Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte: a note on the (UFO) phenomenon and text

The title of this post takes its cue from a famous—and notoriously misconstrued—sentence in Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Even the translator must offer two versions (“There is nothing outside of the text”, “there is no outside-text”) neither of which quite successfully communicate the sense of the French original, which is as much determined as complicated (as is the wont of Derrida’s style) by its context, namely the sentences that precede it:

Yet if reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content would take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above; as regards the absence of the referent or the transcendal signifier. There is nothing outside of the text…. (158)

It is not my intent to double this excerpt of Derrida’s text in the form of a commentary or exegesis, but to place it here, partially in its context, as evidence of its complexity and to suggest that the use I propose to make of it, the work I want to put it to, is likewise not so simple (and hence not so simply dismissed).

In my previous post I distinguished the UFO mythology (all that is said or written about the UFO, including artworks) from the Unidentified Flying Object itself, that cause of the stimulus of the experience that is consequently reported, a distinction that invokes that common sense one between word and thing, between, what Derrida terms above, text and referent. I know some (and here I use the logical sense of ‘some’, one of a set or all but one of a set…) would set aside all that is said about the object all the better to seize the object itself, to grasp the referent apart from, i.e., outside, the text (i.e., and this is key, independent of textuality). If we cut to the quick, turning our back on all that “talk”—the UFO books, articles, blogs, movies, television, etc.—and attend to those texts nearest the experience of the object they are about, namely the witness report, how close to the object can we get? Can we get outside of the text, free of textuality?

On the one hand, it is not unwarranted to begin with the witness report. As is well-known in ufological circles, it was in the opening pages of Jacques Vallée’s first book, Anatomy of a Phenomenon (1965), that an important first principle was laid down: “The phenomenon under study is not the UFO, which is not reproducible at will in the laboratory, but the report written by the witness” (vii). Of course, one wants to interject here that the story is not so simple: the witness report is perhaps more often than not dictated by the witness to an investigator, an investigator who themself is no mere passive recording instrument, but often asking questions, guiding or directing the witness’ report, moreover, at times, in their doubling of the text of the witness’ story—in their recording of it, in their “taking it down”—, condensing, extrapolating, paraphrasing, etc. There would have been no “flying saucer flap” if a journalist listening to Kenneth Arnold’s “witness report” hadn’t spontaneously coined the expression “flying saucer” to catch and communicate more vividly than Arnolds’ own words an element of his witness testimony. On the other hand, of course, less patient readers will already have accused me of loading the dice, starting with an instance of text: what’s important is the object, the cause of the stimulus that gave rise to the report, what the report refers to….

So, if we approach that object yet closer, leaving behind the words of the witness report, whether more or less those of the witness or not, to the experience of the object, do we get “outside the text”, free of textuality? The typical experience is of an anomalous object, something unrecognizable. I make what might seem a pointlessly obvious claim here; however, not all witness reports are of anomalous objects: “I saw a Pleiadian beamship silently hovering over the valley,” or “a Bob Lazar ‘sports model’ zipped straight up and out of sight.” Such reports are of, as it were, recognizable objects; indeed, much the same could be said for any identification of a strange light or unusual flying object immediately as “a UFO” or “flying saucer” however much more general such an identification is. Where such sightings operate by seeing the object as an instance of a more general, existing category, the experience of an anomalous object demands the witness search for concepts to make sense of it; the anomalous object is not re-cognized but demands that it be cognized. Arnold’s experience is instructive: the sighting was an extended struggle to identify, then, failing that, to describe the objects observed. Are they experimental jet aircraft? The echelon moves like the tail of a kite. The craft move like a saucer skipped over water….The process to make sense of what is seen is characterized by questions, statements (guesses), comparisons, etc., i.e., instances of language. After the objects disappear, the witness, in dwelling on what was seen, in the continued effort to wrap their mind around it, frames the experience as a narrative: I was doing this, then I noticed that, then…, finally… The experience of an anomalous object, during and after, is, in its linguistic articulation, to turn a phrase, “textured.”

Indeed, one could go further: the object as an object is textured in this way or “textualized”. Following Kant, the object is first and foremost a synthesis—of shape, colour, motion, sound, etc. If we are persuaded by the thesis that thought depends on language (as argued, first, by Hamann and Herder) and that perception is formed by it (as in the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis), then the categories by which we make sense of the specific sensuous qualities of the object are given by language: the object was crescent-shaped, it appeared metallic, it was soundless, it gave off a sulphurous odour, etc. Even if one disagrees with this strain of thought, the object-as-synthesis is still textured: its characteristics are determinate (it is oval, not circular or triangular or…; it was unilluminated; it moved quickly not slowly, irregularly not smoothly,…) only because these determinations are themselves structured like a language (roughly, what Derrida above refers to as writing or text in general).

It is the failure to understand this insight that breeds so much confused misunderstanding. Derrida famously draws on the structural linguistics of Saussure, for whom the structure of language is constructed diacritically, i.e., on the basis of difference. No term in a language, no phoneme, grapheme, morpheme, etc. is what it is by being self-identical but by virtue of its being not any of all the other elements of the language system. This notion of a differential (diacritical) structure finds its original formulation in Spinoza: omnes determinatio est negatio: all determination is negation, a thesis with fateful consequences. It is in this sense that even if the empirical qualities of the object are not first supplied and organized by a natural language (American English, French, etc.), for them to be determinate at all they are so by dint of their being distinguished from what they are not. The object, even if uncategorizable, unrecognizable, anomalous is, in an important sense, a text, text being just such a weave of diacritically distinguished elements. There is nothing of the object apart from (outside) the text (in general), nothing consciousness can grasp.

The consequences of this line of thought are all the more grave when applied to any possible knowledge of the Unidentified Flying Object, for any knowledge worthy of the name will be articulate, determinate, i.e., textual. Those who want to or think they can get outside the text to get a hold of the object in itself fail to understand that such a reaching after knowledge (if that’s what it is) exceeds its grasp: outside the text there is no knowledge. Just like those who view the UFO as an object of gnosis, an object of mystical, ineffable experience, our ufological “realist” (who wants the thing not the word, the referent not the text, the unidentified flying object itself) must in the end agree with the final proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darübuer muss man schweigen; roughly, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Coming soon: “Rumour, myth, text—and metamaterials!”

7 thoughts on “Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte: a note on the (UFO) phenomenon and text

    1. Can’t say that book has crossed my browing path, no. You wouldn’t believe what’s on my reading and writing list these days, so forgive me if I don’t get to it anytime soon, however important in itself such crosscultural philosophical work in fact is…

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  1. I only bring it up because this passage in your post: “The object, even if uncategorizable, unrecognizable, anomalous is, in an important sense, a text, text being just such a weave of diacritically distinguished elements. There is nothing of the object apart from (outside) the text (in general), nothing consciousness can grasp.”…. reminded me of the fact that not all schools of thought which see reality as constructed through language agree on the actual relationship between reality and language. If I may include here a brief excerpt from the book in question:

    “Nagarjuna… [sees] language expressing vikalpa or imaginary constructions that play over the surface of the real without giving access to it. According to this interpretation … language does not participate in or point to reality but only obscures it. For spiritual realization to occur overt and inner language use must be silenced through the practices of philosophical reductum ad absurdum argument and meditation. Derrida … disagrees with this view and sees the dynamic difference that characterizes reality as composing the nature of language itself … for Derrida, language participates in the reality it manifests and is therefore able to function as a means of realization. This disagreement over the function of language is the more significant since both Derrida and Nagarjuna view the nature of the real in terms of difference. … But whereas Derrida finds this difference that is constantly changing, constantly deconstructing itself, to be the very essence of language, Nagarjuna … places the locus of that difference outside of language … [and in his] view the names and concepts of language that we give to objects are merely conventional yet, due to our uncritical ordinary mental function, we take them to be real.”

    Leaving aside the specificities and name dropping, this “differing on difference” strikes me as extrapolatable to any number of contexts and potentially relevant to what you were talking about since it is possible – for a given observer, including one who has experienced an “encounter” of some sort – to envision and factor in the role that language plays in determining “their” version of the real without necessarily agreeing that “there is nothing of the object apart from (outside) the text (in general), nothing consciousness can grasp.” Hence, perhaps, the existence of a radical skepticism that does not completely discount a transcendental reality-beyond-language even as it doesn’t hold back in pulling at the seams of constructed accounts of the “unexplainable”. Which perhaps goes some way into explaining why people of a decidedly rationalistic and agnostic bent still find themselves so viscerally fascinated by the supra-linguistic “mystery” that UFOs typically conjure up.
    “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” indeed, but can one ever be truly silent? I doubt it.

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    1. First, by ‘object’, I do not refer to a real thing, but a synthesis of qualia in space and time performed by the subject, transcendental or otherwise. So it’s not a question of text and referent–as the referent is always already “present” only as an effect: of the spontaneity of the subject and what the subject has to work with formally and materially (e.g., the empty forms of intuition space and time and the empirical sensuous concepts of colours, shapes, motion, sound, etc. The referent here thought as some real thing is a thing-in-itself, by which I denote _only_ that consciousness need something given to it not of its own making to form into an perception and knowledge. So it’s not a question of word and world (is not the word part of the world?) but only of articulating the conditions of possibility of perception and knowledge strictly _immanently_.

      That is to put it all too roughly and forcefully, in my note, at least, there is no relation between language on one side and some pre-existing language independent “reality” on the other, as we could never have access to this latter and after all ‘reality’ is itself only another diacritically determined sign in various language games…

      I do concur with the last sentence of the cited passage (an observation Saussure makes, too) that the conventional sign is taken for something natural. But note how the clause “names and concepts of language that we give to objects” casts the matter as if there were on one side a world of self-sufficient things while on the other a word hoard of nouns; language is surely not the latter…

      My note here adopts a Kantian inflection of Derrida’s famous statement to argue there is nothing we can know aside from or outside the conditions of knowledge. There is a very subtle satirical tack, here, too, directed at those all too eager to pursue and grasp the thing itself, forgetting that to grasp it they have to have hands, fingers, etc….

      All that being said, Derrida’s ontology (his being a realist or anti-realist) is up for debate. That terrifyingly various and copious scholar Michael Marder has written on this question: _The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism_ (https://utorontopress.com/9781442612655/the-event-of-the-thing/)

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  2. Nothing to disagree with in the above; my only point was that there is perhaps a way to justify a scepticism that lives alongside a notion of “some pre-existing language-independent “reality””. This is not my view, but it likely is (even if not formulated and argued as such) the view of some “who view the UFO as an object of gnosis, an object of mystical, ineffable experience” without engaging in mystical/religious practices. Which is why Derrida may not really hit home with them (assuming that is, inter alia, what you were aiming at with this post), because they may already consider themselves sceptical enough, and view any attempt to “fold” language in on itself as uninteresting sophistry. So I’m not in disagreement with what you are saying, just trying to work out how some of these UFO “gnostics” (or agnostics for that matter) might interpret your argument.

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    1. First, a skepticism with regards to what?

      Second, when I write of those who grasp the UFO as an object of gnosis, I write of folks who very much _do_ view it in religious, spiritual, or even magical terms! There are _some_ (Jacques Vallée?) who might be touched by references to some “theses” of Derrida’s, but most would either shrug their shoulders or point to that reception of Derrida that sees him as a latter day traveller on the via negativa.

      As to how my various readers with their various onto-spiritual investments might receive what I write, I have long ago accepted that “the text is fatherless”… Happily, there are some who twig with some posts and with whom I am lucky enough to converse…

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