Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 4: Derrida

This series hasn’t been as rough as I’ve expected this far. The first few parts showed some of the classic postmodernists to be clearer and more prescient than many give them credit for. This changes all that. Derrida is rough going. I chose his most famous work, Differance, for today.

I couldn’t remember if I had read this before, and then I read the first paragraph. Oh, boy. It all came flooding back. Not only had I read this, I’d watched a whole lecture or two on it as well. I’m not sure it’s fair to be super critical of lack of clarity when reading a translation, but in this case, I think it’s warranted (more on that later).

The article begins by Derrida making up a new word: differance. It is phonetically related to “defer,” meaning to be displaced in time, and it is phonetically related to “differ,” meaning to not be identical.

So what is differance? Here’s the clearest explanation I’ve come up with after reading the opening paragraphs many, many times. Derrida wants to say that two things can only differ if there is a relationship between them for comparison. Anything that has such a relationship must have something in common. So:

We provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical.

Derrida then starts dancing around what he means. I don’t say this to be demeaning. His whole point is that language can’t describe the thing he is getting at, so he must dance around it to give you some idea about what he wants differance to mean.

To defer makes use of time, but differance is outside time. Differance produces the differences between the differences. It isn’t a word. It isn’t a concept. I’m going to describe differance as a “tool” or even “thought experiment” to get at Derrida’s particular form of deconstruction even though he doesn’t exactly say that.

Now I’m supposed to be doing “critical” readings of these texts, so I’ll admit this type of thing makes me feel a little funny. On the one hand, I’m okay with being a bit loose on definitions if the only point is to perform a thought experiment. On the other hand, I fear there will be a switch at some point where we start attributing a bunch of unknowable things without argument to a term that has such nonsensical properties as “being outside time.” So I want to carefully keep track of that.

Derrida moves on to the relationship between spoken and written language. In French, “differance” and “difference” have the same pronunciation. He spends far too long talking about how difficult it will be to talk about this, since he’ll have to indicate verbally “with an a” each time (this paper was originally a talk given to the Societe Francaise de Philosophie).

He next spends quite a bit of time explaining some very precise etymological concerns about the word differance:

But while bringing us closer to the infinitive and active core of differing, “differance” with an a neutralizes what the infinitive denotes as simply active, in the same way that “parlance” does not signify the simple fact of speaking, of speaking to or being spoken to.

This type of thing is a pretty silly game. He freaking made the word up! There is no etymology or historical context to analyze. It’s a pure fiction about the word. I hear the Derrida defenders here saying that this is precisely the point, because every word is made up and we play an etymological game to understand them. Maybe, but I don’t really see what’s gained by presenting that idea in this way.

Derrida then recaps some of Saussure’s structuralist ideas about language: the signifyer / signified distinction. The word “chair” is a mere symbol that signifies an actual chair. The connection is arbitrary. We could easily make up a word like “cuilhseitornf” and have it symbolize the exact same thing. (All that was the Saussure recap).

Derrida wants to now say that actually it’s not so simple as Saussure thinks. Words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to things (concepts, etc). In fact, meaning comes from being in a linguistic system, and the meaning of a word comes from understanding what the other words are not signifying. He wants to call this negative space “differance.” Again, I’m worried about how much we’re loading into this one made up word.

But overall, if I clarify this point to a degree Derrida would probably hate, I’m somewhat sold on the concept. Think about removing the word “chair” from the English language (i.e. a linguistic system). If you think about something that is different from all the remaining words, you’ll probably get something close to “chair,” because it’s partly defined by the differences between it and all the other words in the system. This seems an okay statement to make, if a little confusing as to its importance to theory.

Derrida introduces the concept of “trace” to make the above point. Basically the trace of a signifyer is the collection of all the sameness and differance left on it by the other words in the linguistic system.

Overall, I don’t get what real contribution this paper makes. To me, it is essentially a reiteration of Wittgenstein’s ideas about words in linguistic systems/games with a single, seemingly unnecessary, mystical layer that comes through the meta-concept of “differance.” Maybe if I were to read some of Derrida’s later work, it will become clearer why he needs this, but at this point I don’t get it.

Derrida is less confusing than I remember. He’s not hard to read because of obscurity or complex sentences or big words. He’s hard to read because he just meanders too much. There are entire pages that can be thrown out with nothing lost, because they are pure reiteration of minor tangential points.

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Thoughts on Arrival

Warning 1: Whatever my opinion of this movie, I warn you to not read this post before seeing it. I’m warning you. There are major spoilers, and these are the types of spoilers that don’t merely reveal some plot twist. These reveals will irrevocably altar the way you experience the movie to an extent where you will be robbed of being able to form an your own opinion.

WARNING 2: I’ve warned you. Do not let your eyes drift down this page if you haven’t seen this movie.

For those of you who are still reading for some reason, despite not having seen the movie, I’ll start with a few non-spoiler things I didn’t like to give you a chance to click that x in the upper right corner of the screen while you have the chance. Do it!

First off, the movie was terribly derivative. It’s hard to think of single thing in the whole film that isn’t just a copy of something already done in some other “first contact” story. I know that “everything’s been done” (supposedly). But if you’re going to pick a story that’s really been done a hundred times, please, please, have something truly new and interesting. More on this later when I’m allowed to start spoiling.

The characters and their motivations seemed really weak. After some thought, I identified the problem. Theme must emerge from story and characterization. Arrival put theme before characters. So when humans freaked out that the aliens arrived and started trying to wage war and division everywhere, it didn’t seem all that motivated.

People planted bombs and cut off communication in order to show that humans are these terrible war-driven species. In other words, the writer(s) knew they wanted to get this across and so showed it. Instead, they should have had a story with a strong flow and sense of character in which that theme emerged. Also, they hired this linguist to do her job and then opposed her ideas every step of the way. This was unmotivated, artificial resistance to create conflict: a terrible narrative device.

Okay. Now on to some of the things that really bothered me. How the hell did they crack the written language? The entire premise of the movie hinges on them being able to read the words with high accuracy and specificity (remember that scene where they translated “weapon” and everyone freaked out?).

Seriously. I wrote a novel with an unknown written language, so I spent a huge amount of time thinking about this. Despite spending a thousand years and having a whole library of this language with books with pictures, I came to the conclusion that the researchers would get essentially nowhere.

So how the hell did these few people, in a matter of weeks, figure out pretty much everything (including highly abstract words like “time”)? The language doesn’t even have an order or grammar to it. They never left the spaceship. That means they were never pointing to a tree and writing “tree.”

I know this seems like some trivial thing: suspend your disbelief, etc. But I can’t. If this was 90% of the movie, it would have been the coolest first contact movie ever. That’s how interesting and difficult and original the idea would have been. Instead, they skip over the only interesting thing and pretend like it was so trivial that it wasn’t worth mentioning. It’s impossible they figured this out and renders the whole rest of the movie worthless.

Let’s return for a moment to the lack of characterization. Are we really supposed to believe that the two main characters fell in love? They never once flirt. They never even crack a smile at each other for all I remember. They never hold hands. Chemistry never develops between them.

Now, this would have been fine if one of the last lines wasn’t: “Do you want to have my baby?” Um. What? The most obvious reply should have been, “You creep. Who asks that? Get away from me.”

Since we see lots of events after the alien part of the movie, they could have flashed forward to a place where he says this, and then we would fill in all the lovey-dovey stuff in our minds. It would have been way less creepy. Or, they could have done a better job at developing the romance.

I get that she can see the future, and he has just learned that, so he knows that she already knows if they have a baby. That makes it ever so slightly less creepy. But not really. Why would that be the first thing you ask? Why not just ask her on a date or something?

Now that we’ve broached the topic of the twist of the movie, let’s dig into that. It doesn’t so much bother me that the premise of the movie rests on a sketchy theory, namely that language affects how you perceive the world. Plenty of great SF take cool theories to their extremes (including ones I’ve written).

What does trouble me is that every interpretation of the form of time travel the main character gains leads to major problems. The least plausible interpretation is that she can actually travel to and live in future and past places of her life.

This is problematic because it basically implies immortality. Are you about to die? Then just go live an earlier part of your life out. Plus, there’s all the time travel paradoxes that would arise. If you actually relive it, then presumably you can change things. That’s a problem for obvious reasons.

A more charitable understanding is that she can merely access “memories” of future events. The movie makes it seem like they must be her own memories, but that seems to cause problems for the aliens who seem to know events 3000 years in the future. But whatever, let’s say the aliens are more advanced, so they have memories of future events regardless of point of view.

This still leaves some problems, like in the future, when meeting the Chinese general, she doesn’t remember calling him, despite it necessarily having happened already. This makes it seem like it isn’t a mere memory of the future but an actual living out of that moment (and we’ve already said this is a problem). So let’s assume it’s a mere memory of the future and not a living out, despite the problems that causes with the movie.

What does it mean to access a memory of a future event that doesn’t happen? It’s a paradox. If she has the choice to not have her baby, then she could choose not to have it based on knowing her daughter will die early. But then not having the baby would erase the memory of her daughter dying young, and so she wouldn’t have a reason not to have it. This means she would choose to have it. Woops. It’s an endless cycle that creates a paradox.

Okay. So let’s say she can’t choose. The future is set. That undermines the entire message of the movie, which is that she chooses life in the face of struggle. Plus, this choice aspect of the movie is voiced by several characters (it’s the reason Ian leaves). There is no way the writers want you to interpret the movie as some argument against free will.

As you see, the movie does the opposite of good SF. Good SF, like Primer, makes you super confused, but as you think deeply about it, you gain clarity. You realize it really does make sense. Arrival does the opposite. It seems deep and interesting at first, but the deeper you think about it, the more it unravels as nonsense.

I know a lot, and I mean a lot, of people really, really loved this movie. So my question is: why? It’s paradoxical. It’s derivative. The characterization is shallow. The plot has major holes. It’s hard for me to think of a single thing someone would have liked about it.

Is it just that people haven’t seen really interesting SF, like Primer, for example, so they don’t see this for what it is? They’re blown away by the twist ending, so they don’t think any deeper and just believe it to be as deep as their initial intuition leads them to believe?

This actually troubled me enough that I had a hard time sleeping after watching it. It’s sort of my job to understand what people like in stories, so to not be able to think of anything that makes this movie worth watching (other than the brilliant cinematography, seriously, that DP deserves a bonus) while millions loved it is very troubling to me.

 

Chomsky

I’ve decided to start reading Chomsky’s pivotal book Syntactic Structures, since I’m into the phil language thing and it was a really important work. This post is going to be sillyness, but it was something I couldn’t get out of my head while attempting to read past the first couple sentences.

“Each language has a finite number of phonemes (or letters in its alphabet) and each sentence is representable as a finite sequence of these phonemes (or letters), though there are infinitely many sentences.”

Now we encounter “free structures” all the time in math. It is perfectly legitimate to create something with an infinite number of elements from just stringing together a finite alphabet. In fact, you can impose lots of structure such as the free group on two generators. This “language” only has an alphabet of two, must satisfy group axioms, and ignores triviality (must be fully reduced), yet still achieves an infinite number of words (not even sentences, but words).

I must argue, though, that there are not “infinitely many sentences.” I don’t think it would be controversial to claim that there are a finite number of words in a language. Take English, for example. Use the good old OED plus maybe a slang dictionary and throw in a couple thousand for good measure as an upper bound on the number of words in the language.

This number of words is huge, though finite. When we generate sentences, if we do so in the “free” way, then we clearly get an infinite number. Now I’m not so concerned with “grammatically” correct sentences, as I am with imposing conditions on repetition. The sentence “the dog ran dog ran” is pointless. Due to repetition, I argue that there must then be some upper bound on the length of the longest sentence possible (to continue the group analogy, this is like the “free presentation” with restrictions like \{a : a^3=1 \}=\mathbb{Z}_3).

To make this easier, let’s reduce our sentences to ones that are not conjunctions of two complete sentences (if former is finite, then so is the latter). Now a sentence can only be so long (non-conjunctively), say you use basically every word in the language a couple of times (which I find hard to believe that you would still have a “sentence” at that point). So now we have an upper bound of, I don’t know, a couple billion words in a sentence. This would give us on the order of a couple billion factorial number of sentences. This is absurdly large (and an absurdly overestimate in my opinion), but still finite.

Despite having zero relevance to your book Mr. Chomsky, I must respectfully disagree with your opening lines. What does everyone else think?