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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Deconstructing Derrida: Philosophy Club Week 4

It's a strange thing, but only a day or so after this past Thursday's Philosophy Club session devoted to the ideas of the 'father' of Deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, did I realize that never, at any point over the course of the evening, had the subject of Derrida's life come up. For wine women and philosophy, I believe this is a first. Over the past 6 years of philosophizing together, there is always some biographical detail of whoever we happen to be discussing that seeps into the conversation. But with Derrida, nada. Not a word about his birth in 1930 into a Sephardic Jewish family in Algeria; not a mention of his teaching appointments at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and the University of California, Irvine; not a whisper of his death at the age of 74 from pancreatic cancer. 

And perhaps, in a way, this is fitting. For the man best known for his coining of the now famous phrase, "there is nothing outside the text" (il n'y a pas de hors-texte), this omission of the biographical could be seen, perhaps, as the ultimate Derridean move. On the other hand, it could point to an understandable, if not entirely forgivable, oversight: a less than glaring absence wholly attributable to the relative blandness of Derrida's life story when compared to that of his more colourful Continental Philosopher confreres. Just seeing Derrida's life lined up alongside those that play a starring role in this latest Philosophy Club series on post-structuralism, for instance, supports this thesis: there is no murder of a wife and subsequent banishment to the insane asylum (Althusser); no death by laundry van after dining with President Mitterand (Barthes); no leather queen antics or controversial 'failure to disclose' stances following a diagnosis of AIDS (Foucault); no jumping from windows when handed - as Derrida was - a fairly dismal medical prognosis (Deleuze). No, it has to be said that Derrida's life doesn't exactly leap off the page (leap out of the text?!) when compared to that of his friends and colleagues. 

At the same time, it can't be said that this prolific and prodigious writer and thinker never caused a stir. For example, when in 1992 Derrida's name was put forward to receive an honorary degree from Cambridge University, more than a few donnish feathers were ruffled. In fact, what should have been, as the French say, "une simple formalite", turned into a bit of debacle, with certain senior members of the voting committee staunchly protesting his nomination on the grounds that what he was doing in the name of philosophy was not real philosophy, and even more worryingly, that his misguided contributions to the field threatened to dismantle the whole Western project known as philosophy. 

In the end, Derrida got his degree. But not before the debate over what, exactly, constituted Philosophy with a capital 'P' and who, exactly, got to call themselves a Philosopher (again, with a capital 'P') had shifted into the public forum and filled a good many inches of British newspaper. It was, in the eyes of some, a major showdown in a field not always seen as particularly newsworthy. It was, in Derrida's view, a perfect illustration of the kind of tyrannical hold that logocentric, origin-fixated, identity-based 'what is' thinking has always had on philosophy - a hold that his expose of the limitations inherent in seeing the world in terms of binary oppositions and his playful debunking of the age-old quest for a "transcendental signified" was actively challenging.

Er, right...So here we were again, caught up in that old de Saussurian love triangle: signified, signifier, sign. And not without the odd groan and grumble too. But the night was young. And hope lay in that dangling carrot of an adverb, 'playful'. Not that there had been much playfulness to speak of in our assigned reading for the week, Derrida's "Letter to a Japanese Friend" - none, at least, that was immediately apparent. Not that Derrida's attempts to clarify for Professor Izutsu the ins and outs of 'deconstruction' in order that the latter come up with a suitable Japanese translation of the word left us feeling any more in (the inner post-structuralist circle) than out. 

But as we struggled on in our quest to unpack deconstruction alongside other key Derridean terms -  differance, ecriture, supplement, pharmakon - Derrida's insistence that we embrace the play, hence proliferation, of meaning (rather than pin meanings down into single stable categories) and that we apply to structures, too, this same kind of thinking - seeing them as a 'play of relations' rather than as solid immovable entities attached to a central point of origin - brought with it a glimmer of insight into just what play could do. Furthermore, as he gently poked holes in de Saussure's limited understanding of difference - and this, in spite of the crucial role it occupies in de Saussure's conception of language as a system, as a structure, organized around the arbitrary relationship of signifier to signified - we began to see Derrida's deconstructive play at work. As Derrida pointed to the inconsistencies inherent in de Saussure's insistence that language was a system of differential relations whilst adhering, still, to the idea of an ordering and stable sign, the idea of play as a fraying and fracturing force - not a frolic with a game plan - became clearer still. 

This tendency towards inconsistency Derrida also saw in de Saussure's privileging of speech over writing, because it was - as de Saussure argued - that much closer to original thought. Challenging de Saussure's positing of writing as speech's poorer cousin - a watered-down derivative of, a step yet further removed from, active and fully in-the-now talk - Derrida not only counters this privileging of presence and origins by making writing his life's primary concern; he also shows how even difference-sensitive de Saussure falls into the Western philosophical trap of creating hierarchies through binary thinking (in this case, the privileging of presence over absence) and moreover, an identity-based binary opposition in which difference can find no identify, slips completely between the cracks. In privileging speech's inferior 'other', Derrida doesn't so much reverse the binary opposition as topple it: pushing difference into the equation and creating of it a writing, a textuality, that has a politics and is, in itself, a political intervention.

As for his famous statement that "there is nothing outside the text," Derrida always maintained that this idea - like so many of his ideas -  had been largely misunderstood. This, in part, because we are so used to comprehending things by way of those either/or, present/absent binary oppositions - that frustratingly reductive "you're either with us or against us thinking"; this, in part, because of our inability to see language as the structuring mechanism it is - as the only context through which we come to see and think our world. Replace the word 'context' with 'text,' Derrida seemed to be saying, and people wouldn't really have been so alarmed by it. 

And contrary to what people might have thought, Derrida was extremely concerned with what lay outside the text: things like the living and breathing and feeling affective body; things like those rare and odd human experiences that came to us unmediated by language and that worked away in us and on us prior to their taming by, and pinning down into, inadequate words. Suggesting that the only way to truly 'capture' those material aspects of life in writing would be to tap a syringe-like pen directly into a vein and let the body's life force pour straight out there onto the page, Derrida was somewhat pessimistic about ever getting to the real real of life through anything that stung of language. But in writing and rewriting and unwriting, he wrote difference into the picture. And he gave us an entirely fresh and revolutionary insight into making the meanings we think we have to live by anew - over and over and over and over again.