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In answer to a criticism that he speaks from a position whose possibility is not accounted for within the framework of his theory, Foucault cheerfully retorted: “These kinds of questions do not concern me: they belong to the police discourse with its files constructing the subject’s identity!” In other words, the ultimate lesson of deconstruction seems to be that one cannot postpone ad infinitum the ontological question, and what is deeply symptomatic in Derrida is his oscillation between, on the one hand, the hyper-self-reflective approach that denounces in advance the question of “how things really are” and limits itself to third-level deconstructive comments on the inconsistencies of philosopher B’s reading of philosopher A, and, on the other hand, direct “ontological” assertions about how différance and arche-trace designate the structure of all living things and are, as such, already operative in animal nature.
One should not miss here the paradoxical interconnection between these two levels: the very feature that prevents us from forever directly grasping our intended object (the fact that our grasping is always refracted, “mediated,” by a decentered otherness) is the feature that connects us with the basic protoontological structure of the universe.
Deconstructionism thus involves two prohibitions: it prohibits the “naïve” empiricist approach (“let us examine carefully the material in question and then generalize hypotheses about it …”), as well as global ahistorical metaphysical theses about the origin and structure of the universe. This double prohibition that defines deconstructionism clearly and unambiguously bears witness to its Kantian transcendental origins. Is not the same double prohibition characteristic of Kant’s philosophical revolution? On the one hand, Lacan between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism the notion of the transcendental constitution of reality involves the loss of a direct naïve empiricist approach to reality; on the other hand, it involves the prohibition of metaphysics, that is, of an all-encompassing world-view providing the noumenal structure of the universe as a whole. In other words, one should always bear in mind that, far from simply expressing a belief in the constitutive power of the (transcendental) subject, Kant introduces the notion of the transcendental dimension in order to answer the fundamental and insurpassable deadlock of human existence: a human being compulsorily strives toward a global notion of truth, of a universal and necessary cognition, yet this cognition is simultaneously forever inaccessible to him or her.
2. Cognitivist Buddhism Is the outcome any better in the emerging alliance between the cognitivist approach to mind and the proponents of Buddhist thought, where the point is not to naturalize philosophy, but rather the opposite, that is, to use the results of cognitivism in order to (re)gain access to ancient wisdom? The contemporary cognitivist denial of a unitary, stable, self-identical self—that is, the notion of the human mind as a pandemonic playground of multiple agencies, that some authors (most notably Francisco Varela)11 link to the Buddhist denial of the self as the permanent substance underlying our mental acts/events—seems persuasive in its critical rejection of the substantial notion of self. The paradox upon which cognitivists and neo-Buddhists build is the gap between our common experience that automatically relies on and/ or involves a reference to some notion of self as the underlying substance that “has” feelings and volitions and to which these mental states and acts “happen,” and the fact, well known even in Europe at least from Hume onwards, that, no matter how deeply and carefully we search our self-experience, we encounter only passing, elusive mental events, and never the self as such (that is, a substance to which these events could be attributed). The conclusion drawn by cognitivists and Buddhists alike is, of course, that the notion of self is the result of an epistemological (or, in the case of Buddhism, ethicoepistemological) mistake inherent to human nature as such. The thing to do is to get rid of this delusive notion and to fully assume that there is no self, that “I” am nothing but that groundless bundle of elusive and heterogeneous (mental) events.
Is, however, this conclusion really unavoidable? Varela also rejects the Kantian solution of the self, the subject of pure apperception, as the transcendental subject nowhere to be found in our empirical experience. Here, though, one should introduce the distinction between egoless/selfless mind events or aggregates and the subject as identical to this void, to this lack of substance, itself. What if the conclusion that there is no self is too quickly drawn from the fact that there is no representation or positive idea of self? What if self is precisely the “I of the storm,” the void in the center of the incessant 78 Penumbra vortex/whirlpool of elusive mental events, something like the “vacuola” in biology, the void that is nothing in itself, that has no substantial positive identity, but which nonetheless serves as the irrepresentable point of reference, as the “I” to which mental events are attributed. In Lacanian terms, one has to distinguish between the “self ” as the pattern of behavioral and other imaginary and symbolic identifications (as the “self-image,” as that what I perceive myself to be) and the empty point of pure negativity, the “barred” subject ().
Varela himself comes close to this when he distinguishes among: (1) the self qua the series of mental and bodily formations that has a certain degree of causal coherence and integrity through time; (2) the capitalized Self qua the hidden substantial kernel of the subject’s identity (the “ego-self ”), and, finally;
(3) the desperate craving/grasping of the human mind for/to the self, for/to some kind of firm bedrock. From the Lacanian perspective, however, is this “endless craving” not the subject itself, the void that “is” subjectivity?
Neo-Buddhists are justified in criticizing cognitivist proponents of the “society of mind” notion for endorsing the irreducible split between our scientific cognition (which tells us that there is no self or free will) and the everyday experience in which we simply cannot function without presupposing a consistent self endowed with free will. Cognitivists have thus condemned themselves to a nihilistic stance of endorsing beliefs they know are wrong.
The effort of neo-Buddhists is to bridge this gap by translating/transposing the very insight that there is no substantial self into our daily human experience (this is ultimately what Buddhist meditative reflection is about). When Ray Jackendoff, author of one of the ultimate cognitivist attempts to explain consciousness, suggests that our awareness-consciousness emerges from the fact that we are, precisely, not aware of the way awareness-consciousness itself is generated by worldly processes—that there is consciousness only insofar as its biological-organic origins remain opaque12—he comes very close to the Kantian insight that there is self-consciousness, that I think, only insofar as “das Ich oder Er oder Es (das Ding), welches denkt”13 remains impenetrable for me.
Varela’s counter-argument that Jackendoff’s reasoning is confused, that these processes we are unaware of are just that—processes that are not part of our daily human experience but totally beyond it, hypostatized by the cognitivist scientific practice14—thus misses the point. This inaccessibility of the substantial-natural self (or, rather, of the substantial-natural base to my self) is part of our daily non-scientific experience, precisely in the guise of our ultimate failure to find a positive element in our experience that would directly “be” our self (the experience, formulated already by Hume, that no matter how deeply we analyze our mental processes, we never find anything that would be our self). So what if one should here apply to Varela the joke about the madman who was looking for his lost key under a street light and not in the dark corner where he effectively lost it, because it was easier to search under Lacan between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism the light? What if we are looking for the self in the wrong place, in the false evidence of positive empirical facts?
The Inaccessible Phenomenon Our result is thus that there is effectively no way to overcome the abyss that separates the transcendental a priori horizon from the domain of positive scientific discoveries. On the one hand, the standard “philosophical reflection of science” (positive sciences “do not think”; they are unable to reflect on their horizon of pre-understanding accessible only to philosophy) more and more resembles an old automatic trick losing its efficiency; on the other hand, the idea that some “postmodern” science will attain the level of philosophical reflection (say, that quantum physics, by including the observer in the observed material objectivity, breaks out of the frame of scientific objectivism/ naturalism and reaches the level of the transcendental constitution of reality) clearly misses the proper level of transcendental a priori.
It is true that modern philosophy is in a way “on the defensive” against the onslaught of science. Kant’s transcendental turn is linked to the rise of modern science not only in the obvious way (providing the a priori of Newtonian physics), but in the more radical way of taking into account how, with the rise of modern empirical science, a direct metaphysical “theory of everything” is no longer viable and cannot be combined with science. So the only thing philosophy can do is to “phenomenalize” scientific knowledge and then to provide its a priori hermeneutic horizon, given the ultimate inscrutability of the universe and man. It was Adorno who had already emphasized the thorough ambiguity of Kant’s notion of transcendental constitution: far from simply asserting the subject’s constitutive power, it can also be read as the resigned acceptance of the a priori limitation of our approach to the real.
And it is our contention that, if we think to the end the consequences of this notion of the transcendental subject, we can nonetheless avoid this debilitating deadlock and “save freedom.” How? By reading this deadlock as its own solution, that is, by yet again displacing the epistemological obstacle into a positive ontological condition.
To avoid any misunderstanding: we are not aiming here at illegitimate short-circuits in the style of “the ontological undecidability of the quantum fluctuation grounds human freedom,” but at a much more radical pre-ontological openness/gap, a “bar” of impossibility in the midst of “reality” itself.
What if there is no “universe” in the sense of an ontologically fully-constituted cosmos? That is to say, the mistake of identifying (self)consciousness with misrecognition, with an epistemological obstacle, is that it stealthily (re)introduces the standard, premodern, “cosmological” notion of reality as a positive order of being. In such a fully-constituted, positive “chain of being,” there is, of course, no place for the subject, so the dimension of subjectivity can only be conceived of as something which is strictly codependent with the 80 Penumbra epistemological misrecognition of the true positivity of being. Consequently, the only way to effectively account for the status of (self)consciousness is to assert the ontological incompleteness of “reality” itself: there is “reality” only insofar as there is an ontological gap, a crack, in its very heart. It is only this gap that accounts for the mysterious “fact” of transcendental freedom, that is, for a (self)consciousness that is effectively “spontaneous” and whose spontaneity is not an effect of the misrecognition of some “objective” causal process, no matter how complex and chaotic this process is. And where does psychoanalysis stand with regard to this deadlock? In a first approach, it may seem that psychoanalysis is the ultimate attempt to fill in the gap, to re-establish the complete causal chain that generated the “inexplicable” symptom. However, does Lacan’s strict opposition between cause and the law (of causality) not
point in a wholly different direction? Lacan states:
Cause is to be distinguished from that which is determinate in a chain, in other words from the law. By way of example, think of what is pictured in the law of action and reaction. There is here, one might say, a single principle. One does not go without the other …. There is no gap here ….