April 06, 2004

Self-division and the Self

A colleague asked me about "Self-division" and the self today. In particular, why do some people like Lacan and Derrida claim that having a self, or being an individual leads to "Self-division"?

Here is the quote (I am very sorry that I do not know who it is a quote from...)
Though Derrida's work is widely read as a means of undermining Western power structures,  privileging the spoken text, with its reference to an elusive "transcendent," is common to all cultures, and the "violent" binary oppositions he identifies as attributes of Western philosophy are found in great many societies.  No doubt the stress on the individual in Western thought has exacerbated our self-division and produced a heightened emphasis on the "other," who defines us.

What is going on here? What is this "priveleging spoke text?" What has this to do with a reference to a transcendent, or to "stress on the individual"?

If it all sounds like gobbledigook, you are forgiven. What follows is my take on this French philosophy.

First of all, I do not like the way that Derrida, Lacan and other postmodernists choose to express themselves. They are not kind to their readers. I find their books very difficult to understand. They do not give me the impression that they are trying to make themselves understood. But at the same time, I think that the same postmodernists are better than most other philosophers at their job. They are vague, and possibly even deliberately convoluted but they get to points other philosophers do not reach.

In order to explain the above summary of Derrida, I use my poor understanding of Lacan.

According to Lacan the human as she arrives in the world is a pretty chaotic thing. Lacan says that there is no centre to the human being.

What human being is Lacan talking about? I am probably misunderstanding Lacan here, but for me, the human as he comes into the world, that Lacan is talking about, is the immediate world of experience. This "immediate world of experience" is not something that I should give even that name to. But following people like one Dr. Nishida, the "immediate world of experience" is experience before we have interpretted it at all. It is the "just is" of experience, the raw data. In Buddhist terms this raw data is perhaps "the buddha," or enlightenment. I would not want to put to much stress on this, because I am not certain but perhaps we are all born as Buddhas. That is to say that when we are babies we do not yet have, or believe in,  a lot of interpretations of our world. We simply experience our world.

And where are we in that experience? My Lacano-Buddhist answer is that we are not their at all, or we are that experience itself and that comes to the same thing. 

When I am awake I experience stuff. When I dream I experience stuff. When I shut my eyes I experience stuff. The world of my experience is full of something. The "something" that is for me the most apparent is my visual field. We can all see some thing now. It is roughly circular.

When I dream I know that I am not seeing anything outside of me. When I imagine the world I know that I am not seeing anything outside of me. But both my dreams and my imaginings bear a striking resemblance to the experience of the world. So much so that sometimes we don't even know that we are dreaming. I can shut my eyes and still imagine something that is almost identical to the thing that I see when my eyes are open. In both cases I see something like a screen, a round screen.

There is something round going on! Descartes could be sure of his existance but I am sure only of "there is something round." One may presume that there is something, a me, watching that round thing but I have never seen it (me). All I can be sure I have experienced is experience itself. All those that agree with Rene Descartes will be sure that there is a something else, themselves that is experiencing their experiences: an observer. This may be the case. But as far as I am concerned at least, I have not and I can not experience that experiencer. No matter how fast I turn my head, no matter how many mirrors I look into, not matter what I do, I only ever see my experience and not the person that is experiencing it.

The strange thing about experience is that we can say very little about it. For example one of the most poingant thing in my experience is color. For exampel I will soon be able to see the color red.  Yep, I can see it. One small area of the roundish screen that I am now looking at is red. We may agree on that. However the quality of the experience for me is not something that I can communicate to you. It definately has a quality but there is a chance that when I see red you see blue.  So long as we both agree that this is red and this is blue then we will call the experiences that we have as red and blue. I deliberately reversed them there. The actual experience that I have and the actual experience that you have is not something that either of us can talk about. And it seems to me that it is quite possible that the quality of my experience could be different from yours. We here that some people are color blind. They often do not know until they go for exams to be pilots. Color blindness tests show us that some people are unable to distinguish between two colors. But if the quality of red that I see were what you called blue it would make no difference. We would still call the same red thing red even though we were experiencing completely different things. Even that statement is not allowable though because there is no talking about my experience. I can convey nothing of the quality of my experience to you. I can say nothing of that experience even to myself. For me, red has a certain quality. I can never convey that quality to anyone. It is an unsayable. That is why one might say that the world of my experience is "chaotic." All of it is completely undescribable.

Okay so here we are experiencing our undescribable experiences. But are we even sure that there is anyone doing the experiencing? Lacan and Derrida say that we cannot be sure. Both you and I assume that there is someone in front of this circle of light but both you and I have only ever seen the experience and not ourselves.

Both of us however believe that there is something else other than our experience. Lacan seems to be saying that this is a mistake. We are that experience but all of us believe in something else that is experiencing.

According to Lacan we make this mistake in two ways. First of all look at our own bodies directly or in a mirror. Then we assume that the thing that is seeing this disk of light is visible person or image. Or at the very least inside that image. Another way that assume that we are infront of the disk by believing in language. It seems to stand to reason that if "I am experiencing a oval disk of light" then there is something called "I" that is doing the seeing. 

Lacan says however that this is a mistake. Not just "the person that I am cannot be reflected in a mirror" but there is no centre, no person to reflect. 

However, Lacan says, we all identify with something. This is a mistake that we all make. We all think that we either the person that we can imagine or the person that we refer to when we say "I."

Returning to Derrida. Derrida is fanatical about phonocentric language. This language that you can see is written. You can see it. But when you read the words that I am writing then you hear in your mind remembered phonemes. As you "pronounce" each word a silent sound is experience by you. As each word is sounded or read as soon as you move onto the next one the previous word has disappeared. Phonemes, remembered or otherwise, are like that. 

It is not clear to me whether Derrida puts the chicken first or the egg, but he says that the phonetic medium of language is particularly good at convincing us that we are it. The very fact that the phonetic sign is so good at disappearing, enables us to belive that is refer to who we really are.

It seems to me that I have been even more incomprehensible that Derrida! Ach. I forgive him. Almost.

Posted by timtak at April 6, 2004 01:12 AM