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 finitude. This 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.
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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.