Monthly Archives: November 2009

an introductory plea

In this first post on the blog (!), I’m going to indulge briefly in one of what will probably be many opportunities to voice a recurrent annoyance of mine, re: what seem to me to be too facile dismissals of Derrida’s work based on basic misunderstandings. “How surprising!” you retort sarcastically, “a Derrida fan who wants to defend his brilliance against all his detractors.” Be that as it may, here are tonight’s two cents:

Derrida is too often accused of repeating some transcendental or idealist move that we’re all supposed to be moving beyond by now, whether it be Kantian, Hegelian, even (strangely enough) Husserlian or Heideggerian – or some combination of these parts with each other or with others. Derrida himself complains from fairly early on that his positions are too often conflated with those he is analyzing, but that’s a different point than the one I want to make.  What’s on my mind now is the claim that the so-called linguistic turn of which Derrida is identified as a late representative automatically amounts, precisely because of its focus on language as an inescapable facet of human experience, to some variety of either idealism or humanism or both. My first response to this would be to point out the serious differences between the treatments of language in Derrida’s early texts and other positions that I think more properly represent what gets called the linguistic turn (e.g., Schlick, Quine, Austin, or on the other hand certain parts of Heidegger). But that’s for another time; my second response, the one that’s on my mind now, would be to emphasize that for Derrida (and of course I’m in agreement here) what is of general applicability in language is actually what exceeds confinement within the human. Thus his focus on textuality rather than language as such. Textuality is found as much in the interactions of subatomic particles or proteins or weather patterns as it is in …well, what we normally call “texts.”

So this is the point I want to stress: there is nothing inherently idealist (or even exactly “transcendental”, despite all the quasi-transcendentals) about deconstruction. While it’s more accurate to say that Derrida’s work aims at a deconstruction of the idealist/materialist dichotomy, it seems to me more closely allied with the second item of this pair (a not-uncommon deconstructive move!). Language is, after all as material as anything else. Our words occur as paper and ink, electricity and light, vibrations in the air, etc.

What has kept all this stuck in my head recently is a developing interest in object-oriented philosophy, especially that of Latour. My (limited) experience with Latour’s work so far makes me think that he and Derrida would be on the same side of many an argument, yet this certainly doesn’t seem to be a widely shared interpretation. Toward the beginning of Harman’s book on Latour, he calls an apparent agreement between Derrida and Latour re: meaning and metaphor “a normally unthinkable alliance” (24). Why should this be so? It seems to me to reflect a fairly uncharitable (though, as I said, fairly common) reading of Derrida.