Derrida as Neurophenomenologist

by rsbakker


For the longest time I thought that unravelling the paradoxical nature of the now, understanding how it could be at once the same now and yet a different now entirely, was the key to resolving the problem of meaning and experience. The reason for this turned on my early philosophical love affair with Jacques Derrida, the famed French post-structuralist philosopher, who was very fond of writing passages such this tidbit from “Differance”:

An interval must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself, but this interval that constitutes it as present must, by the same token, divide the present in and of itself, thereby also dividing, along with the present, everything that is thought on the basis of the present, that is, in our metaphysical language, every being, and singularly substance or the subject. In constituting itself, in dividing itself dynamically, this interval is what might be called spacing, the becoming-space of time or the becoming-time of space (temporization). And it is this constitution of the present, as an ‘originary’ and irreducibly nonsimple (and therefore, stricto sensu nonoriginary) synthesis of marks, or traces of retentions and protentions (to reproduce analogically and provisionally a phenomenological and transcendental language that soon will reveal itself to be inadequate), that I propose to call archi-writing, archi-traces, or differance. Which (is) (simultaneously) spacing (and) temporization. Margins of Philosophy, 13

One of the big problems faced by phenomenology has to do with time. The problem in a nutshell is that any phenomena attended to is a present phenomena, and as such dependent upon absent enormities—namely the past and the future. The phenomenologist suffers from what is sometimes referred to as a ‘keyhole problem,’ the question of whether the information available—‘experience’—warrants the kinds of claims phenomenologists are prone to make about the truth of experience. Does the so-called ‘phenomenological attitude’ possess the access phenomenology needs to ground its analyses? How could they given so slight a keyhole as the present? Phenomenologists typically respond to the problem by invoking horizons, the idea that nonpresent contextual enormities nevertheless remain experientially accessible—present—as implicit features of the phenomenon at issue. You could argue that horizons scaffold the whole of reportable experience, insofar as so little, if anything, is available to us in our entirety at any given moment. We see and experience coffee cups, not perspectival slices of coffee cups. So in Husserl’s analysis of ‘time-consciousness,’ for instance, the past and future become intrinsic components of our experience of temporality as ‘retention’ and ‘protention.’ Even though absent, they nevertheless decisively structure phenomena. As such, they constitute important domains of phenomenological investigation in their own right.

From the standpoint of the keyhole problem, however, this answer simply doubles down on the initial question. Our experience of coffee cups is one thing, after all, and our experience of ourselves is quite another. How do we know we possess the information required to credibly theorize—make explicit—our implicit experience of the past as retention, say? After-all, as Derrida says, retention is always present retention. There are, as he famously argues, two pasts, the one experienced, and the one outrunning the very possibility of experience (as its condition of possibility). Our experience of the present does not arise ‘from nowhere,’ nor does it arise in our present experience of the past, since that experience is also present. Thus what he calls the ‘trace,’ which might be understood as a ‘meta-horizon,’ or a ‘super-implicit,’ the absent enormity responsible for horizons that seem to shape content. The apparently sufficient, unitary structure of present experience contains a structurally occluded origin, a difference making difference, that can in no way appear within experience.

One way to put Derrida’s point is that there is always some occluded context, always some integral part of the background, driving phenomenology. From an Anglo-American, pragmatic viewpoint, his point is obvious, yet abstrusely and extravagantly made: Nothing is given, least of all meaning and experience. What Derrida is doing, however, is making this point within the phenomenological idiom, ‘reproducing’ it, as he says in the quote. The phenomenology itself reveals its discursive impossibility. His argument is ontological, not epistemic, and so requires speculative commitments regarding what is, rather than critical commitments regarding what can be known. Derrida is providing what might be called a ‘hyper-phenomenology,’ or even better, what David Roden terms dark phenomenology, showing how the apparently originary, self-sustaining, character of experience is a product of its derivative nature. The keyhole of the phenomenological attitude only appears theoretically decisive, discursively sufficient, because experience possesses horizons without a far side, meta-horizons—limits that cannot appear as such, and so appears otherwise, as something unlimited. Apodictic.

But since Derrida, like the phenomenologist, has only the self-same keyhole, he does what humans always do in conditions of radical low-dimensionality: he confuses the extent of his ignorance for a new and special kind of principle. Even worse, his theory of meaning is a semantic one: as an intentionalist philosopher, he works with all the unexplained explainers, all the classic theoretical posits, handed down by the philosophical tradition. And like most intentionalists, he doesn’t think there’s anyway to escape those posits save by going through them. The deflecting, deferring, displacing outside, for Derrida, cannot appear inside as something ‘outer.’ Representation continually seals us in, relegating evidence of ‘differance’ to indirect observations of the kinds of semantic deformations that only it seems to explain, to the actual work of theoretical interpretation.

Now I’m sure this sounds like hokum to most souls reading this post, something artifactual. It should. Despite all my years as a Derridean, I now think of it as a discursive blight, something far more often used to avoid asking hard questions of the tradition than to pose them. But there is a kernel of neurophenomenological truth in his position. As I’ve argued in greater detail elsewhere, Derrida and deconstruction can be seen as an attempt to theorize the significance of source neglect in philosophical reflection generally, and phenomenology more specifically.

So far as ‘horizons’ belong to experience, they presuppose the availability of information required to behave in a manner sensitive to the recent past. So far as experience is ecological, we can suppose the information rendered will be geared to the solution of ancestral problem ecologies. We can suppose, in other words, that horizons are ecological, that the information rendered will be adequate to the problem-solving needs of our evolutionary ancestors. Now consider the mass-industrial character of the cognitive sciences, the sheer amount of resources, toil, and ingenuity dedicated to solving our own nature. This should convey a sense of the technical challenges any CNS faces attempting to cognize its own nature, and the reason why our keyhole has to be radically heuristic, a fractionate bundle of glimpses, each peering off in different directions to different purposes. The myriad problems this fact poses can be distilled into a single question: How much of the information rendered should we presume warrants theoretical generalizations regarding the nature of meaning and experience? This is the question upon which the whole of traditional philosophy presently teeters.

What renders the situation so dire is the inevitability of keyhole neglect, systematic insensitivity to the radically heuristic nature of the systems employed by philosophical reflection. Think of darkness, which like pastness, lays out the limits of experience in experience as a ‘horizon.’ To say we suffer keyhole neglect is to say our experience of cognition lacks horizons, that we are doomed to confuse what little we see for everything there is. In the absence of darkness (or any other experiential marker of loss or impediment), unrestricted visibility is the automatic assumption. Short sensitivity to information cuing insufficiency, sufficiency is the default. What Heidegger and the continental tradition calls the ‘Metaphysics of Presence’ can be seen as an attempt to tackle the problems posed by sufficiency in intentional terms. And likewise, Derrida’s purported oblique curative to the apparent inevitability of running afoul the Metaphysics of Presence can be seen as a way of understanding the ‘sufficiency effects’ plaguing philosophical reflection in intentional terms.

The human brain suffers medial neglect, the congenital inability to track its own high-dimensional (material) processes. This means the human brain is insensitive to its own irreflexive materiality as such, and so presumes no such irreflexive materiality underwrites its own operations—even though, as anyone who has spent a great deal of time in stroke recovery wards can tell you, everything turns upon them. What we call ‘philosophical reflection’ is simply an artifact of this ecological limitation, a brain attempting to solve its nature with tools adapted to solve absent any information regarding that nature. Differance, trace, spacing: these are the ways Derrida theorizes the inevitability of irreflexive contingency from the far side of default sufficiency. I read Derrida as tracking the material shadow of thought via semantic terms. By occluding all antecedents, source neglect dooms reflection to the illusion of sufficiency when no such sufficiency exists. In this sense, positions like Derrida’s theory of meaning can be seen as impressionistic interpretations of what is a real biomechanical feature of consciousness. Attend to the metacognitive impression and meaning abides, and representation seems inescapable. The neuromechanical is occluded, so sourceless differentiation is all we seem to have, the magic of a now that is forever changing, yet miraculously abides.