* Transcript of a recording by Anna Shmerling (Fall – 2000)
Deconstruction is rooted in a phenomenological tradition that becomes very focused in the work of Martin Heidegger, when he speaks of the destruction of Western onto-theology. Heidegger is very aware that the language he uses to subject this history to destruction is the very language that is to be de-constructed. The ‘con’ – the bringing together, concatenation – is something that breaks into the word ‘de-struction’ as it is practiced by Jacques Derrida. He is what one might call a Neo-Heideggerian.
The whole point of deconstruction is that it is not a system, and it is not a philosophy as such. It is a very powerful critical tool. One of the main ethical components of deconstruction is that whatever is subjected to deconstruction is not engaged with as if it is a combatant - it is not a case of two combatants battling it out with one another. Deconstruction is a very fluid language, which insinuates itself within the body of the language to be deconstructed, in other words – allows that language to deconstruct itself. This means that in the use of the language there is a certain irony. There is no meta-language, beyond the common language that we are using, to which we can escape. We are, in a sense, prisoners of language. The only thing that we can try to achieve is to be utopic (‘u-topos’ means ‘no place’).
A Student: If you start to educate a people, and you deconstruct the language, they can’t speak.
Louis: Well, in a way. But, Socrates didn’t have a problem with that.
There is much in deconstruction that is like the maieutic technique, as practiced by Socrates in the Athenian market place. This is a very classic procedure of not so much presenting an opposite viewpoint, as inviting the other to clarify the meaning of their own language and their own beliefs. If one is rigorous in this practice, one generally finds that the other, who is very confirmed in their belief – which is accorded the status of knowledge – actually reaches a point of confusion or, at least, uncertainty. This is one of the primary reasons why Socrates was not particularly popular amongst the elite of Athens. Basically, he does not so much rob one of one’s voice, but of one’s certitude, of the comfort of certainty. And, everyone wants the comfort of certainty – no one wants to live in a state of anxiety.
Derrida, basically, invites us to do this, and – in a very Nietzschean way – he invites us to embrace it. The thing is that in his texts (especially in the early texts) he is not very kind to the reader, and this has been a subject of much debate. A great deal of criticism has been aimed at Derrida, as if it is his intention to confuse. He falls away from the ideal hermeneutic principle (Gadamerian principle) that in speech, in discourse – one ‘wants to be understood.’ It has sometimes been claimed that Derrida, in fact, does not want to be understood – that he wants to confuse, and that this is not an authentic philosophic attitude. Actually, this is a very ancient tradition, but it is more refined in Derrida’s work – as I said, you can trace it back to Socrates – and perhaps even further.
Derrida uses the expression ‘solicit’, and this means basically ‘to shake foundations’. One must see this in reference to the reader of the Derridian text. What he wants to do is make you feel uncomfortable – basically, he is making you do some of the work. The quote from Derrida that I particularly like, and I always use it in his defense, is “One must, above all, re-read those, in whose wake I write”.
Unfortunately, the tradition that has emerged since Derrida’s early writing in the sixties (a deconstructive tradition, which, as a tradition, is actually counter to the aims of deconstruction) has developed a certain kind of canon. In a way, although Derrida may assume that he gives us the first word on deconstruction, because of some of the retroactive aspects of its historical movement, he doesn’t. Neither does he give us the last word, because there are so many deconstructive narratives that have emerged in the wake of his early writing, constantly repositioning Derrida’s own writing in relation to the tradition that he deconstructs. The history of deconstruction is constantly going through a process of transvaluation (which is also true of any history per se). And, these days there is even talk of overcoming deconstruction. This is absurd, because deconstruction shows us that there is no overcoming – in the sense of ‘progress’ in the ideal sense. When Derrida himself maintains that we have gone beyond phenomenology, or that we have gone beyond structuralism, etc., there is no beyond. Basically, it is a question of a radical shift in orientation on the same. This is about a re-positioning of oneself as reader and assuming a more ironic attitude to the text. All that one can do, basically, is engage with that which is to be deconstructed by inviting it to dance at the limits of exhaustion. This is very significant in itself, but there is nothing ‘beyond’ that limit of exhaustion. You can possibly push the line out a little, but there is no stepping over that line.
A Student: The question is whether you have to control the language, when you do deconstruction, or not?
Louis: In a sense, language is controlling you, writing itself through you, and you are unaware of it – this is one of Derrida’s main points. The emphasis on irony and play in relation to one’s language-use is to raise awareness about the limits of control.
A Student: But, actually, you don’t have to know the language, you just have to understand the other language...
Louis: Do you mean ‘how’ it works?… Is that really enough?
A Student: Okay, maybe you need to know more, but you don’t have to learn it all…
Louis: Well, this is a singularly instrumentalist point of view, and – fair enough, it has its place – this is often at work in science. But, deconstruction signs a more philosophical attitude.
Josef: The big point is – why deconstruction? It is all very well. I mean, deconstruction is almost like a definition, but it has no ends, no telos...
Louis: This is what Derrida says, but it does. To be fair, deconstruction invites us to re-orient ourselves with respect to the desire for a telos. Teleology is not nullified, it is actually re-situated.
Josef: I know. But the point is: we deconstruct – all right. We have very nice critics – all of them – Spinoza, Descartes, Husserl, etc. And then comes Derrida and says ‘Let’s deconstruct’. I am saying ‘All right’ – now we are deconstructing the believing in that which is deconstructed, or do we deconstruct something else? I think that is what he meant, when he asked these questions. What is the use of the movie? Shall we understand ourselves better, maybe?
Mor: I think he wants to confuse us, to shake our faith in the language of the telos, and to be fresh.
Louis: We need to ask ourselves why Derrida insists that we re-read those in whose wake he writes.
This raises the issue of substitution. The theme of substitution in deconstruction is fascinating. Basically, this is always associated with the notion of simulacrum – again, in Plato. Simulacrum, classically, is understood as ‘copy’ / ‘reproduction.’ In Plato, the ‘source’ of truth lies within a realm of hypostatized forms. The world of the everyday is a mere shadow of this realm of light. The forms are the originary source of truth, simplicity, harmony and economy. The term simulacrum implicitly carries a distinction between originary and secondary, since it is supposed to be a copy of something more original (Let’s skip the history and get down to definition of terms). Basically, we always work with the idea that first, there is an original presence, and then it is re-presented. Derrida turns this hierarchy on its head. He says that there is no original, there is no starting point, and there is no original source point. This is very important. What he does is inaugurate a kind of phenomenological shift within the realm of signification only. And, he plays within that realm – the realm of signs – but a non-hypostatized realm. And, he demonstrates that since we operate within language, we are informed by a network of signs. He draws from Ferdinand de Saussure – his Course in General Linguistics – by saying that language is not primarily made up of finite units of meaning, but that language is fundamentally a system of differences. Individuation first occurs out of the registration of difference and that this is repeatable. Basically, it is only through the structure of repetition that the process of individuation can take place; that meaning can, in fact, emerge. This is because meaning not only has to be constituted it also has to be sustained. If you think of a symbol – it is always in reference to something. One can return to that symbol, and it refers you to the same thing again. There is a fundamental repetitive element at work. And, it is this repeatability borne by language that allows the crystallization of meaning. So, in a way, it is an a-semic space – it owes nothing to meaning. What Derrida is doing is more structural, than that. But, his agenda is irreducible to the re-statement of structuralism. The one thing that Derrida takes very much into account, which structuralism tended to underestimate, is time.
This brings us to the essay “Différance”. The neologism différance is the name of a fascinatingly complex ‘stratagem.’ First of all, différance is spelled with an ‘a’ in Derrrida’s essay. The point is that the ‘a’ cannot be discerned phonetically in French. The difference only announces itself through the graphic sign – you have to see it. Part of the stratagem is to overturn what Derrida sees as a trace of something that has been around since the dawn of philosophy – which is the precedence that is given to the ‘voice’, live discourse; that writing is, in a sense, not exactly a lie, but – in a platonic sense – a representation of something more original. For Plato, the problem of truth is that something is always lost in this process of representation. However, the very threat of the dissolution of meaning – its loss – is also the condition of its possibility.
Now, from one point of view, Derrida wants to say that the only reason we have meaning, tradition, science, civilization…is because of the transmission, i.e., the ‘empirical’ transmission of the graphic sign, i.e., texts. We read, we learn, and we negotiate. So working within the significational domain and the graphic domain, Derrida is basically saying that, in a sense, the graphic sign comes first.
This is a provisional step because Derrida is also concerned to re-situate phenomenological discourse on sight. There are many aspects involved in this stratagem. Derrida also wants to say, using the same argument, that this classic notion of the immediacy of one’s own self-relation is, again, a kind of myth – it is a construct. He follows in the tradition of existentialist writing on alterity, in this sense. I think that he is very much influenced by Levinas, in particular. And, if we remember the influence of Ferdinand de Saussure’s discourse on language as a system of diacritical differences… it is easy to see that Derrida wants to be the champion of ‘difference.’ The employment of the strategem of différance is the announcement that there is no ‘originary presence’ and that there is no original and immediate self-relation. Even one’s own self-relation is something that is mediated through the Other – through alterity. And, the structure of inter-subjectivity is, in many ways, identical to that of intra-subjectivity. The inner communality of oneself is always a mirror of the communality outside – in that it is a construct that owes everything to language and tradition as the dissemination of language through writing. Derrida wants to say that we are, in effect, nothing but the grafting of texts upon texts upon texts… This is one of the reasons why he subjects the author to a kind of erasure. The text writes itself, just as the author is a text that is written through writing itself.
I really would like to show you the movie Deconstructing Harry, in which Woody Allen picks up on this sense of writing. Harry is a guy who is constantly re-writing his life. He lives it kind of ironically, precisely because he makes a living out of writing. His life of writing is a life of deconstructing Harry (which is a precise analogue to what Woody Allen has been doing throughout his whole film career). A number of strange events occur to him over a very short period of time. He is invited to appear at a school (from which he was thrown out as a youth) by a group of scholars there who have really focused on his work and wish to honour his writing. However, due to the fact that Harry turns up with a hooker in his car, a corpse, and his kidnapped son (for further details, see the film), he isn’t able to give his presentation.
At the end of the movie, Harry imagines himself giving his address, while all the characters from his novels and short stories are in attendance. There is a moment when he tries to express his feelings about what they all represent to him, but he finds that he cannot adequately articulate his meaning. So, the other professors, who are experts on his writing, step in and, basically, say: “What he means to say is this…” As if, in a sense, they are just as qualified to talk about the meaning of his writing, and, perhaps, even more so, than the author himself. This is kind of a strange and interesting notion, and I think that we are all familiar with it to a certain extent.
So, what Derrida does is – he gives us a set of rules, if you like, to play a game. So, we can see it as a game, but like in any game – there are ‘rules’. Basically, over the next few weeks it would be very useful to delineate what these rules are, so that we might begin to play a bit ourselves, OK?
I have noticed that in this country one can learn about Derrida’s writing, to a certain extent, mainly in architecture departments, art departments, and literature departments, but in very few philosophy departments. My favourite epithet for Monsieur Derrida is that he is ‘the bad boy’ of academic philosophy. So, what I want to do is redress a certain balance. My agenda, for I freely admit that I have one, is to present Derrida philosophically.
Now, Derrida is an extremely rigorous thinker. His first three texts are very scholarly engagements with Husserlian phenomenology. In 1954-1956 he worked on his MA Dissertation, which was only published at the beginning of the nineties as The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy. It is absolutely brilliant, and it has formed the basis of his very advanced discourse on the ‘limits of Husserlian phenomenology’. There is also the discourse on Temporality in Derrida’s introduction to his translation of one of Husserl’s shorter texts “The Origin of Geometry”, which is one of the Appendices to The Crisis of European Sciences (Edmund Husserl’s last unfinished manuscript). Five years after the publication of his Introduction to Husserl’s “Origin of Geometry”, Derrida published another book, entitled Speech and Phenomena, which takes up a diametrical opposition to the orientation of his earlier text. He actually seems to undermine everything about it. I like to call Speech and Phenomena the ‘flip side’ or ‘dark side’ of his Introduction to Husserl’s “The Origin of Geometry”.
During that period of 12 or so years, Derrida achieved such a high degree of expertise that he really could play around with phenomenology as a phenomenologist. And, although in my Ph. D. I often have a go at Derrida for some of the ways in which he does this, I did it with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek – because Derrida has quite a nerve. But, he is so well qualified. I cannot think of any other philosopher, who is capable of doing that. Husserl is the master – he is the philosophers’ philosopher, he is extremely difficult, very advanced and very difficult to learn. His books require endless re-reading. When his writing finally begins to make sense, and you experience that Freudean ‘Aha!’ – you are already halfway through your life.
So, Derrida has actually taken a massive body of work, and employed the rules very rigorously, and introduced a sense of irony (that is also at work to a certain extent in Husserl, but is not thematized as such), and then he does something really different with it. And, I cannot help feeling that Husserl would smile, because there is an implicit invitation in Husserlian phenomenology to go with Husserl beyond Husserl. ‘Beyond Husserl’, but not beyond phenomenology. I don’t think you can do that. Although phenomenology is an extremely radical and formidably rigorous discipline – or constellation of disciplines – the point is that it is not a school. It is not a system in itself. It is more like a set of tools, a very powerful language. And, Derrida is a master who is basically playing around with it and showing us further possibilities.
In answer to your question… What do we do? When we deconstruct the house – we may consider the house as a kind of text – what have we got left? One might say that among other possibilities, we are left with an architectural biography that is open to a multiplicity of different narrative types of re-construction. The thing is that no reading is ever completely exhaustive, and Derrida is the first one to tell us this. So, why is it that Derrida says to us “One must, above all, re-read those in whose wake I write”? Because he is reiterating this fundamental insight about inexhaustability in reading. I can’t help feeling that he must be constantly amused by the proselytizing Derridians who come along and say – ‘Derrida says this!’ and ‘Derrida says that!’ ‘Phenomenology has been transcended, it is an old school, we don’t need to worry about it any more’… Actually, I wonder whether this makes Derrida laugh or groan.
So, basically, we are going to accept his invitation to re-read those in whose wake he writes. And, over the next few weeks, beginning with “Différance,” which gives us a very clear outline of some of the essential strategies in deconstruction, we are going to look at what Derrida actually does with them. We are going to look at the way he attends to the work of Husserl, Heidegger, Foucault, Sigmund Freud… Simultaneously with these papers, I’ll present short pieces by the original writers (original? – if one can still say such a thing), so that we can begin to play. We’ll look at what Derrida is doing, and then re-read ourselves – see what the merits are in Derrida’s deconstructive approach to these writers.
Another thing, as I said before, I occasionally want to show some movies that are really good examples of phenomenology and deconstruction at work in the media of film, which usually add up to some nice little existential motifs. One of the things that I want to do is screen Alfred Hitchkock’s Rear Window. What is particularly outstanding about that movie, from a phenomenological point of view, is the way in which we, the audience, are actually having the piss taken out of us (and enjoying every moment of it). Hitchkock often liked to do this. The whole film is basically about one guy (a travel photographer, played by James Stewart), whose leg is broken, and all that he can do is sit at his window with a pair of binoculars and look at what his neighbours are doing. He only has certain glimpses of behaviour, snapshots of interaction, ‘signs’ of events, but he is always going beyond them in fierce speculation regarding their meaning, without being sure of their actuality. So, his imagination runs wild. He assumes that a murder has taken place, and for most of the film the audience is left in suspense regarding whether it is simply his imagination. As it turns out – a murder has really taken place.
The movie basically raises the issue of scopophilia (which means ‘pleasure in looking’). To begin with, there are two aspects to scopophilia that we must be clear about. One form of pleasure in looking is active and objectifies the Other. This is very much at work in the famous slapstick style films of the twenties – Chaplin, Keaton, Keystone Cops, etc. – comic movies that are often quite cruel, in effect. You find yourself sitting there and laughing at other people’s misfortunes. Sociologically, it marks an interesting phenomenon that is at work in the Great Depression and all the rest of it…from “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” to “I’m all right, Jack, because there is always someone else who is worse off!”
There is another form of scopophilia, which has a more interesting and cathartic aspect to it. This is when the narrative of the film draws us into an intimate association with the scenario in the form of a passive engagement with the Other – that is, the Other as subject. In a sense, you live through the Other – feel with the Other.
The different aspects of scopophilia in phenomenological discourse and in existential discourse are fascinating. Of course, the two aspects that I’ve mentioned only mark out the parameters of what is actually a vast spectrum of differences between them. Alfred Hitchkock, in a sense, is deconstructing this sphere when he is forces us, the audience, to look at what ‘we’ are doing, while watching this fellow, who is actually a voyeur, looking…. The I / Other dynamics of being-seen-seeing are fascinating in this movie precisely for that reason.
I see this attitude very much at work in what Derrida does. Because, we, as readers of philosophy, tend towards the kind of engagement with the text in which we get drawn in. We are transported in learning the language that unfolds through the narrative pathway of the text. So…where are we, the readers? Derrida is always asking us to re-position ourselves with respect to the text – which simultaneously requires that we re-position ourselves in relation to ourselves. We must always maintain a kind of malign vigilance, if you like. In a sense, he is restoring our responsibility back to us. There is no writer, but there is always the possibility of one, but it involves a certain kind of distance that arises out of a sense of irony. Irony is the principal theme.
Now, when it comes to deconstructing our house and being left with rubble, the one thing in deconstruction that gives us hope is that it has rent apart the word de-struction by restoring the con of de-con-struction. The ‘con’ is the bringing together – which indicates that there is a re-constructive possibility in deconstruction as a critical praxis. It is irreducible to a merely nihilistic procedure. Basically, if one is to understand the background logic of this, one has to go back to some of Husserl’s later writing on genetic phenomenology, when he speaks of a movement of Abbau, which literally means ‘to unbuild’ or ‘deconstruct.’ The inverse correlate of that is Aufbau – which signs the possibility of a re-reconstruction.
However, if one starts out with an agenda…then one is in danger of merely re-inventing the wheel. I often use Descartes as an example of this. He institutes a process of systematic doubt, destroys everything, then arrives at the indubitability of the cogito – and he reconstructs the world precisely as it was. The thing is that one should not begin to unravel the world on the basis of some kind of reconstructive telos (i.e., ‘the world as it is’). One deconstructs it and then leaves it open as to what type of narrative construction may suggest itself. A truly rigorous form of deconstruction implies that one should not actually know where one is going. This is something that Merleau-Ponty once said about phenomenology. If it is to be rigorous in its project of maintaining a constant dialogue with itself, then it must never know where it is going. By the same token, Derrida, in the essay entitled “Différance,” writes that the movement of deconstruction must embrace both “chance and necessity”. So, there is no pre-established programme. There is the possibility of a re-constructive turn, but – if we are to be rigorous – we cannot speculate about this. All we can do is deconstruct and see what happens. A singularly unscientific procedure, but that is what makes it significant as a radical philosophical praxis.
Josef: When you deconstruct something, you deconstruct something that has already been constructed?
Josef: Now, deconstruction is sort of an incremental happening of something – which ‘happens by’ increments. I mean, you deconstruct something that has been constructed – sometimes by one person, sometimes by many persons…
Louis: …but Derrida would always say that one person is always, implicitly and explicitly, a member of a community.
Josef: Yes, of course. And then he said something which, at that time, the community thought worth preserving. (I am not fighting, I am just trying to understand.) But, Derrida seems to undermine this when he says that we cannot arrive at a telos and that there is no original presence to be recovered…
Louis: We just arrive at the trace – but it isn’t a trace of ‘anything’ any more.
Josef: It is like deconstructing a chicken, but there is no chicken…. In a way, it is very interesting because if you are a very intelligent and cultural person, like most of the French with whom Derrida engages, you already have a very profound and well-defined world of ideas. I don’t know if you have had many relations with very educated French people, but they are really ‘very’ well educated. If you want to know something about this – go and listen to some of those Bernard Pivot evenings ("Bouillon De Culture"). They really know what they are talking about. What Derrida says is – This is not enough! We have to go around and see why they are so caught up in their ideas? What is this culture that they are so full of? Is it not full of wind, but may it not also be something real? All right, it is a very interesting exercise, but I must say that, in a certain way, I think that we shall come to the conclusion that even Derrida had something to say. But, this seems to be that there is nothing more to be said…
Louis: There is everything to be said.
Josef: I don’t really know the difference between deconstruction and destruction. Maybe we shall find out – I hope so.
Louis: Let us take a look at it this way…I said that, in a way, deconstruction is to invite the subject of deconstruction to dance at the limits of exhaustion. It is not to be invited to a duel, a fight to the death. It is not about having a good workout, massaging one’s own ego through disputation, or simply flexing the cerebral muscles in a very French style, if you like.
I think that the usefulness of deconstruction extends beyond the arena of simple confrontation. If you go back to the roots of deconstruction in phenomenology – the roots, from a methodological point of view – Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological epoché represents the very subsoil. He introduced a number of different forms of epoché throughout his career, depending on what he was interested in looking at. In a way, what Derrida has done is to have focused on the movement for its own sake. The epoché works like this – it means ‘to cut’, and it also means ‘to suspend’. The first phenomenological reduction is initiated in these terms. We live in a world that we take for granted. We must endeavour to suspend this ‘natural attitude’ in order to see how it stands out without having recourse to a presupposed world-thesis. Such a thesis is to be bracketed. You might say that dyadic ontology is still a ghost in the machine of Western analytical philosophy. However, there are problems attached to the occasional hypostatization of this dyad – the Cartesian legacy.
When we engage in the world, we engage in a world of significance – it has meaning. Does that meaning simply exist in our minds? When we are purely concerned with the relation between the psychic and the physical as separate spheres, we run into all kinds of paradoxes. This is a nexus of issues that has been passed down to us from Descartes and his dualism.
Basically, in phenomenology we are not supposed to be concerned with such an ontological division or metaphysical divide, because if we look at Descartes’ philosophy very carefully, we find that there is a number of massive metaphysical leaps that he simply cannot ground. What is also implicit in the notion of ‘res cogitans’ is that consciousness is somehow imprisoned in a box. We are also left with the idea that we don’t see reality, that we merely represent it to ourselves. This is like a doubling of reality, images subsisting in our mind or head. It is an ‘image theory’, which is highly problematic. If one is aiming for an independent criterion for the assessment of how accurately our representations actually present reality as it is, one is left with an insoluble problem, because one always has to ask oneself how it is possible to step outside experience We have no recourse to an extra-experiential / independent criterion. We run into Aristotle’s third man argument or an infinite regress – where verification is always a matter of representations of representations…
First of all, phenomenology says that consciousness is always consciousness of something. The preposition ‘of’ is fundamental, because consciousness is nothing in itself. In a sense, it only crystallizes because it bounces back on itself. For every desiring there is a desired – consciousness is a desiring, it is a mode of consciousness, it is the way that consciousness is in the world at that moment. What is fundamental to consciousness is that it is like an explosive upsurge into the world. It is out amongst the things; it is not imprisoned in a box.
The idea of giving consciousness the designation ‘substance’ (res cogitans) is highly problematic. It is a metaphysical leap. One does not need to do this. In order to understand something about the functioning of consciousness, one does not have to take up such a metaphysical position. Likewise, as far as the actuality status of things in the world is concerned – we don’t have to take up a position on that.
Basically, if we are to speak of ‘evidence’, we do not have recourse to any other evidence outside of experience. All we have recourse to is that which is given through experience itself. Experience is evidence. Which means that: if we see something – and we know the difference between an object as it stands there before us (as it gives itself to us) and, let’s say, an object of imagination, or something that I am merely anticipating, or something that I am remembering, or a pictorial image that I am thinking about in order to reproduce it on the canvas, – we know that these forms of presence have entirely different signatures, and we know how to distinguish between them. I know the difference between closing my eyes and seeing an image of this table and actually looking at the table. If I walk out there and don’t look at anything, but actually just remember the image – again, I know that I am remembering something. There is something about experience itself that signifies that which is given to it in a certain way – in a certain light – that lets us know the difference between that which is actual and that which is not.
I know that the ‘good old objective scientists’ would not be happy with this, but in a way his / her concerns are not those of the phenomenologists. In a way, what the traditional (pre-Heisenberg) scientists are trying to do is this: we have the objective ground there, and then we have the subjective one – two spheres – and they are always kind of interacting in some way, but we don’t quite know how. If we want to focus purely on the objective realm, we find that we are faced with a considerable problem. Heisenberg showed that very effectively. Whenever we observe and try to measure, we are actually interfering with the phenomena being measured. So, we cannot avoid the subjective element involved in the measurement itself in the objective observation. So, the meaning of objectivity in the sciences has softened – it is now the question of inter-subjectivity, the ‘consensus’ between individual subjectivities. It is no longer outside subjectivity.
Husserl comes along and says – OK, so what is already implied if we start out from the traditional Cartesian dyad of subjectivity and objectivity – res cogitans and res extensa? Somehow, there is some kind of interrelation. But, when we talk about evidence, experience, observation, etc., we are actually within the fold of the encounter between these two spheres. We cannot account for how they interact cosmologically (causally), but we are already operating within the fold of their intertwining. So – take that as a given, because … where else are we going to start? We are there already! OK, so what do we do now? Since we are already functioning within the sphere of experience – please hold on to the image of an overlapping of the two spheres, and then just get rid of the spheres. Then, all we have is ‘relation’, without independent entities being in relation. We can allow some sort of re-construction from within this ‘field’ or ‘horizon.’
It is not so hard to actually visualize this shift, because it is also very apparent in current objective / cosmological theories. It is a perfect illustration of the difference between Newtonian physics and relativistic physics. In Newtonian physics you have forces of attraction between independent bodies. In Einsteinian relativistic physics you do not. It is actually about the warpage of the space-time fabric itself – where mass is a form of its curvature. It is actually what is in-between that counts.
Imagine a vast rubber sheet stretched out, and then we drop balls of various weights onto it. Obviously, the heavier they are, the deeper the wells that are created. If you drop a small, lightweight ball onto the sheet, it naturally rolls to the deepest well because of the warpage of the fabric itself. This is a three-dimensional model to describe a four-dimensional space-time. But, here we are talking about the ‘in-between’ that constitutes objects as part of a fabric – not relations that occur between originally independent objects. What is important here is the fabric in which objects are always already interwoven. Interestingly enough, the Buddhists have such a conception of interdependent origination that predates the Western orientation by a couple of thousand years.
So, basically, since we are talking about experience, experience is, in a sense, the meeting point of subjectivity and objectivity. Get rid of these two independent spheres of substance, and just look at the relation itself, because that is the realm in which we are always already operating. It is no longer a question of causality, but that of intentionality.
This is where we find ourselves after the first phenomenological reduction – epoché. Basically, it is not to do away with the world – it is to engage with the world qua phenomenon, as Husserl says, where the actuality status of things is not given to us through some independent criterion, but is given within the nexus of experience itself. And, everything still exists, but with a different signature – i.e., as ‘actuality phenomena.’ That means that something is given as an actuality, and what we have to do is describe the structure of the experience that tells us this. Thus, ‘actuality’ is no longer a simple ‘given.’ It requires descriptive adumbration, which actually fleshes it out.
There are various other reductions that are implemented afterwards, and it all gets more complicated. It is not necessary to go into that. If you understand the basic movement, that’s good.
Now, in a sense, what you have done is – you have placed the classical world of objectivity and the classical world of subjectivity between brackets and, in a sense, you have crossed them out. But – and this is a Derridian strategy now, because he adds a cross to that which has been placed between parentheses – we still use the language of subjectivity and objectivity. However, because of the crossing-out, which only partly obscures them, we are warned; we are reminded that we have to take up an ironic attitude with respect to our use of those expressions. This is known as ‘writing under erasure’, and we come across this an awful lot in Derrida’s writings. It is extremely important as well as being very interesting. It basically means that you have not stepped outside the system – you are beginning to express the exteriority of interiority and vice versa.
In a sense, we still use Cartesian language, but we are not using it as Descartes used it, and we are not using it as the tradition since Descartes has used it. We are having fun with it, but we are playing by the same rules.
The difference between Descartes’ procedure of systematic ‘doubt’ and Husserl’s procedure of ‘suspension’ – otherwise known as the epoché – is as follows: Descartes doubts, therefore he sets himself up with a diametrically opposing thesis to that which occupied his starting point. This is to say that he still takes up a position – he still has an agenda, or a telos, if you like. Husserl’s epoché is different. Epoché means to abstain from taking up a position at all. It means to be utopic. Of course there are many problems that are inherent to such a methodology, which requires constant self-critique. These are the reasons why Husserl calls phenomenology ‘a perpetual return to beginnings.’ There is always another way of appropriating the matter or the text; there is always another way of returning to it. It is a spiral movement. So, in a sense, Husserl is also always writing under erasure.
What I have just described to you is Husserlian phenomenology from a singularly contemporary deconstructive perspective. This is not always made thematic in Husserl’s phenomenology. However, these dynamics are at work. What is really interesting about Derrida’s deconstruction is that he crystallizes them, makes them thematic, and puts them to work as fundamental moments of his strategy.
Robbie: How can you get out of the madness – by illusory distinctions between actuality and possibility?
Louis: Husserl said that the ‘knowledge of possibilities’ precedes the ‘knowledge of actualities’. In a certain sense, the issue of possibility has a more crucial role to play.
This is basically about openness. Husserl’s philosophy is all about restoring one’s sense of wonder in the face of the familiar. The familiar is familiar, precisely because we don’t see it any more – we are so used to it. To restore wonder in the face of the mundane means to actually see it again.
If you are working within the limitations of society’s normative values, then obviously you are not going to speak of insanity, if you uphold those values. However, how are we to understand something like nazi Germany? The normative values that emerged and were maintained within that milieu were such that you could do incredibly psychotic things and be praised for it.
By the way, Josef has brought along this really amazing quotation concerning the ways in which our most important values can be distorted and undermined. I want him to read it, and then Anna will present a charming limerick that plays on the semantical confusion that can arise from homophony (different words that sound alike).
I am trying to bring all these apparently disparate threads together here, and it is a very difficult task. What I am saying is that this is all about openness to alterity – to the Other – an openness to possibilities. There is a possibility of restoring sanity, not according to consensus (which is about the application and maintenance of normative values, which can in themselves invoke you to do insane things), but by being open to the other – as Nietzsche says, ‘with ears behind one’s ears.’ So, really it all depends on the definition of insanity here. I would say that with the Cartesian procedure you do arrive at insanity. Solipsistic delusion is one of the defining characteristics of psychosis.
Robbie: There is no problem with mathematics or astronomy…. Philosophy is mad!
Louis: I need to cite Foucault here. Sanity and insanity are inventions. This is basically about power and political marginalization. The concept of insanity is born in language – and language defines the world. The definition of madness is not stable, it changes over time. Principally, it is a language of exclusion (regardless of the time-frame), which cannot take the language of the Other into account – which is where Derrida’s deconstruction comes in by playing with the possibility of dialogue. I am not sure that one can go deeper than that when making grand statements like “Philosophy is mad!” Which philosophy, which language? Unless, of course one dives straight into a pre-linguistic and transcendentally psychotic attitude, as Descartes does when he reaches the point of solipsism in his meditations. So, which one do you want? Take your pick.
One definition of sanity may be approached through the question about what constitutes philosophical responsibility. For all I know, I may be one of the very few deconstructionists who actually appreciates this about Derrida’s deconstruction. I see something highly ethical about what Derrida is doing, and I see a great deal of philosophical responsibility in what comes out of his writing. However, it is not something that one can see immediately. I think that this comes out of his invitation to us to take on responsibility ourselves. “Above all,” he says, “one must “re-read those in whose wake I write” – which is to say, don’t just take my word for it.
Josef, I want you to read that amazing little discourse on the fluidity of the definition of virtue that you found and sent to me by E-mail. It is a disturbing account of how definitions can change their meaningful resonances…
Anna: I was just reminded of your phrase, “to do phenomenology is to be a little mad.”
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Louis: By the way, if you all want to understand a little bit more about the history of the movement from phenomenology to deconstruction (which is by no means a movement of surpassing), I have made a photocopy of my first published article from 1989 called “Différance Beyond Phenomenological Reduction (Epoché)?” – [it is a question]. It is available in the same box as the other essays in the office, and you are welcome to make photocopies of it. I think that it is quite a good propadeutic to understanding what is really going on, so it may help you out a little. And, now for Josef’s presentation…
Josef: This is something that I did not find in yesterday’s newspaper…
And so many terrible things happened to cities through civil conflict, things which happen and always will happen so long as the nature of men is the same, but which are worse or milder and differ in their forms according to the variations of the circumstances in each case. In periods of peace and prosperity both states and individuals maintain better dispositions, because they do not fall under necessities against their will. But war, which robs people of the easy supply of their daily wants, is a violent schoolmaster matching most men’s tempers to their conditions.
There was, then, civil conflict; and those of the cities which were involved later, through hearing of what had happened earlier, pushed on to further extremes of innovation both in the ingenuity of their schemes for seizing power and in the extravagance of their reprisals. They altered the accepted usage of words in relation to deeds as they thought fit. Reckless audacity was termed courageous loyalty to party; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation, a cover for spinelessness; and ability to understand all sides, total inertia. Fanatical enthusiasm was rated a man’s part; and cautious deliberation, a euphemism for desertion. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.
The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the other and not with generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered by either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one……
Thucidides – The Peloponnesian War – Book III, Chapter IX, 82, The Corcyraean Revolution
This was written 2400 years ago.
Louis: Brilliant and scary! If any of you come across little texts like this – a few paragraphs or a few aphorisms – please, copy them down and send them to me, and I can relay them to all of you. Then, we can begin to play ourselves…
Yaki mentioned something about Oscar Wilde a little while ago that I’d love to have a look at. Perhaps he’ll be kind enough to bring this along. I have some short essays by Umberto Eco (from Misreadings) and Jorge Luis Borges (Labyrinths) that you may find illuminating.
Deconstruction, in a sense, is not new. Derrida’s genius happens to lie in the way, in which he thematized it, gave it a set of rules and played around with it. In a way, he also follows a long tradition. So, it would be interesting to uncover things like this in other texts that may be familiar, and even other texts that don’t seem outwardly deconstructive, which we ourselves could deconstruct or to which we may apply an entirely different narrative form. We should understand something about the methods of deconstruction, the strategies and techniques involved. But, what would be really fun is for us to actually do some deconstruction. So, when we have some understanding of the basic rules – then we can start to play.
‘Play’ is one of the primary motifs in deconstruction. ‘Play’ does not equal irresponsibility. Think of the way children play. They have very firm ideas about rules. Look at the rigour, with which children play. That’s the philosophical approach.
Now I’d like to read something that Anna sent to me, and it is great fun. Remember, what I said earlier on about Derrida overturning what he claimed to be the fundamental thread of Western philosophy – phonocentrism. He introduces the neologism of différance with an ‘a’ – whose sense of distinctness from difference with an ‘e’ cannot be discerned phonetically, but only graphically. In what follows, we have a nice little analogue of how this is put to work and the kind of confusion that can occur at the phonetic level…
Tried to teach two young tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor,
”Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?”
Carolyn Wells (1862-1942)
There is also a great deal of humour in what Derrida is doing, but it is not ‘immediately’ apparent. He is another kind of philosophers’ philosopher. Therefore, to really appreciate what he is doing, you need to understand something of the history and the context, in which he is writing, and about what he is writing. And, it is difficult for us mere mortals to do that – but it is not impossible. I’ve heard of Derrida being referred to as ‘the Aristotle of the twentieth century’ (however, I’m not sure I agree with such an epithet).
We do need to know something about the tradition of deconstruction, so we’ll need to take a route through phenomenology. And, I’ll try to point out the humour, as I see it, as we go through Derrida’s essays.
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I want as many of you as possible to get hold of a funny book that Josef has brought along, called Derrida for Beginners. It was put together by two gentlemen who share a brilliant sense of humour, and it is kind of like a comic book. If one looks through it – it is actually quite informative. It does not make any fundamental mistakes and it provides some useful definitions. I would say that its conceptual format is almost genius, actually. I wish that I had had something like it, when I started studying deconstruction.
So, next week I would really like us to go through Derrida’s essay “Différance” itself. Once you’ve actually got copies – underline parts that are particularly interesting, whether you think that you understand them or not, or make a note of something that reminds you of another text, etc. I want us to spend couple of weeks on this essay, because it is a very important introduction to deconstructive strategy – and we will probably return to it again and again.
Then I will give you a list of essays by Derrida that I think would be interesting, and we can all take a vote on which ones to look at – and in what order – whether you are particularly interested in Derrida’s attitude to Husserl, Heidegger, Freud, Saussure, Foucault or James Joyce…. I don’t want to be lecturing every week. I am just trying to give you an introduction here. I would like everyone to get involved. Don’t be put off by the assumption that your lack of familiarity with deconstruction means that you do not have anything to contribute. Deconstruction is such that there are no true experts. The whole issue of ‘mastery’ is always open to deconstruction.
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I recently read a short article, which I recommend that you read (it’s with the other texts that I’ve mentioned). It is an interview with David Wood, the original supervisor of my Ph.D. studies at Warwick University (he is now a professor at Vanderbilt University in America). When asked about whether deconstruction has been superseded, he basically shows that this is an absurd question. It is not a system to be superseded. And, there certainly isn’t any great new telos to replace the teleological absence about which deconstruction speaks. It is about critical reasoning. It is a tool, and I like to think of it as being fundamentally Socratic / maieutic. It is like a midwife of meaning, a facilitator of alternatives, possibilities, alterity… If you are well versed in deconstructive writing, this definitely gives you an edge in argumentation. [To Mor:] As a lawyer, this would be a very useful tool for you.
Mor: Yes, but then it is treated only as a rhetorical tool and nothing more – there is nothing behind it.
Louis: Isn’t this how most lawyers, or at least the successful ones, operate?
Deconstruction is not just simply for philosophers. I am trying to show its philosophical aspects by talking about the history out of which it has emerged – and into which it constantly re-immerses itself – but I also want to open a space of discourse that is broader than that of academic philosophy or pedagogy…
Mor: Lawyers would abuse it.
Josef: Lawyers know it by instinct. They don’t have to learn. A good lawyer deconstructs his opponent’s position totally and constructs in its place something completely different.
Robbie: That is the whole point.
Louis: In a way, yes. You can scream: “Derrida, what have you done? You have given all these awful people these powerful tools!” I guess that you can say the same about the common misappropriations of Nietzsche and the way in which his name became associated with the nazis.
It does raise a very difficult question – philosophical responsibility. I’ve already given you my own personal view about the sense of responsibility with which I am always left when I read Derrida. It is like – I am responsible; what am I going to do with it? So, he has restored that power to us. The point is that it is very easy to misappropriate Derrida. In the same way, it is very easy to misappropriate Nietzsche [as an aside… especially when he writes about ‘imagining truth to be a woman’].
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Yes, it is a difficult question. I remember having a chat with David Wood about the issue of responsibility in relation to writing an essay about the positive aspects of suicide. Suppose that a number of people responded to such an essay by saying: “Don’t you realize that people have committed suicide as a result of reading your paper? Don’t you have any sense of responsibility?”
Robbie: Then you can say that you were just repeating what Shopenhauer said before.
Louis: Okay. But, the point is, as a philosopher, let’s say that I write a piece on the merits of suicide – and then I start to receive letters from people saying things like: “Don’t you realize that my son committed suicide as a result of reading your paper? Have you no sense of philosophical responsibility, no morality?” This raises some difficult questions, not least of which involve matters of law. In a sense, it is illegal to commit suicide – or, rather, an attempted suicide is put down to unsound mind and judgement and one can be commited for it.
But then – on the other hand – it may well be that out of the few that did commit suicide from reading my paper, it saved the lives of many others. It’s possible, but I would probably never know – and perhaps, due to certain subliminal aspects of reading, neither would they.
The reason that I mention this is because of the way in which Nietzsche spoke about the power of melancholy and suicide. First of all, he said that the melancholic truly knows how to grasp happiness. It is interesting – think about that for a moment. With respect to the issue of suicide, in particular, there is a very important sense in which contemplation on such an absolute act can restore our possibilities back to us. This brings us to the great Shakespearean question ‘to be, or not to be.’
Basically, when one feels that one is nothing more than a reed bending in the wind, bending to breaking point – where it seems that one has no control over one’s destiny; where there is no real freedom or a meaningful frame to existence – deliverance becomes possible. Basically, Nietzsche is saying that when you reach the point of contemplating suicide, you realize, ultimately, that the final event, that final act is yours to make. It is your responsibility. In a sense, you find that your footing has been restored to an absolutely base position. It is very fundamental. You find that the ‘ultimate choice’ is yours. From that you can rebuild your life. This is the greatest value of Nietzsche’s discourse on suicide.
So, let us suppose that I basically said the same thing in my hypothetical essay. Perhaps some people might find themselves so deeply inspired by it that if I hadn’t written it, they would have actually committed suicide. Unfortunately, there are others who might read it and consequently they might interpret it as some kind of encouragement to commit suicide. That would be a reasonable answer. I suppose that success or failure would depend a great deal on the narrative style of delivery – but not exclusively, since the manner of its appropriation by the reader is always beyond the writer’s ability to control. We have to be careful when talking about the issue of how a text may inspire people. Implicitly, we use the language of causation – and this is highly problematic.
Sergei: This raises some important moral questions. Deconstruction appears to potentially undermine discourse on ethics. In a way, nothing is sacred.
Louis: This would certainly be the case with any deontological system of ethics. This is a truly horrible area, I tell you. I wonder what kind of relevance a prescriptive system has in our time of postmodern pluralism – because there do not seem to be any regulative principles that work across cultures. Utilitarianism does work across cultures, to a certain extent, because it is about ends defined by contexts, and it is not necessarily about conduct. So, for instance, within a utilitarian framework we should not really have missionarism or colonialism (although history tells us otherwise). But, deontology is a little bit scary. It’s about everyone being told how to act. Prescriptive ethics is highly problematic. There is something mildly revolting about only acting out of some sense of duty in accordance with a specified rule of conduct.
Robbie: This whole world scares me, actually. It is the age of nihilism.
Louis: Jacques Derrida seems to be very much a part of this pool. But, he has fun with it.
Sergei: I would like to ask you some questions concerning semiotics. One of them is in relation to Saussure, which Derrida does discuss, and the other one is that of Aristotle, which he discusses, but not in an affirmative way. What is the problem of difference to Aristotelian semiotics? According to Aristotle, the concepts are not the differences, but the mutuals. How do I learn what the ‘glass’ means? It is not that I learn that ‘glass is not green’, or ‘glass is not silver’ – no, I learn: this is glass, and this one is not. What I learn is the mutual traits that the objects have, and those traits classify them in the same category, like ‘glasses’.
Louis: Ah yes, the good old language of universals and particulars or types and tokens.
Sergei: Yes, exactly. And, in this system the question of difference is not so abstract – although there are major problems with Aristotle, if we don’t understand the concepts or mistake certain differences. There is no difference inside the sign; there is only the mutual. ‘Glass’ doesn’t point out that it is ‘not green’, the only point of it is that it is ‘glass’. It doesn’t say anything about its colour, about its size, etc. – there is no differentiation. What Saussure does is he says that signs are not actually about mutuals, they are about differences, which is something that I can hardly understand. I can understand what he means, but then it is hard to have any sense of objects.
* * *
Louis: When you identify something, you certainly don’t operate in this way. Let’s face it, if you were to identify something purely in terms of what it is not, you would have to take the whole universe into account with each particular classification. We don’t do this. It would be highly uneconomical.
However, to say that we don’t perceive or think that way isn’t to say that it is not already operative to some extent in consciousness and language. The point is that this is not something that we do, and this is not something at the deepest levels of cognition that is actually at work. At the level of the play of signification – of signifiers that Derrida is talking about – there is no room for consciousness. It is pre-conscious, pre-consciousness. And, also – we are not talking about relations between particular differences here, because what you [Sergei] describe is still a question of semiotics, e.g., ‘the glass is or is not green.’ ‘Glass’ and ‘green’ have certain kinds of meaning and ‘is’ and ‘is-not’ give predicative relations. We are not talking about differences between different meanings. We are talking about ‘differences’ between differences. It is an a-semic determination. It is difference – without being reducible to opposition – through which parameters come to be formed and meaning can be crystallized.
It is very hard to grasp this, because we don’t actually think in this way either – that is, in our day-to-day habituated performances. I am speaking about the primary way in which signifiers work, according to Saussure. And, this is also something that Derrida plays with. But, if you confine yourself to a merely static phenomenology or Saussurean static linguistics, neither of which really take genetic structuration (time and sedimentation) into account, then you will have a real problem grasping it. In a way, this would be kind of pre-phenomenological. Actually, it is pre-phenomenological-epoché – pre-phenomenology in the sense that it precedes all the reductions that Husserl initiated. Husserl never went that far in specific reference to the theme of the sign. However, he traced out another path that went as far, and considerably further, in his 1905–1910 lectures on the phenomenology of the temporalization of consciousness. However, they preceded any publication on the manifold forms of the method of epoché.
In the first volume of the text, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, published in 1913, Husserl spoke of the reduction or epoché in the following terms: he said that the method itself has no natural limits. Basically, it is put to use for a specific purpose (I wish I had the quote – it is fascinating!). He says that there is arbitrariness involved in the way in which we implement the reduction – we bracket out this or that. If we took it to its absolute limits, we could bracket out everything. But, then, there would be nothing left over to discuss. What he meant by that is that there would be no meaning left. You have structure and structuralization in abundance, but there is no meaning.
The only time that this actually occurs is in his Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness, which – as I said – funnily enough, comes before he actually thematized the epoché. But, here he talks about arriving at Primordial Flux. This is the flux, through which Time itself can unfold. And, he says of this flux that it has structurality in abundance, but it is ‘a region for which names are lacking’ – names as signifiers of meaning.
What we are talking about are pure structures of repetition. Derrida’s interest here is quite clear. What he likes to talk about are the different kinds of dynamics that are at work in signification – dynamics that always already presuppose repeatability. Again – this is brought out by différance. This neologism has a constellation of different meanings. For instance, it is a combination of both spatial determinations and temporal determinations. The Latin word, ‘differre’ combines both ‘difference,’ of a spatial order and ‘deferral,’ which is a temporal designation – ‘deferral,’ as in ‘to postpone,’ ‘to put off until later.’ There is also a ‘detour,’ a ‘relay’ – all these kinds of dynamics are operative in the play of signification. And, it is precisely because of these dynamics that meaning can unfold. So, in a sense, this is beneath meaning. Meaning is like an emergent function of these traces. These traces are, in a sense, original traces – they are not traces ‘of’ more original meanings. They always already precede meaning as the condition of its possibility.
Sergei: For me, it is easier to understand those traces as parts of Aristotelian concepts.
Louis: But here, this is all turned on its head. This is what really screws with our heads. And, rigorous deconstruction asks you to deal with it that way, and it is very hard, I know.
Sergei: I don’t know. I think that Saussure is speaking about ‘natural differences’. And actually, whatever Derrida does, he does not add that much to the Saussurean idea.
Louis: I agree…up to a point. There is much that is structuralist in orientation about what Derrida is doing.
However, the real difference that signifies a departure from Saussure, is that he has travelled a number of different phenomenological pathways. Derrida has a more sophisticated appreciation of the role of the temporality of signification and the intertwining of space and time.
In Saussurean linguistics, there is a distinction between ‘Lange’ and ‘Parole’. ‘Lange’, in a sense, is that meta-structural domain of synchronicity, a framework of differences between differences and not just differences between positive terms. It is timeless. It is a nexus of diacritical differences, whereas ‘Parole’ is meaning as it unfolds diachronically. Synchrony contra diachrony. Temporality is cast out to the external skin of language – time as diachrony / successivity, according to the classic distinction between space (as the order of co-existences) and time (as the order of successions). This is repeated in Saussure. Parole emerges out of a kind of subsoil of synchronous diacritical differences. This dimension of pure synchronous structurality is coextensive, whereas meaning / parole only emerges diachronically – in time.
This is highly problematic. Derrida, following Husserl, would be entitled to say: even that which we take as a realm of synchrony is a certain kind of time. The German word is Überzeitlich – it is like a ‘super-time’ or an ‘over-time.’ There are many different kinds of temporality. If one is not restricted to linear cosmological time, in which it is understood as a purely successive sequence, one may grasp, phenomenologically, that time can fold in on itself. All time can be coextensive without nullifying the temporal differences that are interwoven into its flattened out fabric. It can run backwards, different temporal moments can be shuffled around, or one’s life can flash before one’s eyes in a fraction of a second.
Also, if one understands something about the functioning of association in language, there is something holographic about it. The structurality of meaning as articulated in language is irreducible to a linear matrix of associations. The ‘saying’ follows a linear, successive sequence, but this is not necessarily true of the ‘said.’ Think of the word ‘intuition’ – it is like a timeless articulation of many different meanings at once, a Gestalt kind of knowledge: “Ah! Eureka!” “It all fits!” Many different ideas may emerge simultaneously. It was necessary to develop these ideas at different times, but they can stand out together in an economy of co-presence.
Consider what happens when you break a hologram. Firstly, if you tear up a photograph and throw it on the floor – you will be left with incomplete, disconnected fragments of the original image in all the pieces. However, If you look into the shards of a broken hologram, each shard will contain the image as a whole. This is a useful way of understanding how language operates. This is not to say that it is timeless, but it is Überzeitlich (supra-temporal)– it involves a kind of Super-Time.
If one gets away from the reductive cosmological approach to time, which generally defines it as a linear, successive sequence, one can understand that there are many different kinds of temporalities at work in language, which can appear synchronously – simultaneously. This is not a temporality / non-temporality. Derrida has this advantage over Saussure, but it is one that is not immediately apparent, unless you understand something about the history of discourse on non-linear, pluri-dimensional time in the twentieth century. With the help of Husserl, Heidegger, Freud, and even Einstein, not excluding the existentialists, surrealists, quantum theorists, and deconstructionists, twentieth century occidental philosophy was an interesting epoch for discourse on time.
Sergei: Then I have another question. Something reminded me of the strategy of sous rature (the French expression for ‘writing under erasure’). Saussure says that a sign does not, in a sense, make itself present. What we have may be an acoustical phenomenological or visual phenomenological presentation. Is this the case in phenomenology or are you saying that what we see is a sign – the phenomenon of simply a sign as a sign, nothing else?
Louis: Phenomenology shares in a similar horizon to Saussurean structuralism…which affirms your first comment about what actually appears – not the sign as some objective replacement for something other than itself, but precisely that which gives itself through the sign.
Okay. What I want to do here is relate the idea of signification to the way in which Husserl speaks about intentionality, because I know that you will appreciate the analogue.
First of all, consciousness is consciousness of something. Its relation to itself is, in a sense, mediated through that towards which it is directed – even if it is directed toward nothing in particular (which is often the case). So, in this sense, it only folds back on itself after originally transgressing itself. This is very much a Sartrean determination of intentionality, but it is at work in Husserl as well. Both Husserl and Sartre would say that a pre-reflexive consciousness is just simply involved in its objects, and it is not so much aware of itself. This original self-transcendency is the same with a sign. A sign is originally transparent. It always recedes before that towards which it is directed – to the meaning that gives itself through the sign. The moment that the sign becomes opaque, it is in the absence of meaning. Without getting too bound up in what is tantamount to being a theological consideration, this substitution of the sign for that toward which it is directed is an essential component of what it is to be a symbol, and this is something quite different. Again – it is a sign, but it is a proxy, it stands in the place of something else.
A sign stands out in the absence of meaning. If it is doing its job, it actually erases itself in its directedness toward something Other.
Sergei: Saussure says that what we hear is not a sign, but an acoustical phenomenon.
Louis: Yes, because a sign does not primarily stand in as a ‘substitute’ for something that is signified. A sign only stands out as an object in the absence of the signified. What is signified is an “acoustical phenomenon." I have a feeling that we shall be returning to the phenomenological aspects of Saussurean linguistics again and again.
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