Always already

June 10th, 2008 § 0 comments

I’ve always been baffled when arts students use the phrase “always already”. So I decided to track down what it means.

Maybe ‘always already’ needlessly obscure jargon, and they just mean ‘always’. I eventually found an article in the TLS claiming just that:

Another breakdown [in coherent translation] is occasioned by the German colloquialism immer schon, which often becomes toujours-deja when translated into philosophica French; in English translations of German, it will normally and properly be translated as “always”, but translators of French may feel obliged to preserve the rather pointless French translationism by rendering it as the almost absurd “always-already”.

But I didn’t find that immediately. And I have a (possibly foolish) belief that people aren’t being needlessly obscure when they say things I don’t understand. Besides, there are a lot of people going around saying ‘always already’ at each other. They must mean something out of it.

I soon end up with Derrida. Although the online Encyclopedia articles about Derrida don’t highlight the phrase as significant (that would make life too easy), they do explain what he means by it. Sort of. There’s a lot of talk about things ‘always already’ having taken place – about how our experience of ‘now’ is really an experience of things that have just happened. I read and reread, and I still can’t figure out how this connects to people dropping ‘always already’ into every other sentence.
But maybe it doesn’t. Derrida is writing in French, so his ‘always already’ is ‘toujours déjà’. Which, suppposedly, he uses as a cryptic way to to sign his own name. Deja for DErrida, JAcques. So ‘toujours déjà’ would be ‘Derrida 4 Ever’ (I hate to think whether the same applies to DE-construction). So all those “always already”s are just students and writers playing along with a silly in-joke (doh!).

But what about that mention of ‘the German colloquialism immer schon’? All this is people writing about Derrida. Was Derrida translating from German?

Maybe. Wikipedia gives a much rougher explanation, but does at least mention Heidegger as the source of Derrida using the phrase ‘always already’. [Apparently a lot of French philosophers don’t mention their use of Heidegger, because of his connections to the Nazis. Curse them! Derrida wrote a lot about Heidegger, so he can’t really deny an influence. But none of the things I’ve been reading do a very good job of explaining which bits are Derrida’s own views, and which are lifted from Heidigger]

So..what did Heidegger mean by ‘always already’ (or ‘immer schon’, in his case)?
Here is a summary that’s fairly clear – and so, this being philosophy, almost certainly wrong:
– “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.

The various pages talking about this in Heidegger seem to lack any consensus on whether he lifted the phrase from Kant, or imbued the phrase with huge amounts of meaning himself, or if ‘immer schon’ is just his way of writing ‘always’ with a bit of emphasis.

So, two hours later, I still have no idea what people mean when they say ‘always already’. Are they parroting a mistranslation of a mistranslation? Are they alluding to a French pun? Are they talking about Derrida’s use of the phrase, or about Heidegger’s? Do they grok the differences between the two? (I sure as hell don’t).

The problem is, there’s no way I can look this stuff up. ‘always already’ isn’t marked out as a technical term in any way, and is barely defined anywhere (it’s in wikipedia and urban dictionary, but wikipedia articles on philosophy seem often to have completely the wrong end of the stick). So it’s great if I’ve already read the complete works of Heidegger and Derrida, or have a teacher on-hand to explain it all. But when you don’t, you just end up feeling grumpy.

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