Presented at La négation: formes, figures, conceptualisation Université de Tours, 8-9 October 2004. Published by GRAAT No. 35, La Négation, 2006, pp. 283-296.
At least since Plato's Timaeus and its discussion of the khōra, contradiction has served to express the unspeakable, that which is neither sensible nor intelligible. The work that marks, for Hegel (Derrida, 1995, 100), the shift from a mythic to a metaphysical logic, left us also with this unspeakable not-even-thing which we dare not call the opposite of metaphysics, but which certainly fills some compensatory function in relation to it. Revaluing contradiction served Hegel in breaking with the constraints of Kantian metaphysics, his dialectical model offering a logic within which to confront the contradiction in the categories of the world. Mystico-spiritual writing of all levels uses explicit contradiction to provoke meditation and to question our quotidian understanding of the categories within which we live. Nietzsche, in defiance of the ascetic ideal, argued that things can originate from their opposites – altruism from egoism, disinterest from lust. Freud showed contradiction to be a psychological fact of the split subject and a feature of the unconscious. Jung declared the union of opposites in the psyche to be the decisive step in the process of individuation leading to an integrated self. Post-structural and deconstructive work on binary opposites has argued for their interdependence rather than their mutual exclusion; feminist and post-colonial branches of this theory have demonstrated how politically liberating such a logic can be.
Against the background of this rich heritage, we look to contradiction to disrupt illusions of coherence and unity, to liberate the reader from normalising terms, to reopen dialogue, and to express possibilities of truth that language denies us. Explicit contradiction has become a strategy with which to avoid setting up yet another foreclosed discourse and to open up heterogeneity. “I want to suggest the possibilities of contradiction as a discursively generative project” writes Caraher in the introduction to Intimate Conflict: Contradiction in Literary and Philosophical Discourse (1992, 4), and few today would disagree with this. I do not advocate a return to the laws of identity and contradiction, to the tidy world of F.H. Bradley in which “Denial and affirmation of the self-same judgement is wholly inadmissible” (1883, 137) and truths are eternal. Rather, I will explore one of explicit contradiction’s unlooked-for effects – which is precisely the foreclosing of discourse. My model of explicit contradiction will be set up through Nietzsche’s ‘On the way of the Creator’ from Thus Spake Zarathustra, while taking cognisance of the many advantages contradiction offers. I will then consider how contradiction may express the unspeakable – in this case, post-structuralism’s inadmissible obsession with what lies outside of language, and Kristeva’s notion of the semiotic.
Given the many contexts in which to defend and celebrate explicit contradiction, one easily leaps ahead to the spiritual, psychological or ideological truth offered thereby. I cannot easily estrange you from a text and a style of language that you will soon find all too familiar, so I have offered you first some depictions of it:
…a man ambushing himself (Figure 1), making himself new by destroying exactly those aspects that make him who he is – his superhero / antihero costume (Figure 2), making a god out of his little devils (Figure 3), and meditatively despising what he reveres (Figure 4). This baffling nonsensicality operates differently when the language is more well-known:
But the worst enemy you can encounter will always be you, yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods.
Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself. And your way leads past yourself and your seven devils. You will be a heretic to yourself and a witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and a villain. You must wish to consume yourself in your own flame: how could you wish to become new unless you had first become ashes!
Lonely one, you are going the way of the creator: you would create a god for yourself out of your seven devils.
Lonely one, you are going the way of the lover: yourself you love, and therefore you despise yourself, as only lovers despise. The lover would create because he despises. What does he know of love who did not have to despise precisely what he loved!
Go into your loneliness with your love and with your creation, my brother; and only much later will justice limp after you.
With my tears go into your loneliness, my brother. I love him who wants to create over and beyond himself and thus perishes.
Thus spake Zarathustra.
(Nietzsche 1976, 176-7)
The knowledge we bring to bear on the text – our expectations of biblical language, our familiarity with Nietzsche, our post-Freudian conceptions of the individual – swiftly surmount our recognition of the contradictions in it.
The impossibility of ambushing oneself – “You lie in wait for yourself” – is resolved as metaphorically representing the Freudian notion of the split subject. This could be further theorised with another third term: the Christian belief in original sin, in which one’s inherently sinful nature waits to ambush one’s higher ideals, could be read recursively into Nietzsche as himself a split subject, ambushing his own atheism. Alternately, we could leave Freud aside, and read it as revising our post-Renaissance celebration of human ability. Before the overcoming that Nietzsche advocates, the limitations of our capacities and of our herd-animal mentality must be recognised. The contradiction becomes comprehensible through these various third terms – the split subject, original sin, human flaws – and others could be substituted; in this way contradiction does open up the possibility of heterogeneity. This is not merely the freedom of interpretation advocated by Barthes in S/Z; in most texts, undecidability and plurality can be cut short by the pragmatism which language also always affords us. Contradiction, however, refuses pragmatic meaning, and so without any third term, it remains incomprehensible. The text itself does not ‘make sense’; it requires a relationship with a reader who will make sense of it.
The third term need not be explicit and systematised to function in this relationship. Consider the second contradiction: “how could you wish to become new unless you had first become ashes!” One easily understands how one thing must be destroyed to make way for another; the sentence is often read in this sense of substitution, rather than of a singular thing being utterly destroyed and made new, and thus the contradiction is erased. Rosen avoids this error in The Mask of Enlightenment by reading the contradiction as a challenge of its own categories: “Neither destruction nor creation can be understood in narrowly hermeneutical terms, and they certainly have nothing to do with metaphysics or ontology, except on the one crucial point that they are made possible by the identification of Being as chaos.” (1995, xi) He undoes the opposition between destruction and creation by denying their metaphysical meaning. While this redefinition breaks with their metaphysics, the need for redefinition to resolve the contradiction respects the laws of metaphysics.
A variety of mythic systems offer us potential symbols as a substitute for the metaphysical logic which disallows contradiction: for instance, the phoenix, the goddess Kali, Death in the Tarot deck, or Geburah, the fifth emanation of the Qabbalah. This is the mythic logic of which Vernant speaks, in the epigraph to Derrida’s “Khōra”: “Thus myth puts in play a form of logic which could be called – in contrast to the logic of noncontradiction of the philosophers – a logic of the ambiguous, of the equivocal, of polarity.” (1995, 88) In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung argues that the contradictory and apparently inconsistent logic of such symbolism is a better model for following the logic of the psyche than the metaphysical formulations to which we still adhere. Where the symbol is already established in one’s culture, it presents as an authoritative third term; here, one has only to say ‘phoenix-like’, and the contradiction appears to be explained. In fact, the clash of opposites is simply deferred into the symbol. A contradiction remains incomprehensible until it is resolved with a third term; in the case of symbols, that operation is left to the private thoughts of the readers who will have formulated their own idiosyncratic understandings, predicated on an assumption that the symbol does make sense, somehow, and all that remains is to work out how.
This belief is a prerequisite for understanding not only symbols but all explicit contradiction. The next contradiction will illustrate this: “Lonely one, you are going the way of the creator: you would create a god for yourself out of your seven devils.” The seven devils have already been enumerated as those past whom the way leads, each in its way an opponent of the dominant order. The heretic, doubter, and unholy one respectively deny, refuse to believe, and act against the sacred. The witch and the soothsayer are traditional opponents of Christian belief, making use of nature and supernatural powers. The fool opposes reason with nonsense, and the villain is the enemy of the law. The preceding passage has already warned us against the “good and the just” of the herd; this is not the morality of common understanding, but that which opposes, each in its own way, what you hold sacred, your beliefs, your sense of reason and your own law. From this, you are to create your own god. How are we to make sense of this?
A wealth of heterogeneous interpretations is open to us. In psychological terms, we could turn to the Freudian unconscious contents, the Jungian nigredo, or Kristeva’s abjection. We could refuse the ‘unique individual’ with various forms of political criticism, arguing that the devils of this supposedly isolated ‘lonely one’ are in fact social: the female; the worker; the postcolonial Other. We could argue solely in terms of Nietzsche’s own writings, reading these devils as the nihilism that must be worked through before new values can be found that are neither in accordance with nor in reaction to the old. However, the question “How does this make sense?” suppresses the question, “Does this make sense?” Without a foundational belief that it does make sense, we cannot supply the mediating third term through which to understand it. This faith in the text can rest on various sources of authority; for example, the Biblical cadences and imagery or the cultural production that has accrued value and meaning to the author “Nietzsche” and the specific text Thus Spake Zarathustra. One can find vantage points for one’s faith, but ultimately it is simply a necessity. Unless I accept apriori that there is a sense in which I would create a god for myself out of my seven devils, the text remains a meaningless nonsense that I cannot read. Explicit contradiction sets us free and enslaves us: it sets us free to open up heterogeneous meanings and interrogate terms, and enslaves us to a blind faith in its meaningfulness.
This can be seen again in the final contradiction in this passage: “Lonely one, you are going the way of the lover: yourself you love, and therefore you despise yourself, as only lovers despise. The lover would create because he despises. What does he know of love who did not have to despise precisely what he loved!” Unless I accept Zarathustra’s claim that in some sense I despise what I love, the text remains impenetrable. Only once I accede to its authority can I start to make the sense in which I have already guaranteed my belief. The third term that Rosen offers for this passage smoothes over the contradiction by redefining the word “love” as the will to power. Within the delimited freedom of the explicit contradiction, I can offer my own third term – but what if I wish to disagree? I cannot argue that I do not despise myself, on the grounds that I love myself; I cannot argue that I do not love myself, on the grounds that I despise myself. In addition to being positioned as that which one must believe, the text already holds both contraries in the argument. If I disagree with the meaning of the contradiction, the third term, then I am arguing with Rosen, Jung, myself, or any other reader, but not with the text at all. “The reader is thus plunged into a kind of idleness, intransitivity… the only share left to him is the poor freedom of accepting or rejecting the text: reading becomes nothing more than a referendum.” (Barthes, 1970, 10) This is Barthes writing not of the celebrated writerly text with which we associate explicit contradiction, but of the oppressive readerly text. The text accrues the authority of the Creator; we may create what meanings we please, but we cannot create a position from which to challenge its authority.
Against this discursive foreclosing of explicit contradiction stand the many discursive advantages. Some of these have been touched on: illustrating the logic of the split subject and of myth, and challenging normative categorisations. Another potential use is especially pertinent to poststructural literary theory: the possibility of expressing the inexpressible.
An insistent feature of the various forms of post-structuralism is that meaning is produced by difference in language. Within this logic, the question of what may be left out of this schema should be both unnameable and unthinkable, for thought cannot pre-exist signifiers. How can one then address any possibility of presymbolic meaning without sinking back into a belief in a transcendental signified? If language is that which creates meaning, how can a meaning elude language? Yet without the presymbolic, we are stranded in the normalising laws of the symbolic and in consciousness. Kristeva notes how the Platonic term of the khōra “makes explicit an insurmountable problem for discourse: once named, that functioning, even if it is presymbolic, is brought back into a symbolic position” (Kristeva, 1974, 24 n16). Nevertheless, surmounting that problem is what Kristeva sets out to do in Révolution du Langage Poétique and continues to address in Polylogue.
Based on a self-defined impossibility, this project is fraught with difficulties. The symbolic is the mode of “nomination, syntax, signification and denotation” (Kristeva, 1977, 14). It rests on the principle of difference; it cannot have an opposite, because its opposite would then exclude the principle of difference and hence of opposites. One could speak instead of compensation, in the sense Jung offers for the relationship between alchemy and Christianity. Difficulties of nomination persist, however, for the presymbolic must compensate for nomination, refusing to participate in the symbolic logic of difference, yet dependent on that logic to be communicated. The academic writing style, moreover, refuses the strategy of mythic discourse which defers the resolution of metaphysical logic indefinitely through tropes that are resolved by the idiosyncratic and unsystematic thoughts of the reader. Kristeva proceeds by turning the logic of the symbolic order against itself, presenting the semiotic through these clashes.
This semiotic does not defend the notion of the presymbolic; rather, it derives from the pre-Oedipal functionality of drives in the subject-to-be and depends on the Freudian theory of the unconscious, both of which open up the presymbolic space in which to theorise the semiotic. Certain qualities are refused outright: notably, the semiotic chora “precedes evidence, verisimilitude, … and temporality.” (1974, 23) Each of these refusals produces discursive and logical clashes with aspects of the theory: atemporality with the chronology of the subject-to-be’s development; the absence of evidence with the semiotic’s realisation; and the denial of verisimilitude with the semiotic’s function within a signifying system.
Chronology is a crucial ordering term within the Freudian and Kleinian theories of the subject; the pre-Oedipal stage and mirror phase depend on temporality for their meaning. The semiotic is initially located within this as a “preverbal functional state” that “precedes the establishment of the sign” (1974, 25-6). Once we enter the signifying process, however, this becomes inaccurate:
Although originally a precondition of the symbolic, the semiotic functions within signifying practices as the result of a transgression of the symbolic. Therefore the semiotic that ‘precedes’ symbolisation is only a theoretical supposition justified by the need for description. (1974, 67)
This contradicts the earlier claim, but the contradiction is instantly resolved with the third term of a “theoretical supposition”, and the symbolic logic of difference is kept intact. The next sentence, however, reneges on this resolution, returning to the biological and developmental aspects of the semiotic:
It [semiotic functioning] is, however, already put in place by a biological setup and is always already social and therefore historical. This semiotic functioning is discernible before the mirror stage, before the first suggestion of the thetic. (1974, 67)
Here the “biological setup” appears to play the role of a transcendental signified which will permit meaningful functionality before the entry of signifiers. The functioning is “discernible” although the chora through which it functions precedes evidence, and temporality is restored. This is no longer simply theoretical supposition and so the claims stand in unresolved opposition. As the passage continues, it moves from open contradiction to a violation of temporal logic:
In taking the thetic into account, we shall have to represent the semiotic (which is produced recursively on the basis of that [symbolic] break) as a ‘second’ return of instinctual functioning within the symbolic, as a negativity introduced into the symbolic order, and as the transgression of that order. (1974, 67-8)
On the one hand, we have again the necessities of representation (“we shall have to represent the semiotic…”). On the other hand, we have the declarative that the semiotic is “produced recursively”, so that it both is and isn’t founded in the biological setup. This anachronism defies the temporal development on which the notion of the presymbolic is predicated. It transgresses the symbolic order as, in fact, the semiotic is said to do.
Physical reality also troubles the realisation of the semiotic. Both Révolution du langage poétique and Polylogue set up contradictory claims about the semiotic’s functioning in the text. Révolution first claims that “it is only in certain signifying processes, such as the text, that they [the processes and relations of the semiotic process] dominate the signifying process” (1974, 28) but later turns to the physical aspect of the discharge of drives: “with a material support such as the voice, this semiotic network gives ‘music’ to literature” (1974, 62). The text as a written form read with the eyes cannot benefit from this semiotic vocality and how it discharges drives is left unclear. Polylogue also appeals to vocality: “a word becomes the flowing of a drive through its enunciation, and the only justification for a text is to give rise to this music of drives….” (1977, 97) The eyes do not offer the sensory, glottal satisfaction of rhythmic vocality; how do we then locate the semiotic in the text?
Rather than explaining its functionality, the text offers evidence of its presence. Semiotic activity “introduces wandering, fuzziness into language” and “It is poetic language that awakens our attention to this undecidable character of any so-called natural language” (1977, 161). Undecidability, however, threatens signification:
To retain the signifying process and avoid sinking into a limitless “unsayable”, and thus to posit the subject of a practice, the subject of poetic language clings to the help that fetishism offers him… the poetic function converges with fetishism but isn’t identical to it… There is no text that would be deprived of meaning or signification if it were ‘musicalised’, on the contrary, musicalisation pluralises meaning, and therefore one can say that the text is not a fetish. … It is entirely different from a fetish, because it signifies… The text signifies the unsignifying, it assumes, in the signifying practice, this function which ignores meaning and operates before or despite it. (1974, 64)
This paragraph advances through two sets of related contradictions. At the beginning, the poetic function converges with fetishism, and this will prevent us sinking into a limitless “unsayable”. The first thesis progresses thus: the poetic function converges with fetishism; the text is not a fetish; the text is nothing like a fetish. The second thesis progresses first from avoiding the unsayable, into a musical pluralisation of meaning, into signification, into that which ignores meaning and operates before or despite it. As the text’s fetishist properties are increasingly denied, so we sink back into meaninglessness.
Polylogue advances through similar contradictoriness on the subject of the meaning or meaninglessness of poetic language. Initially, it insists that signification must take place:
However elided, attacked, or corrupted the symbolic function might be in poetic language, due to the impact of semiotic processes, the symbolic function nevertheless maintains its presence. It is for this reason that it is a language. (1977, 160)
To retain its place in language, fulfilling the role required of it, the semiotic must allow some sort of signification to take place. But what sort? “a multiple and sometimes even incomprehensible signified” (ibid). As with Barthes’s myths, the meaning of its own signifiers is emptied out, so that here the only signification it permits is that it signifies meaninglessness. In Kristeva’s words,
… it nonetheless posits a thesis, not of a particular being or meaning, but of a signifying apparatus; it posits its own process as an undecidable process between sense and nonsense... (ibid)
Both the question of the text’s fetishist properties and the signification of poetic language wrestle with the same difficulty: heterogeneous meaning threatens to collapse into meaninglessness. Here the symbolic logic not only permits but insists that opposites entail each other: to mean everything is to mean nothing. The principle of difference is so profoundly breached that by its own logic two mutually exclusive concepts collapse into each other. This clash, shattering as it does the basis of the symbolic order, is perhaps the most powerful in making space for the semiotic to emerge, but also threatens to capsize what is most valuable for us in the semiotic: its ability to participate in a signifying system.
To what degree may these contradictions be said to express the inexpressible? The refusal to situate the semiotic in the subject’s temporal development undermines the theory that underwrites it. Its functionality in a written signifying system remains obscure, dependent on a vocality that the text lacks. Finally, it undermines the signifying process in which it is said to participate until the only possible signification is of meaninglessness. These explicit contradictions are necessary features of this discourse and necessarily incomprehensible; how we render them comprehensible in the privacy of our own readings must not be made explicit: to resolve them overtly would undermine the nature and functionality of the semiotic. Yet it is the nature and functionality of the semiotic that our reading strives to comprehend and that Révolution du langage poétique and Polylogue putate to express.
The model of explicit contradiction outlined earlier is once more in operation. To read these texts, we must believe in the semiotic, even when the basis for that belief is denied. We cannot argue about the semiotic, for each claim on its behalf is already countered with the opposing claim. We must provide our own third terms and argue with ourselves, or reject the text entirely without recourse to argument. The discursive strategy of turning the logic of the symbolic order against itself lays the onus for third terms on the reader, while camouflaging its axiom with a cloak of belief. If this is expressing the inexpressible, then Kristeva succeeds – and that we now have such a notion as the semiotic suggests that it is.
Explicit contradiction does offer these discursive possibilities of expressing the inexpressible and the split subject, allowing the logic of myth to enter formal discourse, and challenging categorisations. All the meanings of ‘discourse’ that include ‘dialogue’, however, are cut short. While it may appear a strategy for avoiding an authoritative determination and liberating the reader from constrained meaning, it supports the authority of the text and silences argument. As such, it is a strategy of which we should be extremely wary. Before leaving anything in an open play of contradiction, we should perhaps consider these words from “On the Way of the Creator”:
You call yourself free? Your dominant thought I want to hear, and not that you have escaped from a yoke. … Free from what? As if that mattered to Zarathustra! But your eyes should tell me brightly: free for what? (Nietzsche, 1976, 175)
Barthes, Roland, 1970. S/Z. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Bradley, F.H, 1883. The Principles of Logic. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co.
Caraher, Brian G. ed., 1992. Intimate Conflict:
Contradiction in Literary and Philosophical Discourse.
Derrida, Jacques, 1995. “Khōra”
in On the Name. Trans. Ian McLeod. Stanford:
Freud, Sigmund, 1952. A General Introduction
to Psychoanalysis. Trans. Joan Riviere. New York:
Jung, C.G., 1995. Jung on Alchemy. Ed. Nathan Schwartz-Salant. London: Routledge.
Kristeva, Julia, 1974. Révolution du langage poétique. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Kristeva, Julia, 1977. Polylogue. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Nietzsche, Friederich, 1976. Thus Spake Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. & Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York, London: Penguin Books. pp 103-439.
Rosen, Stanley, 1995. The Mask of Enlightenment.
 Graphics © Andrew Kerr 2004, reproduced by kind permission
 “It is important to begin early to reckon with the fact that the mind is an arena, a sort of tumbling-ground, for the struggles of antagonistic impulses; or, to express it in non-dynamic terms, that the mind is made up of contradictions and pairs of opposites.” (Freud, 1952, 80)
 .“We will see later that love is for Zarathustra a euphemism for the will to power.” (Rosen, 1995, 31)
 Derrida also addresses this difficulty in “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce” (A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. Ed. Peggy Kamuf. New York, London, et al: Harvester Wheatsheaf. 1991.) where he writes, “I have had to yield to the rhetorical necessity of translating this minimal and undetermined, almost virgin, address into words, into words such as “I”, “I am”, “language”, at a point where the position of I, of being, and of language still remains derivative with regard to this yes. This is the whole problem for anyone wishing to speak on the subject of the yes” (593). The repetition of yes! yes! and the later pun on “s’envoyer” (in English, “getting oneself off”) suggest a link of the yes! with the sexual drive, which would conform with Kristeva’s location of the semiotic in drives.
 In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung writes, “Alchemy is rather like an undercurrent to the Christianity that ruled on the surface. It is to this surface as the dream is to consciousness, and just as the dream compensates the conflicts of the conscious mind, so alchemy endeavours to fill in the gaps left open by the Christian tension of opposites… Were the unconscious merely complementary, this shift of consciousness [towards the masculine] would have been accompanied by the production of a mother and daughter… But as the alchemy shows, the unconscious chose rather the Cybelle-Attis type in the form of the prima materia and the filius macrocosmi, thus proving that it is not complementary but compensatory. This goes to show that the unconscious does not simply act contrary to the conscious mind, but modifies it more in the manner of an opponent or partner.” (Jung, 1995, 25)
 Kristeva sees poetic language as similarly escaping symbolic constraints, able to “make clear what is untenable in the symbolic, nominal, paternal function” (1977, 163).
 Kristeva writes that the “genesis of the functions organising the semiotic process can be accurately elucidated only within a theory of the subject that does not reduce the subject to one of understanding, but instead opens up within the subject this other scene of presymbolic functions.” (1974, 26) This theory is found in Melanie Klein’s expansion of Freud’s theory of drives. A few pages later she notes that “Our positing of the semiotic is evidently inseparable from a theory of the subject that takes into account the Freudian positing of the unconscious.” (1974, 30)
 Prior to this passage (Part One, section nine of Révolution du langage poétique), Kristeva offers the following reasoning for seeing poetic language as a fetish: the semiotic disrupts and attacks the symbolic order, and the poetry that does this simultaneously establishes itself as a substitute object for the symbolic order. It attempts to compensate for the corruption of the symbolic order by eroticising the speaking organs through the semiotic.
 Given the argument that this is not a liberating strategy, I have not addressed the question of why readers supposedly need such a liberation. This assumption overvalues the authority of the text and sets up opposing positions between us as ‘liberating writers’ and another apparently separate group of ‘oppressed readers’.