The following is the second installment of a two-part series. The first can be found here. The article was recently presented at the international meeting of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Phänomenologische Forschung (German Society for Phenomenological Research) in Vienna. The conference theme was “Fact, Facticity, and Reality”, or how philosophy can understand new media culture.
Few scholars nowadays have either the will or the curiosity to perform a genealogy of the early post-structuralist critique of Husserl, but the stakes have always been far more momentous than we recognize. Husserl was probably more canny than we give him credit for in his efforts at confining “meaning” (Bedeutung) to the circuit of “expression” and downplaying the importance of “indication”. For Husserl, “indication” approximates what in twentieth century linguistic analysis came to be regarded as “extension” rather than “intention,” or reference. “Indication” is what links meaning to “objects”.
Indication is “sense-giving act”, but what Deleuze would later dub the “donation of sense” depends entirely on the act of expression. In fact, the ideality of meaning, which inheres as a formal “unity” even when one takes stock of the different ways in which sense can be given through linguistic praxis or speech-acts, and its sundry “motivations” or “meaning-intentions” (as Husserl characterizes them), is what ultimately must concern philosophy. The instantiation of this ideality in the performance of empirical judgments is crucial for “science,” inasmuch as the latter requires more than a refined logicism to be worthy of its calling.
But we must not regard the judgment itself as the key to scientific inference. As Husserl opines in the Logical Investigations, “we must guard in advance against the error of seriously thinking that sense-giving acts have two distinct sides, one which gives them their meaning, while the other gives them their determinate direction to objects.”(198)
In fact, this utterance of Husserl provides the clue to what Derrida within the idiom that come to be known as “post-structuralism” really had in mind from the beginning with the notion of deconstruction. In Speech and Phenomena Derrida makes the somewhat oblique case that when one sorts through the entirety of the Western philosophical tradition, one is forced to realize that the so-called “metaphysics of presence” is simply a method for avoidance of the fact there is nothing but the sign. And it is the nature of the sign to differentiate itself from both what it signifies and other related signifiers.
It is this essential function of the sign as a differential that Saussure of course brought to our attention much earlier. But it is at the same time this fundamental operation of signs in formal logic as a “difference engine” (the word is largely Deleuze’s) that Husserl seemed to have scanted, if not entirely missed, according to Derrida. Representation requires repetition of the same signifier. The sign works by repeating the same semantmeme, while simultaneously providing them with “determinate direction to objects.”
Yet in making these determinations it relies thoroughly on the differential function, which in turn entails the disappearance of the signifier and the previous significand. “Whether what is at issue is expression or indicative communication,” Derrida writes, “the difference between reality and representation, between the true and the imaginary, between simple presence and repetition has always already started to erase itself.”(43)
Philosophy heretofore, Derrida insists, has both trivialized and mystified sign-operations by taking them as merely ancillary to the pure ideality of thinking, to an imagined “interior monologue” that precedes all symbolic exchanges. Husserl himself performed the same gesture. Husserl’s postulate of an “expressive” stratum of meaning – in short, meaning as intention – that is capable of generating sign connections on its own irrespective of whether it is ever transformed into the “indicative” mode strikes Derrida as self-defeating. Signification without indication is as “empty”, as Kant would have said as conception without perception.
The transition from phenomenology to what Derrida elsewhere would denominate as “grammatology” turns on an enterprise that seeks “to restore the originality and the non-derivative character of the sign against classical metaphysics.” Such a move, Derrida remarks “is also, by means of an apparent paradox, to erase the concept of the sign whose entire history and entire sense belong to the adventure of the metaphysics of presence.”(44) The movement of the self-erasing sign only works “from a certain inside, the language of metaphysics.” Moreover, “this work undoubtedly has always already begun. We would have to grasp what happens in this inside when the closure of metaphysics comes to be named.”
Here Derrida is transposing into a brand new key Heidegger’s project that seeks to name and announce the “closure”, or the “overcoming” (Überwindung) of metaphysics. The “end” of philosophy as the self-manifesting Destruktion of metaphysics, which for Heidegger constitutes the parousia or the “fullness” of Being itself, now in Derrida’s hands becomes the “closure of the book” and the advent of deconstruction. “With the difference between real presence and presence in representation as Vorstellung, we find thus, by means of language, a whole system of differences drawn into the same deconstruction: the differences between the represented and the representative in general, the signified and the signifier, simple presence and its reproduction, presentation as Vorstellung and re-presentation as Vergegenwärtigung.”(44)
Contra Husserl, “presence” derives “from repetition and not the reverse.” “Representation” in the sense of Husserl’s use of the word Vorstellung “depends on the possibility of repetition.” As far as Heidegger is concerned, repetition is a feature of the “age of the world picture” where things that were once thought within a “meditative” and “originary” ambience (for example, in the case of the pre-Socratics) are now incorporated into the calculus of metaphysical rationality. It is the most conscequential aspect of the transformation of the primal logos into “logic.”
However, for Derrida, the transformation has never been inscrutable or simply accidental, as Heidegger from time to time implies. It cannot be attributed to a mysterious “fall” away the primordial experience of Being which Heidegger names Seinsvergessenheit. Pari passu the “fall” arises from the mediation of language, the proliferation of the implements of Anzeichen. The Husserlian fantasy of an interior monologue, a purely expressive and pre-indicative ideality, itself requires an instrument of “indication” in order to become “meaningful”.
The “metaphysics of presence”, which includes Husserlian phenomenology, mistakes what is “presented” (vergegenwärtigt) as something that subsists beyond the presentation itself in the expansiveness of the transcendental imagination. But such a “presence” (ousia in the metaphysical idiom) is always nothing more than a “mark” or a “trace” conveyed through its nominalization. Such nominal “presence” only exists in the absolute moment (Augenblick), as we would say figuratively in English, in “the twinkling of the eye.”
Derrida devotes considerable attention midway through Speech and Phenomena to a surgical dissection of Husserl’s theory of temporality and internal time consciousness. What stands out in Husserl, he argues, is a failure to realize that location of the representation as Vorstellung “in time” places it irremediably and unassailably in the now. What, then, structures the phenomenalization, which is always a nominalization (even if it amounts to talking to oneself), as pure presence in the immediacy of the present? Any genuine “phenomenology” surely cannot avoid this question.
Derrida famously argues in Speech and Phenomena that Husserlian phenomenology privileges the phoneme, the basic unit of oral communication, as the archetype of the representative function in language. But philosophy did not exist before the invention of writing, and it is the grammeme rather than the phoneme that etiologically gives play to the theoretical construct of the sign. Even Husserl himself, Derrida contends, the role of “inscription as indispensable for the constitution of ideal objects, that is, of objects that can be transmitted and repeated as the same.”(69)
Self-communication – or what Derrida labels “auto-affection” – is incapable of producing the signifying apparatus that writing alone makes possible. The reason lies in the semiotic differential between the self-evident utterances of pure speech and the complexity and idiosyncrasies of the written text. Derrida’s notorious coinage of the idiosyncratic term différance underscores this distinction. Writing, as Derrida discloses in the last chapter of Speech and Phenomena, disrupts radically the schema of the metaphysics of presence, even Hegel’s dialectic and Heidegger’s “fundamental ontology”.
Writing is the ever evolving “supplement” to the misconstrued presence of speech to itself as pure representation. “What we would like finally to start thinking about is the fact that the for-itself of self-presence (für-sich), traditionally determined in its dative dimension as phenomenological, reflective, or pre-reflective auto-donation, arises in the movement of supplementarity as originary substitution, in the form of the ‘in the place of’ (für etwas), that is, as we have seen, in the very operation of signification in general.”(75)
The only genuine eidos is what we have before us in the textual inscription as a system of self-erasing significations. Il n’y a pas de hors-texte (“there is nothing apart from the text”). It is in this formula that the philosophy of the digital era is not only birthed, but the “apocalypse” of philosophy itself begins to loom for the first time on the horizon.
Derrida called attention to the “apocalyptic tone” of post-structuralist philosophy in an essay published in 1984. Like most of Derrida’s essays, it amounted to a close reading of certain historical texts, in this case Kant’s condemnation of such eighteenth century mystagogues and “illumined” esotericists such as Johann Georg Hamann and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. As has been repeatedly pointed out, it is hard to tell whether Derrida in the essay is siding with Kant, or defending him against the accusations of such philosophical heavyweights at the time as Jürgen Habermas, who accused Derrida of a similar kind of mystagogy. Whereas Derrida quite explicitly refutes the insinuation that he is against the kind of deliberative argumentation and “communicative“ rationality that Habermas is renowned for having prized, he also seems to defend the attitude of the eighteenth century illuminati.
Whoever takes on the apocalyptic tone comes to signify to, if not tell, you something. What? The truth, of course, and to signify to you that it reveals the truth to you; the tone is the revelatory of some unveiling in process. Unveiling or truth, apophantics of the imminence of the end, of whatever comes down, finally, to the end of the world. Not only truth as the revealed truth of a secret on the end or of the secret of the end. Truth itself is the end, the destination, and that truth unveils itself is the advent of the end. Truth is the end and the instance of the last judgment. The structure of truth here would be apocalyptic.(24)
What could be the “truth” of deconstruction? Is it apocalyptic, or merely casuistic and inductive? Or something else? In a much later set of lectures, delivered two years before his death and captured in the volume entitled Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, Derrida affiliates deconstruction with the notion of “sovereignty”, which he describes as “ipseity” or the “power of the same,” that by which “reason defines its own power.”
Kant’s “reason alone” – the reason of l’âge de la raison – bears within itself the “deconstructive exigency of reason.” For “deconstruction, if something of the sort exists,” Derrida writes, “would remain above all, in my view, an unconditional rationalism that never renounces- and precisely in the name of the Enlightenment to come, in the space to be opened up of a democracy to come-the possibility of suspending in an argued, deliberated, rational fashion, all conditions, hypotheses, conventions, and presuppositions, and of criticizing unconditionally all conditionalities, including those that still found the critical idea, namely, those of the krinein, of the krisis, of the binary or dialectical decision or judgment.”(142)
Deconstruction, he emphasizes, is a kind of harbinger of an “Enlightenment to come.” It is an anticipation of the full, “eschatological” concentration of the power of reason as κρίνω, what separates the “sheep” of true knowledge from the goats of mere conjecture and prejudice, or pre-judgment. If deconstruction is “justice,” as Derrida explained in the early 1990s, it amounts to the “final judgment” as well.
The digitally mediated world in one sense has all the attributes of the κρίνω, grinding and granulating the vast, grandiose fabric of the real into 1s and 0, bits and bytes. But the infinitesimal digital binary has at the same time become the infinitesimal trace, the phantasmal present-as-presence that Derrida criticized in Husserl. The logos of such a world lacks the rich warp of textuality that Derrida sought to bring to bear on the history of thought with the approach he named “deconstruction”. In fact, one has to question whether it is meaningful to speak of a logos at all when it comes to giving a philosophical account of the fundamental digital binarism that has become the mere simulacrum for any conceivable ontology nowadays.
We may conclude, therefore, by offering a deliberately contentious thesis. It is our thesis is that the digital world that has come to be experienced as a “post-truth” world is the evolutionary end point of the history of an immanent rationality that has collapsed the empirico-transcendental doublet into a global nexus of indicative signifiers. In one important respect such a collapse cannot be attributed solely to Derrida’s own efforts to eliminate the doublet in favor of a “grammatology” – in point of fact, an ontology of inscription where ta onta become the “present of presence” manifesting as a kaleidoscope of electronic bytes and bits, which turn out to be the algorithmic counterpart of the notion of the “trace”.
The same tendency can be attributed to Husserl himself. Husserl’s own quest for “the strictest science” required, as Derrida rightly pointed out, the prioritizing of a system of logical sign-relations that strangely resemble the computational models of artificial intelligence. Husserl’s aspiration to achieve that goal is not significantly different from what Peter Domingos describes as the search for a “master algorithm” independent of the neural networks of the human brain that will render all forms of empirical input obsolete.
As Pedro Domingos remarks, AI researchers “do not believe in emulating nature” any more than Husserl wanted to derive knowledge from “the natural attitude.”(loc. 2460) Both Husserlian phenomenology and Derridean deconstruction, therefore, constitute separate, but equal trajectories away from the Kantian unity of apperception in the aftermath of the collapse of the empirico-transcendental doublet. The upshot has been the de-ontologization of philosophy which also renders its essentializing logos obsolete. Thought can only be fractionated into a meme once presence becomes indistinguishable from “presentism” in the sense Derrida in his critique of Husserl perhaps had in mind. “Post-truth” is the inevitable outcome of a philosophy that has become post-logos.
We would not perhaps go so far as Bernard Stiegler who has characterized this predicament unique to our current era as a “new barbarism”, following Horkheimer and Adorno’s “dialectic of enlightenment”, that substitutes for fascist mythos a certain “algorithmic governmentality.” Algorithmic governmentality, according to Stiegler, “becomes the global cause of a colossal social disintegration.” It “penetrates, invades, parasitizes…social relations at lightning speed”, functioning as an “automatic nihilism that “destroys local culture” like “a neutron bomb.”(loc. 640)
Algorithmic governance destroys, Stiegler writes, the last vestiges of Husserlian “protension” within the transcendental field, thereby insinuating itself for the first time in the epochal chain of epistemic formations that we know as “civilization” an “extreme stage of rationalization” that is unmasked as the “loss of reason itself.” Algorithmic governmentality, therefore, discloses itself as the dark eschatology of the very civilizational process that Stiegler has famously described in his three-volume treatise Technics and Time, in which “a loss of the eidetic intentionality that underlies scientificity as such.”(3)
In his early work Stiegler analogizes this turn of events to what Husserl posed as the “crisis of the European sciences”. But we must ask ourselves: was not a different kind of “technization” already at play in the project of phenomenology itself? Is that not what Husserl himself perhaps glimpsed when at the conclusion of Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy he talked about a “teleology of European history” that is at the same time one of the “infinite goals of reason.”(191)
The “crisis”, Husserl opined, was due to a culture “alienated from the rational sense of life”, but for him such a life could only become palpable once “science” steels itself against the empiricist or “objectivist” temptation and withdraws into the certainty of “pure knowledge”, which is at the same time “scientific self-knowledge.”(189) Finally, one must inquire whether the dismissal of the empirico-transcendental doublet by both phenomenology and post-structuralism has not left us with the kind of faux realism that Baudrillard has termed “hyperrealism,” a realism based on the supersession of the real itself. The digitization of ontology, the default of logos whereby the “word” itself becomes a “wordless” form of de-ontologized ontologism, that cannot be distinguished from Stiegler’s automatized “nihilism.”
If “nihilism” is, as Nietzsche famously quipped, a monstrous plight in which the “highest values devalue themselves,” in this instance we find ourselves on the precarious cusp of a curious and unparalleled Zeitalter when the most “precise” concepts de-conceptualize themselves. At that juncture we arrive at an eschatology of the abyss which Stiegler calls “the absence of epoch.” And all we have perhaps to rely on is Heidegger’s eminent plaint that “only a god can save us.”
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.