Reading Between the Lines: Derrida's Invocation of the 'Nonphilosopher'

l3 May 2010
Alanna Gasser (HBA, BEd Engl.Is 4th Year)


Reading Between the Lines: Derrida's Invocation  of the 'Nonphilosopher'

            On the surface, the disagreements between Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida might seem attributable to the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of Rene Descartes' Meditations. It is important to note, however, that there is much more at stake in their discussions. On one hand, it seems that the argument consists of Foucault's claim that Descartes excludes madness from his process of doubt, with Derrida responding that this is incorrect because Descartes actually engages with the subject in a manner that is sometimes described as hyperbolic, or even extravagant. Under this seemingly minute and inconsequential debate about Descartes' inclusion or exclusion of madness (perhaps it verges too closely to the realm of authorial intent), however, lies a series of much more serious questions about the very nature of philosophy and literature. So, on the other hand, what is largely at stake is a question of the nature of philosophy in relation to literature, and the complex relationship between silence or madness and reason. What Foucault sees as a blatant exclusion of madness in Descartes' Meditations, Derrida sees as proof of the existence of an extra-textual, implicit objector, the entity he names the 'nonphilosopher'. The nonphilosopher serves here as a centralizing figure around which significant debates surrounding philosophy and literature rotate. He/she begs the question of the interiority and exteriority of texts and philosophy, and the ability of implied rhetorical devices to occupy space in texts. The question of the nonphilosopher also introduces the argumentation of whether or not fiction has a place in philosophy or if philosophy is only meant to involve the implementation of rigorous exercise and method. Finally, the silence attributed to the implicit nature of the nonphilosopher also highlights the debate surrounding the impossibility of speaking madness as madness is (by virtue of its nature and society), which is associated with unreason and, by extension, with silence. Thus in extracting a fictional entity, the nonphilosopher, from what he sees as an implied dialogue between the figure and Descartes, Derrida points to the greater issues at hand which will serve to comment on the very nature of his and Foucault's enterprises.

            The first question raised by Derrida's invocation  of the implied nonphilosopher is the question of the possibility for the exteriority of a text to exist, and by extension, the exteriority of philosophy. The passage of Descartes' Meditations which Derrida's reading hinges upon occurs at those very paragraphs in which Descartes seemingly rejects madness in favour of the example of dreaming (and to reduce a very complex argument to its barest bones, this is essentially what Foucault accuses Descartes of doing). Derrida summons the nonphilosopher based on the supposed rhetorical qualification of the choice Latin phrase 'sed forte', which introduces these paragraphs in their original Latin version (Derrida 50). The condition implied in the translation of the significant 'sed forte', for Derrida, serves to set up an alternative voice with whom Descartes is engaging in an implicit dialogue:

...the entire paragraph which follows [expresses...] the astonishment and objections of the nonphilosopher, of the novice in philosophy who is frightened by this doubt [the doubt of one's own body, which is attributed with madness] and protests [...]. Descartes then assumes the astonishment of this reader or naive interlocutor, pretends to take him into account when he writes (Derrida 50).

Foucault's response to Derrida's argument calls attention to the debate surrounding the exteriority and interiority of texts. Foucault argues that the invocation of the nonphilosopher is located outside the philosophical text in three important ways: first, in that the figures is another speaker (in other words, it is not Descartes); second, that the nonphilosopher speaks from a position that is (as his/her name implies) non-philosophical; and finally, because Descartes disarms the objector and forces a more extreme example on him - that of dreams (Foucault 569). Foucault claims, then, that because the nonphilosopher is not explicitly mentioned in Descartes' text (even though his/her presence may be implied through the aforementioned 'sed forte'), Derrida must have conjured him/her up from somewhere outside of, or exterior to, the text. The tension raises the question of whether or not there even is an exterior to the text, or an exterior to philosophy. If Derrida has read the nonphilosopher into the text from in between the lines Descartes himself wrote, how can the entity (supposing that he does exist) be located outside the text? Is the nonphilosopher's very existence dependent on whether or not he/she occupies a space interior or exterior to philosophy or text? Similarly, Edward Said asks whether or not "a critical text can so easily be detached from its parent text", claiming that Derrida's work eliminates this possibility as well as the possibility of reading a text purely as it is explicitly intended (692). The implications of these questions extend to the realm of philosophy of language and literature as a whole. If the nonphilosopher does not exist purely because he/she is found outside the text, then it could be followed that the interpreted content of texts should not extend beyond the words that appear on the page. It becomes clear in this case that Foucault and Derrida are not simply arguing about Descartes' treatment (or mistreatment) of madness, but also positing arguments of much more serious implications about space and text.

The argumentations between Derrida and Foucault expand from the discussion of the interiority and exteriority of the text to the question of whether or not Descartes' use of the evil genius and dreams in place of madness are examples of hyperbolic metaphor and fiction, or whether or not they serve as conduits along Descartes' way of excluding madness in his rigorous thought experiment. Derrida argues for the fictional existence of the evil genius in a way that can also be applied to the existence of the nonphilosopher. To him, "the fiction of the evil genius will invoke, conjure up, the possibility of a total madness, a total derangement over which I could have no control because it is inflicted upon me - hypothetically - leaving me no responsibility for it" (Derrida 52). The fictionality of the evil genius is similar to that of the nonphilosopher. Derrida's invocation of the nonphilosopher is fictional in that this silent objector is not an actual figure standing before Descartes, calling him crazy for doubting his own body. This occurs in the same way that Descartes' evil genius is arguably also a fictional 'character' in that he/she is not a real living, breathing entity insofar as anyone can tell. In addition, Derrida insists that the evil genius allows for dreams to be used as a better example of a more complete madness for which individuals have no responsibility for their illusions whatsoever. In the same way, the nonphilosopher is a conduit for the replacement of madness by dreams. Without the implicit objector, Descartes might potentially have carried on talking about madness rather than replacing it with the idea of dreams. Derrida argues that the example of dreams is actually a hyperbolic manifestation of the example of madness, "that the sleeper, or the dreamer, is madder than the madman. Or, at least [...] is further from true perception" (51). According to Edward Said, writing (criture) itself is, for Derrida, an exercise in excess (683) and so one might interpret that fiction is a prime example of this excess, and is a reflection of the excessiveness of the example of dreams as extreme forms of madness. In this way, the fictionality which Derrida claims underlies the subtext of Descartes' Meditations reinforces the hyperbolic quality of dreams as an example of madness. The nonphilosopher is a fictional entity in the same way that the evil genius is, and both 'exist' as excess in the text, rhetorical or metaphorical devices which allow Descartes to engage with madness on the highest level he can imagine.

            Foucault disagrees with Derrida's interpretation of the Meditations on several grounds. The first and most immediately relevant of these points is that Foucault believes Derrida ignores the evidence that the "episode of the evil genius is a voluntary exercise, controlled, mastered, and carried out from beginning to end by a meditating subject who never allows himself to be surprised" (Foucault 571). For Foucault, Derrida's argument unravels because Descartes' project involves a rigorous and organized method of doubt, a meditation, which cannot be synonymous with a fiction. Foucault also disputes Derrida's assertion that madness is engaged with hyperbolically by emphasizing the way in which Descartes does not include it in his testing process. Foucault notes that there are important structural similarities between the dreaming and madness paragraphs, but that the paragraph devoted to madness is cut short (558). In his paragraph on madness, Descartes begins with a lengthy explanation of why it is infeasible and insane to doubt the existence of one's body: "There are many other things which we cannot reasonably doubt, even though we know them through the senses - as, for example, that I am here, seated by the fire, wearing a (winter) dressing gown, holding this paper in my hands, and other things of this nature" (Descartes 16 [emphasis added]). Comparatively, the paragraph concerning dreams which proceeds after that of madness also makes mention of the authors body and clothing, the fire he sits beside, and the paper before him: "the night made me dream (of my usual habits:) that I was here, clothed (in a dressing gown), and sitting by the fire, although I was in fact lying undressed in bed! It seems apparent to me now, that I am not looking at this paper with my eyes closed" (Descartes 16 [emphasis added]). The parallels between the paragraphs are obvious; however, the difference which Foucault addresses lies in how each paragraph - each example - is concluded. Where the madness paragraph ends after Descartes dismisses the idea as folly, the paragraph concerning dreams continues forth with a rigorous testing of Descartes' aforementioned beliefs in his sensory experiences. In fact, Foucault argues that the testing is hardly carried out at all for madness, and the extent to which it is tested is simply to say that it is barely worth thinking about, that "madness does not have to be tested: it is noted" (Foucault 557). The place where Derrida believes the nonphilosopher makes his silent and implicit appearance, Foucault sees as more of a chiasmic crossing between madness and dreaming in which the opposition between the two is underlined (Flynn 212).  In short, the paragraphs parallel one another, but they also switch positions of focus and the paragraph on dreams occupies more significance for Descartes. Far from the nonphilosopher being an entity that emphasizes the hyperbolic nature of Descartes' engagement with madness, Foucault believes that section of the text actually exists as the point in which madness is tossed aside and replaced instead with the more convenient and acceptable example of dreaming.

            It is also interesting that Derrida should invoke the nonphilosopher, a silent critic, in order to explain Descartes' supposed silence on the topic of madness in his Meditations. Thus the discussions around silence, madness, and reason are introduced. First, it is important to note that the nonphilosopher whom Derrida reads into Descartes does not play any active, explicit role in the Meditations, but plays a rhetorical and hypothetical role that is not actually voiced aloud by Descartes. The nonphilosopher is therefore, in other words, a silent entity. One thing which both Derrida and Foucault agree upon is that madness is linked with silence and unreason. Derrida muses, however, that Foucault is attempting to speak on behalf of madness even as he is admitting that madness is, by its very nature, silent (33-4). As soon as madness is spoken of, or spoken for, it becomes a work of reason (for speech is associated with reason) which immediately and necessarily objectifies madness: "The expression 'to say madness itself' is self-contradictory. To say madness without expelling it into objectivity is to let it say itself. But madness is what by essence cannot be said: it is the 'absence of the work,' as Foucault profoundly says" (Derrida 43).  Derrida's solution to this problem lies in fiction, metaphor, and hyperbole. As discussed above, the nonphilosopher is a fictional 'character' of sorts, and (at least for Derrida) he/she serves as a hyperbolic manifestation of madness. As Shoshana Felman explains on one hand, madness lends itself to fiction and literature, but on the other, in the realm of literature madness often serves to disguise philosophy (207). Derrida therefore acknowledges that any philosopher who wishes to invoke the subject of madness must do so through the realm of fiction (54). By this explanation, the nonphilosopher exists in the text (as a fictional character) so that Descartes can discuss madness - even if it is only in an implied discussion. Even though the nonphilosopher appears to be afraid of or concerned about Descartes' example of madness, causing him to appear to dismiss it, the figure exists as an embodiment of madness for two important reasons: first, he/she is like madness in that they are both silent and silenced; and second, because he/she is a fictional entity, implied and rhetorical, yet hyperbolic and excessive. The nonphilosopher is also opposed with reason. In his/her silent opposition to the introduction to madness in Descartes' rigorous exercise, the nonphilosopher is contrasted with the philosopher. He/she has no explicit voice, but Descartes does and he/she is horrified by Descartes' pretence to doubt his own body. Descartes' reason is therefore opposed by the nonphilosopher, placing madness in a position in which it is regarded as extremely unreasonable. However, as Felman explains, this placement of opposition actually explains that "Reason and madness are thereby inextricably linked" and "Madness can only occur in a world of conflict, within a conflict of thoughts. The question of madness is nothing less than the question of thought itself" (206). The nonphilosopher, therefore, as a hyperbolic manifestation of madness itself (even in its condemnation of its own spirit), occupies a space which allows Descartes to engage with madness on a higher level. While the nonphilosopher is unphilosophical, unreasonable, and mad, it is only through him/her that Descartes is able to engage with madness in a philosophical and reasonable fashion.

            Derrida's invocation of the implied nonphilosopher carries with it important implications that extend beyond the immediate argument between him and Foucault as to whether or not Descartes excludes madness in his Meditations. The argument might seem, at first glance, to be so easily outlined, but what is at stake is rather more complex. Foucault and Derrida are engaging with one another in a disagreement about the very nature of philosophy and reason and Derrida's nonphilosopher serves as a central figure around which all of these concepts rotate. Because Derrida finds the nonphilosopher lurking between the lines Descartes wrote, the question arises as to whether or not he/she exists inside or outside of the text, and whether or not there can even be an outside of the text, and by extension, an outside of philosophy. Furthermore, because the nonphilosopher is a fictional identity, Derrida argues that Descartes' engagement with madness is hyperbolic because the fictional element in the work is a product of excess. For Foucault, however, fiction has no place within Descartes' philosophical project, for it is a rigorous exercise, conducted with reason. Finally, the nonphilosopher also carries with it the question of the opposition between madness and philosophy, silence and discourse, reason and unreason. One could contend that the evil genius plays a more important role in Descartes' text and the argument between Derrida and Foucault. However, the evil genius does not have this important element of rhetorical implicitness which bears such significance to the questions of exteriority, fictionality, and silence. The effectiveness of the nonphilosopher as the implied centre of this argument lies in the fact that he/she is silent and hidden in Descartes' text. That is, if he/she is even there at all.   

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978.

Descartes, Ren. Meditations. Ed and Trans Laurence J. Lafleur. New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1951.

Felman, Shoshana. "Madness and Philosophy or Literature's Reason." Yale French Studies 52 (1975): 206-228.

Flynn, Bernard. "Derrida and Foucault: Madness and Writing." Ed Hugh J. Silverman. New York: Routledge, 1989. 201-218.

Foucault, Michel. History of Madness. 1961. Ed. Jean Khalfa. Trans Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa. Paris: Routledge, 2006.

Said, Edward W. "The Problem of Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions." Critical Enquiry 4.4 (1978): 673-714.



Nihilism in Reservoir Dogs

Nihilism in Reservoir Dogs

(Alternate title: The Dangers of Dissection)

March 2009

Phillippe Nabarra (BA General 2nd Year)


Charlie: An overweight twenty year old man sitting at his computer desk in his small bedroom.


Jennifer: A slightly younger woman, slender and fit with elegant features and very long black hair; she is laying on the bed.



Jennifer: Let’s go out, it’s all dusty in here.


Charlie: So it is.


Jennifer: Where do you want to go?


Charlie: Nowhere.


Jennifer: What’s wrong Charlie?


Charlie: Nothing.


Jennifer: Charlie…what’s wrong?


Charlie: God is dead.


Jennifer: Yeah yeah, three hundred years ago.


Charlie: I wish He weren’t though.


Jennifer: What?


Charlie: Then I wouldn’t have to think so much for myself.


Jennifer: What the fuck has gotten into you?


Charlie: Nihilism I guess.


Jennifer: Nihilism? Baby, if there’s one thing you’re not…


Charlie: I’m supposed to do an assignment on Nihilism for Philosophy class, I don’t even really know what it means.


Jennifer: It means you don’t care about anything.


Charlie: Yeah, but I’m not sure if that’s what it means.


Jennifer: No?


Charlie: Well, if that’s all there is to it, wouldn’t I be a nihilist?


Jennifer: You don’t care about me?


Charlie: Human drama, we’ve been through that.


Jennifer: God damn it you and your Sartrist bullshit.


Charlie: God can’t damn it, he’s dead.


Jennifer: Well I’m damning it then.


Charlie: You love Sartre.


Jennifer: Yeah but he’s not God, you can’t replace God with Sartre.


Charlie: But I’m supposed to replace Him with reason, and reason comes from philosophers, and philosophers are all phonies except for Sartre. 


Jennifer: You’ve changed.


Charlie: What?


Jennifer: I said you’ve fucking changed-what happened when I was away?


Charlie: Nothing happened.


Jennifer: Nothingness and more nothingness eh? Well you’ve changed.


Charlie: I just stopped caring, I stopped trying.


Jennifer: And if Sartre were here he’d burn you with his cigarette for saying that.


Charlie: Sartre’s dead, Nietzsche’s dead, Kurt Cobain is dead, Bob Dylan is dead, it’s all up to me now to figure everything out and I can’t handle the pressure.


Jennifer: Bobby isn’t dead.


Charlie: He is to me, it’s like the God is dead thing…it doesn’t mean God is dead, as in some dude living in outer space, it’s the idea of God, the teleological argument has become unreasonable and as a species we can no longer use it as a source for moral code.


Jennifer: Well I’ve read Nietzche Charlie, but how does it apply to Dylan?


Charlie: His argument for purpose is dead to me, it’s no longer conceivable that a young man could ramble down to New York, speak his mind, and have people listen to him-the concept of youthful, uncorrupted, pure honest and sincere wisdom is dead. Now his songs are selling fruit drinks and tampons.


Jennifer: Uncorrupted wisdom is dead? So when you said ‘Youth is Paramount’?


Charlie: Dead, lost, never going to say it again Jenny babe.


Jennifer: You know, Dylan just got that idea from Rimbaud.


Charlie: Why do you think Rimbaud stopped writing when he turned twenty? There was nothing left to say, he had seen too much of the world, he was sick of it, he became a nihilist.


Jennifer: Dylan didn’t.


Charlie: Yup, he turned to God, he gave up on the topical world and turned to God, he’s a nihilist.


Jennifer: You fucking asshole, you’re bitter as burnt garlic.


Charlie: I’m-yeah, yeah I know.


Jennifer: You are a nihilist, you believe in nothing.


Charlie: I believe that there is no truth, that there is nothing to believe in.


Jennifer:  Love, sex?


Charlie: That’s nature, I could believe in nature, but I would have to know where it came from.


Jennifer: You know who’s dead? You’re fucking dead.


Charlie: Jenny…


Jennifer: The Charlie I knew is dead! The Charlie I knew had the courage to think and battle against the unknown, shit, I might even say you were successful at times.


Charlie: Hardly, tell me one truth that I’ve discovered since we met.


Jennifer: What about Sartre, you still believe in his shit don’t you?


Charlie: Hell is other people.


Jennifer: There you go, that’s the truth, ain’t it?


Charlie: Yeah…maybe…it might also be a cop out.


Jennifer: Huh?


Charlie: So that guys like him, guys like me, don’t feel guilty about hating people and being reclusive-it’s an excuse for reclusion, it’s an excuse to hide.


Jennifer: Alright, well I’ll just let you hide then alright?


Charlie: Where you going?


Jennifer: Somewhere, that’s enough for me, there’s meaning in somewhere, this room is saturated with nothingness.


Scene 2


[Charlie is knocking on Jennifer’s front door; Jennifer opens her bedroom window on the second floor and sticks her out and looks down at Charlie]


Jennifer: What do you want Charlie?


Charlie: I need your help Jenny, I need your help with my assignment!


Jennifer: Yeah right, you remember my experience with philosophy class.


Charlie: Huh? Oh, yeah, but that’s irrelevant Jenny, I just want you to watch this movie with me and we’ll discuss it.


[Jennifer frowns and looks out over the neighborhood, ignoring Charlie]


Charlie: Come on Jenny, you studied this on the island, just cause you had one dick-head teacher doesn’t mean you can’t do it.


Jennifer: Oh, so now you want to think again, is that it?


Charlie: Won’t be much Jen, we just got to get to the bottom of nihilism…come on….look, I’m out of the house! Check out this cheek, clean as baby skin!


Jennifer: You shaved, good for you, you’re pure like Mother Theresa.


Charlie: Let me in it’s cold!


Jennifer: What movie?


Charlie: Reservoir Dogs!


Jennifer: How romantic…


[Jennifer disappears from the window and in a few moments she opens the front door and lets Charlie into the house]


Charlie: You look beautiful today Jennifer.


Jennifer: Are you ready to take responsibility for your freedom?


Charlie: Who are you, Simone de Beauvoir?


Jennifer: Shit, I don’t know if I’d want to be.


Charlie: La Castor!


[Charlie flips her long hair playfully; she grabs his hand defensively; Charlie steps in closer and kisses her on the cheek]


Charlie: I believe in something, I’m sure I do Jenny.


[Jennifer turns away coldly and leads Charlie through the kitchen]


Jennifer: Do we really have to watch Dogs again? We’ve seen it so many times.


Charlie: No, I suppose we don’t.


[They walk upstairs to Jennifer’s bedroom and close the door; Jennifer sits at her desk while Charlie lies down on the bed]


Jennifer: Don’t mess up my bed.


Charlie: Jenny would you come sit with me for Christ sake?


Jennifer: I just don’t think you should become a nihilist because you’re studying it in class.


Charlie: What is a nihilist Jenny? Really, I don’t even know.


Jennifer: You’re the one who has the class.


Charlie: Yeah but I was out of it last week, I couldn’t concentrate, it slipped past me.


Jennifer: Well, I know what it meant for Nietzsche.


Charlie: Well let’s stick to Nietzsche, I think I can relate to Nietzsche.


Jennifer: First he said it was like, well, a disbelieve of the material world in favor of the imaginary world, or ‘God’.


Charlie: But then God died.


Jennifer: Yeah, so nihilism is a disbelieve in all values or morals or rules, that is to say, that life has no purpose, and our existence is meaningless.


Charlie: So when Sartre says we have to make meaning, we have to build or own essence, it would sort of be a counter-argument.


Jennifer: Yes, because nihilism leads to apathy, and apathy is a denial of life.


Charlie: I just discussed apathy for my literature essay on T.S. Eliot.


Jennifer: Exactly, you were telling me this I think…


Charlie: Yeah, apathy is ‘living as though you were dead’ and they say it’s a psychologically related to death fear.


Jennifer: Well I don’t know about that, but yeah, apathy is not caring, not trying, it’s a denial of self, a denial of existence.


Charlie: So nihilism is just one big fat ‘NO’.


Jennifer: It’s a practice of negation.


Charlie: I think I get it.


Jennifer: But Sartre, since you can only ever understand things in terms that relate to you, is the opposite of apathetic, when he tells you to take responsibility and build your essence, that’s the opposite of apathy.


Charlie: So when I said I didn’t care anymore, that I didn’t wanna try anymore.


Jennifer: Apathy.


Charlie: Nihilism.


Jennifer: Sartre rolled over.


Charlie: Well thank God for you then Jenny.


Jennifer: You can thank him but it would just be more nihilism.


Charlie: Ha, yeah…so…does Tarantino practice nihilism?


Jennifer: I dunno I never met ‘im.


Charlie: In the movie darling, does he show nihilism, I mean, does the film function as philosophy?


Jennifer: In some ways, I suppose.


Charlie: Well I don’t think I can write an essay with that.


Jennifer: Well, fine, if I have to do everything for you, let’s think about it.


[Jennifer snatches the DVD case from off the bed and looks over the cover in an attempt to refresh her memory of the film]


Jennifer: Yeah, Mr. Blonde is totally nihilistic, he has no morals or values and his only purpose in life is killing, which is the ultimate negation, is it not?


Charlie: Oh baby you’re deep, it’s true, it’s true, murder is the ultimate negation, the ultimate denial of a purposeful existence.


Jennifer: It really is a visual interpretation of apathy.


Charlie: Wouldn’t that be suicide? Apathy is inflicted on one’s self, but nihilism is more socialized, it speaks to the structure of society, or lack there of, where as apathy is a symptom of the self.


Jennifer: So murder is nihilistic, suicide isn’t?


Charlie: Suicide is narcissistic, which is apathetic, which is nihilistic, so I guess if you run through the chain of relevance, than suicide is too.


Jennifer: Mr. Blonde obviously had no remorse about killing, he was enjoying torturing the cop.


Charlie: He disfigured him, the cop himself used that word, ‘disfigured’.


Jennifer: Coincidence?


Charlie: No, Mr. Blonde is disfiguring the society’s law structure, represented by the cop.


Jennifer: Now who’s deep?


Charlie: Don’t you agree? Mr. Blonde is a bad-ass nihilist! 


Jennifer: Yeah, I totally agree, I don’t think you could say he’s apathetic, cause he’s just enjoying himself so damn much, but still, what you said is good.


Charlie: And he is a strait killer, remember the scene when it shows him meeting Joe in the office, he has just gotten out of jail, he starts wrestling with Fast Eddy?


Jennifer: Yup.


Charlie: He says ‘When am I going to get back to doing some real work?’, or something like that, and the response he gets is, ‘Not yet, shit’s fucked up right now’.


Jennifer: Ok…


Charlie: But then Joe and Eddy say that they got a job ‘in the meantime’- IN THE MEANTIME JENNY! They’re down-playing the robbery, presenting it to him as something he normally wouldn’t do, but it’s just a small job until he gets back on his feet.


Jennifer: So what are you implying?


Charlie: No not me, it’s what Tarantino is implying…you see, if the robbery isn’t the ‘real work’ that Mr. Blonde is referring to, than what could be? What could be more dangerous and illegal than armed robbery?


Jennifer: He’s a hit man, you’re right.


Charlie: And hit men are nihilistic by nature, is that too much to assume?


Jennifer: Probably, yeah, but I think you’ve proven your point about Mr. Blonde: His only purpose is killing and killing is an act of nihilism.


Charlie: Mr. White does believe in something though, he believes in being ‘professional’, and he seems to adhere to some kind of criminal code.


Jennifer: That’s right, he says he’s angry at Mr. Blonde because he didn’t stick to procedure, he says ‘I can’t work with no maniac’ or something.


Charlie: That’s right, he expects Mr. Blonde to be keen on the criminal code, the unwritten law of unlawfulness.


Jennifer: Could you define that in anyway?


Charlie: Well I think one of the key values is ‘don’t kill civilians’, right? It’s ok to hurt cops, but not ‘real people’.


Jennifer: That’s a value?


Charlie: Well it is for a gangster, and there’s other shit too, like how he takes care of Mr. Orange, why does he do that? That’s morality isn’t it?


Jennifer: It’s like a ‘Don’t leave a man behind’ kinda thing.


Charlie: Exactly, it’s the criminal code, but, I want you to think darkly for a second, if you were Mr. White, what would be the best way to take care of Mr. Orange?


Jennifer: What do you mean?


Charlie: Ok, if Mr. White were a nihilist, with no care or concern for anything, why doesn’t he just kill Mr. Orange and make it easier for himself to get away?


Jennifer: Because he’s…moral…in a weird way….


Charlie: He is! Mr. Blonde would have left Mr. Orange to die, but Mr. White actually attempts to differentiate between good and bad, he says ‘he’s a good kid’, that’s based on faith, he believes in Mr. Orange enough to help him, but if he knew that Orange was a cop than it wouldn’t go down like that would it?


Jennifer: You’re right, he is acting on principle.


Charlie: The principles of a gangster, but principle.


Jennifer: But isn’t crime and gangsterism in general just nihilism anyways? It’s a total rejection of society’s laws, so crime, in general, is nihilistic.


Charlie: I suppose, yes, that’s Tarantino’s thing too, maybe he is doing philosophy.


Jennifer: So in the general sense all the characters are nihilistic because they are all ruthless criminals, but Mr. White shows some traits of morality and order, he values the criminal code of behavior.


Charlie: Yup, and I suppose Joe does too, but Joe shows another sign of nihilism at the end when he says he knows Mr. Orange is a cop because he’s the only one that he was unsure about it. What was the line, ‘You don’t need proof when you got instinct’.


Jennifer: So he believes in his own instinct but disbelieves everything else? I’m not so sure.


Charlie: It’s the idea that there are no truths, only reason, he isn’t concerned with the truth or outside proof of the truth because his only source of truth is instinct.


Jennifer: Then they all shoot each other.


Charlie: Because, well, I dunno, we’ll get back to that maybe.


Jennifer: Alright, what about Mr. Pink, there has to be some good points for him, no?


Charlie: Buscemi? Yeah, totally, he doesn’t believe in tipping the waitress, and he rants about society’s implied standard of doing so, he doesn’t believe in society’s standards, although he does sort of believe in being professional.


Jennifer: Well it’s not just about what he believes, but also what he does.


Charlie: Well he made the effort to hide the diamonds, nobody else got away with anything.


Jennifer: So his actions were purposeful.


 Charlie: Yes and he remained focused on the purpose for the robbery, which was to score diamonds, but I think he isn’t so much an individual nihilist, despite the non-conformist attitude.


Jennifer: Well, getting the diamonds doesn’t say all that much Charlie.


Charlie: No maybe it doesn’t, but it’s him that brings up the idea of an absence of truth, when he’s arguing with Mr. White. He says he knows they were set-up, but how does he know?


Jennifer: He figures it out through reason.


Charlie: Precisely, and beyond that, he knows nothing, he keeps saying that he isn’t sure of anything, that the rat could be anybody and that he can’t ‘definitely know’ that it’s not anybody except for himself.


Jennifer: That’s true…Tarantino is a philosopher.


Charlie: I dunno if I’d go that far, he does show nihilism in action, but he’s said himself he just thinks violence is entertaining.


Jennifer: Well yeah, he’s a postmodernist.


Charlie: HEY! I think I’m supposed to speak to pomo in my assignment!


Jennifer: Well there you go: aesthetic violence.


Charlie: It’s definitely applicable to Kill Bill.


Jennifer: Well yeah, it’s just a joke in Kill Bill, he glorifies and stylizes the violence so much that it becomes ironic.


Charlie: Sarcastic even.


Jennifer: That’s what I meant, sarcastic.


Charlie: Let’s go for a smoke I’m so sick of this.


Jennifer: We’ll just have to come back to it later, lord knows you won’t do research for your essay; you’ll just take what I say and try to pass it off as legitimate wisdom.


Charlie: It is though Jenny, when it comes to movies, good movies-sorry I’ll re-phrase-when it comes to philosophical movies, postmodern movies, whether it’s Van Sant or P.T.A. or Tarantino…nobody is more of an expert than us…we were raised on this shit Jenny…we’re the ultra-modernists, and God’s been dead for so long that they didn’t even tell us about him!



Scene 3


[Jennifer and Charlie are walking along the sidewalk, dodging large puddles of melting snow and smoking cigarettes]


Jennifer: Cigarettes is nihilism too.


Charlie: No, narcissism, it’s spitting in the face of mortality, it’s taking pleasure from destruction of the self.


Jennifer: That’s only narcissism for you sweetheart, because you think you’re invincible.


Charlie: I’m just a victim of the mass advertising monster.


Jennifer: M.A.M.? Mam? Mammon?


[Charlie laughs]


Charlie: It’s true, they hooked me, keyed into my diffidence, and profiled me as an anti-hero.


Jennifer: You’re a Byronic hero, sure, if you were on the screen.


Charlie: Vincent Vega, Jules Winnfield, Butch Coolidge…they were all anti-heroes.



Jennifer: How so?


Charlie: Well, Butch for sure anyways, he’s self-reliant, commanding, cunning…he’s cynical.


Jennifer: He’s arrogant.


Charlie: Most importantly he’s flawed, he isn’t entirely virtuous…neither are the two hit men, but the audience loves them, they are favorable...but they defy the traditional hero, or protagonist, that’s for sure.


Jennifer: They are post-World War II folk as well.


Charlie: Yeah, Butch relates to it with his Grandfather’s gold watch…


Jennifer: What about Dogs though?


Charlie: Dogs has anti-heroes, postmodern protagonists, how about Mr. White? Were you not rooting for Keitel? Tell me you weren’t rooting for Harvey!


Jennifer: Of course.


Charlie: So we’re rooting for him because he’s some sort of hero, but it sure as hell isn’t the archetypal kind, you know, the virtuous knight in shiny armor.


Jennifer: I get it, he’s ‘anti’.


Charlie: It almost relates to Eliot again.


Jennifer: Fragmentation of the self? The unconscious hypocrite?


Charlie: I dunno how much I see it in Tarantino actually.


Jennifer: Sure, what about the undercover cop? The whole notion of undercover police reflects on multiple identities.


Charlie: I dunno Jenny, Balzac wrote about masking identity and he’s no postmodernist.


Jennifer: Yeah but he was so far ahead of his time…think about it…Mr. Orange lives a dual life, he changes his identity, but what’s important is the way Tarantino cuts it up.


Charlie: Shit, you’re right, he juxtaposes scenes of Freddy Niuewendyk the cop and scenes of Mr. Orange, the gangster.


Jennifer: He does the same thing with all of them, or at least, most of them, he shows you their gangster personas in the black suits, and then he shows you their real identities after.


Charlie: I think the non-linear juxtaposition technique is entirely post-modern.


Jennifer: Well yeah...the best example in literature is Kurt Vonnegut-Slaughterhouse 5.


Charlie: Yeah…and the embracing of the lower class culture is totally Burroughs.


Jennifer: I’d have to say Reservoir Dogs is entirely relevant to both nihilism and postmodernism through and through.


Charlie: Yeah, and with nearly all the characters being senselessly murdered at the end I think Tarantino is showing how they are all blinded from truth, and as such, they kill each other for no good reason, or else, they think their actions are purposeful but they are not, they are acting ‘in vain’.


Jennifer: Where are you getting that from?


Charlie: I dunno, Nietzsche again isn’t it? Or maybe just Wikipedia…but somewhere I heard that line, about all actions being in vain, because there is no purpose or meaning.


Jennifer: Maybe just with Mr. White, he saves Mr. Orange, but he does so in vain, and when he realizes it, he freaks out hard. 


Charlie: You’re probably right babe, it all comes down to Mr. White in the end… but does it extend the argument?


Jennifer: What argument?


Charlie: I dunno, the argument. 


Jennifer: I think if I say the world nihilism again somebody is going to hear us and call the cops.


Charlie: Sarcasm, that’s another thing.


Jennifer: Another what thing?


Charlie: Postmodern technique, Tarantino is great at it.


Jennifer: Yeah…yeah…remember your English teacher in high school? You told him your greatest influence was Quentin Tarantino.


Charlie: I just wanted to piss him off.


Jennifer: But it backfired, he thought you were brilliant for saying that.


Charlie: Brilliant or perverse.


Jennifer: That’s how I would describe Tarantino, he’s either brilliant, or he’s terribly perverse…one or the other…


Charlie: Either way, he extends on the argument for postmodern nihilism, or at least he makes it more contemporary and relevant, and he bites the big narrative in the ass.


Jennifer: So now you think he’s a philosopher?


Charlie: He taught us about it, didn’t he?


[Jennifer smiles and sinks into Charlie’s side]


Jennifer: You’re back.


Charlie: Of course I’m back; did you think you lost me?


Jennifer: Nihilism is dangerous, Charlie.


Charlie: Don’t worry, it can’t get us anymore.


[Ahead of them on the sidewalk a young man is walking towards them; the man is wearing a light rain coat and fit black slacks; he is holding a clipboard and numerous pamphlets]


[On the other side of the street a young woman is walking; she is wearing the same clothes as the man, and holding the same clipboard and wad of pamphlets]


Charlie: Look Jenny, prisoners from the past.


[The man slows down to confront them]


Man: Hello friends, lovely day isn’t it?


Jennifer: Could be worse.


Man: I see that you’re young and surely you have no patience for my inquiries, but won’t you please answer me this one question- Have you found purpose in life?


[Jennifer laughs outright, Charlie looks mildly offended]

Charlie: Jenny…what should I do here….?


[Jennifer giggling]: Be nice!


Charlie: Look here man, we’ve got our purpose…we don’t know what the hell it is yet, but I seriously doubt you’ve got it written down in those pamphlets.


Man: How do you know until you’ve read it?


Charlie: Alright buddy, here’s the deal, I read some of that stuff you got there…it had a lot of heart, but it just doesn’t dance…you see, what I’m trying to say here, is, we just don’t dig on grand narratives.


[The man looks at them shocked and thoroughly confused]


Charlie: Now, if you’ll excuse us, I have an essay to write.





Frederick Nietzsche:  The Gay Science; Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Jean-Paul Sartre:  Being and Nothingness; No Exit and other stories

The works of Bob Dylan

The works of Arthur Rimbaud

T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land

Gilles Mitchell: “T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land': Death Fear, Apathy and Dehumanization”, from American Imago, 43, no. 1 (1986:Spring) p.23
Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill (2003) directed by Quentin Tarantino

Mary Litch: Philosophy Through Film, “Ethics”

Mark Conrad: “Reservoir Dogs: Redemption in a Postmodern World” (2006); “Pulp Fiction: The Sign of the Empty Symbol” (2003

Notes taken from the lectures of Dr. Todd Dufresne

Wikipedia, articles found under following title or key search words: Frederick Nietzche; Reservoir Dogs (film); Pulp Fiction (film); Nihilism; Apathy; Anti-Hero; Byronic Hero; Postmodernism; Fragmentation;

Wikiquote: Reservoir Dogs

The works of Kurt Vonnegut (used as a basis for knowledge of postmodern literary structure and themes; i.e. non-linear arrangement of plot, post-WWII disillusionment, etc.)

Honore de Balzac: Le Pere Goriot

Andy's Balloon

14 January 2014


Dylan Spivak (HBSc Mathematics 3rd Year)


Andy’s Balloon


            This ability of the balloon to shift its shape, to change, was very

pleasing, especially to people whose lives were rather rigidly patterned,

persons to whom change, although desired was not available. The balloon,

for the twenty-two days of its existence, offered the possibility, in its

randomness, of mislocation of the self, in contradistinction to the grid of the

precise, rectangular pathways under our feet. The amount of specialized

training currently needed, and the consequent desirability of long-term

commitments, has been occasioned by the steadily growing importance of

complex machinery, in virtually all kinds of operations; as this tendency

increases, more and more people will turn, in bewildered inadequacy, to

solutions for which the balloon may stand as a prototype, or ‘rough draft’.

-Donald Barthelme, The Balloon


            This passage is from Donald Barthelme’s postmodern short story, The Balloon. In the story

citizens contemplate the meaning and purpose of a large, enigmatic balloon

hanging over their heads in New York City. The balloon changes the way citizens live

their lives; a change in perspective is felt throughout the city. Upon hearing this one

cannot help but think of Andy Warhol, and how his oeuvre can be viewed in a similar

light. The purpose of this paper is to make clear these parallels by showing that the

exhibition of Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” in 1964 was a paradigm shifting moment in arts and

culture that made it possible for anything to be art, and anyone an artist. In doing this,

the meaning and philosophical importance of the “Brillo Box” will be discussed.


            The logical starting point for such a discussion is to examine what exactly “Brillo

Box” is. The Brillo company sells a product called Brillo Pads that are used for cleaning

pots and pans. In the 1960s these soap pads came in large white cardboard boxes

covered with colourful writing that said “ 24 GIANT PKGS. New! Brillo Soap pads with

rust resistor, shines aluminum fast” (Danto, Andy Warhol, 63). It is interesting to note

that the man who designed the boxes for the company, James Harvey, was an abstract

expressionist painter who designed packages for companies in his spare time (or vice

versa)( Danto, Andy Warhol, 64). In 1964, Andy Warhol had a show where he displayed

sculptures he made of the boxes that look like exact copies. The naked eye wouldn’t be

able to tell the difference between Andy’s and the original (Danto, After the End of Art,

35). One difference worth mentioning is that Warhol’s sculptures are made of wood

instead of cardboard (Danto, Andy Warhol, 53).


            Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” were subject to controversy from the very start, as the

designer of the original Brillo Box, James Harvey, had to ‘choke back’ an impulse to

start a lawsuit against Warhol for stealing his idea. Harvey didn’t attempt to press

charges because he gave up the rights to his work to the Brillo Manufacturing

Company; the company was getting free publicity from the popularity of Warhol’s work,

so they we quite content and wouldn’t press charges. Time Magazine even ran an

article titled Boxing Match that appeared in May of 1964 that documented the situation

 (Golec, 5). Another controversy occurred one year later when an art dealer tried to bring

a collection of “Brillo Boxes” into Canada for a showing; at customs the artworks were

not considered to be art, but rather merchandise. Instead of being let in duty free, a tariff

of $4000 was charged (Danto, Andy Warhol, 68). During this period Warhol did

sculptures of many other products, for example, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Kellogg’s Corn

Flakes, and Mott’s Apple Juice (Danto, Andy Warhol, 56). None of these pieces

achieved as much fame as the “Brillo Boxes” did.


            In The Balloon, the citizens of New York are perplexed by the presence of the

balloon; Barthelme writes that “There were reactions. Some people found the balloon

‘interesting’ (Barthelme, 46). Different groups of people all have different attitudes

towards the balloon; children play games on it, city officials feel threatened by the

unknown, some see it as a reward and others a burden. Barthelme continues to say that

“There was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the ‘meaning’ of the balloon;

this subsided, because we have learned not to insist on meanings, and they are rarely

even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena. It was

agreed upon that the meaning of the balloon could never be known absolutely” (Barthelme, 47). This screams postmodernism. The talk of not insisting on

meanings can be seen as a consequence of Nietzsche’s famous claim that God is

Dead: human kind reaching the point where they don’t believe in capital-t-truth

anymore. Barthelme has certainly given the situation a grave nihilistic tone. This is an

attitude that often gets associated with Andy Warhol.


            Andy’s artwork is often just a depiction of an everyday object and usually nothing

more, so art critics are often perplexed by the meaning of the piece and there is a wide

spectrum of responses. Critics called him “nothingness himself” (Andy Warhol, 7) and

say that “Values, feelings, seemed not to exist for Warhol. He registered race riots,

suicides, airplane crashes, the atomic bomb, the electric chair with the same cool

detachment that he brought to registering soup cans, revolvers, flowers and Brillo

boxes” (Ruhrberg, 323).


            Danto refers to Warhol as a Socrates-esque character, always testing definitions

for art, pushing the boundaries and challenging our views of what art can be (Danto,

Andy Warhol, 79). I find this comparison quite interesting and appropriate because

Socrates was a ‘midwife for ideas’, he claimed to have no knowledge of his own but he

assisted others is reaching a conclusion; this is most apparent in Plato’s earlier

dialogues (Annas, 2). Socrates’ statement about having no knowledge comes to mind in

many of Warhol’s interviews. For example, Andy says “If you want to know all about

Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of all of my paintings and films and me, and there

I am. There’s nothing behind it” (Danto, Andy Warhol, 145). Barthelme has a similar

opinion on his work. As Trachtenberg puts it, “Barthelme has explicitly disclaimed any

interest in the kind a psychological study that would mean going beneath the surface of

his characters” (Trachtenberg, 34). Barthelme stresses the importance of not knowing

about the subject matter, rather than approaching it with a ‘Tolstoyan

understanding’ (Trachtenberg, 38) which keeps in line with Andy’s maxim: it’s all on the

surface, baby.


            Of course, it is thoroughly absurd to accept Andy’s statement literally. There is

much more meaning than appears on the surface, even when the work in question is an

apparently meaningless object like “Brillo Box”. In After the End of Art, Danto quotes

T.S. Elliot from his essay, Traditional and Individual Talent: “ No poet, no artist of any art,

has his complete meaning alone. His signification, his appreciation, is the appreciation

of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone, you must set

him, for contrast and comparison among the dead” (Danto, After the End of Art, 164).

When we are judging the “Brillo Box”, we can’t think of it as a lonely object in a vacuum

and judge it solely on its appearance. We should instead recognize that it is dependent

on everything that has ever happened, everywhere on the planet. Danto does this when

discussing monochromatic art, he says that works like Malevich’s “Black Square(1915)

are “dense with meaning” (Danto, After the End of Art, 156) and that two squares of the

same colour have “very different stylistic attributes” (Danto, After the End of Art, 167).

Danto says this because of the historical importance of the works. The paintings aren’t

admired for their blackness, but rather their place in history.


            We will now briefly discuss why Arthur Danto takes the “Brillo Box” to be such an

important piece of philosophy, why it signifies the end of art. To do this we first need to

discuss the Age of Manifestos. According to Danto, this movement in art started in the

beginning of the twentieth century. “The point about the Age of Manifestos is that it

brought what it took to be philosophy into the heart of artistic production” (Danto, After

the End of Art, 36). Each movement within the Age of Manifestos - Dadaism, Cubism,

Constructivism, Surrealism etc. - were “driven by a perception of the philosophical truth

of art” (Danto, After the End of Art, 28). For example, Danto quotes Picasso as saying

that “the Cubists abandoned colour, emotion, sensation, and everything that had been

introduced into painting the impressionists” (Danto, After the End of Art, 28).


            Warhol’s facsimile boxes end the Age of Manifestos because of the questions it

raised, mainly: why is this art? and If we accept that “Brillo Boxes” are art, then what

isn’t art? as well as the various questions stemming from the intellectual property

dispute between Warhol and Harvey. Danto says that “one could not any longer

understand the difference between art and reality in purely visual terms” (Danto, After

the End of Art, 125). This is apparent since Andy’s sculptures look identical to the boxes

sold in grocery stores. Danto continues that thought by saying “that there is no special

way a work of art has to be” (Danto, After the End of Art, 125). There is no way to

distinguish art from non-art, no set of criteria to follow. So the distinction is rather

arbitrary. Because of this, all previous work in the philosophy of art becomes obsolete

(Danto, After the End of Art, 125).


            Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp is often compared to Warhol because

Duchamp’s sculpture “Fountain” (1917) is cited as the first piece of ‘readymade

art’ (Danto, Andy Warhol, 51). Why is it the case that Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” cause the

end of art and not Duchamp’s urinal? I think this is because the “Brillo Boxes” were

subject to more of an intellectual property controversy à la James Harvey. Don’t get me

wrong, Duchamp and the entire Dadaist movement are controversial, but for entirely

different reasons. Duchamp’s controversy stems from his desire to “liberate art from

having to please the eye” (Danto, Andy Warhol, 56). Duchamp’s urinal is plain white

porcelain, a completely generic object. Unlike with Harvey’s case, the person who

created the original urinal and the company that manufactured it would have no way of

knowing that Duchamp was showing their urinal specifically, so there are no intellectual

property issues. This minute difference between “Brillo Box” and “Fountain” is enough

to spark the end of art because Andy’s sculpture makes us think more philosophically

about art in that respect.


            The citizens of New York City in Barthelme’s story are inspired by the random

fluctuations balloon. Barthelme writes that because of the randomness of the balloon

and its contrast to the rigidness of the city, “more and more people will turn, in

bewildered inadequacy, to solutions for which the balloon may stand as a prototype, or

‘rough draft’” (Barthelme, 50-51). Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” had a similar effect on not

just New York City but the entire world. As mentioned earlier, after Warhol there is no

distinction between art and non-art, so anything goes; everything is art and everyone is

an artist. In the $12 Million Stuffed Shark, Don Thompson brings up something rather

interesting. While discussing subsidies for artists he cites a belief of Robert Storr’s: that

the “government should offer a living wage stipend to all who say they want to create

art, a guaranteed annual income that rewards effort rather than output” (Thompson,

180). I think the bolded word in that assertion makes the statement important. It doesn’t

exclude anyone or anything, no degrees, experience or talent is required. Anything

made would be art. Despite the fact that this system isn’t in practice, I think that this

idea is a testament to Warhol’s legacy. Such an idea is possible only after 1964. Also in

the spirit of artistic freedom, in an interview with Art News, Andy says “How can you say

one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract-Expressionist

next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you've given up

something” (Warhol and Swenson).


            At first, the theme of Andy’s entire oeuvre seems to be a celebration of

capitalism, consumerism, and utilitarianism. This is apparent when Warhol says things



What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where

the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You

can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President

drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke

too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke

than the one the bum on the corner of the street is drinking. All the Cokes

are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the

President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it (Andy Warhol,



The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald's.

The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald's.

The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald's.

Peking and Moscow don't have anything beautiful yet (Andy Warhol, 71).


Here Warhol seems to advocate capitalism. He says that big brand names are the best

because they are the most popular and available to everyone. This theme is also

evident in his art, by presenting mundane consumer products, like “Brillo Boxes”,

Warhol is putting the items on a pedestal. Coke and McDonald’s are typical,

normalizing, uncontroversial products that have mass appeal. It makes the most

number the people the happiest, unlike a specialty drink that has a narrower appeal,

Warhol seems to be defending the idea that this makes them better. This concept is

something he wants his art to capture. This can be seen when he says “ This talk of

bluejeans was making me very jealous. Of Levi and Strauss. I wish I could invent

something like bluejeans. Something to be remembered for. Something mass” (Warhol,



            To stop here and say that pieces like “Brillo Box” are only about capitalism is a bit

too easy. To appreciate the real meaning, we need to first unpack some of Andy’s

psychological issues. In the 50s before his art world success “he was the best known,

highest-paid fashion illustrator in New York, making upwards of $100,000 a

year” (Bockris, 11). During this time Andy was in love with a man named Charles

Lisanby. The two were good friends but had an asymmetric relationship. “Andy was so

in love with Charles that their love was difficult to sustain” (Bockris, 11), whereas

“Charles adored Andy but he did not love him the way Andy loved Charles and they

never had sex or kissed or anything” (Bockris, 11). In 1956 the two took a trip to the Far

East. On the trip the pair had a fight: Andy wanted to consummate their relationship ,

but he was rejected. Afterwards Andy lamented that “he’d gone around the world with a

boy and not even received one kiss” (Burns, 54:35). Also on that trip Andy says:


I was walking in Bali, and saw a bunch of people in a clearing having a ball

because somebody they really liked had just died, and I realized that

everything was just how you decided to think about it. Sometimes people

let the same problems make them miserable for years when they should

just say so what. That’s one of my favourite things to say. So What.

My mother didn’t love me. So what.

My husband won’t ball me. So what.

I don’t know how I made it through all the years before I learned how to do

that trick. It took a long time for me to learn it, but once you do you never

forget. (Bockris, 14)


These are clearly the thoughts of someone who is depressed, someone who has given

up and decided not to care. Bockris writes that “this was a cornerstone of the attitude

that made Andy Warhol famous in the 1960s” (Bockris, 14). It is at this moment where

Andy “stops caring” and “gives up his sentimental strategies of the 50s in favor of a

colder, more mechanical style in the 60’s” (Burns, 55:30). One of the things Andy was

best known for was repetition, churning out silkscreen after silkscreen. Only in this

context can we see deeper into Warhol’s work.


            Warhol saw the world as an unbearable, unforgiving place; he was homosexual,

ugly, lonely and rejected, he felt uncomfortable with everything around him. By making

exact copies of the major symbols of the 60s he was able to nullify them. As Banksy

said in Exit Through the Gift Shop: “Andy Warhol made a statement by repeating

famous icons until they became meaningless” (Banksy, 1:19:14). Works like “Brillo Box”

have no brush marks, no shading or imperfections; in doing this there is “no place for

our spiritual eye to penetrate it” (Burns, 1:07:30). In doing this Andy attempts to make

himself more comfortable by making a new world of reproduced images.


            In my view, Andy was a tormented soul; he was a lonely, pasty-white, gay man

who didn’t really fit in anywhere. To cope with these demons he used his art. Warhol

took the popular images of his time and made them meaningless by making hundreds

of copies. For him this was a form of therapy. By reproducing mundane objects and

presenting them as artworks he changed the way we think about art. This is so

important because after Warhol the distinction between art and non-art is completely

arbitrary. There are no rules one has to follow to create art, truly anything goes. Warhol

had a great influence on the artistic community and pop culture. For example, Donald

Barthelme is someone who we can see adapting Warhol’s ideals; so much so that we

can liken “Brillo Box” to Barthelme’s balloon in the sense that they both serve as a

symbol for inspiration and freedom.




1. Barthelme, D., Sixty Stories (Penguin, New York, 1993)

2. Danto A., Andy Warhol (Yale, 2009)

3. Danto A., After the End of Art ( Princeton University Press, 1997)

4. Thompson D., The $12 Million Stuffed Shark ( Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008)

5. Annas J., Plato: a Very Short Introduction ( Oxford, 2003 )

6. Warhol A., The Philosophy of Andy Warhol ( Harcourt, New York, 1975)

7. Warhol A. and Swenson G., Andy Warhol Interview with Gene Swenson, Art News


8. Golec M., The Brillo Box Archive: Aesthetics, Design and Art ( Dartmouth College

Press, 2008 )

9. Trachtenberg S.,Understanding Donald Barthelme ( University of South Carolina

Press, 1990)

10.Ruhrberg et al., Art of the 20th Century ( Taschen, 2000)

11.Bockris V., Warhol the Biography ( Da Capo Press, 2003 )

12. Burns R., Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film ( PBS, 2006 )

available at

13. Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop (Paranoid Pictures, 2010)

Reservoir Dogs: A Postmodern Perspective

Reservoir Dogs: A Postmodern Perspective
March 26, 2009
Justin O'Brien (HBABED History IS 3rd year)

   One of the most prominent philosophical questions in contemporary society is whether or not films, even popular Hollywood blockbusters, are capable of being or doing philosophy. According to Thomas Wartenberg, if films are capable of illustrating "philosophical ideas in interesting and illuminating ways," then such works of cinema can and should be perceived as philosophy-in-action.[1] Wartenberg discusses the silent film Modern Times to demonstrate that, by illustrating a philosophical idea, films are not only capable of arousing deep thought within an individual, but they may also interpret and update a philosophical text in the same way that contemporary philosophers respond to the work of their predecessors.[2] Employing Wartenberg's theory of what it means for film to do philosophy, I shall now proceed to scrutinize Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs in order to determine how much, if at all, this particular motion picture enacts and extends upon the concepts of postmodernism as well as nihilism.

Simplistically defined as a historical movement that has succeeded the era of modernism, postmodernism is actually an intricate and multifaceted philosophy which is essentially impossible to identify within a single sentence. Taking this into account, it is my intention to divide the notion of postmodernism into three distinct aspects of interpretation, namely late capitalism, the combining of genres and the critique of knowledge claims, in order to examine how closely Reservoir Dogs corresponds to each one.

   First, postmodernism is intimately connected with late capitalism, an economic structure in which consumerism has overrun virtually every facet of human life. In particular, John Berger maintains that after being exposed to the substantial amount of advertising that the media employs, the average individual is manipulated into purchasing a plethora of material products in order to become "an object of envy for others...which will then justify her loving herself."[3] In my opinion, Reservoir Dogs does a considerably good job of illustrating a world consumed by late capitalism as well as demonstrating the influential effect advertising can have on our everyday lives. As Mark Conrad notes in his article, "Reservoir Dogs: Redemption in a Postmodern World," Tarantino's film begins with its main characters discussing the significance of popular songs such as 'Like a Virgin,' and 'True Blue,' apparently more concerned with aspects of consumer culture than with the intricate details of their impending bank heist.[4] Furthermore, pictorial as well as verbal references to popular culture such as the Silver Surfer comic book and the Get Christie Love! TV show are interspersed throughout the film to subtlety display how much influence and control the media truly possesses in contemporary society.[5] It is also important to note that the protagonists of Reservoir Dogs themselves, as gangsters, are primarily motivated by a desire to acquire a large amount of diamonds, unquestionably allowing them to purchase a variety of products which, as consumer culture dictates, will give their life meaning. Overall then, while individuals such as Mr. White, as well as the undercover officer, Mr. Orange, seem to revel in their roles as gangsters, it is clear that they, like the masses of society, are entangled in a never-ending cycle of consumerism which Reservoir Dogs appears to have successfully illustrated as a philosophical film.

    A second feature of postmodernism lies in its ability to break down boundaries and combine genres.[6] Though he himself denies it, the director of Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino, is widely considered to be a neo-noir filmmaker who engages in aspects of postmodernism.[7] Taking this into account, the majority of his movies can be said to blend specific categories of film together in order to create something entirely unique and innovative. Indeed, one of Tarantino's more recent works, Kill Bill, manages to successfully incorporate a variety of film genres, such as anime and westerns, into one nonlinear story.[8] When looking at Reservoir Dogs in terms of its cinematic structure, it is clear that this particular film possesses a similar combination of recognizable film genres. For instance, due to its substantial focus on the fall of several criminal figures, one can easily make the deduction that Reservoir Dogs is a crime or gangster film. Yet to some extent, Tarantino also appears to utilize the formula of a western movie, breaking down the boundaries between genres and combining two somewhat similar but ultimately contradictory types of film. In particular, rather than having a morally-upright protagonist fight to uphold law and order, as one would expect to find within a traditional western, Reservoir Dogs features a variety of immoral gangsters ironically attempting to restore order in their group by uncovering the man who had betrayed them to the police. On a similar note, it is worth mentioning that Reservoir Dogs, like any conventional western or gangster film, contains a considerable amount of action and violence, yet it also can be said to employ a number light-hearted and comedic moments, further illustrating the film's ability to stretch across multiple genres. A final method which Tarantino employs in order to break down the boundaries of film is to subtlety reference the cinematic history and techniques of the past. For example, by naming the jewelry store in Reservoir Dogs after the star of a 1964 French film, Tarantino is cleverly able to reference the French new wave directors whose work he considers to be highly influential to his own.[9] In culmination, through referencing various aspects of filmmaking as well as combining and altering traditional genres, Tarantino has ensured that Reservoir Dogs unquestionably shines as a work of postmodern film.

    A third aspect of postmodernism is that it thoroughly critiques the idea that there is such a thing as abstract Truth. While philosophy is traditionally dominated by a series of binaries, such as good and evil, in order to make sense of the world, postmodernism adamantly opposes such essentialist ways of thinking and adopts "a radical relativism about knowledge."[10] Coupled with this abandonment of transcendent Truth is the notion that grand narratives, stories which attempt to explain the foundations of history, cannot be trusted as they are guided by power structures "that service the needs of some people above others."[11] In my opinion, this rejection of overarching Truth is one of the most important aspects of postmodernism, as well as the factor featured most prominently in Reservoir Dogs. At first glance, one may not believe that the film truly embraces a postmodern perspective, as it contains a considerable amount of binary oppositions which result in racism, homophobia and sexism. Yet upon closer inspection, it is clear that such themes are not meant to regurgitate the dominant ideology of society, but to demonstrate how mankind has abandoned such stereotypical notions in a postmodern world and that dichotomies are not as constant as we once believed them to be. Such instability is further employed in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, where the majority of gangsters present their own understanding of well-known songs. While this conversation may not be considered significant when taken at face value, it is nevertheless useful in symbolizing the postmodern principle that there are no definitive facts, but merely a variety of interpretations. Later on in the movie, each gangster is being assigned an alias based on a particular color. From this, another aspect of postmodernism, namely its rejection of grand narratives, becomes readily apparent. In particular, I believe that by adopting colorful codenames rather than what Joe Cabot refers to as their Christian names, the gangsters symbolically reject Christianity, a grand narrative in which "people find salvation...from sin...when they accept Jesus as their Lord and savior and admit their guilt," as well as the idea that they can or want to be redeemed from their lives as gangsters.[12] On a related note, Mr. Pink's refusal to tip waitresses at the beginning of the film can be perceived as another instance in which Tarantino condemns the notion of grand narratives. To be more specific, by acknowledging how people feel the need to tip waitresses rather than individuals working at McDonald's, Mr. Pink is able to produce a thought-provoking and contemporary argument as to why one should not follow an overarching ideal, namely because they are unfairly controlled by power structures which assist a particular group of individuals at the cost of several others.[13] Overall, by successfully illustrating and expanding upon three aspects of postmodernism, namely late capitalism, the combining of genres and the critique of knowledge claims, Reservoir Dogs can be said to do philosophy in precisely the way Thomas Wartenberg maintained.

    Upon learning that "we can no longer really claim to know anything objectively about the world," the average individual may be compelled to adopt the pessimistic position of nihilism, which readily asserts that all values and beliefs are ultimately irrelevant.[14] While Friedrich Nietzsche perceived the death of abstract Truth, or God, as a blessing in which one is free to love their fate, other individuals require such objectivity in order to make sense of their world and <div" align="right"> will possess "no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy" without it.[15] Here it can be argued that, in the same way Modern Times updates Karl Marx's theory of alienation by depicting a modern assembly line, Reservoir Dogs can do philosophy by examining the notion of nihilism from a perspective previously unexplored in any philosophical text, namely that of the gangster.[16] Specifically, the majority of the gangsters within Reservoir Dogs adopt a Nietzschean outlook of loving their fate as they revel in their role as gangsters, while at the same time, reacting to the futility of life by causing a considerable amount of chaos and destruction. One of the film's main characters, Mr. Blonde, is a prominent example of such acceptance and disorder as he finds great pleasure in nearly burning a bound police officer alive shortly after cutting off his ear. Reservoir Dogs can also be said to embrace a nihilistic perspective simply because it fails to provide an alternative type of meaning for existence. As previously mentioned, by removing their Christian names, the gangsters have relinquished their belief in a higher power, abandoning an objective meaning to life which certain individuals utterly depend upon in order to make sense of the world. Furthermore, due to the rampant amount of popular advertising that Reservoir Dogs employs, it would appear as though the gangsters are too engaged within the recurrent day-dreams of consumer culture to form their own subjective meaning for existence, habitually initiating a number of thefts in order to purchase a variety of products which will supposedly give their lives meaning.[17] In culmination, Reservoir Dogs is an engaging piece of cinema which, in my opinion, effectively enacts as well as expands upon the philosophical ideas of postmodernism and nihilism.


  Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Great Britain: The British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972.   Conrad, Mark, ed. The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky,      2007.  

Hughes-Warrington, Marnie. Fifty Key Thinkers on History. New York: Routledge, 2008.  

Pratt, Alan. "Nihilism: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy." The Internet Encyclopedia of      Philosophy. (accessed March 20th, 2009).  

Wartenberg, Thomas. "Beyond Mere Illustrations: How Films Can Be Philosophy." Journal of      Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64, no. 1 (2006): 19-32.

     [1] Thomas Wartenberg, "Beyond Mere Illustrations: How Films Can Be 

     Philosophy," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64, no. 1 (2006): 27.

     [2] Ibid., 30.

     [3] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Great Britain: The British Broadcasting

     Corporation, 1972), 134.

     [4] Mark Conrad, ed., The Philosophy of Neo-Noir (Lexington: The University

     Press of Kentucky, 2007), 102.

     [5] Ibid., 108.

     [6] Ibid., 107.

     [7] Conrad, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, 114.

     [8] Ibid., 108.

     [9] Conrad, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, 108.

     [10] Ibid., 110.

     [11] Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Fifty Key Thinkers on History (New York

     and London: Routledge, 2008), 197.

     [12] Conrad, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, 102.

     [13] Ibid., 112.

     [14] Ibid., 110.

     [15] Alan Pratt, "Nihilism: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy," The Internet

     Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed

     March 20th, 2009).

     [16] Wartenberg, "Beyond Mere Illustrations," 28.

     [17] Berger, Ways of Seeing, 146.


11 November 2014

Bryan Brown (BSc Natural Science 3rd Year)


A Dialogue on Dialogues, Entomology, and Truth

Alice (with fervour): ... and that's why the Free Masons are hiding the fact dinosaurs developed the first vaccines!

Bob: ... Huh... I see.

Alice (confused): What, you don't see that *obvious* connection?

Bob: No, no, it's not that, it's just that... well, we've been sitting here for two hours.

Alice: Point?

Bob: And I haven't had a word in edge-wise.

Alice (abashed): Oh, sorry.

Bob: No, that's fine I guess. It's just....

Alice: What?

Bob: Well, I mean, with a tirade that long, I have to agree, don't I?

Alice: I don't follow.

Bob (slowly): OK, think of your point, thesis, opinion, whatever, as a sword.

Alice: Sword, got it.

Bob: Now, if you strengthen your thesis, opinion, whatever you metaphorically sharpen it.

Alice: Gottcha.

Bob: Continually using your sword however, tends to dull it. You stop having a keen edge, or concise point. Sure, you bludgeon your point home, but it isn't nearly as fine as it should be.

Alice: So what you're saying is an active dialogue is like what, a whetstone?

Bob: Precisely! By subjecting your thesis to open debate, you have a chance to keep your thesis on point. You get to refine it, make it stronger.

Alice (doubtfully): I supposed you're right....

Bob: You don't sound convinced.

Alice: I'm not, not entirely. May I?

Bob: Certainly!

Alice (thinking for a moment): OK, so we've sharpened your sword. You've whetted it, and whatnot. But now you've spent the better part of a day sparring and you can't speak with the depth that a "tirade" grants you.

Bob: ... Alright.

Alice: See, I might not know what you're talking about.

Bob: Often the case it seems. Example?

Alice: You speak to me about... beauty.

Bob: But I don't--

Alice: You do. For the sake of the argument, play along. Say you work with fashion models.

Bob (brightly): Deal.

Alice: If I debate you, someone who knows "beauty", where I'm not as... trained, we can debate all day, but can you really say I've put up a fair fight? In order for debate to truly take place, we must be on somewhat even footing. See, monologues are fabulous for this reason! I can speak at will, and at length, about my strengths. I'm able to walk you through, step by step, to a point of my choosing. Further, if you debate my points, my opinions, how can I be certain we'll end up where I want the dialogue to be? You could tangent off into something completely unrelated and derail my train of thought. Monologues allow me to show you the truth of a matter.

Bob: That was clever.

Alice: Pardon?

Bob: You monologued about monologues.

Alice: ... Right. Meant to do that.

Bob (analytically): Of course. Now I will admit you make a point, but you have a fatal flaw.

Alice (wearily): ... Go on....

Bob: You speak of your truth as a definitive place. An end point and goal.

Alice: It is, though!

Bob: Is it? Let's go back to my luxurious life of pin-up--

Alice (annoyed): Fashion.

Bob: --fashion models. Can I say, definitively, that I know what Beauty (capital B), is?

Alice: ...I suppose not....

Bob: Exactly! My ideal Beauty (again, capital B!) is not what you may find beautiful.

Alice (taken aback): Dear god I hope not!

Bob (unimpressed): I'm going to ignore that. But seriously, my Western notion of Beauty isn't yours. How can I expound, rant, rave even to you about it? You have completely different values than I do! In order to find a truer definition, we have to “battle it out”. We should come to knowledge, or truth, by trial and error. Debate.

Alice: Eh... I suppose for some things that works.

Bob: ...Thank... you...?

Alice (defiantly): See, what about facts? Math? Physics? Engineering? Can we debate on how to build a building, or should we leave it to professionals?

Bob: Professionals, naturally!

Alice: So your dialogue only goes so far. You need "expounding, ranting, raving" when you speak about concrete things.

Bob: Ha! Concrete. Buildings. Funny.

Alice (further annoyed): Uhg.

Bob (waxing philosophical): I do see your point though. Where dialogues help us discover the "truth" about perhaps metaphysical things such as beauty, or some such notion, where monologuing through writing, speeches, et cetera, tells us about physical "truths". Epistemology requires both methods to truly realize the truth of knowledge. It can't be one or the other, but both are required. Or at least some mixture of the two.

Alice: Agreed. And Bob?

Bob: Yeah?

Alice (smiling playfully): ... that was a monologue.

Bob (flushed): Oh, hush! Your theory on the Free Masons is ridiculous! Clearly vaccines were introduced by lizard men disguised as the CIA!


Alice: OK, so I've been thinking....

Bob: A solid start, usually.

Alice (unimpressed): Funny guy. But I was thinking, during our little debate earlier we touched on the "Truth". What is this "Truth" really? When you speak of Truth, you speak as though it is intangible, or up to interpretation.

Bob: Well, according to Plato-

Alice (sardonically): Let me guess, "The Allegory of the Cave"?

Bob: Well... yeah. Why not?

Alice (expounding): It's just... that allegory is EVERYWHERE. Any first year Philosophy Major can tell you about the Allegory of the Cave.

Bob: Are you a first year Philosophy Major?

Alice: Well, no.

Bob: Then humour me.

Alice (mockingly): Don't I always?

Bob: ... Anyways.... According to Plato, we couldn't see the Truth by ourselves. We needed to leave the cave of our own illusions and let the "Good" reveal it to our souls.

Alice (flatly): That sounds ridiculous.

Bob: Hey! He was the grandfather of philosophy!

Alice: And?

Bob : What do you mean, "And?", the man deserves respect.

Alice: The man who wrote "What's that under your cloak, Phaedrus, in your left hand" deserves my respect?

Bob (meekly): Admittedly not his finest moment, but you're being rude!

Alice: He was a dirty old man!

Bob: And ad hominem attacks on a man who has been dead for several hundred, neigh, thousands of years makes you better?

Alice: OK, fair point. Sorry, go on.


Alice (apologetically): Please?

Bob: ... Alright. But that was rude.

Alice: Oh, get on with it!

Bob: Alright, alright! So, of the many lessons we can glean from the Allegory is that Truth must be revealed to use via the Good. Plato tells us that the Truth revealed is that of the...?

Alice (matter-of-factly): Forms. Plato's Forms.

Bob: And the Forms are...?

Alice (as though reciting): The divine templates through which everything is based. Trees, rocks, animals, everything. Perfection.

Bob: Exactly.

Alice: So how does that relate to a the Truth, as we are trying to define it?

Bob: Well, we cannot truthfully discern the Forms, but we do have a semblance of what is more correct, don't we? A four-legged table with a flat top is better than a three legged table with an uneven top, right? Therefore Truth cannot be concrete, but subjective. It all depends what we compare something true. X object/subject is closer to the Truth than object/subject Y. Get it?

Alice: Nope. Don't buy it.

Bob: Why?

Alice: Because I just can't see the world we live in to be less... real than some old Greek guy's ideals. If I, say, want to hit you really, REALLY hard--

Bob (calmly): I'd rather you didn't.

Alice (evilly): Don't tempt me. This world can't be an illusion, then. I feel things. My senses take things in. Everything is real. Solid.

Bob: But how do you know your senses are not lying to you?

Alice (patiently): Yes, the classic argument is that our senses aren't perfect, but that doesn't really matter. Whether or not our senses lie to us doesn't mean the world doesn't exist. Further, even if the world didn't exist that wouldn't make our minds or souls the arbitrators of Truth.

Bob (intrigued): Explain that to me.

Alice: Well I'm sick of the stupid binary that plagues people's interpretations of the real world. The mind isn't some magical, unconnected... thing! Plato was wrong. His focus is on the mind as some great vehicle for enlightenment, when it itself is only made manifest by the very biology he opposes!

Bob: He doesn't--

Alice (pointedly): He does. He puts the mind on some pedestal but it's directly affected by the interactions with the real world. Chemical make-up and all that. Our experiences cause synapses to fire in certain ways, affecting our perceptions. The mind is a result of physical changes, not some immutable soul.

Bob: And how would he know that in ancient Greece?

Alice: He doesn't need to! He knows the body rules over the mind. He preaches how the good life takes willpower. The constant struggle against the “monster” part of his soul. The mind isn't impervious to the body, it is a victim to it.

Bob: I suppose....

Alice: Plato wasn't perfect. Not by a long shot. I look to Nietzsche's point of view here. Plato sets up the binary of Mind over Body, which is absurd. Plato has been deceived, creating a philosophy of images, ideals, notions rather than a philosophy of the material world. A “Philosophy of Representation” over a “Philosophy of the Real”!

Bob: Now who sounds like a first year?

Alice (exasperated): Whatever. I don't even care. I'm just tired of the same old thing. I mean, how can our world be the copy? How is it even possible for the world which created the minds of Plato, Nietzsche, Descartes, or any other genius be just a poor imitation? Nietzsche was right, it's not Mind over Body but Body over Mind. That's what matters.

Bob: ... So how does that relate to Truth?

Alice: It relates in that it brings Truth down to the material level. Like my example with the engineers, Truth must be concrete, based on the body and nature. I mean, if Truth really is about the mind, who says it can't be corrupted? What if the person dictating Truth is a lunatic?

Bob (begrudgingly): Well I suppose--

Alice: Truth can't possibly be that wishy-washy. It's absurd!

Bob: I don't know, you just want to write off the mind entirely, then.

Alice (reassuringly): Not at all! The mind is certainly important! It has to exist to make sense of the world around us! The mind isn't something to be tossed away or unappreciated, I just don't think that it's what makes the world what it is.

Bob: I guess that's a start. Glad to see the mind isn't completely useless after all.

Alice (coyly): Well, in practice... there always is the exception to the rule, right Bob?

Bob (with fake hurt): Oh, you wound me!

Alice (teasingly): Don't worry, I'm sure you'll live.


Bob (contemplatively): You know, if this was written out like a play, it would be awful.

Alice (with dread): Uh oh.

Bob: I mean, it makes me think of Plato's views on Mim--

Alice (venomously): I swear to god, Bob. If I have to hear you talk about Plato one more time....

Bob: (quickly): OK, shutting up.

Alice (happily sarcastic): You're too kind.


Do Something Now Campaign

November 26, 2007
Kelsey Johansen (BA Philosophy 3rd Year)

    Lakehead University recently launched the "Do Something Now Campaign" in an attempt to promote student activism, and to help motivate students to take action in support of contemporary global issues they feel strongly about. 

    In a recent web bulletin, issued by the Office of Communications, Lakehead University spokespersons had this to say:

As part of its mission, Lakehead University is committed to educating students to become good leaders and independent critical thinkers and to develop an awareness of their social and environmental responsibilities. Because of the urgency posed by environmental and socio-economic issues, Lakehead University is increasing its efforts to draw attention to relevant academic programs, and courses that have been in the University curriculum as well as many relevant research and other initiatives in collaboration with community partners.

On the "Do Something Now" homepage, it reads:

The challenges we face as Canadians and as citizens of the world are many. Among them Climate Change, War, Poverty, and Pollution are at the forefront. They are far reaching, complex and, at times, overwhelming. But no matter how daunting, they demand our attention. Like you, we at Lakehead University don't know all the answers. But we do know we offer a place that encourages the exploration of the issues and recognizes the importance of dialogue. We believe that solutions can be found in taking action.

    The site, divided into four main sections, which each contain a small blurb concerning each of the issues listed above, and links to additional websites which enterprising students can turn to for further information, is intended to be an informative and user friendly interface. With "Ask an Expert","Take a Quiz" and "Did you know" sections, the website provides small sound bites of information concerning each of these issues.

The section, "How can Lakehead help me Do Something?" links perspective students to the myLakeheadsection of the University's website, and provides students with a breakdown of all the University's programs, which the administration feel encourage students to "become good leaders and independent critical thinkers and to develop an awareness of their social and environmental responsibilities" (Lakehead University, n.d.).

    As a current, multidisciplinary student, studying courses from a wide range of programs including Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism, Anthropology, Biology and Philosophy, I found the links to each of the above disciplines uninformed, and lacking in detail.

    While each section gave an overview of the program, they were so glossed over, and sugar coated, they failed to actually explain how a degree in any of those programs, with the possible exception of Philosophy, would actually help a perspective student "Do Something". Missing from these program overviews, was a description of key courses - like OUTD 2210 - Theory and Practice of Leadership, which deals specifically with issues such as critical pedagogy, service leadership, and experiential education intended at building strong cross cultural community ties, or OUTD 3230 -Ecological Literacy which examines the implications of ecological literacy for developing sustainable outdoor recreation, parks and tourism practices, and through fieldwork encourages students to participate in a hands-on study of the Lakehead University, and Thunder Bay bioregion, including cultural dimension, ecological processes and indicators of bioregion health all while placing an emphasis on place-based awareness - could help educate students about practical ways they can effect change.

Furthermore, the section which dealt with the Anthropology department, failed to mention the various courses such as ANTH 3811 - Issues in National and International Health, which discusses the implication of poverty and health care access of remote communities, or ANTH 3811- Culture, Identity and Canadian Multiculturalism which deals with issues including national identity, and community building. The Philosophy section was devoid of any emphasis on the Critical Thinking, Environmental Philosophy, Professional Ethics and Business Ethics courses, all of which help to instill in students an ability to critical evaluate and examine modern issues and case studies, and formulate and defend their own perspectives on them.

Further to this lack of planning and poor website design, the Climate Change section, lists responses to students' "Ask an Expert" inquiries, however these responses are simply poorly thought out blanket responses, and are thus completely inappropriate. One concerned individual writes "I am in grade 8 at Victoria School, and I am worried about global warming. I want to make a big difference - how?" The response from Lakehead faculty is that the student should ride their bike to school, buy energy efficient appliances and light bulbs, and that "down the road" they should become political.

This response is inappropriate largely because no grade eight student is going to find themselves in a position to be driving themselves to school, nor are they likely to be the one buying major appliances for their home. Furthermore, it implies that the student has to wait to make a difference, and can only do that later on and by becoming political.

A more appropriate response would be to suggest that they talk to their parents about "greening" their home, remind them that turning off electronics - like their computer or gaming consoles - when they are done can make a big difference, or that they start a recycling or rain barrel program at their school, volunteer to teach younger students about global warming, or write to their MP's. An even better suggestion would be to encourage the student to attend Lakehead University's Eco-literacy summer camp, where they can learn more about their bioregion, and about practical ways they can limit or reduce their carbon footprint.

In the "LU Contests Enter to Win" section, web browsers can enter two contests, one designed for High school student groups, the other for individuals, in which they have a chance to win a mini-library of "Do Something" books (valued at approximately $1000), if the University chooses to recognize their activism project.

Of greater value, to students actively engaged in learning about how modern issues affect the global community, would be possible funding to extend the breadth of the impact of their activism projects. Instead of a series of books in which they can read about other people who have, or are, making a difference, this money would enable them to continue to make a difference themselves. The mini-library of books would make a more appropriate second-place prize.

Criticism of the campaign's poorly designed website aside, the very fact that the University is encouraging student activism, and critical thinking, is completely hypocritical. The University administration has a consistent record of not paying attention to the desires and demands of an actively involved student body. Of specific note, are the recent issues and student protests concerning the closure of the C.J. Saunder's Fieldhouse swimming pool, the Land Swap proposals and building the Overpass across campus, between the ATAC and the Bora Laskin buildings, all of which have to date been ignored or trivialized by the University administration, despite its claims that the University is a place "that encourages the exploration of the issues and recognizes the importance of dialogue" (Lakehead University, n.d.).

These issues are ones in our own backyard, and ones that the student body has consistently voiced their objections about, all of which have fallen on the deaf ears of the University administration. They continue to push for a pool closure, despite the value it adds to Canada's #1 "Value Added University", they continue to broker land swap deals which will decrease the aesthetic value of our campus - marketed as being surrounded by nature, pushing these deals forward like they did with the attempted townhall hearing last reading week, in which students were invited to respond to the proposal to trade University land to the bordering Golf Course when they were all away for Spring Break, or the actual building of the unsightly, and shadily motivated overpass between the ATAC and Bora Laskin buildings which attempts to increase student safety by elevating drunk drivers 30 feet above students so they can no longer just run them over, they can fall on them as well, and which will conveniently help facilitate access to the new Hockey Arena, Dr. Gilbert hopes to build on campus when the Thunderwolves contract is finished with the Fort William Gardens.

    If the University wants to encourage critical thinking, service leadership, and student activism, it should not be restricted to those issues the University deems appropriate. Furthermore, the University should be providing prospective students, and inquiring web browsers, with information about specific courses (within each discipline) that will enable them to gain the education for change they desire, as well as on the ways they can actually effect change in their daily lives.


Office of Communications, Lakehead University. (n.d.) Communications Office Website.
Retrieved November 20th, 2007, from:

Lakehead University (n.d.) Do Something Campaign Website. Retrieved, November 18th, 2007 from

Revolution!? Why? A Reply to Nicholas Handler

5 November 2007
Ryan McInerney (HBA Philosophy/English 4th Year)

    It is at first interesting and even energizing to read Nicholas Handler's take on the question "What's the Matter With College?" a Rick Perlstein essay published in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. Handler, a self-defined member of "The Posteverything Generation,"[1] opens the window for a conversation about the "future of culture or society" (1) that, perhaps, can only be shared by members of this future culture. That is, the fact that the new generation has now been awarded a scholarly voice encourages its members to react by speaking with confidence and with some sense of privilege. Yet while Handler is correct in his surface recitation of the terms surrounding postmodernism, he fails to grasp its full social and cultural implications. The present essay is sympathetic to Handler's point about how postmodernism - and particularly Frederic Jameson's notion of pastiche - can be applied directly to the new culture. I strongly reject, however, the notion that there can be another generational revolution, if the postmodern view is correct; I appeal to Jameson's pastiche and Jean Baudrillard's concept of the hyperreal to argue that there is only the simulation of revolution, that what we write will not be a revolution inscribed "in our own language," (2) but simply another story in rearranged characters that are dead and can never be alive.

    First, let's take a look at Handler's comments about postmodernism. He rightly begins by making the typical claim that there is an immediate "problem with defining postmodernism...The difficulty is that it is" (1, emphasis his). Jacques Derrida, a primary force in the postmodern camp (or deconstructionist, or poststructuralist; I loosely conflate these terms), would agree. Derrida uses the term "diffrance" to illustrate this sort of non-presence, this meaning that is not essential, a word that "denotes not only the activity of primordial difference but also the temporalizing detour of deferring."[2] In other words, differance is the way in which words get meaning from other words-they do not have any meaning of their own, and they have no independent existence or presence in either time or space (or metaphysically), as was thought by traditional philosophy.[3] Postmodernism calls for the same sort of nihilistic definition; it is a perspective that is "parodic, detached, strange, and sometimes menacing," (Handler 1) and it rejects "a realm, the past or future presence of a realm" (Derrida 293). Or, as Jameson puts it, postmodernism is manifested "in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions."[4]

    Handler cites Jameson's pastiche to illustrate the ways in which our new generation is postmodern:   class=Section2> For us, the posteverything generation, pastiche is the use and reuse of the old clichs of social change and moral outrage - a perfunctory rebelliousness that has culminated in the age of rapidly multiplying nonprofits and relief funds. We live our lives in masks and speak our minds in a dead language - the language of a society that expects us to agitate because that's what young people do. (2)   The pastiche is, agreeably, the trademark of the new culture, which, as Jameson points out, has relinquished the traditional sense "that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic" (16, emphasis his). Even the notion of the so-called "revolution" has been swept up and commercialized, printed on posters, t-shirts, bracelets, jackets, and hats. Handler is right about the fact that this generation is steeped in nihilism and narcissism (2). We have certainly been contemplating ourselves in - and even measuring ourselves by - the reflective waters of the past, especially of the past century.

    It is therefore confusing when Handler complains about the widespread refusal to write "an overarching narrative to our own political consciousness," or to "define our own philosophy" (2). He appears to understand the postmodern and poststructuralist view that we only derive meaning from other things, but he still wants to save the idea of revolution, the supposed essence of new generations. He believes that there can be - and even that there is - a revolution, that there is a "what" that we can "really stand for" (1). Handler unveils the "technological revolution," the "revolution of the Organization Kid,[5]" (2) in an attempt to fortify this generation's claim to something, anything, a revolution of any kind. Yet, as Handler refuses to admit, all of this is simply fiction, and the revolution itself is only another dusty remnant of the "dead language" of our ancestors. His conclusion reflects the same parental nostalgia that he ostensibly resents, the old longing for a real, a normal, that is "behind our pastiche;" (2) but there is no revolution, or if there is, it is only an imitation, as I think Jameson and, it will be shown, Baudrillard would agree.

    Baudrillard is famous for his talk about postmodernism with regards to simulation and the hyperreal, concepts that correlate with Jameson's pastiche. "Simulation," says Baudrillard, "is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal."[6] In other words, there is nothing that is represented by simulation but more simulation; it is an infinite regress of copies without archetype. And the result is that any further attempt at reality, any new model, is "nothing more than operational" (204). Similarly, Jameson makes the claim that "in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles;" this is "the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past" (18). Somehow, Handler has missed this key point that postmodernism makes about the future, namely, that it can only be a simulation of the past, a lifeless imitation of previous imitations.

    The result of all this is that, whatever this generation chooses to stand for, if it stands for anything, it will not be anything concrete in the traditional sense; it will not have any reality, presence, or meaning. The revolution is - will only ever be - hyperreal, simulated. In fact, the beginnings of such a simulation can already be seen clearly, as Handler himself points out. It is the case that we, the "true postmodern generation," who have grown up in the aftermath of so much twentieth century tumult, are not familiar, in the strictest sense, with the full significance of the cultural changes that have occurred. Instead, we are fully accustomed to "liv[ing] our lives in masks" and sporting the "Che Guevera t-shirt;" (2) but even this sort of conception is nostalgic for the real face and the real body on which these things are worn. The significance of postmodernism is that we are the mask and the t-shirt-we are whatever we choose to wear, to sing, to be.

    And so, why worry? For as Nietzsche points out, "when we hear the news that 'the old god is dead,'...our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation."[7] Or, as Derrida replies, "we must affirm it - in the way that Nietzsche brings affirmation into play - with a certain laughter and with a certain dance" (297). The happiness is simply that, because we find ourselves without need for a revolution, we can be sure that we have attained freedom.

[1] The title of Nicholas Handler's essay is "The Posteverything Generation," published recently in the New York Times Magazine. All Handler quotes are taken from the online version of the essay, listed in the works cited section below.

[2] Derrida, Jaques. "Diffrance." Literary Theory: An Anthology, p. 288.

[3] Derrida calls this traditional belief "the ether of metaphysics," p. 289.

[4] Jameson, Frederic. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society." Postmodernism and Its Discontents, p. 28.

[5] A term used by Perlstein and cited by Handler.

[6] Baudrillard, Jean. "From Simulations," p. 203.

[7] Nietzsche, Frederich. "The Gay Science", in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, p. 208.

A Phallus by any Other Name... Is Deconstruction the Psychoanalysis of Philosophy?

16 April 2009
William Samson ( HBA Philosophy and English 4th Year)

      The points of contact between psychoanalysis and deconstruction are hard to ignore.  Both fields are engaged in uncovering that which lies behind and beneath that which is apparent, spoken, and thought.  Even their methodologies are in some ways eerily similar: Freud digs at the repressed by means of free association, while Derrida undoes the repression inherent in logocentric philosophy (the historical repression of writing, for instance).  With Freud's insights being called into question, and in many cases disproven, it is incumbent upon thinkers of all stripes to examine the relationship between the works of Freud and those of later thinkers like Derrida, who are demonstrably indebted to him.  Even if psychoanalysis did not influence deconstruction (that is, metonymically, if Freud did not influence Derrida),  Derrida's thought shares concerns with Freud's, though they do not necessarily approach these concerns in exactly the same way.  It is worth examining, then, the extent to which Freud has a part in the creation of Derrida, the extent to which Derrida's thought is founded in Freudian theory.  Is deconstruction simply psychoanalysis by another name, or in a slightly altered context?  To put it differently, is deconstruction simply the psychoanalysis of philosophy?  This question cannot be answered by a simple yes or no, by insisting on Derrida's radicality (both in the common sense of the word, meaning a free-thinker, but also in its Latinate sense, as referring to a root, an origin) or his derivativeness.  The question (fundamental as it is to both the legacies of Freud and Derrida) must be answered with wide consideration of both authors' works.  Derrida himself attempts to answer this question in a perfunctory manner in Writing and Difference, yet fails to put the matter to rest (at least in the minds of his critics). 

      Derrida's relationship to Freud is complicated, not only because Derrida defined his earlier works in part based on his sympathies and his departures from psychoanalysis (in the same manner as he defined his earlier work in relation to Heidegger and Nietzsche), but also because Derrida, though he certainly has many disagreements with Freud's theories, never set down in writing exactly what was salvageable from Freud (and psychoanalysis), in the same way that he set down in Spectres of Marx what was salvageable from Marx.  As Powell puts it, Derrida never "settled accounts with Freud as he did with Marx" (Powell 63).  To further complicate the issue, both Derrida and Freud take some of their inspiration from the same figurative well.  Notions from Nietzsche, such as the eternal return, come up in Freud as well as in Derrida, slightly modified, in their accounts of the repetition compulsion and of the iterability of the signifier, respectively.  This being the case, I reiterate, repeat, return to the question: is deconstruction simply (never simply) the psychoanalysis of logocentric philosophy?  An addendum:  if it is not, what are the points of contact, points of reference, and points of departure within psychoanalysis that deconstruction makes use of?  What, of Freud, is Derrida justified in using in his own theories?

      The first step in answering these questions regarding the validity of Derrida's use of Freud's theories consists in evaluating the extent to which Freud's theories can be characterized as being something other than psychology, because, whatever it might be that Jacques Derrida is doing, it is not psychology.  Freud's theories, however, transcend the psychological, reaching toward the theoretical--dare I say, the philosophical?--even as they subsume these disparate dialogues, naturalizing the philosophical theories he may be inspired by, repackaging them in the rhetoric of biology and psychology.  Concepts that Freud uses in his thought, derived from or at least inspired by philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, are found in the writings of philosophers writing later on, such as Derrida, Lacan, and, to a certain extent, Sartre (though, this last is a reaction against those naturalized concepts more than anything).  Freudian psychoanalysis uses these notions to decentre the subject, to destroy the Cartesian and Kantian conceptions of the ego, and to replace them with a subject that does not determine itself.  In a sense, this marks Freud's return to a more Romantic way of thinking, and his turn away from Modern and Enlightenment thought, which placed great importance on the rational ego.  Even after Freud, Western philosophy has been characterized in large part by Kantian and Cartesian thought, these being the bases for French and German philosophy until the 20th century, and beyond (especially in Anglo-American spheres).  Freud's importance to philosophy, then, comes from the fact that he takes these challenges (that is, the Nietzschean and Schopenhauerian challenges)  to the rational ego seriously, and accounts for them in his thought by naturalizing them--that is, by construing and explaining them biologically.  Freud also takes from literature, compressing the literary, mythological, and dramaturgical aspects of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, for instance, into an aspect of his own psychological theory. 

      Regardless of how harmful psychoanalysis might be in practice--and that it is harmful is not in question; one need only look at scholarship that goes beyond taking Freud at his word, such as Frederic Crews' Memory Wars, for confirmation of this--his incredulity toward the Enlightenment narrative is attractive to some, who, like Derrida, are also engaged in undoing this narrative.  Derrida's use of Freudian concepts, however, never "biologizes" the critiques of Enlightenment thought, and when Derrida makes use of these concepts, it is never "otherwise than in quotation marks" (Derrida [2001] 247).  For Derrida, the use of a biological register does not confer the scientific indubitability that Freud sees in it: science is no more than a handmaiden to technology, and is definitely not the way to access some form of objective truth.  The question of the validity of Derrida's use of Freud, and also the validity in the ways that other philosophers have made use of psychoanalytic thought, becomes the question of how much of Derrida's reticence to valorize a scientific (or, since we are speaking of a Freudian conception of science, here, it might be more proper to speak of Derrida's reticence to valorize a "science-y") discourse is sacrificed in his wish to align the psychoanalytic critique of the Enlightenment's rational subject with his own critique of Enlightenment-style subjectivity.

      Derrida attempts to answer this question in a brief introduction to "Freud and the Scene of Writing" in Writing and Difference.  Derrida refuses to reduce deconstruction to psychoanalysis, maintaining that the two are separate, that the apparent similarities are just that, apparent, and that psychoanalysis is, in the final analysis, complicit with logocentrism in a way that deconstruction is not, despite the fact that Freud makes certain tentative movements away from logocentrism.  There are, nonetheless, and despite Derrida's insistence on the differences between psychoanalysis and deconstruction, many points where their interests intersect, many points where they seem to share the same concerns and come up with similar conclusions.  In fact, Derrida outlines some of these in a peremptory manner, at the outset of "Freud and the Scene of Writing."  What they are both engage in is "the analysis of a historical repression" (Derrida [2001] 246)1 and both repressions--that of writing since Plato and that of a trauma in one's personal history--effect a return of some sort; "the relation between phone and consciousness" as "presence 'pure and simple'" (Derrida [2001] 247), and Freud and Derrida's efforts to theorize an undoing of the privileging of consciousness, or the spoken word (or, more precisely, in Derrida's case, consciousness as the spoken word, as presence). And indeed, the similarities between the two fields of inquiry are more than superficial.  Freud's description of the unconscious can be interpreted as being in line with Derrida's critique of the metaphysics of presence.

      The metaphysics of presence is a term for the privileging as logically and ontologically prior of what is present over that which is absent.  Derrida believes that philosophy from Plato to Nietzsche is characterized by such valuations.  The privileging of presence over absence also entails a privileging of speech over writing (because of the presence of the speaker guarantees the speech, whereas the absence of the writer brings forth an indefinite--if not infinite or potentially infinite--plurality of readings).  Derrida sees these valuations as problematic, if not false--if only because truth/falsity is another of these hierarchical binaries that Derrida seeks to rattle.  Undoing or undermining the metaphysics of presence is one of the tasks that Derrida sets for his early works, and is a theme that runs through his oeuvre as a whole.  Thus, it is hard to see Freud as being anything other than complicit with Derrida when Freud himself seems to attack the same structures that Derrida finds problematic (although, admittedly, Freud is not attacking these structures for the same reasons as Derrida and other deconstructionists). 

      Among the moments where Freud's and Derrida's interests seem most aligned are those when Freud sets up his attacks on the primacy of consciousness.  Freud, anticipating Derrida, calls into question the idea of consciousness as the ultimate presence, a presence to oneself.  The idea of an unconscious, of a radical alterity forming and informing consciousness, overturns the immediacy and primacy of consciousness.  If Freud's hypothesis of the unconscious were true, then the conscious mind would not be anything other than an epiphenomenon of the unconscious.  In other words, the conscious mind would be the presence of an absence, a presence that both marks and masks its absence, for although the unconscious, on this account, would exist, it is by definition absent from the perceiving subject's awareness.  If the unconscious exists, then the subject is constituted by something that is always withheld from it.  The idea that consciousness (at least as it was conceived by philosophers from Descartes to Kant, as a self-evident and self-evidencing rational ego) is constructed by a more primal and evasive force, inaccessible to the mind of the meditating philosopher, is exactly the type of vacillation that Derrida wishes to instil in philosophy.

      Freud's fascination with the mind comes not only from his training in different sciences (he took courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry, and physiology), but also, doubtless, from some of the philosophy courses he took.  During his few years at the University of Vienna, Freud managed to find the time to take a number of philosophy courses under the esteemed professor Franz Brentano (Deigh 162).  One might have heard of Brentano before, in connection to Husserl, who studied under Brentano from 1884-86, and who had a great deal of influence over the young Husserl's later thought (Kockelmans 17-8).  One of Brentano's insights for Husserl was that consciousness is intentional, that is, always object-oriented,

or, simply put, about something (in the sense that one is never simply conscious, one is always conscious of something), an insight that informed phenomenology, from Husserl to Sartre (and indeed, one of the most famous explanations of intentionality comes from Sartre's Being and Nothingness: the example of the man looking for Pierre in the caf).  Obviously, though, this is not the insight that Freud took from Brentano.  To Brentano, Freud likely owes the depth of his knowledge of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, which, despite what Freud might say to the contrary, informed not a small part of psychoanalysis.

      Instead of finding from his studies under Brentano the insight that human consciousness is intentional, then, Freud seems to have reacted against such notions of consciousness as a presence-to-itself.  Where Husserl concentrates on the phenomena of experience and that which is "given," Freud concentrates on what is hidden, marginalized, and repressed.  If Freud is a deconstructionist avant la lettre, it is certainly because of his incredulity towards consciousness as immediate presence-to-oneself, and in what he does to uncover the unconscious.

      Among the other things that Freud does, he looks to the language of the analysand in order to find the workings of that which is repressed.  Freud, in bypassing consciousness in favour of that which is excluded from consciousness, anticipates Derrida's emphasis on textuality and language over consciousness.  Indeed, the textual turn in Continental thought is in part responsible for the relative poverty of non-phenomenological Continental philosophy of mind (that is, philosophy of mind qua consciousness, excluding the unconscious).  Because the structuralists, Derrida, Foucault and others, turned to textual, discursive, and semiotic analysis, there has been relatively little need to talk of consciousness (or unconsciousness, or "mind" for that matter) as reified categories (in the same way that Anglo-American philosophy sometimes does) rather than as concepts that can be philosophically interrogated.  All of these categories are constructed in language, and can be subsumed into the larger category of text, in order to be analysed as such.  Freud's emphasis on the language of the analysand is a fortuitous anticipation of the direction in which Continental thought would proceed in the decades following his writings.

      In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud discusses a largely philological classification of slips of the tongue from an earlier work on that subject.  He admits that the philological classification is correct, as far as it goes: slips of the tongue can be caused by other sounds in the same utterance.  However, Freud insists that this phenomenon only accounts for a small portion of slips of the tongue, and that there is a second way that slips can occur, namely, "by influences outside the word, the sentence, or the context, deriving from elements that we do not intend to express, and only the disturbance itself makes us aware of their arousal" (Freud [2003] 55).  The inclusion in everyday speech of unintended elements is what Freud is describing, and these unintended elements of linguistic utterances are the effects of the unconscious mind reaching out from beyond the veil and appearing, unpredictably and ephemerally, in an otherwise mundane utterance.  These slips are seen as symptoms of an unconscious, and they point to an irrational centre of the subject which conditions the slip.  Freud's thought on the matter can be summarized as this: the symptoms are, therefore, the unconscious is.  In every conscious action, then, there are unconscious motivations, which are not immediately apparent.

      Derrida elaborates a similar although by no means identical concept in his early grammatological works.  This is the idea of the trace, which is the mark of a present absence.  In other works, Derrida uses words like "diffrance" or "pharmakon" (amongst other terms) to indicate this idea (which, of course, is "neither a word nor a concept" properly speaking [Derrida [1982] 3]).  Accordingly, "Derrida, then, gives the name 'trace' to the part played by the radically other within the structure of difference that is the sign" (Spivak xvii).  Within a sign (which is a term that I would use less readily than Spivak--the sign is fetishized by structuralism, whereas deconstruction refuses to acknowledge the union between signifier and signified which constitutes a "sign" in the sense that Spivak, echoing Saussure, Peirce and Lambert, uses it), there are always the elements of its own undoing, unintended, often overlooked, repressed by the structures of the language itself.  This is just as, within a slip (of the tongue or of the pen), Freud sees the symptomatology of a repressed, the sign that something else is at work, that any such utterance indicates an influence outside of the word and outside of our intentions in speaking.  For Derrida, then, the signifier is imperfect therefore the trace exists.

      Freud, somewhat in spite of himself, elaborates in "Note on the Mystic Writing-Pad" a characterization of the human mind that seems like an (untheorized) notion of the trace.  In this essay, Freud discusses the example of a so-called Mystic Writing-Pad, a children's toy.  For the purposes of Freud's metaphor for the human mind, this Mystic Writing-Pad promises "to do more than a sheet of paper or a slate" (Freud [2009(b)] 25).  Freud's metaphor for the mind must be able to account for a few things, which the images of the sheet of paper and the slate do not.  The metaphor Freud uses should, on his own account, allow for the "lasting memory-trace" as well as for the "receptive capacity" of the mind (24).  According to Derrida, "if such metaphors are indispensable, it is perhaps because they illuminate in return the meaning of a trace in general" (Derrida [1972] 75).   Freud's metaphors for the mind are an important focus of Derrida, not because of their use of writing (an absence) to explain consciousness (a presence)--such metaphors have been used since time immemorial.  No, Freud's innovation, at least as far as Derrida is concerned, is his recognition of the poverty of these metaphors, and his insistence on being able to account for both the receptive capacity and lasting trace in the mind.  Freud's "Note on the Mystic Writing-Pad" describes the titular device as consisting of a wax tablet, covered by a thin sheet.  According to Freud, "This sheet is the more interesting part of the small apparatus" (Freud [2009 (b)] 25-6).  This sheet consists in two parts, an outer, largely protective layer, on which the user of the Mystic Writing-Pad actually writes, and a lower layer of waxed paper, which adheres to the wax tablet, creating the writing.  It should also be noted, as Freud does, that "no chalk or pencil is needed, for the writing does not depend on material being deposited on the receptive surface" (26).  Instead of an exterior material being deposited on the writing surface (which is the condition of possibility for writing with chalk, ink, or a pencil, which all leave their marks by leaving behind some piece of their physical being), an impression is made with a stylus.  The stylus never touches the wax paper, or the tablet beneath, it is restricted to direct contact with the exterior protective sheet.  This is a fabulous metaphor for how Freud sees consciousness as being "housed on the surface of the brain" (Freud [2009(a)] 23), in the cerebral cortex, much like the waxed paper in the Mystic Writing-Pad, which clings to the surface of the tablet.  The writing on the sheet is easy to erase, but it leaves traces, indents on the wax tablet.  The outer sheet of celluloid, which covers the wax paper, is there as a sort of protective barrier, "responsible for deterring harmful external effects" (Freud [2009(b)] 27).  The analogy between the Mystic Writing-Pad and the human mind is especially apt for Freud because the only way in which the mechanism works is by means of "distributing them [i.e., the functions of receptivity of stimuli and the storage of lasting traces of those stimuli] within two separate but mutually connected components" (28).  The important difference between the mind and the Mystic Writing-Pad is that the traces on the pad do not effect their own returns to the surface of the pad (like their counterparts in the mind do), nor can the pad "reproduce writing from within" (28), another ability of the mind over the Mystic Writing-Pad.  The analogy serves, however, to illustrate the way in which the functions of the mind and the children's toy are similar.  More than any other mechanism for writing, this toy recreates the psychical writing that Freud wishes to illustrate.  The components of the Mystic Writing-Pad, from the fragile and easily ripped was paper, to the traces left on the wax tablet, all have counterparts that function in the same way in the human mind.

      It is a fortunate accident that Freud uses a word that is translated as "trace" in his essay, one that Derrida is all too willing to exploit as much as he can in "Freud and the Scene of Writing".  The trace, in Derrida and in Freud, is an absence.  The trace in Freud is that which is left over in the memory from the absenting of lived experience (that is, to phrase it in terms more amenable to Derrida, the trace is that vestige of the excluded which remains present, if hidden, even after its exclusion).  For Derrida, the trace is a presence indicating an absence (the remainder of the excluded term of a binary in the dominant term).  The exposition of the trace of the devalued term of a binary as being always and already within the privileged term of the same binary is Derrida's most well-known and consistently practiced strategy to show that these logocentric binaries are troubled.  The trace (like the pharmakon, the ghost, and the hymen, depending on the text) is an undecidable element, something that cannot be confined to one term of the binary or the other.  Freud's hymen is the metaphor of the trace, which, inscribed in the unconscious mind, returns to the conscious as a slip of the tongue or the pen, as an element within a dream or as the source of a neurosis.  Freud's acknowledgement of this double role played by the trace in his Mystic Writing-Pad example brings him close to Derrida's own line of thought.

      Their common acknowledgement of the trace and the importance of language has an effect on their respective views on subjectivity.  In both Freud and Derrida's writing, the subject is decentred.  The Cartesian subject, the ego cogito, is no longer the subject that they speak of, when they speak of one at all.  Likewise, the Kantian (and Husserlian) transcendental ego is also ruled out. For, when Freud and Derrida speak of the subject, they do not speak of the empirical subject common to early modern thought, that subjectivity which characterized philosophy from Descartes to Kant.  In Descartes and Kant, the subject is aware of his own mental states. Indeed, one criterion that Descartes uses to decide if something is a physical or mental thing is indubitability: if the phenomenon can be doubted, it is physical, if it cannot be doubted, it is mental; thus, sensations like pains, for Descartes, fall under the rubric of mental instead of physical, because one cannot be mistaken about whether or not one is in pain (Rorty 62).  Consciousness, on this model, is able to know itself (harkening back to the Socratic exhortation).  For Freud, however, the subject can doubt that he is, in fact, experiencing something (resistance to analysis, for instance), even if he might not be able to doubt his existence per se. This is because the Freudian subject is not centred in the rational Cartesian ego cogito, but is situated somewhere in between the conscious and  unconscious mind.  The Freudian subject (or, at least, the person subjected to Freudianism) does not have privileged access to his own inner (mental) states, thanks to Freud's assumption of an unconscious mind.  And this unconscious is not only the unconscious of the individual (although it is marked by the experiences of the individual), it is also to a certain extent the unconscious of the history of the species--following from Freud's belief in the "biogenetic law (that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny)" (Sulloway 236).  Nor does Freud allow the Cartesian substance dualism.  As stated above, Freud sees the conscious mind as an epiphenomenon of the unconscious, but for both the conscious and the unconscious, Freud posits a biological origin.  Freud writes of a "psychophysical" origin of both the conscious and the unconscious mind (Freud [2009(a)] 3).  The mind, in Freud's thought, can be situated physically, is an effect of physical forces, and can interact with the physical world in a non-problematic way.  Thus Freud rejects the Cartesian ideal of a subject as a centred, unified, rational entity (both characterized and constituted by rationality). 

      Derrida, for his part, also troubles the ideal Cartesian subject, calls it into question and attempts to unravel it, but in a different way than Freud does.  Indeed, the way in which Derrida calls classical notions of subjectivity into question brings up a critique of Freud's own theories.  Derrida sees the subject as being constituted in and by language, and "subjectivity" as a concept that cannot exist outside of diffrance.  The specific conception of subjectivity that Derrida seeks to dissolve is that is the "notion of the sovereign subject as master of its discourse" (Brandt 158).  A pre-deconstructive consciousness is one that is constituted by discourses it has not interrogated, creating a subjectivity delimited by logocentrism.  Any self-reflective acts (such as are found in the Cartesian and Husserlian project) will be functions of logocentric biases, and, as such, will be acts of self-abnegation rather than emancipation.  A pre-deconstructive subjectivity is a subjectivity that has already renounced itself to logocentric categories.  Unfortunately, Freud's theories are elaborated in a way that does not question the logocentric structures (strictures, closures) that Derrida wishes to challenge.  By constantly reinforcing dualisms in his philosophy (unconscious/conscious, death drive/Eros, interior/exterior etc.), Freud, even when he acknowledges a tension or a certain undecidability between the two poles, privileges one as being subsumed by the other, if only eventually.  Therefore, if Freud anticipates Derrida, it is only incompletely, and Derrida's use of Freud's theories (problematic as they are) must be interrogated.

      Julia Kristeva interprets Derrida's stance on subjectivity as anti-humanistic, arguing that the implicit position of a grammatological stance such as Derrida's negates the possibility of humanism as such (and of an affective, compassionate politics):  "the grammatological deluge of meaning gives up on the subject and must remain ignorant not only of his functioning as social practice, but also of his chances for experiencing jouissance or being put to death" (Kristeva 142).  Thus, according to Kristeva, who published the original French version of the work in which the above quote appears in 1974, Derrida's philosophy of language (as a differential system, deferring meaning indefinitely, and never coming to speak of a ding an sich) makes lived experience into abstracted meanings (or, at least, positions), and is callously neutral and disinterested in the face of both birth and destruction, jouissance and death.  Kristeva may or may not have recanted her somewhat critical stance on deconstructive politics given the number of works on precisely that subject in the years since she first published Revolution in Poetic Language.  Certainly, Derrida's deluge of signifiers has not preventing him from outlining the shape and function of a deconstructive politics in The Ends of Man, or from recanting that vision and enunciating a different political stance in Spectres of Marx.  In any event, Kristeva's early critique of a perceived lack of humanistic or political sensibility on Derrida's part is mistaken.  What Kristeva fails to acknowledge at this point is that Derrida's conception of language is not, stricto sensu, the same as the prevailing view of language advanced in structuralism at the time he was writing.  The conception of language held by structuralists involves a conception of the sign, a unified signifier/signified pair.  Even in those where such a conception is absent, there are remainders of such a logocentric view.  For instance, Lacan's philosophy, where the power of signifiers to do the work they are "meant" to do  is severely limited, relies on a notion of signification where signs "may have worked properly" in the past, but which also stipulates that they have "simply gone astray" (Powell 72).  In Derridan deconstruction, however, the possibility of signification "working properly" is ruled out from the very beginning.  Language, as a differential system, is only made possible by the existence of the trace, which is anterior to language itself: "Although it [i.e., the trace] does not exist, although it is never a being-present outside of all plenitude, its possibility is by rights anterior to all that one calls a sign" (Derrida [1974] 63 emphasis in original).  The trace is the condition of possibility for signification as a whole, and it is also that which conditions the failure of signification. This is something that is present to a surprising extent in Freud's work, which is why Derrida allows himself to make use of Freud as a fortuitous example.

      The structure of language as signifiers, which obviates the need for talk of subjectivity as consciousness for Derrida--after all, according to Derrida, "Any subject of the signifier is subjected to the law of the signifier" (Derrida [1975] 42)--is uncannily similar to the structure of consciousness in Sartre.  Perhaps, once the similarities and differences between Sartre's view of consciousness and Derrida's characterization of language are elaborated, Sartre will offer a less problematic model of subjectivity than does Freud.  Sartre, writing in the wake of the Second World War, was acquainted with the works of Freud, and indeed some of his philosophical works entertain long treatments of Freudian theory (loosely construed), but it is not these which will be discussed here.  Instead, we shall examine Sartre's own sketch of consciousness, not in contrast to Freud's, but in comparison with Derrida's views on language and subjectivity.  For Sartre, "consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being" (Sartre 47).  In Sartre's phenomenological ontology (that which he sketches out in Being and Nothingness), nothingness is everywhere, constituting not only our differentiation of ourselves from the world, but also the differentiation of the manifold objects of our perceptions from each other.  For Derrida, the differentiation of self from other (or Other)--and indeed all differentiation--is a function of language, whose differential structure is not unlike that of Sartre's conception of consciousness.  What Derrida might take from Sartre, that which might elucidate his conception of the differential structure of language (vis--vis the structure of consciousness as nothingness) is the way he speaks of (or rather around) diffrance: "One does not disclose nothingness in the manner in which one can find, disclose a being.  Nothingness is always an elsewhere.  It is the obligation for the for-itself never to exist except in the form of an elsewhere in relation to itself" (78).  Glossing nothingness and negation as diffrance, one can see how the characterization of diffrance as something that cannot be contained, logically, in a given text, is anticipated in Sartre.  Concordantly, diffrance cannot be inscribed in any text; it always and already spills out.  Much like the nothingness which cannot be disclosed in a given example, a given situation, or, in fact, in anything "given," so too does diffrance refuse to be contained in a text.  This is not to say that Sartre's view of negation and Derrida's differential structure are the same.  Even a cursory reading of Sartre will show that the man's philosophy owes much to logocentrism and that if Sartre anticipates Derrida, it is only as a failed or proto-deconstructionist.  Starting from an arguably similar point as Derrida, Sartre does not realize the incipient radicality of his inclusion of nothingness at the heart of consciousness--and it should be noted here that, insofar as Sartre's project differs from Heidegger's, it is in the distinction between Being and existence, between Dasein and lived experience, experienced as such, so Sartre is speaking of consciousness differently than Heidegger would, were he making the same claim--and attempts to reclaim all those experiences which he called into question (all those distinctions which he showed were illusory).  He reclaims them by invoking thetic consciousness, which constitutes the world around one according to a principle of intentionality, creating an artificial plenitude based, ultimately, on the negation inherent in consciousness.  This movement to restore plenitude to experience is an effacing of all of the difference (glossed as negation) in a way that can only be seen as violent.  Thus, Sartre escapes aligning himself with Freudian theory, but at the expense of recreating a theory of the subject similar to that proposed by Enlightenment thought.  This is simply incompatible with Derrida's project as regards subjectivity, and demonstrates the difficulties of trying to retain a critical stance on subjectivity while rejecting psychoanalytic insights wholesale.

      This perceived commonality between Derrida and Sartre, between language and consciousness as the locus of subjectivity (whatever vision of subjectivity one might have--psychoanalytic or poststructural) brings to mind another thinker, no less influential in France than either Derrida or Sartre, namely, Lacan.  Lacan, who by no means takes ideas directly from either Sartre or Derrida, is astonishingly close to being a synthesis of the two of them, at least as regards their views on language, consciousness, and subjectivity.  Where Derrida places the subject within language, and Sartre places negation at the heart of consciousness, Lacan construes subjectivity as a consciousness which is a function of linguistic signification in addition to negation--negation, in this sense, not as some ontologically present absence, as is the case in Sartre, but as lack, as desire, as a vacuum that needs to be filled. Perhaps, then, his thought will provide a middle-space between Freud and Derrida, where structuralist concerns about subjectivity as construed by discourse will meet with Freudian concerns of subjectivity as informed by internal drives. Derrida and Lacan are in some ways very similar, but in other ways they are also very different, although not so different that Lacan did not, at a conference where both he and Derrida attended, accuse Derrida of being contrary as a result of being angry that Lacan had "already said what you want to say" (Roudinesco 410).  Of course, at that point in time, Derrida had virtually no familiarity with Lacan's philosophy, had certainly never read anything substantial by Lacan, never studied under the elder philosopher, making Lacan's attempt to trivialize Derrida as an imitator fall flat. 

      There is, however, something that comes out of contrasting Derrida and Lacan, which might be very useful for our discussion of Derrida's use of Freud. Lacan engaged himself in making Freudian ideas commensurate with structuralist linguistics (as embodied in Saussure's theories, though, over time, Lacan's interpretation of these theories moved from being structuralist to poststructuralist), and as such, significantly changed the shape of psychoanalytic theory.  Lacan's notion of the "mirror stage" is enough to give one a summary understanding of how subjectivity is construed in and by language in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory.2  The mirror stage is Lacan's explanation of both the coincidence of the acquisition of language with the individuation of the subject as an individual.  This coincidence is not accidental (that is, it is a coincidence insofar as the two events occur contemporaneously, but not in the sense that the two events are otherwise unrelated, because, in fact, these two particular events are related).  According to this story (which Lacan claims is a literal rendition of what everyone goes through in order to individuate themselves), before the mirror stage, a child does not (indeed, cannot) differentiate himself from his environment: "its own toes are objects to be explored, placed in the mouth, and so forth, just like its rattle" (Tyson 27).  Only when seeing its body in a mirror (some interpret this literally, and Lacan's own way of writing of the mirror stage certainly bears this interpretation out, though some insist on interpreting him figuratively, claiming that the child might see itself "mirrored" in the actions of others, and gain an idea of itself as subject through analogy) can the child gain knowledge of itself as something whole, the unification of all of the disparate and fragmentary experiences that it has known (in a fragmentary way) heretofore.  The initiation into the symbolic order comes when the child recognizes that it is something different from its mother, it is an "I" not a "you" or a "that" (Tyson 28).  Both the imaginary (the pre-differential stage of development, where the child knows himself only as his image in the mirror, and knows everything only as its image) and the symbolic (i.e., linguistic) orders are departures from the Real, for Lacan, which means that with the initiation of the person  into these orders, with the introduction of signifiers that can only ever refer to other signifiers and never to real things, the plenitude of the real is apportioned by language, thus meaning is made by the exclusion of certain signifying chains in favour of others: "Human language works by such [desire]," writes Terry Eagleton.  "Words have meaning only by virtue of absence and exclusion of others" (Eagleton 145).  The Lacanian psychoanalytic version of what the subject is and how it is constructed, then, shares certain sympathies with both traditional psychoanalysis (in the division of the psyche into the conscious and unconscious mind, the relationship to the mother, the role of the father, amongst other things--although some of his theories, especially centring on affective states, seem to indicate his deep sympathies for Kleinian object relations theory) and a structuralist approach.  Lacan's modernization of Freudian psychoanalysis can be seen as a reformulation and elaboration of Freud's theories in light of the theories of language put forth by structuralists and others, who have a fetishized conception of the signifier.

      Certainly, then, there are affinities between Derrida's thought and Lacan's, but these are on the structuralist-inspired side of Lacan's thought, and not on the psychoanalytic aspects of it (if it is indeed possible to speak of Lacan's work as though the psychoanalytic and structuralist aspects of it were separable, which might very well not be the case).  Lacan's thought plays entirely within the language game of psychoanalysis.  Lacan does not define the space in which his question is determined, constitutes the nature of the psychoanalytic endeavour as one outside of the text (the text in general, and the textuality of psychoanalysis in specific), for which Derrida takes Lacan to task: "All of Lacan's work presupposes the urgency of the problematic of Jenseits [that is, Beyond the Pleasure Principle] even thought that very problem appears mythological, poetic, and speculative to so many psychoanalysts" (Derrida [1975] 41).  Derrida underlines the fact that Lacan's presupposition is that of the truth of psychoanalysis, the truth of Freud.  This is the major difference between Derrida and Lacan, then, the fact that Derrida is suspicious of the categories Freud introduced.  So much so, in fact, that Derrida is wary of using psychoanalytic terms "otherwise than in quotation marks" (Derrida [2001] 247).  Derrida sees Freud as participating in a logocentric discourse, in addition to the fact that he subsumes every aspect of human life under the category of the biological. 

      Yet, Derrida certainly sees salvageable aspects of Freud, too, in his decentring of the subject, but also in those brief moments when Freud seems to be going beyond logocentric categories.  Derrida is all too often, unfortunately, not vigilant enough to only mention Freudian concepts "within quotation marks." There is, however, a distinction to be made between mention and use, to mention something is to indicate it, to draw one's attention to it, whereas to use a concept is to enact it.  Derrida will often mention psychoanalytic concepts (especially in his works on psychoanalysis), but he rarely, if ever, actually enacts any of these concepts in his own analyses.  Derrida never devotes a work to explaining how psychoanalysis and deconstruction are related; that is not the point of any of his works centring on Freud, except in a very brief and casual way in the prefatory note to "Freud and the Scene of Writing," as indicated above.  Deconstruction is not the psychoanalysis of philosophy.  Deconstruction does not unveil the truth of a philosophical text, a truth that was unknown to all but the unconscious of the text's author.  What deconstruction does is to demonstrate the suspension of categories such as truth and falsehood, science and speculation, ideal and reality, which is always already present in a given situation.  Deconstruction, unlike psychoanalysis, does not "unveil" the "truth"; the truth of deconstruction, as such, is already apparent, already laid bare. What is hidden is the fact that this is so.  Deconstruction takes the Freudian critique of the Enlightenment subject, rejects all of the logocentric, biological, and mystical trappings of psychoanalysis in favour of the rhetoric of structural linguistics (for, even in its most sophisticated form, Derrida's concept of linguistics does not stray far from the core of structuralist linguistics, and, if anything, it only radicalizes its tenets), and uses Freud as little more than an example of a somewhat textual thinker, writing on the cusp of the closure of metaphysics.  Derrida's conception of Freud is not one of a biologist of the mind, as Freud can (not incorrectly) be seen.  Instead, it seems quite clear that Derrida saw as valuable those aspects of Freud which came closest to an early version of a grammatological science (for instance, Freud's textual metaphor for the mind in "A Note on the Mystic Writing-Pad").  Freud, for Derrida, is a proto-grammatologist who, in ambling towards a mode of thinking more in line with deconstruction than anything else at the time he was writing, was assaulted by logocentrism, whose thought, as a result, was injured badly, and who must, therefore, limp towards a mode of thought that will be forever beyond his reach--that is, towards Derrida's mode of thought.  But, as Freud informs us at the end of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, "the Scripture says that limping is no sin" (Freud [2009a] 77).
Works Cited

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel.  Lacan: The Absolute Master.  Trans. Douglas Brick.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1991.

Brandt, Joan.  "The Politics of Diffrance: Tel Quel and Deconstruction." Future Crossings. Eds.   Krzysztof Ziarek and Seamus Deane.  Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2000.

Deigh, John.  "Freud." A Companion to Continental Philosophy.  Ed. Simon Critchley and  William Schroeder.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.

Derrida, Jacques.  "Freud and the Scene of Writing."  Trans.  Jeffrey Mehlman.  Yale French  Studies no. 48  (1972), pp. 74-117.

-----.  Of Grammatology.  Trans. Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins  University Press, 1974.

-----. "The Purveyor of Truth." Trans.  Willis Domingo, et al.  Yale French Studies no. 52  (1975), pp. 31-113.

-----. Margins of Philosophy.  Trans. Alan Bass.  Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982.

-----.  Writing and Difference.  Trans. Alan Bass.  New York: Routledge Classics, 2001.

Eagleton, Terry.  Literary Theory.  2nd ed.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Freud, Sigmund.  The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.  Trans. Anthea Bell.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2003.

-----.  "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." Trans. Gregory Richter.  Unplublished MS, 2009(a).

-----.  "Note on the Mystic Writing-Pad." Trans. Gregory Richter.  Unpublished MS, 2009(b).

Kockelmans, Joseph, Ed.  Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Edmund Husserl and Its  Interpretation.  New York: Doubleday, 1967.

Kristeva, Julia.  Revolution in Poetic Language.  Trans.  Margaret Waller.  New York: Columbia  University Press, 1984.

Powell, Jason.  Jacques Derrida: A Biography.  London: Continuum Publishing, 2006.

Rorty, Richard.  Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press,  1979.

Roudinesco, Elizabeth.  Jacques Lacan & Co.  Trans.  Jeffrey Mehlman.  Chicago: University of  Chicago Press, 1990.

Sartre, Jean-Paul.  Being and Nothingness.  Trans. Hazel E. Barnes.  New York: Routledge,  2000.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakrovorty.  "Translator's Preface." Of Grammatology.  Baltimore: Johns  Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Sulloway, Frank J. Freud: Biologist of the Mind.  New York: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Tyson, Lois.  Critical Theory Today.  2nd ed.  New York: Routledge, 2006.

Haraway Althusser

10 December 2011
Aidan Wall (HBA Phil/Eng 3rd Year)

From Subject to Actor: Louis Althusser, Donna Haraway, and the transition into postmodernity

Remember Lot's wife
Renounce all sin and vice
 Dream of the bourgeois life
 This heaven gives me migraine

                                                    -"Natural's Not In It" by Gang of Four

            The transition from modernism to post-modernism is marked primarily by issues of agency and attitude. Nowhere do these issues become clearer than when one addresses the human being as a concept. The human subject described in Louis Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)" is fundamentally different from that suggested by Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto". This difference serves to illustrate the larger movement in cultural studies of the 20th century away from modernism and towards postmodernism. The move from the ideological subject, victim of the larger structures that engulf him/her, to the cyborg actor can be seen as one of the most important changes in cultural studies in the 20th century.

The death of God is a prominent theme in both modernism and postmodernism, but the two schools of thought have decidedly different attitudes towards the concept. The deconstructive fracturing of narratives and capital-t-truths awakens in the breast of the modernist such feelings as dread, despair and general sorrow. This attitude is best expressed in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov by Ivan Karamazov when he suggests "If God is dead, all is lawful". For Ivan (Dostoevsky) and the modernists this idea is awful, an end to morality, the entry into a de-systematized world where all is valueless. The modernist subject is a powerless victim of a Godless universe. For postmodernists this phrase takes on an entirely different tone. Joy and pride mix in the hearts of these new relativistic Nietzschean supermen. For them, this lawlessness is an empowering liberation. The postmodern subject is the powerful, self-creating god of their own subjective world. The progression from Althusser's subject to Haraway's cyborg is almost emblematic of these divisions of opinion.

Louis Althusser was not a self-proclaimed modernist. In fact, he was a Marxist closely associated with structuralism. This is evident in his larger Marxist theories regarding labour and production. However, Althusser was not a straightforward, meat and potatoes Marxist. He emerged in the intellectual community of French Marxism at a time when this group was (in the words of Michel Foucault) "trying to escape Hegel."[1] The French theorists Claude Levi-Strauss and Gilles Deleuze were "escaping Hegel" through Saussurean structuralism and Nietzsche's anti-dialectical theory respectively[2]. Althusser's Marxism contributed to this general move against humanism. His concept of the self is emblematic of the modern subject. Indebted to Sigmund Freud (on whose theories Althusser's structuralist technique of symptomatic reading is based)[3] and Antonio Gramsci, Althusser developed a complex and semi-psychological portrait of the human being as an ideological subject.

Althusser's subject is an unfortunate animal. He lives a life that is not his own, his behaviour and beliefs shaped by the institutional structures in which he lives. He is defined by "Ideological State Apparatuses" (ISAs). ISAs can be defined as "a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions"[4]. Althusser include in his list of all the different Ideological State Apparatuses churches (the religious ISA), schools (the educational ISA), the family ISA, and the cultural ISA.

The Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) is the obvious, direct coercive arm of state, consisting of the government, army, police, etc. In the differences between ISAs and the RSA there is evident the move away from humanism and into modernism that defines Althusser's work. The RSA exists solely in the public domain while ISAs exist in both the public and private domains. The ISAs destabilize the public/private binary. Althusser notes, "While there is one (Repressive) State Apparatus, there is a plurality of Ideological State Apparatuses"[5]. This is the move away from the unified humanistic perspective and into the fractured modernist fly's-eye view. Althusser allows "that subtle explicit or tacit combinations may be woven from the interplay of the (Repressive) State Apparatus and the Ideological State Apparatuses"[6] and thus includes another hallmark of modernism/post-modernism: hybridization.

That said, Althusser is not simply a modernist. He is something of a structuralist. He claims of the Ideological State Apparatuses that "the ideology by which they function is always in fact unified, despite its diversity and its contradictions beneath the ruling ideology"[7]. In a sense, this clinging to unity can be seen as symptomatic of a reluctant modernism. Althusser, hesitant to accept the modernist disunity, desperately clings to a large overarching structure inside which his ISAs can safely exist without completely destabilizing his structuralist perspective.

The subject is not static. There is movement inherent in Gramsci's "hegemony" (a concept which Althusser has borrowed from mightily). The ideological state apparatuses slowly evolve and their subjects change along with them. The Althusserian subject exists in relation to the dominant ideology and, as that changes, so does the subject. We can see this clearly in the change in public attitude towards something like racism. Though at one point the dominant discourse, racism has (through the Gramscian process of passive revolution) become culturally taboo. When the institution of culture rejects the idea of racism it doesn't necessary do away with the phenomenon, it simply sets it on the road to unacceptability. Once popular opinion is shaped the subject goes along to get along. It may be argued that such subjects consent to be part of this ideology and that their continuous consent, their continuous affirmation of their status as subjects, makes them actors. But, their decision to participate in the dominant ideology exists relative to ideology. There is no escape. Every action of an ideological subject is simply an extension of ideology.

It is representative of an irony common in the history of postmodernism that, in describing the vast structures which shape the modern human being, in structuring the state, Althusser deconstructs the self. The Ideological State Apparatuses are static. But they reveal the inherent malleability of the human subject. The understanding of people as being self-contained takes a blow. Althusser's human being exists relative to ideology. His/her identity is a shape-able plurality, existing within the ideological spheres of family, religion, education, etc. While the letter of the Althusserian law points towards pre-modern desire to systematize, the implications of his theory are decidedly less structuralist.

Donna Haraway is a post-modern feminist and (to a lesser extent) a neo-Marxist. Her concept of the cyborg perfectly exemplifies the postmodern actor. The cyborg is a fearsome hybrid of the organic and the mechanical. The cyborg also does away with "organic reproduction" in favour of replication[8]. The cyborg is a superman, an "irreverent upstart god, mocking the Father's ubiquity and spirituality"[9]. This is practically the definition of a Nietzschean and may actually be a reference to Jacques Derrida's pharmakon in which one finds reference made to Thoth, the upstart bastard god of Derrida's "differance".

Haraway writes that irony (by which she means the cyborg and, by extension, postmodern identity) "is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both are necessary and true"[10]. This can be contrasted with the Althusserian view, in which contradictions do resolve into the larger whole of the dominant ideology. One accepts the dissonance, the other tries to cover it in a theoretical harmony.

            There is a certain dynamism to be found in Haraway's cyborg. The cyborg is in a constant state of "becoming". In its "irony" the cyborg represents an ongoing process of non-synthesis or "hybridizing". The divisions between the organic and mechanical are being constantly redefined. Althusser's subject is also fluid (or at least malleable). But, while the aforementioned subject is carried along in the larger, unified river of the dominant ideology, the cyborg is its own tributary. This "upstart god" creates itself, it is the agent of its own destiny.

There is a difference between a (cyborg) actor and a (ideological) subject. Judith Butler (in an interview) says the following of Haraway's move away from the (Althusserian) subject:

I think that the work of Haraway and Latour is very important. And I don't have a problem with the notion of the actor. Still, I think there are reasons to work with the notion of the subject, reasons that have everything to do with the way in which it is bound up with the legacies of humanism. I would suggest as well that the notion of the subject carries with it a doubleness that is crucial to emphasize: the subject is one who is presumed to be the presupposition of agency, as you suggest, but the subject is also one who is subjected to a set of rules or laws that precede the subject. This second sense works against the humanist conception of an autonomous self or self-grounded human actor.[11]

The cyborg is not a subject. The cyborg is a (slightly unrealistic) conception of the human being outside of the rules and laws that necessarily govern the subject. Haraway presents the cyborg as a being that, recognizing the anachronism of humanism, simply moves on. The modern man bears humanism reluctantly forward into a new, inhospitable world, wearing it like an ox wears its yoke.

            The primary conflict between Haraway's and Althusser has to do with problems of agency. It is the conflict can be summed up in this question: Are human beings actors or subjects? The Althusserian subject is passive. He/she is the victim of a large deterministic universe. Her/his agency is an illusion, in the sense that all his/her choices are the product of a selfhood defined by ideologies. He/she is entirely subject to external forces. Haraway's cyborg is an actor. She/he exists in a constant state of "hybridizing". The relationship between the binaries which structure his/her identity is perpetually in flux. The cyborg is an "upstart god". Meanwhile, as Alex Callinicos writes of the Althusserian subject, "we can assume that ideology will take the form of transforming the world into a subject that has created the individual rather than (outside philosophy and various pathological mental states) endowing the individuals with the attributes of a God"[12]. To be or to become? Arguably, this is the question that divides modernism and its successor.

            Althusser's and Haraway's concepts of "the human being" illustrate the 20th century transition from modern man to "upstart god" (not to be confused with the much-loathed "goddess"[13]). The lyrics from Gang of Four's classic "Natural's Not In It" express the plight of  the modern Marxist subject. Indoctrinated into a society where ideology steals his/her agency, he/she even dreams in terms of ideology. This is the cage of the modernist Marxist subject, a tragic system designed (no doubt) by these systematizers Nietzsche was so distrustful of. The post-modern cyborg actor is free. It exists outside of any system. It perpetually creates itself through the dynamism of the hybrid. The move from modernism to post-modernism is a liberating one. This liberation is evident when one compares the ideological subject to the cyborg. So, to end this essay on a rhyming couplet: This new heaven is not migraine-free, this new heaven is ok by me.

[1] Gregory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory (New York: Verso, 1987) 59.

[2] Ibid. 61.

[3] Alex Callinicos, Althusser's Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 1976) 36.

[4] Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses", Cultural Theory An Anthology, Ed. Imre Szeman and Timothy Kaposy  (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) 207.

[5] Ibid. 208.

[6] Ibid. 208.

[7] Althusser 209.

[8] Donna Haraway,"A Cyborg Manifesto", Cultural Theory An Anthology, Ed. Imre Szeman and Timothy Kaposy (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) 454.

[9] Ibid. 456.

[10] Ibid. 454.

[11] Irene Costera Meijer and Baukje Prins, "How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview with Judith Butler", Signs, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1998) 285.

[12] Callinicos 66.

[13] Haraway 467.
Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)". Cultural Theory An Anthology. Ed. Imre Szeman and Timothy Kaposy. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 204-222

Callinicos, Alex. Althusser's Marxism. London: Pluto Press, 1976.

Elliott, Gregory. Althusser: The Detour of Theory. New York: Verso, 1987.

Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto". Cultural Theory An Anthology. Ed. Imre Szeman and Timothy Kaposy. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 454-471

Meijer, Irene Costera and Baukje Prins. "How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview with Judith Butler". Signs. Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1998). 275-286


Rise of the Internet Police State

Fall 2007
Gabriel Harpelle (BA History 2nd Year)

This is my slideshow/movie in response to the article "Rise Of The Internet Police State" by Rob Wipond published in the May-June 2007 issue of adbusters. Please  click here to link to YouTube and view slide show, see ratings of my video and read comment posted by Rob Wipond!