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!”