Contemplation

Quick thoughts on Anti-Racist Education: “Intention vs. Effect”

Today, I would like to talk about “intention versus effect” within anti-racist education. This was something that I randomly came across from this website a few months ago.

The argument goes something like this: when it comes to speaking to the other person, the intention does not matter, the effect/impact does. What matters is the effect of what is said towards the person who receives such words because it furthers the oppression of marginalized voices who are situated in relation with power structures.

For those who followed my blog long enough, you will know that intentionality is a big part of my research interests. Anyone who read my intro on Derrida’s deconstruction or Lacanian psychoanalysis will know that I talk about intentionality left and right. Perhaps some of you who are familiar with deconstruction and psychoanalysis can already guess how I will tackle this argument.

Frankly, the argument of intention vs effect/impact lacks any form of critical consideration of what intentionality really is (and if this can somehow be the “law”, then it is a poorly implemented one and deserves criticism). What this argument fails to understand is how the effect and impact of what is said also depends on intentionality. It ignores that intentionality is always a two sided phenomenon. Communication always consists of one pole to the other, i.e. reader –> listener/reader, and vice versa. Obviously, there are times where racism and violence is apparent. But what happens when someone is saying X and the other interprets Y? What happens when someone meant X but is randomly referred as a racist without attempting to understand the other?

In communication, there is always an epistemological/knowledge gap between the one who speaks and the one who listens or reads. To be sure, the knowledge gap that I speak of is not the same as the one expressed on the site here (I am thinking of the long old Kantian problem of the thing-in-itself). With this said, while I agree with some of their claims on the page, their use of the phrase, “deconstructing inaccurate perspectives” contradicts their argument for the irrelevance of intentionality on the other page. In fact, not only is such statement contradictory, it is also hypocritical to disregard intentionality on one hand, and call for the “deconstruction” of “inaccurate perspectives” on the other. This is because the act of “deconstructing inaccurate perspective” requires intentionality. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we shouldn’t listen to marginalized stories (I think they should be heard). Neither am I defending dominant ideologies and people’s apparent amnesia of the violence of colonialism in Canada. I am simply pointing out their logical inconsistencies and their Wikipedia knowledge of Derridean deconstruction (I’m sorry if I sound condescending, but I found it silly).

When I am trying to explain something, there is always a general “direction” (intention) that orients my spoken or written words (I spoke about this in many places in previous posts such as here). Without going into any detail explanations, intentionality can be defined as a form of “pointing”.  To be sure, intentionality is not some physical object that can be seen or touched. It is part of a larger phenomenon that attaches onto our conscious thoughts and words (known as the “noema”). The use of intentionality happens everyday in our lives. In fact, it is happening right now as you interpret my words. Whether or not what I am saying here has an “effect” or “impact” depends on such intentionality. What I point to may never be aligned to the person who is listening or reading my words.

Intentionality is studied as a form of metaphysics via a discipline known as phenomenology (even if phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl reframed from assigning phenomenology as a metaphysics). An example might be how one person finds a book offensive or “triggering” while another person won’t. Or perhaps one can think of something that might be offensive in one culture but isn’t to another, like dining etiquette. The mistake is to think that the reader does not have any intentionality attached to their interpretation of the other person’s words. The argument assumes that, what the reader interprets as racist happens as a “matter of fact”—even when it might not be.

Not spending time to understand the other person can lead to dangerous practices of ignoring other people’s ideas and what they are really trying to say (it also leads to things like political correctness). In fact, by ignoring what the other is trying to really say, one is perpetuating the same form of violence found in colonialism (i.e. the ethnocentrism of interpreting a foreign culture by privileging their own culture—or the privileging of one context and intention over another; I spoke about this in many places on this blog, such as here and here). Hence I always emphasized on how interpretation via intentionality is a form of violence and how we should always have respect for the other. The argument which emphasizes on “what is said” depends on intentionality.

The phenomena of interpretation and intentionality is further complicated by the ways it relates to the unconscious mind and repression. As I had introduced in my posts on Lacanian psychoanalysis (see my “Popular Posts” menu), language is the symptom of the unconscious (and so are stories written by people). In other words, intentionality—which characterizes the movement of our conscious thoughts—is always influenced by our unconscious mind. Hence, one can also say that, what “triggers” someone is always related to some form of psychoanalytical trauma that brings forth the eternal return of some memory which influences intentionality and the interpretation of words. Readers are always interpreting the world that is measured against their conscious and unconscious experiences.

Hopefully we can begin to see the problem of such argument. If anti-racist education did not consider the intentionality of the reader, then it is something that needs to be looked into because it makes some startling assumptions in regards to the nature of meaning and intentionality.

* * *

While I agree that “white privilege” is true, does this mean that someone in a privileged position can’t be reasonable and cannot reveal something about the truth? Or that the things they say should be ignored because they are not marginalized stories? No. In the same way, just because someone has less privilege doesn’t mean they are wrong—but it also doesn’t mean they are always right. The point is that we should always try to understand what the other person is saying—especially once we recognize that intentionality via communication is always at least two sided. Hence, I always emphasize on treating people with infinite respect. This is why I tend to disagree that ideas have anything to do with power relations, identity or race. Certainly, you can have an idea about race, identity, and power. But every human being is capable of generating ideas.

While I also agree that hierarchies are an inevitable reality in this world (hence privilege and the recognition of power), we should consider whether or not racism has anything to do with power before jumping to the conclusion of thinking that it does 100% of the time. Perhaps it is most fair to say that, depending on context, racism occasionally has something to do with power.

The site points out that racism consists of power relations. This takes us to the other link that talks about “racism = racial prejudice + power” which is an argument that a few sociologists made in regards to anti-racist education back in the 90s (if I remember correctly). Basically, the argument is that since white people have institutional power, they are the only people who can be racist and it is not possible white people can experience racism. This is why reverse racism doesn’t exist because white people cannot experience racism since they are the people in power.

This type of definition of racism is quite different to the common one that most of us know, which is that racism is racism no matter who it is directed at. You can be racist without any power relation. While I am no expert in sociology, I wouldn’t use “racism = racial prejudiced + power” as a universal definition for racism—even if such definition may yield great insights of our system. I think it is easy to use this formula as a way to fit into a particular political narrative. In the same way, it is also easy to throw in terms like “deconstructing binaries” and use deconstruction to reinforce particular political narrative while having little understanding of what deconstruction really “is”.

Nevertheless, I think this opens up an interesting conversation in regards to whether racism is psychological or sociological—a similar question that I tried to propose few posts ago on whether human behavior is constituted by nature or nurture. Since psychology focuses more on the psyche and a sociological approach focuses on the societal system, I would imagine that the difference between the two is how the psychological views of racism would ignore the societal context that sociologists studies; the latter where the perceptions of race, etc. are learned and reinforced by social structures (hence, “systemic racism”).

My take would lean towards the “psychological” only in the sense that interpretation and intentionality always require a first person approach to the world (i.e. phenomenology attempts to study the first person experiences of the world via experiences of phenomena and intentionality). This is to say that sociologists are psychological human beings who interprets the world and thus, are always carrying an intention to interpret society in certain ways. To be sure, I place “psychological” in quotation because intentionality is not really studied under psychology as a discipline because even most psychologists takes intentionality for granted (I speak of psychology not in the same sense as psychoanalysis).

Just as one inevitably sees the world through the representation of language as a structure—it is the question of how sociologists structuralizes society in order to produce any interpretations out of it. This is famously known as “structuralism”, which is often criticized by post-structuralists. Despite such fact, does this render such structural sociological findings pointless? No. To reduce racism to a psychological phenomenon would be as naïve as reducing it to the phenomenon of structures and systems.

The key word that I wish to emphasize on is “phenomena”, something that every individual experiences everyday in their lives. What if neither psychology and sociology can offer sufficient answers to the origin or cause of racism or any psychical and social phenomena? What if the origin of racism is unknown or buried somewhere within the way these scholars interprets the world through X intentionality? And that such intentionality is also influenced by their unconscious mind? Could there be a phenomenon of racism that both psychologists and sociologist had ignored or excluded as they try to categorize these phenomena into coherent institutionalized systems of knowledge? What grants a specific psychology and sociology is the conscious experience of phenomenon—their attempts at describing the way they analyze psychic and social structures; of categorizing such experiences into compartments, languages, and definitions which unfolds as discoveries. Once again, I am not rejecting the findings of psychologists and sociologists. I am attempting to open up the discourse of possibility.

The most intriguing part about phenomenology is that it studies intentionality and how it is influenced by space and time. But even phenomenology negates the unconscious mind. Intentionality is not just something that a sociologist or psychologist produces through their conscious interpretation of the world. Their intentionality is also influenced by their unconscious desires (they are human beings after all). Yet, the relationship between what is repressed, always relies on an outside (society; laws) which influences the inside (i.e. laws that prohibit desires, intentions, thoughts, etc.). In other words, the boundaries between the outside (society; laws) and how it affects the inside (psychological; unconscious which influences intentionality and how we interpret things) is not always clear. The outside influences the inside which influences how we interpret an outside that we perceive as something that affects the inside. Hence, you may notice how I often talk about the outside/inside when I introduce deconstruction, such as how nature becomes culture, etc. (here). This relationship between outside/inside is actually one of the most famous paradoxes that exists in philosophy (it can also be found in different forms, like finitude/infinitude).

Ultimately, there are several things that I am trying to get at. Intentionality is a big contributing factor on how we perceive meaning—whether it is interpreting the effect and impact of the other person’s words, or a psychologist and sociologist interpreting the impact of society, human behavior, nature, etc. Intentionality matters because it determines the effect of words and the meanings produced by the phenomena of the world and society itself. With this in mind, not only does the “effect over intentionality” argument ignore the importance of intention and contradict their own attempts at “deconstructing inaccurate perspectives”, it also ignores the effect of meaning produced by intentionality despite their privilege of such term. When I speak of the word “effect”, I am referring to the way words signify and how they produce meaning (i.e. the movement of structuralization).

This is why racism has different definitions and meanings under different contexts—or that words in general have different meanings depending on context. Not only does the definition change, the epistemological (knowledge) structure of context also changes over time. In many places on this blog, I spoke about how time influences how we interpret texts and events, where contexts changes over time (such as here). Someone who lives in 20th century might interpret a text very differently by someone from 21st century. The fact that intentionality is always at least two sided is the reason why there are many ways one can define the word “racism” (i.e. as a prejudice, ideology; whether psychologically or sociologically, etc).

Furthermore, intentionality is also influenced by the unconscious mind. It is naïve to assume the findings of X as absolute when the root cause lies in the way we interpret the world is always at least two sided. Hence to say that “intentionality does not matter” is to promote a naïve form of education that doesn’t teach people how to think critically.

What I find fascinating in our world today is that people seem to stop thinking once they get into sensitive issues. They suddenly throw all the things they learnt out the window and feel like they must conform to some ideology or to some moral authority without challenging any of its presuppositions. When we want change, we need to think really carefully and critically. If we want to solve a problem, we do not solve it by removing the bad leaf, we must look for its root cause—we must look for its origins (i.e. would defunding the police end police brutality and racism? Can you train someone to not be racist? Is racism sociological or psychological?). If one cannot locate the origin, the issue will just happen again in a different form, like a cancer that refuses to leave someone’s body—despite having surgically removed the tumor.

As much as I would like to solve the problem of racism and oppression, I think the idea of “effect over intentionality” is an inconsiderate argument that needs serious re-examination. To put it nicely, while such argument yields great insight in our imperfect system, it also reveals its own contradictions. Perhaps I could sympathize with the argument more if they are simply saying, “be nice and mindful of others” which I would agree. But this does not seem to be the case.

Okay, Bobby needs to take his beauty nap.
Stay safe everyone.

Standard
Contemplation

The Perfect Crime: Community, Radical Thought, and Creativity

I would like to reiterate on the relationship between radical thought and impossibility. What makes something radical is the idea that it is “impossible”. When I speak of this impossibility, I am always relating it to the theme of infinitude—something from a future that exceeds all our expectations, laws, and conditions. A radical thought is controversial—it is a scandal, an event, or philosophy that radically changes how we see the world. Radical thought can appear at any moment. It can rupture from the events of George Floyd; it can occur from the encounter of someone you love, or when you are forgiven by someone you care about. The radical appears through the act of thinking and interpreting about something or someone. It is the recognition of an impossibility from interpreting the impossible which marks the finitude of being human (wrote about it here; important to read for this post).

While I spoke about the impossibility of unconditional forgiveness in my last post, I think these impossibilities happens at individual levels more than we think. It happens without recognition because we don’t think about them. Last time, I asked: Can the family member of the victim forgive the criminal who murdered their son? I recall a few years ago that this actually happened in the court as the family embraced the person who was convicted of crime (I remembered seeing it on the news). It was a courageous moment where law and power were dissolved by something much more sublime. —Beauty only happens once.

Today, I want us to think about this relationship between radical thought with our finitude and community. For those who are unfamiliar with my thinking style, I tend to move back and forth between expansive and intensive examinations of ideas. Hence, the first part of this post will seek to understand the community under a big picture where the second part will seek to understand this large scale thinking at an individual level.

I would like to begin by talking about the famous dialogue that went on between Maurice Blanchot, Giorgio Agamben, and Jean-Luc Nancy where they questioned whether a real community is possible when individuals are caught in the dilemma between “avowal”, which threatens “community” (i.e. to speak what they think is true), and the notion of “unavowal”. When they speak of “community”, they are not just talking about community in a practical sense, they are talking about the “communal” as in the possibility of “communism” (which I think brings up a lot of interesting thoughts in relationship with some of the ideas I brought up last time). This dialogue is famously found in books called, The Unavowable Community (1983), The Coming Community (1983), The Inoperative Community (1986), and The Disavowed Community (2014) [warning: they are very difficult to read].

Their dialogue began with Blanchot’s use of Georges Bataille’s notion of “negative community” which he defines as a “community without community” (and perhaps, if community should be thought under “communism”, one can think of Alain Badiou, who argued for the resurrection of the idea of communism; i.e. “communism without communism”). For Blanchot, the absence of community is not a failure of community because absence belongs to community. Taking part of a community is not as simple as people participating in communities in the pragmatic sense, but to recognize those who are absent from a community are also part of the community (otherwise, a community might be similar to tribalism—for example). What threatens community and force people to depart from it is the difference of thought. Yet, what grants a true community is also the recognition of differences in thought which may create a “community without community”. In relationship with this absence and the risk of losing friendship, Blanchot writes:

“It is in life itself that the absence of someone else has to be met. It is with that absence—its uncanny presence always under the prior threat of a disappearance—that friendship is brought into play and lost at each moment, a relation without relation or without relation other than the incommensurate. Such would be the friendship that discovers the unknown we ourselves are, and the meeting of our own solitude which, precisely, we cannot be alone to experience.” (25) (my emphasis)

Let us emphasize on the word “solitude” because of how it relates to the finitude of our existence that we experience everyday in our lives. Solitude signifies this recognition of impossibility with other people in the community (whether this is someone you talk to in the community or a complete stranger you walk past on the street). Blanchot later talks about how the experience of death is the true community. Death is the “impossible” commonality that we all have. Without a doubt, Blanchot is borrowing heavily from Martin Heidegger.

Perhaps one can think of the commonality of death in relationship with Heidegger’s notion of Dasein (being-there). For Heidegger, Dasein is the primary mode of existence which seeks to make sense of the world via our relationship with space and time (think, existentialism with phenomenology). The encounter of the world grants Dasein infinite possibilities of actions and interpretations. Hence, Dasein is always a being-in-the-world, or being-with (mitsein) [i.e. being-with community / other people]. The only thing that can stop the movement of Dasein and its throwness into the world is death (being-toward-death). Death is the destiny of all living beings. The future is always marked by death which serves as the commonality between all of us. It is the recognition of death where Dasein sees its own finitudeThis is why, for example, Derrida always speaks about the “future to come” in relationship with death. It is also why he was interested in the psychoanalytic concept of the death drive which has a similar function with the movement of time. Heideggerian themes like “destruktion” which Derrida translates as “deconstruction” also carries this theme of death. Nevertheless, it is our relationship with Dasein, of existing in the world, which allows us to recognize our own finitude.

One of the questions that this invites us to think about is whether or not a society can have a community of finite individuals without sacrificing their individuality and singular views of truth. Can there be a community without community? Once again, when I speak of community, I am not thinking about joining some book club or local community, I am thinking about community in the biggest picture which includes the stranger that you see on the street, or even your “enemy”. Such community includes people who are not part of the community. Our commonality of solitude (finitude) and death allows us to recognize that there is a community without community.

What I wish to draw our attention to is once again our finite relationship with the community—of other people around us in general. Can one speak what they believe is true while still belong to the community in face of the Other? In other words, can one express individualism in a community? Can we maintain individualism and speak the truth while being part of a community? I think this comes down to what “community” means (and that this meaning is the sharing of Being—as Nancy would say). Does a community involve specific individuals who signifies sameness (i.e. same ideologies and beliefs)? Is sameness always the same once we consider our own finitude of being human and the phenomena of communication? (a rhetorical question; I spoke about the problem of communication in many places; the most recent one was here). Or does a community always involve difference? I tend to favor the latter over the former. But if a community is constituted by difference, then will people disagree with each other and leave the community? If no one belongs to the community due to differences, could it still be considered as a community? Or are we establishing a community without community?

On second account (and to go off on a thought tangent), I would like to quickly reiterate what I said in my last post in regards to “political correctness” (PC) that I subtly contextualized as a form a censorship that occurs within “communities” (whatever this word can mean). While my stance holds firm that PC does more harm than good, I can see why it can be useful when dealing with sensitive issues (i.e. someone who experienced trauma). Yet at the same time, I think the fundamental idea of PC will take us no where. History has shown us that political correctness will often lead to totalitarianism through censoring other people’s words and ideas. Once there are words that you cannot say, there will soon be books that you cannot read which will eventually get banned from libraries. Then the next thing you know, books will get thrown into the fire. Starting with political correctness will lead us back to political correctness. All of this reminds me of the works of Jewish mathematician and philosopher Edmund Husserl where his followers prevented the Nazis from burning his books (Husserl invented phenomenology). I think it would be very hard to imagine 20th century European philosophy without Husserl, since nearly every continental philosopher of the time were influenced by him.

* * *

Let us once again recall the theme of 20th century thought on the finitude of being human. It is the idea that we are always caught in our own finitude in relationship with the objective world. That we can never know anything in itself because we are never these objects or people that we seek to interpret (we must be cautious to not conceive of this as solipsism and ignore “objective truth”—objective truth still exists as a paradox within this “relation without relation”). In my last post, I had bluntly pointed out the logic of exclusion (ethnocentrism / logocentrism) and how radical inclusions of specific texts are—pragmatically speaking—a form of exclusion. What I wish to do is to not expand, but look closer at this act of exclusion / inclusion. The act of interpreting the Other (the foreign or marginalized) is the site of originary violence.

The “problem” is much more delicate than it appears. While I think it is very important for us to learn new ideas written by other cultures and individuals, the problem lies in our very own interpretation of such ideas. It is the question of whether or not we can completely understand the Other and whether we can do it in an ethical manner. Let us think of a human being who is interpreting another human being. It doesn’t matter if I am yellow and the person that I am interpreting is of another skin color—the problem remains the same. But let us, for the sake of argument, suppose that I am interpreting someone who is radically and racially different than me—someone who was raised from a radically different space and time than me. How should I interpret their language when I am always caught in my own finitude as I confront their language? I will provide a personal example momentarily. Now, suppose that I am reading a text written by someone who is from the same culture as me. What guarantees that my interpretation of their language is identical to what they are trying to say? Nothing. In fact, this is the main problem of interpretation and translation. For example, Chinese scholars have trouble translating legendary texts like Tao Te Ching from ancient Chinese into contemporary Chinese because the two languages are really different from each other (it is even harder when you translate it again into English); the same problem happens for Indian texts like the Upanishads. There is always a difference involved when one interprets and translates a work or the words of the Other (due to the problem of idioms and other things which are all cultural specific—a culture that changes over time; will get to this). Hence, an interpretation always consists of a truth that is always more than one. It is here where we recognize the mark of finitude and what I referred as the infinite interpretations to any language.

Last time, I mentioned how Fred Moten was the perfect example of a radical thinker. My first encounter of Fred Moten’s book, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition was similar to my first encounter of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. The only difference was that I have a lot more experience in reading these type of impenetrable texts. I realized that what I was really encountering in Moten’s work was a foreign language that was not my own (just as when I first read Derrida). I was encountering the impossible. How can I ethically interpret the Other (Moten) without imposing my own history onto his works? I was like the anthropologist who is trying to avoid ethnocentrism when they interpret another foreign culture or language (i.e. trying to avoid interpreting a foreign culture through our own cultural views). How can I inherit Moten’s thoughts as I did for Derrida?

In many ways, I think Moten is more radical than Derrida and all the other European thinkers that he talks about; even if I think that Moten’s ideas still falls into certain areas of Derridean thought, such as the notion of free play. But by claiming that Moten is associated with Derrida, am I not reading Moten through Derrida (i.e. through my own history and my inheritance of Derridean thought) and not through the Black tradition, say, jazz music and improvisation? Am I not committing an act of violence by categorizing him through my own history? And if Derrida is considered as an “European”, even if he was born in Algeria, would I be performing Eurocentrism? But if Derrida is Algerian, would Derrida’s interpretation of Saussure, Husserl, Heidegger, Marx, Rousseau, Warburton, etc. be “Algeriancentrism”? What would my own reading of Moten be called once you consider my history of being Chinese who goes on to inherit Derridean thought?

To interpret Moten’s difficult writing style is to recognize the impossibility of fully understanding his thoughts because I come from a radically different background. I will never have the same language as Moten even if I fully situate myself into his culture (and by doing so, the outside becomes the inside; will get to this). To interpret is to recognize my own finitude that is measured against Moten’s writing in infinitude—it is to recognize Moten as the Other. But does this mean that I should stop interpreting Moten’s black rhetoric? Absolutely not. It is as I had said, my duty to understand the Other, even if this effort is marked by the impossible.

Does inheriting and interpreting marginalized works allow us to challenge hegemonic Western systems? Absolutely. But by expanding marginalized cultural inheritance, one is still caught in their own inheritance of such cultures. Even those who ends up inheriting the meanings of such cultures from the future are never identical from the ones of the past. This is why culture is never static, but is always subject to change over time (whatever reasons and causes this might entail, i.e. cultural diffusion) [think about the problem of translating Tao Te Ching or Upanishads].

To borrow from Jean Baudrillard, this phenomenon of inheritance and interpretation is the perfect crime. To claim that the interpretation of the Other is the perfect crime is to say that we always unknowingly perform such crime and violence when we interpret the Other. We even do this when we are not giving justice, but are simply interpreting the words of another person in the cafe or on Facebook messenger. But one could also say that, in the opposite view, a marginalized individual interprets the West and European thought through their history. Is this not what Moten does which leads to the radical impossibility of his work for me? This act of interpretation of the Other, of giving justice to the Other, or of being inspired by the Other—but also as the violence conducted towards the Other, is where creativity begins.

To call interpretation as a crime is to acknowledge a form of originary violence that exists from the very beginning of pre-society (arche-violence). To call it a perfect crime is to not only acknowledge our nonrecognition of such crime, but the fact that it is an unsolvable crime because it is the perfect crime. Derrida highlights this in his reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who saw the radical transformation of nature into culture through the violence of interpretation. What we considered as unnatural becomes naturalized. The outside becomes the inside. Nature becomes culture. Speech becomes writing. Education becomes the supplement for Nature’s deficiencies (I spoke about all of this here).  Interpretation is the violence which becomes a daily task. It becomes normalized in our lives without our recognition. It lurks and haunts us in the background of all intellectual, cultural, and creative endeavors.  

The encounter of a foreign text is like the encounter of a culture or meeting a foreigner  that one will never completely know. For here lies the enigma of the impossible radical thought; of what psychoanalysts might refer as the impasse or deadlock. The Other triumphs over us. They elude us and escapes our own understanding of them. The ethics that is called to arms is to translate the Other, interpret the Other, without murdering, but always murdering, a destruktion and deconstruction, while opening for the Other (i.e. allowing the Other to respond from the future to come—which calls upon the question of faith because the Other may never respond; our relationship with the Other may remind us of our commonality via our finitude and death).

I would like to end our discussion today by thinking about interpretation as a form of violence and radical thought. It is easy to dismiss the impossibility of understanding Derrida’s writing as non-sense even when he is trying to get us to think about this radical supplementary structure of thought that we impose onto the Other (I have plans to do some page by page close reading of Of Grammatology in the future) [similarly, it is also easy to dismiss Moten’s Black rhetoric as non-sense, even when it isn’t]. Often times, I am tempted to explain Derrida to people who don’t “understand” him, correct them, mold them, but that would defeat the teachings of his thoughts. They do not recognize that they are—in a way—practicing deconstruction by interpreting (agreeing / disagreeing) with him. Just like everyone else, they are interpreting, dividing and supplementing; reproducing violence in the subtlest of all ways by creating new meanings and ideas. And that, most importantly, such proclamation is the violence that I impose onto the Other.

The violence of interpretation is where thinking begins. I still recall when one of my teachers taught me that many great philosophers of the past had thought about the relationship between finitude and infinitude (i.e. Buddhism and the concept of impermanence). If interpretation and translation is the beginning of all philosophies, inheritance, and cultural inventions, then the encounter of the Other is the raison d’être for philosophy and all forms of creative inquiries. And without ever wanting to glorify it further, interpretation is—in all senses of the word—the perfect crime.

Standard
Contemplation

On Racial Politics, Systemic Injustice, and Human Nature

Someone recently asked me about my thoughts in regards to what is happening in America and around the world such as Hong Kong (I was born in Hong Kong). I think some of you who knows me very well may have anticipated this post. For I have spent a lot of time thinking about some of our current issues at hand because it is very complicated.

My last post on the finitude of being human was written with America and Hong Kong in mind. It was why I shared some of my knowledge and spoke about Derrida’s account on forgiveness—something that is nearly impossible to achieve today (Derrida compares forgiveness with something like a revolution). My thoughts and prayers with America and Hong Kong was also why I decided to share my seminar presentation on Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. I tried to encourage people to share what they thought was true regardless of their race and political orientation. I even intentionally emphasized on Badiou’s notion on the distance between power and truth, where we can talk about the truth without any particularities. Yes, I still think that an “Idea” in itself has nothing to do with race and identity. What is more originary than both race and identity is the fact that we are all human beings (though I am certainly not saying that racism does not exist). Before I begin, I want to say that I am always on the side of justice no matter what I say. I am saying this now because people tend to misread me since I sometimes unintentionally piss people off.

I am a perceiver who prefers to understand everything from multiple perspectives before I start thinking about possible conclusions. While I might not always label myself, I always try to be fair and understand the underlying logic, structure, and causality of everything and everyone around me. Hence, people often misunderstand me for being unresponsive, slow to move, apolitical and even unsympathetic. But most of this is not true. I am sensitive to injustices. It’s just that most people never got to know me well enough to understand that I lost hope for humanity long time ago. I tend to not talk about political matters in public unless they are my close friends because they are more open to radical ideas. I sometimes feel like if I tell people that I am a centrist (though definitely still left leaning—but not in the contemporary liberal sense), I would be committing a mortal sin by some politically correct person who is obsessed with definitions. The 30 year old Bobby you see today is not the same 20 year old Bobby. In fact, Bobby is turning 30 today. And since it is my birthday, I want to take this opportunity to write about something that I think is important for us to think about. Forgive me for being incoherent, I wrote this under a few hours.

Philosophy had taught me how to be a better person. But there was one point in my life where it annihilated my world views and turned me into a bitter and depressed human being. To be honest, it is not a very good story. Maybe I will save it for another post where I may share such experiences (I am turning 30 after all). I regularly have political and intellectual debates with my father who I consider to be a formidable opponent. Although we have very different views on contemporary China, I still have infinite respect for him because he taught me that if I want others to respect my ideas, I should respect theirs as well. With this said, correcting someone’s speech without even trying to “understand” them is condescending. Do I immediately dismiss Fred Moten who challenges Derrida or Lacan’s ideas? No, I admire him because he showed that he put in effort to understand their works. The way he moves beyond their ideas in In the Break and Black and Blur is absolutely incredible. Moten is the perfect example of a radical thinker—I like that.

A few days ago, I was in a graduate meeting with many of my esteemed colleagues where we discussed institutional and structural racism. While I remained silent because I always need a lot of time to think about questions and ideas, there were several things that people said which caught my attention (it is funny because someone criticized those who chose to remain silent). I am going to list three points and spew them out randomly. I will be as discreet as possible because the discussion was supposed to be confidential. The points that I will make here are about the ideas, not the person.

First, philosophy is not theory. I have no idea why literature departments likes to call philosophy “theory”. It still amuses me till this day. If philosophy was theory, then there would not be the philosophy of science (i.e. the scientific method), the philosophy of mathematics, mind, language, etc. Without philosophy there would not be economics, psychology, linguistics, or any disciplines (though literature has an interesting place because philosophies can often be literary and vice versa). Without philosophy, there would not be Karl Marx or Adam Smith (Marx reversed Hegelian thought). In fact, nearly every discipline we have today in universities and beyond began with philosophy by conceiving of some form of new Idea. I am not surprised when Wikipedia pointed out how 97% of their pages eventually lead to philosophy. In general, philosophy is an attempt to understand the first principles of our subjective experiences with our objective world.

Second, I vaguely recall someone who questioned why universities had to teach Victorian literature and not works written by marginalized people. And that if a professor designed a course which taught why one should teach Victorian literature, they would take it. I understand that the person had good intentions to give voices to those who don’t have one. I got the sense that they thought they were being radical, even when I find this type of thinking to be dangerous(ly not radical). Why? Because this is what I refer as the logic of exclusion—it is the same type of logic that our current system uses to segregate marginal voices (also applicable to the way we interpret texts; i.e. logocentrism). Suppose that we grant this person their desire and all universities teaches marginalized texts and ignore the European or Western texts. Wouldn’t there be new marginalized works that should be taught (i.e. European and Western texts)? With this type of logic, history may very well repeat itself—like it always has. This is why I tend to disagree with the idea that one should cite only marginalized voices—even if I think it is of good intentions because our world privileges certain disciplines and people over others.

Third, someone spoke about how taking action on racism is not about “deferring meaning to the future” who was probably referring to Jacques Derrida. To be honest, this was a pretty naive take on Derrida, but maybe I misread their words (I pointed out this interpretation in this post). For example, when Derrida famously said things like “justice to come”, what he means is that the encounter of future contingencies will allow us to discover new injustices that occurred in the past (something that we did not anticipate). As a result, this allows us to give justice by challenging our current structure of laws. Following this logic, meaning and action are not just naively “deferred to the future”, the way we interpret past meanings and actions are influenced by the future becoming of space and time. It is like sharing our experiences of racism from the past in the future (i.e. the contemporary). This person in the meeting went on to talk about all the white philosophers they read and that those who does something similar should read other works. It almost felt like they were directing the message at me which was kinda funny. Obviously, this person knew nothing about me, but I think they have a great point because Eastern and African philosophies are equally great. In fact, I had spent a good year or two reading Eastern philosophies (Upanishads, Tao Te Ching, etc.).

You see, if I said what I really think, I will piss people off and “risk my future career in academia”, which I am pretty sure was nonexistent to begin with (I’m just being realistic, given the academic job market; but maybe I am wrong). For example, if I said the things in my second point to the “radical” person who was already overly aggressive and tried to correct other people’s ideas, I think we would get into an argument. I am not concerned about getting people to “join my cause” and forcing my thoughts onto them because most people don’t like my tendencies to point out inconvenient truths (and besides, I value difference). In general, I gave up convincing others because nobody listens.

* * *

Let us think about America and Hong Kong. First, I must say that their situations are really different, but similar in the sense that there is a form of hegemonic power that refuses to listen and is imposed upon the protesters. To simplify my thoughts, I would like to talk about two things: systematic injustice and human nature. When something goes bad, we tend to always like to blame the system because the system and environment that we are situated in cultivates our actions (Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek are quite famous for this). Just look at films like Parasite where the lower class ends up exploiting the upper class. What made them do such thing? In many ways, I agree with this perspective. The system breeds violence into human beings (both police and protesters). But I certainly wouldn’t go as far as some right wing commentators like Ben Shapiro who referred police brutality in the States as a case of “indecent human beings” and that all the protesters are “scumbags” (certainly, we cannot ignore the looters who don’t care about protesting and just wanted to steal a Nintendo Switch from Target). There is a very long history of violence and oppression of the people of color in not just America, but all around the world. This should not be surprising since practically every single form of civilization that existed on Earth were built upon slavery. But at the same time, Shapiro does have a point in regards to human indecency which I think, is related to a much bigger idea that I will talk about momentarily.

When we want social change, we must think big and really critically. Why? Because we need to consider whether or not our actions will actually produce real change even if it is just a small ripple (or are we going to be “radical” without actually being radical?). Does changing the structure change the way humans behave? I think to an extent, yes. But I think the problem isn’t only around systems and institutions. It is also about the question of human nature. Are humans inherently violent or peaceful? Are humans fundamentally selfish? There is in fact, a long debate which yes, comes from “white people”: Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If anything, they are the most famous figures who were well known for founding contemporary political philosophy. Both Hobbes and Rousseau had different views on the “State of Nature”, which is another word for pre-society. For Hobbes, the state of nature is egoist and self-serving which requires the law (i.e. government) to regulate people and their instincts. Pure state of nature is pure state of war because people will just run around or join together to oppose other groups of people and steal, murder, rape, etc. On the other hand, Rousseau thought that people are naturally peaceful and distant individuals who joined together to form “social contracts” so to fight against Nature. Basically, Hobbes thought the state of nature sucks and requires government to regulate the human instincts. Rousseau thought that government sucks, but we are stuck with it and must find a form of government that would give us the most freedom (I also didn’t explain John Locke who invented liberalism and is quite important in political phil.).

Even Sigmund Freud saw something very similar in Civilization and its Discontents where he famously said “homo homini lupus” to describe how communism will never work because “a man is a wolf to another man”. The problem I wish to show is the double bind on whether human behavior is the product of nature or nurture (a classic debate). On one hand, humans wants to satisfy their unending desires. Yet on the other hand, humans produces laws to limit their desires to create “equality” so that one person won’t take everything for themselves (this obviously didn’t work out so well). One can implement a law, but they cannot force people to follow them. Hence, violence and riots will rupture through people’s discontents with the law because they seek to satisfy their own desires. It is almost like watching the movie, The Platform when the protagonist and his cellmate rides down the levels to reinforce the law and make people ration food for the lower levels who are starving. When helping one of the inmates from the lower levels, the inmate tells them that he will cut his cellmate’s stomach open and eat the food that the protagonist had fed them with. Why does he think like that? Is this phenomenon related to nature or nurture? Do animals do this? Do they fight for food to survive in the same way that humans do? What about all the inmates who excessively eat beyond their needs and not leaving enough for others? Is that an animal instinct or human behavior?

When I was in Hong Kong in 2014, I got a chance to physically experience what was at the time, a more peaceful protest—long before it transformed into riots later down the road. My family in Hong Kong is really big. Some of them supported the protests while others didn’t. One of my uncle was a detective who was extra sensitive and opinionated with the issue. This was because he had to join the riot police force to help out on the streets. It was interesting because I still remembered him telling me about it. He was very concerned about these young protesters in regards to their safety. As a police, he expressed similar concerns to the protesters in regards to democracy and freedom of speech, but condemned the protester’s way of handling the issue through violence (I agree with him in many ways; but another question is at stake here: Will China listen if people did not riot? And even when people are rioting, China is not really listening). Of course this is just my story of his account, and there are many more out there where police brutality actually happens. What I am trying to get at is that there is always two sides of the story. In fact, there is always more than two sides of the story. Always.

I recently spoke about the BLM protests with a good friend of mine who I think is incredibly smart (much smarter than me). He made a good point in regards to the question for social change. Does the apparently “bad” image of rioting outweigh the positive social change that might happen? Is rioting the only way to make social change happen? It is obvious that, when the Other does not listen, people will get violent. What I mean by the “Other” is two fold: on one hand, I am speaking in psychoanalytic language of the super-ego that imposes the law on the subject (what does the Other want? In this case, people’s violent responses to the government who is not listening are quite literally the symptom of repression). On the other hand, I am also speaking about Levinian ethics in regards to how one should treat another person face to face. Nevertheless, I am not sure if I have an immediate answer to my friend’s questions. Only the future can tell us whether or not the protester’s actions were radical enough to change anything.

Let me simply say that if humans were perfect in every sense of the word, communism would had worked on the first try. Even capitalism would work. But the truth is that none of us are perfect because we are so caught up in our own desires and egos. We are caught up in our desire for a truth that we seek to impose onto everyone else. As human beings, we are far from perfect and this is something that I think Marx had forgot about. It is as Badiou would had said: the idea of communism had always been perfect, but always failed in practice (remember that Marx reversed Hegelian Idealism). Why does Badiou, who is probably one of the most famous communist today, call for the resurrection of the idea of communism?

To give some form of verdict on BLM and Hong Kong. We need a different form of logic that is not the logic of exclusion. What we need most today is not just a revolution in the Marxist sense—of protesters attempting to change the structure. We also need the revolution of forgiveness and the revolution of love and infinite respect for the Other. All of this must be done without any particularities. Hence, I am not just talking about the protesters who should forgive the police, I am also talking about the police and the people in “power” and everyone to forgive everyone else. Only by doing this can we produce change. For me, this is what I consider as radical because such revolution is not only beyond the law, it is also impossible to achieve-–it is a madness of the impossible. Can you ask the family member of a victim to forgive the criminal who murdered their son? None of this will ever happen once you consider things like trauma (generational, etc.), human nature, and desire.

I still recall in Beast & the Sovereign, Derrida famously shared his vision of utopia where the world should never be an “eye for an eye”, but where everyone confessed. People often like to talk about Derrida through the lens of Husserl, Lacan, or Heidegger, even when he was incredibly influenced by two of Rousseau’s autobiographies called Confessions and the Reveries of the Solitary Walker—long before he wrote his masters thesis on Husserl’s phenomenology. Why can’t confessions and autobiographies be philosophy? Especially when the events that occurred in our lives influence the things that we do or not do in it?

I am an idea person. Some people might think that by talking about ideas, I am avoiding the question of race or identity or that I am trying to not “risk my future career in academia” (which I already said I couldn’t care less about; all institutions are problematic). What I am trying to get at is more originary than race and identity. I am trying to understand the fundamental roots of what allows a human being to say, “this is who I am”. What allows us to proclaim an identity is that we are first and foremost, human beings who exists in the world. To put this in another way (a Lockean way), we are all born into this world as a blank slate. I am trying to get at the root of how human beings conceive of the fabric of reality and produce truths, identity, cultural and racial differences. I think this is one of the things that most people don’t understand about me. This is not just a theory. It is the philosophy of philosophy.

At the end of the day, I want people to get along. And I want to spend my birthday to think about these issues and spread some love to everyone. In one of my undergraduate ethics class, my teacher taught me a lot about the structures that we inhabit which forces us to participate in structural violence (something as simple as buying groceries). What I learnt was that nobody is innocent. Nobody. Not even the people who are protesting on the streets, the people who are fighting for justice, or the people in power. Not me, not you. We also have no choice but to be thrown into this world. We don’t get to choose when or where we are born. We don’t get to choose the color of our skin. In our world today, it almost feels like we have forgotten what it means to be human; to confront our own finitude of being human and understand its singularity as we encounter other human beings who are just like us. It is as Jean-Paul Sartre had once said: everything has been figured out, except for how to live.

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation

Future Space, Future Time, and the Finitude of Being Human

Today, I would like to talk about one of the immutable conditions of human existence: space and time. The fact that human beings along with every object in this universe are always situated within spacetime is not only true in physics, it is also true in philosophy. You are always situated somewhere in the world in time because you live in a certain space in a certain time.

However, space and time should not be conceived as a synthetic concept that is taught. If I tell you to imagine a ball, this ball might be floating in your head, or is sitting on a table. The ball in your mind is always already situated in a certain spacetime without any effort. This is what Immanuel Kant famously refer as “pure intuition”. To say that space and time are pure intuition is to argue that it is not something that is taught to us like other synthetic concepts such as language. Pure intuition is something that comes naturally to humans and animals who are always, in certain ways, aware of their spatial-temporal world around them.

In the history of philosophy, Kant’s notion of pure intuition was profoundly influential. But what Kant was also known for was the relationship between the subject’s experience of spacetime and the empirical appearances of objects around them. Near the end of his famous book called the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant points out how humans can never know any object “in itself”. He asserts that we can only experience the phenomena of the world, but never the noumenal object.

Kant’s idea stems from a very simple fact that the world can only be experienced from our own conscious perspective as spatial-temporal objects appears before our perceptions. As humans, we can only categorize our perceptions of these spatial-temporal objects through our own minds. This is simply because we are never other objects around us. I am never the cup on the table, or I am never your consciousness when I talk to you. For example, when I have a conversation with another human being, I can only communicate with them through language without ever taking the position of the other human being (to communicate is to indicate, to signify or produce words). I can certainly imagine what it is like to be in the other person’s shoes, but this is only possible because I am imagining this perspective through my own consciousness (empathy). It is by categorizing our perceptions of these things-in-themselves from the world where knowledge gets recognized (i.e. the appearance of the cup of water as H2O, etc.). We can even study our own consciousness by detaching ourselves away from it and look at it as an “object”. This new “secondary” consciousness that arises is famously known as “transcendental consciousness” or “transcendental ego”.

Counter-arguing against this Kantian insight of the in itself is not only difficult to achieve, it is also a very ambitious move. The moment one says that we can know an object in itself in the absolute sense, we are already caught in our own categorization of the in itself.

* * *

While maintaining these Kantian insights, I would now like to digress into deconstruction. Many people tend to understand Jacques Derrida through “meaning effects” where the meaning of words are not completely stable (this is a popular American interpretation of Derrida—even renown French thinkers like Bruno Latour falls into this category). Certainly, I have introduced this idea many times throughout my previous posts by showing how the meaning of words depends on context and are always deferred and changes through time. What I would like to add to this argument is the problem of communication and interpretation in relationship with spacetime that Derrida always emphasized on in numerous texts (I wrote about this here). As a reader, the encounter of language is the encounter of the in itself.

Derrida’s emphasizes on communication to point out a misalignment of communication between two people. Language functions like this Kantian in itself where our interpretations of words consists of this categorization of meaning through the play of difference. This is why there are infinite ways of reading a book or interpretation to any events. It is like how you are reading this text trying to understand what I am trying to say. Language is what humans have in common with each other. Yet, language is also the gap that functions as the communication between two people. For Derrida, the way we interpret any forms of language is profoundly influenced by the way the person experiences time (such as their own history).

The experience of time is the most important aspect of Derrida’s thoughts. Famous ideas like “Trace” and “Differance” are situated in relationship with time. This is because it is the differences in the movement of time that constitutes subjectivity and identity. To be is to be in time. But we must not mistake this with Giorgio Agamben’s concept of time (contemporary) where he privileges the subject who is capable of dividing time by recalling the unlivable past into the present. Derrida’s concept of time opposes to Agamben in the sense that it is not the subject who divides time, but time which divides the subject. In short, as a human being, we are always situated in time. It is as Heidegger would refer as a human being who is always thrown into the world—to a being-in-the-world (Dasein; “being-there”). It is our job as a human being to figure out our relationship with the world, such as our relationship with objects around us; the tools, technology, language, other people, etc. We cannot choose the time we are born in. We are simply thrown into the world within a certain time.

Time is strange in the sense that the present moment is always sliding into the past. The present is a gap in relationship between the past and future. The importance is to understand that past and future are not exclusive to each other. The past is influenced by the future becoming of time (the future changes how the past is perceived). It is “becoming” because the future remains contingent and beyond our own finite predictions. Future time is infinite and lies beyond our grasp. I won’t spend much time dwelling on this idea today because I have spoke about this in my other posts (they are in my popular post menu). What I wish to emphasize on is Derrida’s notion of the future—of what he refer as the unconditional encounter of future time which may come to radically change how we interpret the past. Derrida’s conception of past and future consists of a repetition of the same (iterability) that is never identical to each other. The present is never in the past nor the future. Yet it repeats as a form of retentional difference with the future and to infinity.

As Derrida himself had said in Of Grammatology, identity is about the “becoming time of space and the becoming space of time”. The emphasis should be placed on the word “becoming” because it alludes to the infinite future becoming of spacetime which influences the way we interpret language and objects around us. Many people tend to speak of space and time as if they are distinct from each other. But they are not. Space is in time, and time is in space.

* * *

Let us maintain this Kantian insight that we can never know anything in itself and the Derridean idea that to interpret the in itself such as language, one inevitably categorizes meaning in their own unique ways through differential experiences of spacetime (because we all have different histories and experiences). Communication becomes a form of misalignment of meanings because we can never access the in itself (hence, Slavoj Zizek’s essay was called “Philosophy is not a Dialogue” in Philosophy in the Present because a philosopher is essentially talking to themselves via their own solitude). The question that I would like to postulate is whether we can understand the foreigner’s perspective as they express their “language” to us (we find examples of this in novels like Foe by Coetzee, where the protagonist attempts to interpret a black slave who cannot speak). On one hand, if colonizers attempts to understand the foreigner by interpreting them, we are making an attempt to categorize their language into our own systems without ever understanding them in the absolute sense. Yet, on the other hand, the only way to understand the foreigner is through our interpretation and categorizations of their language.

Hence, Emmanuel Levinas would invent an ethics right in between phenomenology and categorization (interpretation) of the other. In many ways, Levinas’ thoughts are paradoxical in the sense that his ethics asks human beings to avoid categorizing and interpreting the foreigner and focus on the phenomenological face to face ethics. Yet on the other hand, the face to face relation between humans consists of bodily acts which are a form of language that is subject to interpretation by the other (i.e. body language, micro expressions, etc.). Nevertheless, it is this interpretation of the other’s language that makes it impossible to understand the other. Thus for Levinas, one must rely on a phenomenological face to face ethical encounter of the other.

But is it possible to understand non-Western ideologies as a Western person? To understand the other (in itself) is to interpret. Interpretation always consists of a form of originary violence where the subject is forced into a temporally contingent and differential relationship with the foreigner’s language (when I say language, I am thinking about speech, writing and acts). This is one of the reasons why deconstruction is about “destruktion” (Heideggerian term)—a “shaking up” of the meaning of texts by the one who interprets the foreign language.

When one cites and makes an interpretation of foreign marginalized language, it is much more than just exposing their work to others and make their voices heard in a hierarchical system that privileges certain individuals over others. The act of interpretation of the other and citing them marks an act of violence because one is categorizing them through their own ontologies and histories. Interpretation is the necessary act of violence towards the other in an attempt to understand them. This is why interpretation (deconstruction) of the foreigner is inevitably tied to spacetime. How we interpret and categorize the object (i.e. the foreigner’s language) depends on how we are situated in space and time, such as our unique history.

Just as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s natural man interprets nature and uses unnatural ways to produce fire, humans have come to produce writing and technologies as a radical outside which supplements what Nature cannot offer us (wrote about this here). Interpretation is a primordial and originary violation of nature via the interpretative act of humans. It is an act that is forced upon the in itself. For example, if you read Of Grammatology, Derrida will talk about Claude Levi-Strauss and the act of violence that is produced when the anthropologist walks into the Amazon rain forest and interprets the Namibikwara tribe’s language (like how a scholar interprets another culture, for example). The most originary form of violence is found in this “third observer” (anthropologist) who interprets the tribe. By doing so, I am inevitably interpreting the other (foreigner; in itself) and categorizing them in my own way. This is the fundamental problem between humans and the object in itself. We are all mediators and translators (I recommend a book called Of Hospitality by Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle).

But does this mean that we should avoid understanding the other? Absolutely not. It is our ethical responsibility to understand them just as it is our responsibility to understand our own relation with the world—of being-in-the-world. But we must also recognize that our interpretation of the other is a necessary violence (of what Derrida calls, “arche-violence”). The conflicts of the world are born from our play in differences and our misaligned communication of the other—of interpreting the object in itself. This is what produces the discourse of politics, truth, and worldly issues. What I am trying to get at is that we should interpret the other in such a way that allows for the ethical opening of the other from the future—to allow for the other’s response from the future. Such opening up to the future is a risk that the subject takes. It is an open wound that allows for contingencies and possibilities to unfold. Hence, when Derrida was asked about world conflicts, he says:

“An opening up is something that is decided. One cannot force someone to speak or to listen; this is where the question of faith returns…Peace is only possible when one of the warring sides takes the first step, the hazardous initiative, the risk of opening up dialogue, and decides to make the gesture that will lead not only to an armistice but to peace.” [the opening up is decided because one is always situated and divided by the movement of time; we are always situated in spacetime].

* * *

If I have been making detours for so long, juxtaposing Kantian insight of the in itself with Derridean language and the Levinian ethics, what I have been trying to get us to think about is our finitude of being human. Much of 20th century French philosophy is marked by this finitude—this limit of knowledge and our experiences with the world, otherness, and the in itself (“the end of philosophy”). It is through our finite experience of the in itself where we recognize the contingency of the infinite. As human beings, we are very limited to what we are capable of understanding. We are literally—as what one of my professor said—dancing in our shackles. We are dancing in our own finitude and this is what produces the movement of life.

Truths are determined by our finite experiences of the world (i.e. interpreting the world). Truth becomes multiple. Truth is absolute in so far that it is finite, but also as singularity within everyone of us. But it is this very limit where we must recognize the infinite. Not only do we see this limit in Derrida and Levinas, we also see this in Alain Badiou and Jacques Lacan. For example, Lacan’s notion of the “Real” comes from Kant’s notion of the in itself. Much of Lacanian psychoanalysis is a relationship with the subject’s unconscious desires with society (i.e. language). Meanwhile, Badiou clearly sees the encounter of the radical in itself through the event—an event marked by infinite contingencies that ruptures out of the norm; like the infinite contingencies of the future that Derrida speaks. We even see this theme of contingency in Stephane Mallarme’s famous poem, “The Throw of the Dice Does Not Abolish Chance”. The moment I throw the dice and wish for it to land on a six, it actually lands on a four. The future becoming of time is otherly, contingent and infinite—something that the subject is always situated in.

Nevertheless, what I would like to highlight is this influence of Kantianism. To exist is to understand our limits as human beings in relationship with the world and other people. While famous philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche was a huge critic of Kant, he still agreed to Kant’s insight that we can never know anything in itself. Kant is central to many contemporary theoretical debates and to the understanding of many “continental philosophy” in 20th century (European philosophy).

Just look at contemporary movements like Speculative Realism where you see scholars like Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux who attempts to reverse Kantian ideas. In fact, there is a reason why Meillassoux’s famous book is called After Finitude: an Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (Meillassoux was Badiou’s student). The book was written to challenge 250 years of Kantianism and the recognition of finitude that is found in continental philosophy. Can we know anything in itself? Or are we just finite beings who are always caught in our own consciousness while we create synthetic concepts to represent objects around us?

* * *

Let us conclude by understanding this opening of the future encounter of otherness through Derrida’s notion of forgiveness. If interpretation is an inevitable act of violence, then what can we say about the forgiveness of such violence? If I attempt to understand the other by interpreting them and always produce a misalignment of communication—of never understanding them completely (the Kantian in itself), how could we speak of forgiveness? What does it mean to know something about someone without ever becoming the other? Will the other respond to my words if I write to them? Will they reject my interpretation of their language? Will they consider my interpretation of their language to be violent? How would I know if we understood each other when we are each other’s other? Or will they destroy me through an act of evil? If the other decides to produce acts of violence upon me, can I ever forgive the other? What does it mean to forgive someone unconditionally?

For Derrida, unconditional forgiveness is not found in any finite concepts of amnesty or conditional laws. To forgive is to forgive the unforgivable. Forgiveness is not normal because it is exceptional, infinite, and impossible. True forgiveness is not related to political institutions and any forms of power. Unconditional forgiveness can only be thought through the infinite rupture of the future becoming of space and time. In the lecture, Derrida asks, when we forgive the other, are we forgiving someone, or are we forgiving something about someone? (in the same way that Derrida talks about love here). But unlike his famous argument that meanings are always deferred through differences of time which “never arrives at its destination”, Derrida suggests that unconditional forgiveness is one of the only things that arrives.

Unconditional forgiveness is a rupture from opening up to the future other. Just as one might unconditionally love someone regardless of who they might become in the future. To unconditionally forgive the other is to walk into the future blindfolded—without knowing what the future other will do to us; without ever knowing what the future holds because it is contingent. Thus, true forgiveness is the madness of the impossible.

“Must one not maintain that an act of forgiveness is worthy of its name, if there ever is such a thing, must forgive the unforgivable and without condition? And that such unconditionality is also inscribed, like its contrary, namely the condition of repentance, in ‘our’ heritage? Even if this radical purity can seem excessive, hyperbolic, mad? Because if I say, as I think, that forgiveness is mad, and that it must remain a madness of the impossible, this is certainly not to exclude or disqualify it. It is even perhaps the only thing that arrives, that surprises, like a revolution, the ordinary course of history, politics, and law. Because that means that it remains heterogeneous to the order of politics or of the juridical as they are ordinarily understood. […]

Yet, despite all the confusions which reduce forgiveness to amnesty or to amnesia, to acquittal or prescription of the work of mourning or some political therapy of reconciliation, in short to some historical ecology, it must never be forgotten, nevertheless, that all of that refers to a certain idea of pure and unconditional forgiveness, without which this discourse would not have the least meaning. What complicates the question of ‘meaning’ is again what I suggested a moment ago: pure and unconditional forgiveness, in order to have its own meaning, must have no ‘meaning’, no finality, even no intelligibility. It is a madness of the impossible. […]

Must we not accept that, in the heart or in reason, above all when it is a question of ‘forgiveness’, something arrives which exceeds all institution, all power, all juridico-political authority? We can imagine that someone, a victim of the worst, himself, a member of his family, in his generation of the preceding, demands that justice to be done, that the criminals appear before a court, be judged and condemned by a court—and yet in his heart, forgives.”

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation

Meaning as Soliloquy: Responding to Criticisms of Deconstruction

Recently, I encountered an old blog post that was written by David Auerbach who levels a series of criticism on Derrida straw manning Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. Auerbach’s blog post (hyperlinked above) critiques one of Derrida’s most important book, Voice and Phenomenon. Many late Derridean ideas are based on V&P—particularly when it comes to the constitution of consciousness through “tracing” the past and future; and other ideas such as life and death. Keep in mind that this post focus fires on specific passages from V&P and does not account for the entire scope of the book. Maybe one day, I will write a more elaborate reading of V&P because it is one of Derrida’s most sophisticated work.

In V&P, one of the things Derrida talks about is the German word “bedeutung” (and “bedeuten”) and its relationship with what Husserl calls “indication” and “expression”. Indication is what Husserl refers as a sign that “points”. A good example of indication is to think of how these external words on this blog post are always “pointing” to something in your mind. Whereas on the other hand, expression is the ideal meaning that these indications are pointing to. Indication and expression are signs that are experienced once we have performed phenomenological reduction which is also known as “bracketing” or transcendental / eidetic reduction. Phenomenological reduction is a concept which asks us to suspend our introspection, language, and knowledge in order to experience the world as pure phenomena from our own first person point of view (I introduced this in my last post).

For Derrida, expression consists of many different meanings because it depends on our intentionality and what each indicated words are pointing to. This is because expression (meaning) is also complicated by what Husserl calls “noema” or “noemata” (plural), a term that is responsible for producing our intentionality (noema is also known as “act-matter”). Whenever we read, speak or write, our consciousness always conscious of something which “points” to an “ideal object”. The noema are the objects that are given to my conscious experiences.

Furthermore, indication / expression is also entangled with Ferdinand de Saussure’s signifier and signified. This is because indication also means “acoustic image” which is similar to Saussure’s concept of the signifier: something that he calls “sound image” (I have explained this here). Derrida provides readings of signifier / signified in relationship with indication / expression in both Voice and Phenomenon and Of Grammatology. Indication is also related to how you are silently talking to yourself in your head as you read this sentence. This phenomenon is known as “auto-affection” or “hearing your self speak” (commonly known as internal monologue). “Silent reading” is never silent because we are always talking to ourselves in our minds when we read (and when we write; or in deep thought).

Now, the clever move Derrida makes in V&P lies in how he intentionally avoids translating the word “bedeutung” until later in the book. Without knowing what this German word means, the reader would ask “What does bedeutung point to?” (i.e. what does bedeutung mean?). Instead of translating “bedeutung” into “meaning” (expression), Derrida translates bedeutung into “want-to-say”. As a reader who probably does not know what “bedeutung” means, the word points to the expressive meaning of “wanting to say something about something”. Here, bedeutung becomes the prime example of showcasing the function of indication through the reader’s mind as they read Derrida’s book. It also highlights the “ideality of sense” that is found within the phenomenological experience of such word.

We now have sufficient information to understand some of Auerbach’s arguments who  says, “Husserl believes that within the realm of thought and phenomenology, indication does not have a role to play, and so phenomenology only needs to deal with expression.” Auerbach is correct that Husserl is primarily concerned with expressions (meanings). This is because once we suspend introspection via phenomenological reduction, only external indication and internal expression exists. Without introspection, language, or any knowledge, everything around us function as “things” (noema) that points to something in our minds.

But Auerbach continues and writes, “For me, the meaning is prior to the words, and so I don’t need to worry about what my words indicate.” First, we must understand that words are indications. What these indicative words point to are its expression (meaning). In this case, “meaning” as an indication consists of more indications that points to the meaning of “meaning”. It doesn’t matter if meanings (expressions) are prior to indication. All expressive meanings consists of indications that are used to describe the said meaning. Thus on one hand, we have a never ending chain of indications (words) pointing to all sorts of possible meanings depending on its grammar and syntax. On the other hand, we also have a never ending chain of “meanings” which points to certain indications or words that are used to describe it. If you search the indicative word “meaning” in the dictionary, you will find out that its definition also consists of more indicative words which points to other meanings.

Let us look at the quote Auerbach cites. He begins his blog post by citing a passage from V&P in the chapter called, “The Voice that Keeps Silent”. I think Auerbach is reading the first translation by David B. Allison, and I have the newer translation by Leonard Lawlor from 2011. I will use the translation that Auerbach uses:

“The ideal form of a written signifier, for example, is not in the world, and the distinction between the grapheme and the empirical body of the corresponding graphic sign separates an inside from an outside, phenomenological consciousness from the world. And this is true for every visual or spatial signifier. And yet every non-phonic signifier involves a spatial reference in its very “phenomenon,” in the phenomenological (nonworldly) sphere of experience in which it is given. The sense of being “outside,” “in the world,” is an essential component of its phenomenon. Apparently there is nothing like this in the phenomenon of speech. In phenomenological interiority, hearing oneself and seeing oneself are two radically different orders of self-relation. Even before a description of this difference is sketched out, we can understand why the hypothesis of the “monologue” could have sanctioned the distinction between indication and expression only by presupposing an essential tie between expression and phone. Between the phonic element (in the phenomenological sense and not that of a real sound) and expression, taken as the logical character of a signifier that is animated in view of the ideal presence of a Bedeutung (itself related to an object), there must be a necessary bond. Husserl is unable to bracket what in glossematics is called the “substance of expression” without menacing his whole enterprise. The appeal to this substance thus plays a major philosophical role.”

(For those who has Lawlor’s translation, this is on p. 65-66).

Allow me to unpack this dense and convoluted paragraph for you. Derrida points out how the ideal form of the written signifier is not in the external world because it is in our head. Thus, the internal mental image we have in our head when we read (the ideal form), which is different to the empirical body of writing that appears on this page, creates the distinction between inside and outside. For example, the image of a tree in my mind is different to the graphic form of the word “tree” in this sentence because I am imagining a specific image / meaning of a tree in mind. While the indicative words you are reading in this sentence are external to your mind and body (because they are on your computer or phone screen), its ideal meanings (expression) reveals itself inside your mind. Thus, phenomenology consists of a separation between “an inside from an outside”. 

Derrida continues and talks about a “phenomenological interiority” that is associated with “hearing yourself speak” and points out how it is different from looking at yourself in the mirror. Such interiority and the possibility of hearing yourself speak as you read this text is different to hearing a “real sound” made in the external world. Derrida ends the paragraph by saying that “expression” (meaning) is produced by an indication (bedeutung), such as the indicative word “expression” that you had just read in your head. Finally, Derrida points out that Husserl fails to phenomenologically reduce glossematics known as “substance of expression”. 

To understand the last sentence, we must recognize how Louis Hjelmslev (a famous linguist) respectively re-conceptualizes Saussure’s signifier and signified into “expression plane” and “content plane”. If Husserl’s indication is equivalent to Saussure’s signifier, then the meaning (expression) of “indication” can also point to the “expression plane” within Hjelmslev’s discourse. For Derrida, Husserl fails to phenomenologically reduce the expression plane that his concept of indication also points to. Here, we begin to see how the indication of the word “indication” functions as a bedeutung that points to all sorts of meanings within different discourses.

Let us read what Derrida writes just slightly before the passage Auerbach cited:

The voice hears itself. Phonic signs (“acoustics images” in Saussure’s sense, the phenomenological voice) are “heard” by the subject who utters them in the absolute proximity of their present. The subject does not have to pass outside of himself in order to be immediately affected by its activity of expression. My words are “alive” because they seem not to leave me, seem not to fall outside of me, outside of my breath, into a visible distance; they do not stop belonging to me, to be at my disposal, “without anything accessory.” In any case in this way, the phenomenon of the voice, the phenomenological voice is given. […] Nevertheless every non-phonetic signifier [i.e. writing] involves, right within its “phenomenon” within the phenomenological sphere of experience in which it is given, a spatial reference; the sense of “outside”, “in the world” is an essential component of its phenomenon. In appearance, there is nothing like that in the phenomenon of the voice. (Lawlor’s translation, p. 65) [Derrida’s italics]

Here, Derrida is trying to deny Husserl’s “phenomenological reduction” (Derrida also denies identity as something that exists in the present moment). Where Husserl thinks we can temporarily suspend introspection to experience the phenomena of the world through our senses and pure consciousness, Derrida thinks it is not completely possible. This is not only because Husserl fails to reduce Hjelmslev’s glossematics, it is also because introspection still exists as a form of indication or bedeutung that is given to us in our mind. Even after we “suspend” our own introspection so to experience the world “as such”, we still have a bunch of indications / bedeutung left which makes us ask: “what do these indications want to say?” in our mind. In a way, it is this very question which produces the discourse of phenomenology. Husserl fails to phenomenologically reduce introspection such as our ability to communicate with ourselves.

Introspection consists of indications which appears internally as we hear ourselves speak (to ourselves). When we study our own consciousness and internal monologue (i.e. phenomenology, or even psychoanalysis), we are communicating with ourselves by trying to extract what these indicative words that are buzzing through our conscious thoughts can mean (express) and vice versa. These are the fundamentals of thinking (about thinking). Internal monologue is a never ending chain of indications and expressions—it consists of a never ending chain of signifiers which are just words that passes from something to something else. This is because for Husserl, consciousness is always conscious of something, a chair, table, these words, etc.

In many ways, Auerbach summarizes what I had said:

“Derrida starts by discussing how, since the mind uses signs that have an indicative role, indication and expression cannot be separated. This is not a new point (Wittgenstein, amongst others, had spent much time here). But he then says, in passages such as the above [Derrida’s quote], that in fact, expression is dependent on indication and in fact expression is nothing more than indication. (The arguments here are fairly arcane and I will not go into them because I’m prepared to grant this point for the sake of my greater argument.) We now have a problem, because indication is incomplete: a sign points to something else, rather than containing any sort of meaning in itself. In other words, all mental relations must also be ones of indication and not of any other type. And since indication can only point to something else rather than contain innate meaning, that meaning is endlessly deferred.”

As we can see, Auerbach understood Derrida for the most part. Yet, he somehow misses Derrida’s point which ironically, is Derrida’s point (will get to this). Once again, expressions (meaning) are indicative because meanings consists of indications (words) that describes the said expressions. However, I would like to add that Derrida never argues how deferred meanings (differance) suggests that there are no meanings. But rather, meanings are never stable because they depend on our pluralities of intentionality which is influenced by time and repetition (iterability). It is not that indicative signs are incomplete. But rather, indication can point to more than one meaning (expression) depending on who reads it, how and when they read it (the time period), and in what context they situate such indications / expressions in.

To understand Derrida’s emphasis on expression as being “dependent” on indication, we must return to the term “bedeutung” (indication) and its relationship with communication. If the reader does not know where bedeutung points to, it passes as a word that “wants to say something about something”. Essentially, indication points to how we interpret words like “bedeutung”—especially when we do not know its expressive meaning. How we interpret bedeutung—or any word for that matter—depends on where it points to. For example, does the word “bedeutung” (indication) point to Saussure’s “signifier” or Hjelmslev’s “substance of expression”? Does the word “life” point to the life of Western or Eastern cultures?

Above all else, if I want to express something to you, I can only do so by indicating it via the words on this page, I could also write you a letter, send you a text message, or speak to you in real person. In order to communicate to you, I must have these words pass through the physical side (real world) and it must always be subject to repetition (i.e. you can reread and recall what I said to you). On the other hand, I can also communicate to myself by talking to myself via speaking in my head (auto-affection), speak out loud, or by writing in my journal. In the latter case, communicating to myself would not involve my passing through the physical side (this phenomenon is very complex, I over simplified it here).

Regardless of whether I am communicating to you or to myself. To communicate is to indicate (which therefore consists of expressions of various “ideal senses”, meanings, etc.). As Derrida writes, “All discourse, insofar as it is engaged in a communication and in so far as it manifests lived-experience, operates as indication” (32). Communication involves the conscious intentional act of pointing towards a noematic object or idea that you have in mind via intuition (your intentionality). This pointing is what animates your words (indications) as you speak or write. This is where the problem of communication and interpretation arises: when the author’s words points to a noematic content that is different from the reader. Simply put, indication can point to an infinite number of expressive meanings. For Derrida, it always points to an “elsewhere” that the original author did not intend (due to a number of reasons such a temporality, context, etc.). In fact, I have already shown many examples of this in my previous post on Lacan with the philosophers. I have also shown certain aspects of this in my other post, where I said that the author loses control of what her reader will think of their work the moment they share or publish it.

Perhaps one of the comments from Auerbach’s post, which cites Derrida’s essay “Signature Event Context” (from Margins of Philosophy) could give us some insight on this matter:

“Is it certain that there corresponds to the word communication a unique, univocal concept, a concept that can be rigorously grasped and transmitted: a communicable concept? Following a strange figure of discourse, one first must ask whether the word or signifier “communication” communicates a determined content, an identifiable meaning, a describable value. But in order to articulate and to propose this question, I already had to anticipate the meaning of the word communication: I have had to predetermine communication as the vehicle, transport, or site of passage of a meaning, and of a meaning that is one. If communication had several meanings, and if this plurality could not be reduced, then from the outset it would not be justified to define communication itself as the transmission of a meaning, assuming that we are capable of understanding one another as concerns each of these words (transmission, meaning, etc.).”

In this passage Derrida literally “points” (indicates) that one must ask whether the signifier / indication of the word “communication” can communicate (indicate) a determined or fixed meaning. In order for Derrida to make such statement, he already has an internal meaning (expression) of communication in mind. But if communication has more than one meaning, if it points or indicates to more than one expression—and if this plurality of multiple expressions cannot be reduced, then one cannot simply define communication as “the transmission of meaning”. The reader will always relate to such indications via different expressions and noematic contents, context, etc. Thus, to communicate is to always “misunderstand” the other person in certain ways (or as Kant would say, we can never know anything “in-itself”, including indicated words). As Slavoj Zizek once admits, philosophy is not a dialogue because it is always just a dialogue with ourselves (from Philosophy in the Present).

Misunderstanding becomes a form of understanding. The question is whether such misunderstanding is actually a “misunderstanding”. Here, we enter the discourse of not only deconstruction and phenomenology, but ontology: the study of being (existence). How does your interpretations of a novel, movie or event, reveal who you are as a human being? How does it inform your own existence? What does a text want to say to you? In what conditions is it possible? The letter never arrives at its destination. Meaning never arrives as intended.

Until next time,
B.

Standard
Contemplation

Is Deconstruction Part of the Canon?

Recently, one of my professors laid claim that deconstruction is part of the canon. While this might appear to be undeniably true, I wish for us to rethink the conditions of its possibilities. Anybody who knows me will understand that everything is always up for questioning and analysis. Even the ideas that I privilege and believe are true deserves to be questioned (in fact, this is how I got into theory and philosophy). I do not put any ideas on the pedestal. As long as the arguments and ideas has passed through rigorous  analysis and considerations, I will have great respect for them, even if they are against my views (Fred Moten, Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan are all very good examples). Neither will I ever be “politically correct” and become silenced by it. Only those who knows will understand why I am mentioning this in the first paragraph (it is a response to certain individuals). I wrote this post in 2 hours. So forgive my writing.

If we assume that deconstruction consists of a reproducible method, then I certainly think it is part of the canon—that is, deconstructive methodology suggests its canonical status because its reproducibility is accepted as part of mainstream history. However, if deconstruction is what Derrida refer as the lack of any methods, but is a destruktion and analysis, a “de-building” (to take apart and put back together); then we must spend the necessary time on defining “deconstruction”—an impossible task that requires some serious contemplation. Today, I would like to rethink whether or not deconstruction is part of the “canon”. But before we do such thing, I wish for us to quickly understand the word “canon” under the context of “genre”.

To say that deconstruction is part of the canon is to say that it belongs to the canon. The “canon” consists of a set of epistemological parameters or knowledge which helps us define what texts belongs to it and are deemed “canonical”. That is, canonicity stems from categorizations of texts that had been accepted as part of a certain history. Now, a precaution we must take: it is easy for us to think of the canon as some social construction created by hegemonic structures which takes us into politics. Let us for now, think of the bare bones of the canon as a concept that is similar to the concept of genre.

What appears in my mind when I think of the word “canon” is the epistemological structure of “genre”—that is, I am thinking about Derrida’s “Laws of Genre”, where he points out how individual texts participates in genre instead of belonging to it.  Derrida begins his difficult essay with a rather simple sentence: “genres are not to be mixed”. He continues and says, “I do not mix genres…as soon as the word ‘genre’ is sound, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn.”. This limit that Derrida speaks, is the way which genre functions as a conceptual limit when we read any texts. In other words, the concept of genre consists of a certain set of parameters and categorizations which sets itself up as the norm where texts participates within it. Derrida writes, “As soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly, or monstrosity.” (my italics). In this passage, Derrida is alluding to a certain form of logocentrism and metaphysics of presence where the privileging of the norm established by the concept of genre and canonical knowledge is haunted by an “impurity”: the law of genre.

What then, is the “law” of genre which governs its epistemology? This law should not be thought simply as the knowledge which governs what texts belongs to the genre or canon. Rather, this impurity of law is what Derrida refer as the “law of the law”: temporality (time). I am not going to put too much effort into explaining temporal consciousness, for I have already done so many times else where and here. I will simply summarize that: the future changes how the past is perceived—something which I will return to next post when I talk about deconstruction and psychoanalysis. Without going through other unnecessary concepts such as iterability (repetition), I will say that the future contaminates our epistemology (knowledge) of genre and canon. Norms that are defined by genre and canon are constantly challenged by future time, the future becoming of time as we age and acquire new experiences; and as new knowledge unfolds through contingency and improvisation.

Before we move onto the question of deconstruction, let us consider the relationship between canon /  genre, and its epistemology which are in relevance to our time. A similar question can be found in Derrida’s essay, “What is Relevant Translation?”. It is not surprising that epistemological (knowledge) structures changes over long periods of time. What was once considered as the norm in the 18th century is no longer the case from its future (i.e. today). I will talk more about this in my next post because this is where the problem between epistemology and temporality lies. Nevertheless, language too, functions similarly. The way we use words are different to the way people used it in the past. A word that might be offensive today, might not be the case in the past. The cultural significance of certain words also changes through time. For example, what we might consider as X today might be considered as Y back in the day, etc. What is defined as sexist today might not be the case 400 years ago, etc.

The point I wish to make is: what allows for a text to be relevant to the epistemological structures of genre and canon when its concepts changes over time? This question is difficult to answer because it depends on how each individual categorizes the concepts of genre and canon and the ways they allow the text they read to participate within such concepts. This is why, some people might think that X book belongs to Y genre, and someone else might say X is actually a Z genre and not Y. This is also why, instead of having literature and texts belonging to genres and canonical structures, it is literature which participates within certain epistemological frameworks of genre and canon within our time. This participation of the text depends on the ways which it engages the reader’s knowledge of genre and canon. Yet at the same time, the concept of genre / canon morphs over time, changing how we interpret literature and the way it fits into genre / canon categorizations. Genre and canon which are “not to be mixed”, are at last, mixed through the impure contamination of a radical future which challenges its episteme (i.e. established knowledge). This is the first problem.

The second problem is the question on deconstruction. In John D. Caputo’s introduction to deconstruction, a book called Deconstruction in a Nutshell, he points out how deconstruction is the nutshell. This claim shouldn’t be that surprising because I often point out how deconstruction is interpretation. Deconstruction is the nutshell because it is interpretation. Or as I mentioned at the beginning: deconstruction is a “de-building” (from Peggy Kamuf): where we take apart a text and put it back together. Is this not what we do when we read literature and decide what genre it participates in, or whether it belongs to the canon? Also, is this not what I am doing right now with terms like “canon” and “genre”?

This goes against the grain of many contemporary scholars, including say, my supervisor who thinks that deconstruction consists of a method, and that Derrideans such as Spivak, Bennington, or de Man, are pretending that deconstruction is without method. The mainstream definition of deconstruction is something as follows (to put it simply): deconstruction is an attempt to make close readings of a text by looking at its “binaries” and discover that the author is actually not saying what they think they are saying.

What I wish to add onto this overly simplified interpretation of “deconstruction” (basically, an interpretation of interpretation) is that it largely ignores some of its ontological and phenomenological implications. Interpretation also consists of the problem of intentionality that is challenged by time and the question of existence as a human being. I won’t have time to go over these problems today. What I wish to highlight is the contradiction between “deconstruction” and “canon”.

A paradoxical gesture. To call deconstruction (interpretation) as something which participates within the canon, we are saying that the act of interpretation is participating in the concept of genre and canon. But if this is the case, then shouldn’t all texts be part of the canon, since they all require interpretation? This would depend on how one categorizes the text through their own episteme (knowledge). There are other problems to this, such as the idea that only certain ways of interpreting a text would allow it to participate into certain canon / genres. On the other hand, by claiming deconstruction as canonical, we are also saying that the act of interpreting “deconstruction” or any text, is participating in the production of the concept of canon which gets challenged by future time.

For now, this is one of the only ways which I can accept deconstruction as being part of the canon. I certainly think that I have only scratched the surface where I might change my mind in the “future to come” (pun intended). But I got other things to do. I will leave my somewhat inconclusive conclusion for you to ruminate about.

Until next time,
B.

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation

Recalling Lost Memories: Deconstruction, Decolonization and Black Slavery

Last night, I woke up at 2:30am where I was reminded of an event that occurred three years ago, when I was unofficially auditing university courses (2016-2017ish). At the time, I was a ghost, a specter, who lived inside the classrooms of my local university. Of course, nobody knew I wasn’t an official student categorized by the institution. In fact, I fit in quite well. Nobody knew I was a ghost, but that was the point. However, I will admit that my feelings of exclusion still remains till this day at a certain level. This is probably due to my strange set of specialized knowledge that not many people understand. It is a set of knowledge that I live by in practice because I consider myself a Derridean in certain ways. But what does being a Derridean even mean? I have a new post on Derrida that I will share in a few days / next week. It will talk about communication and differences in relationship with nature, culture, and writing (you can find it here).

At my local university, I sat in many philosophy classes that spoke about a diverse range of subjects. I read G.W.F. Hegel, Barbara Cassin, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Simone de Beauvoir, and many more. I also attended film theory courses and learnt how the movie theater is basically a replication of Plato’s cave. The professor for this film theory class was very kind to me. She bought me coffee and made me felt like I belonged somewhere. She was a Heideggerian film scholar and we spoke a lot about one of my favorite authors: Roland Barthes.

Out of all these classes, I audited a big two-semester length 300 level course on literary theory with a professor who is now my supervisor for my Master’s research project. I was surprised that he was so supportive of me and my personal intellectual endeavors in doing my masters. But he was also surprised at how much I knew about Derrida when I let him read some of my writings on him. This writing became my sample essay for grad applications.

I remembered during one of our lectures on post-colonialism, a TA (Teaching Assistant; PhD student) did a presentation on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I remembered a line where he confidently said:

“Deconstruction leads to decolonization.”

No offense, the first thing that popped up in my mind was whether he read enough of Derrida because the claim was bold and in my humble opinion, not “entirely” possible (will get to this). His statement made me wonder if he really understood deconstruction because he spoke of deconstruction as if it was a method, even when it isn’t. He also spoke of deconstruction as if it had a specific telos (end goal; i.e. to decolonize), which is not true at all since it utilizes “free play”. Strangely enough, this notion of free play does have decolonizing motifs because it is related to Claude Levis-Strauss’ book, The Savage Mind and his concept of “bricolage”.

I guess maybe he wasn’t expecting that a Derridean super nerd would be sitting among one hundred students in the lecture theater, silently judging him on his readings on one of the most esoteric thinkers of 20th century (Lol). To be sure, I’ve met many people who misread Derrida—including myself and other professors. In fact, I would say that Derrida is one of the most loved, hated, and misunderstood intellectual figures of 20th century. This leads to a question that I will talk about in my next post: “What is misunderstanding?”.

Regardless, this bold claim made by the TA relates to my current graduate seminar that I am enrolled in which talks about marginalized people. Earlier in the semester, we read a book called The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper where she spoke about a story of a real Canadian black slave woman named Angelique. At the end of the book, Cooper talks about black liberation and how they were able to get proper education and share their slave narratives through (phonetic) writing.

Perhaps one can already see where the problem lies: Can a marginalized person of color proclaim their liberation by speaking through the language of their colonizers? 

I’m pretty sure those who are familiar with my numerous readings of Derrida that I’ve done on this blog could predict that I was going to ask this question. In fact, it was Spivak who first proposed this problem in her famous essay: “Can the Subalterns Speak?”. In it, she recognizes this very problem where in order for the voices of marginalized people to be heard, they must speak through the language of their colonizers. Of course, this is not always the case—especially when colonizers learn the marginalized language and attempts to understand their identities, cultures and traditions. But it certainly feels like the latter is less likely than the former in our increasingly globalized world.

Spivak’s claims are assuming that language influences the way we see the world. Thus in order to answer this question, one must consider whether language changes how we experience time (or how we think in general). Let us for the moment, take a look at one of the most famous linguistic theories known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Those who had watched the film Arrival would know what the theory is about. The hypothesis suggests that language influences the way humans experience time. This theory began by studying the Hopi language (Google, “Hopi controversy”) and was later proven to be false by other linguists. Recently however, there had been linguists who suggests that language does influence how we perceive time, but not in the way Sapir and Whorf had thought.

But there is a more cultural and historical dimension to language that we must consider. This is the idea that the words within language consists of many historical implications which establishes its meaning as such. I am thinking in particular to the etymologies of words. Language carries specific strands of histories within it. As we speak the language, we are also in a way, practicing its culture, its play between words, etc.

Another consideration is through the complicated psychoanalytic dimensions. For those who read my Lacanian post on the wound of split subjectivity, speaking and writing requires the subject to “give up” or “repress” their desires in order to fit into the laws of whatever language that they are articulating. Thus, the so called “liberated” subject is in fact, filtered through the Symbolic Other. In this sense, slave narratives are deeply related to repression and the unconscious mind.

There is also another area that we should consider: the act of interpretation and how meanings are formed through differences within contextual structures. Obviously, this consideration is referencing Derrida, which takes us back to alluding Spivak (there are other great thinkers in this field such as Homi Bhabha and Edward Said that I won’t talk about here). For Derrida, meanings are produced in between words. This is why people often talk about deconstruction through “binary oppositions” because it is in between author / reader, speech / writing, etc. which produces meaning. I will talk more about this in my next post. But if we look at slave narratives from a Derridean perspective, the problem is that on one hand, the English language functions as their medium for liberation because they are able to express their stories (to be sure, this is certainly a good thing—at least on a practical level). But on the other hand, the English language usurps the subject by forcing them to practice a linguistic culture that is not their own. And is it strange that I am writing this post in English, even when I am Chinese? I have lots to say about this, but I don’t have time right now.

Last but not least, we should consider my current topic of interest / research: critical race theory. Especially the works by Fred Moten who I am currently obsessed with because I think he is an incredible thinker—particularly on sound theory. In Black and Blur (2017), Moten’s first chapter is titled “Not in Between” and the first sentence began with “Remembering the Present”. I smirked when I first read these because I was able to predict what he was going to say in regards to Derrida and people like Hegel. For your information, “Remembering the Present” means to remember the “present (past)” from “the future” (to come)—a Derridean allusion that Moten later indirectly addresses. In this book (and also in In the Break that I am currently reading), Moten makes an incredibly bold move in an attempt to shift beyond Derridean differences by pointing out what he calls “nonhesitation” or “improvisation” in between written sounds (words) [this improvisation is most prominently found in Jazz music which comes from African culture]. As mentioned, for Derrida, meaning is produced in between words. For Moten, the “African Voice” is produced “not-in-between” differences, but as a (radical) radical alterity beyond differences via the grammatical ruptures of written sounds and the spacings between them. Here, I enjoy the way he uses the word “spacing” because I don’t see many scholars utilize its importance, despite it being a prominent Derridean theme found in Of Grammatology.

As we can see, there are many theoretical problems that one must overcome in order to answer the (post)colonial question that I proposed. I spoke about some of these problems to my MA supervisor and he giggled at me saying that I won’t solve them in a graduate seminar due to its sheer difficulty. He was right. I am still in the middle of a lot of these ideas. But there is a very high chance that I will be writing about Fred Moten and his  relationship with literature and slave narratives for my final research paper in this class.

Anyways, I should get back to work.

Ciao.

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation

Destruktion, Deconstruction, and the End of History

This is my on-going close reading on some of Jacques Derrida’s most important seminars on Martin Heidegger between 1964-1965. It is within these seminars where Derrida first uses the word “deconstruction”. The post will introduce some of the basic goals of Heidegger’s philosophy and his famous notion of “the end of [Western] history”. This is a repost of an older one that I made last year. I reworked this post so much that it deserves to be recognized as new (because I got smarter—sort of). The reason for the rework is because I am currently rethinking the relationship between Heidegger, Derrida, and post-colonialism.

Regardless, much of Derrida’s deconstruction came from his readings on Heidegger’s unfinished work Sein und Zeit where he challenged its English translation as “Being and Time”. Derrida’s reading on this book happened when it was not completely translated into French, which made him use many of his own translations. In it, Derrida famously argues that Heidegger changed his intentions sixteen years later after publishing Sein und Zeit—which is known as “the turn”. Derrida’s entire project on “deconstruction” is an extension of Heidegger’s thoughts on the “destruktion” of history.

What Comes Before the Question?

Ontology is the study of “being” (human existence). The easiest way to understand Heidegger is to consider the question any theoretical physicist would ask: “What comes before the universe?” For Heidegger, it isn’t so much the answer than it is about the question itself. Heidegger is interested in what allows us to formulate this question in the first place. For Heidegger, asking a question always involves a certain form of being who precedes the question. To ask a question is to know what the question is—that there exists a question where one already knows parts of the answer to because it is guided by some form of being (later on, this “being” will be known as “Being”). In order for us to inquire about the universe, there is always already a being in the universe. It is because we first exist as a human being in the universe which allows us to question it (a question that is guided by the intentionality of being). In order for us to interrogate this being, one must already “know” something about it and exist within it.

It is not surprising that “What is being?” has been the most foundational question in history—particularly in philosophy. While this originary question can take many other forms (i.e. “What is the meaning of life?”), the importance is that a certain form of being had always been the main object of inquiry in human existence. To ask “What is love?”, one must already have some sense of the love being (i.e. to have the experienced it in some way, either sensually or emotionally). To ask “What is physics?”, one is already aware of their physical being. We always have some sense of being before one ventures out into some non-being by interrogating the very being that one has pre-comprehended through the question. There are many different beings who has different preferences on how they should “be” in this world. For example, scientific beings, mathematical beings, physical beings, biological beings, philosophical beings, literary being, sexual beings, psychological beings, etc.

The Problem on the History of Ontology 

If the being that we pre-comprehend is what establishes the question as such, what then, is “being”? This originary question marks the beginning of thought because it seeks for the most authentic form of being which precedes this question. But for Heidegger, one of the things that complicates and contaminates this question (i.e. the ways it is asked and answered) is the hegemony of Western history. For Heidegger, we have lost touch with being through the historical dominance of various cultural traditions, values and philosophical methods. It is thus, impossible to question being without answering it with some preconceived historical concept of being. One can even say that we have a prejudice and discrimination towards being due to the privilege of Western history (i.e. Eurocentrism).

This idea, which was first conceived in the early 20th century, influenced a discipline known as “post-colonialism” (in 1970s) which address the problems of colonialism and the dominance of colonist ideologies over marginalized people. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (who is a Derridean) was well known for transforming this Derridean reading of Heidegger into colonial theory. For Spivak, the “subalterns cannot speak” not only because they are victim to oppressive ideologies which they are not aware of (thus, prevents them from speaking), but because when we try to understand these marginalized people, we can only do so through our dominant Western historical tradition (i.e. we filter the things they say via our own privileged history). This problem is quite complex once we factor in Derridean / Heideggarian views on Dasein, temporality and Derrida’s lengthy engagements with Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind. Certainly, Spivak is also not an easy read due to her taking on Derrida’s project on deconstruction by attempting to “write against writing”.

A good example to showcase this colonial problem can be witnessed during Derrida’s later career (2001), where he points out that the Chinese “has no philosophy, but only thought”. While most people would probably get offended by this statement, Derrida was actually complimenting the Chinese by alluding to Heidegger’s project of retrieving fundamental Being and the difficulties of escaping hegemonic Western histories which dominates philosophy. Thus, to say that the Chinese, or other great thoughts such as Indian, as “philosophy” is to colonize and depreciate its uniqueness by centering through Eurocentrism.

Nevertheless, one of the question that is addressed in post-colonial theory is parallel to the Heideggerian question of history: can “being” escape from the hegemonic traditions of Western history in order to retrieve originary “being”? For Heidegger, the originary question of being is contaminated by dominant historical methods that consistently overlapped each other over time. The moment one asks the question of being, they are already associating it with all forms of hegemonic forms of traditional, cultural and philosophical methods (i.e. Hegelian, Kantian, Cartesian, etc.).

In order to overcome this problem, we must think of another history that is radically other to Western history. We must therefore, distinguish the difference between “being” and “Being” (with a capital B). This Being is the most original being which constitutes and always already guides the question of being along with the answers we have in response to it. For Heidegger, this Being is carried out by a mode which he calls “Dasein” (“being-there”)—something that we have lost touch with because philosophers had always avoided to solve it. In order for us to retrieve Dasein and a “fundamental ontology”, we have to “destroy” the dominant history of ontology and its methods which obscures our ability of conceiving it. For Derrida however, Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) only revealed “the historicity of Dasein, but not Being”—or to quote without translation “…of Dasein but not Sein.” (for the sake of length, I won’t explain  what this “historicity of Dasein” entails). This is because the word “ontology” in its etymological sense, is also contaminated by its own history that traces all the way back to Aristotle. Even if one destroys the history of ontology, the etymology of “ontology” can only designate a discourse about being which would only privilege Western history of being, but never Being itself. Where Heidegger once thought that “ontology can escape the history of metaphysics, he now thinks ontology is historically metaphysical”. Heidegger no longer wanted to only destroy the history of ontology, he wanted to destroy ontology itself.

To answer the question of Being through “What is being?”, one must avoid answering it by defining being through ontic-metaphysical history because by doing so only marks a closed loop of the meaning of being within itself (i.e. being caught within ideology or a certain hegemonic tradition). As Derrida points out, “Ontology only concerns the on and not the einai [essence]” (my parenthesis). Yet, it is Being that is buried in history which still has an effect on the question of being in its hegemonic ontology and history (because Being is related with time; hence Heidegger’s book is called Being and Time). What comes before the question of (onto-metaphysical-historical) being is a Being who pre-comprehends herself even when its meaning has been obscured through the privilege of various ontic history (i.e. I privilege scientific being and therefore, I will answer the question of being through the historical context of science). Hence, one always have some sense of Being before asking the question of being because it is in the very form of the question which opens up this originary question of Being.

For example, in the question “What is being?”, the word “is” implies that there is always already a Being who allows one to say that being is like this or like that (being is scientific, sexual, etc.). To put it in Derrida’s own words, “what is the being of the is which allows one to say that being is like this or like that?” Here, it is crucial we understand that “is” is the third person singular of the verb beThus, “Being” is the third term that avoids all ontic historical discourses even within the question of “What is being?”. This is one of the reasons why Heidegger writes Being under erasure, a philosophical gesture that he started doing several years after publishing Being and Time. One cannot retrieve Being by simply interpreting and investigating its etymology because the meaning of the word remains obscured and full of preconceived historical methods. This is why “Being” is such an obscure term that, even Jacques Lacan took an interest. For Lacan, it is because there is a lack in being (i.e. a Being that is missing from the hegemonic history of beings) where philosophers would ask “What is being?” (I wrote an intro on psychoanalysis, here). Finally, I must also add, this is one of the reasons why I believe Derrida crosses out is in Of Grammatology (1967).

In Voice and Phenomenon (I wrote an essay about it here), Derrida translates Husserl’s use of the German word “Bedeutung” as “want-to-say” instead of its usual translation as “signification”. One can already guess who it is that “want-to-say” (wants to signify) which is that of Being whose intentionality is always contaminated by a phenomenology of “the past of the future” (I explained some of Derrida’s views on temporality and “differance”, here). Recall earlier, when I spoke about how the question about the universe is always carried through by an intention that is guided by Being which one pre-comprehends. Derrida is interested in the pure morphology of Bedeutung and the ways it could be translated and interpreted. Bedeutung’s polymorphic qualities are similar to the word “is” where we have some idea of what “is” means, but never in the absolute sense because its meaning changes depending on how we use it, implying that the meaning of Being shifts as a pure morphology through the experience of time.

The Destruction of Hegelianism, History and Ontology

For G.W.F Hegel, the study of the history of philosophy is the same as the study of philosophy—particularly the logical aspects of it. One can make the same claim in regards to the history of ontology and (fundamental) ontology. Let us follow Derrida’s thoughts and separate the difference between Heidegger’s “destruktion” (of history and ontology) and Hegel’s notion of refutation. As Derrida points out, destruktion is not a criticism, annihilation, a denial of historical ideas or a Hegelian refutation. Heidegger destroys history and ontology, but he never refutes in the Hegelian sense. Yet, not only is destruction and refutation are distinguished by a mere nothing—the destruction of history and ontology is what Derrida famously refer as deconstruction (although, Derrida sometimes rejects this word). To understand this, let us look into Hegel’s idea of refutation.

For Hegel, every century of philosophies in history are marked by its “highest idea” making it “the last philosophy” of the time. For example, in 18th century we have Immanuel Kant. In early 19th century we have Hegel and later on Friedrich Nietzsche followed closely by Sigmund Freud and Edmund Husserl (along with all the phenomenologists). Overtime, the highest idea steps down and yields to another highest idea. Refutation is this demotion of the highest idea which brings out a new highest idea. A metaphorical example of refutation Hegel uses is to think of how tree leaves are refuted by the blossom in which the blossom is refuted by the fruit. The importance is to understand how Hegel thinks each highest idea is related to the previous one—only that its relative position changes within the new highest idea while dividing into something different. Whereas for Heidegger (according to Derrida), each highest idea does not preserve what precedes it because the highest idea is a refutation of the previous one through division. This new highest idea via refutation is an inferior formThe blossom is the inferior form of the leaf and the fruit is the inferior form of the blossom. Each highest idea or ontological inquiry is the inferior form of the previous. In other words, the blossom is not present in the fruit. Both the blossom and the fruit are not the true existence (Being) of the tree. Yet, all three of these (leaf, blossom and fruit) and their individual processes remains in unity within themselves and appears as if they are authentic being on its own. 

We can already see why refutation is similar, yet different to the destruction of ontology and history. On one hand, new ontological, cultural and philosophical methods are the refutation of other historical, philosophical and ontological inquiries which are “inferior” to such form. These new methods appears as a unity which obscures our ability to reach Being due to its predetermined privilege of history. On the other hand, this last philosophy is no longer capable of refuting anything since the essence of “refutation” has been lost through history, where the concept and historical predetermination of refutation ends up refuting its own essence. Therefore, to speak of Being is to speak of eschatology (i.e. death) because to retrieve Being is to destroy its history that is defined by other beings. Once again, this is not to say that Being is some empty concept beyond language and its history. The contradiction lies in the notion that Being is within language and history because “language is the house of being” (also because being is related to temporality). What one discovers in language is the aporia of Being through the obscurantism of ontic history and the metaphor of language. Beyond this ontic history of “telling stories” (i.e. myths, literature, philosophical novels, ontology, highest ideas) which is incredibly difficult (impossible?) to escape, there lies the historicity of Being within language and the question of being that is always already guided by Being (the “always” as a priori which modifies the “already”). Nevertheless, Hegel conceals the meaning of being within history, trapping himself into the historical tradition by recomprehending Plato and Aristotle. As a result, Heidegger’s destruction of history and ontology includes the destruction of Hegelianism.

Unlike Hegel, where the highest idea is created by refuting the previous, Heidegger destroys the highest ideas of history and ontology then surrounds it with an ontological silence—a nothingness (i.e. thought?). For Derrida, contrary to the popular interpretations through our beloved Heideggarians, Heidegger does not go on to invent the highest idea known as “fundamental ontology”. Heidegger goes silent and does not propose any alternative ontology or philosophy. The destruction of history and ontology is the “shaking up”, the deconstruction of the history of ontology and ontology itself; to de-structure which brings out the structure of Being only to recognize that Being is radically other to the historical-ontological inquiry that is neither outside nor within language. Since it is impossible to address the question of being without the concept of being and its historical predetermination, one must from the very beginning, work within privileged metaphysical-ontological historical concepts of being and language in order to reveal “the historicity of Being”. After all, there is no history without language, and no language without a history.

Standard
Contemplation

Derridean Meditations: Confessing with the Other at the Frontier of Time

 

[…] this act of naming: a date and nothing more. […] The index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this ‘thing’ that has just happened […] But this very thing […] remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about.” —Jacques Derrida, on 9/11.

Who and What?
Am I writing about someone, or something?
Today, I would like to speak of a topic which relies on common sense. In fact, what I am about to say pertains so much to common sense that most of us had never thought about it. Thus, it is for this reason that I must speak of such matter. Let us look at how we experience time with the ghosts who secretly haunts us within our deepest thoughts. This will also give me a chance to briefly analyze one of my favorite Sci-Fi film: Interstellar (2014) by Christopher Nolan.

For the sake of simplicity, allow me to begin with an example between the famous physicists, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. We know that Newton was the first to theorize about gravity whose ideas were usurped by Einstein’s theory of general relativity two hundred years later. At the time, would Newton have thought that someone from the future would prove his theories wrong? In the same way, when Einstein wrote his theories, would he had thought that in the future, his ideas would get falsified by other theories? To give these guys the benefit of doubt, I will say, “probably not”. Regardless, the problem I wish to highlight are the contingencies of the future, which are unpredictable no matter how hard we try to predict it. Yet, this future continues to unfold within every moment of our lives (i.e. what you are about to read). Certainly, there are many things that are relatively “predictable”, such as the weather, or sunrise in the morning, but we cannot predict whether or not I will get hit by a car tomorrow or die from an exotic disease. Nevertheless, this idea of contingency has many philosophical implications, such as the problem to what determines the certainty of knowledge and the conceptions of causality. But not only are these problems about the future, it is also about a past which provides the foundations for the present.

Trace: The Past and Future

As human beings, we are always moving forward in time as we look backwards into the past, which can be anything from the words you had just read in this sentence, all the way to your childhood memories. Every present moment which repeats itself before our eyes constantly slips into the past. Every time I try to hold onto this present moment which comes from the future, it has already become the past (i.e. the words you had just read as you anticipate my next words). The past is unique because in your perspective, I am not simply implying the words you had just read, but a vast variety of historical referents. In other words, the past is not a simple referent to the meaning of words I had just said because they can be referents which points to all sorts of memories. It is like reading a book that suddenly reminds you of something that is completely unrelated to its story, or encountering someone who reminds you of someone else from your past. Nevertheless, this future / past relation constitutes the “present moment” which consists of our “intentionality”. Indeed, the present moment is the product of our relationship between the past and future—the latter which is contingent, speculative and radically external to ourselves. It is related to the notions of “promise” which I will get to later.

Every time we look into the past, we fix onto a central point which constitutes our intentions of how we perceive the present moment in reality. However, this central point changes as time continues to move forward. For example, it is easy for us to say that “the occurrence of X in the past constitutes who I am today”. We can only make this claim because we are already at such point in our life from the future. Who I am today is due to my focus on this specific past occurance which is always subject to change as we move forward in time. The decentering of this past through the contingent events of the future changes the way we perceive present reality. The moment we refocus the central point elsewhere in the past, the present will be viewed differently. Perhaps one year from now, it is no longer the occurance of X that constitutes who I am, but Y. Or perhaps in five years, the reason why I loved you will change which might make me not love you anymore (I will return to this later on). Nevertheless, this is why looking back at our lives can sometimes appear like “it was my destiny to become who I am today, where no chance was involved”, even when this unfolding of the future is always “secretly” subject to contingency. This contingent unfolding of time from the future is what Derrida calls “future anterior”.

Let us use another example: a 30-year-old can look back at their 20-year-old selves and say “I should have done this instead of that” because they are already living in the future selves as a 30-year-old, who realized what their actions had led to through the contingencies of the future. Yet, at the moment when the 20-year-old self conducted whatever actions, they would not have “known” that such action would yield to X results 10 years later because it is something only their future selves would know; someone who the 20-year-old has not yet become. As the future other, the 30-year-old self “haunts” their younger-selves and vice versa. In this case, the present self is constituted by recalling a specific past self (a point in history, life experiences, a specific person, etc.) which is no longer present before them (absent), but appears as a ghostly presence who haunts the present as they move towards the contingent future. This movement is what Derrida calls “trace”: the unity between past and future. Trace is a famous idea which has huge motifs and many other implications (existential, psychoanalytical, etc.), especially in the way we live and perceive reality.

There is another level of complexity that I will briefly talk about. As we constantly move forward in time, we are aging every moment of our lives. One moves, even if they do not move. We are dying as we live. Life is always associated with death. To learn to live is to also learn to die. This is why I always like to jokingly say, “don’t live a little, die a little”. The point I wish to make is the paradoxical movement between the past which implies a relation with birth and life; and the future which relates to our inevitable death.

Writing With the Other and the Promise for the Future

What pertains to our problem of time is this relationship between the referential past and a contingent future. If we look at historical writers, there is always a past “other” who constitutes the intentionality of their works. Just as there is a past other that we relate to when we read their works. Look at Derrida for example, a Jew who survived the horrors of World War II and had been excluded for much of his life. Then look at his works which often includes themes of exclusion, the privilege of presence (writer) over the absent other, etc. Derrida even famously called his autobiography, Circumfession (circumcision and confession), where he attempts to expose his past “other” who has been central to all his ideas (i.e. his relationship with his mother and brothers). This is the reason why Derrida expressed interest in seeing the private lives of famous philosophers like G.W.F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger. For Derrida, confession and autobiography holds a valuable place in our lives because this past other sits behind all the things we think about and do in our lives. In Derrida’s famous lectures on the death penaltyhe talks about his vision of an Utopian society where everyone confesses and forgives.

Think of this as listening to your favorite song that reminds you of some distant past other. The composer might have wrote the song for someone important from their past which constitutes the song as such. But the person who listens to the song will relate to it through their own other who is different to the other that the composer was referring to. Whether you are the writer or the reader, there is always the other. What constitutes the written work or any forms of interpretation, whether it be a song, the most important philosophical text in history, or written fragments, relies on this past other.

Thus, one can say that the author never writes, because they are always taken hostage by the other who unknowingly writes for them. Our intention is the other’s intention. This is where we arrive at the question, of “who” and “what”? In this text, am I writing about the other? Or am I writing about time? As we enter the territory where confessions and autobiography functions as the movement of thought, we must keep in mind that this other is not only from the past, but also from the future self. What does it mean to write ethically from the past of this future self who I have now become as time continues to unfold?

In order to write, one must not exclude otherness because they are the truth who constitutes this text. It is like how the future self can see the actions of their 20 year old other who created their future; or how the world’s most famous song was possible through the death of the other from the past. The writer as pure presence can never completely write themselves in language because they are always haunted by the other from the past, and threatened by the contingencies of the future which would shift these relations. Just as a 20 year old will see the world differently when compared to their future selves, the contingencies of the future will change how we see the past—like how Einstein changes the way we see Newton. It can even be how our life experience changes the way we see younger ourselves, which makes us go, “What was I thinking back then?”.

The point is not to say that Newton was wrong; nor is it to say that the past other was foolish, because this is the unavoidable experience of time. To write ethically is to care for the other from the past that the present demands. But it is also to promise the other for the future to come because it is this other who will constitute you in the future (i.e. your future self as you look back at this very moment, as you wrote with the other). To write ethically is to tell the deepest truth. It is to make a promise for the future and retain the other within one’s writing.

This “promise” is an incredibly powerful gesture once we understand that it is not simply a promise that is recalled from the past, but as a promise which opens up the future. To make a promise is to confront the singularity of the future: to accept whoever the other might become as the future contingently unfolds. The promise is an absolute singularity, in the same way that the declaration of love functions as singularity. As Derrida says, how can I say “I love you”, if I know the “love” is you? That the word “love” either as a verb or noun, would be destroyed in front of you. Here, the importance is to recognize our proximity with the other who takes the guise of “you” as we make the promise. Indeed, “I love you” is the most common form of confession which can sometimes function as a promise. To faithfully declare love is to make a promise for the future: whatever happens in the future and how this future may threaten the way I see my relation with the past other (you) which shapes my present, I will always love you. To put this even more simply: I love you no matter who you will become in the future.

We see this in the film Interstellar. Recall in the beginning of the film when Cooper held onto Murph and promised her that he loves her forever. This promise is later recognized as the most powerful singular force from the future when he confronts his past, literally, inside the singularity of the black hole. Meanwhile, we also have Murph who was on the other side of space and time, discovering that the ghost who haunted her all along was Cooper. Both Murph and Cooper were each other’s otherness. But what we discover in this film is remarkable. Cooper was the one who thought the bookshelf was gravity, and not a person. Whereas on the other hand, Murph always thought of the bookshelf as a person, and not gravity. At the heart of the film, we discover the question of “who” and “what”: is the bookshelf someone, or something? Does not the bookshelf function similar to writing, where it has been taken hostage by the other? Nevertheless, it was Amelia Brand who was correct: that the gravity of love transcends space and time through its relationship with the other, where her distance with Wolf Edmunds were abolished. She saw love as the absolute singularity which propelled towards the infinite. While there are other possible interpretations, what we see in the film is the other who returns to haunt the past of the future as an infinite repetition. This movement of infinity is what we see when Cooper was thrown into the tesseract inside the black hole. Every fragment of time is infinite. Every moment is forever.

Who and What

Let us briefly return to one of my previous post, a series of written fragments I wrote throughout the span of several years. Is Renee someone, or something? Is she a person, or the movement of time? While I do not intend to answer this question, I often find myself caught within this difference.

Now, I wish to quickly return to the theme of life and death as marginal thought. To write with the other as the future unfolds is to paradoxically confront the other’s death through the acknowledgement of their absence. Yet, the other survives as she is recalled to the present. To live as a human being is to survive the death of the other. To survive through this death is to affirm life. Survival should not be seen as some depressing remainder after the death of the other. For Derrida, survival is what gives the most intense life possible. To survive is to exist within the most powerful force of life.

Let us together, recognize the other in this text, where its space has collapsed, and its distance abolished. You are reading what I am about to say from a future which has not yet come; of how to say, and to whom I address at the edges of my writing. This edge is the frontier of time which unfolds unto death. It is like walking down an unpaved path without knowing where you are going and who you will encounter. The other lives and dies all at once. She is reborn, she vanishes into the past. Yet, she is imminent. To inscribe the other is to not only care for her with my utmost love, forgiveness, and hospitality, but as a promise for the future to come. It is to write faithfully with the other as she dance across these pages with my hand, without interruption, without holding anything back.

While each of us carries a different discourse, the other not only haunts the one who writes, but the one who reads. What does this text want to say to you? Where does your  other come from? Here, I leave you with my signature that is countersigned by the other. In this post, I elaborated on “what” it is that I was writing about. I even explained “how” and “why” I wrote. The only question that remains is, who?

 


For more on Jacques Derrida in relationship with speech, writing and time, please see my other post, Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction.

 

Standard