A nightmare scene: our vibrant student minds reduced to a brainless blob! Who cast this malevolent spell? Perhaps it was nefarious alchemy wrought by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who stated with slitting simplicity that, prior to language, “thought is merely a vague shapeless mass” (de Saussure in Allan, 316). Language possesses us and subjects us to its means of expression. We see and become ourselves within the limitations of our cultural purview. What’s more, even when we form our thoughts into words, we are separate from our selves, whose being was doing the original thinking. It’s as though language parasitizes our thought like alien spores. Scary stuff, given we usually believe that we think and speak for ourselves.
Our minds can be a spooky wood to traverse. This much we know when we consider what we are thinking apart from we who are doing the thinking. Jacques Derrida agrees with de Saussure that language structures our thought because language is written into us like programming: our cultural means of expression inscribe themselves upon us like a series of ritualistic tattoos. (Cue creepy children’s voices singing ‘a,b,c,d,e,f,g…’)
Every thought that becomes words is, in this sense, text; for Derrida the spoken word is reducible to the written word because language is inscribed into our minds as though we were a living blackboard. Meaning is imposed upon us from without while any true meanings remain forever displaced, leaving only a trace, as the absence of one meaning leaves behind a ghostly residue so that another meaning may appear in turn. This is because each word gets its definition by its difference (for Derrida differance) from all other words; thus, any final meaning or original referent is displaced off into infinity (Allan, Pp. 317-318). “In the final analysis, language is meaningless because meaning is based on deference, not difference” (Allan, 321). An utterance attains meaning only by temporarily holding at bay, or deferring, all other meanings so it may imagine a space for itself.
Meaning thus remains fleeting, a haunting—that which is present, yet not. And we can never know who or what we are prior to, yet outside of language we are reduced to a quivering mass of shadowy uncertainty and sibylline incoherence. The very language that allows us to express ourselves insidiously functions to immure our thoughts within its bounds, such that creativity may merely be an illusion that, in reality, produces evermore conformity. “Language by its nature is writing, a violent inscribing of other. Signs and words carry reference to other signs and words. They quietly, surely, and simply imply one another.” (Allan, 320) We are trapped in a labyrinth; language is our only way to make verbal sense of the world.
Like repressed evil forces about to spring forth following the proper incantation, the absent other meanings of a word like truth are the very means by which the term attains its meaning. Truth needs falsehood for its visage to appear; without these external definers truth washes away as the tide of reality floods ashore. Truth is everywhere and nowhere like a ghost. And everyone knows a ghost can never be killed because it is already dead.
So too with identity. In his analysis of Byron Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’, Derrida describes the human, all too human, fear of being buried alive. A lack of certainty about who one is may produce existential fear the more one investigates the fragility of selfhood. It’s like being stalked by a dark pursuer. As with words defined by their difference from other words, our identity is defined by the absence of other identities. These Others are necessary to create a wraith of self amidst the ruins of denied Otherness within oneself; for a stable identity to occur we must be who we believe we are without too many internal contradictions. If this spooky chorus of possible selves met the light of day of our consciousness we could be overtaken by a fear that our stable self was being submerged:
“Robinson Crusoe’s fundamental fear, the fundamental, foundational fear, the basic fear from which all other fears are derived and around which everything is organized, is the fear of going to the bottom, precisely, of being “swallow’d up alive”…of sinking alive to the bottom, of sinking and being dragged down to the depths, as much because of an earthquake as because of wild or savage beasts, or even because of human cannibals.” (Derrida, P. 122).
At bottom there are held back forces of destruction: everything we imagine ourselves not to be when we speak of what and who we are. We assume that we have a self as we assume that language reflects reality. Yet, as Kenneth Allan notes:
“There is no center. By a quirk of logic, there never has been a center. Everything that humans have tried to use as a center for their systems of knowing actually exists outside the system. And something that exists outside of a system by definition cannot be within the system, let alone its center.” (Allan, 321). If we aren’t the centre of ourselves then are we in the belly of the beast of language?
Language threatens to devour us as we assume personages and identities: the mask of difference from others that we don to attain selfhood is easily sheared away. For Louis Althusser: “it is impossible to access the “Real conditions of existence” due to our reliance on language…we are always within ideology because of our reliance on language to establish our “reality”; different ideologies are but different representations of our social and imaginary reality” not a representation of the Real itself…the thing ideology (mis)represents is itself already at one remove from the real.” (Alhusser in Felluga, online). Thinking we have a stable identity is not the same as being what we are, whatever that may be. Ideology spawns a reality to suit its image.
When we seek for ourselves we are really looking outside ourselves from a place of self. This circular inward gaze from a hypothetical outside could be akin to being possessed by a demon chasing her own tail. The presence of some self-defining traits requires the absence of other traits and it is these soft boundaries between self and other, whose permeability is far truer than any apparent demarcations, that are all that holds us in place in our mental world and the ogres of madness cordoned off in another. We risk burial alive if we do not hold onto our fictitious sense of self; Hallowe’en is a rare opportunity to embrace plurality and play in this sense. We can, for a day, be whatever and whomever we wish.
Hallowe’en provides a rare occasion for the realization of the fact that reality is constructed discursively by ideologies to legitimize their own existence. The punk band the Dead Kennedys, in a song titled Hallowe’en once sang:
“You’re dressed up like a clown/
Putting on your act/
It’s the only time all year you’ll ever admit that”
(Dead Kennedys, online).
The grim certainty of the Hallowe’en masquerade is that it unmasks the reality that life itself, and the language we use to identify ourselves and others, are performances that conceal the sordid truth that, behind our masks of words, behind our costumes of culture, our essential being remains shackled to the extent that words and expressions fall short of the original meaning our spirit intended. “As soon as the music leaves your head it’s already compromised”, claimed the rock critic Jack Brewer, and the dark truth may be that as soon as we express ourselves we devolve away from the very selves we seek to illustrate. This process of expression through socially acceptable channels implies repression; Herbert Marcuse in his 1962 book ‘One Dimensional Man’ termed this repressive desublimation (Ceasefire Magazine, online).
Perhaps the most authentic zombies are we who realize just how mindless we are by the very fact that we are aware of our own minds and that there is space between the two. Reflecting on our own thoughts reveals the distance between the I and the me and the terrifying-yet-delightful difficulty in creating for ourselves the perfect existential costume that reflects the inexpressible.