I’ve been corresponding with David Roden, one of the few individuals I’ve met who shares my bizarre palette of interests. At his suggestion, I watched a presentation by the Harvard philosopher Martin Hagglund entitled “The Trace of Time and the Death of Life: Bergson, Heidegger, Derrida,” where he argues that Derrida’s ‘trace’ provides a means of conceptualizing time that does not run afoul the ‘metaphysics of presence.’ It’s been a long, long time since I considered these thinkers, let alone these issues, and it was in the course of working through this talk that I realized how far I’ve come. How so many of the problems that once vexed me are no longer problems at all.
So Hagglund argues that Derrida’s conception of temporality surpasses that of both Bergson and Heidegger because it accommodates the ‘self-negating nature of the Now.’ Heidegger grounds his philosophical approach on a diagnostic critique (Destruktion) of traditional philosophy going back to a foundational mistake made by Aristotle in his famous account of time in Physics, thus condemning all subsequent thought to the Metaphysics of Presence.
The simplest way to think this problem is in terms of competing ‘relationalities.’ If you conceive the Now, as Heidegger accuses Aristotle, as a kind of discrete entity–something present–then the relationality that informs your subsequent, temporally-related speculation will be that belonging to discrete entities: changes to the one do not necessarily affect the other. Contrast this to what might be called figure-field relationality: changes to the field are necessarily changes to the figure, and vice versa. The cardinal sin of all philosophy since Aristotle, Heidegger claims, is to think the question of Being in terms of beings, which is to say, to chase implicatures (lines of reasoning) informed by the relationality belonging to discrete entities.
As far as Heidegger is concerned, this (ontic) relationality begs the more primordial (ontological) relationality proper to Being. In Being and Time, he develops what he calls ‘Ecstatic Temporality’ to redress Aristotle’s ancient confusion, a ‘first person shooter’ account of time wherein being and temporalizing are one and the same. What was discrete becomes encompassing. What was externally related becomes internally related, holistic.
Hagglund argues that this concept of time fails to escape the Metaphysics of Presence (something which the later Heidegger also came to believe for his own reasons) because it fails to account for the negativity of time. The thing that so perplexed Aristotle about the Now (and pretty much every philosopher since) is the way it’s always different and yet somehow the same. How can it always be Now when each new Now negates the Now previous? What Hagglund likes so much about Derrida’s conceptual nexus of the Trace is the way it roots the negation of the Now in some kind of ‘arch materiality’ outside the Now. Derrida explains the apparent sameness of the Now via his concept of ‘iteration,’ or ‘originary repetition.’ It explains the apparent difference of the Now via his concept of ‘differance,’ the diachronic displacement worked by the Trace, his concept for what lays outside the possibility of conceptuality, yet nonetheless constantly, successively displaces it.
For those who are interested I posted my specific problems with Hagglund’s paper in the comments to the site linked above. Ultimately he wants to use Derrida to make a metaphysical claim for the priority of the material to the phenomenal, and so, to suggest that Derrida’s philosophy is compatible with naturalism. What I want to do is talk about the LWOS, or the Limit With One Side.
I see Derrida’s conceptual triumvirate of trace, differance, and iteration as simply his way to reconceptualize the LWOS, the Limit With One Side. The most obvious example of an LWOS is simply the horizon, the worldly limit of how far you can see. You can perceive everything on this side of the horizon, but nothing beyond.
Philosophers have been obsessed about LWOS for a long, long time. Consider the hoary old ‘epistemological dilemma,’ the problems of other minds and external worlds. If you can’t get outside the horizon of your senses, how can you say that anything exists outside your perceptions with any certainty? And a great many philosophical disputes turn on which LWOS is most fundamental and how it should be conceptualized. So Heidegger thinks the Metaphysics of Presence leads philosophers to assume the ‘subject-object dichotomy,’ where both the subject and object are conceived according to the logic of discrete entities, which is to say, things possessing limits that possess two sides. Being and Time can be read as the first attempt to interpret ‘subjectivity’ in rigorously LWOS terms, as the scene of an inside and outside. Heidegger goes through the inventory of the human condition–fear, care, death, etc.–and reinterprets everything in holistic and encompassing terms.
Derrida’s Trace is simply one in a long line of attempts to ‘adequately’ conceptualize the LWOS. He wants to argue that what lies outside every LWOS, although not even available as an absence, is in fact constitutive of what lies within, and that nothing is ‘fully present’ as a result–ever. The ‘trace,’ he thinks, is something we can only attach to our horizons, be they social or semantic or political or epistemological or what have you. It is a kind of impossible concept, in this sense, but nevertheless a necessary one, a kind of ‘semantic dark matter’ required to make sense of certain ‘semantic observations.’
So did Derrida actually hit the ball out of the park with this conceptualization? Is this the long sought ‘correct’ interpretation of the LWOS?
What is it about the LWOS anyway?
As far as I can tell, Derrida comes no closer to a definitive account than any one else. But I think he, like Heidegger before him, fails in an especially interesting way. I say this because I actually think I can give an empirical sketch of what an LWOS is, why it is so important, and why it is thinkers like Derrida and Heidegger arrived at the interpretations they did.
Let’s begin with an example of an immediate, living LWOS, one that we literally cannot not sense/see: the margin of our visual field. What is it? It’s simply where the information available to the TCS (thalamocortical system) runs out. Are there other areas of the TCS where the information ‘runs out’? Other ‘information horizons’? There has to be. Should we expect other LWOS’s? We pretty much have to: How else could an information horizon be expressed in experience? The absence of information, the end to differentiation, has to be expressed somehow. Structure. Form.
Observed functions are particulars within consciousness. Embodied or inhabited functions are not particulars within consciousness. They are (necessarily) exhaustive, either of consciousness as a whole or of their particular modality. Because the limits of a functional modality cannot arise as a particular within the correlated phenomenal modality, it can only find structural expression. Thus all the varieties of the LWOS.
Vision, for example, does not appear within vision. In cinema, the conceit is to depict the visual field against a field of black, to render the LWOS as a LWTS, a Limit With Two Sides. The absence of information (the visual margin) has to be presented as information (a black field) to distinguish the shot as perspectival, simply because all shots possess margins, which the viewers then interpret as secondary, spectatorial perspectives. In actual vision, the absence of information is structurally expressed as the peripheral margin, an invariant and immediate LWOS.
Most people would agree that the continuous philosophical reinterpretation of the LWOS over the centuries is no coincidence. There’s something that people are after. My suggestion is that these all represent attempts to come to discursive grips with various experiential margins, which is to say, the ways the neural information horizons of the TCS are expressed in consciousness. My further suggestion is that a number of classic philosophical problems find a kind eerie resolution when one consider how these horizons find expression through various phenomenal modalities.
The LWOS of our visual field provides the most phenomenally immediate example, probably because of the bandwidth devoted to vision. What about the LWOS of our temporal field, James’ ‘specious present’? Understood analogously to our visual field, we could say it would be the point where timing ends, a timeless limit of experiential timing. We see in blindness. We time in timelessness. In other words, the Now is a margin, the LWOS of time-consciousness.
And this, I am convinced, is a neurophenomenological skeleton key.
Where the LWOS of vision takes the form of a multidimensional enclosure, the point where vision runs out, the LWOS of timing (temporalizing), is a unidimensional enclosure. This, combined with the fact that time-consciousness seems to be coextensive with consciousness more generally, has profound consequences. A limit that cannot be timed is a limit that does not move in time–that is atemporal. This means that consciousness, even as it tracks the passage of time, does not move in time. The past is always Now, the future is always Now, because the Now, as the margin of our temporal field, does not move in time. You could say a phenomenally identical margin frames each passing moment of consciousness, but this would be resorting to the logic of observed functions (or as Heidegger would say, succumbing to the Metaphysics of Presence). For the information economy of the TCS, the absence of immediate, second-order, global, temporal information, simply means the absence of any global, temporal, autodifferentiation. Each passing moment of consciousness does not pass for consciousness, which means that consciousness, the global site of temporal differentiation, must remain, in a peculiar sense, temporally self-identical. [See T-Zero for a more complete look]
We remain identical.
The LWOS, in other words, is the cipher that allows a protonaturalistic decoding of a number of profound and longstanding subjective perplexities, many of which I’ve discussed in various contexts. In this case, tensed time and personal identity. The idea is that the perplexing sense of identity that so powerfully characterizes both the Now and the Self simply follows from the information horizons that necessarily delimit the TCS. Identity, in this basic sense, is a default consequence of the absence of global autodifferentiation. The margins of consciousness constitute a Null or Occluded Frame. Since all information turns on differences, the absence of information simply means the absence of difference. The same way the absence of visual difference produces an invariant visual margin, the absence of temporal difference produces an ‘invariant’ temporal margin, one which encompasses/encapsulates the process of temporal difference within the absence of temporal difference. And so identity becomes the formal default, a kind of structural illusion. [See The Elephant in our Skull for a different spin]
The conceptual triumvirate of trace, differance, and iteration in Derrida can now be read as a naive approximation of this account. Derrida posits the trace and differance to conceptualize the apparent fact that the formal default identity that characterizes our temporal LWOS (the Now) is illusory–that temporal differentiation relentlessly continues whether the TCS can access it or not. He posits them ‘under erasure,’ because they cannot exist even as absences for time-consciousness. In other words, because they lie on the wrong side of the temporal LWOS.
Iteration or originary repetition, on the other hand, conceptualize the mandatory, encompassing nature of the illusion of formal default identity. Where observed (lateral) functional repetitions are discrete, embodied (medial) functional repetitions are exhaustive, which is to say, not ‘repetitive’ at all. When replicas lack the information required to identify them as replicas, they are impossible to distinguish from the original. When a system lacks the capacity to differentiate replicas from the original, then–for that system–those replicas simply are the original. When what is repeated exhausts the system–is the system–the system itself becomes originary, the self-identical source and conduit of all becoming.
The thalamocortical system is such a system.
It should be noted that Derrida is agnostic regarding the illusoriness of default identity. Without any real inkling of possible neurostructural correlates of the temporal LWOS, he was stranded with his shadowy phenomenal intuitions and his interpretative wiles. Where the BBT ‘explains away’ the phenomena of paradox, Derrida turns it into a theoretical virtue. Trace, differance, and iteration allow him to incorporate paradox, or ‘aporia,’ into the interpretative practice he called deconstruction. The illusion for Derrida was the possibility of a ‘transcendental signified,’ something outside interpretation that could end the regress of interpretation. Far from fixing interpretation, what was outside was what rendered it interminable–what made it impossible to escape interpretation. The point of deconstruction was to demonstrate the way various keystone concepts actually depended on the oppositions they needed to exclude. By gaming various textual ambiguities, contradictions were foisted on the text, supposedly intrinsic discoveries that demonstrated the aleatory, aporetic substratum of all textuality–the putative result of… trace, differance, and iteration.
Deconstruction is likely best seen as an instrumentalization of human cognitive shortcomings, the way any text can be enslaved to theoretical commitments given some notional method and the proper institutional incentive. You could imagine a new form of reading, ‘alimentation,’ that does all the things that deconstruction does (and more, when you remove the necessity of aporia) without any of the onorous associations: humans are theoretically incompetent. So long as their shortcomings remained invisible, practitioners of deconstruction could claim they themselves were incidental to the deconstructive process. The concepts motivated the interpretative practice, and the interpretative practice motivated the concepts. As a form of performative rationalization, deconstruction possessed what can only be described, from a New Theory standpoint, a suspiciously convenient theoretical structure. Critiques of deconstruction were read as deconstructions, second-order exemplifications of the very thing they attempted to discredit. Since the motivating concepts were conceived ‘under erasure,’ the exemplification was taken as prior, and deconstruction became, as a result, a kind of Performative First Philosophy, one where a very particular, even parochial, form of interpretative practice shouldered the foundational burden that its theoretical commitments were literally designed to not bear. Derrida’s famous image of the labyrinth that includes its own exits and his statement that there is nothing outside of text (or context) are not only metaphors for the LWOS, but for the theoretical structure of deconstruction itself.
Despite the past popularity and present renewal of interest in Derrida, it is Heidegger who most thoroughly thought the LWOS and its implications. To recap: the implicatures belonging to observed (lateral) functions and embodied (medial) functions are radically different, differences that pertain to the kinds of information available. Observing a brain and being a brain generate radically different accounts of the brain. What appears discrete in the former appears encompassing in the latter. What appears empirical, or environmentally embedded, in the former, appears transcendent in the latter. What appears mobile in the former appears immobile in the latter (think of the way it’s the world that moves in first person video games).
Armed with the redefinition of the Now and Personal Identity as ‘Null Frames’ provided above, I can now expand this contrast. The vast informatic asymmetry between the brain as whole and the TCS means that the information possessed by latter–which is to say, available to consciousness–is thoroughly fractional and impoverished. Interpreting the Now as our temporal margin, or LWOS, I was able to provide a curious, yet natural explanation of identity as a formal default effect of information horizons. As both formal and encompassing, the identity never appears as such: this is why Hume simply runs out of ‘impressions’ in his famous, fruitless search for Self in The Treatise, and why Kant is forced to go transcendental in The Critique.
Given that consciousness is the product of recursive neural information integration, and given that all recursive information integration possesses information horizons, one might expect consciousness to exhibit any number of ‘formal identity effects’ (FIE’s), various ways in which informatic privation culls differences from experience, leaving structural identities in its wake.
Always remember the human brain is literally an expression of its environments, that all the numbingly diverse and complex ways our brain puts the world together are braided together by the world. The evolutionary pedigree of our brain’s external environmental processors is literally hundreds of millions of years long. Human consciousness, by comparison, is a relatively recent, terrestrially unprecedented twist, the product of the human brain adapting itself to the most complex environmental element of all: itself.
I first developed the Blind Brain Thesis (BBT) while trying to come to grips with Frank Jackson’s famous argument against physicalism in the late 90′s: if a colourblind neuroscientist who knew every possible physical fact about colour vision were to suddenly see red, would they not be learning some new, nonphysical fact? This was what got me thinking about the brain and consciousness in differential informatic terms. Why was it that the information gleaned through our brain’s inspection of other brains seemed so antithetical to the information gleaned through our brain’s inspection of itself? I began comparing the various comparative structural and developmental informatic constraints of allo-inspection and auto-inspection. That was when the light switch flew on.
At the time I had literally thought I had left Heidegger behind me. I quickly realized, however, that I stumbled across a powerful, naturalistic way to completely reinterpret his theoretical project. I also came to realize that the theoretical fumbling on both sides of the Continental and Analytic divide was essentially a shadow puppets show–like consciousness.
‘Knowing every possible physical fact’ is a phantasm, the product of an implicature mired in LWOS illusions. If our colourblind neuroscientist had access to all possible information regarding colour vision, then she would not be colourblind, simply because ‘seeing red’ clearly belongs to the set of ‘all possible information regarding colour vision.’ The point is the information does not give a damn how its packaged. The disjunct between ‘every possible physical fact’ and ‘all possible information’ is enormously revealing of why philosophy has so much difficulty with consciousness. The former demands that the information be packaged in a very specific way (a logically well-formed system of empirical propositions), one that accords with the way consciousness makes sense of itself–intentionally. But if the way consciousness makes sense of itself is thoroughly deceptive, then odds are so is the prescriptive packaging. In a weird sense, Jackson’s argument is a demonstration of the same information encountering itself in the same brain as something mutually unrecognizable.
It was an enormously liberating time for me, the point where I first grasped the profundity of our ignorance.
And it gave me a new compass bearing to follow. Consciousness is both window and broadcast: given the bandwidth it devotes to external environments, the variable way it can sample various process chains (uncover and experiment), and the evolutionary age of the processing involved, I decided to take it as my heuristic baseline for ‘peak information.’ The question then became one of subtracting information of various kinds and speculating on the effects. The Blind Brain Thesis was born.
Given theoretical incompetency, BBT remains as agnostic on metaphysical issues as possible, and regards those ontological assumptions it makes as stipulative. If the implicature can be improved by modifying or substituting those assumptions, all the better. It is naturalist in that it seeks to provide a crude atlas of research possibilities. Pending the empirical work of determining the actual kinds of information the TCS does and does not have access to, these accounts remain open questions. It is realist in the sense that it accepts that the information consciousness accesses is from the world (be it the greater brain or the environment), not also of the world as representationalism would have it. Information ‘of the world’ turns on an LWOS, the primary expression of information horizons and a telling clue that some kind of distortion is at work. ‘Aboutness,’ in this account, is simply another illusory artifact, a way the TCS squares its relation to the world in the absence of any second-order informatic access to the processing histories of the environmental information it can access. The classic argument from introspection for representationalism simply begs the question on this account. Unlike other informatic accounts, it does not run afoul normative criticisms simply because it can explain normativity away. Rules (another LWOS) are what regularities look like when viewed through the informatic pinhole of the TCS.
Heidegger can be seen as embracing the full interpretative possibility of the LWOS, seeing in it the very foundation of existence as well as an engine of perpetual philosophical misapprehension. For Heidegger, conceptualization of the LWOS necessitated both a positive project, the reinterpretation of life in LWOS terms, and a critical project, the reading of the philosophical tradition as the Metaphysics of Presence, as trapped in implicatures grounded in the ancient Aristotelian levelling of the LWOS.
The Metaphysics of Presence is better expressed as two problems: 1) inflation, the way certain experiences generate the illusion of exhaustive access; and 2) declusion, the tendency to treat LWOS as LWTS. Since it is the utter lack of information that generates an LWOS, experience has no information that the LWOS even exists, and as such appears utterly self-sufficient–inflated. Only the provision of occluded information via other phenomenal modalities can make an LWOS appear. Absent these secondary systems (such as attention and retention), the visual field, for example, would appear to be absolute, an eternal, edgeless painting rather than an informatic window.
Declusion is simply the primary way things and processes are seen, understood, and manipulated: as discrete things embedded in fixed locales. The declusion of things and processes is natural, so natural that it becomes hard to understand how it could be problematic. So long as the information economies at issue are ‘observer independent,’ it is not problematic at all: Heidegger has no problem, for instance, with science as an ontic enterprise. It’s when the information at issue is entangled in and/or constitutive of observation, as is the case with pretty much everything human, that the problems pile up. The cardinal sin, the early Heidegger was convinced, turned on Aristotle’s consideration of nun, the Now, in terms of horos and stigme, line and point, and the corresponding conception of time as a series of Now points. The Now as experienced, he is correct to point out, exhibits a radically different structure. An LWOS structure.
Information outside a conscious system (or modality of that system) simply does not exist for that system, not even as an absence. The system is always saturated. Only the integration of secondary systems tasked with tracking information lacking in any given modality allows, for instance, the visual field to become a window on a world, or the temporal field to become a moment in a life. We do not see what we remember, yet we remember what we see. As a result the unseen always informs the seen. The LWOS of the visual field, which is informatically absolute, is nearly rendered invisible to attention thanks to information provided by compensatory modalities such as visual memory and anticipation. (Nearly: one need only think of the loom reflex to realize the evolutionary importance of the absence of environmental information). Our experience of finitude, in other words, turns on the overlay of various modal LWOS. Consciousness of absence is possible via arbitration between incompatible but otherwise saturated modalities. The keys can go missing. ‘The cat is not in the room’ can be a true statement.
Heidegger’s positive project involved the exhaustive reinterpretation of human existence in rigorous LWOS terms. One of the most common operators found in Being and Time is ‘As x, Dasein is…’ where x is typically something ontologically distinct (time, world, meaning) or metonymically subordinate (care, anxiety, resoluteness) to the subject as traditionally conceived. Ontological equivocation and metonymic inflation form the two great pillars of his interpretative method, giving rise to a radically new kind of philosophical implicature. At its heart lies the difference between seeing and being a process, which is to say, the LWOS. In one fell swoop, it seemed, Heidegger had sidestepped centuries of philosophical dilemma. By equivocating the world and Dasein, he was able to bypass the subject-object dichotomy, and thus make the epistemological dilemma look like a quaint, historical relic. The discrete, accidental relation between discrete subjects and objects became an encompassing, constitutive relation, one that Dasein is.
The problem, of course, was that even interpreted as a kind of arch-LWOS, Dasein still had credit cards and given names–and so remained a subject–or even an object–in the worlds of others. Without accepting Heidegger’s critical project, readers had little incentive to see his positive project as any other than an exercise in obfuscation.
While working on my PhD I regularly defended Heidegger from my less than charitable, analytically inclined buddies. I acknowledged their criticisms, all the while arguing that Heidegger was most certainly not nonsense. Anything follows from nonsense, and over the years reading Heidegger I found the I could often predict what it was he would say on a given topic beforehand. Heidegger was mining some kind of ‘logic,’ of that I was sure. But despite several attempts to provide some adequate second-order description of that logic, everything I came up with seemed at least as obscure as Heidegger, if not more so.
The BBT changed all that, and many other things aside.
Why are so many phenomena of consciousness counter-causal?
If the effect of information horizons on consciousness are not as I have described, then what are they? for they simply must have some effect. Likely profound.
Why does the following example possess the strange, orthogonal logic that it does?
You witness a discrete process articulated over time, a small waterfall, say. Subtract your distinction from that process, and you become the waterfall. The waterfall is no longer discrete because it is spatially coextensive. It is no longer articulated over time because you have become that articulation–waterfalling.
Consciousness is a process that you are.