Category Archives: Derrida

weighing in after the event

Being both someone who works with Derrida and regularly reads the blogs that I do, I picked a bad weekend to be out of town – or maybe a good one, depending on one’s reaction to all of this. (I can tell you that I was following along somewhat, and doing a lot of huffing and fidgeting.) Anyway, between my last short post and everything else that’s been said on and around Levi’s blog, I don’t think there’s anything for me to add (nor any real point in doing so). I will say, though, that I agree that “discussions” like this often get going more for tone-related reasons rather than substance-related reasons, and in my own experience the spark that lights the fuse is more often the dismissive-to-spiteful tone that detractors adopt toward Derrida than it is the hero worship on the other side. Of course, that’s not to say that reactionary defenses of Derrida can’t also get pretty spiteful…

But down at comment #86, which is where they are as of this moment, the spitefulness seems to be dying down, which is good.

UPDATE: This video pretty much sums it all up: if you think Derrida is an idiot who hates medium-sized objects, you need to correct your understanding before criticeezing him.

an other thing

I try to keep myself from playing the Derrida apologist too often, as I realize there are those who just aren’t going to go along with what he was up to (and that they have their perfectly valid reasons for it). But, I do want to offer just a quick response to this by Graham Harman:

… relationality between any two entities stumbles over the incommensurability between reality and representation. The stone in its own right can never be the stone as encountered by another stone. It has nothing to do with specifically human finitude, but is a paradox built into the difference between object and relation.

So no, you don’t get to say: “Derrida doesn’t reduce the world to a text, because he cares about the other of the text.” The question is: what the hell are texts doing in a basic ontological proposition to begin with? They don’t belong there any more than cotton balls or meteors do.

First of all, while I understand (without endorsing) the argument against Derrida’s treatment of the world in terms of the text, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that he “reduces the world to a text.” (I would instead say that Derrida expands the notion of textuality beyond the sphere of human language to include the world, thus obviating the distinction between human and world).

But Harman is certainly correct in saying that the defense he cites doesn’t work. This doesn’t mean, however, that Derrida wouldn’t endorse the first part of the quotation above, viz. that “relationality between any two entities stumbles over the incommensurability between reality and representation” and that this “has nothing to do with specifically human finitude.” In Positions (p. 81-2), for instance, he discusses the concept of spacing precisely as it operates outside the linguistic field, saying that its operation is ubiquitous but that it operates differently each time so that it can’t be used as “an explicating principle of all determined spaces.” The differences in the operations of spacing (which do preclude its inclusion in any “basic ontological proposition”) are not results of human finitude but of the differences in the fields in which it operates.

Does this make Derrida an “object-oriented thinkers avant la lettre”? No. But I continue to think it does make him a potentially useful resource for object-oriented thinking.

the vast outside

It’s not that purposeful humans, intentional persons, and individual souls are the only interpretative agents in a world of matters of fact devoid of any meaning by itself. What is meant by interpretations, flexibility, and fluidity is simply a way to register the vast outside to which every course of action has to appeal in order to be carried out. This is not true for just human actions, but for every activity. Hermeneutics is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property of the world itself. (Latour, Reassembling the Social, 244-5)

This passage strikes me not only as the most Derridean I’ve encountered in Latour’s work, but really one of the most Derridean passages I’ve read anywhere that doesn’t explicitly make the connection itself. Indeed, you would only have to modify it slightly (perhaps substitute “différance” for “fluidity”?) in order to have a pretty accurate short summary of Derrida’s overall project. Now, I know many would protest this, maybe raising the (certainly reasonable) objection nowhere (or at least very rarely and obliquely) in Derrida’s corpus does he turn to non-human actors and/or collectives in the way that Latour argues we must do. Larval subjects recently made just this point specifically against Derrida’s (and others’) social and political stuff; he states pretty strongly that, in Derrida, Laclau, Balibar, et al., “we find nothing remotely close to the discussion of these issues.” I might debate the “remotely close” part of this claim, but I can’t deny that we don’t find a direct and sustained engagement with non-human objects in Derrida’s work. Nevertheless, I would argue that from the beginning what Derrida pushes his reader to do is to engage with the “vast outside” to which Latour is pointing, and that this necessarily includes not only a consideration of the non-human but also a breaking down of the barrier between the human and the non-human in much the same way as (at least some) proponents of OOO work to do.

The passage from Latour comes up as part of his discussion of “plasma,” which is the “not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized” background against which actor-networks and collectives emerge. It is a reserve of unknown stuff – unknown not because it’s unknowable or hidden, but simply because it has yet to be connected to any network. It’s the space between the ties. Now, in Prince of Networks, Harman sees a possible problem with this idea, writing that “at best Latour verges on acknowledging a single plasma-in-itself” (134). While I see the worry here, I don’t always buy the argument that something that is inarticulated has necessarily to be unitary. Harman’s position, as I understand it, is that an object is subtracted from all relations but remains, qua object, distinct and differentiated. This is certainly one way of retaining ontological plurality beyond the level of networks. However, I don’t think that otherwise we would end up with some kind of unitary plenum. The undifferentiatedness of plasma (or the reserve or what-have-you) – if we go that way instead of Harman’s – should rather be understood as not (even) one. Once we’ve stepped outside the network of relations, the choice between unity and plurality may prove to be a false one, and it’s for this reason that I think Latour’s idea of plasma may turn out to be surprisingly productive. As he repeatedly notes, compared with that which is part of a network, the outside is astronomically vast, and thus capable of introducing infinitely many opportunities for change and novelty.

democracies Christian and otherwise

More than any other form of democracy, more than social democracy or popular democracy, a Christian democracy should be welcoming to the enemies of democracy; it should turn them the other cheek, offer hospitality, grant freedom of expression and the right to vote to antidemocrats, something in conformity with a certain hyperbolic essence, an essence more autoimmune than ever, of democracy itself, if “itself” there ever is, if ever there is a democracy and thus a Christian democracy worthy of this name.

This passage closes section three of the first part of Derrida’s Rogues, the section titled “The Other of Democracy.” That Derrida bring up the idea of a “Christian democracy” at this point is, if not a little bit puzzling, at least unexpected. It comes simply as a counterpoint to a previous mention of Nietzsche, who of course opposed the democratic heritage of Europe together with the Pauline-Christian heritage as being two facets of the clever triumph of weakness over strength.

The main theme of the section, though, is an exploration of opposition to democracy (largely in its modern, “globalatinizing” form) from without and from within. Considerations of religion in relation to democracy are never absent from here, but it isn’t Christian religions with which Derrida is mostly concerned. His focus is instead on Islam. He wagers toward the beginning of the section that Islam (but of course only “a certain Islam”) today provides “the only religious or theocratic culture that can still, in fact or in principle, inspire and declare any resistance to democracy.” Whether or not this is strictly true, it seems at least plausible, at least within the bounds of the questions Derrida is addressing. What Derrida doesn’t make explicit (even though I think it would be easily argued that he recognizes this implicitly) is that if Islam stands as the only culture capable of standing against democracy, it certainly doesn’t follow that it necessarily does so. This much should be practically obvious, and this asymmetry vis-à-vis the Western political heritage is perhaps more than anything else what enables Derrida to name “a certain Islam”: that community or tradition or interpretation which does resist democracy, as opposed to that other Islam which is not so much “other” insofar as it does not resist. One problem with such a bifurcation of Islam, though, is that it remains constituted by the language of resistance, and thus of force – of democracy as a force moving outward from a proper center (i.e., Europe… or Christendom). It undermines from the start the possibility of something like “democracy” that isn’t governed by the Western heritage of this word, and such an option might very well be a live one for Islam (see for example Abdulaziz Sachedina’s The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism).

The question, then, of whether there is or ever could be a “Christian democracy” goes farther than the question of whether there is or could be a “democracy itself.” Insofar as the movement of secularization that has been connected inextricably to the movement of democratization in the modern world has, in fact, been a result or outgrowth of Europe’s Christian heritage (whether as a direct result of it, a reaction to it, or as Jean-Luc Nancy analyzes it, its own self-deconstruction), it would both be impossible anymore to think democracy without it being Christian democracy in some sense and impossible to imagine democracy being actually Christian in the sense that Derrida describes. The aporia of the idea of Christian democracy today is that there can be no such thing because all that which we call democracy is already Christian. It is sometimes too easy to oppose theocracy to democracy (as Derrida does when he speaks of the “theocratic culture” of “a certain Islam”), but in this opposition we ought to be able to detect the opening of a conceptual gap the slippage across (or into) which is perhaps difficult but inevitable. Even the most secular democracy always borders (temporally, spatially, conceptually) on theocracy. Instead of retaining this opposition, the more radical way to think democracy (and this to be what Derrida intends when he invokes the “democracy-to-come”) is a democracy without an “other” – that is, a democracy that is other to itself, endlessly, in its own production of multiple democratic forms.

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.