Friday, September 02, 2005

Language and the inscrutable "Other"


Derrida reclaims the idea of writing as 'trace' from Heidegger who, in turn, has borrowed it from Heraclitus via Aristotle. However, there is one important difference: for Derrida, writing as a trace, as a perpetually supplanted presence, does not converge in any definite way toward meaning or referent. Writing is primal in the sense that it anticipates and supplements any intended meaning. Thus writing is not a transposition of speech. It is not the expression of intra-subjectivity. On the contrary, it is the manifestation of an infinite chain of signifiers without any signified. This is what Derrida calls dissemination: "seed cast wastefully outside" (rather than plenitude of meaning). Language, in other words, is no longer said to be unable to capture or to mean the truth. Rather, the whole quest for meaning is shown to be a play of signifiers always pointing away from themselves and to the other, always differing and deferring their intended meaning. Language as writing has been revealed to be nothing but a veil, an empty construct projected by those who are afraid of facing the ultimate emptiness of subjective meaning.

Heidegger's conception of being (Sein) as unconcealedness (die Unverborgenheit or aletheia) shows Being to be the predetermined and preconceived ground of any being, and to reveal itself in its very withdrawal. Being is thus present as an absence, but an absence that is precisely the dwelling place of a manifested thing.

Derrida follows Heidegger, but only up to a point. The trace is no longer the sign of a concealed presence of being, i.e., the sign of an absence, and thus an empty sign, but the very precondition of that undecidedness which characterizes any presence, any utterance, any phenomenon, including that of inner subjectivity.

Thus, unlike Heidegger, whose linguistic innovations and meandering thinking point from all directions to a Being that absences itself in everything that it presents, Derrida uses his lexicon of undecidables, specially the concepts of trace, spectrum, and pharmacon, to show the futility of any attempt to point in any direction and to anything at all as the privileged dwelling place of Being.

For Derrida, Being may be just that inscrutable 'other', towards which language strives to overcome itself, but which for this very reason, must remain unnamed. Derrida seems to be justified in rejecting Heidegger's disguised onto-theology as just another expression of logocentrism.

Although Heidegger's Being is not that of Aristotle or of Hegel, as the essence of everything, but the space of unconcealement, still he seems to be only choosing randomly between one of the four meanings that Aristotle gave to to on in his Metaphysics. Heidegger prefers Being as potentiality, as dynamis (or motility).

Heidegger is thus caught irremediably in his own attempt at overcoming metaphysics, and while claiming to have retrieved the question of Being from oblivion, in fact, he only proclaims a new type of philosophizing in the guise of liberating thought. Heidegger's enterprise does not so much mark the end of philosophy and the beginning of thinking, as it forges a new set of categories. His ambition to outgreek the Greeks, to think more Greek like than the Greeks is only a vain hope to start metaphysics anew and in a direction that is not and cannot be conducive to nihilism. In this respect, he is oblivious of the fact that there is something inherently forgetful in the very pursuit of ontology.

Here again Derrida - this mysterious but prompt late day sophist - appears to remind the great thinker, lost in the many ways to being (Holzwege) that he is pursuing a chimera. Being and nothingness blend together in a simultaneous and undecidable manner in the very texture of language. Heidegger's thinking may be an invitation to follow in the pathways of his own unconventional thought. Yet, an invitation which invites and also presumes a sharing of his own concerns, angsts, and tribulations. His is a tragic condition, for it is doubtful that Heidegger anticipates any possible transcendence of the temporality of the human Dasein.

Here, I am turning again to the earlier, formative, years of the young Heidegger, not so much for attempting an archeology of his philosophical endeavor, as for finding the presuppositions underlying his philosophical awakening. Heidegger entered philosophy through a work of Bretano on Aristotle's ontology (On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle). This not only proved to be decisive in directing his interest, but also supplied the themes of his future inquires. This fact, along with the consideration that he came under the influence of a Neo-Kantian in the person of Heinrich Rickert, who demanded training in logic, epistemology, and value theory, are sufficient to understand the persistence of his disguised ontological ambitions even after Kehre, when he renounced a single theme (that of Being) and the rigors of academic discourse. But most important of all it is Heidegger's opposition to the reduction of logical procedures to psychological processes in his doctoral dissertation (On the Doctrine of Judgement in Psychologism) that definitively marks his orientation.

In rejecting the preeminence of psychology Heidegger committed the same error made by many philosophers from Renaissance onwards, namely to ignore, in the words of Carl Jung, the fact that metaphysical assertions are statements of the psyche and in some way are also psychological. Heidegger's other great contemporary, Jaspers, did not reject the psychological. As for Derrida, he at least recognizes the role of the unconscious in construction the "Other," if his Psyche ou l'invention de l'autre is any indication in this sense.

Of the two, it is Derrida who follows ultimately Nietzsche as a deconstructor of the history of metaphysics, who is more genuinely subjective and therefore more authentic. At the same time, it is also Derrida who, like Nietzsche, is less European in his speculative ways. If Nietzsche considered himself a sort of European Buddha, then Derrida, by analogy, could well take the role of a masterful Nagarjuna.