, Heidegger establishes his foundational ideas and criticism on the question on Being and how we have always avoided answering it through history (especially in Western philosophy). Heidegger is well known for combining phenomenology with existentialism. When reading this book, one should keep in mind that it was unfinished and a lot of Heidegger’s ideas actually change later in his life. This is why I would not recommend this as a first Heidegger book. I would suggest you to try reading some of his lectures first.

Heidegger (along with Husserl and Nietzsche) is one of the leading precursor to mid-late 20th century continental philosophy. Anyone who wishes to learn contemporary continental thought—especially Derrida, Sartre, and Levinas—must first pass through Heidegger’s ideas. I recommend the translation by Joan Stambaugh from SUNY press.

Recommended:
What is Metaphysics
Letter on Humanism

Nietzsche: Volumes One and Two

The Phenomenology of Spirit  by G.W.F. Hegel

Difficulty: 10+

When people say Hegel is really hard to read, they are not exaggerating. I only read a few chapters from this book because it is incredibly difficult. I would strongly suggest that you follow a reading guide or have a Hegel expert near you because this is one of the most difficult text that exists. Many people get through this book without knowing what Hegel is talking about. Unfortunately, it is a must read for anyone who is interested in continental philosophy (or any other modern philosophies) because Hegel happens to be an important intellectual figure responsible for having a significant impact on famous figures such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Edmund Husserl, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and many more.

Recommended:
Lectures on the Philosophy of History

The Critique of Pure Reason  by Immanuel Kant

Difficulty: 10

Kant might be a bad writer, but he has a brilliant mind and that is all that matters at the end. This book requires you to have a solid understanding of Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and George Berkeley.

There is a reason why everyone who wishes to learn modern philosophy or any post-Kantian philosophy (19th century onwards) must first understand Kant’s ideas on consciousness and transcendental idealism. The Critique of Pure Reason is where Kant begins his famous argument that we can never know anything in-itself and the only thing we can experience is phenomena. It is a classic problem on consciousness that has never really been solved till this day. I recommend the translated editions from Cambridge University Press.

Voice and Phenomenon  by Jacques Derrida

Difficulty: 10

In my opinion, this is Derrida’s most important work since I feel like a lot of his fundamental ideas began here. Derrida also said that this book was among one of his personal favorites.

Voice and Phenomenon talks about the problems of Edmund Husserl’s ideas on consciousness and our intentionality in relation to indication and expression through temporal manifestation of spacetime. While this text is only 90 pages in length, it is difficult and dense. Unpacking it requires a lot of time and pre-understanding of Husserl’s phenomenological project (look into Husserl’s Ideas I, Ideas II, and Logical Investigations). It would be helpful to grasp Husserl’s criticism on psychology, logic and mathematics. It is also smart to learn his ideas on the difference between logical and pure grammar. In short, I would recommend you to “try” some of Husserl’s works before attacking Voice and Phenomenon—even if Husserl can make you (me) feel very stupid due to how difficult he is.

This book has two translations done by two different scholars. The first one is titled Speech and Phenomena translated by David B. Allison, and the newer one is Voice and Phenomenon translated by Leonard Lawlor; both are from Northwestern University Press. I have never read the Allison translation, but I heard it is very good.

Recommended:
The Origin of Geometry by Edmund Husserl. Translated by Jacques Derrida
Heidegger: The Question of Being and History

Of Grammatology  by Jacques Derrida

Difficulty: 10

“There is no outside text”

This is the Derridean book most people complain about due to its notorious difficulty. But it is also Derrida’s most famous work where he address his ideas on “differance”, “trace”, “archi-writing”, and “supplement”. This book requires you to have a pre-understanding of not just Husserl, but also Socrates, Plato, Ferdinand de Saussure (semiotics / linguistics), Louis Hjelmslev (glossematics / linguistics), Roman Jakobson (linguistics), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (philosophy of mathematics), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (political philosophy), Martin Heidegger (phenomenology / existentialism), Claude Levi-Strauss (anthropology), Friedrich Nietzsche (existentialism), Sigmund Freud (psychoanalysis), Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (epistemology and psychology), and William Warburton (literary critic / theorist).

This book took me two years to read and I still don’t understand everything in it. The text is split into two parts where part I is more difficult than part II. If you plan on reading it, I would get the 1998 edition translated by Spivak over her newer 2016 edition (both are published by Johns Hopkins University Press). The 2016 edition has been criticized a lot by Geoffrey Bennington, a very well respected Derridean expert.

Ecrits  by Jacques Lacan

Difficulty: 10

I once saw a guy reading this 900 page tome at Starbucks while sitting on a couch. I was thinking to myself, “that is definitely not a coffee table book”. Ecrits (writings) is the only book Jacques Lacan published. The reason why I do not recommend this as a first Lacan book is because it is best to learn Freud first. Lacan pretty much takes Freudian concepts and applies them into language and linguistics which makes him super hard to read. If our unconscious mind effects the way we interpret language, then how does Lacan explain psychoanalysis through language? If you wish to read Lacan, I would suggest starting on his lectures listed below (these are the ones I had good experiences with). Learning Hegel, which is a feat on its own, will also help you understand Lacan.

Recommended:
Seminar X: Anxiety
Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (especially this if you plan on reading Slavoj Zizek)
Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge
How to Read Lacan 
by Slavoj Zizek

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