Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Lacking the Lack: Beyond duality and binary difference
'Without the rigidity of concepts, the world becomes transparent
and illuminated, as though lit from within. With this understanding,
the interconnectedness of all that lives becomes very clear. We
see that nothing is stagnant and nothing is fully separate, that who
we are, what we are, is intimately woven into the nature of life itself.
Out of this sense of connection, love and compassion arise.'
From: 'Loving-Kindness - The Revolutionary Art of Happiness'
Sharon Salzberg p88
I'm not the first nor the last to compare the ancient Eatern philosophy of non-dualism with European twentieth century critical theories on the limitations of binary thinking. However, I'm not sure a comprehensive study has compared tenets rigourously. I don't think this would even be beneficial. The less linguistic and theoretical baggage surround these concepts, the more in tune we can become with their essence. After all, meditation is not thinking but being aware. Our mechanisms of language restrict both our thinking and our awareness.
Lacan thought that meaning is created out of desire in relation to the real, the imaginary and the symbolic. The symbolic is the language system into which we enter. He described desire as the 'lack' of being. Desire can never be replenished throughout our lifespans(otherwise it is not desire by nature) and the 'symbolic order' (or words) does not help us in our quest to substantiate our desires because they are always deferred via language constructs (signifiers/signifieds). There is a lack of meaning with which a sentence can provide us. By the time we reach the end of our constructed word sequence, our brain has processed, reflected, assessed, edited, compiled a narrative and then lingusitically conceptualised our original intuituve thought, so any true meaning is deferred. Post Structuralist, Derrida, studied Lacan and formulated the notion of 'Differance', referring to how language and, thus, meaning is constructed around difference in the form of binary oppositions, such as good/evil, us/them. We understand a concept because of the way it differs from another concept, but as we have seen, the meaning of these concepts is always deferred. This deferrence, or 'differance' concerns human beings' fruitless quest for meaning. We always strive for things which on the deepest or most essential level we never attain, and even if we did, how would we know, when we are confined by language? The Buddha would say that truth is in awareness of the moment and the more embedded we become in this pure, unfettered mindfulness, the closer we are to enlightenment. In this state we are without desire. In Lacanian terms we would say that we would finally lack 'the lack' and be at one with the way things really are.
If we consider the limitations of Structuralist, Saussure's, notion of signifier/signified - that the concept to which we refer is the signified and the word/sound/image manifestation of that concept is the signifier - we can compare critiques of binarism more specifically to non dualist thought. Lacan and Derrida referred to the signifier/signified but from a more critical perspective. Saussure, addressed, analysed and then endorsed structures of language, whereas Derrida and others alike (e.g. Foucault) deconstructed them for their narrow polarising of thought. Between our conceptualisation of a phenomena and the way it becomes embedded in our society as a signifier, its pure essence can be lost. In order to truly access the phenomena, we need to let go of the rigidity of its signifying. A common phrase used in relation to zen Buddhist teaching is: 'the finger that points to the moon is not the moon.' Perhaps the finger can be compared to the signifier/signified construct which tries to account for the essence of pure phenomena but which fails. A Post Structuralist might also say that the moon is artificially conceptualised as a symbol of night and an opposite to sun. If we are completely mindful of the moon as we experience it, it is neither of these things. It cannot truly nor literally be slotted into dual or binary interpretations. It isn't a symbol or a sign. It isn't ours and it doesn't lack anything. It just is.
So what is the difference between the notions of binary difference and duality, other than the fact that they are terms which have been applied in different knowledge spheres? I'd be interested to know if there are problems with this comparison, other than the dizzying fact that all comparisons are subject to constructions of binary difference. Perhaps the difference is in the practice which surrounds the disciplines which incorporate these terms. For Buddhists or Daoists, mindfulness can be developed through meditation. For Post Structuralists, the mind is a tool which is capable of deconstructing its own limitations - but that deconstruction is itself limited. Critical theorists critique. But critique lacks. Awareness transcends.
Derrida, Jacques. (1974) Of Grammatology. trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lacan, Jacques (2001) Ecrits trans. Alan Sheridan, London:Routledge
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1983) Course in General Linguistics. eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. trans. Roy Harris. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.
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