When Writing is Impossible

Derrida quote

Words, like statuesque monuments of brick and mortar foreclosed by economic eras past, struggle in vain to rise out of the rubble of their origins…stretching to the surface to breath, like Pauline prayers of souls that can only speak with moans.

Recently, I have found that it is difficult to write, difficult to even produce this sentence or write in ways that synergistically combine my passion and intellect with words that can convey more than themselves.  When it’s difficult to write, maybe writing about why it is difficult to write is the right place to start writing.

So I write why it is impossible to write, hoping I may actually write in my non-writing.

There are moments when the subject and object of our writing makes speaking of itself impossible…when the act of writing simply fails to comprise its subject.  To reference theological discourse, these are moments when we speak of silence and tranquility as we stare into the eternal gaze of the numinous object of our incredible urge to speak.  Our words fall short.  We write to transcend our place, seeking to be carried off by words, but words are simply the substitution for something far more mysterious and real that lies underneath them.

At moments like this, when we realize the disconnect between what we write, and what we write about, and that writing about it is an infinite impossibility that will only produce words that continue to mangle our imaginations even as it gets us close enough to never see it…at moments like this we write, we speak, but we know our writing will never get it right.

We write as a response to the infinite; not in an attempt to encase it.

Yet, this is what makes writing impossible as an act.  Writing feels impossible at moments, at seasons, because it is our attempt to span the chasm of the genesis of our internal echoes into paradigms of symbolic exchange that might somehow bring meaning from the abyss of our deepest subjectivity.  And this is impossible.  It feels impossible because it is.  Nothing can be written only because the only thing we can write is nothing. This is why theological, philosophical, lyrical, and narratival imagination is necessary for the writer.  Without imagination the subject and object of writing is betrayed by prose that falls empty and shoddy, derelict of any contoured image that might make writing worth writing at all.  Writing comprehends itself as the inability to satisfy the imagination with traces of its content, even as it leaves its true meaning behind, lost in the relation of its symbols.  The only way to suppress writings urge to speak nothing is to imaginatively portray the place from where it comes…to look back on itself via a linguistic inversion and see from where it was thrown.

But this conundrum of writing is inherent in the task.  The theory and nature of language is one that refuses its purpose, and thereby, becomes its purpose.

Martin Heidegger in his On The Way To Language delicately describes the balancing act of language and its inability to speak.  He writes, “There is some evidence that the essential nature of language flatly refuses to express itself in words – in the language, that is, in which we make statements about language.  If language everywhere withholds its nature in this sense, then such withholding is in the very nature of language.  Thus, language not only holds back when we speak it in the accustomed ways, but this its holding back is determined by the fact that language holds back its own origin and so denies its being…”

What Heidegger is so accurately portraying and defining is that language itself always holds itself back by its very nature.  It can never contain the whole of its occasion, of its purpose.  Writing occurs at the intersection of origin and community, an originary act to create community and speak within the boundaries of language games yet also knowing that the game is that what we speak will never be spoken because our own medium of speaking, language, is never capable of speaking past its own medium; its very nature does not allow it to say what it means to say.  It is only capable of being a trace of an expression that seeks to be said but as soon as the expression, idea or passion is seen via words or heard via language it loses itself as it enters the symbolic order in which language and words make sense.

To draw illusion to Lacan, one could say that language, writing it, speaking it, is not real; yet language is because the real exists.

And this is not to be nihilistic about language; rather it’s just a simply discussion about the very nature of language itself.

Writing language further confounds the writer because the real of its subject matter, whether it be God, beauty, meaning, truth, passion, story, etc., is always ahead of the medium in which it is communicated.  Just because writing is never occurring as an act of definition that actually says what it means to say, does not mean that what precedes writing is not real or truthful; it doesn’t mean that which gives language and writing occasion doesn’t exist.

But our speaking, our writing, the incessant drive to communicate something that swells within us and claws at our insides peering outside our pores into a world it thinks longs to receive it, always follows what we are saying.  The said is not what is trying to be said but it is all that can be said.  It is always removed from it as said.  Not only does language (& its medium of speaking or writing) itself refuse encapsulation to speak itself, but it is most clearly the incarnation of following language.  The said never catches up to language because language cannot “overtake” what it is attempting to take into itself via its speaking.  To do so would mean to remain in silence because silence would be the only thing that puts us close to saying anything without removing ourselves from it.

So writing doesn’t just seem impossible at times, but it is impossible, the most ludicrous act in which humanity engages.  Our prose fails us.  Our sentences languish.  We rewrite and re-edit.  We try to say it just right knowing that can never happen.  All that can happen is a vacillation around the kernel of the originary moment from which writing comes, a place so deep within the speaking and writing subject that access to its recesses is to plumb depths that are too real to even exist.

The revelation of the revelatory nature of language leaves us hapless.  No wonder speaking is so difficult.  No wonder meaning is so elusive.  No wonder that intense moment inside of us never satisfactorily emerges into a meaningful expression.  The very nature of language, of the things we attempt to speak about, not to mention the hearing and reading part of our language, is to disrupt and betray itself…to exist in wistful repetition hoping that saying it repetitively will take it from there to here.

This reality is what manifests itself when writing is impossible.  This is what happens when one simply can’t write.  This is what is happening when your hands and your mind do not make the agreement that is necessary to produce something worth reading or worth saying.  We are coming up against the very nature of language and we are not able to transgress it and extract our demands from it.

These are the moments when you stare at your screen…screaming in silence words you want to commit to the page, but when you go to write you are trapped in your own ideas of saying nothing because you have everything to say, which means, of course, that nothing is what you have wanted to say all along.  And at the end of the day we will have said nothing as we must say it again and again, hoping that speaking it often enough will affirm its illusory nature.

Writing mocks us because we are bound to language, even as we think we have tamed it with our crafty literary techniques.

This is what is happening when writing becomes impossible.  In dialectical fashion, it is this existential angst rolled up in our inability to write, or speak, which is also a manifestation of writing itself, communication turning in on itself an becoming incommunicable writing that communicates everything it cannot say by saying it.  We stand in the face of our unspeaking, of writing chasing language and language that cannot be harnessed that says more than we can ever say by wishing we could say it.  This negation of language that is language is the speaking of truth even as it must first speak a lie…since lies are all that can be spoken via words that never speak truthfully.

As we stare blankly at screens, our minds racing and anger building at the sights of fingers that cannot move to the rhythm of meaning or hands that cannot write otherwise than themselves, we experience first-hand the impossible possibility of language, of speaking or writing it.  Thus, we should not lose heart when we remain speechless.  The very need to use speech at all will render us all speechless at various intervals.  The Gospel of language is this: Language produces its own speechlessness.

So when is writing impossible?  Always.

It’s not that writing ever becomes impossible; it’s that writing is impossible…always already impossible even in the most lucid prose…and it’s in the moments of profound difficulty wherein that impossibility is simply made more acute.

In the Beginning was the Word.

God is Nothing: Lacan Wrestles with Thing 1 & Thing 2

thing one and two

“In the symbolic order, the empty spaces are as signifying as the full ones; in reading Freud today, it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of his dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness”

-Jacques Lacan in his “Response to Jean Hyppolite’s Commentary on Freud’s ‘Verneinung.’”

Everyone wants something.  They strive for something…some-thing.  We as a society are fixated on the things, the little ‘beings’ or objects to which our attention is directed and for which our work is given.  When we look at the world we see it through the lens of things, of a bunch of somethings, and we turn all of our ideas, hopes, aspirations and longings into various things that we can pursue, participate in or master.  The world is full of things, and as Hannah Arendt is apt to tell us, we have given the world around us the thing nature that it is; the world and its things are “thing-ified” (if I can so gently make that word up) because we have taken the world from what it is and we have conceived of the contents of the world within the limits of what constitutes thingness…what constitutes possession for only a thing can be possessed.

We work for homes, for cars, for piles of things.  We work to secure our lives through the things of our investments…we secure our relationships by the things we invest in them and we derive all meaning from the fact that we are able to take our ideas, generate an imaginary world and then divest ourselves of what is real in search of the always illusive thing.  This quest keeps us questing, keeps us defining, keeps us pursuing the thing/things.

We have made the world so dependent upon the idea of thingness that we cannot even conceive of anything that is not a thing.

I am here reminded of Dr. Seuss’s story The Cat in the Hat.

In this quaint little tale, all of everything (the state of affairs within the children’s home if you will) are fine.  Everything (which is really nothing if you remember…more on this in a few more paragraphs) is fine.  UNTIL someone comes into the life of the children and begins to give the room a “thing” nature.  The Cat in the Hat releases “things” into the house, which ironically disrupts everything (which was really nothing as the Mother left the children alone).  The Cat brings in the thing nature…even brings in real characters known as Thing 1 and Thing 2…and they do things, they play with things, they value the fun they are having with “every-thing” and it is this chaos of thingness that is valued…that even the children valued.

For a short while the “things” happening were a new creation, a new way of being, a new diversion from the nothing they were really experiencing.  They valued this new “thing” and they did not listen to the goldfish swimming in his bowl that was full of nothing and going nowhere, yet somehow the fish in the nothing place that goes nowhere was able to see what happens when “things” get out of control and usurp the space of nothing.  These things were valued, that is, until after several attempts by the goldfish sternly reminded the children that these “things” need to stop and “everything” needs to be cleaned up and ordered aright once again.  In other words, we need to get back to the real that is nothing.

The releasing of everything and its chaos into the nothingness of the empty home wreaked havoc even as it also preoccupied the children for a short time with new “things” to watch, see and do.  Into a room of nothing, everything was created…and everything that was created was shown to be nothing more than a diversion from the Real of life that happens apart from “thingness”…the  mundane space which conditions who we are…the space that is more determined by nothing than by the false ontology of thingness.  The children thought the “things” were fun and properly teleological in orientation, yet by the end of the story they discover it is a teleology that goes nowhere and does nothing more than distract us from what really conditions the spaces inhabited by our lives.

We have not given the world a thing nature for purely entertaining reasons as these children were so apt to do (though we have done this), but this thing nature has occurred because of our misdirected sense that what is and what will be is constituted more by the presence of a/the thing, than by nothing.  We have filled our worlds with things to rid ourselves of the nothing…yet the joke is on us.  We cannot rid ourselves of nothing even with the thing as Lacan so aptly notes above.

We have done this, not only in regard to the physical things we enjoy, but also into those metaphysical realities to which we give allegiance and service.  Of course, in our late capitalist culture, the world has taken on the very nature of the thing.  That is why we live.  But why has the thing nature also dictated how we think our faith, our God and the meaning of our lives?

Because we have so thoroughly conceived of the nature of reality as the nature of the thing, it seems that God, Jesus, faith, the ecclesiastical community, our salvation, etc., have all become nothing more than a long list of things; a long list of possessions that give us identity.  They are things that are, things that matter, things that will be…God is nothing more than the thing to which I pray or the thing I fear.  The church is the thing I do on Sunday to ensure I am in proper relationship with the Thing I call God so that this God will bless me with another thing.  My faith is the thing that makes me who I am and conditions how I engage the world…and my salvation is the thing I have because so long as I have it this thing is mine…and because I have all these things, I AM SOMETHING.  To be without these ultimate metaphysical things, things that are grossly conceived as all other things in our language and habits, is to mean that I am nothing, no one, not a something.  These things make me who I am.

I can “see” them.

I can “feel” them.

I can experience them.

I can “touch” them.

I can think them.

These things have become concretized into our thing schematization because we can think the world only in relation to the thing.

But this is where we are wrong.

The thing does not make us who we are or create our worlds.  The thing has no ontological purchase of its own; its only purchasing power comes from us who invest the currency of the thing with value.   The thing is not an end and it is not a beginning.  Thingness is not realness and it is not absoluteness.   We think our lives, worlds and faith(s) are all about being properly directed toward the right thing, but what Lacan discloses to us is that it is not the thing that shapes who we are or where we are going; it is the nothing that does all this.  We want to think there is something, yet our lives are all really the result of the reality of the nothing…the nothing that is disguised as some-thing via the thing that is really nothing apart from the nothing that makes it a thing.

All that may sound a bit circular, confusing even.  I promise I am not writing to confuse.  So let me break this down and then argue the point a bit further:

There is not anything other than nothing.  Nothing is…there is no such thing as a thing apart from the nothing which gives rise to the world in our vision, though this is a world that rests its things on nothing; it’s not a world that ends nothing with a world of things.

We have so conceived of the world via a thing nature, or a particular type of ontic character, that we have left behind the role that nothing plays in making us everything we are…even as this idea of absence and nothing is still nowhere to be found.

Nothing conditions how we speak, what we value, what we pursue, those “things” we are fearful to pursue.  Nothing is what places us where we are and it is only relation to that nothing that meaning can be created or generated.  This is one of the main thrusts of nihilistic philosophy.  It is not a philosophy that argues for some sort of black hole abysmal reality where there is no meaning; on the contrary, it is only because nothing is that everything can have meaning for a thing only has meaning in relation to nothing.  Apart from this frame of reference, a thing is lost in itself without any analogous referent from which it may make sense.  Apart from nothing a thing is not even a thing…and therefore, apart from nothing we too are nothing.  Thus, nothing is.  So while we strive to forget nothing by thinking everything, we lost in the process an important part of ourselves and what makes us who we are.

Lacan goes well beneath Heidegger’s own idea of Geworfenheit here…

Lacan notes, “But the subject has a no less convincing sense if he encounters the symbol that he originally excised from his Bejahung.  For this symbol does not enter the imaginary, for all that.  It constitutes, as Freud tells us, that which truly does not exist; as such, it ek-sists, for nothing exists except against a supposed background of absence.  Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

He goes on to the quote at the beginning of this essay, “it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of the dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness.”

What Lacan is observing in his response to the famous psychoanalyst Jean Hyppolite is that our lives are negotiated more from the gaps of nothing than by the imaginary worlds we have built for ourselves.  Nothing is the condition of meaning because the symbolic order rests on this negation of things in order for meaning to be construed.  It is only  because there is an absence that a presence appears.

The bejahung that Lacan mentions is Freud’s term for our original primordial inception into the symbolic order.  It is the original affirmation that we did not affirm.  Our place in this order, an order which does not exist but exists apart from itself, is really nothing…it’s a place we cannot place anywhere, it is nowhere, yet its constitution as nowhere means that it is the nothing that is somewhere.  The bejahung is our inception into that order (language, symbols, sounds, meaning, body language, ideas,etc.), an original inception that is no longer available to us but surfaces in us at moments of repressed desires, visions, déjà vu, dreams, etc.  It is the place into which we are plunged and emerge with the symbolic, with language, yet we cannot recount the making of the symbolic or its highs or lows.  We are people of symbols yet the genesis of the symbols have long been lost in ek-sistence of the bejahung that’s nothingness allows for the existence of other symbolic things, which really do not exist.  Or as Lacan notes, “Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

Thus, our worlds and the things we fill them with are really nothing and they reside nowhere but the places we have granted them to reside.  The emptiness of our minds, the places where we do not think but where we really are, is more indicative of our condition then are all the things we create and all the imaginary’s we fabricate.

So if our worlds are really conditioned by nothing and the foreclosure of our language into a specific symbolic order, what does this mean for those things that mean most to us…those things that we can place our in our hands, our heart and our minds?

It means that we are not driven from or toward the places we can grasp, but we are perpetually the creation of what has grasped us even as it has nothing to grasp us with.  The gap between there and here, where and there, is the gap and nothing that makes us as much who we are as all the fabricated things we have created to hide from the gap that is nothing, yet has made us everything.

These spaces that are nothing are really the spaces that fill our lives…it is the nothing of the lives we wish we could have that surface in our consciousness and produce the world we think we see.  Only because the fabrications of our worlds do not really exist, because they are nothing, do they present themselves into the symbolic order as an imaginary thing.  The fact that things appear to us in the present and we aim for them in the future, only do so because they are nothing and do not exist anywhere, thus our very “thing” nature of the world is really driven by the world we do not see toward the place we do not know with “things” that aren’t really there…meaning they are the things that are not really us or the real that remains allusive.

If the thing nature of the world we have created is merely that which has taken us away from the place of nothing, and nothing…or that which is no longer available to us, is that which constitutes our moving, thinking and being, than what does that say for our faith and its objects if we continue to call them things?  Perhaps, to begin this conversation aright…we should begin not by saying all those things that are things and then seek about defining them in our possession…but perhaps with Lacan, we should take a more apophatic approach.

For if as a people of faith we claim that God is where we come from, where we are and where we are going…perhaps we are not discussing a thing known as God…

Perhaps what we are saying is that God is nothing

Dialectical Thinking is Paranormal

Hegel-dialectic

When it comes to thinking, dialectical thinking IS definitely paranormal.  There is no other philosophical method that has the ability to show us that what we consider normal is actually not normal at all…that alongside the normal trapped in its web is something more true, more normal yet also allusive.  Dialectic is the constant reminder that what we think we see in our world is actually not what we’re seeing…it truly is thinking about the world in such a way that another reality begins to emerge from the stable reality we have created and assumed for ourselves.  What makes it most paranormal is that we have seen it and lived amongst it even while we have never noticed it.  In short, dialectical thinking contradicts our ideas from within our ideas…no liberal science necessary.

Dialectic is one of those great philosophical words/concepts that is often thrown around but very little understood. Perhaps this is because most folks just don’t see the world dialectically…paranormally.  Dialectic doesn’t have any practical import in our daily lives in order for it to be a concept that makes sense; at least this is the perception. For many, the world is not something that requires dialectic to understand it rightly. The world is plain and flat; it’s black and white. The world is what we see and what we see is what the world is. All the while, this view of reality is very much dependent upon seeing the world from “somewhere,” from “someplace,” a “where” and a “place” that we did not create ourselves…a where and a place from which we cannot so easily move. To use the language of Martin Heidegger, we have been “thrown” here against our will and we have been silly enough to think it was our “choice”. We’re such good Americans.

The basic premise that what one sees is what is…and that our sight is the full production of ourselves is itself one of the greatest lies of modernity. It certainly doesn’t consider the place from which our desire to know and understand comes (i.e. The Real)…the place that cannot be assimilated into the symbolic order of our language. It doesn’t take into consideration that no one has chosen the language in which they participate and how that language is organized, which in turn leads to being able to see and interpret what one sees …and it certainly doesn’t take into account that the very premises we all hold dear are also susceptible to corrosion within the ideas themselves.

Phenomenology and Dialectical thinking brings all this to awareness.

As Sean Homer writes in his book on Lacan, “the paradox of dialectic is that the positive always turns into a negative.” But naturally, most people do not want their positive ideas of things or opinions being turned into a negative or shown to not be true. We like to be right and we don’t want to find out that our “right” is really wrong. If this is the case for you, stop reading now.  What dialectic does, at its basest most functional level, is couch the ideas of the world that we have (think religion, politics, economics, society, etc) within a paradigm of logic that dares to take logic to its ultimate ends.  Dialectic shows that ideas are never the whole story, that under the idea is a another more true idea or form yet to be seen because it lies just beneath the surface, encouched in what we can call dialectical tension.  This is a tension that, ironically, once it is discovered, forces us to realize it has really been on the surface all along…thus, revealing the world we apprehend and see to be totally other than what we apprehend and see.  At bottom, dialectic is a way of seeing the world as it really is, not a way of seeing the world as we think it to be.

To take this step just a bit further, dialectic is the process whereby all of reality: its concepts, ideas, structures, etc, are displaced in the very ideas that make them what they are.  In other words, the very thesis of an idea or an object also contains the counter-idea that shows the initial thesis to be nothing and empty. This may seem like the foundation of nihilistic philosophy, and to a degree it is, yet nihilism actually stretches at least as far back as medieval Christian theologians such as Miester Eckhart.  Nihilism, or the nothing that dialectics generally discloses about the structure of the world, is not a philosophy of crude, critical scholars who want to have their cake and eat it too; it is a philosophy that sees nothing in every idea because every idea is inherently unstable in its logic. Ideas (and the worlds built around them as all worlds are) are not impregnable or absolute.

Dialectics is a natural philosophical fit with phenomenology because phenomenology posits that nothing exists functionally apart from the idea of the thing. Idea and object go hand in hand. Phenomenology is the premise that objects do not exist independently from the perception of those things in human consciousness. This was the basic premise of the entire work of Edmund Husserl; it is the attempt to simplify the material world by saying the phenomena we encounter matters.

A classic example of this is Hegel’s “Master/Slave dialectic.” The idea of Master and Slave are lost in reciprocal relationship. In order for the Master to be as such, he must be recognized by the Slave for this signification and vice versa. The Master is then free to live life as Master because he is recognized by the Slave as Master. But dialectics disrupts this “universal truth.” For since the Master needs the slave’s recognition for his identity he can never be a free Master, whereas the slave doesn’t need the recognition of the Master to be a slave because the slave’s status is affirmed through something else: his work/labor as a slave. Thus, if the slave’s identity is independent the recognition of the master for his identity it is not the slave who is enslaved to the Master but the Master to the slave. Subsequently, it is not the Master who is free; rather it is the slave who is free. So the Slave is really the Master; the truth is really a lie.

With dialectics, one does not need to deconstruct an idea to show that it is nothing; its own deconstruction is inherent in its very existence and definition. I hope you can see how this proposal and idea of dialectics can offer a whole other world of theological inquiry than the one that is “mastered” to us via orthodoxy. I’m not so sure what this means about the very famous words in the Gospel of John, 8.32, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” but it probably means these words don’t mean what they seem.

I wish to utilize Hegelian dialectical philosophy as theological method because of the seriousness with which it approaches the material world. Many theologians and biblical scholars avoid dialectics but such has not always been the case.

Dialectic has traditionally been employed within theological circles in very benign, though helpful ways. Indeed, it was the dialectical theology of the mid 20th century that paved the way for neo-liberalism and post-liberalism, two very necessary movements that have shaped theology into the present. A school of dialectical theology was reinforced by larger than life theologians such as Karl Barth, Emil Bruner, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Rudolph Bultmann and to a degree even Paul Tillich. But this mode of dialectics, with the exception of Paul Tillich’s latter Systematic Theology, was content to not push dialectic far enough. Barth, for example, was content with a very simplified definition of dialectic that was employed as a symbol of tension between the world as received and the world as is, the already and the not yet. Barth’s famous, and also very helpful, idea of the Word of God and Word of Man for understanding scripture is dialectical thinking…that in the Bible we have both the words of Man and God…The words of man not being the same as the word of God, yet the word of God being expressed in the words of man. This is dialectic, but it doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t take Hegel’s method seriously. It attempts to see the world as it is currently understood within our liberal and conservative biases; it doesn’t seek to see that the world we engage might not be the real world after all.

For a full Hegelian method to be appropriated, one must learn anew that the negative, or nothing, is not something to fear but constitutive of reality. Conservative scholars often say that this theology or philosophy of nothing as championed by folks like Sarte, Derrida, Lacan or Zizek is nothing more than tearing away at reality and faith as we know it. It is argued that all they wish to show is that there is no meaning anywhere so that everything is permissible behavior for a humanist society. But the problem is these characterizations are not true.  Most of these critiques are made by those who have never read, or understood, any of the respective thinkers they wish to criticize.

If anything, dialectic is NOT reductionistic. It does not seek to say there is no meaning to life; in fact, it argues for a proliferation of meaning and truth in many places and especially those places where we least expect to see it! Dialectics affirms that life and our worldviews are products of a very complex relationship between object and thought…and that as all objects are somehow the precarious existence of their substance and our thought about them their truthfulness is then necessarily contingent upon our language and consciousness. No “Truth” is able to rise above this logically. The world of ideas presents to us the world in which we live; the only way to change the world we live is to see how very unstable our ideas about the world in fact are. This is the task of dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

All dialectic does is analyze via phenomenological awareness that life is comprised of a constant tension within the very life we think we live without tension. It’s not an attempt to “throw away the faith” or “deconstruct Jesus,” but it does very much show that our world is not as tidy, neat and complete as we think it to be. And the benefit of seeing this opposite/negative in the supposed positives of life is that we can then evaluate ourselves, our faith, our world more carefully and begin to live in more authentic ways.