The Tangle and the Groundhog by Frank Smecker

Jun 21st, 2013 | By | Category: Articles

To take apart, to bring forth a reading, to open the signification of a sign. That is the purpose of this short essay. To show, by example, the repetition of failure that is necessary in order to conceptualize, formulate, articulate, (inaccurate) symbols of structure that bring to wherever they may go the trace of something wholly Other, something wholly Other which is always-already absent in the midst of the symbol’s presence. Though something wholly Other that is nonetheless eternally present in the realm of absolute nondisclosure, the latter an immutable background against which the symbol always takes its place. This is precisely why “what I say is what there isn’t.” This is the discourse of the signifier. And discourse is, beyond question, both constituted by and constitutive of the signifying chain: which is to say, speech is both constituted by and constitutive of language. Is the signifying chain not like some sort of “mobile home”? It is both the house and, primary mode of transportation, of the signifier.

Signifiers: things that carry with them the spectral vestige of eternal alterity.

Signifiers: indicative of the specious structure of presence, for presence is composed only of difference and deferment, hence the always-already vanishing Now of now.

Signifiers: the fraudulent effacement of an original lack, the loss of a loss as such.

Such a cryptic and recondite tangle of words is one way to bandy about the logic of the signifier. For this, Derrida’s written voice leads by example…which is precisely the conceptual instrument I’ve chosen to work with herein: the example, whose sole function will be to attempt to unravel a tangle, a tangle of signifiers—words—that will surely obscure the “whole” message of this text; a tangle that—like the “navel of a dream,” or a staining substance that percolates down into an uncharted space—is none other than the culminating moment when the structure of a system transgresses the very limits and laws it sets up for itself. In other words, this “navel,” like an uncanny knot of skin atavistic of a long lost origin that has been voided from memory, serves only to transgress the very system of meaning, values, and laws that are nevertheless structured around this exceptional element as such. Unravel this tangled knot, or at least dare to, and we begin to deconstruct the entire structure it is component to, and thereby gain passage into the unknown, only to found a new construction altogether using the very twine that comprised that familiar knot we began with.

Is this not what Hegel attempted to illustrate with Aufhebung: “surplus, subtraction, sublimation”; or Derrida with his deconstructive method and the “re-mark” and so on and so on? That’s what we’re talking about here. And to not mince words for too much longer, to start cutting to the same old chase—you know, the one in which Achilles never seems to quite catch up with the tortoise—we are engaging here not just with, but also, and more importantly, in language, for all we ever really know is in Language (with a capital ‘L’). And knowledge is a dream…or at least it’s structured like one. Thus we must always be on the lookout for that irreducible gap between signifier and signified, between sign and thing, between thought and matter. Between what we know and what we believe. And then there’s language, in which all these binaries are irremediably tangled up. Any of these two elements can never quite meet up with each other; all that they can be are asymptotes to each other. Achilles never seems to quite catch up with the tortoise, if you catch my drift here. And if they ever do happen to catch up with each other, if they ever happen to cross paths, this nodal point of intersection is none other than a hard kernel of contradiction. A tangle as such.

One thing’s for sure: we must never lose sight of the fact that thought itself is propped up by language, the latter being that which mediates, for us, reality; for there can be no concept of anything in the world (nor any concept of any non-existent combination of any number of things in the world, for that matter) that is not caught up in the “whole” of language. Even the hole, the void, the nothing, all the noumena that “ex-sists” outside of language, beyond the sign, that which “can’t be put into words,” is nonetheless inscribed within language, within the sign. The “impossible,” the “unknown,” all of it is named, as such. And here, yet again, we cannot avoid running into that same old distorting element: the tangle, the navel, the knot—what appears to be nothing but a confusing rant about a whole lot of non-sense, i.e., that which ruptures the consistency of the ordered space of any “whole,” especially the “whole” of Language. If this text is engendering a confusion; and from that a frustration; you must be resolute here, and, like Fox Mulder, “conceive frustration as a determination for a provable cause.”

The crucial point not to be overlooked is that the entire structure of any “whole” rests upon this fragile element, the tangle. The same applies to this text before you, its entire structure rests delicately on its most confounding element, the tangle of what appears to be a bunch of non-sense: a transgressive element bound together with all sorts of contradiction and confusion and exception. What this implies: All totalities do not really exist, they are not really total (for that is a fate yet to be determined in an enduring unfolding); and this non-total, a “non-all,” that which limits the totality’s absoluteness, must be inscribed within the totality’s ordered space for it to attain its specious “totality.” This radical otherness, this unknowability as such, inhabits the secret spaces deeply embedded in the symbolic register of our lives. It engenders the symbolic conditions of our reality. And there we have it: the operative difference within the signifying chain, within Language itself—that which confers meaning onto signifiers—does not reside in the difference between signifiers, as Saussure had posited, but rather: the difference between the ordered space of the signifying chain, and that which is “outside” the signifying chain, is contained within the entire system. The system itself accounts for the difference between what consists within, and what persists outside: a nothingness that counts for something. That is to say, for the subject (the human being) there is literally nothing that exists outside of language, and this nothing, the difference between the system’s interior and exterior, is accounted for within the system itself: that is, the void as such is contained within the “whole” system of language, rupturing any real wholeness, barring its closure as such. This is why language can never be a complete whole; and yet, the annexing of this void by language is also why there is no meta-language.

There is no meta-language. Are we not reminded of this every year on the second of February when that furry little denizen of Pennsylvania emerges from his subterranean dwellings to announce to a nation something that is already (pre)comprehended by the general public thanks to years of seasoned experience? I am of course referring to Punxsutawney Phil, and his Groundhog Day, and of course everything this pair signifies. This favored mammal (also known as “whistle-pig” and “land beaver,” and which bears no porcine features mind you) is hoped by many to clarify some shadows and point to certain lights which will possibly, one of these days, though surely never if you want my honest opinion, confound meteorologists all over. For as folklore has it, should it be cloudy when the groundhog emerges from his burrow, spring will arrive early. Should it be sunny, however, it is presumed that this little fella will see his shadow and thereupon retreat back underground.

One would think, that, with all of today’s meteorological advancements there’d be no reason to confer the role of forecaster upon Phil, the groundhog.

But there is in fact a good reason why this particular day, Groundhog Day, is a very special day. One that, with annual routine instantiates—that is, presents us with an instance by which we are reminded—that there is no meta-language. Why? Because the dissemination of the symbol, its transmission—e.g., a groundhog who plays the ascribed role of harbinger of springtime for hordes of spectators who will then go on to Tweet and post on Facebook that the little brown groundhog did or did not see his shadow…and therefore spring is X number of weeks away—is propped up by language. After all, not only does the act of transmission as such require the use of language, but also, thought itself is propped up by language, and, well, Punxsutawney Phil is none other than a product of thought, a rebus of the mind, a noun that presupposes a certain substance, a being as such, one that does not really exist. There is no real groundhog that can predict the weather (unless we include coincidence as a determining factor here). There is only a real entity we name a groundhog, a real event we call Groundhog Day, and the real effect this ritual produces on and in and throughout the social field—not to mention the affect this meaning-effect has on us. This has persisted for quite some celebrated time now.

But and so to return to what I was getting at earlier, there is no meta-language: the symbolic efficiency of Punxsutawney Phil and his Groundhog Day cannot accomplish a transmissible signification and subsist without the employment of, in its very presentation, the language we make use of. That is to say, all that this pair signifies is a specific non-accomplishment, a failure, of meta-language; hence there is none. No meta-language, that is. It’s all caught up in, propped up by, just good ol’ language. And that is why, aside from the obvious (the signification of the approach of springtime), Phil and his Groundhog Day remind us that there’s no such thing as a meta-language. For as Lacan puts it, “no formalization of language is transmissible without the use of language itself.” (That fact remains invariably so even in the face of mathematics. It’s difficult to imagine teaching math without using language in some way, whether outwardly, vocally, or in the form of thought, inwardly.)

By the very fact that we know, that we know which day Groundhog Day falls on, that we remember to continue to partake in such a ritual on this particular day, implies the transmission of signs, and that implies the use of language. And for that reason we should not overlook the fact that knowledge is structured like a dream: it is constituted by a series of anagrammatic signs, and thus it’s our task to organize these signs in such ways that their order produces a meaning-effect on our very being. And we should, too, as Lacan urges, be careful not to confuse the symbolic with being. Remember, Punxsutawney Phil is not a groundhog, he isn’t even a hog; Punxsutawney Phil is a name, whose meaning-effect arouses in us certain responses. As Claude Levi-Strauss put it in The Savage Mind, the “principal value” of our myths and rites is to

preserve […] the remains of methods of observation and reflection which were (and no doubt still are) precisely adapted to discoveries of a certain type: those which nature authorised from the starting point of a speculative organization and exploitation of the sensible world in sensible terms.

Thus Groundhog Day reminds us, that, despite the painstaking development of human knowledge, we still dream: we elevate an essentially meaning-less reality to a “magical” dimension, so to speak, one that is rife with all sorts of thought products whose sole function is to conjure and convey meaning, through language.

Despite our “advanced” knowledge of meteorology, we still believe—or maybe it’s that we feign the belief, and believe just enough in that—that Phil, the little sciolist who ironically enough we pretend him to be, and his Groundhog Day, may someday tell us something new about the transition of the seasons, something our weatherpersons cannot tell us: the impossible: that the arrival of springtime may someday defy all that we know, that springtime may actually arrive earlier than calculated. How fascinating it is that we act as if we believe in such an absurdity. How fascinating (and perplexing) it is, that on Groundhog Day, we honor the absurdly impossible.

It is telling. Telling that our collective knowledge of the world, replete with all its “objective certainties” and scientific facticity, is held in abeyance during this precise moment—the 2nd of February, Groundhog Day—the celebration of an anticipation of an impossible event, a moment we can define as: when the structure of a system of knowledge transgresses the very limits and laws it sets up for itself, and culminates in superstitious folklore.

On Groundhog Day, what everyone is really celebrating is the ingenuity of imagination, Spirit, that which is always attempting to situate its “mobile home” in the gaps of our knowledge, and for that matter, in the gaps between signifier and signified. Isn’t Groundhog Day, then, quite an impressive example of how the gap between science and superstition, between signifier and signified, between knowledge and belief—a gap that connects the edges of the latter and former within the “total” sphere of our understanding of the world—is concealed by a dream, a dream that impinges upon the impossible, the unknown, the unconscious (which of course is always infringing upon us)?

Punxsutawney Phil, a supplement precisely for that which our knowledge is limited by: what we don’t know. And for that reason Groundhog Day reflects back to us the fact that we are all little sciolists—“persons who pretend to be knowledgeable and well informed”… No wonder, then, that this internal trait of ours is externalized onto, and transcribed into, that little Punxsutawney Phil. And it is no wonder that our prescient forecaster here is also sciophobic: afraid of his own shadow! For if he has even the slightest glimpse of the shadowy specter of his own self, it’s back underground he goes, a quick withdrawal and return to his groundhog world, whatever, and wherever, that may be.

Frank Smecker is the author of the upcoming Night of the World.

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