The writing of late French philosopher Jacques Derrida is really hard to understand. As with many French philosophes, his locution was halting, opaque, punning, and elliptical. Like many of his countrymen, he can blather on for minutes without saying anything of obvious or near significance. Listen to (and read), for instance, the quickly derailed rambling of Derrida’s contemporary Emmanuel Levinas, beginning at 4:35:
Nevertheless, amidst all of this wind, thinkers like Derrida have had tremendously important things to say on the most important subjects, though they unfortunately lacked the rhetorical skills to express themselves clearly. This is especially true of Derrida’s thoughts on the relationship between language, meaning, and God, which I hope to clarify, as well as the concepts and terminology he and his fellow theorists relied on.
One often hears from the religious that they simply cannot image a life without God. ‘How could your life having any meaning?’ is a question that usually arises in some form or another in conversation with the atheist. This a fair (yet ultimately offensive) question. Life without God can indeed be meaningless, but not necessarily so. What matters is that there is some idea – some goal – that provides meaning. What Derrida and his compatriot Jacques Lacan effectively demonstrated is that, far from God or any other entity having provided this meaning, (i.e. God is prior to meaning), the supposed existence or necessity of God is actually an effect of language, a kind of linguistic reified (and deified) mirage.
To understand how this can be so, it is important to understand exactly how language works. Take, for instance, the word “hamster.” According to modern linguistics (founded by Ferdinand de Saussure), there are three “levels” or aspects of any other word or symbol. The first level is that of the surface: the level of the written sign or “signifier.” The word “hamster,” for instance, is made up of individual letters that, when combined in the right order, spell out this unique signifier. Next is the layer of the symbol’s meaning, in this case, the idea that we get when we read or hear “hamster:” a small, toothy rodent that runs round and round in a wheel. This level is that of the “signified.” The final level is that of a real, particular hamster, as in, “Don’t squeeze my hamster.” In this case, “hamster” refers to the specific, three-dimensional creature in someone’s hands rather than the letters that make up the word (the signifier), or the abstract idea of what a hamster is (its signified). This last level is what Saussure and Derrida refer to as the “referent.”
In Jacque Lacan’s parallel typology, the signifier is synonymous with the Imaginary (the word or sign), meaning is coterminous with the Symbolic order (i.e. the signified), and the material referent corresponds to the Real.
Now, imagine listening to the words of your concerned friend in slow-motion, as if you were reading them one at a time: “Don’t – squeeze – my – hamster.” While we know the meaning of each word, they fit together like puzzle pieces to create a unique and specific meaning after the last word has been uttered. It is not until all of the words have been spoken that each one’s role becomes apparent, such that, in the end, they dissolve into each other to create a new, easily graspable message. According to Derrida, it is with this arrival of the last word that the meaning of the utterance snaps into a coherent, unified message; the intended meaning becomes, in Derrida’s words, fully “present.” Before the word “hamster,” the sentence could head in an infinite number of directions. In fact, all of the prior words are in the business of “deferring” the sentence’s final and singular meaning. It is for this reason that it is such a chore to read, say, the convoluted writings of Abraham Lincoln. It is not that he uses difficult words, but it is simply a matter of keeping track of the twists and turns of his syntax until the last word arrives and snaps all of the previous free-floating words and associations into place.
According to Derrida, all languages (i.e. language itself) function this way. Think of a dictionary. Each word in a dictionary is defined by other words, “signifiers,” which are in turn defined by other signifiers, and so on. At no point does a dictionary ‘end.’ Each linguistic marker points to other linguistic markers. It is for this reason that Derrida punningly calls language “differential:” each word is different from any other and can only be defined by other words, and, each word’s meaning is not fully transparent or “present,” but in a constant state of relation to and dependence on other words to fully express itself. (In French, differer means both “to differ” and “to defer” – hence the pun.)
According to Derrida, there is no ultimate ground to language: there is no word that possesses full presence itself, or provides this guarantee of presence to other words. Using his Saussurean jargon, Derrida claimed there is no “transcendental signifier” like “God” which furnishes language with its final or foundational meaning. All there is is a system of differential relationships between signifiers.
It is only at this point that Derrida’s rival Lacan disagrees. According to Lacan, many extant religions and belief systems do have this ultimate guarantor of presence from which all other words derive meaning. Lacan called these special signifiers “master signifiers.” In religion, these master signifiers are so many translations of the word God (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God…”). In secular philosophies, this word might be “humanity,” “nature,” “science,” etc. And in nationalism, the master signifier is the name of the nation itself, to which all people and principles are subordinate.
What is most interesting about these master signifiers is, according to Lacan, that they themselves possess no positive meaning. In many religions, the word “God” cannot be defined in positive terms, hence we have apophatic or negative theology, according to which God can only be described as things he is not (eg: not ignorant, not evil, not created, etc.). Or, remember that Islam has at least 99 names for Allah, all of which approximate or attempt to define Allah, whose real essence remains ineffable – unspeakable. Regardless of the religion, however, in each one, it is God who is the most important thing that there is, but whose significance is still mysterious or unfathomable.
In secular philosophies, it is a word like “science” which is most respected, but, again, science itself relies upon a divorce between what is empirically observed and the significance of what is observed, so science itself has no positive content but is merely a process for describing the behavior of energy and matter. Or, as one scholar once put it, science can tell us why the water in the teapot is boiling, but not why the the water has been put in the teapot in the first place (to make a drink for a friend, for instance). There is also the secular idea of love, the thing which most people pursue – sometimes even die for – but a word that lovers (and scholars like Freud) are wholly incapable of defining. And in nationalism, the idea is much the same. Ask a loyal German to define ‘Germanness’ or an American patriot to define ‘Americanness,’ and you can expect a lot of groping half-attempts at definitions. Master signifiers are paradoxically the most important things in our lives and yet entirely indescribable.
It is now much clearer as to why people like Derrida and his acolytes were derided as champions of nihilism. Because they denied the existence of transcendental signifiers, they implied that there was no foundation for language. And because language is the site of meaning-creation (to test this idea, try to think of a a way to express yourself without writing, saying, or doing something that would produce a signifier with an implied signified behind it), a world without meaningful language is therefore a world without meaning.
Lacan’s partial rebuttal is significant. He demonstrates that there is indeed meaning in this world, but that it occurs as a result of a (linguistic) illusion – the surrender to a master signifier – a signifier which itself has no signified or positive meaning, but nonetheless still suffuses the rest of language with meaning.
And what about the referent, you ask? According to Lacan, supposedly Real referents (such as God) possess no positive three-dimensional being either, i.e. they lie beyond space and time. Instead, Lacan says that these beings “ex-sist:” they are “real” only insofar as they maintain symbolic efficiency, meaning once they no longer inspire or provide any meaning (eg: Santa Claus is found not to exist), these once cherished ideas are demoted to the status of mere myth. Therefore, it is not God or Santa Claus or the nation state which supply meaning per se (much less exclusively), but rather the Kierkegaardian linguistic submission to these or any signifiers (in fact, Islam means “surrender”). Meaning is thus an effect of language and not contingent on the existence of any particular entity or the internal soundness of any “correct” belief system.
A linguistic or semiological understanding of religion makes it far easier to appreciate certain aspects of these religions, such as the near-worship of holy written texts and the alleged incomprehensibility or ineffability of God. It also makes far more sense why silence and linguistic nonsense are so prevalent across religions. In silence, for instance, the chain of ordinary signifiers and the anxiety of deferment are temporarily halted, and the idea of God, his presence, can be fully felt. The secular analogue, which is becoming increasingly popular in the West – after millennia of practice in the East – is silent meditation, during which a practitioner experiences the calmness that comes with muting the incessant monologue in one’s head.
Likewise, we have the ecumenical ubiquity of linguistic spontaneity across many religions, where full meaning is expressed in an explosion of mere sounds – regular words would not suffice – as in glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. Lacan would have explained glossolalia as the sublime intersection of the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real in the “sinthome” – the knot where all three levels or dimensions of language coincide in an irruption of jouissance, or pure pleasure (ideas he put forth in his analysis of James Joyce’s experiments with nonsense and sublimity). Similar to glossolalia is the Islamic practice of dhikr, in which a single religiously-connoted phrase is repeated ad nauseum until the differences between signifier, signified, and referent are gradually dissolved, and Allah’s presence becomes full and immediate. Some Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Christians have similar chanting rituals – all with the same intent.
The similarity among the various religious practices (and their secular analogues) makes greater sense once the common linguistic mechanisms that underlie them are understood on their own terms. What these observations (I hope) demonstrate is that rather than meaning or purpose being evidence of the existence of God (or the supremacy of science or the nation-state, etc.), the causality is the other way around. The supposed existence of divine beings is actually the result of a linguistic illusion: the falling of some ineffable signified (like the concept of God) into the realm of the signifiers (as the word “God”): the divine revelation of the Word (logos) in Genesis, the incarnation and descent of a transcendent God through an incarnate Jesus, and the gift of literacy to Muhammad are all excellent religious metaphors for this very linguistic process. Moreover, I hope that this overview proves that feelings of sublimity, presence, bliss, and transcendence are not only possible, but in fact accessible to anyone, religious or irreligious.