Monday, August 16, 2010

Derrida - Writing and Difference, Chapters 1-3

1. Force and Signification

In this essay, Derrida looks at Jean Rousset's Form and Signification in order to say a few words about structuralism more generally. He avers that it is a good thing that thought today receives its impulse from an anxiety about language, and that the concerns of structuralism are not a passing phase.

Much of the article is concerned with the concept of force, which Derrida believes is a by product of language's power of signification. Because the signifier is always in excess, meaning more than it is supposed to, the writer's intended meaning cannot contain it; this is the force of language. "Force is not darkness, and it is not hidden under a form for which it would serve as substance, matter, or crypt. Force cannot be conceived on the basis of an oppositional couple, that is, on the basis of the complicity between phenomenology and occultism. Nor can it be conceived, from within phenomenology, as the fact opposed to meaning."

Structuralism no doubt opens a new space within which to understand texts, but at the same time, in attempting to find a structure without regard for language's internal force, the search for form hides as much as it illuminates: "Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself." All literary criticism is the search for form, which is a sign that literary creativity is no longer at work. "Criticism henceforth knows itself separated from force." Derrida wants to make clear that structuralism, which is the same as literary criticism, is thus a kind of violence to a text, destructive and destructuring. It creates a universe that is added to the universe of the text. As Allan Megill explains, "this inability to conceive of force has been carried over into modern structuralism, which is biased toward - or determined by - a force-excluding metaphoric of space that in its form and in its implications is closely connected to the central philosophical metaphor of light. As Derrida points out, the notion of structure 'refers only to space, geometric or morphological space, the order of forms and sites'.... Modern structuralism, then, is only the most recent manifestation of the persistent Apollonianism of Western philosophy" (216).

Another set of key concepts that will run throughout the first couple essays of Writing and Difference is presence, light and seeing. Derrida claims that the metaphor of darkness and light (or self-revelation and self-concealment) is the founding metaphor of Western philosophy as metaphysics. Structuralism falls within this tradition, as it is a kind of violent making present of the text, but the text itself, the "pure book," is invested in an absence. The text "naturally turns toward the eastern edge of this absence which, beyond or within the prodigiousness of all wealth, is its first and proper content." Writing a pure book means having lost theological certainty. This absence of divine writing defines modernity. To write purely one must have no preconception of meaning: "it is to lower meaning while simultaneously elevating inscription." As Merleau Ponty said, "my own words take me by surprise and teach me what I think." Writing is a risk, with no guarantees. "The notion of an Idea or interior design as simply anterior to a work which would supposedly be the expression of it is a prejudice." Writing always carries with it the possibility of failure, which is a mark of its pure finitude and pure historicity.

Part II of the article is devoted to Rousset's reading of Corneille, which I am not equipped to explain, but I think the main point is to demonstrate what he had established in the first part, which is that while a structuralist reading illuminates certain aspects of a text, it also tends to cover over the internal force of language. Structuralist analysis "is only metaphorical, it will be said. Certainly. But metaphor is never innocent. It orients research and fixes results." The problem with structuralism is that it presupposes and appeals to the theological simultaneity of the book: "simultaneity is the myth of a total reading or description, promoted to the status of a regulatory ideal." "In this demand for the flat and the horizontal, what is intolerable for structuralism is indeed the richness implied by the volume, every element of signification that cannot be spread out into the simultaneity of a form." Structuralism claims not to care about finality or telos, but every structure, in seeking wholeness, is guided by that aim: "It is true that the rejection of finalism is a rule, a methodological norm, that structuralism can apply only with difficulty. The rejection of finalism is a vow of infidelity to telos which the actual effort can never adhere to. Structuralism lives within and on the difference between its promise and its practice. Whether biology, linguistics, or literature is in question, how can an organized totality be perceived without reference to its end, or without presuming to know its end, at least?"

Derrida also spends some time clarifying the deconstructive procedure, which is not to opt for the lower term of western philosophy's metaphysical oppositions, but rather to offer new models that alter such opposition: "Our intention here is not, through the simple motions of balancing, equilibration or overturning, to oppose duration to space, quality to quantity, force to form, the depth of meaning or value to the surface of figures. Quite to the contrary. To counter this simple alternative, to counter the simple choice of one of the terms or one of the series against the other, we maintain that it is necessary to seek new concepts and new models, an economy escaping this system of metaphysical oppositions. If we appear to oppose one series to the other; it is because from within the classical system we wish to make apparent the noncritical privilege naively granted to the other series by a certain structuralism. Our discourse irreducibly belongs to the system of metaphysical oppositions. The break with this structure of belonging can be announced only through a certain organization, a certain strategic arrangement which, within the field of metaphysical opposition, uses the strengths of the field to turn its own stratagems against it, producing a force of dislocation that spreads itself throughout the entire system, fissuring it in every direction and thoroughly delimiting it."

2. Cogito and the History of Madness

In this essay, Derrida analyzes a few pages on Descartes from the introduction of Foucault's Madness and Civilization, asking: 1) is Foucault's interpretation of Descartes justified? 2) Is it possible to root out the presuppositions of Foucault's history of madness? Foucault says he wants to let madness speak for itself, to avoid the trap of using reason to catch madness, to dig up what has remained silent. But where should the logic of this archaeology be situated? Is it possible to totally disengage from totality, from reason, to let something supposedly "outside" speak for itself? Of course, Foucault officially avows to work within reason to destroy it, but here he wants a "relativity without recourse" and a "language without support." Derrida believes his claim is unjustified, since he is no more able than anyone else to escape from the language of reason.

Foucault understands Descartes as having been the first to expel madness in an "act of force," for he considered it simply an impossibility. Derrida disagrees, saying that Descartes doesn't exclude madness but rather brings it to a hyperbolical exasperation. While Foucault thinks Descartes wanted to neutralize the originality of madness in order to make it the Cogito's other, Derrida thinks that one only gets to the Cogito through the total madness embodied in the malin genie. If Derrida is right, Foucault's whole project is trouble, for if the Cogito only emerges through total madness, the desire to let madness speak for itself is a gesture of strengthening the Cogito. Not only that, but Foucault would have done an extreme disservice to the radicality of the Cartesian project (by nevertheless participating in it).

Another way of illustrating the difference between Foucault and Derrida on this point is through Derrida's dictum, il n'y a pas de hors-texte: madness for Derrida is something that is necessarily implicated in Cogito, whereas madness is directly external to Cogito for Foucault. There is an outside for the historicist Foucault, no outside for the literary analyst Derrida. In Foucault's reponse, he asks "could there be something prior or external to the philosophical discourse? Can the condition of this discourse be an exclusion, a refusal, an avoided risk, and, why not, a fear? A suspicion rejected passionately by Derrida. Pudenda origo, said Nietzsche with regard to religious people and their religion."

Allan Megill believes Derrida is right in thinking that Foucault remains bound up in a "spatial metaphoric that is force-excluding" (232). "In his critique of History of Madness, Derrida points out that Foucault is, by his own argument, trapped within 'logocentrism,' within the general historical guilt borne by Western language. For whatever his claims to be resurrecting the silent language of an oppressed madness, Foucault continues to speak the language of the very reason that carried out the oppression in the first place. In short, he is still caught within [and strengthening] the all-powerful order that he is seeking to evade.... Derrida's characteristic response to the historical guilt that in his view inevitably accompanies Western reason is to engage in a play with the text" (233).

3. Edmond Jabes and the Question of the Book

This chapter is about the connection between writing and the Jews, "a race born of the book." Because "the poet is the subject of the book, its substance and its master, its servant and its theme. And the book is indeed the subject of the poet, the speaking and knowing being who in the book writes on the book," there is an intimate connection between Judaism and poetry, albeit one of seeking antagonism: "Poetry is to prophecy what the idol is to truth. It is perhaps for this reason that in Jabes the poet and the Jew seem at once so united and disunited, and that the entire Livre des questions is also a self-justification addressed to the Jewish community which lives under heteronomy and to which the poet does not truly belong. Poetic autonomy, comparable to none other, presupposes broken Tables." The horizon of the original text falls within the realm of poetry, but its exegesis within that of the rabbi. There will always be rabbis and poets because the gap between the original text and its interpretation can never be closed.

In Jabes, God is not simple because God opens the question of God. God is not truthful but duplicitous. He no longer speaks to us and forces us to take up our own words instead. "We must be separated from life and communities, and must entrust ourselves to traces, must become men of vision because we have ceased hearing the voice from within the immediate proximity of the garden." God gives us existence by naming us, but in naming existence is sacrificed to the word. Absence is introduced in naming, absence of locality, absence of immediate contact. Because all poetry touches upon this absence, "A poem always runs the risk of being meaningless, and would be nothing without this risk of being meaningless, and would be nothing without this risk." Because God is duplicitous and appears with absence, "Whether he is Being or the master of beings, God himself is, and appears as what he is, within difference, that is to say, as difference and within dissimulation."

A book is split between literality and allegory, and thus the Jew is similarly split: "Between the too warm flesh of the literal event and the cold skin of the concept runs meaning. This is how it enters into the book. Every-thing enters into, transpires in the book. This is why the book is never finite. It always remains suffering and vigilant."

Derrida concludes with a summary of his view that the world is a book and il n'y a pas de hors-texte: "But—and this is the heart of the matter—everything that is exterior in relation to the book, everything that is negative as concerns the book, is produced within the book. The exit from the book, the other and the threshhold, are all articulated within the book. The other and the thresh-hold can only be written, can only affirm themselves in writing. One emerges from the book only within the book, because, for Jabes, the book is not in the world, but the world is in the book. The nonquestion of which we are speaking is the unpenetrated certainty that Being is a Grammar; and that the world is in all its parts a cryptogram to be constituted or reconstituted through poetic inscription or deciphering; that the book is original, that everything belongs to the book before being and in order to come into the world; that any thing can be born only by approaching the book, can die only by failing in sight of the book; and that always the impassible shore of the book is first."

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