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An Attempt At thinking by Margot Jack


“”The wish to understand a thinker in his own terms is something elseentirely than the attempt to take up a thinker’s quest and to pursue it to the core of his thought’s problematic. The first is and remains impossible. The second is rare, and of all things the most difficult. “”

 What is called thinking ? – Martin Heidegger ,1968, p.185, (8)


The study of mind and brain suggests that existence is coloured by a certain existential ambiguity. A common cerebral architecture unites all individuals. Yet, because each person’s experience is unique, so is each mind and brain. Therefore, each individual lives in a world no one else can inhabit, a world which is built up  as a consequence of a process either of employing some analogy as a model, or a frame for seeing what there is to see, or of creating a model of some kind  for seeing what there is to see and thereby propounding what cannot be seen as a condition for what can be seen. Selected from our fantasy, our world is close, in some mental sense, to the real world, and how immensely rich our mental lives are because of our creative capacity to slip out of reality into the “”what if”” s ( p.643, (16)), into the imaginary frames.

This process in which such analogies or models become the “”lenses”” (in which case “”the form of the question would already provide an answer”” – Derrida, The Truth in Painting, 1987, p.21, (1)), lenses for seeing the world together with the activity of using, or constructing and then using frames, is in our terms, the act of thinking, which, we shall see, is an act of framing: as framing is a dynamic process “”that is going on at any moment”” and “”is part of what establishes the frame for what goes on next, and is partly created by the framing that went before”” (p.65, (2). Through its irrepressibility this dynamic process of framing subverts analysis, theory, philosophy, the symbol, the object. That is exactly what deconstruction does too, when it questions the conceptual pairs which are currently accepted as self-evident and natural, as if they had not been institutionalized at some point in history. To take them for granted is to restrict thinking: to deconstruct is to think. To say it differently, thinking is a term used to encompass all the mental activities associated with concept-formation, problem solving, intellectual functioning, creativity, complex learning, memory, symbolic processing, imagery, etc. Each one of these aspects of thinking can be viewed as a high level description of a system which, on a low level, is governed by simple rules: we can imagine it as a formal system underlying an informal system: the only way to understand such a system is “”by chunking it on higher and higher levels, and thereby losing some precision at each step. What emerges at the top level is the “”informal system”” which obeys so many rules of such complexity that we do not yet have the vocabulary to think about it”” (Hofstadter, D.R., Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, 1979, p.559, (16)).

As for frames, we can imagine them as a very large collection of chests of drawers (Salvador Dali’s painting comes to mind). Utilising Hofstadter’s analogy, we can say that “”when you choose a chest, you have a frame, and the drawer holes are places where “”subframes”” can be attached. But sub-frames are themselves chests of drawers”” and, when you want to stick a whole chest of drawers into the slot for a single drawer in another chest of drawers “”you shrink and distort the second chest, since, after all, this is all mental, not physical. Now, in the outer frame, there may be several different drawer slots that need to be filled; then you may need to fill slots in some of the inner chests of drawers (or subframes). This can go on, recursively. The vivid surrealistic image of squishing and bending a chest of drawers so that it can fit into a slot of arbitrary shape is probably quite important, because it hints that your concepts are squished and bent by the contexts you force them into”” (pp.644-645, (16)).

Now, coming back to the process itself, it could be said that framing is the process of demarcating phenomena in a double-edged way that is simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. That is to say that when any text (cultural phenomenon, practice, or product) is made to mean something, this signifying process both separates it from and joints it with a variety of references within the symbolic cultural world which arises and is perpetuated in and through the individuals who constitute the cultural group.

It may be said that only those who have learned to recognize and interpret the meanings of symbols can and do respond to them according to the requirements and expectations of their group.

It may be said that only those who have learned to recognize and interpret the meanings of symbols can and do respond to them according to the requirements and expectations of their group. But “”as soon as there is meaning, there is difference”” (Derrida, Disseminations, 1981, p.ix, (4)), and “”from the moment there is meaning there is nothing but signs”” (p.50, (3)). Derrida’s deconstructive reading is not designed to prove that meaning is impossible, but to show that a text signifies in more than one way, and to varying degrees of explicitness, which is to say that the same stimuli can have different meanings, depending on the frame put around them (which sometimes has survival value, since the rapid recognition of a mismatch can mean the difference between death and life): did the swastika have the same meaning for a Nazi as it did for the Jewish community? Obviously not. The meaning of “”never again”” that Jewish people use for this symbol puts them in a state of total commitment to do whatever it takes to protect their rights.

The word “”de-construction”” is closely related to the word “”analysis””, which etymologically means “”to undo””, and not to the word “”destruction””. As Heidegger puts it “”we moderns can learn only if we always unlearn at the same time”” (which is to undo). “”Applied to the matter before us: we can learn thinking only if we radically unlearn what thinking has been traditionally. To do that, we must at the same time come to know it”” (p.8, (8)).

It has been said that we come to know only what we have ourselves had a “”hand”” in creating. Unless a person is in some way constructing, or reconstructing (or deconstructing, or framing) a path directly or in imagination, he or she cannot be said to be thinking.

If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not meaning but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another, as in the parergonal question posed by Derrida in the following example: “”… why would the sublime be the absolutely large and not the absolutely small? Why would the absolute excess of dimension, or rather of quantity, be schematized on the side of largeness and not of smallness? Why this valorization of the large which thus still intervenes in a comparison between incomparables?… If indeed one asks oneself, as I have just done, why preference should go to the largest, one forgets naively that the more and hence largeness are inscribed in the movement and in the very concept of preference. So we have to displace the question”” (or in other words, to frame the question again): “”Why should there be preference?”” (p.136, (1))

The intimate connection between questioning and thinking is central to Derrida’s thought. For him questioning (which I dare say, following Derrida, is another term for framing – in that that by asking a specific question one eliminates all the other questions – the ones which are not part of the specific question asked) is a way or a path of thinking each one must clear for himself with no certain destination in mind: “”What I hold and what in turn holds me in its grip, is the aleatory strategy of someone who admits that he does not know where he is going”” (Ed., Sallis, J., Deconstruction and Philosophy, p.xii, (9)).

Deconstruction does not promote the idea that one view is given preference (see note A above) over  another, instead, what deconstruction really does is to allow for a plurality of views to hold valid  at any one time, differing from one framing to another. Deconstruction seeks to expose what the text excludes by showing what it includes, or in other words it seeks to expose the suppressed, “”squished and bent”” frame. But to expose the frame is not another act of framing? And the fact that Derrida analyses certain texts, “”which are selected precisely for the rigor and tenacity with which they raise the questions that Derrida whishes to press”” (Norris, C., Deconstruction, theory and practice, 1990, p.48, (15)), does not that represent an act of framing (and preference)?

There are multiple meanings to any text. The meaning is whatever one chooses to emphasize, just as its content is what one chooses to focus on.

The deconstructive reading, as a form of critique, reads backwards from what seems natural, obvious, self-evident, or universal, in order to show that this things have their history, their reasons for being the way they are, their effects on what follows from them, and that the starting point is not a natural given but cultural construct, usually blind to itself. For example, whenever symbols (frames with the capability of generating and interpreting complex messages (p.662, (16)) are created and accepted and utilized by a group, they attain a status and become established so that it is exceedingly difficult to displace them or to persuade people that such symbols are no longer valid.

This becomes understandable when we recall that a symbol is essentially a human creation that requires “”full faith and credence”” if it is to be meaningful and significant, capable of evoking from those who use it and those who are exposed to it, the meaning and the credibility necessary for its functioning as an operating symbol. Whitehead says that “”the art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly, in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlighten reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence for their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows””. (Ed., Gyorgy Kepes, Sign, Image and Symbol, 1966, p.14. (5)).

In also taking the society as an example, Barthes’s view in his Elements of Semiology (1967, (6)), is “”that society, which holds the plan of connotation, speaks the signifiers of the system considered, while the semiologist speaks its signifieds; he therefore seems to have the objective function of decipher (his language is an operation) in relation to the world which naturalizes or conceals the signs of the first system under the signifiers of the second; but his objectivity is made provisional by the very history which renews metalanguages… nothing in principle prevents a metalanguage from becoming in its turn the language-object of the new metalanguage;””(pp.93-94, (6)) – in other words, could we call that framing and framing again (or reframing)? Or, in Derrida’s words “”each so called present element, each element appearing on the scene of presence, is related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element, this trace being related no less to what is called the future than to what is called the past, and constituting what is called the present by means of this very relation to what it is not: what it absolutely is not, not even a past or a future as a modified present”” (in what new light would we see the present as presented by Derrida if we would introduce Bergson’s duration?)…”” 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… difference””(Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 1982, p.13, (7)).

What Derrida designates as difference is the movement according to which any cod, any system of referral in general, “”is constituted “”historically”” as a weave of differences””(p.12, (7)).

But difference is another way of saying supplement, parergon, frame. Akin to the anomalous spelling of difference, the placing of words under erasure, signified by crossing them through in the text and thus warning the reader not to accept them at philosophic face value, concepts are perpetually dislodged: “”the sign is that ill-named thing, the only one, that escapes the instituting Question of philosophy”” (p.19, (3)). The marks of erasure acknowledge the highly provisional status of the terms employed and the fact that thought cannot do without them in the process of deconstruction (p.69, (15)).

Reduced to its simplest, a symbol is a phenomenon which has a meaning additional to that which is communicated by its superficial configuration or stimulus profile: “”the symbol is no purely arbitrary sign, but a sign which in its externality comprises in itself at the same time the content of the idea which it brings into appearance”” (p.85, (7)) – here the relationship between the sign and what it is standing-in-for is known by the viewer of the sign because he or she is in the possession of the code, which governs what will stand for what; code refers to the system of rules in circulation amongst a group, the use of which enables meaning to be possible (Carter, M., Framing art: introducing theory and the visual image, 1990, pp.68-69, (13)).

By saying that “”the thing itself is a sign””, Derrida follows up his reference to Peirce, whose definition of the sign says that “”it is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity””. This definition has four elements: i) there is the sign which is “”standing-in-for””, ii) there is the something which is being “”stood-in-for””, iii) there is the somebody for whom the “”standing-in-for”” has relevance, and iv)there is the “”sense, or meaning””, which the “”standing-in-for”” has for that person (p.67, (13)).

As said above, the sign is put in place of the thing itself (where “”thing”” is standing equally for meaning or referent): “”The sign represents the present in its absence. It takes the place of the present. When we cannot grasp or show the thing, state the present, the being-present, when the present cannot be presented, we signify, we go through the detour of the sign””(p.9, (7)). In this sense, the sign is deferred presence. The sign is “”the site of transition, the bridge between two moments of full presence””, which can only function “”as a provisional reference of one presence to another”” (p.71, (7)).

Text continues on next page (An attempt at thinking - (cont) page 2



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