Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"Always already"

I once offered a friend a beer for every time he used the phrase in a talk. He only managed two. Others have been more successful. The world record for "always already" always already belongs to Gayatri Spivak, whose introduction to Derrida's Of Grammatology contains at least twelve.

A more modest contender is Stephen Mulhall. His perceptive book about the 'Alien' series, On Film, has only four – but it is very short. Here is the first appearance:
From beginning to end, the 'Alien' films present us with small, isolated groups of human beings framed almost immediately against the infinity of the cosmos. Each individual's inhabitation of the universe appears unmediated by the more complex interweavings of culture and society, those systems of signification which always already determine the meaning of any actions and events encompassed by them [...]

My brief attempts to discover the meaning of "always already" suggest that it is, indeed, always already determined by a certain culture; translation or extraction is virtually impossible.

In one use, however – which apparently derives from Heidegger – "always already" seems to be involved in statements of essence. To say that F is always already G, on this reading, is to say that being G is part of what it is to be F, and, perhaps, that the very concept of an F can be fully grasped only through this connection. That would make sense of the passage above, and of the claim that reality is always already given to us through language.

But "always already" is imperialistic. It finds itself deployed in contexts where it has to mean something else. From later passages of Mulhall, On Film:

[David] Fincher has always already lost [...] faith in the significance of [suspense and fear as] narrative artifacts.

[...] Christianity has always already acknowledged the worst that nihilism can tell us [...]

[...] the generativity of her flesh has always already been exploited [...]

I have mixed feelings about this linguistic expansion. You might expect me to whine about it. But I can no longer do so without hypocrisy. I write in contrition, as someone who has used "always already" in conversation – without irony – and who has been tempted to use it in print. The time of the "always already" is always already here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wrote "always already" four times in the post yourself, not counting the phrase when it is put in quotation marks.

I think that "always already" is somewhat unconventionally used in everyday conversation as well as in writing. It can be indeterminately defined depending on the context. Or can you, as someone who uses the phrase, give it a clear meaning aside from "F is always already G"?

It seems that the phrase is always already redundant, and one is to choose either "always" or "already" as the adverb in place, but not both.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been taking it to mean the temporal sense of the past in Heidegger as being, in a sense, pluperfective, in thrownness. One discovers things not only as being a certain way but as having been that way when you got there such that they could not be or have been otherwise.

1:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The three "imperialistic" statements that you provide only seem to make sense as degradations of the "always already." Each is invoked in the present perfect, suggesting an indeterminate time in which said subject was "always already." This usage is at the least redundant; if something were "always already," it always will be "always already." At most, it's entirely nonsensical. I think the best bet is to stick with the simple present tense because the concepts of "being" and "presence" are inextricably intertwined.

As far as a definition goes, it seems that "always already" only attains force as a concept when it deals with the origins of language or the nature of consciousness, as in the way that our encounters with "reality" are always already re-presenting the thing itself. I've always thought of it this way: "always already" is the only way that our language can bring a nonpresence into being, and as such the only way to describe the gap between "reality" and representation.

4:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahem. Although Heidegger gets the blame for the 'always already', the real fault actually can be traced (at least!) to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. It is a task left to the prudent reader to find the "immer schon" in that tome. Its meaning is clear, and always already was... it has the same redundancy-for-emphasis (although with a different meaning) in Continental Philosophy that the "if and only if" holds in the logicophilic realms across the channel. (If and only if? What about only if! Always already? How 'bout always?)

7:56 AM  
Blogger Jane said...

You are awesome. This analysis of "always already" should be a must read for humanities grad students. :) I actually stumbled across this post while waffling about whether or not to use the term in a lecture I'm giving to a crowd that really, really likes Heidegger. Thanks to you, I'm going with it. I wish you were there to buy me a beer every time I say it!

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In The Plague of Fantasies, Zizek: "power is always already its own transgression."

12:02 PM  
Blogger alynngold said...

The always-already refers to the inability to deny that which we “know”. The idea that once something is uttered, read, written, thought, then it is part of our basis for all future assumptions, and in turn that which makes us fallible, i.e. human. It is that which both connects us to our specific time and forces a necessary denial of all that preceded it (this moment). The always-already puts time before this moment out of our grasp, because we are “always-already” re-contextualizing from this moment.

It may also be discussed in relation to necessary truths or apriori knowledge. Linguistically apriori knowledge is that which when stated is non-contradictory by definition. The always-already is an apriori phrase, because the words mirror rather than contradict. Always is defined as all the time; continuously; uninterruptedly. Already is defined as by this or that time; previously; prior to or at some specified or implied time. Thus, always may encompass all other demarcations of time. If some being has already occurred, then it has always-already occurred, thus its being is timeless. Thus the truth of the already is contained within the truth of the always. The “always-already” is premise and conclusion, it is whole.

However, the always-already seems to deny fixed knowledge (definition), thus in turn the always-already mocks the idea of concepts that are inherently concrete. And instead points out that the nature of thinking is such that we are bound by our assumptions, our nature, not the nature of knowledge itself. And by presenting the always-already as an apriori statement on the surface it asks us to reflect upon our preconceived notions of deductive logic and the concept of apriori knowledge. Questions that the always-already bring up: How can something so malleable as knowledge be fixed? How do my assumptions (my current knowledge) bind me to my specific place and time? Should a premise be viewed as a subjective or objective form of reasoning?

4:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in searching Derrida and always already i stumbled onto his description of deconstruction as well as this discussion. i simply wanted to post his mastering of the phrase:

deconstruction is not an operation that supervenes afterwards, from the outside, one fine day. It is always already at work in the work. Since the destructive force of Deconstruction is always already contained within the very architecture of the work, all one would finally have to do to be able to deconstruct, given this always already, is to do memory work.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips on understanding "always already." But note that "if and only if" does not contain a redundancy: "A if B" means "If B, then A," but "A only if B" means "If A, then B."

11:46 AM  

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