Friday, October 18, 2013

Jacob's Ladder: On names, language, and writing

Jacob's Ladder


Despite telling myself I'd stay away from theory this semester, I have been sucked back in, reading Michel de Certeau's Practice of Everyday Life and Helene Cixous' Three Steps on the Ladder to Writing in the space of a couple weeks as well as pieces of David Farell Krell's newest text on Derrida's Beast and the Sovereign Lectures. In this latter piece, Krell connects the future of thinking to our attentiveness to language(s). Krell writes,
"I will only add the remark that if apophantic discourse seems inadequate to the task, it means that students who pursue this line of inquiry will have to develop their gifts for language. It may not be a matter of inventing a new language, even if Zarathustra com- mands us to 'fashion a new lyre' Yet it will surely be a matter of resist- ing that overwhelming trend in our own world, including the world of higher education, to diminish the importance of language and lan- guage teaching, to flatten and banalize our powers of expression, to accept as though it were an inevitability the waxing illiteracy of our time."
For those readers unfamiliar with the term "apophantic," is a term in Aristotle that refers to a particular judgment, a judgment of what is true and what is false. In Heidegger it refers to the possibility of the "as such." Derrida, especially in Aporias, has challenged the possibility of a true "as such." Thus, if Heidegger argues that the difference between humans and animals (as he has in his 29-30 text) is that human beings understand beings as beings, in their "truth," but we deny the possibility of apophantic discourse, this form of the distinction no longer holds fast. In fact, Krell suggests in his text that there is a certain non-apophantic strain of Heidegger in Being and Time. I also argued that Heidegger's fixation on the "as such" in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics was a shift from Being and Time here and wonder why he seems so intent on keeping this concept in those lectures.

This may all seem besides the point, but its really not, because if we cannot say the truth in the way that Heidegger believes humans beings are capable of, then we must rely on the interminable and (im)possible process of translation and uniqueness of each material signifier; Heidegger ignores the fact of writing at his own peril. That is, we need to be able to be attentive to the language, and how that language is marked by the author, of a given philosophical or literary text (or any text!). If as Greg Ulmer advises we are to write the "choral word," that is, write with every meaning of the word, creating a kind of field that a word brings forth, then we also need to be able to think in different languages and in the specific idiom of a given thinker in these languages. The very possibility of thought turns on resisting the flattening and banalization of our "powers of expression," as Krell puts it. The same word refers to many things and means differently because of the contingent ways its been inscribed in texts throughout human history.

If students, especially graduate students in literature, cease to learn these languages, then they will become less attentive to this unconscious slippage of language and be content with reducing texts to "positions" or "stances." Places from which one stands and defends rather than conceiving the text as a weave of meaning and nonmeaning. We can already see this in the paucity of metaphors used by our politicians. Everything is conceived in terms of "war." A "war on women," a "war on christmas," a "war on Christianity" a "war on Freedom." I'm reminded of the Wilco song, "War on War." I don't want to declare a "war on war," because this defeats the point. Why must we see everything as an agon? Could we ever learn to see in terms of illynx (vertiginous play?). Positions, stances -- we speak from these places, isolated on islands of solitude. Even Michel de Certeau's metaphors are drawn from military terminology: strategies and tactics, but at the very least tactics are described as in-sin-uation. An implying, a suggestion, a slithering. It's to suggest to the powers that be: why don't you take a bite from the apple -- become mortal, limited, fragile, and capable of death. Respect what this wonderful place is offering rather than the Strategic Law from on high.

It's this specificity and idiomatic nature of texts, that of course is never confined to that single text (reaching out to other uses of the word in the entire archive) that we lose when we turn words into data or when we are satisfied with a meta-discursive, philosophical language that does not pay attention to the trace-structure of language. In academia we see a turn away from the "lingustic" turn toward the material world, affect, the "great outdoors," mathematical reality, etc. and philosophers have developed languages that they more less think correspond to (as well as participate in) the reality "out there." Many of them write in English and do not let the word reach out to its other manifestations, to allow it the freedom to mutate its meaning based on ALL of its uses and even the possible words buried in the terms morphemes. Many of them also seem to ignore the insights of psychoanalysis into the materiality of the signifier and its almost magic powers, signifiers that gather our lives around a (w)hole. We choose and do not choose these signifiers.

I am not explaining myself well here. . . Let me try and get at it another way.

In an insightful recent post on "Traumas of the [Erasure] of the Real" Levi Bryant reflects on why he is dissatisfied with thinking "everything is a text." He writes,

 Naturally the humanities academic sees everything as a text because a) when you deal with texts day in and day out you tend to see texts (signs/signifiers) everywhere (in Uexkull’s terms we could call text the umwelt of the academic), and b) because it’s narcissistically gratifying for the humanities academic to think that the entire world is composed of texts.  If that’s true, if the world is composed of texts, signs, signifiers, beliefs, concepts, and norms, then we are the most important people in the world because we’re the ones that hold the skeleton key to the truth about “reality” (which, in this context, signifies the human umwelt.)

I'm not convinced that every Humanities academic does see everything as a text, but that there is something to be said for an attentiveness to the ways in which language has been inscribed in textual instances. This is because depending on which texts we are familiar with and how we respond to certain words, words mean different things for observers. Proper names, for instance, can invoke a mood or style of thought for those familiar with the name and the texts that name recalls. I say Derrida and all sorts of words come to mind. We all have our own Derrida based on the texts we can remember and recall when the name pops up. This is an effect of the trace structure of even proper names and how they come to signify and mean for us in a multitude of ways. But even more than proper names there are words such as "trace." When I hear the word "trace" I think of so many different ways its used and how I've heard it; for me, it is a powerful word with real rhetorical effects on my psyche. For others, for instance, my students, having not undergone the text of Derrida, it may mean very little. Or the French verb, "rechercher" -- for someone of a literary cast of mind, the word may recall Proust and everything associated with Proust. For an English speaker, we may never think of Proust (if we have never read Proust's title in French!). These works and the lines within them leave traces, mark, burn, and etch a new meaning, a new association into the language. This is reading the "unconscious" of the text in some ways, but not its "political" unconscious, but the unconsciousness of the signifier. 

This why reviving words like "substance" or "object" can be incredibly difficult tasks because of the ways in which these words have been used in the past, both in philosophical treatises and "ordinary" language. The point I was trying to make above is that a truly universal "ordinary" language is impossible. Of course the everyday usage of the term haunts a specialized disciplines use of the term and this is important. For instance, to say that the human is an "object among other objects" could be both estranging and profound, but because of the way in which we speak of "objectifying" people, and the horrible history of such objectifications, this haunts such philosophical recovery projects. "Subject," for instance, has throughout its usage been set off against object, one which has "agency" the other without agency, but we our also "subject to" and "subjects of." The verbal form of the word haunts its nominative. 

For philosophers, words like Idea (especially if capitalized), recalls Plato and a subsequent history of "idealism." The word for idea, eidos, is an ordinary Greek word meaning "shape" until Plato elevated that notion to a philosophical concept. Perhaps this phenomenon is what Michel de Certeau means when he writes: 
Michel de Certeau
"We are subject to, but not identified with, ordinary language [. . .] In order to constitute themselves, scientific methods allow themselves to forget this fact and philosophers think they dominate it so that they can authorize themselves to deal with it" (Practice 11)
We are subject to the ordinary way words are used, but we can also make something mean differently. To borrow a Spinozist phrase, "we do not yet know what [words/language] can do" (and are not words another type of 'body' or at the very least always touch the body?). 



But what we cannot do, in either philosophy or science, is to pretend that language can become a pure object of study "outside" of what language can say.

This why the attention to what language can say in multiple languages and other improper border crossings is so important to think a text at the textual level and within the rules (and transgressions of those rules) that occur in a given language. Even de Certeau's own analyses cannot be outside of ordinar (and non-ordinary langauge) for that matter. For instance, I kept noting that a key verb in de Certeau's text (at least according to the translation) is insinuate. Apart from the more popular distinctions usually gleaned from de Certeau's text such as "strategies" and "tactics" I could not help but notice the repetition of this signifer-- how crucial it was to describe the relation between phenomena in de Certeau's text. To "insinuate" in English means "to imply something" or to "worm your way in: to introduce yourself gradually and cunningly into a position, especially a place of confidence of favor." This verb then links (in)directly to de Certeau's description of "tactics" against "strategies." In fact, the verb is used in its definition: "a tactic insinuates itself into the other's place, fragmentarily, without taking over it entirely without being able to keep it at a distance" (xix). In fact, a tactic is this transgression and border crossing -- a way in which one subtly insinuates or "implies" a meaning through the use of a word in a particular context. It is to suggest a meaning (and I use suggest here to insinuate a hint of hypnosis).

 I remember being struck and finally understanding why Freud's honing in on the "magic word" of the Rat man ("rat") and the associations he made between "rat" and other similar (but not visually the absolute same) words in the German language actually works. In German, one might associate "rat" with another word that contains the same morpheme and this may be an unconscious, poetic work done by the mind. I am trying to think of a good English example, but I can't at the moment. However, I know that I have felt myself speaking certain words, almost involuntarily, because of a text that was working on my mind. What I recall is a function of the texts that insinuate themselves into my lexicon (did you catch it?).

Helene Cixous



Where the power of the signifier really gets interesting is when we begin to deconstruct at the level of the word. Helene Cixous, in her three lectures Three Steps on the Ladder to Writing, suggests that aside from the School of the Dead and the School of Dreams, there is the school of roots. "Roots" here mean many things, but Cixous suggests that roots signifies both plant roots into the earth (because in order to get to the 'truth' you have to do the difficult work of descending the ladder rather than ascending) but also it seems the "roots" of words. I might add also, although she doesn't play on this as much, the "routes" we take when we tra-verse borders (of languages, of particular marks, of meanings, of oral and literate modes of understanding). We have to "go" to these schools, but, as she writes, the power of the text is that we are trans-ported immediately into the text, without a passport, just as we slip into dreams.

In the "third" school, we learn how to, among other things, invent from our own proper name. Jean Genet and Claire Lispector (the latter of which plays a significant role throughout the entire text) are both taken as exemplars. Cixous' own discourse, with its metaphors of light and night reflects Lispector's own text. Indeed, Cixous' brilliance is partly to use the language of the text she reads, subtly suggesting, insinuating, whispering possible ways of understanding (but even "understanding" is still too coated with conscious thought). Rather than focus on the "natural light" of the understanding of Descartes, Cixous appropriates and transforms the image of the light reflecting off an axe, an axe that could potentially fall on any one of us.

I do not have this text with me at this very moment, so I cannot read with the kind of exactness that Cixous does with the texts she dearly loves. One thing I note about the lectures/seminars of both Cixous and Derrida is their willingness to read and to read again and again the same passages -- sometimes reading a latter passage first and then going back and reading the beginning of the passage. When I say this, I do not mean reading as an abstract activity that Frederic Jameson has argued is a mystification in the texts of Paul de Man, but I mean simply reading the damn text aloud. Reading for the way the language insinuates itself into our minds. There is no substitute for reading the text in these lectures. We can interpret and paraphrase and we can in-corp-orate (incarnate) the other's language into our own reading of it, but to read the text itself, aloud, to repeat it, is like hypnosis -- it makes the suggestions and implications we make in our interpretation (or better, our "reading with") more forceful and probable. Some may say this is a bad way to read, an "improper" way to read, a reading that is not an argument, a lazy reading in the place of a true interpretation, but I defy you to deny the power of Cixous reading-with Claire Lispector or Jean Genet. The drive to interpret dreams is what Cixous can't stand in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. She says she used to "read it with pleasure," but finally decided that it was better if dreams were not "interpreted." At first I was taken aback by this, but in some ways, Cixous may be suggesting here that its when Freud interprets in order to cure -- as if there was a cure for the special kind of wound a dream makes -- that he makes a mistake. Cixous seems to argue that the dream should be let-be (with a Heideggerian inflection).

Genet's name suggests Genet, which is in biology, "a colony of plants, fungi, or bacteria that come from a single genetic source" (wikipedia). Flowers are for Genet one of the most important signifiers, and he plays with both his name and words for flowers in some of his passages. Cixous reads these moments brilliantly and I only wish I had the text here with me to (re)cite.

But in lieu of that possibility, I have decided to invent from my own name. In her text, Cixous notes the importance not only of human beings, but the animal, the vegetable, and the supernatural. Animals prevalent are "dogs," which Cixous said are terrifying to us because we cannot bear their pure love, since human beings are always a mixture of love and hate. The vegetable is represented by flowers and the supernatural is present in angels, hell, and the dead (ancestors) that haunt us. I decided to try and figure out if I could use my name as a heuretic for understanding myself. Name is not destiny, but perhaps through playing with my name I may glean some wisdom about myself in the same way that horoscope or Tarot might show us something we may not have thought. The fact is that this process is a construction -- not fate, but a chance association that might allow me to gather parts of my life, to interpret signifiers that could be close to me, to help me make meaning via trope and image rather than a coherent narrative. My name gathers together all varieties of beings in its spoken and written form.

But first, the "origin" of my name, Jacob.

Like many of us in the Judeo-Christian world, my name derives from the Hebrew Bible.

Jacob means the “supplanter,” which recalls to me both “planter” and “supplement” as well as its major meaning of “taking the place of” or “being in the place of.”  Jacob came out of the womb grasping at Esau’s heel, as if trying to pull him back into the womb, so he could be the firstborn, foreshadowing the destiny of his trickery that led to his receiving of the blessing.  

When I was young and found out about the story of Jacob and Esau, I was a bit furious that my namesake was such a deceiver! But perhaps there is a reason I am obsessed with "supplementary logic" of Derrida and the French thinkers. I am "in the place of" -- in the place of what or who? By association,I am an essential supplement.

So many are named Jacob, we wrestlers of Angels, we "god contended," we supplanters, we deceivers, we sophists, we rhetoricians, we blessed, but not everyone is named Jacob Riley (although of course there are many of these as well).

"Riley." I've always disliked my last name for some odd reason. It's so scottish. I've also tried my hand how it combines with many of the names of the girls I've loved and it frequently sounds odd, too trite, and silly. An ex of mine: Sadie. Sadie Riley -- ugh, what disgusting assonance! Not even sing songy, just too much.

But despite the oral unpleasantness to Riley, there is an unexpected connection between my first name as "supplanter" and one blessed by God and my last name, Riley. "Living the life of Riley" is a phrase, turned radio show turned tv show, that suggests "an ideal contented life, possibly living on someone else's time, money, work or work" but rather than suggesting a freeloader, "it implies that someone is kept or advantaged" (wikipedia).

I indeed am living on someone else's money (the state's, the university's) and I do not feel like a lazy freeloader, but that I am blessed or kept. I live a "charmed life" I've said to many a friend and colleague.

"This is stupid, self-indulgent, narcissistic, and selfish" I hear you readers cry -- and indeed, maybe it is, but so is reading and writing itself. Reading and writing is associated with leisure and indeed is impossible without leisure. Reading and writing blurs the boundary between work and play. Writing, as a kind of dying to oneself, is jouissance, le petit mort.

Before getting to the inter-species potential of my name, I want to mention my middle name, Thomas. It was in college I think that I came up with a significance to my middle known unbeknownst consciously to my mother and father: My name contains the doubt of "doubting" Thomas who asked to put his hand in the wound of Christ and the belief of Thomas Aquinas, that wonderful synthesizer of Aristotle and Christianity. Between Thomas Aquinas and Thomas the doubter, lies Jacob Riley.

 Jacob in Pieces

Ja! -- Yes! (auf Deutsch). I like when people call me ya-cub, my name pronounced in German. The first morpheme of my proper name in German, which is part of my ethnic background, is affirmation! Perhaps this is what unconsciously touches me so much to that last word in Ulyssses: Yes. Perhaps this is why I am entranced by Derrida's reading of double affirmation, the "yes, yes." A call of my name harbors inside it already an affirmation -- my name already replies and turns toward the other when called before I even acknowledge them. Hearing my name is already to take responsibility for a turning toward the other.

yay -- A Spanish woman I know who meant a great deal to me used to pronounce my name "yake," because a "j" in Spanish sounds like a 'y' and so I could not help but think that within the German Ja! is also the English expression of joy, "yay!" "YAY!" "yay" is an expression of excitement which probably derives from "yeah," or some other affirmation. The first part of my name is filled with joy and affirmation. How lucky I am to be blessed with it.



Jay -- Blue Jay -- Returning to the sound of my name in English, we hear "jay." This is the animal perched on the left side of my name. The blue jay is named for its "noisy, garrulous nature." I love noise and sound -- give me feedback any day. I am also somewhat of a "jaybird" which is a slang term for "a talkative person, a chatterer" or "a fop or dandy." I would like to believe that I avoid idle chatter whenever possible, but perhaps what is significant thought for me comes off as idle chatter to the next person. I do not know, perhaps this animal does not suit me. Perhaps this is the limit of improper invention




Cob -- (corn?) -- My vegetative nomen is cob (although the name is pronounced "cub" it is written "cob," here we have another improper crossing between pronunciation and written signifier). A Cob is also an adult male swan, and a small horse (our names contain so many animal companions). The cob of a piece of corn can be hollowed out to make a smoking pipe. Although my pipes are made of briar, I'm gonna go ahead an make this connection (why not?).



My nickname is "jake." I've always liked this nickname because of its association with the shitter--a shitter without any plumbing. I love the grotesque, the unclean, and the scatological. Swift, Rabelais, Voltaire -- the more potty humor the better! To debase is to also raise up. Bakhtin's work on carnival and the grotesque will always stay close to my nether regions (rather than my heart).

The atoms of our names contain the world and can be just one way to orient ourselves and to understand ourselves. By doing this we make our name improper and cross multiple borders. Here I can go back to Krell's initial point. It is through this play of language that we can invent so much meaning in our lives. To restrict the signifier to one language or think about a text or argument in isolation is to cut off the pleasure of the text, of writing, and of death. If the Humanities is concerned with writing and reading, then perhaps our unique place is entirely other to the sciences and the social sciences and we should stop seeking to appropriate their methodologies and their passion to discover "reality" at the expense of fiction.

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