Commentaries

Responding to Stephen Hicks and the Criticisms of “Postmodernism”

 

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

I would like to make four points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Side note: I am not an expert on Lyotard. But I always had a theory on why he called 20th century French philosophy as “post-modernism”. In a Derridean sense, the term “post” revolves around what is to come from a modernism that has past.]

I think Derrida sometimes “hides” his thoughts behind allusions to shield from people who are not familiar with his works. This idea originates from Socrates, where he criticized writing since anyone can take any text and read it whichever way they want (similar to the problem that Derrida pointed out). Thus, Socrates privileged passing on his philosophy via speech instead of writing—an idea Derrida finds problematic since speech is a form of writing. Socrates did this in order to prevent sophists who knows nothing about philosophy from using his works against him. Hence, Socrates never wrote anything, you can only find him through the works of Plato, who was Socrates’ student. I think Derrida is doing something very similar in this quote from Specters of Marx. 

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

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

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Contemplation, Popular Posts

On Jordan Peterson: Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction and Phallogocentrism


Last edited: May, 11, 2019.

Note: Before anyone reads this post, please keep in mind that it is out of date. I am not going to bother editing it anymore—nor will I delete it because some of the ideas in here are still helpful on deconstruction. I invite you to read my recent response between Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson’s debate, here, and some of my other posts on Derrida here, here, here, and here.


From Jordan Peterson’s interviews, it is clear that he knows very little about Jacques Derrida’s intentions and the surrounding discourses which constitutes his project on deconstruction. For reasons which I will soon elaborate, it is not my goal to address the political aspects of Peterson’s thoughts because what I will discuss in deconstruction shall be conceived as the condition which grants the possibility of politics. In this post, I will analyze some of Peterson’s arguments through Derridean ideas in conjunction with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis to show you Peterson’s misunderstandings of deconstruction. Other smaller topics will include feminism, sexuality, and speech / writing. In addition, I will provide numerous hyperlinks in brackets which are not essential unless you wish to study the subject mentioned further.

To begin with a summation, Peterson’s arguments on Derridean ideas are at best, a hypocritical endeavor. Peterson manages this by agreeing with Derrida that there are infinite interpretations to any given event and text—something which he takes for granted and ignores in his own argument. The biggest problem of all is Peterson’s interpretation of postmodernism that involves generalizing every 20th century intellectual discourse as if it had a Marxist agenda. To put this in Peterson’s own words, Peterson radically overplays his own hand through a generalization that can only impress those who has never picked up a 20th century continental text. This naive gesture, while appearing to be intelligent when interpreted by the masses, will also strike many as dishonest, ignorant and inconsiderate due to his misunderstandings of many 20th century continental ideas.

This is not to say that Peterson’s arguments are outright incorrect. As we will see, there are similarities between Derrida and Peterson that are only differentiated by context and intention. Contrary to expectations, one can even see similarities between Peterson and Marxism. For example, Peterson’s argument that schools are teaching children Marxist ideologies is actually a famous Marx / Engels argument against capitalism (Base and Superstructure). Unfortunately, my attempts at maintaining this post at a relative length will restrict me from speaking about Marx today.

Deconstruction and Meaning

One of Derrida’s most important argument is how there are infinite interpretations to any given event and text (I wrote an article on this here). This is the result of how the extraction of meaning is based on our subjective phenomenological intentions (in this case, your intentions). Derrida famously makes this claim by deconstructing Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology in his key text called Speech and Phenomena published in 1967. Phenomenology is the study of intentionality through consciousness and the temporal manifestation of space and time (Cartesian Meditations and Logical Investigations)

Let us examine the famous Derridean saying, “Deconstruction deconstructs itself” and how it can possibly yield to political thoughts. Due to the temporal effects of your intentions as you read this text, the meaning of “deconstruction” is only possible until you interpret this word through your own intentionality. Regardless of this phenomenon, “deconstruction” is a translation of Martin Heidegger’s term “destruktion” which in several other instances, Derrida also translates as “solicitation” and “shaking up”. As a result, deconstruction by itself (the word in-itself) is not a political tool. Rather, it is you who would possibly interpret deconstruction (or Derrida’s ideas) as a political tool through your own intentions. Deconstruction “is” the interpretative gesture (the act; verb) of reading a text or event and how such gesture undermines itself as one reads through phenomenological and ontological intentions. At the very interpretative “center”—that is, at the center of your intentionality as a function in relation to other centers—the deconstructive project has nothing to do with politics. Instead, it is this gesture of interpretation relating to other interpretations (differences) that is responsible for constituting politics (though I am sure some Derrideans would disagree with me and argue that there were politics since the very beginning of Derrida’s thoughts). Another words, what a subject does ethically, politically, or philosophically will depend on how and where one situate themselves within these centers of interpretations (Structure, Sign, and Play). For example, of how you interpret the word “deconstruction” (i.e. whether it is political or not)—which deconstructs itself as you interpret the word.

Accordingly, Peterson agrees with Derrida’s argument of infinite interpretation, but only that we as interpreters of the world and texts, should only extract the “good” and “useful” things which helps guide one to living in our society (Peterson says it here). Certainly, this is already (at least) two ways of interpreting a text. And as I have already pointed out, Peterson does exactly this: interpreting Derrida and postmodernism under a Marxist lens. Whether one reads the text through pessimism or as a way to live amongst other people is also determined by the reader’s intentions. It isn’t that one should not interpret anything “useful” or “good” out of literature, but rather, one should be cautious of what they interpret and claim as “useful” or “good” because the two terms are subject to “pure morphology”—that the possibility of a meaningful discourse (or the possibility of a truth), whatever it may be (political, surreal, sexual, etc.), is born from your interpretation of these words.

If we understand how Peterson interprets Derrida and the entire postmodernism through a Marxist lens based on his own intentions, we will understand Peterson’s claim that people interpret the world / texts through the means of facilitating their own acquisition of power—precisely, of what is “good” and “useful” for them. The acquisition of power is only possible through one’s desire for power (something which will be crucial once we get to Lacanian psychoanalysis). Most of the things we do are self-serving towards individual desires which often undermines others. For Peterson, this is what we see amongst the postmodernists, as he points out that feminists desires for the acquisition of power / rights. However, this argument on the acquisition of power merits truth not only towards postmodernists and feminists, but for everyone including Peterson. Indeed, one should go as far as questioning Peterson’s interpretations of Derrida and his own arguments: are not Peterson’s political maneuvers directed towards his own desire for power? But let us not pursue this any further, for my intention is about Derrida’s thoughts. Nevertheless, we can begin to see that Peterson’s argument on one’s desire for power is also apparent in Derrida’s thoughts: since there are infinite amount of interpretations to any event or text, the reader only read what they desire to read out of any particular event or text. Here, Peterson and Derrida appears to be making similar arguments (because I think they are), even when they are speaking about them under very different intentions.

Postmodernism as Post-…

Marx is a big precursor to postmodernism and no one can deny this. I think it is partly true that postmodernism is a re-branded term for Marxism because some postmodern thinkers such as Louis Althusser were greatly influenced by him. Perhaps Marxism is most apparent in Frankfurt School even if its scholars are usually not considered as postmodernists. Most Frankfurt scholars were (and still are) incredibly influential amongst the humanities and fine arts disciplines.

It is not surprising that the term “postmodernism” is such a vague term that many of the figures that are categorized in it do not associate themselves with such label. The fact is, many mid-late 20th century continental philosophies are not about Marx, but a response to Husserl’s phenomenology, and to a great extent, on Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure and G.W.F Hegel. Even Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which influenced many 20th century “postmodern” scholars, was written dedicated to Husserl “in admiration and friendship” (Heidegger was Husserl’s student). To name a few more: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty can all be considered as post-phenomenologists. The former three were also hugely influenced by Heidegger and Nietzsche. Then there is Jacques Lacan who we will discuss momentarily, that is influenced by Freud (especially), Hegel, and Heidegger. Finally, there are others like Gilles Deleuze whose magnum opus, Difference and Repetition, was influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of “the eternal return”.

(Phal)Logocentrism and the Psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan

There is a very long and complicated relationship between Derrida and Lacan. The two actually don’t agree with each other in many levels (i.e. Derrida is a critic of Lacan and vice versa). I am just going to highlight some ideas between the two because it is really hard to introduce them unless you have actually put in the time on learning their ideas.

The word logocentrism (“logos” is the ancient Greek word of “λόγος” which means “reason”, “speech”, “word” and “discourse”) focuses on how civilization privileges speech over writing. As Aristotle puts it: “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words”. This implies that speech is the primary mode of acquiring truth since it is closest proximity to our mental thoughts (inner monologue). For Derrida, such idea is eclipsed once we recognize how speech is overlapped by the fact that when one reads a text, the text is also in direct relation with one’s spoken thought through “hearing-oneself-speak” (auto-affection). Another words, one hears their own speech in their heads as they read the text (i.e. as you read this text). To put it simply, the “binary opposition” between speech and writing are one and of the same contradiction. Speech and writing just different forms used to represent the same (English) language.

To be logocentric involves two main aspects: First, logocentrism is to ignore the historical practice that all production of truth and knowledge are acquired through the interpretation of writing or language in general—namely from interpreting books or events (this is to say that inscription is only one form of writing and that everything around us that we see is also a writing). Second, this privileging of logos (reason) is when one favors the system of logical grammar as they constitute meaning based on their phenomenological interpretation of texts. Another words, we don’t just interpret anything from texts and events, we privilege on extracting the logical (grammatical) aspects of it. This latter idea is from G.W.F Hegel (Lectures on the History of Philosophy) which Derrida cited in his early seminars from the 1960s.

With logocentrism, phallogocentrism (phal = phallus) is combined with the thoughts of Jacques Lacan who rebuilt Freudian psychoanalysis into his own school known as Lacanian psychoanalysis. Lacan is infamously renown for proclaiming the absence of feminine sexuality. The passage, “there is no such thing as woman”, is one of the most misinterpreted and controversial sentence of Lacan (Seminar XX). To help us understand this claim, let us understand two crucial points. First, phallogocentrism points to the idea that the construction of language and meaning is privileged towards the masculine and is phallic in nature (from readings of Freud; the symbolic). This meaning is known as the master signifier which functions as an anchoring point by fixing a specific meaning in place (Seminar XVII). Therefore secondly, the claim that there are no feminine sexuality was made not because there are no feminine sexuality, but because there are no symbolic language which can describe it. In order to explain feminine sexuality, one must go in excess (surplus) of the signifier which in this case, is what lacks within the signifier (I will get to this). Expanding from Freud’s ideas of woman’s penis envy, Lacan thinks it isn’t the actual penis woman desire, but the symbolic and patriarchal power behind the phallus. Part of the reason why no one can describe feminine sexuality is because (many) feminists desires for the symbolic power of the phallus. Thus, phallogocentrism points to how our intentions of interpreting the world and the way we construct meaning / language are inherently phallic from the beginning. One privileges and desires for phallic (patriarchal) power and meaning for their own gains—even if one is a self-proclaimed feminist.

Due to this, feminist Helene Cixous developed a “woman’s writing” (ecriture feminine) that tried to challenge masculine-privileged construction of meaning by—as Lacan would remark on James Joyce“stuffing the signifier” with literary allusions. For Lacan, Joyce is the perfect example of woman’s writing because it shows the excess point where the signifier can no longer sustain itself due to the abundance of literary allusions. By compressing allusions into signifiers, one will recognize what lacks in them—namely, the contradiction of the missing literary allusions (this excess lack [of phallic signifier] is where feminine sexuality arises). Certainly, one may think that Joyce is a man (with a phallus) who can’t possibly produce a woman’s writing. For Lacan, sexuality is not determined by our reproductive organs, but by how one experiences sexual enjoyment (Jouissance and Beyond the Pleasure Principle). To be sure, sexual enjoyment can be experienced in all sorts of ways through sublimation, and not just via methods of copulation with object (object cause of desire; objet petit a) that can never be attained. In context of Joyce, the stuffed signifier is our object of desirewe desire to understand the allusions and meanings that Joyce compresses in his writing which can never be anchored as stable “phallic” signifiers. Through sublimation, reading and speaking becomes a form of desire for sexual satisfaction. This is why Lacan once famously said, “For the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking.”

[Note: Alenka Zupancic showed a new interpretation of Lacan by saying that femininity is the phallic signifier (What is Sex?, 2017). A similar strand of thought can also be found in Slavoj Zizek’s writings (both Zupcancic and Zizek are Lacanian Hegelians).]

Phallogocentrism, as Peterson says, relates to how “culture is male dominated” which he thinks is a “radical simplification of the historical story”. As we can see, not only is psychoanalysis far from being a simplification of history, Peterson’s claim that feminists desires for the acquisition of power is reaffirmed by Lacan: that they (we) desire for symbolic phallic power that is inherent in language / meaning. Phallogocentrism is not “exactly” used to describe how the male dominates the female under the the historicity of economical conditions as Peterson thinks (though I do not doubt this claim under his intentions). And despite that Derrida had always been a critic of psychoanalysis (Resistances of Psychoanalysis), phallogocentrism speaks about the problems in the history of philosophy under the context of Husserl, Heidegger, Lacanian psychoanalysis and the privileging of phallic signifier over the lack of one in a woman. Yet, we must not rule out Peterson’s argument (on men being economically marginalized) with Lacan’s thoughts. In order to speak of Petersons argument from Lacanian perspective, one would have to begin with what Lacan calls the Master’s discourse (or Capitalist discourse) in conjunction with his readings on G.W.F Hegel’s master-slave dialectic (Seminar XVII). Something which I shall leave for another time.

What I am trying to point out in this post is the differences in disciplines and how there is a whole history behind psychoanalysis and Derrida’s deconstruction that Peterson had never thought of simply because he was not trained in it.

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