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
Contemplation

Geoffrey Bennington’s Lecture on Derrida and Deconstruction

 

 

Back when I first started reading Derrida, one of my mentors who got me into French philosophy recommended Geoffrey Bennington‘s works. At the time, Bennington was one of her PhD advisers at the European Graduate School—along with Alain Badiou and Catherine Malabou. To be honest, I didn’t know who any of these people were, but now I’m just like, “Dang!”. Since I always try to avoid secondary sources, I was reluctant on reading Bennington until last month. This was when I discovered for myself that Bennington is the most renown Derridean expert in the world. In my opinion, Bennington is the go-to secondary source for Derrida.

In the future, I may write about Bennington on Kant in relationship with politics and the state of nature. It appears that the “necessity of contingency” has become a very popular idea in contemporary continental philosophy. In Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth (2017), Bennington appears to have similar thoughts to Quentin Meillassoux. Only that Bennington does not reject Kant like Meillassoux does through the criticism of correlationism. Instead, Bennington follows Kant’s ideas between speculative and practical reason to bring out the antinomy of judgement and the “frontier” on the necessity of contingency. It is this necessity of the necessity of contingency of nature which allows humans to develop the “laws of nature” via interpreting nature. Freedom is the perfect example of this, since the moment one conceptualizes it through the contingency of nature, freedom becomes threatened through its own conceptual boundaries. To conceive of “actual” freedom, as opposed to “possible” freedom, is to think of the necessary contingency (i.e. possibility) of the end and the disappearance of freedom as a representation of freedom. To be fair, the theme on contingency—especially through mathematics—has been around for quite some time. Alain Badiou was one of the first to situate it as an ontology (the study of being). Badiou was heavily influenced by a famous 19th century French poet named Stéphane Mallarmé and his poem, “A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” (many 20th century French philosophers were influenced by him); he was also influenced by the way Lacan used mathematics in psychoanalysis, and Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave.

Nonetheless, Bennington’s lecture stayed very close to Of Grammatology. He explained Derrida better than I did, which is not surprising. Bennington jumped over a few discourses, such as Husserl and Heidegger where I would have elaborated more on (I mentioned some of their relationships in my post on Stephen Hicks). For example, Bennington made a leap from the relationship between signifiers all the way to trace. While this is the correct move, Bennington leaves out the problem of temporality, which is revealed near the end of the talk with his bogus animation of letters appearing in the white space of the slide. Clearly, Bennington was trying to hint at Derrida’s famous concept called “Spacing”—something that I have addressed in my own readings of Derrida.

His Q&A at the end is also very useful. I like the way he highlights some of the disagreements between psychoanalysts and deconstructors. One of their differences revolves around how Lacan’s psychoanalytical claims are, for Derrida, not completely psychoanalytical. For example, Lacan would sometimes confuse the philosophical transcendental object as the psychoanalytical Objet petit a (object cause of desire). Yet, Bennington ends his answer by remarking on how the circumstances of our world requires psychoanalysts and deconstructors to be friends—something that I agree on. With this being said, I am enrolled in my first graduate class this spring on deconstruction and psychoanalysis which I am very excited about.

If you have read through the entire Of Grammatology, then you should be proud of yourself because it is quite difficult (I heard it is easier in original French). I knew people who threw in the towel within the first 30 pages. Of Grammatology is split into two parts. The difficulty of Part I, which is the first 100 pages in Spivak’s 1997 translation, is comparable to other really difficult texts such as Hegelian dialectics and Lacanian psychoanalysis. If you understand Part I, then Part II, which is the remaining 200-300 pages, gradually gets easier. Part II resembles Derrida’s early thoughts on deconstruction in relationship with politics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl are the key philosophers for understanding Derrida.

Just like other major works by most philosophers, Of Grammatology requires more than one read. I have read it so many times that some of its pages are falling out. Even though I still occasionally read this book and learn something new every time, it is no longer on my active reading list because I am constantly occupied with other books (I am going to school, working, and doing my own research at the same time). If my posts on Derrida has assisted you on your readings on Of Grammatology or further understandings of Derrida, then you have made my day. If you enjoy Derrida, I would suggest you to try reading French novelist / critic, Maurice Blanchot—especially his books, The Space of Literature, and The Step Not Beyond. 

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation

On Derrida: Voice and Phenomenon

This is a revised version of my essay that I wrote on Jacques Derrida’s key text, Voice and Phenomenon (1967). It is the same essay that I used as sample writing for my 2019 graduate school applications. In general, this essay received many positive feedback from professors in English and Philosophy departments, particularly in regards to its complexity, rigor, and clarity.

Mistakes and Clarifications

This essay was written in Chicago style where the endnotes are actually footnotes in the real version. There are a few mistakes in this essay that needs correction. For example, I did not address how Derrida translates the German word “Bedeuten” into “Bedeutung” (thanks to the prof who pointed this out). Derrida translates bedeuten into the French idiom “vouloir-dire” which translates into English as “want to say” or “to mean”. Derrida does not translate bedeutung in his works because (I think) he is trying to show how bedeutung is actually a bedeuten—a “want to say”, where the problem of intentionality via the transcendental arises. I also did not address why indication “points”. Derrida refers to this pointing as “the point of the finger”, which is entangled as an expression. This essay focuses on a Kantian reading of Derrida which excludes Heidegger, who is central to Derridean thought (I was limited to 10 pages). I also gave my essay a lame title due to it being a sample writing.

My use of the word “soul” is not as superstitious as what most readers think. The term is complex with a history that crosses over to Heidegger and other philosophers like Aristotle (i.e. soul in relation to the body in metaphysics). I also did not explain protention and retention that well. When I speak of the word “now” (i.e. the “newness of now”), I am referring to protention. There are also several wordy sentences that needs to be rewritten.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time fix any of these errors and I will leave them intact until I work out a better version. Regardless, you will get a taste of a less sophisticated and a more diluted form of this essay from my introductory post on Derrida.

 


 

A Close Reading on Jacques Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon

In 20th century, French philosopher Jacques Derrida came to a radical conclusion that our experience of temporality divides self-reflection.[1] Derrida achieves this by deconstructing Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology where Husserl attempts to reach the “purity of expression”. In this essay, I will address Derrida’s thoughts on how intentionality and temporality contaminate the purity of expression through Husserl’s concepts of indicative and expressive sign. To do this, I will first introduce the entanglement between indicative and expressive signs that one encounters through external communicative acts such as writing. From this, I will elaborate on how the conveying (speaker / writer) and receiving subject (auditor / reader) animates these signs through the intentionality of their internal “solitary life of the soul”[2] which creates the issues of interpretation. Finally, I will follow Derrida on Husserl’s thoughts to isolate indication from expression only to discover that pure expression is contaminated by the consciousness of time. As we will see in the conclusion of this essay, the notion of pure expression via speech and writing will be rendered problematic before the subject expresses externally through communicative acts. This will lead us to one of the major themes of post-structural thought on “the crisis of meaning” which is found prevalent in all forms of arts and literature. To see how we arrive at such case, let us begin by extrapolating Derrida’s thoughts on Husserl’s problem of the sign.

The problem with the word “sign” is that it contains a duality of sense which can at once be indicative and expressive.[3] An indicative sign points to something, it does not have a “Bedeutung” (we will translate this word momentarily).[4] Since all words points to something, the best example of indicative sign is writing. Consequently, the written German word Bedeutung must point us to something other than its ideal sense.[5] If we were to translate the indicative sign of Bedeutung which means “want-to-say”, the word will now point to such meaning which appears as the expressive sign.[6] Simply put, the expressive sign is entangled with the indicative sign of Bedeutung, where it points to the expression of “want-to-say”. An indicative sign does not say anything, where it simply points, and an expressive sign, mixed with an indicative sign, “wants-to-say” by pointing to the unity of sense.[7] Here, we encounter two fundamental issues. First, indicative and expressive signs are impossible to distinguish because they are entangled between the conveying and receiving subject through writing.[8] This implies that indicative signs are external signs that exists in the world because it functions like a medium that transmits the possibility of expressive meaning from the conveyor to the receiving subject. Second, while an expression is entangled with indication, the opposite is not always true.[9] If one writes “iekariukedjutu”[10], the term would still be an indication since it points to something, but without any specific expression. This is experienced in our initial encounter of Bedeutung without knowing its expressive meaning.

If the indicative sign is external, then it must be outside of our internal “solitary life of the soul”. Writing is dead and inanimate without a living soul who gives it life by animating its indicative character into an expression.[11] When the conveying subject expresses indicatively, such sign must first be animated by their solitary life of the soul with an intention to express. This intended sign passes externally as indication (i.e. writing) which is reanimated as an expression by the receiving subject. Similarly, our body which is indicative and external to our soul, is inanimate without she who intentionally animates it from her internal soul (otherwise, our body would be dead). One expresses the self through the intention of animating the indicative sign, giving life to their body and words by turning it into external physical acts such as gestures, speech, or writing. For now, let us say that expressive signs are only possible by animating indicative signs through a certain “outside” in external discourse of the empirical world.[12] The conveying subject expresses their phenomenological experience within their soul because they desire to express (i.e. the expression of their concept of life, philosophy, beliefs, etc.). Thus, all communication consists of two poles: (1) the conveying subject whose intention animates her body into an expressive act via gestures, speech or writing, which externally indicates to (2) the receiving subject who interprets and reanimates the conveyer’s indication with their own expressive intentions and soul. From the perspective of the conveying subject, expressions must pass from their internal solitary life of the soul outwardly into an intended external bodily expressive act. From the perspective of the receiving subject, not all indicative signs that the conveying subject expresses indicatively are expressive. It is when the receiving subject who intentionally animates such indications where we recognize the contamination of the sign through intentionality.[13]

Let us return to our initial experience of the term Bedeutung, and the possibility of its contamination. For the receiving subject, the indicative experience of Bedeutung lies in how they don’t know its expressive meaning (they don’t know where it points). The receiving subject will intentionally animate Bedeutung without knowing its expressive meaning because they are motivated by their internal thoughts (inner monologue).[14] By reading the word Bedeutung, the receiving subject turns the term into an ideal sense of expressionwhere sense wants to signify itself even if the reader does not know its expression or is not aware of the word’s historical intentions.[15] The receiving subject’s intention will contaminate their own experience when they reanimate the indicative sign with an expressive meaning that ignores or greatly deviates from the conveying subject’s intention. Here, we are introduced with the issue of inter-subjectivity where the receiving subject is never the speaker and we can only experience the world from our own experience. Furthermore, pure expression is no longer possible when the conveying subject attempts to express their solitary life of the soul externally as indication such as Bedeutung. The animated sign that is expressed outwardly becomes corruptible through the possibilities of being misinterpreted in external communicative discourse. The impurity of expression stems from the lack of intended self-presence of the living soul which cannot be carried into indicated / expressed signs through the outside world because words are inherently dead. The receiving subject can never experience the conveying subject’s pure expression and intentions through external indications.[16]

Let us shift towards internal discourse of communication to find the purity of expression. Husserl will devote much of his effort to untangle indication from the expressive sign to reach the “purity of expression”. He saw that, since indications are external, pure expression can only occur without it leaving our internal solitary life of the soul—namely, without it leaving our inner silent monologue.[17] This leads to a question which carries out the rest of Derrida’s deconstruction on Husserl: if for the conveying subject, expression is only possible from animating the indicative sign as external acts, does she learn anything about herself when she silently expresses through inner monologue which never passes through the outside?[18] In order to address this issue, Husserl will consequently add the terms “expressive referral” (Hinzeigen) and “indicative referral” (Anzeigen).[19] Following closely to Husserl’s thoughts of finding the purity of expression, Derrida attempts to separate the indicative and expressive sign by isolating the spatial (external; empirical; indicative) from the temporal (internal; time-consciousness; inner-monologue). For Derrida, this was pursued only to discover that neither oppositions can be distinguished from each other.[20] Within inner monologue of the conveying subject, expressive communicative acts functions as a representation of sense. The conveying subject is the receiving subject who “hears-oneself-speak”.[21] These communicative acts that are expressed internally by the conveying subject are represented (imagined) in their minds as immediate psychical acts. Certainly, one can say that inner monologue is where we discover pure expressivity, not only because it is closest to the proximity of the soul where the speaker immediately hears-oneself-speak without distance, but because monologue constitutes subjectivity of self and consciousness as such.[22] However, for Derrida, such monologue is contaminated by time which is distinguished through the blink of an eye.[23] If pure expression via inner monologue is represented in our minds through the movement of time, then they must have nothing to do with primal impressions (perception and senses) which constitutes the present moment.[24] In Husserl’s phenomenology of time consciousness, the present moment of now that is established through primal impression is only possible through the retention of this moment which had just past (the words you just read through time).[25] Retention is not constituted by our primal impression because it is an imaginary perception. Without retention that establishes a difference with the present moment, the punctuality and newness of “now” would not be possible.[26] Thus, inner monologue—the pure expressive self and consciousness—is contaminated by our experience of time. As a result, this turns inner monologue into non-perception (without primal impression of sense) because it has always been represented and imagined.[27] For Husserl, the subject will imagine as if they were silently speaking to themselves, even when they have no need to do so since their perception of psychical acts and lived experiences are immediately present.[28] Yet, by privileging such perceptions as presence, one not only forgets the effects of time, but how these perceptions and monologue are imagined representations of the present which has now past. As such, Derrida refers to language as always being “worked over by fiction”.[29] The intended self-presence within hearing-oneself-speak stems from a represented perception which makes the establishment of presence and meaning late.[30] This slight delay implies how the presence of this present moment is only possible through an imaginative supplement of sense which is what the present originally lacks. In order to privilege presence, one negates its inherent absence.

In the final analysis, three main ideas are presented in this essay. First, self-expression is no longer pure the moment we express outwardly—even before represented expression arises from the solitary life of the soul. To say that there is a purity of expression is to recognize how it is contaminated by the movement of time and the becoming-Other within internal discourse. This suggests that pure self consciousness is pre-constructed through something that is more originary and pre-phenomenological: a trace which constitutes the difference between “now” and its alterity of retention.[31] By constituting consciousness through inner monologue, the temporal division of self-reflection becomes an unavoidable and originary contamination.[32] Second, this not only shows how time contaminates the internal discourse of both conveying and receiving subject, it also reveals the main difference between Husserl and Derrida. Husserl wishes to maintain the difference between indication and expression in order to show how pure expression is possible through indicative signs that occurs within silent monologue. Derrida rejects Husserl’s compartmentalization of the two signs since the expressive sign cannot be distinguished from indication. This is recognized through Derrida’s use of “Bedeutung” as an example of indication / expression to show how the receiving subject (i.e. you, the reader) is engaged with their own animating intentions instead of the conveying subject’s. For Derrida, indicative signs are always already an expression that is influenced by time as the receiving subject engages with it. Third, the privilege of an imaginary perception as presence is where Derrida locates the notion of the supplement. This “dangerous supplement” occurs when the receiving subject substitutes their expressive intention as the conveyor’s. From the receiving subject’s point of view, the conveyor’s indicative signs are supplemented (imagined) as expressive signs, even when these indications are part of the conveyor’s animating expression that cannot be past onto the receiver through writing.[33] In another words, the conveying subject’s intention is supplemented as if it were present, even when this imaginary intention only consists of the receiver’s inner monologue which is complicated by their own experience of temporality. Therefore, we can say that, “communication” is the failure of communication. Our attempts in transmitting pure expression through speech and writing is impossible. There is no such thing as “clear writing”.

Instead of having written signs which records a truth from our soul, signs end up producing a truth where its expressive meaning varies depending on the receiving subject’s intentions. As we noted earlier, this is where we see how intentionality plays an important role on interpreting communicative acts. But it is also here, where we recognize the issues of translation. It becomes impossible to understand the indicative word which is only expressive by being reanimated through the intention of the translator / reader.[34] The longer time passes, the more difficult it is to reconstitute the originary intention of the conveying subject.[35] It is at this moment where we become lost in the crisis of meaning. Although this should not always be seen as negativity, it becomes apparent that one only reads what they desire to read under a particular “sense” (modern sense, surreal sense, classical sense, etc.) through the spell of the indicative sign, where its intentions were expressed within a specific historical time. Yet, it is from these writings, where the contemporary reader reanimates dead words and rediscover a hidden intention. Through the resurrection of the external indicative sign, we recognize Derrida’s famous aporia: the absence of originary presence that is found between the conveying and receiving subject. The internal expressions as you read this text becomes the supplement of the conveying subject’s intention which has been contaminated by your experience of space and time. This is where deconstruction begins.

Bibliography

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak. Johns      Hopkins University Press, 1997.
———Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. University of Chicago Press, 1982.
———Voice and Phenomenon. Translated by Leonard Lawlor. Northwestern            University Press, 2011.

Notes

[1] Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, trans. Leonard Lawlor (Northwestern University Press, 2011), 70.

[2] The term “soul” implies a living entity who animates / gives life to a nonliving or inanimate object.

[3] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 3,15.

[4] Ibid., 40. Indicative sign is equivalent to the Saussurean concept of “Signifier”.

[5] Ibid., 7-8. Derrida intentionally avoids translating Bedeutung for a reason slightly different to what I have demonstrated here. Derrida’s concerns are directed towards the “pure morphology” (the pure possibility of a meaningful discourse) of such word through grammar and logical a priori of language which Husserl privileged as the telos of “being present”. This pure morphology is also found in the word “is” within the fundamental question of philosophy: “What is being?”.

[6] Ibid., 40. Expressive sign is equivalent to the Saussurean term “Signified”. Bedeutung is often translated into “signification”. The reason Derrida calls it “want-to-say” is due to the problems of the receiving subject’s intentionality (yours), something which we will see later on in this essay.

[7] Most words carry an immediate unity of sense because we already know its expressive meaning.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 123. This is a word that was invented by Nambikwara tribe which means “act of writing” or “drawing lines”. Notice how the meaning of this word refers to external expressive acts.

[11] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 46.

[12] Ibid., 32. “Everything in my discourse which is destined to manifest a lived experience to another person must pass through the mediation of the physical side.”

[13] Ibid., 70-74.

[14] Ibid., 24. “Motivation is what gives to something like a ‘thinking being’ the movement in order to pass in thought from something to something.”

[15] Ibid., 29.

[16] Ibid., 34. “If communication of manifestation is essentially indicative, it is so because the presence of the other’s lived-experience is denied to our originary intuition.”

[17] Ibid., “The relation to the other as non-presence is therefore the impurity of expression. In order to reduce indication in language and attain once more finally pure expressivity it is therefore necessary to suspend the relation to others. Then I would no longer have to pass through the mediation of the physical side.”

[18] Ibid., 41.

[19] Ibid., 36.

[20] Ibid., 48-55, 69-74. Husserl refers to the isolation of the spatial as “phenomenological reduction”. Derrida realizes how the temporal (internal) cannot be completely distinguished from the spatial (external) because the internal voice is complicated by our consciousness of time which opens up “the becoming time of space [external] and the becoming space of time [internal]” (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 68). Even after reduction, the spatial is never completely reduced because space is in time.

[21] This phenomenon can be experienced as one reads this text. The conveying subject internally hears herself speak as she performs external speech or written acts. Conversely, the receiving subject also hears herself speak internally as she reanimates external indicative signs from silent reading or listening.

[22] Ibid., 68. “The voice is consciousness”

[23] Ibid., 50-55, 74.

[24] Ibid., 55-58.

[25] Derrida, Of Grammatology, 67-73. The common conception on the movement of time is experienced as a straight line. This linearity is also recognized in writing when one reads through time. For Derrida, time is non-linear via the “now” being constituted by retention. The “now” is “the deferred effect of which Freud speaks”. (See also, Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 71-73).

[26] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 53, 72.

[27] Ibid., 49, 57.

[28] Ibid., 50.

[29] Ibid., 48. One can also say that language is always worked over by history.

[30] Ibid., 77-78, 83.

[31] Derrida, Of Grammatology, 69. We can also say that consciousness is constructed by the unconscious—of what Derrida calls “Spacing” or “Archi-Writing” that is found within “the fabric of trace”. For Derrida, the concept of trace, which can only be defined through specific phenomenological and ontological precautions, is the origin of thought.

[32] Derrida sometimes refers to this as the “origin heterogeneous”.

[33] Ibid., 149. The concept of “supplement” is used to take the place of what originally lacks within presence. The supplement is the addition of nothing. This originary supplement is introduced in the final chapter of Voice and Phenomenon. It is extensively discussed in Of Grammatology when Derrida deconstructs Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages. As Derrida points out, “Blindness to the supplement is the law”.

[34] For example, in Plato’s Pharmacy, Derrida questions the translation of “pharmakon” which can at once mean “remedy” and “poison”.

[35] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 70.

Standard
Commentaries

Responding to Stephen Hicks and the Criticisms of “Postmodernism”

 

Today, I would like to quickly comment on this talk that Stephen Hicks gave last year at the University of British Columbia. Despite some of his massive generalizations on 19th-20th century philosophers, I think Hicks gave an excellent overview on Kantianism and some of his influences on “postmodernism”. He is also right that both analytic and continental thinkers came to similar conclusions on metaphysics regardless of their differences. In this post, I will elaborate on some of Hick’s generalizations by talking about Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and weaving the latter with Jacques Derrida. I will also provide a quick analysis of a famous passage from Derrida’s Specters of Marx.

I would like to make four points:

First (1), if you think Nietzsche and Heidegger are “irrationalists”, then you really should reread their works. This is especially true if you also think they are outright nihilists, since both of them focuses on overcoming nihilism.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche saw how we needed to balance rationality (Apollonian) with our irrationalities (Dionysian) [speaking in Hick’s terms]. For Nietzsche, the problem is we have always privileged rationality over irrationality. Thus, he suggests that we should consider our own passions instead of being rational for once. Yet, we must also not disregard our rationality since the two are like yin yang. Here, it is hard to pinpoint Nietzche’s exact meaning since he writes in metaphors—something Heidegger and Derrida took great interest in.

In Nietzsche’s later works, he foresaw how his era will result in nihilism where people will destroy their own Christian beliefs due to the prominence of rationalism (i.e. the proliferation of science via the enlightenment era). Furthermore, he saw Christianity as a nihilistic ideology which focuses on rejecting life instead of affirming it (i.e. they believe heaven is a better place). Although Nietzsche was a controversial critic of Christianity and any religion that deals with promoting moralities that disapproves of life, he wanted to solve the problem of nihilism by trying to understand it. Nietzsche overcomes nihilism through the notion of perspectivism, where one must “destroy” some of our older “traditions” which allows us to create new moral perspectives that affirms life, open-mindedness, strength and courage (by “destroy”, I am alluding to Heidegger’s notion of “destruktion”, which Derrida translates into “deconstruction”). This is what Nietzsche famously calls “the will to power”. In some ways, Nietzsche was a moral nihilist, but only because of what he saw that was inevitably coming.

When Hicks points out how Heidegger thinks “logic gets in the way and we have to set aside logic and find some other way [to get to truth?]”, Heidegger is not necessarily saying that logic is useless and we should bide to irrationalism. But rather, he is suggesting that logic becomes contradictory, and thus “disintegrates” once we try to understand “Being” through time (I will demonstrate this later on). Therefore, we have to put in place, an “originary questioning” of being—of what Heidegger calls, the question of the historicity of Dasein (Being-There). When Heidegger asks the question, “What is Being?”, what he really mean is, “What is Being-there?”—or, “What is the Being that is already there?” (….which allows the thinking subject to formulate the question in the first place?).

Simply put, there has to first be a human “Being” who is “there” within temporality in order for there to be a “logical” thinking subject (i.e. you have to first exist in the world, temporally). This “there-ness” of Being (in-the-world)—the “Da” of Dasein—is our experience of the temporality of Being (Sein). From this, Heidegger (and Derrida), will challenge Kant’s views on temporality to distinguish the temporality of Dasein from the intratemporality of the “I think” subject (consciousness). Dasein is what precedes and makes possible, the famous rationalist / foundationalist Cartesian statement, “I think, therefore I am” (Hicks is a foundationalist). And it is within the temporality of Dasein where Heidegger coins his famous concept known as “Care”.

If you recall my last post on Derrida, I was intentionally being vague when I pointed out how when we read a text through temporality, we trace to a “history of all sorts”. This history that we trace is the historicity of Dasein (after all, Heidegger states that “language is the house of being”). But why do we trace towards the “historicity” of Dasein and not the “presence” of Dasein? Remember how trace is the unity between retention and protention where this present moment which had just past (the words you just read) unites with what is to come (the words you are about to read). On one hand, the presence of the present is always a past, which refers to a historicity of Dasein. On the other hand, this past is always moving towards a future. The logic that “disintegrates” into temporality is how this present moment is always already a past of what is to come.

Heidegger, similar to Derrida, are thinkers of origins. They are trying to conceive of a “philosophy” that can establish the “grounds” for all philosophies, epistemology, foundationalism, rationalism, empiricism, skepticism, literature, sciences, physics, and metaphysics, etc. In another words, they are trying to think of how philosophy and the very gesture of thinking arises, which in turn, establishes the philosophy of science, society, ethics, politics, art, love, etc. If you understand all of this, then you are almost at the forefront of contemporary continental philosophy.

Secondly (2), Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida should not be summarized together as if they had similar end goals simply because they were all “far left in the political spectrum” (that’s absurd). The reason is because their ideas varies greatly. For example, while Foucault and Derrida may appear to be “deconstructing” a historical discourse with similar influences such as Hegel and Heidegger, both of their approaches are very different. Foucault adopted certain aspects of Nietzchean thought, such as his “hermeneutics of suspicion” (a term coined by Ricoeur) and his “genealogical methods” of ideas, history, sex, and power. Whereas Derrida, in addition to Nietzsche, was influenced by Saussure, Freud, Lacan and most importantly, Husserl’s phenomenology. In fact, Derrida was a critic of Foucault, who attacked his magnum opus by close reading just three of its pages at a conference—which was kind of embarrassing for Foucault, since he was an intellectual superstar in France. Hence, when someone speaks of the word “deconstruction”, do they mean Derrida or Foucault? Deconstruction is often associated with the former and not the latter (an article that mixes this up is this one).

Third (3), when Hicks quotes Derrida on how deconstruction consists of a certain “tradition” and “spirit” of Marxism, Derrida is referring to his book, Specters of Marx. Something important that I must point out from this book is that Derrida thinks criticizing Marx is equally important. Basically, Derrida is trying to speak of how there is a certain “spirit” of Marx, such as his ways of radical criticism, that people always-already carry out in our capitalist world today, even if Marxism is long dead (i.e. Hicks and Peterson—the latter even used a few Marxist ideas to fight against Marxism). Therefore, we are the “specters” of Marx—even when most of us are not strictly Marxists. This form of radical criticism is what Derrida sees in “deconstruction” (destruktion; de-structure; destroy; interpretation) as he tries to situate it in politics. Hick’s naive interpretation of Derrida shows how little he knows about him—for, Hicks is not aware of Derrida’s consistent use of allusions.

Let us look at a popular passage from Specters of Marx:

“There will be no future without this. Not without Marx, no future without Marx, without the memory and the inheritance of Marx: in any case of a certain Marx, of his genius, of at least one of his spirits. For this will be our hypothesis or rather our bias: there is more than one of them, there must be more than one of them.” 

This passage can be easily misread because it consists of at least two allusions that only Derridean readers can see. The first allusion is the word “spirit”, which refers to the way Heidegger avoids using the famous German word “Geist” (spirit) in his magnum opus, Being and Time. But after refusing to use this word, Heidegger suddenly starts using it later in his lectures. Derrida wrote about this in a famous book called, Of Spirit—a book that I think only Heideggerian experts can understand because it is incredibly difficult. The title “Of Spirit”, is also an allusion to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The German word “Geist” is sometimes regarded as untranslatable since it can mean “spirit”, “ghost” (specter), and “mind”. In Of Spirit, Derrida tries to figure out the morphology of Geist and what it could mean for Heidegger throughout his usages as he took part in National Socialism (See here). In addition, “Geist” is also important because Hegel uses it quite often as “zeigeist” and “volkgeist”. At the end of my last post on Quentin Meillassoux, did you notice how I put in quotation, the “spirit” of Derrida? This is why.

The second allusion in this passage, is Derrida’s use of the word “future” (protention) which cannot “be” without a “memory” of Marx (retention). Again, for those who has read my introductory post on Derrida, this should be easily understood because trace is the unity between a past (retention of Marx) and what is to come (protention) [but I must point out that “trace” is much more sophisticated since it relates to Heidegger’s Dasein and the unity between life and death]. Basically, Derrida is applying his early thoughts on Husserl and Heidegger into Marx.

Finally (4), in terms of how all these “postmodernists” secretly rebrand themselves as “the new left”. The argument is not strong once you realize that most of these philosophers disagrees with each other quite a bit within the French intellectual arena. This suggests that it is not so much about politics in the political sense, but rather, it is about politics in the intellectual sense in regards to who has the better and accurate philosophy.

On another note, I don’t think I will defend for all “postmodernists” since I only read a selected few. We should consider how Derrida did not begin his career with Marx, but Husserl. Derrida’s first book was as an essay about Husserl’s, The Origins of Geometry. If we were to speak strictly about political philosophy, Derrida is much more influenced by Rousseau than Marx, where the former preceded the latter by one century. In particular, Derrida was influenced by Rousseau’s famous book, The Social Contract, his paper, The Essay on the Origin of Languages, and his autobiographies, The Confessions, and especially, Reveries of a Solitary Walker. In fact, Derrida was a reader of Rousseau since his teenage years. He has written essays on Rousseau in his early 20s, long before he became famous in his mid-30s when he wrote about Heidegger, Husserl and Saussure, but you would have to read those early essays in French.

Standard
Commentaries, Popular Posts

Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

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

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

To give you a background about myself, I have studied Derrida for the past 6+ years. I am relatively fluent in a lot of his most difficult ideas such as trace, differance, hauntology, and their relationship with our own “Being” in a Heideggarian and Freudo-Lacanian sense. Before I was known by my peers and colleagues as the “Derrida guy”, I extensively studied many works written by Jean Baudrillard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Language: Speech and Writing

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds (Phonemes) and Images (Graphemes)

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

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

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

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

Signifier and Signified

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

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

img168.jpg

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

Differance

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

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

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

Indication (Signifier) and Expression (Signified)

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

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

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

Inner Monologue, Expression and Animating Intention

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

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

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

img167.jpg

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

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

Trace, Differance, Spacing and Temporality

“Time is out of joint” —Hamlet

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

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

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

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

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

img170h.jpg

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

Now, the trickiest part of all this is how retention is also a mixed with protention as we read this text. Another words, what allows for our articulation of this present moment is not only that it is never “present” since it refers to a past, but it is also always moving towards a protention—such as your anticipation of the next word as you read. This “phenomenon”, if we can call it that (we can’t since this idea precedes phenomenology), is what Derrida famously calls, “Trace”. This “concept” of trace (not a concept), which is very similar to differance, is an abstract term devoid of any presence (I have demonstrated enough times on how this moment is constituted by differance, which is also a trace towards a past / anticipation). Trace is what Derrida refers as “the unity between retention and protention”—of past and “what is to come”.

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

Metaphysics of Presence and Origin-Heterogeneous

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

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

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

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

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

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


If you enjoyed this post, I have written about Derrida in many of my other posts:
A close reading of Derrida’s book, “Voice and Phenomenon” (or Speech and Phenomena).
A reading on one of Derrida’s early lectures on Martin Heidegger and his first use of the word “deconstruction”.
A response to Stephen Hick’s critique on “Postmodernism” and Derrida; I also expand on some of the ideas presented in this post..
A response to Geoffrey Bennington’s lecture on Derrida.
A response to Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson’s debate where I address the contingency of Nature through Derrida’s conception of trace.

Standard