Contemplation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Contemplation

Reflections of a Decade: From Photography to Philosophy

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Untitled. 35mm. 2014.

Today, I would like to share a little bit about myself. In fact, this is probably one of the few posts where I write about myself simply because I turned 30 this year. It will cover many things that not many people know, such as how I went from learning photography all the way to philosophy and how I ended up studying literature. It will cover how philosophy destroyed my world views and mental health. You will also get a glimpse of my internal values in life and my outlook on what I believe to be an increasingly troublesome world. I will share some of my experiences as a graduate student and my views on universities that are pushing “safe space” as default space.

I would like to give a heads up that there are photographs of naked people in this post. All of the images uploaded on here are my own works and were taken when I was 20-25. Also, since I get more views from around the world than Canada, I would like to thank the strangers who stumbled on my blog and those who follows me (even if finding the follow button can be difficult, I will work on fixing this—until then, I usually post on weekends). I hope you won’t take the things I say too personally because they are not directed at anyone (I focus on ideas, not people). This blog is not a safe space and it will never be. Please leave if you are already feeling uncomfortable, but thanks for visiting anyway (no hard feelings). Since I deleted my Facebook, I have plans to open up the comments section once I figure out how to not get spammed by bots.

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I began my photography journey from wanting to be a graphic designer. Actually, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I chose graphic design because my sister studied it at the time. Eventually, my interests shifted and I decided to study photography because I was really into fashion photography at the time (early 20s). I was super knowledgeable in my areas of expertise, I knew a lot of the high fashion runway models, the photographers, make-up artists and stylists. I became somewhat of an intellectual guru of the fashion industry—I even had a fashion blog that I no longer maintain.

When I was an undergraduate student, I was a stuck up little brat who wanted to be the best at what I did with no discipline or patience for anything. I was, and still am the most ambitious person anybody knows—which is probably a bad thing. I pour my heart out in everything that I do and I always try to become the best at everything that I put my mind into. Eventually, I received the “graduating student award” and got to walk the ceremony stage twice. I was of course, very happy. But to be honest, I think a lot of my classmates produced better works. I also didn’t really care much about fancy awards, even if I understand that they reflect my achievements.

What many people did not know is that it was also during my undergraduate years where many things changed. Not only was I interested in fashion, I was also interested in why people do the things that they did. I was naturally curious about everything and how the world works. What is art? What is photography? How does society influence the way we create art or take a photograph? Why are there famous photographic artists who becomes fashion photographers? (i.e. Juergen Teller, Nan Goldin, Corrine Day, Guy Bourdin, etc.). What is the relationship between fashion photographs and sexuality? Where are the boundaries between art and commercial photography?

In addition to all these questions which I will get back to later, I also broke many rules in school, changing the way courses were taught by talking to the head of faculty with a few other classmates. Some teachers definitely did not like me due to the change that I was pushing. During my 4th year, I was at the point where I did not care about my grades. I disobeyed the requirements in some of my assignments which ruined my chances to graduate with distinction (no regrets). Years later, I was at a big photography show where I spoke to a teacher who is now part of shaping the new curriculum of the photo program. He told me that some of my rebelliousness changed the way the photography program is taught today. I was the first person to write a 20 page essay in a studio based photography class—a class that was supposed to hone my photographic skills (if I remember correctly, it was a horribly written essay).

I was very fiery in my early twenties. Not only did I break school rules, I also broke rules in photography and ignored all these “pro” photographer rules on composition, lighting, and their “how-to” because they simply weren’t in my current area of interest at the time. Don’t get me wrong, I respect them. I only followed these rules when they made sense to me. Though sometimes, I didn’t care because I was impatient. At the time, I was a huge critic of other photographers and their ways of doing things. Unfortunately this also included myself where I was a huge critic of the way I approached photography. I was basically deconstructing the idea of fashion photography and rebuilding it in a different way. All of these radical ways of rethinking how we should interpret photographs made me (in)famous in school at the time. It was strange, because I never liked being at the center of attention.

I was particularly close to one teacher from my ethics class who mentored my intellectual curiosities. I saw photography not only as a medium for expression, but as a form of writing (after all photography means “light writing”). She told me where I should look, what books and essays I should read to answer the questions I had. Eventually, she became a long term mentor and friend of mine who I still talk to till this day.

Eventually, I became somewhat of a guru not only in fashion photography, but in photographic theory. I became aware of the social, economical, philosophical impacts of the photograph and how capitalism and other social structures influences the photographer. In fact, I was taken far beyond the discourse of photography. I realized that photography was more than just an image—but more like a language, a piece of writing, or a simulation of reality that is found everywhere regardless of whether we have a camera or not (i.e. the television; our phones, etc.).

People always say that being a good photographer is about having a unique perspective. But we must not take the word “perspective” so literally (as in camera perspective, moving around, etc.). How we see the world influences how we photograph and see everything around us. How we see the world depends on how we think. By changing the way we think, we change the way we take pictures and see the world. This is why I relentlessly pursued photography not only as a photographer, but as a young intellectual who was pursuing truth. The biggest mistake people make is to think that expensive cameras takes good pictures because they don’t. And this is why people who don’t “get” art photography or any visual arts are simply those who has not yet understood these intricate problems that are not related to the image, but to how we see the world—of how we interpret the world / art. In many ways, art trains us to think critically when the viewer tries to figure out what it is trying to say. The image only becomes impactful when it captures an event; a rupture of space and time that challenges viewers radically and contingently. This is fascinating because I just recently read Jacques Ranciere’s book, Dissensus: Politics of Aesthetics which I connected very well with. For Ranciere, art should function as a form of “dissensus” as opposed to “consensus”.

Thanks to my ethics class in 3rd year, my habits of asking questions never stopped. I was like a detective trying to solve and undress the mysteries of photography even when I was unknowingly trying to solve worldly problems. What constitutes a “good” photograph in a world where we fetishize megapixels and clarity? What is a “bad” photograph? What is photography in relationship with history and political thought? What is good? What is bad? I managed to apply the thoughts that I had learnt from ethics and mutate it into other intellectual explorations that had applications far beyond photography.

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Untitled, 120mm.

“The world is naked, the king is naked, and things are clear. All of production and truth itself are directed towards disclosure, the unbearable “truth” of sex being but the most recent consequence. Luckily at bottom, there is nothing to it. And seduction still holds in the face of truth, a most sibylline response, which is that “perhaps we wish to uncover the truth because it is so difficult to imagine it naked.”” —Jean Baudrillard, Seduction (1979).

Soon, I became interested in Jean Baudrillard. My photographic works revolved around many intellectual theories surrounding fashion, sex, and film. Back then, I focused mostly in black and white film photography. I was really interested in situating people into narratives and provoke the question on the relationship between concealment, nudity, sexuality, private and public. Why do humans feel ashamed to be naked when we are animals? Are not all animals naked? What is the function of clothing, aside from warmth, like that of the animal’s fur? For humans, clothing becomes part of our naked bodies, which is how the basics of how Baudrillard’s “seduction” work: through the play of appearance and its relationship with language. But what about nudity? Is nakedness actually naked, or is there something more sublime which conceals it, like the fur that conceals the animal, and clothing that conceals the naked human body?

Through reading Baudrillard, I came to a conclusion that nudity functions like clothing which seduces us. This is because language is everywhere. Being naked is never about nakedness because there is always language—a barrier between the subject and the world. Reality is concealed by language. There is always a concealment, an extra layer which consists of a structure of signs that plays with the viewer and seduces them. In the same way, nakedness is also concealed and revealed by this language. For Baudrillard, seduction is the secret underlying structure of all art and politics.

Certainly, there were people who thought I was being some creep, even when I was far more focused in my intellectual encounters with Baudrillard than my photographs and its contents. I’ve heard it all and I don’t really care that much (from objectifying women all the way to displaying powerful women, etc.). Obviously, sex was a big theme in my work. In fact, this interest had powerfully transformed into my studies of psychoanalysis. As we know, psychoanalysis is all about sex. Freud is about sex. Lacan is about sex in language.

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Arielle in Ballet Shoes, 60×60″, 120mm, 2014. Printed on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag.

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After I graduated (and as I got older), I realized that my chances of becoming a fashion photographer was next to zero, not only because I wasn’t really taking any fashion photographs, but because I started to dislike how wasteful fashion industry is and how unethical their practices are in treating animals. I must also admit that I got a little bored of the work that I had been doing.

But I also realized what I had been doing along with my photographic work was research. Photography taught me how to think about everything that I see in the world. To see as one thinks and understand its underlying structures, causalities, and possibilities. After close reading many books by Baudrillard, I began my long independent studies on Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology which took me nearly two years to read (lets just say that I read the book very closely. I averaged 5 pages every 6-8 hours of reading). At the time, my interests of the book revolved around language and its relationship with the way we engage with reality. In many ways, I have inherited many ideas from Derrida on communication, time, and the fundamental problems of metaphysics.

The deeper I went into this intellectual journey, the more I became interested, and the more I learnt how the world works—especially when I encountered Karl Marx’s profound analysis of Capitalism (I read 1/4 of Capital). Eventually, I became indifferent to the way our world is moving towards (our ignorance, wastefulness, consumerism, exploitation of workers, endless desires, injustices, etc.). Yet at the same time, due to the level of difficulty of the books that I was reading, I also started to have a hard time trying to explain what I had learnt to other people and connecting with them.

Those who already had been reading my blog posts would know the level of complexity I sometimes get into. This eventually made it really hard for me to connect and communicate with others because I noticed how most people either didn’t care or didn’t understand a thing I said. Most of them are not to blame though, because I was a bit confused myself and I was really bad at explaining things—something that I have gotten better at over time. Regardless, I became really bitter about people—to the point where I did not like people and the society that I was living in. I was stuck in a system that can’t really be fixed unless it completely falls apart. My mid 20s were my darkest and helpless days.

One morning when I went out for breakfast with my father, he asked me about the plans that I had for the future. I broke down and cried right in the middle of the restaurant. I told him that I really wanted to fix all the problems I saw in society, but I can’t because all I see are injustices that no one can escape from; and that I am also contributing to this problem—unwillingly. No matter how hard people tried to protect and preserve something that they believed in, whether they are animals, nature, or people in general, the problem will persist and probably get worse. This is not only the question of systems and structures, it is also the problem of human nature and our desires. Thus, the only way to fix this is from its origins—something that I saw was not possible. Philosophy had taught me that the truth really does hurt. I wondered if it was better to not know how messed up our world is and just remain naive and happy like everyone else around me.

This is one of the reasons why this blog exists. Much of my underlying intention is to show people the limits of knowledge and how we take language and communication for granted. Many people don’t understand that the posts and ideas that I share are directly related to my life and values. While French philosophy is not very accessible due to how incredibly difficult they are to read, learning it had not only taught me about the recognition of my own finitude, it also taught me how I can become a better human being (it also significantly improved my analytic, critical thinking and reading comprehension skills). It had always been a pleasure for me to share my knowledge in an accessible way because it is my duty to do so. You don’t need to thank me because one shouldn’t need to pay for truth or knowledge.

Ever since the day I confessed, I felt a lot better about myself. I understand that there are many things that are out of my control, and whatever happens will happen. The future is always to come. I also learnt that many people around me are aware of these issues. I am not as misunderstood as I thought. And to those who are not aware of these issues, I try to be more understanding and not certify them as stupid right away. I will usually give them 2.5 chances. After that, they are a potato to me (lol jk—or am I?).

During this time, I began to unofficially audit courses at my local university. I went online and looked for classes that I was interested in and emailed the professors to ask if I could quietly listen to their lectures when I had the time. At first, I thought I would get turned down a lot because you normally have to pay to do such thing. Surprisingly, most professors did not mind me attending their classes (though some of them did find my presence to be intimidating which was never my intention because it is my natural state of being). In fact, I became friends with several professors. A few offered to buy me coffee where we got to know each other at a personal level. I attended courses from astronomy all the way to biology lectures, philosophy, film studies and many others.

I was the ghost of the institution. I was someone who haunted every class, as I was never an official student. I audited many high level undergraduate philosophy classes and read a lot of great books. It was during this time where I read most of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works and studied Eastern philosophy. I sat in two semester length English course on literary theory. I was surprised that they taught this course because it was quite difficult (I’m pretty sure that class traumatized a lot of students lol). The course covered a lot of really difficult thinkers like Marx, Hegel, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Butler, Deleuze, Spivak, Said, and many more.

Eventually, I decided to apply for my masters in English. The professor who I audited the literary theory course with offered to write me a reference letter while barely knowing who I was (though my sample essay on Jacques Derrida and Edmund Husserl gave him a lot of confidence in my intellectual abilities). However, due to my background in photography which was not academic at all, my masters application got rejected several times. I was also not a very good writer (to be honest, I’m still not a very good writer Lol). I competed with a lot of English students who had ten times more experience than me. In order to improve my application, I applied as an Open Studies student to show that I can do well in a high level undergraduate course. There was a point where I wanted to give up. But I felt like it wasn’t the right time because I always wanted to prove to myself that I am smart enough for grad school. With the support of my advisor, I decided to apply one last time. I told myself that if I got rejected again, I will do something else with my life. —I got accepted.

I am now near the end of my MA degree. I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to read great literature, learn new ideas and acquire new knowledge. I am grateful to have met many incredible people with a very supportive advisor. I had many great courses and professors who are incredibly knowledgeable. Coming to think about it, I had always been an outsider of literature. At heart, I am a thinker of origins and a scholar of French philosophy. But I decided that I will not return to academia (at least not anytime soon). It was during this time where I saw the real problems of political correctness and “safe spaces” which is related to what sociologists refer as “victimhood culture” (here is an article that I suggest you read; Slavoj Zizek also spoke about this here). I still recall when the term “social justice warrior” (SJW) used to stand for something positive. One might think of people like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. Today, this term has became derogatory because many SJWs has become what they hate (i.e. valuing free speech, yet condemning it). Obviously, I am not saying that we should all walk around harassing and offending people. I fully support those who fights for freedom, justice, racism, and equality. But one must be careful that, as Nietzsche might say, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster”. It is easy to fight monsters using the same tactics and logic as the monster, which turns you into the thing that you seek to destroy. The difficult part is to fight the monster by rising above it. 

On the other hand, the idea of “safe space” is the antithesis of a university. If I were to define university space, it would be an intellectual space (even if I would refrain from defining any “spaces” because that would summon the question of time since space is in time). The prohibition of specific discussions and rejection of information runs against intellectual inquiry. I recall an article that spoke about why law professors stopped teaching sexual assault laws because it is not worth the trouble of having students complain about getting triggered (here). I understand that safe spaces are useful under specific contexts (i.e. in psychologist or counselling offices) and that we all have our safe spaces without it being labeled as such. But when universities tries to transform and govern their entire space, including those outside of the institution, such as what a student or professor might say on social media (Facebook, etc.), then we have a serious problem. Can you imagine a university that is so safe that nothing new gets produced? Are universities going to start inventing speech laws and tell people what to say and how to think? What is the difference between this and authoritarianism? When students and professors are too busy policing what they say and write because they don’t want to offend others or risk their jobs, they are defeating the purpose of a university and the idea of intellectual inquiry and free speech.

If you may allow me to speak freely in a direct and insensitive way: either buy a helmet or grow thicker skin because the world is not safe. In fact, nothing in life is safe. Risk is a fundamental condition of life. Is nature safe? Is driving safe? Is it safe to open up to the other person? To fall in love or to forgive? I think our world is a little too safe where people are unwilling to take risks. Do you think any scientists would had succeeded without taking risks? Or that great ideas were conceived by staying safe and policing their thoughts, without any wild and controversial speculation? That you can be a lawyer for sexual assault cases who is afraid of its laws? Or become a doctor who is afraid of blood? My answer to the way many universities are trying to turn into safe spaces is a solid no. But do I think that there are appropriate places for safe space to help those who really needs it (i.e. extreme cases such as victims of sexual assault, abuse, etc.)? Absolutely. But if the idea of safe space is to establish an echo chamber and protect someone’s opinion bubble or from getting offended by differing views because it makes them uncomfortable, then these people might not be ready for university—let alone the “real world” where nobody gives a damn what anyone thinks or feel. Unfortunately, as much as I understand that life is really unfair, brutal, and violent, it is what it is at its current state and it probably won’t change anytime soon. It is not as simple as changing the laws (even if it may produce change) when the root cause of the problem may very well exist within human nature. Why do you think history repeats itself?

While the recognition of the problems in our world changed who I am, I hesitate to call myself a victim of the system because I am not a victim. I am responsible for my own existence in this world. I don’t get to choose when I am born or the things that already happened to me. Sitting there pitying myself, asking for sympathy and complaining won’t help. I think it is not only important to help others and make the world a better place (despite that our efforts might be futile—and if anything, make things worse), it is even more important to learn how to think and become a stronger human being. Working on ourselves as an individual is equally important to making our collective society a better place.

This is basically one decade of my life. I learnt how our world works and the human condition. I also learnt humility and how to be an optimist. I think it is true that behind all optimists lies a pessimist because I am one of them. I am a man of paradoxes and contradictions. I am the most idealistic, yet most cynical. My decision to not return to academia might be sad because it had always been a dream of mine. But if universities (especially humanities in academia) are going to turn into a circlejerk, then I will not take part of it. I can always do something else with my life.

I enjoyed writing this because it is very different from what I normally post. I basically spent a decade to figure out my values through introspection, research, tears, and many other things. In fact, I don’t think this figuring out will ever end. I wonder if I will write another post like this when I turn 40. I can only imagine that it will be very different.

The present moment is the future of my past. To tell you the truth, I wrote most of this post last year. I had in fact, anticipated its own becoming as I think back to it from this present moment. Sometimes, I wonder what it means to write about myself in the present—to constitute myself in the present by acknowledging my younger self who haunts and contaminates my being. Certainly, nothing is more violent than this eternal return of the past. I believe that many things in life will reanimate my past and bring some of these memories back into the present. Does this mean that I should avoid them at all costs so I can remain safe? No, just as the future might change who I will become, the past constitutes who I am today. The future is contingent and full of risks. As Jean-Paul Sartre would say, freedom is what you do with whats been done to you. You don’t live by naively ignoring or forgetting your past, you live by embracing all aspects of it—good and bad. I still recall when Nietzsche once famously asked: if life and memories are to constantly repeat itself, would you re-live your life in the exact same way? With all the mistakes, violence, joy, sorrow, and pain? To be able to say yes to eternal return—to affirm what happened to me and who I was in the past—of who I am today and who I might become tomorrow is the most powerful form of human will. This is the affirmation of life and the love of one’s fate (amor fati). Say yes to life. 

When it comes down to it, I am a student of time. This is something that cannot be learnt, but always already come naturally to all of us as an immutable condition of existence. I am always moving through time, aging every moment of my life. I am always constituted by my past which marks the beginning of my life. But I am also produced by the future becoming of myself which leads to my inevitable death. Past, future, life, death—the unity of these conditions moves together in repetition as I exist. Or as Derrida would say, “Living like dying is not something one can learn. All one can really do is see it coming. Together.”

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Contemplation

The Perfect Crime: Community, Radical Thought, and Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek: Philosophy in the Present

Are all truth claims power plays? This post is based on a graduate seminar presentation that I gave. It is from a course called “Otherness and Truth”. Normally, I don’t share my academic work on here. But because I will never publish this anywhere else, I wish to share it with those who are interested. The seminar was on Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek’s Philosophy in the Present which talks about how truths and philosophies are produced through the encounter of events. While this seminar assumes that you have read the book, I think most people will be able to understand it without any background knowledge. Both Badiou and Zizek are very well known in and outside of academia. Badiou is one of the last intellectuals from the famous 20th century French philosophical circle who is still alive today. Zizek is well known for his philosophically infused political commentaries. Zizek studied psychoanalysis with Jacques-Alain Miller who is the son-in-law of Jacques Lacan. He is influenced by a lot Badiou’s ideas. 

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write now (!!)


I still remembered when I was first introduced to Badiou’s works by my mentor a few years ago. She was a teacher who I met in my undergraduate studies where she mentored me when I became intellectually aimless and suffered from personal problems after I graduated. I always thought of her as a woman of possibilities because she showed me how much I did not know and taught me to always keep my mind opened for new ideas. At the time, one of her PhD advisors was Alain Badiou at the European Graduate School, with the others being Catherine Malabou and Geoffrey Bennington (both Malabou and Bennington were students of Jacques Derrida). She told me that when Badiou agreed to supervise her work, she got really excited and engraved “write now” on the back of her watch (write now = write philosophy in the present). My mentor also told me about her experience on defending her PhD thesis at Anne Dufourmantelle’s house—a philosopher and psychoanalyst who died in 2017 from saving two children. She now does peer review for works on Badiou and Malabou in several philosophy and interdisciplinary journals across Canada. I am very proud of her! 

I must say that I had secretly admired Badiou ever since I encountered his works. I find his philosophy to be very all encompassing. His works addresses the problem of discourse and the messiness of our world that is created through different political views and truths. What I find most endearing is how he encourages us to talk about truth and ideas without labeling ourselves with any forms of cultural identity and doctrines (I will talk about this in the presentation). Maybe this is because I never liked labeling myself in anyway. I had held this view since my early 20s. It is very important for me to see things from multiple perspectives and why there are so many different ways of thinking.

Badiou’s philosophy is one of those grand “theory of everything” type of theories. But we also have to understand that Badiou’s philosophy came into existence at a time where many philosophers proclaimed “the end of philosophy”. Perhaps the most famous instance was Martin Heidegger’s essay, “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”. In it, Heidegger calls for the end of Western philosophy (metaphysics) and wants philosophers to return to the task of thinking—something that Badiou does. Then there was also Jacques Lacan who was an anti-philosopher, and Jacques Derrida who developed a lot of his own thoughts under the context of Heidegger. We also see some of this in Ludwig Wittgenstein and his notion of “language game”. In short, philosophy became a discipline where truth was contextual, multiple, and divergent. The meaning of “truth” depends on how we situate it within different contexts. There is no longer a truth that we can agree on. This takes us to terms like “post-truth” which I personally find problematic. But this is another story.

Badiou’s philosophy wants us to return to the task of thinking and conceive of the conditions that produces thought. He wants to reinvent philosophy. To philosophize in the present is to have a dialogue about truth and engage with thinking. Before we look at any writer’s work, it is important to think about the conditions which motivates them. For me, my interests had always revolved around this question of condition. I became fascinated by this term when I first read the synopsis of Derrida’s book called, The Post Card. I eventually used parts of it at the end of my most popular blog post, “Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction” (here). In what condition is it possible for us to produce truth? I believe that many thinkers of the past had been occupied by this term. Today, we are going to take a look at what Badiou thinks in regards to the condition of thinking.

Note: this presentation is not the official version that I submitted for grades—which is more formal, shorter, less wordy, and less personal. This is the spoken version where I wrote it in the way that I speak. I share my personal experiences on my encounter of Derrida as an event. This blog version includes additional notes that I had removed from the original version.

 



Seminar Presentation: Philosophy in the Present

On Tuesday, we had many interesting questions in regards to the definition of otherness. Does the cynic function as the other? Is the cynic contemporary? Is the other someone or something? Today, instead of going through Philosophy in the Present section by section, I would like to dwell on the word “condition”. In what conditions allows a human being to encounter the other and establish a truth? Philosophy in the Present presents us a theory that speaks about this very condition—that is to say, for example, the condition of encountering philosophy as otherness. Most of us in this class are students of literature where philosophy functions as a form of otherly foreignness. Today, I would like us to think about the conditions which allows us to agree or disagree with these philosophical ideas.

In the essay “Thinking the Event”, Alain Badiou begins by talking about how philosophers are the inventors of problems who intervenes with the sphere of dominant modes of knowledge. This intervention is constituted by what he refers as “events” or “evental statements”. For Badiou, events are born from the contingencies that underlies our reality. These contingent events are related to the “universal” which creates the subject who thinks. For Badiou, thought is the medium of the universal, where all universals are situated in events. It is not the subject who produces thought, but rather, it is the universal or event which summons the subject as thought (27). Furthermore, the universal event is also related to truth which Badiou characterizes as unconscious. Ultimately, the universal as Badiou points out, originates from an event that is born from the contingency of reality. In a way, Badiou proposes the idea that truth, which at first functions unconsciously, is born and made aware through the encounter of the event. Thus, the event is the place where we encounter otherness. Here, otherness functions in two ways. On one hand, Badiou’s otherness via the event is alluding to Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis and the ways which the split subject encounters their unconscious thoughts (such as figuring out what the “big Other” wants). On the other hand, Badiou is situating the event of otherness beyond Lacanian psychoanalysis.

To understand Badiou, we must familiarize ourselves with some of Lacan’s psychoanalysis. Badiou’s notion of contingent event is related to what Lacan refer as a lack that is found at the heart of reality. For Lacan, reality is constituted by this unconscious void which causes desire and produces meaning and knowledge. This includes philosophy, ontology, literature, and basically everything in society. Simply put, our experiences as conscious subjects are constituted by the unconscious mind. For Badiou, the truth of the unconscious is made aware through contingent events which brings forth unconscious ideas into consciousness. While Badiou is heavily influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, he attempts to rethink the ontological problems that psychoanalysis had negated and torn apart. Due to the discovery of the unconscious mind, psychoanalysis broke down the relationship between the subject and the impossibility of constituting any forms of truth through our conscious thoughts. For psychoanalysts, conscious thoughts are the symptom of the unconscious—we create discourses like philosophy and literature because we are neurotic subjects. In Badiou’s famous book, Being and Event, he recalls Lacan’s Seminar XI where Jacques-Alain Miller—who is now the sole editor of Lacan’s seminars—asks Lacan, “What is your ontology?” (Badiou, Being and Event 4). In other words, “Lacan, what is your truth?”, how can there be truth when truth is the product of unconscious thoughts? Badiou’s philosophy began at this moment, where he sought to reconcile the subject with truth and thought—something that psychoanalysis had failed to achieve.

Once again, thought is the medium of the universal which is situated in events. For Badiou, an event consists of a truth that is discovered through the act of thinking. This is what he refers as “truth procedures” which consists of four categories: art, love, politics, and science. However, truth should not be confused with knowledge. Knowledge is produced by being faithful to the encounter of an event which exposes a truth. Simply put, an event is the recognition of radical otherness that appears out of place—something that both Badiou and Slavoj Zizek pointed out as the experience of foreignness. It is like the encounter of Michel Foucault’s notion of the cynic, or the encounter of something that is radically different or new. This otherness can also be recognized when Jacques Derrida emphasized on how he always situates himself in places where he “does not know where he is going” (Structuralist Controversy 267). Simply put, the other that is encountered through the event, does not belong within dominant modes of knowledge. The event is what grants our thoughts to “cut” through established knowledge (26). The event makes us recognize new knowledge and new ways of thinking which changes how we perceive the past. The other could be marginalized people, where their voices are left unheard by the majority until their presence are discovered through the event. Badiou gave many examples, one of them was how illegal workers went unnoticed until they demonstrated their existence at the St Bernard Church (43). For Badiou, philosophy is situated within this evental encounter of otherness. To encounter the other is to be untimely, like the random encounter of love, or the encounter of a new idea, such as the books that we are reading in this class. It is here where I believe that literature also functions as the encounter of otherness.

Now, we must be cautious here because the otherness that Badiou alludes to via the event is not only different to the Lacanian other, it is also different to the Derridean other, which is also different to Levinas’ other. While Badiou, Lacan, Derrida and Levinas emphasizes on the encounter of the other, all of them has different views on what conditions allows for otherness to occur. As Foucault might say, parrhesia does not only consist of telling the truth, it is also about investigating in what conditions allows for such truth or otherness to arise. In a way, I think this is what Badiou is doing. Hence, what Badiou attempts to capture in his philosophy, is this multiplicity of truths and universals that are discovered by encountering the event of the other. For Badiou, truth is founded on difference, not sameness. If everybody believed in the same truth, our world would be pretty boring. It is this play in the differences of thought which creates the universal and the encounters of otherness. Such as the encounter of different cultures, literature, languages, truths, and theories. This is why the universal remains open and incomplete. Thought is this medium of the universal which takes place in an event. Pure thought consists of creating new possibilities.

In the following essay, Zizek expands on Badiou’s notion of universal by addressing the problem of the Same. Zizek points out that virtual reality does not engage us with thought because all it really does is simulate reality. Zizek criticizes postmodernism, Frankfurt school, neo-Kantians and the Continental philosophy departments by alluding to how they are simulating old ways of thinking. He even hilariously criticizes Derrida, who made a list of world disasters in ten points and compares it to torturing dogs and killing spiders (66). The main problem that Zizek has with these disciplines is how they are not really engaging with the universal. This is to say, they are not making us think because they think for us—they are telling us how to think. They function like the contemporary book stores which are full of fast food philosophies that replicates and dilutes philosophical ideas. The point Zizek is trying to make is that, we are not engaged with thinking and confronting the universal. We are too safe. We are not taking the risk to engage with the other. For example, many people who are interested in Derrida would rather read commentaries of him than taking the risk to read him and experience the otherness in his work—they would prefer to not take the risk of getting frustrated by Derrida’s writing. Nevertheless, Zizek highlights that because many contemporary philosophical works are fixed on fast food commentaries and retaining a “symbolic boundary”, philosophy is not found in philosophy departments, but are discovered within literature and comparative literature departments. Zizek ends his remarks by agreeing with Badiou and says that philosophy begins at the point of foreignness; or otherness (70). Intellectuals should engage with this purity of thought which functions as the medium of the universal where anything is possible. We can be human without first identifying ourselves through “particularities” (or doctrines)—such as our nationalities, or defining ourselves as Lacanians, Derrideans, Nietzcheans, and neo-Kantians (72). As Badiou pointed out, in genuine philosophy we can talk about truth without making any power claims. In real philosophy, there is a distance between power and truth (23). In other words, while political particularities consist of a claim to power by asserting a certain truth over others (such as the political left over the political right, etc.), Badiou thinks that truth claims should not be power plays. This is because thought is the medium of the universal. Thought is a universal experience that every human being shares regardless of their economic class, political orientation, race, and so on.

Now, perhaps we have all encountered books that changed the way we see the world. A book that changed our ways of thinking through our unique encounters of them as events. Or perhaps we had fatally encountered the love of our life. For Badiou, it is these radical incalculable contingent ruptures of the norm where we confront the other and produce truths. This confrontation of the other reminds me of myself when I read Derrida’s Of Grammatology seven years ago as my very first Derridean text. At the time, not only did I considered this book as foreign because I knew absolutely nothing about philosophy, I also thought of it as nonsense. All of my ideologies and beliefs were radically challenged by Derrida. Yet this encounter was what allowed me to produce knowledge of Derrida by getting lost in his works, and write about them for years to come. In fact, I have written many embarrassingly bad essays on Derrida and submitted them as grad school sample essays. –Of course, I got rejected.

Thinking of Badiou, I always wondered what led famous figures to write their philosophies. How did Karl Marx write one of the most influential texts in history? Was there an event in his life that allowed him to create his works which he remained faithful to? How did Virginia Woolf write her incredible collection of literature? How did Cedric Robinson write his famous book called, Black Marxism? Was it because he encountered Marx as an event? Some of us might be aware that Derrida was Jewish who survived World War II. In a book called Circumfession, Derrida famously confessed of feeling excluded all his life due to his relationship with his family. No wonder that deconstruction “is”, in a way, all about exclusion and otherness. Coincidentally, Levinas was also Jewish and survived World War II as a war prisoner. While he was in prison, he associated his inmates as the other. Is this why he argues that all philosophies should begin as the ethics of the other? Here, I would like to open up to the class for us to consider our own encounters of otherness, event, and truth. Thus, let us once again ask, is the other someone, or something? In what condition makes our encounters of the other possible?

The end 😊



Notes:

1. When Zizek talks about virtual reality, I believe he is alluding to Jean Baudrillard’s criticism of modernism / postmodernism. Unlike what most people think, Jean Baudrillard was not a “postmodernist”. He was a critic of postmodernism.

2. When Zizek points out how philosophers upholds a “Symbolic boundary”, he is alluding to the Lacanian symbolic Other. Philosophers are trapped in their own symbolic Otherness that governs their philosophies.

3. Jacques-Alain Miller was Zizek’s psychoanalyst. If you wish to become a psychoanalyst, you must get psychoanalyzed.

4. The examples I chose at the end (Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, and Cedric Robinson) were intentional. They were meant to connect with my classmates’s interests. I could had chosen anyone and it would work.

5. Despite that this book presents Badiou and Zizek as if they agree with each other, they actually disagree with each other’s ideas quite a bit. But they are apparently really good friends in real life (so I was told by my mentor).

6. The example I gave on people reading commentaries on Derrida instead of his work was meant to facilitate Zizek’s argument. While I do encourage people to read Derrida’s works, I think it is fine to look for help. The danger is that you might run into unreliable sources. There are many reliable secondary sources on Derrida (I certainly would not recommend myself Lol): Leonard Lawlor, Peggy Kamuf, Geoffrey Bennington, Alan Baas, Christopher Norris, and Martin Hagglund are all very good choices.

7. While Zizek was trained in psychoanalysis, he has become more of a Hegelian than Lacanian.

8. Near the end, I placed “is” in quotation because this has to do with the way which Derrida developed “deconstruction” under the context of Heidegger’s notion of “destruktion”. Deconstruction has to do with “shaking up” and “solicitation” of the text. Heidegger became interested in the word “is” because it is the third person indicative of the word “be”. I emphasize on the word “indicative” for a reason that is associated with Derrida’s reading of Edmund Husserl (found in a book called Voice and Phenomenon; I spoke about some of this here).

9. While Badiou indirectly covers some of the problems found in deconstruction, there is a fundamental difference in Derrida and Badiou’s concept of “present” which lies in their different takes in phenomenology. I tried to point this out in class once, but I don’t think anyone understood what I was trying to say. I would argue that for Derrida, there is no philosophy in the “present” because the present is always situated in the past which shares a paradoxical relationship with the future. There is no such thing as the present because the present is always divided by the spacing of time (past and future). The present is always “elsewhere” (other). In other words, Badiou emphasizes on the presentation of the present. Whereas Derrida emphasizes on the re-presentation of the present (I spoke about re-presentation here).


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Commentaries, Contemplation, Popular Posts

Lacanian Psychoanalysis and the Subversion of the Split Subject

Graph IV

Graph of Desire

Today, I would like to expand on my previous post on Lacanian psychoanalysis and the Wound of Split Subjectivity by understanding its relationship with the Graph of Desire. I am well aware that this is the graph that makes people who wish to learn psychoanalysis to run the other way. The Graph of Desire was presented in an essay called “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious” which consists of a lot of ideas that Lacan had developed over many years. It was also where Lacan attempts to situate the “scientific subject” as the “unconscious subject”. This post will provide my own interpretations of the graph because this is what happens when you leave Bobby in his room for 7 weeks. I won’t aim to extrapolate every detail of the graph because there are many ways to read it.

I strongly encourage you to read my previous post on Lacan before you start this one (hyperlinked again here). This is because it provides the foundations for everything that I will be talking about in this post. But in case you are lazy, I will summarize and refresh some of the ideas that I had introduced. This post is also significantly longer than average (around 6000 words). I tried my best to make it digestible.

In my last post, I introduced the fundamentals in the ways which the subject must “give up” on some of their desires in order to become a subject who is always wounded and incomplete. The subject begins from the mirror stage and moves from the ideal-ego to their ego-ideal as their experiences are mediated through symbolic laws which functions like a filter. I gave many pedagogical examples of how this symbolic filter works, such as the employee’s subjectivity and how they are represented by their company or institution (filter), yet their employee identity is not who they really are in their private lives. In the same way, the words we use to represent ourselves through language is not who we really are, but the becoming subjectivity that is never complete. The speaking subject who can only express themselves through language (i.e. “I am X”) is never “whole” and complete. Thus, subjectivity is always “split” because they are filtered through the symbolic laws that they must always conform to. Identity and subjectivity is a wound that can never be healed because one is always already a speaking subject who is divided by what they can and cannot desire. In turn, this produces the “split subject” who must always share a relationship with the filter of the symbolic “Other” (super ego / unconscious mind).

Today, I will focus on how language functions as the symbolic filter because this is what Lacanian psychoanalysis is about. The moment we speak or write a sentence, our language becomes the symptom of the symbolic Other (repression; or unrealized unconscious actions, etc.). The things we say offers us the clue to our unconscious mind and its thinking patterns. Since psychoanalysis studies the unconscious mind, its entire goal is to ask “What does the Other want?” (“Che Vuoi?”) by analyzing the things people say through free association. These associations can be random things, it can also be dream fragments and narratives that people tell others about, or stories that people identify as who they are as a human being.

Above all, this notion of filtering that passes through the symbolic Other (language) is what Lacan refer as “castration complex. Castration is a never ending process that happens all the time in our lives. As I had pointed out in my last post, you are being castrated the moment you read this text. Recall that the child begins with their imaginary “ideal-ego” who goes through the castration complex (filter) which produces the ego-ideal (this is important, we will return to this). It is through our relationship with language which develops the ego-ideal. For example, the speaking subject must always follow the rules of language in the same way that they must follow the rules of society which leads to unconscious desires. The subject’s relationship with language and other people is a relationship with their own Other (i.e. their unconscious desires). When the subject speaks, parts of who they are appears through language (the symptom), and the repressed desires goes missing (I will return to this later on). In the same way, the reader who is reading this text always gets filtered through language and symbolic laws.

This is why Lacan was famous for being called an “anti-philosopher”. What constitutes philosophy and its notions of truth has to do with the unconscious mind. Philosophy is the symptom of the unconscious. The subject must be mediated through language to produce philosophy. Hence, in order to speak about “Being”, one must subtract something from Being. Despite being influenced by Martin Heidegger, this is why Lacan will never be a Heideggarian. Heidegger had set out a task to retrieve fundamental being from the past. He was obsessed with a missing “Being” (lack) that is fundamental to all beings. There is always something missing in Being that makes us desire for Being.

Split subjectivity is central to psychoanalysis. Another example that Lacanians uses to describe the symbolic filtering is the train which moves through the train station. The train station does not move because it consists of symbolic language, laws and rules that are always in place (i.e. in language, we must follow the rules of grammar, etc. as we express who we are; just as a human being has to follow the written and unwritten rules of society). Meanwhile, it is the train / subject which moves through the station. The subject must invest energy to speak through language in order to express themselves. The train station (language; filter) is the site of differences and signifiers that the subject must pass through. As Lacan might say, the train station (Other) is the “treasure trove of signifiers [words]” which the subject must depend on in order to communicate and express themselves—even if this communication is directed to themselves (introspection). The subject is always mediated by symbolic language (signifier; “S”). We are split subjects because we are speaking animals.

Graph I

Graph I, “Elementary Cell”

In Graph I, we have two trajectories. The horizontal trajectory that flows from the left to right as S—>S’ implies the movement of signifiers such as this sentence which moves from the beginning to end (there are deeper implication to this such as the sliding of signifiers and the “anchoring point”). In order to understand the beginning of the sentence, we have to read what lies throughout the entire chain of significations towards the end of the sentence. It would make no sense for me to start a sentence and not finish it because that would not provide sufficient signifiers for me to understand its meaning.

Meanwhile, we have the vertical trajectory that is shaped like a horseshoe which loops over the horizontal trajectory backwards from right to left. The reason why Lacan loops it backwards is due to Freud’s ideas on “afterwardness” which suggests the ways which we analyze a sentence after we have articulated it (it also has to do with what Lacan calls the “quilting” of signifier and signified). The triangle represents the beginning of subjectivity, such as the subject as an animal, who crosses over the horizontal trajectory (symbolic language) twice and ends up producing the split subject ($) on the other end. What we see through this horseshoe trajectory is how split subjectivity is produced and mediated through language.

An example of this horizontal and vertical movement could be the mother who tells the child to clean up his room (horizontal trajectory). The child begins at the triangle who interprets the commands of their mother and produces the split subject who must give up certain desires to meet her mother’s command (perhaps they wanted to go outside to the playground). In the same way, since castration is never complete and occurs until we die, the graph could also represent the reader as the split subject who is currently interpreting this sentence as they get filtered through language.

By itself, the symbolic language is inanimate because it relies on the subject to give these words specific meanings. Thus, the vertical trajectory also represents intentionality. Here, we see something that is very interesting in regards to phenomenology (which studies intentionality), deconstruction and psychoanalysis because Lacan offers us a psychoanalytic way of interpreting intentionality that is not only influenced by inter-subjectivity, space, and time, but by our unconscious desires. This unconscious desire which motivates intentionality can only be experienced through the effects of the signifier. 

The horizontal trajectory could be the representation of the “other person” who speaks. Whereas the horseshoe trajectory represents the subject who interprets what the other person says. Remember how the split subject’s relationship with the other person is actually a relationship with their own Other (i.e. unconscious desires and repression). In my view, the two positions of the horizontal and horseshoe trajectories are interchangeable. The other person who speaks (horizontal) could also be the one who returns “afterwards” to interpret what they had said (horseshoe). I would like to consider two different perspectives between the one who speaks (horizontal) and the one who analyzes and interprets (horseshoe). I will focus more on the the horseshoe trajectory and touch on the horizontal one near the end of this post.

Before we proceed to Graph II, I would like to point out the two junction points where the horseshoe crosses through the horizontal trajectory. These two junctions are important because the first one represent the “filtering” where the subject is mediated through the “treasure trove of signifiers” (symbolic language; Other) to formulate meaning. The first junction is where the subject produces “split subjectivity” by being mediated through language. It is here, where we first encounter the symbolic Other and the “filter” (or train station). As we will see, the Other is represented as “A” (Autre in French) in Graph II:

Graph II

Graph II

The new bottom section of the graph is basically a visual representation of the mirror stage. “i(a)” is the image of the other person (alter ego) or the person that I share my experiences with when I have conversations with them (notice how it is a one way movement from right to left). Such experiences, as I had already mentioned, is a relationship with my own ego (m) that is actually a relationship with the Other who defines the laws and meanings [s(A)] that I must live by (because as a split subject, I must be mediated through language). The relationship with the other person is a relationship with the split subject’s ego-ideal, which is the ideality given by the Other (A).

Recall from my last post when I said that it is not enough to see myself as an ideal human being because I need the approval of the Other. For example, I need lots of likes and approval by others on social media and my narcissistic selfies because I need to live up to the Other’s expectations that I am a superstar hottie or pro nature photographer on Instagram. It is like looking at yourself in the mirror, but recognizing that there is also the other Other person who is unknowingly standing behind you and sees who you are in a certain way (parents, boss, girlfriend, boyfriend, strangers, government, police, social media, etc.). The symbolic ego-ideal is the recognition of an outside beyond who you are (m; ego) as you evaluate yourself (you judge yourself; recognize your insecurities because the Other sees you in certain ways since they are the one who represents the laws, etc.). This is why the image we uphold to ourselves is not who we really are. As split subjects, we are trying to satisfy the desires of the Other. In other words, we are upholding a certain narrative or image of what we imagine the Other sees in us (i.e. imagining what other people think of us). Later in Graph III, we will encounter this imagination as Lacan’s famous fantasy formula: $<>a.

Unlike Graph I, Graph II presents us with the response of the Other that is found through the matheme of s(A). Let us suppose that the horseshoe trajectory is a child who is responding to the demands of their (m)Other. Once the split subject gets filtered through the Other (A), they acquire the Other’s response of s(A). This leads to a complex relationship between subject’s demand and the Other’s response. Another way to put it is that s(A) is the meaning created by the other (Other) that the subject interprets from their response (their chain significations from the horizontal trajectory).

I think there are at least two ways of reading this movement from A [Other]—>s(A) [Other’s meaning] —> I(A) [ego-ideal]. The first consists of the relationship between the infant who demands their needs from the mother that takes position as the Other (only later in the infant’s life does the Other transform into the symbolic language and the laws of society). An example of this would be the infant who demands milk and love from the (m)Other by crying. The response that the (m)Other makes (horizontal trajectory) is to tell the child and offer them milk or her breast. However, as the infant grows older, they realize that the mother cannot offer the kind of (sexual) love that she offers to her father because the law prohibits incest (Lacan’s maternal and paternal figures, just like femininity and masculinity, are positions that the subject takes—they are not restricted to biology). As a result, the infant’s demand for love becomes an impossibility—it becomes the remainder which transforms into an unconscious desire that makes the child ask: what does the (m)Other want? Or simply, what do I need to do in order to receive love from her?

This is why, in the adult split subject, desire is not just about the object that the split subject desires (their romantic partners, etc.). Unconscious desire traces all the way back to the infant’s desire for the sexual love that the Other did not want and cannot give. Certainly, the split subject is not conscious of this fact, because they have already repressed such thought into their unconscious. Hence, desire is never about the object of desire because it is the relationship with what is missing that is causing the split subject to desire. I have provided an example of this in my last post about a man who desires a woman, but what is causing him to desire this woman is not the woman but the lack that he does not consciously recognize (object a).

The second interpretation comes from the idea that, since the split subject must always pass through the Other’s discourse and express their demands through language, their demands are never completely expressed and therefore, cannot be completely met. This leads to the same outcome of never figuring out what the Other wants because one has already gone through the Other’s discourse. Furthermore, the ways which the split subject interprets the Other’s response also involves castration (filtering) and are influenced by their unconscious desires that can never be satisfied. The way we read Lacan for example, always leaves us with something left to desire in his work. There is always more meaning to extrapolate from his texts. This is also true to say, our interpretation of literature and life events.

Desire is the surplus of demand. Desire is what remains when demand fails to be completely satisfied because the mother cannot offer the child the love she offers to her father. Desire is also found when the split subject fails to make their demands through language. Demand is related to our needs. Such as our need for food. Desire is what separates humans from animals. As humans, we don’t just demand to eat, we also desire for objects that has nothing to do with our biological needs.

Since desire is the surplus / remainder of demand, the enjoyment that comes from the satisfaction of desire is partial. Enjoyment is only experienced partially after the subject has been mediated through the symbolic law (after the subject has been filtered and mediated through language and what they are permitted to consciously desire). A classic example: since the first symbolic law states that I cannot copulate with my mother, father and siblings (for Freud, the first law is the prohibition of incest), I can only unknowingly sublimate theses desires to my future partner and other objects that I encounter in my life. The only real and impossible form of pleasure that can never be completely experienced is what Lacan famously calls “jouissance” which translates into “enjoyment” or “orgasm”. Through desire, we can only receive the remainder of jouissance (we will return to this later on once we get to the sex drive). The split subject cannot experience jouissance at its fullest potential because they are always filtered through the symbolic Other. This is why jouissance is related to the real (of what Lacan famously calls “lalangue” or the mother tongue). The symbolic is what paradoxically grants and prohibits jouissance.

Nevertheless, Graph II shows us that in many cases, the Other responds and offers meaning to the split subject as they pass through the horizontal trajectory through A and s(A), which produces the I(A). In this case, the subject recognizes the Other’s desires and tries to fulfill the ego-ideal image that the Other imposes upon the subject, such as trying to live up to the Other’s demands. Clean your room! Become a doctor! Become a rich capitalist! Live up to your own self image defined by your new Other as social media! Hence, as I mentioned last post, the subject’s desire is the Other’s desire. As I gaze through social media, it tells me what I should desire to become (to gather lots of likes from people, take mirror selfies, share memes, be cool, etc.) [now, think of this under the context of marketing, advertisement or political correctness].

The horseshoe trajectory (the arrow) in Graph II is a representation of our demand which gets filtered into desire when the child recognizes that the sexual love they seek from their parents is not possible. By passing through the Other (A), the split subject recognizes this, but still unconsciously desires for such occurance. Thus, they unknowingly seek for it through their interactions with other people (i.e. in their future romantic partners, friends, or objects that they buy, etc.). This is why you might notice how couples will often have partners who, in some ways, resemble people from their family. This can either be really obvious or not at all. This is because we are all unique individuals (split subjects) who makes different identifications with the Other which attracts and arouses us. It can be something as obscure as one of Freud’s patient who was obsessed with the shine on a woman’s nose. There are also instances where you might notice how couples look like each other. In this case, there is a chance that they are narcissists. Although I must point out that narcissism is actually part of human relationships because we relate to the image of the other (Other) with ourselves (this is what makes identical twins interesting). For example, I see similarities between myself and the other person when I have conversations with them, so we become friends. This is why I once said that our relationship with other people is actually a form of fantasy relation with ourselves. Everything functions like a mirror (recall in the mirror stage: “the other person in the mirror is me!”).

The transformation from demand to desire leaves us with an important question that all psychoanalysts seeks to answer: What does the Other want? In psychotherapy, it is about figuring out this conflict between the Other and the unconscious desire of the split subject. The difference lies between what the subject wants versus what the Other wants from him or her. What does the Other want to say? What if the Other never tells us who we are? What happens when the employee does not know what the boss demands? Or when the subject does not know what they want or who they are because the Other does not offer any response? What happens when what we want from the Other can never be acquired because our demands cannot be met?

But because there is no absolute answer to the Other’s desire that desire will endlessly re-manifest itself into different objects through our drives, such as our romantic partner, the new commodity we just bought. I can for example, desire to buy this new car because I unconsciously identify it with my mother. Yet, after buying this car, I stop desiring for it overtime because I realized that this is not what I actually desired because I unconsciously wanted my mother. Keep in mind that I am using the classic Freudian examples for my own amusement. In practice, our unconscious desires could be many other things.

We now have sufficient information to understand Graph III:

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Graph III

 

What we see in the new upper section of this graph is the introduction of “d” which represents desire as the remainder or “surplus” of demand after it passes through the Other. This new graph is relatively straight forward in the sense that it is trying to suggest what happens when the Other provides no response to the subject’s demand—which is basically all the time because we are castrated / filtered subjects who are mediated through language. Hence Lacan writes “Che vuoi?” meaning “What do you want?”—or, “What do I need to do to satisfy the desire of the Other?”

Furthermore, I believe the upper section of this graph also represents what occurs unconsciously. It takes place beyond the signifiers of the Other deep within the split subject’s mind. To put this in another way, the upper section takes place beyond the reader’s interpretation of this sentence as it happens unconsciously. We can see that there are actually two arrows that split from the Other (A). The outer arrow loops and points towards $ (split subject). The inner arrow points towards object a. Together they form $<>a which is the symbol for fantasy.

For the sake of simplicity, I will say that because the split subject does not know what the Other wants, they must imagine or fantasize the Other’s desire. Object appears in this fantasy formula because my desire as the split subject is the fantasy of what the Other desires for me (remember from last post, desire is produced through object a). Simply ask yourself, what do you fantasize about? My desire and fantasy comes from the Other’s desire. Yet, I always misunderstand the Other’s desire (i.e. my desires and fantasies) because I am always already a split subject. This is why our dreams offers us a way of understanding our unconscious mind because it is related to our primal fantasy and the Other’s desire. The analyst’s job is to help the analysand “traverse” this primal fantasy.

Let us move into the final form of the graph:

Graph IV

Graph of Desire (Completed)

In Graph of Desire, Lacan introduces the formula for drive as $<>D (D is for demand), and S(A) which implies the lack of symbolic meaning within the signifying chain (there is no Other of the Other). Remember that every time we speak, parts of who we are is revealed through language, and the repressed material goes missing. S(A) represents what is missing from the signifying language which makes the split subject ask “What does the Other want?”. From the reader’s perspective, it is the question of what your unconscious mind is trying to say as you are filtered (castrated) through these words (i.e. what does the meaning you extract from this text inform you about your Other?). Notice how after desire (horseshoe arrow) passes through the lack of symbolic meaning of the Other S(A), we get to fantasy $<>a which involves fantasizing what the Other wants. Because the Other lacks a signifier (i.e. I don’t know what the Other wants), I seek to fantasize what the Other wants. This fantasy moves down the graph and resurfaces as the Other’s response / meaning of s(A) [even when we do not know what the Other wants because we are split subjects].

In my last post, I explained Slavoj Zizek’s joke on “coffee without cream” and how the missing content of the coffee constitutes our perception of the coffee. I also explained Lacan’s interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story called “Purloined Letter” and how the stolen letter functions as a lack by which all other signifiers surrounds it like a vortex. Both coffee without cream and the empty content of the letter is represented by the signifier of the lack of signifier. In this case, S(A) is the signifier of the lack of signifier. This is where we encounter Lacan’s controversial “phallic signifier” (ф) which is related to the “name-of-the-father”, “paternal metaphor”, and the formation of sexual difference known as “sexuation” (found here, from Seminar XX on feminine sexuality). In fact, it would be naive for me to not elaborate on sexuation because a big chunk of psychoanalysis is about sexuality.

Basically, the phallic signifier (ф) shares a paradoxical relationship with the lack of the Other S(A)—the lack of the phallus—namely, the feminine. The signifier (ф) of the lack of signifier (-ф) is the phallic signifier (ф). This is why in the sexuation graph, Lacan crosses out the La as in “the woman” because feminine sexuality can exceed the limitations of the phallic signifier. This is known as the “Other jouissance” which characterizes “feminine writing” (Helene CixousThe Laugh of the Medusa is a good example of feminine writing; James Joyce’s Ulysses is another good example). There is however, a certain way of reading Lacan where it appears like he privileges the phallic signifier. This suggests that all symbolic languages that the subject mediates through are fundamentally phallic and masculine (patriarchal) which follows Freud’s phallocentrism. This interpretation situates Lacanian psychoanalysis into gender politics and it is part of what made him controversial. However, I would say that this is a misreading of Lacan. Slavoj Zizek is quite famous for addressing this misreading (here). For now, I will not go into the details of sexuation because it is another very difficult topic.

Regardless, let us return to the Graph of Desire. If we continue to follow the horseshoe trajectory, notice how this missing signifier of S(A) appears after it passes through the Other (the filter; A) and drive ($<>D). After desire is produced from the surplus of demand, it is recognized within $<>D, or the drives of the split subject. Basically, drive is another word for sex drive (libido) which shouldn’t always be thought under the context of copulation. This is because there are many things in life that offers “enjoyment” such as happiness, listening to music, reading, writing or speaking—basically anything that gives us pleasure.

For Lacan, all drives are partial which represents partial objects that attracts and arouses the split subject (common examples would be the breast, gaze, voice, etc.). In this sense, it is through these partial drives where we recognize our desires. But because conscious desire arises from being filtered through the symbolic, the drives can never reach its goal since it is not what the split subject unconsciously desires. Drives can only circulate around object a (i.e. the lack / unknown repressed material). Another reason that drives never reaches its goal is because its functions are a bit “mechanical”. The drive is like a circuit, or train tracks which involves having the libidinal energy push the train (subject) through the station / filter. It consists of—as we will later see—a form of repetition. It is like listening to your favorite song on repeat which offers you partial jouissance. You can never get enough of the partial enjoyment that it offers.

Finally, let us read the top horizontal trajectory which moves from Jouissance –> S(A) —>  $<>D —> Castration. This trajectory is important not only because it is the visual representation of castration from the perspective of the subject who speaks, it is important because it mimics the chain signification of the lower portion that moves from Signifier —> Voice. This upper unconscious trajectory points out how speaking and the creation of meaning which is the result of filtering, prohibition via symbolic, still allows for a certain level of enjoyment satisfaction.

This is why Lacan once famously said that speaking is like having sexual intercourse. We gain enjoyment and satisfaction from talking to other people which traces back to our relationship with the Other (Lacan’s statement also has to do with the concept of “sublimation” where we substitute one for the other). Furthermore, this top horizontal movement from jouissance to castration also emphasizes on what is missing [S(A)] is also paradoxically found within our drives $<>D as the symptom.

Once again, I pointed out that every time we speak, part of our subjectivity is found in language, and the unconscious desire goes missing. The things we say is the symptom of our unconscious desires. Hence, language consists of a negative (-1) and positive (+1) dimension. This formulation is represented through S(A) [lack] which consists of a -1, and $<>D [drive] that carries the +1 of the signifier. It is also recognized through sexuation of the -1 / the lack of phallic signifier, and the +1 of a phallic signifier. Simply put, the top horizontal trajectory emphasizes on the partial drives that motivates the split subject to speak (their desire to speak). It is through the signifiers of the Other—such as what is said through symbolic language by the split subject (the symptom)—where we recognize the effects of their unconscious mind.

What got Lacan banned from the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) comes from the way he attempts to make specific “cuts” through the analysand’s (patient) free association. Lacan achieves this by interrupting the double movement between the conscious Signifier —> Voice and the unconscious Jouissance —> Castration. Here, the cut is an attempt for the analyst to help the analysand produce new ways of thinking and restructure their unconscious patterns (new train tracks, new circuit). It must be noted that these interruptions and cuts that the analyst makes are not random. The analyst is aware of the analysand’s unconscious patterns via free association (i.e. the way they speak).

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Essentially, Lacan is trying to formulate ways to address what lies beyond the symbolic signifying language. Humans are not only conscious talking animals, they are unconscious subjects who experiences enjoyment (jouissance). This is what separates humans from artificial intelligence. It makes films like Ex-Machina fascinating because it emphasizes on human attempts to assign sexuality to robots. Humans are sexual beings where sexual difference is inscribed at the heart of the split subject as a form of contradiction: between the -1 and +1 of signification (of what is signified through language and what is missing in it). All beings are sexual. This is why sexuation is such an important component to Lacanian psychoanalysis. There is no such thing as a being who is emptied of their sexuality.

All of this takes us to the dialogues between gender theorists and psychoanalysts. I won’t get too much into this today, but it can be seen in the famous debate between Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler that took place in the 90s. Their differences lies in their views on how subjects are related to the symbolic. Butler’s theory of gender performativity reduces the Lacanian symbolic into performative acts which challenges the privileged gendered acts that are enforced by history and social laws (gender as a social construct). By producing new performative acts through the symbolic, Butler thinks it could disrupt existing symbolic laws. For Zizek, Butler creates her arguments at the expense of forgetting that the performative acts which seeks to disrupt dominant symbolic acts are part of the symbolic Other. In other words, “liberating” performative acts is also the product of the symbolic Other who restricts such liberation. The performative subject who is supposed to challenge symbolic norms is found within the limitations of the Other and the split subject. Alenka Zupancic explains these differences very well in her book What is Sex? (2017) [p. 39-44].

With this aside, there are many concepts that I didn’t get to include in this post such as the concepts of sadism, masochism and fetishism / perversion. Enjoyment (jouissance) is not restricted to ideological norms such as happiness. It could be things that causes us pain and suffering. In fact, Lacan relates jouissance to a form of suffering. Jouissance is a big complicated concept that deserves specialized attention because it is related to Freud’s infamous concept of the “death drive” and “repetition compulsion” (from a book called, Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Jouissance is a form of repetition that can be experienced through the partial drives. Remember that the partial drives are “mechanical” because it constantly repeats—like replaying your favorite song or film. The reason you replay it is because you are always only partially satisfied.

While jouissance cannot be fully recognized, its presence can be experienced in bits and pieces through speech and writing. But because we are always castrated speaking subjects who are prohibited by the laws of the Symbolic Other, we can never fully experience jouissance. Jouissance is like the engine of desire that gets filtered through the symbolic and are found with our partial drives as it circulates the object cause of desire (a). The closer we are to object a (or pure jouissance), the more anxious we get because this is where we encounter our primal repression where no symbolic language can represent (this is what Lacan refer as the “real” in every sense of the word).

Perhaps some of you might ask whether or not Lacanian psychoanalysis actually works—or whether any forms of psychoanalysis works at all. The short answer is that it works, but it takes a lot of time. In general, it seems that psychoanalysis has been a discipline which existed “on the side”. It is definitely a lot more popular in France and other European countries (they teach it as mainstream psychology). In North America, the scientific methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are much more popular choices. There are also other things that makes clinical psychoanalysis not as popular as CBT and ACT. First, psychoanalysis is really intense because you have to meet with the analyst 2-3 times a week. This means that second, it gets really expensive and not many people can afford it. We also have to factor in compatibility because the analysand must feel comfortable with the analyst since they have to open up to them.

There are also many other psychoanalytic concepts that needs to be accounted for in a clinical setting, such as transference and counter-transference which becomes one of the key concepts to learn. In a clinical setting, it is the analysand who directs the sessions, not the analyst. The analyst sits behind the analysand to avoid transference.

The type of psychoanalysis that most scholars study are often referred as “theoretical psychoanalysis” which is a little different to “clinical psychoanalysis”. The obvious difference is that a clinical analyst won’t be like “hey, you actually want to sleep with your mother” (not very therapeutic). In reality, the clinical analyst’s job is to identify and restructure the analysand’s unconscious patterns, defense mechanisms, and help solve other problems that the analysand experiences (i.e. psychosis, trauma, etc). Ultimately, psychoanalysis holds the view that we are all neurotics because we can never figure out what the Other wants. It’s just that some of us are more neurotic than others. This leads to interesting questions such as whether or not if there is such thing as someone who is “mentally healthy”. Regardless, the psychoanalyst’s goal is to reduce your neurotic symptoms by studying your unconscious thought patterns, primal fantasy and engage with the dialectics of desire.

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Meaning as Soliloquy: Responding to Criticisms of Deconstruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In many ways, Auerbach summarizes what I had said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,
B.

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Deconstruction and the Resistances of Psychoanalysis

 

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

I intentionally cited Rousseau in my last post to open up the dialogue between deconstruction and psychoanalysis. This is the first post on my blog that talks about some of Derrida’s views on psychoanalysis. It requires you to have read my previous post on Derrida to understand (found here). Since there are too much materials to cover, I will split my discussion into several posts.

Introduction to Psychoanalytical Difference: Conscious / Unconscious

It is not by chance that Derrida chose this Rousseau quote to end his magnum opus, Of Grammatology. What kind of “philosophy” might be given to us from the dreams of a bad night? PsychoanalysisIt is the psychoanalyst and analysand (patient) who analyzes their dreams while they are awake. Derrida had a very long and complicated relationship with Lacanian psychoanalysis which—in my view—consists of many similarities, yet disagreements with Lacan’s ideas. This is because both deconstruction and psychoanalysis are about “analysis” (interpretation). In this post, I will offer you an introduction to some of their essential differences—as in, not only their differences in a theoretical sense, but what a psychoanalyst say, and what they do not say.

As we have learnt from my previous post, deconstruction is situated in the play between differences: between what a text says, with what it does not say. Derrida refers to this “not said” as an “impurity” which contaminates and produces the privileged center of what is said. I’ve shown many examples of this form of privileged “logocentrism” in my last few posts. Such as how Rousseau privileged speech over writing, yet writing haunts Rousseau’s speech through the invention of technique. We will eventually encounter more logocentrisms that Derrida will contest, such as Freud’s “phallogocentrism”: the privilege of the male phallus—something that can only be understood in conjunction with Lacanian views on sexual difference.

As I had also went over in my post on psychoanalysis and split subjectivity, psychoanalysis attempts to study unconscious desires through our own consciousness. The unconscious exists because we are conscious subjects. Hence, we are always “split subjects”. This is where we find the fundamental difference which produces psychoanalysis: between what our consciousness says, and what it does not say.

This also relates to what our consciousness can remember and not remember. In the essay “Screened Memories”, Freud talks about how our mind’s defensive mechanisms distorts our conscious memories in order to protect us from repressed traumas in the unconscious. In the same way that Derrida is interested in what is said and not said in a text, Freud was also interested in what is said and not said in our consciousness. For Freud, what the conscious subject does not say is their desire to sleep with their mother. For Derrida, what is not said might not always be their desire for their mother, but something entirely different (if you are interested, this was mentioned by Geoffrey Bennington here).

Readers of Derrida may notice that he does not deny the existence of the unconscious. In fact, he takes advantage of it in many places of his work. For example, in Archive Fever, Derrida braids the relationship between archiving, phenomenology, ontology, with Freudian psychoanalytic views of technology and memory. In such text, Derrida takes an interest in psychoanalysis because it functions as an “apparatus of perception” (Archive Fever, p. 15). This is where we start seeing the difference between psychoanalysis and deconstruction.

Phenomenology, Time Consciousness, and Intentionality

Allow me to recite the first line of Rousseau, “the dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy”. In this short passage, Derrida offers a hint to the distinction between psychoanalysis and deconstruction: phenomenology. For the inexperienced reader, it is easy to overlook the word “given”—especially if you have never encountered phenomenology (this is the same when Derrida uses words like “‘as such”; it is also easy to confuse the “Other” under the context of phenomenology and the “Other” in psychoanalysis). The term “given” is frequently studied along with the concepts of intuition, time consciousness and intentionality. It is used among many  phenomenologists, such as Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology attempts to study the phenomena that surrounds everyday human experiences. In order to understand it, we have to imagine that we are living in limbo where introspection, language and knowledge are temporarily suspended (this is known as “bracketing” or “phenomenological reduction”). Under such suspension, only our perception and senses remain (one can even say that this suspension also withholds the ego).

Imagine that you are sitting on the beach as you gaze upon the ocean in front of you. As you are looking at the ocean via your senses, your intuition tells you that while what is given to you remains “as such” (i.e. the way the ocean appears to your senses as phenomenon), you are also intuitively aware of the ocean’s unfathomable depth. It is like looking at the cup that is sitting on your table while intuitively knowing that it is round on the other side. The word “given” is associated with the phenomenon of our sensory experiences in the world that is offered to our intuition.

Phenomenology concerns itself with the relationship between how phenomena yields to the development of all forms of structures and knowledge. For many phenomenologists, this includes psychoanalysis. Phenomenology was a discipline that Derrida had a very complicated engagement with early in his career. Before Derrida published his famous books such as Of Grammatology, Voice and Phenomenon and Writing and Difference, he translated an essay by Husserl called The Origins of Geometry which included a long introductory essay by Derrida. One can suspect why Husserl wrote this essay, since physicists uses complex geometry and mathematics to represent the world.

There is a reason why phenomenology is often considered as the origins of human experiences that is more originary than language, epistemology, or mathematics. To exist in the world, the human being is always already situated within phenomena (known as “lifeworld”), where everyday objects and inscriptions (i.e. writing) are given to us through our senses. How can a scientist make descriptive observations under the microscope without first experiencing the phenomena that happens around her? How can a physicist question why the Earth rotates around the Sun without first experiencing the phenomena of sunset and sunrise through what is given to them via their perceptions? How can you read this text without first experiencing it through phenomena?

Like Husserl, Derrida was also a thinker of origins: How did phenomenology come into being in the first place? For Derrida, at the heart of our experience of time consciousness lies the experience of difference. That is, a paradoxical division in the way which the world is experienced in our daily phenomena between past and future. The reason why I refer difference as a “paradoxical division” is because this division between past and future is also a non-division since it is “an outside becoming an inside” (refer to my Rousseau example from previous post). Within phenomenology, this paradoxical difference is what Derrida calls “re-presentation”: the difference between past and future (See, Voice and Phenomenon).

Every individual instance that appear in the present moment are actually recalled from the past. Think about films like Interstellar when Cooper falls into the tesseract and he sees individual instances of time of Murph’s room that repeats to infinity.  Think about the present words you had just read and how you are recalling it back to your consciousness. The present moment can only be retained by recalling it from the past (I have explained this here). The reason for this is simple: because time is always moving forward through a series of repetition. We are always aging and dying every moment of our lives. This is why Derrida quotes Shakespeare that “time is out of joint”. If we pay attention to our present experiences, we will notice how this present moment is never quite on time. The moment I try to capture the present, it slips into the past as the next future moment becomes the present, which also becomes the past.

One can think about this through what Husserl calls “chasing the comet’s tail”. Imagine that you are observing a meteor fly across the sky. Our phenomenological experience of the present moment is always caught at retaining the “tail” of the comet, but not the actual space rock as it moves across the sky. In other words, we can’t retain the present moment because time is always moving forward—i.e. the comet is always moving from one end of the sky to the other. The present is constituted by the movement between past and future. The future trajectory of the comet creates its past, just like how you are reading this sentence from left to right. The present moment becomes a re-presentation that is recalled from what had just passed.

Putting some of these temporal fidelities aside. Intentionality (the way we read a text or event), is constituted by focusing in a specific past—a privileged past which acts as the “center”. This center as Derrida saw, cannot help but at once be constituted by an “impurity” at the heart of the past’s differences, such as the future. Every time we recall 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 the future unfolds. It is easy for us to say that “the occurrence of X in the past constitutes who I am today”. We can make this claim because we are already at such point in our life from the future.

The present is viewed differently the moment we refocus the central point elsewhere from the past. Perhaps one year from now, it is no longer the occurance of X that constitutes who I am today, but Z. This is why looking back at our own lives can sometimes appear like “it was my destiny to become who I am today, where no chance was involved”, even when the unfolding of the future is always subject to various forms of contingencies. This contingent unfolding of time from the future is what Derrida refer as the “future anterior” (we will return to this term).

The future changes how the past is perceived in the same way that the past changes how the future is perceived. Intentionality is produced through the difference between how each individual experiences their past and future. “Difference” or “Differance” (an intentional spelling mistake) is related to Derrida’s readings of time consciousness. Meaning is “deferred” because time is always moving every moment of our lives until we die. This is why stable meaning never arrives until the moment you die (Derrida talks about this in one of his documentaries here).

An example I always use is the relationship between Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. We know that Newton was one of the first to theorize about gravity whose ideas were usurped by Einstein’s theory of general relativity two hundred years later from the future. At the time, would Newton had thought that someone from the future would prove his theories wrong? (though the Newtonian model is not completely wrong). In the same way, when Einstein wrote his theories, would he had thought that in the future, his ideas might get falsified by other theories? To give these guys the benefit of doubt, I will say, “probably not”. The question that arises is the problem of the future which changes how the past is perceived. Einstein changed how we perceived Newton.

In the same way, it is easy for us to see that certain forms of capitalism had existed before Adam Smith. But it is only after we read Smith, where we look into the past from the future and see how capitalism had already manifested itself in early societies before Smith. Certainly, it is also easy for us to see the problems of capitalism after we had read Karl Marx, etc. But perhaps, it is also the past which changes how the future is perceived, such as those who still believes that the Earth is flat. Such individuals are fixed onto a particular point in time which establishes how they read the present moment.

Finally, let us reconsider Rousseau’s “Nature denature itself” that I analyzed last post. The quote suggests that it is nature’s telos (end goal) to denature itself, even when nature has no specific goals, but pure contingency. On one hand, culture moves away from nature by supplementing what nature cannot provide (i.e. warmth in the winter). On the other hand, nature reappears in our contemporary culture, even when we are living in a time where much of our culture has moved “away” from nature. Hence, we have nature established before culture. Yet, it is easy for Rousseau to say that “Nature denatures itself” when he was already living in a denatured world from the future of a past Nature.

No matter how far culture has moved away from nature, nature’s goal is a destination that is always unfolding from the future to come. Thus, what appears to be nature’s telos is actually a form of pure contingency—i.e. it is by accident that we developed culture and education from Nature by supplementing what it cannot offer humans. Nature “never arrives at its destination” because it is always in the process of “denaturing” (supplementing) itself as time continues to unfold. This denaturing is, once again, related to “archi-violence”. But it is also related to how the future changes how we perceive nature. The future of nature which we today refer as culture, is produced out of a certain form of improvisation and contingency (this is also because we are “human animals”).

For the Love of Lacan: “What will Lacan not have said!”

What I had just presented are the fundamental problems of time which challenges our knowledge. This is what Derrida attempts to address in his essay, “For the Love of Lacan”. In it, Derrida repeatedly says, “What will Lacan not have said!” as he attempts to predict what people will say about Lacan from the future after he dies. Derrida writes:

“What will Lacan not have said! What wouldn’t he have said! What was it with Lacan with the philosophers? To approach this question, it would be necessary to shed light not only on what “with” can mean in this case, but on what Lacan said, did not say, will have or will not have said, caused to be said, or let be said—in the future anterior or in the conditional. To deal with this enigma of the future anterior and the conditional, which is what I will be particularly interested in today, is to deal with the problem of archivization, of what remains or does not remain.” (Resistances of Psychoanalysis, p. 39-40) [my italics and underlining]

By now, most of us already know the general direction of what Derrida is trying to get at in this passage. Lacan was incredibly influenced by Freud who founded psychoanalysis. Hence, through historical chronology, we have Freud before Lacan. It is easy to see Freud as the destination of Lacanian thought when Lacan establishes his school by proclaiming his telos as a “Return to Freud”.

For Derrida, Lacan’s destination is always deferred and contingent through the trace of a historical past from the future. The reader is led to believe how Freud is Lacan’s only telos, even when Lacan’s returning towards a Freudian history consists of detours around other exigencies such as Hegelian and Heideggerian philosophy. In fact, Lacan was once part of a small class taught by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojeve. While Kojeve’s class was small, it consisted of many future French super star intellectuals, one of them being Lacan, the others being Georges Bataille, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who was another phenomenologist influenced by Husserl). Furthermore, Lacan was also friends with Heidegger who had translated some of his works into French.

Not only does Derrida see Freud in Lacan, he also sees Lacan “with philosophers” such as Hegel and Heidegger—something that Lacan does not say. This is because Lacan reinterprets Freud from the future (remember that the future changes how the past is perceived). As a result, Lacan’s destination that point towards Freud disseminates into other historical forces as Derrida reads him. All of this comes down to the idea that Derrida never arrives at the destination of Freud when he reads Lacan “Returning to Freud”. Lacan’s ideas always arrive at an elsewhere into other philosophical discourses. This is where we begin to see one of the resistances of psychoanalysis along with what the psychoanalyst say, and what they do not say.

Simply put, while psychoanalysis focuses on the study of desire and the unconscious mind, phenomenology attempts to study phenomena, intentionality, and time consciousness. For Derrida, Lacanian psychoanalysis resists the phenomenology of time consciousness and the infinite ways of establishing our intentionality. Time affects how we perceive and interpret the present moment that is always moving into the future (what does it mean when a psychoanalyst interprets their patients?). After all, psychoanalysis is about “analysis”, it would be a mistake to exclude phenomenology. While both deconstruction and psychoanalysis are about interpretation, one of their main differences are their incompatibilities found in phenomenology.

Are the two disciplines completely irreconcilable? I think not, and I will show you some of the reasons why in future posts. Perhaps one of the reasons is because “deconstruction” practices a certain form of quasi-Husserlian phenomenology that is not exactly Husserlian. This is a bold claim because it suggests that there is an inherent method in deconstruction that is phenomenological, yet isn’t really phenomenological (but neither can we refer deconstruction as meta-phenomenology). If there is a “method” in deconstruction, it would be the method of free play between differences which implies that there are no methods. Nevertheless, this quasi-phenomenology that I have presented to you in this post is what makes Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon such an important text to read.

The contemporary reader is the future anterior of Lacan and Derrida because we are living in their future who are now part of the past. Perhaps as a future reader who reads both of their works, not only should I say, “What will Lacan not have said!”, but also, “What will Derrida have said!”

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Commentaries, Contemplation

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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