Today, I would like to talk about one of the immutable conditions of human existence: space and time. The fact that human beings along with every object in this universe are always situated within spacetime is not only true in physics, it is also true in philosophy. You are always situated somewhere in the world in time because you live in a certain space in a certain time.
However, space and time should not be conceived as a synthetic concept that is taught. If I tell you to imagine a ball, this ball might be floating in your head, or is sitting on a table. The ball in your mind is always already situated in a certain spacetime without any effort. This is what Immanuel Kant famously refer as “pure intuition”. To say that space and time are pure intuition is to argue that it is not something that is taught to us like other synthetic concepts such as language. Pure intuition is something that comes naturally to humans and animals who are always, in certain ways, aware of their spatial-temporal world around them.
In the history of philosophy, Kant’s notion of pure intuition was profoundly influential. But what Kant was also known for was the relationship between the subject’s experience of spacetime and the empirical appearances of objects around them. Near the end of his famous book called the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant points out how humans can never know any object “in itself”. He asserts that we can only experience the phenomena of the world, but never the noumenal object.
Kant’s idea stems from a very simple fact that the world can only be experienced from our own conscious perspective as spatial-temporal objects appears before our perceptions. As humans, we can only categorize our perceptions of these spatial-temporal objects through our own minds. This is simply because we are never other objects around us. I am never the cup on the table, or I am never your consciousness when I talk to you. For example, when I have a conversation with another human being, I can only communicate with them through language without ever taking the position of the other human being (to communicate is to indicate, to signify or produce words). I can certainly imagine what it is like to be in the other person’s shoes, but this is only possible because I am imagining this perspective through my own consciousness (empathy). It is by categorizing our perceptions of these things-in-themselves from the world where knowledge gets recognized (i.e. the appearance of the cup of water as H2O, etc.). We can even study our own consciousness by detaching ourselves away from it and look at it as an “object”. This new “secondary” consciousness that arises is famously known as “transcendental consciousness” or “transcendental ego”.
Counter-arguing against this Kantian insight of the in itself is not only difficult to achieve, it is also a very ambitious move. The moment one says that we can know an object in itself in the absolute sense, we are already caught in our own categorization of the in itself (this is sometimes referred as “naïve realism”).
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While maintaining these Kantian insights, I would now like to digress into deconstruction. Many people tend to understand Jacques Derrida through “meaning effects” where the meaning of words are not completely stable (this is a popular American interpretation of Derrida—even renown French thinkers like Bruno Latour falls into this category). Certainly, I have introduced this idea many times throughout my previous posts by showing how the meaning of words depends on context and are always deferred and changes through time. What I would like to add to this argument is the problem of communication and interpretation in relationship with spacetime that Derrida always emphasized on in numerous texts (I wrote about this here). As a reader, the encounter of language is the encounter of the in itself.
Derrida’s emphasizes on communication to point out a misalignment of communication between two people. Language functions like this Kantian in itself where our interpretations of words consists of this categorization of meaning through the play of difference. This is why there are infinite ways of reading a book or interpretation to any events. It is like how you are reading this text trying to understand what I am trying to say. Language is what humans have in common with each other. Yet, language is also the gap that functions as the communication between two people. For Derrida, the way we interpret any forms of language is profoundly influenced by the way the person experiences time (such as their own history).
The experience of time is the most important aspect of Derrida’s thoughts. Famous ideas like “Trace” and “Differance” are situated in relationship with time. This is because it is the differences in the movement of time that constitutes subjectivity and identity. To be is to be in time. But we must not mistake this with Giorgio Agamben’s concept of time (contemporary) where he privileges the subject who is capable of dividing time by recalling the unlivable past into the present. Derrida’s concept of time opposes to Agamben in the sense that it is not the subject who divides time, but time which divides the subject. In short, as a human being, we are always situated in time. It is as Heidegger would refer as a human being who is always thrown into the world—to a being-in-the-world (Dasein; “being-there”). It is our job as a human being to figure out our relationship with the world, such as our relationship with objects around us; the tools, technology, language, other people, etc. We cannot choose the time we are born in. We are simply thrown into the world within a certain time.
Time is strange in the sense that the present moment is always sliding into the past. The present is a gap in relationship between the past and future. The importance is to understand that past and future are not exclusive to each other. The past is influenced by the future becoming of time (the future changes how the past is perceived). It is “becoming” because the future remains contingent and beyond our own finite predictions. Future time is infinite and lies beyond our grasp. I won’t spend much time dwelling on this idea today because I have spoke about this in my other posts (they are in my popular post menu). What I wish to emphasize on is Derrida’s notion of the future—of what he refer as the unconditional encounter of future time which may come to radically change how we interpret the past. Derrida’s conception of past and future consists of a repetition of the same (iterability) that is never identical to each other. The present is never in the past nor the future. Yet it repeats as a form of retentional difference with the future and to infinity.
As Derrida himself had said in Of Grammatology, identity is about the “becoming time of space and the becoming space of time”. The emphasis should be placed on the word “becoming” because it alludes to the infinite future becoming of spacetime which influences the way we interpret language and objects around us. Many people tend to speak of space and time as if they are distinct from each other. But they are not. Space is in time, and time is in space.
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Let us maintain this Kantian insight that we can never know anything in itself and the Derridean idea that to interpret the in itself such as language, one inevitably categorizes meaning in their own unique ways through differential experiences of spacetime (because we all have different histories and experiences). Communication becomes a form of misalignment of meanings because we can never access the in itself (hence, Slavoj Zizek’s essay was called “Philosophy is not a Dialogue” in Philosophy in the Present because a philosopher is essentially talking to themselves via their own solitude). The question that I would like to postulate is whether we can understand the foreigner’s perspective as they express their “language” to us (we find examples of this in novels like Foe by Coetzee, where the protagonist attempts to interpret a black slave who cannot speak). On one hand, if colonizers attempts to understand the foreigner by interpreting them, we are making an attempt to categorize their language into our own systems without ever understanding them in the absolute sense. Yet, on the other hand, the only way to understand the foreigner is through our interpretation and categorizations of their language.
Hence, Emmanuel Levinas would invent an ethics right in between phenomenology and categorization (interpretation) of the other. In many ways, Levinas’ thoughts are paradoxical in the sense that his ethics asks human beings to avoid categorizing and interpreting the foreigner and focus on the phenomenological face to face ethics. Yet on the other hand, the face to face relation between humans consists of bodily acts which are a form of language that is subject to interpretation by the other (i.e. body language, micro expressions, etc.). Nevertheless, it is this interpretation of the other’s language that makes it impossible to understand the other. Thus for Levinas, one must rely on a phenomenological face to face ethical encounter of the other.
But is it possible to understand non-Western ideologies as a Western person? To understand the other (in itself) is to interpret. Interpretation always consists of a form of originary violence where the subject is forced into a temporally contingent and differential relationship with the foreigner’s language (when I say language, I am thinking about speech, writing and acts). This is one of the reasons why deconstruction is about “destruktion” (Heideggerian term)—a “shaking up” of the meaning of texts by the one who interprets the foreign language.
When one cites and makes an interpretation of foreign marginalized language, it is much more than just exposing their work to others and make their voices heard in a hierarchical system that privileges certain individuals over others. The act of interpretation of the other and citing them marks an act of violence because one is categorizing them through their own ontologies and histories. Interpretation is the necessary act of violence towards the other in an attempt to understand them. This is why interpretation (deconstruction) of the foreigner is inevitably tied to spacetime. How we interpret and categorize the object (i.e. the foreigner’s language) depends on how we are situated in space and time, such as our unique history.
Just as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s natural man interprets nature and uses unnatural ways to produce fire, humans have come to produce writing and technologies as a radical outside which supplements what Nature cannot offer us (wrote about this here). Interpretation is a primordial and originary violation of nature via the interpretative act of humans. It is an act that is forced upon the in itself. For example, if you read Of Grammatology, Derrida will talk about Claude Levi-Strauss and the act of violence that is produced when the anthropologist walks into the Amazon rain forest and interprets the Namibikwara tribe’s language (like how a scholar interprets another culture, for example). The most originary form of violence is found in this “third observer” (anthropologist) who interprets the tribe. By doing so, I am inevitably interpreting the other (foreigner; in itself) and categorizing them in my own way. This is the fundamental problem between humans and the object in itself. We are all mediators and translators (I recommend a book called Of Hospitality by Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle).
But does this mean that we should avoid understanding the other? Absolutely not. It is our ethical responsibility to understand them just as it is our responsibility to understand our own relation with the world—of being-in-the-world. But we must also recognize that our interpretation of the other is a necessary violence (of what Derrida calls, “arche-violence”). The conflicts of the world are born from our play in differences and our misaligned communication of the other—of interpreting the object in itself. This is what produces the discourse of politics, truth, and worldly issues. What I am trying to get at is that we should interpret the other in such a way that allows for the ethical opening of the other from the future—to allow for the other’s response from the future. Such opening up to the future is a risk that the subject takes. It is an open wound that allows for contingencies and possibilities to unfold. Hence, when Derrida was asked about world conflicts, he says:
“An opening up is something that is decided. One cannot force someone to speak or to listen; this is where the question of faith returns…Peace is only possible when one of the warring sides takes the first step, the hazardous initiative, the risk of opening up dialogue, and decides to make the gesture that will lead not only to an armistice but to peace.” [the opening up is decided because one is always situated and divided by the movement of time; we are always situated in spacetime].
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If I have been making detours for so long, juxtaposing Kantian insight of the in itself with Derridean language and the Levinian ethics, what I have been trying to get us to think about is our finitude of being human. Much of 20th century French philosophy is marked by this finitude—this limit of knowledge and our experiences with the world, otherness, and the in itself (“the end of philosophy”). It is through our finite experience of the in itself where we recognize the contingency of the infinite. As human beings, we are very limited to what we are capable of understanding. We are literally—as what one of my professor said—dancing in our shackles. We are dancing in our own finitude and this is what produces the movement of life.
Truths are determined by our finite experiences of the world (i.e. interpreting the world). Truth becomes multiple. Truth is absolute in so far that it is finite, but also as singularity within everyone of us. But it is this very limit where we must recognize the infinite. Not only do we see this limit in Derrida and Levinas, we also see this in Alain Badiou and Jacques Lacan. For example, Lacan’s notion of the “Real” comes from Kant’s notion of the in itself. Much of Lacanian psychoanalysis is a relationship with the subject’s unconscious desires with society (i.e. language). Meanwhile, Badiou clearly sees the encounter of the radical in itself through the event—an event marked by infinite contingencies that ruptures out of the norm; like the infinite contingencies of the future that Derrida speaks. We even see this theme of contingency in Stephane Mallarme’s famous poem, “The Throw of the Dice Does Not Abolish Chance”. The moment I throw the dice and wish for it to land on a six, it actually lands on a four. The future becoming of time is otherly, contingent and infinite—something that the subject is always situated in.
Nevertheless, what I would like to highlight is this influence of Kantianism. To exist is to understand our limits as human beings in relationship with the world and other people. While famous philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche was a huge critic of Kant, he still agreed to Kant’s insight that we can never know anything in itself. Kant is central to many contemporary theoretical debates and to the understanding of many “continental philosophy” in 20th century (European philosophy).
Just look at contemporary movements like Speculative Realism where you see scholars like Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux who attempts to reverse Kantian ideas. In fact, there is a reason why Meillassoux’s famous book is called After Finitude: an Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (Meillassoux was Badiou’s student). The book was written to challenge 250 years of Kantianism and the recognition of finitude that is found in continental philosophy. Can we know anything in itself? Or are we just finite beings who are always caught in our own consciousness while we create synthetic concepts to represent objects around us?
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Let us conclude by understanding this opening of the future encounter of otherness through Derrida’s notion of forgiveness. If interpretation is an inevitable act of violence, then what can we say about the forgiveness of such violence? If I attempt to understand the other by interpreting them and always produce a misalignment of communication—of never understanding them completely (the Kantian in itself), how could we speak of forgiveness? What does it mean to know something about someone without ever becoming the other? Will the other respond to my words if I write to them? Will they reject my interpretation of their language? Will they consider my interpretation of their language to be violent? How would I know if we understood each other when we are each other’s other? Or will they destroy me through an act of evil? If the other decides to produce acts of violence upon me, can I ever forgive the other? What does it mean to forgive someone unconditionally?
For Derrida, unconditional forgiveness is not found in any finite concepts of amnesty or conditional laws. To forgive is to forgive the unforgivable. Forgiveness is not normal because it is exceptional, infinite, and impossible. True forgiveness is not related to political institutions and any forms of power. Unconditional forgiveness can only be thought through the infinite rupture of the future becoming of space and time. In the lecture, Derrida asks, when we forgive the other, are we forgiving someone, or are we forgiving something about someone? (in the same way that Derrida talks about love here). But unlike his famous argument that meanings are always deferred through differences of time which “never arrives at its destination”, Derrida suggests that unconditional forgiveness is one of the only things that arrives.
Unconditional forgiveness is a rupture from opening up to the future other. Just as one might unconditionally love someone regardless of who they might become in the future. To unconditionally forgive the other is to walk into the future blindfolded—without knowing what the future other will do to us; without ever knowing what the future holds because it is contingent. Thus, true forgiveness is the madness of the impossible.
“Must one not maintain that an act of forgiveness is worthy of its name, if there ever is such a thing, must forgive the unforgivable and without condition? And that such unconditionality is also inscribed, like its contrary, namely the condition of repentance, in ‘our’ heritage? Even if this radical purity can seem excessive, hyperbolic, mad? Because if I say, as I think, that forgiveness is mad, and that it must remain a madness of the impossible, this is certainly not to exclude or disqualify it. It is even perhaps the only thing that arrives, that surprises, like a revolution, the ordinary course of history, politics, and law. Because that means that it remains heterogeneous to the order of politics or of the juridical as they are ordinarily understood. […]
Yet, despite all the confusions which reduce forgiveness to amnesty or to amnesia, to acquittal or prescription of the work of mourning or some political therapy of reconciliation, in short to some historical ecology, it must never be forgotten, nevertheless, that all of that refers to a certain idea of pure and unconditional forgiveness, without which this discourse would not have the least meaning. What complicates the question of ‘meaning’ is again what I suggested a moment ago: pure and unconditional forgiveness, in order to have its own meaning, must have no ‘meaning’, no finality, even no intelligibility. It is a madness of the impossible. […]
Must we not accept that, in the heart or in reason, above all when it is a question of ‘forgiveness’, something arrives which exceeds all institution, all power, all juridico-political authority? We can imagine that someone, a victim of the worst, himself, a member of his family, in his generation of the preceding, demands that justice to be done, that the criminals appear before a court, be judged and condemned by a court—and yet in his heart, forgives.”