Commentaries, Contemplation

The Gift of Death: Love, Agency, and Transgressions Beyond Dualisms

I began writing this last year in October when my dog best friend passed away. At the time, I was particularly inspired and influenced by love, death, and ethics. After long periods of contemplation and thinking about the intricacies of the subjects at hand, I decided to split this post in two. While I won’t label the two posts as Part I and Part II, they are somewhat related to each other in the sense that they both seek to transgress dualisms (in a Cartesian sense) and “binary oppositions”. This post will address the themes of agency, animals, ethics, and love at the face of undecidable events. I will talk about truth and the meaning of life through the philosophers of Jacques Derrida, Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Part II will focus along the lines of postcolonialism. I don’t know when I will finish the second part due to life obligations. With all this said, this post is half analytical and half self-reflective. It is written backwards with the “Foreword” at the very end. 

One last thing. This year, I will be trying to write a variety of posts and topics that I find interesting. Posting too many big philosophy and theory stuff might make this blog a bit overwhelming. They also take a lot of work (they are hard to write because it requires a lot of precision). In fact, I have been trying to do this with my last post where I answered 100 questions about myself. It was pretty enjoyable, probably because I like to give dumb answers to dumb questions. In the future, I might write about my esoteric hobbies and the most loved/hated MBTI personality theory. I might talk about my own personality type (INTJ). I might also share some of my casual thoughts, analysis and daily contemplations about random things like the movies and shows that I recently watched, such as The Queen’s Gambit (actually, Beth Harmon is a good example of a female INTJ). Overall, I will be diversifying the stuff I write on here. 

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Agency, Ethics and the Undecidable Event

 

“That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil” —Friedrich Nietzsche

In The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida engages with religion and the themes of responsibility, irresponsibility and how agency (freedom to choose) produces the human individual. In it, Derrida deconstructs Soren Kierkegaard’s legendary text called Fear and Trembling which analyzes the story, “Binding of Isaac”. The story speaks of Abraham who sacrifices his son for the absolute duty for God. This sacrificial gesture is what Kierkegaard famously refer as the teleological suspension of the ethical. For Kierkegaard, in order for anyone to be religious, one must sacrifice the ethical. In line with Kierkegaard’s interpretation, Derrida points out how each one of us are like Abraham who makes sacrificial choices everyday in our lives. He writes, 

“The concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, aporia. Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual thinking at its limit, at its death and finitude. As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that I respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all others.”

As soon as one encounters the love, command, and the call of the other, they can only respond by sacrificing ethics. In many ways, Derrida was influenced by Nietzsche, who points out how acts of love always takes place beyond good and evil. The things that we choose to do out of love may radically challenge and rewrite what society defines as good and evil (good and evil is a binary opposition). Love may allow us to exceed moral boundaries because it is not something that can be reduced to binary ethics, social standards or political ideologies. To act out of love requires the suspension of the ethical. In fact, this movement of love which may transgress beyond all dualisms, dichotomies and binary oppositions is found all over Derrida’s works from signifier/signified, nature/culture, good/evil, all the way to “deconstruction” and “destruction” (from Heidegger). It is one of the reasons why Derrida always ends up inventing words of his own. By doing so, he is transgressing dualisms and producing something new (this theme plays a crucial part in postcolonial context; it is why I tend to be critical of neoliberals and alike who thinks deconstruction is about “deconstructing binaries” and pitting oppositions “against” each other because that is not exactly how it works).

Under the light of existentialism, religion, and ethics, Derrida uses himself as an example and points out how he chooses to be a philosopher and scholar instead of helping others in need. He goes on further and asks, “How would you ever justify the fact that you sacrifice all the cats in the world to the cat that you feed at home every day for years, whereas other cats die of hunger at every instant?”. In a similar way, how can one choose to save one person over another who may suffer equally as much? How can I choose to love my dog over other dogs who needs love? How can we love only one person and not any other person? For Derrida, our lives are always riddled by these undecidable events which forces us to choose.

It is at this moment where one encounters the undecidable event and the relationship between responsibility and irresponsibility. I would argue that the act of choosing not only destroys ethics, it also summons it in a new way. Derrida reminds us how, while the ethical that is defined by society may deem our choices as unethical (such as choosing to feed one cat and leaving all others to die in hunger), following the ethical formula can also lead to the unethical. For, is not the entire ethical structure produced by society—such as its laws—also causes the death of million others from within? Derrida does not seem to suggest that we should live in accordance to some ultimate formula that is defined by the masses of society (i.e. social norms, institutions, political ideologies, etc.; of what Nietzsche refer as “slave morality”). Instead, he suggests that human beings must interpret (deconstruct) the undecidable events that happens in their lives and discover the contradictions of their actions and choices. It is through such acts where new meanings are produced which could possibly transgress dichotomies and oppositions and teaches us how one should live.

Agency summons and destroys ethics, where the choice one makes could come to challenge dualisms such as good and evil. It is reminiscent to the famous thought experiment of the trolley question on whether one should choose to pull the train lever to save one person and kill five others. One can also discover this metaphor from philosophers today who often forgets how the word “philosophy” translates into “love of wisdom”. Perhaps the very beginning of philosophy—if there is a beginning and origin at all—begins through genuine acts of love. I think the idea that one should always choose and interpret our world and each other out of love (of wisdom) is something that must be revived today.

This reminds me of a series of difficult lectures from 1997 called, The Animal that Therefore I Am. In it, Derrida talks about the notion of “pure life” that is found in animals and alludes it to the themes of agency and sacrifice. He compares the enslavement and genocide of animals with Adolf Hitler who enslaves and murders Jewish people by throwing them into the gas chambers (remember that Derrida is Jewish and survived World War II). Derrida reveals how the world condemns Hitler’s monstrous actions, yet he points out that we are doing something similar to animals. He emphasizes that our society would even organize doctors and scientists to force breed animals only to enslave and slay them. Not only were these lectures incredibly influential and would go on to invent “Animal studies“, the encounter of such lectures likely turned a lot of people into vegans. Hence, just like the encounter of any undecidable events, the lecture invites its readers to make a choice which may come to challenge the ethical norms established by society (i.e. the cultural norms of eating meat). 

But Derrida’s interpretation of Kierkegaard is not only an attempt at addressing how choice relates to our responsibility and irresponsibility. One of the things that Derrida hopes to reveal is how the recognition of responsibility infinitely exceeds our capacities of being human. Such limited capacity, which represents our finite experience of the world, is always overwhelmed by unlimited responsibilities that ruptures out of our lived relationship with the world and our own death. In other words, the fact that we are mortal beings who lives for a limited time in the universe forces us to make decisions. One cannot make a choice without sacrificing something else. Death is a gift given to every human being which allows life to have meaning. It is because one will eventually die which makes our decisions meaningful—such as our choice of friends, significant other, career paths, etc.

The paradox and transgressions beyond finitude/infinitude and responsibility/irresponsibility is introduced at the heart of choice as one interprets the undecidable event. The beginning of the ethical discourse is at once suspended and summoned by the event of the undecidable where one must make a choice as they exist in their own finitude (I wrote about finitude here). Should one choose to eat or not eat meat? Should one choose one cat over another? To choose one lover or another? What constitutes the individual which could possibly change and challenge other values is this act of choosing as each person runs into these undecidable events. Hence, it is not surprising that one can learn a lot about someone from the things that they do in their lives, or from the way they speak, their behaviors, actions, and the choices they make. It is these decisions and their differential relationships with what one chooses and leave aside which defines who someone is. One can perhaps think of Derrida’s most famous concept of differance which suggests how meanings are established by what it is not and how meaning is always differed via the future becoming of time. Here, one can see how Derrida is reapplying this thought into the act of choosing which is determined by what is not chosen (a rather strange paradox).

No doubt, our choices in life would not only invite us to the topic of introspection and self-reflection, it also invites us into the themes of autobiography, confessions, and forgiveness (all of these themes were examined extensively by Derrida). Perhaps this may also explain why scholars debate whether Derrida’s philosophy is based on the thoughts of Levinas, Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche, Rousseau, or Freud. One can read Derrida through the discourse of these thinker’s works which would make him appear to be a Heideggarian, Freudian, Nietzschean, etc. The reader must always choose as they read Derrida. It is the subtle shift in meaning, context, and intentionality through time which produces this polymorphous effect—a phenomenon that also occurs in our lives when we interpret undecidable events (this is the famous past/future dialectic which I have explained in many places such as here). This theme of choosing is most prominently found in Plato’s Pharmacy, where Derrida discovers how the ancient Greek word “pharmakon” could translate as remedy and poison. The choice of the former or latter would significantly alter the meaning of the text. The translator must make a choice through the encounter of the undecidable event.

Martin Hagglund’s recent book called, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (2019) heavily borrows from Derrida’s interpretation of Kierkegaard (Hagglund is a famous Derridean scholar). For example, Hagglund points out how, if one had infinite time in their lives, they would not need to choose because they would manage to achieve everything they desire one after another. But because we are finite beings who exists within a limited time in the world, one must always make a choice. This choice, as Derrida and Kierkegaard might say, is where one suspends the ethical; but it may also reintroduce ethics and redefine values which produces the individual. Hagglund takes on an atheist position and favors the finitude of being over anything that seeks for eternal life. The human subject always exists in finitude due to the inevitable fact that one can only experience the world from their own perspective (and how they will die one day). We can never take the position of another person because we are caught within the vehicle of our consciousness and body (this idea which has a very long history is being contested by several other disciplines right now—something that I won’t speak about here).

In addition, Hagglund also argues that those who are religious admits to the finitude of life without recognizing it. There is heaven because we want life to be eternal. Yet, we know that life in the real world is not forever. Perhaps this is where Hagglund’s argument falls short against a psychoanalytic reading where religion exists as the symptom of neuroticism and the negation of the reality principle. People would like to think that life continues in heaven, even when life ends upon their death (perhaps this is why he emphasizes on the notion of secular faith). Hagglund’s thinking leans towards the infamous Nietzschean proclamation that “God is dead”. It is because God is dead where the finitude of life is recognized (i.e. there is no afterlife; no heaven). It is this finitude—this gift of death—where choices are made and produces the meanings in our lives—something which also summons the discourse of ethics, and philosophy. Someone is born and are thrown into this world. They live, choose, produce meanings, and dies. The gift of death is the gift of life. It is this mortal experience which produces the meaning of life. A meaning and truth that one should always cherish and respect, even if it may change in the contingent future. 

Many people often associate Derrida with nihilism and how there is no truth in our world. I would argue that this is not true. Once again, the argument came from how Derrida’s concept of differance which suggests that meaning is always differed. But what Derrida is actually implying is that there are never any meanings that are identical and stable within its own contextual construction within any given modes of time (temporal experience destabilizes meaning). Simply put, meanings always change—like how your perceptions of someone changes after you meet them; or how your younger self is not identical to your current and future becoming self. However, this does not mean that your past self did not exist. Neither does it mean that the past does not exist. If the past did not exist, history will cease to exist, and no knowledge, language, and meaning would be possible in the first place (once again, this has to do with the past/future dialectics). While Derrida rejects our ability to know the absolute truth, it does not mean that we must negate our values, ethics, and moral standards. It also does not mean that truth as recognized through our finitude does not exist (it is fair to say that truth changes over time—like how people once thought that the Earth was flat). 

Derrida’s project on deconstruction grants agency to the individual so they can choose as they play among the meaning of words / and as they encounter undecidable events in their life (Derrida equates this to the “Nietzschean yes“). And it is by making these decisions which could possibly transgress binary oppositions (I speak of it as possibility because one might not always interpret something out of love, for example). Through their existence in space and time (past/future), each individual makes choices, form new meanings, values, cultures, and allow for new possibilities to arise.

Between Life and Death: the Exigency of Self-Reflection

If life and death begins and ends with nothing, then meaning and truths would come into existence through the movement from one end to the other. But what is this movement, this condition which makes meaning that is found in the undecidable event possible? Meaning is important in our finite lives, but its movement which produces meaning is only possible because we exist in finitude through space and time. For is it not inevitable that one must travel and endure the becoming space of time and the becoming time of space? Are we not travelers from the past to the future who makes choices and interpret events that occurs somewhere between our present/past life and our future deaths? And that one chooses even if they choose not to choose? Living consists of the movement of time toward death. And it is between such time where meaning is produced through the choices that we make in our lives (this is also one of Derrida’s most famous argument in Speech and Phenomena and other essays: that our animating intentionalities from self-reflections via temporal consciousness is always divided by the movement of time in an infinite series of repetitions that are never identical to each other).

Thus, people who has come to know me would not be surprised that I am deeply introspective. I can do very little without having time to myself. But this silent gesture did not come from the teachings of Derrida. It came long before my encounter of his writings. By chance or fate, I encountered his works 8 years ago and have come to my own understanding of what he is saying according to my own singularity and interpretation. The meanings that I discover in his writing yields to a lot of contemplation and interpretation—something that has been wholly represented in this blog. In many ways, understanding how I read Derrida (and others) is actually a direct reflection of who I am as a person because it reflects all the choices that I made as I read him. 

Above all else, I choose, write, self-reflect and meditate out of the love for the world and life itself. Yet, none of this is possible without the recognition of my own finitude that is measured against my future destination (death) and the rupture of infinite responsibilities of the world. Here in this life, I make decisions and choices—just as any person would (only that most people do not think about it at an intellectual level). When it comes down to it, Derrida encourages us to self-reflect and deconstruct why we do the things that we do in our lives and why we make certain choices over others. He wants us to understand ourselves and our own human condition; to think hard about our relationship with the world and other people. It is through self-reflection where we not only produce the meanings of life, but recognize our finitude.

Furthermore, since no single choice, writing, or systems of thought can be produced without repression (into unconscious) or forfeiting something else—like choosing one cat over another, one might realize that we always make contradictory choices. And that most importantly, self-reflection may allow us to understand how meaning and perspectives changes over time. What one might refer as their identity, culture, or the meaning of life changes through the infinite rupture of future time and space (hence I find identity politics naïve—sometimes to the point of absurdity). This however, does not mean that there are no truths or identities. But rather, what appears to be stable in meaning (as something that is true) at the present moment could always be challenged by future contingencies. The immanence of events, intentions, and contexts always remains open due to the necessary conditions of existing in the world within space and time.

 

Foreword (From the Future)

An event occurred. I encountered Bullet, a Bernese Mountain and German Shepherd mix. We brought him home when he was 3 months old. My dad chose Bullet because he was the one who went to greet and hugged him by leaning his head on him. My sister gave him the name “Bullet” because he was a fast runner. During our time together, I would sometimes look into his eyes and wonder what he was thinking about. I would analyze his movements and behaviors and try to study him as if I had a huge crush on him (which I did, openly). Bullet witnessed my transformation from a young teenage boy to a 30 year old. He was very disciplined, focused, curious, and smart. He even taught himself how to open doors with his paws, where he would always open my room door in the middle of the night to sleep with me. 

Bullet started to trip down the stairs. This was when he began fighting degenerative myelopathy. At the time, Bullet was still very strong. He continued his daily routines and loved his food. About two years later, he couldn’t get up from laid down position without help. He would lay at the same spot everyday without moving.  Sometimes, he would get nose bleeds by sneezing several times in a row and smash his nose against the floor as his head jerked forward. While it was very difficult to watch, he never gave up and continued to try and go outside for his walks, but couldn’t even make it past the first block. Soon, Bullet could barely walk further than the driveway. He refuses to eat and move anywhere. His breathing got louder and louder. His legs began losing muscle mass. He was also becoming blind and had accidents in the house. He lost 20 pounds in his final two weeks. By then, I knew his time has come. I was the first person who suggested to euthanize him.

Bullet, the dog who travelled faster than light. One cannot say the name “Bullet” without travelling and thinking the infinite within their own finite experiences of the world. That the remembrance of Bullet will always take us beyond good and evil. And that the word “Bullet” is worthy of its name, that it is always first and foremost a name—as someone who pierces the flesh and the movement of the heart. Bullet: the dog who ran faster than the speed of light, exceeding the dualism of space and time! So fast that his life accelerates at lightning pace. Yes, he is a time traveler from the past of the future. He arrives before and after me. If love is the madness of the impossible, then he is the impossible. 

In many ways, the most difficult choice was to offer him the absolute gift: the gift of death. I sometimes wonder, did my choice take place beyond good and evil? Or was it unethical to euthanize him? Should I had gave him the agency to choose whether he wants to keep fighting to live or rest? If so, how will I know his answer? Did he answer me by not eating? Or did he stop eating because he was unhappy? I looked him in the eye, wishing he would respond to me. But I can only see him through my tears, and not a single word needs to be said.

How wisely Nature did decree,
With the same eyes to weep and see!
That having viewed the object vain, 
We might be ready to complain

Open them, mine eyes, your double sluice,
And practice so your noblest use;
For others too can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep,

Thus let your streams o’erflow your springs,
Till eyes and tears be the same things:
And each the other’s difference bears;
These weeping eyes, those seeing tears.

—Tears that see . . . . Do you believe?
—I don’t know, one has to believe . . . .

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Commentaries, Contemplation

How to Read Jacques Derrida When He is All About How You Read Him?

“The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.” – Franz Kafka

Recently, I had the pleasure to reread Derrida’s “Structure Sign and Play” and a few sections from Of Grammatology. In this post I will show you an easier way to understand Derrida’s concept of “difference”, “otherness”, and “supplement” without any phenomenology and ontology. I will show you how Derrida thinks meanings are generated between differences via the discourse of communication and other famous practical examples that Derrida uses (i.e. nature / culture, public / private).

Most of my blog posts are sounding boards for my bigger projects. I am not sure if this will become a staple / extension to my other Derridean post, which focused on Part I in Of Grammatology (the most difficult section of the book). This post focuses on some of the contents from Part IIparticularly on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the incestuous relationship between nature, culture, and writing.


What is Derrida trying to say to his readers when all he ever does is close read other people’s works in abstruse language? What does it mean to be a Derridean? Similar to Jacques Lacan, Derrida’s difficulty comes from the way he applies his ideas into his own writing in order to make you experience what he is trying to say. As Alain Badiou once said: “Philosophy privileges no language, not even the one that it is written in”.

To understand Derrida’s concept of difference, which actually comes from Ferdinand de Saussure, we must become familiar with the function of meaning in relationship with its context that it is placed in. We need to understand that “meaning” varies depending on context. In this sense, context is the way which words differentiates within a system of other words that defines what the former word could mean within its structure. The word “life” can have various meanings depending on who you ask through the contextual structure of words it is placed in (i.e. different cultures, traditions, etc.). Thus, meaning can constantly change as it gets compared to different contextual words. Is the author saying X or Y? Or perhaps she is saying V because X is different to G since now there is a T?

Most importantly, how words are interpreted depends on not only the context it is situated in, but the specific spatial-temporal context that you—the readeroffer to it with your own knowledge, history, past experiences, personal values, etc. Thus, when we communicate to other people, one might sometimes realize that what they are expressing cannot be completely felt by the other person in the same way that they are experiencing it (this also has to do with the representational aspects of language; another reason is because you are not the other person). In other words, we are always in some ways “misunderstood”. And it is through this “misunderstanding” via the play of differences between author / reader which creates a mutual “understanding”. This is applicable even when an author speaks to themselves (See Voice and Phenomenon, “Meaning as Soliloquy”).

This “misunderstanding” is crucial because it is through communicative exchange between the author and reader that produces meaning. Instead of interpreting words, Derrida is saying that meanings can only be produced in relationship with the reader who creates meaning from the author’s words through their own play of differential structures / contexts (similar to Roland Barthes’ “Death of the author”, but not quite). Meanings can only be produced through “other meanings”, such as the context and discourse that the reader situates the author’s words in.

In The Post Card, Derrida presents fragments of burnt love letters. In it, he famously states that “the letter never arrives at its destination” which opposes to Lacan who famously said, “the letter always arrives at its destination”. For Derrida, love letters functions like a post card—like meaning—where there is always a possibility that it arrives in the wrong place, like the postman, or a stranger who will open the letter and misread its writing via their own supplementary context. The letter never arrives at its “destination” because its “destiny” depends on context, error, and contingency. Anyone can open The Post Card (or any book; or a stranger’s love letters) and read it via their own supplementary differences which creates various meanings (this writer is romantic, a creep, stupid, etc.).

We create meanings out of the author’s words by supplementing their structure of differences with our own system of differences. Instead of saying “this author is saying X”, one should be looking at what the author is not saying which constitutes what they are trying to say. What the author’s words are not saying reveals who the author is—especially when you compare what they are not saying in one book with what they are saying in another. Most importantly, what the author is not saying also reveals who you are as a reader because it is through this supplemental structure of your “other” words which makes the author’s meanings possible. Meanings are produced through the glimmers between what some refer as “binary oppositions” (they are hardly oppositions): word / context (signifier / signified), author / reader, speech / writing, life / death, feminine / masculine, man / woman, past / future, public / private, outside / inside, absence / presence, reason / passion, who / what, etc.

In Derrida’s documentary, he asks why Martin Heidegger and G.W.F. Hegel presents themselves asexually in their work (to be sure, we are not making a porno film). He also wonders why they never talk about their private lives. Clearly, Derrida was interested in what both Heidegger and Hegel are not saying in their works which constitutes their work as such. Even if we look beyond Derrida, most of us are aware that a writer or a philosopher’s life affects the work they produce. This is also part of the reason why Derrida thinks that, with specific precautions, autobiographies can become a powerful form of writing. This is not only because autobiographies are often confessional, but because the difference between what is said and not said produces meanings about the author via self-reflection.

However, Derrida also thinks that people tend to privilege one side of the binary over the other. In Of Grammatology (1967), Rousseau becomes Derrida’s center of attention. Like Saussure and Socrates, Rousseau thought speech was more natural than writing because it represents a more naturalistic form of expression that directly comes from our thoughts; whereas writing is a representation of speech that is secondary. This led Derrida to “deconstruct” (interpret) Rousseau by asking why he privileged speech over writing, yet felt the need to write down his thoughts in order to express himself in his famous autobiography called, The Confessions. Rousseau later revealed that speech, while being more natural, was partly “deficient” in the sense that it cannot travel over long distances and won’t last through the test of time. Hence, writing was required in order to supplement speech. It is the difference between speech / writing where Rousseau’s confessions are produced. Let us read a short passage by Derrida:

“When Nature, as self proximity comes to be forbidden or interrupted, when speech fails to protect presence, writing becomes necessary. It must be added to the word urgently.[…] [Writing] is the addition of a technique, a sort of artificial and artful ruse to make speech present when it is actually absent. It is a violence done to the natural destiny of language.[…] But the supplement supplements. It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it fills a void.[…] Compensatory and vicarious, the supplement is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes-(the)-place. As substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness.” [my italics] (OG, p. 144-145; 1997 edition).

This is where Rousseau famously asserts, “Nature denatures itself”, which suggests that what is most natural—such as speech—always had the space for supplementation by the unnatural. In this sense, writing functions like an instrument, a technology, or an unnatural method. Derrida traces this thought to Rousseau’s famous text called, “Essay on the Origins of Languages”. In it, Rousseau speaks of how people from early history used unnatural methods to produce fire in order to supplement the natural warmth of the sun during the winter. People discovered unnatural ways to survive the winter due to the deficiency of Nature. People manipulate Nature by building dams, etc. and supplement what Nature cannot consistently provide. Elsewhere, Rousseau talks about the natural deficiency of a child where they require supplementation and nurturing by culture and education. Derrida writes:

“Like Nature’s love, ‘there is no substitute for a mother’s love’ says Emile [Rousseau]. It is in no way supplemented, that is to say it does not have to be supplemented, it suffices and is self-sufficient; but that also means that it is irreplaceable; what one would substitute for it would not equal it, would be only a mediocre makeshift. Finally it means that Nature does not supplement itself at all; Nature’s supplement does not proceed from Nature, it is not only inferior to but other than Nature.

Yet all education, the keystone of Rousseauist thought, will be described or presented as a system of substitution destined to reconstitute Nature’s edifice in the most natural way possible. The first chapter of Emile announces the function of this pedagogy. Although there is no substitute for a mother’s love, ‘it is better that the child should suck the breast of a healthy nurse rather than a petted mother, if he has any further evil to fear from her who has given him birth’. It is indeed culture or cultivation that must supplement a deficient nature, a deficiency that cannot by definition be anything but an accident and a deviation from Nature.” [my italics and underline] (OG, p. 145-146).

In this case, culture is what we are referring as unnatural. Here, we recognize the binary opposition between natural and unnatural where nature supplements itself by denaturing itself. Where is the evil when the violence of the unnatural is part of Nature? For example, think about sciences and technologies that are used to genetically engineer food, or the machines that produce and reduce CO2 emissions. Are they “natural”? Make no mistake, Derrida is not saying that we should destroy Nature. Rather, he is trying to show us how the otherness of Nature (the unnatural) is produced through Nature and contingency as an “accident” that unfolds before the human subject from a “future to come”. In other words, the movement between Nature and culture consists of improvisation, play (bricolage), and differences.

This leads to Derrida’s famous line, “there is no outside text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte). The outside is the inside. What belonged outside of Nature becomes the inside through supplementary differences. This supplementation is what Derrida refer as “archi-violence”—the most originary form of violence that occurs through pure contingency of the Other (will get to this later). Thus, Rousseau’s apparently “inauthentic” and “incestuous” written representation of his speech becomes authentic, even if it is an unnatural invention that originates from outside of Nature. What we recognize here is that Derrida’s “binary oppositions” are not really “oppositions” but are places where one incestuously becomes the other (this is why I don’t use the term, “binary opposition” much).

Finally, think about my last post on black slavery that I wrote in my underwear: “Can a person of color proclaim their liberation through the language of their colonizers?”. Think about the violence of external powers colonizing a territory; or the colonizer’s language that usurps the colonized subject. It is not a coincidence that the theme of archi-violence (“the outside is the inside”) was found in many post-colonial theories shortly after Derrida published Of Grammatology in 1967 (Spivak, Said, Bhabha, etc.). As we can see, some serious ethical questions arises. On one hand, if the outside (i.e. English language) is the inside of the colonized subject, then one can argue that the person of color can proclaim their liberation through the language of their colonizers (in the same way that Rousseau’s inauthentic writing becomes authentic). Yet, on the other hand, this proclamation also acknowledges the internalization of external forces which highlights the origins of archi-violence that is found in the incestuous relationship between nature and culture. Nature denatures itself as the outside becomes its other without boundaries. If the latter is the case, then where is the evil found within its movement? How can we achieve “decolonization”? I will let you answer these questions because they get even more complicated once we consider other disciplines (i.e. etymology and ontology). 

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Regardless of how provocative these differences might be, let us return to the concept of difference that occurs between a word and its context. Language is a gigantic system of words that creates meaning through differences of other words. The meaning of “life” varies depending on how you compare the word within your own context. An author who thinks they have excellent command of the meaning of “life” is annulled by the reader who unexpectedly reinterprets “life” through their own supplementary differences—of what the author is not saying. Whenever we read a text, our interpretation will always miss the differential structure that the original author implied. This is due to the near infinite ways we can piece together words which is influenced by our own personal experiences, values, etc. We are constantly re-contextualizing words as we acquire new knowledge. As a result, this textual motion sets out contingent outcomes of meanings. As readers, you can already see the allusions that I am making to Rousseau’s “dangerous supplement” between natural / unnatural. Only that I am presenting it under a different context.

Now, as we read Derrida’s Of Grammatology for example, we tend to immediately situate Derrida’s words into specific context in order to give it meaning. Only that Derrida speaks through multi-contextual layers of words that plays and compares with other systems of words from other texts which makes it difficult to produce stable meanings. This is what Derrida calls “archi-writing”: an originary form of writing that is written through differences. Derrida is intentionally doing this to force you (the reader) to play within differences and “understand” what he is trying to say through your own supplementary differences. We know that when we read Derrida, we are reading him read other author’s works. Derrida’s writings often talks about what the authors are not saying in their works by comparing it with their other works (this is why Derrideans are often found in comparative literature). In turn, this produces the meanings of what the author is saying through Derrida’s own supplementary differences (which in secret, are the reader’s differences—as in the readers who are reading Derrida read the author’s works).

This leads us to our question: How do we read Derrida when he is all about how you read him? This includes the post you are currently reading because you are interpreting Bobby interpreting Derrida interpret X. To tell you the truth, I never had the intention to answer this question. Perhaps the question that we should be asking is: when we read Derrida’s words, is it “I” the reader, who produces the meaning that Derrida is trying to make? Or is it through what Derrida’s words are not via my own supplementary differences / contexts that makes me read Derrida the way I did? We already know the answer: it is the “Other” words that I supplement which produces meaning out of Derrida’s text. It is the differential “Other” who wins and defines what Derrida is saying. Thus, the final form of our question: what is the significance of this “Other” and what does she/he want to say to me and who I am as a person as I interpret texts (literature, novels, etc.)? In this sense, self-reflection becomes crucial if I want to discover who I am as a person (yet, there is also a division within self-reflection between the difference of past / future).

Derrida shows us that our identities and meanings are produced through differences that are underwritten by contingency. This makes Derrida subject to being accused for nihilism (i.e. Jordan Peterson and Stephen Hicks). We must understand that Derrida does not ignore facts. Neither does he reject science or tolerate solipsism. What he really questions is whether anyone can guarantee the meanings that an individual up holds for themselves (i.e. their identity, values, ethics, world view, philosophies, etc.) will remain exactly the same over long periods of time. This is because Derrida saw how events changes our contextual and epistemological frameworks, which influences our perceptions of our present space. Events such as: the confrontation of death, falling in / out of love, war, climate change, trauma, reading a novel, acquiring new knowledge, etc. In the same way, one cannot guarantee that, upon the second and third readings of the same novel, the reader will discover something new that they had not previously recognized. This is due to the infinite ways the reader plays with their supplementary differences through time which produces different outcomes of meanings. The contingency of the Other underlies all our interpretations.

Supplement, difference, and trace, are fundamental to reading and writing. It is essential to all human experiences. We never notice it because we take interpretation for granted in our daily lives (we listen to others talk, we write to them on social media, we listen to music, we read books, we look at art, etc.). Despite all the complicated moves Derrida makes, his message is simple once we consider the first word of our question and understand that the “how” functions as the play of differences: between what is said and what is not said. How you interpret nature, people, events, novels, or films; how you interpret life, death, love, space, and time; or how you interpret anything, tells you about who and what you are as a human being. What is it that you are not telling others that makes you do the things you do in your life? This is what Derrida wants you to think about—to self-reflect; to deconstruct differences. —Thus, let us once again ask: What does it mean to be a Derridean?

“…the dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy. You will say I too am a dreamer; I admit it, but I do what others fail to do, I give my dreams as dreams, and leave the reader to discover whether there is anything in them which may prove useful to those who are awake.” —Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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