Jean Baudrillard and Simulacra

JEAN BAUDRILLARD (1929-2007)

Simulacra and Simulations (1988)

The Precession of the Simulacra” (1981)

 

As the Bible once stated,

The simulacrum is never that/Which conceals the truth—it is/The truth which conceals that/There is none./The Simulacrum is true.

Ecclesiastes

Writing in the wake of May 1968 in Paris, the former Marxist Jean Baudrillard moved beyond Marxism and into a critique of Marxism and then, by the early eighties began a long engagement with the new economic system which appears in embryonic form in his early works. The System of Objects (1968) was essentially a book for its time–based on the philosophy of Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism. If consumer goods are signs that are symptoms of desire, then logically Baudrillard would take the next step which is to make the case that nothing is “real” and that we are functioning in the hyperreal non-world of simulacra. As Baudrillard explained in his opening to his 1981 essay,

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.

However, Baudrillard refused to be categorized as a Postmodernist and even suggested that the Postmodern was itself a simulacra. Due to his long roots in Modernism, one could call Baudrillard a late Modernist or an ultra-Modernist, living as did many writers of his generation at the tail end of modernity without every taking the step into a territory he considered fictitious. In fact the writer rejected Postmodernism in 1986, because all old ideas were swept away in 1968, leaving behind only a state of total exhaustion without leaving anything new or a viable alternative in its wake. Centuries of critical thought were ended. Political and sexual revolutions were finished. For the new generation there was nothing left, only “soft revivals” in the empty void of a postmodernism that functions by means of what Baudrillard termed a “lack of events,” or pseudo modernist “revolutions” or uprisings such as, “soft feminism,” “liberal Marxism,” “green politics,” and “enfeebled ideologies.” In many ways, like it or not, Baudrillard’s scorn for post 1968 efforts to change the world echoed the Postmodern refusal to accept “change,” something attached to Modernism. Of course, such refusals and scorn reinforce the dominant forces in play, the same forces that supported Modernism, a near entirely white and male phenomenon. Typical of Postmodernism which is essentially passive, it would seem that the only form of resistance that Baudrillard might allow would be no political action whatsoever.

Baudrillard’s main point is that the current system of hyper-spectacle supported by mass and all-powerful media which produces endless spectacles. For the writer, “mass media” was one entity, defined in his time by film, movies, print press and so on, which diverts meaning and any hope of critique into specular forms–the spectacle that a diverts and misleads the enchanted spectators in to hyper-conformism. Trapped in this spectacle, we are shaped and constructed by its un-real premises. Baudrillard attempted to explain this effect by using a metaphor for the unreal or an inversion of the basis of reality: the map preceds–comes before–the territory and engenders–creates–the territory. As Baudrillard argued,

The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models – and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal: the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.

Baudrillard stresses the significance of the resulting Simulacra based on the word “simulate.” “To dissimulate is to feign not to have what one has,” he said. Simulation threatens the difference between the true and the false and the real and the imaginary and there are no longer any references points, only emptied signs. The simulacra or simulations have always been feared in some quarters, particularly institutions that wish to control imagery or information. Even today, the Muslim faith prohibits some imagery such as that of Mohammad. The Jewish faith long had prohibitions on “graven images.” Early Christianity, being largely Jewish in origin, also reacted against attempts to create religious icons with a deliberate campaign of iconoclasm or breaking images–destroying icons. Baudrillard found this example of the dangers of simulacra or simulated images of holy figures an interesting example of the threat to the real and to the imagination. Early Christian leaders feared that the credulous congregation would become attached, not to a religious concept or faith, but to a base image. To the early Christians, the image had a murderous capacity and the iconoclasts destroyed the images (of religious figures), lest the images take the place of the “original” or the “real.” Baudrillard said,

It can be seen that the iconoclasts, who are often accused of despising and denying images, were in fact the ones who accorded them their actual worth, unlike the iconolaters, who saw in them only reflections and were content to venerate God at one remove. But the converse can also be said, namely that the iconolaters possessed the most modern and adventurous minds, since, underneath the idea of the apparition of God in the mirror of images, they already enacted his death and his disappearance in the epiphany of his representations (which they perhaps knew no longer represented anything, and that they were purely a game, but that this was precisely the greatest game — knowing also that it is dangerous to unmask images, since they dissimulate the fact that there is nothing behind them).

The simulacra then is opposed to representation which always assumes an equivalency between the sign and the thing (the real). The simulacra is the inverse of representation and is, in fact, the “death” of the sign. Baudrillard set up the stages the image progresses as “1. a reflection of basic reality, 2. a mask or perversion of basic reality, 3. masks and absence of reality, and finally 4. has no relation to any reality.” Baudrillard considered Disneyland to be the prefect model of all orders of simulation. Disneyland is a deep frozen infantile world where ideology blankets and covers over the third order simulation–a simulation of a simulation that has no origin and conceals the fact that the real is no longer real or perhaps the real never existed and is only nostalgia. What Baudrillard called “the Disneyland Imaginary” is neither true nor false, but America in miniature existing in isolation as one of the many “imaginary stations” that exist in Los Angeles as islands of deterrence. An idea of a imagined America, created by Disney “imagineers” envelopes the visitor in a safe place where time loses all meaning and has been folded into past, present and future. Here in Disneyland, as Baudrillard posited, everything has metamorphoized into its inverse to be perpetuated in its purged form–the pirates of the Caribbean are not criminals but entertainment.

Speaking of criminals, Baudrillard moved on to Watergate, the scandal that ended the political career of the American president Richard Nixon. This event, pockmarked by many criminals and freighted by clusters of criminal activities was, from Baudrillard’s point of view, a simulacra. The system provided a “scandal” which allowed a shadow play of investigating aimed at purging the miscreants in order to protect the system itself, masking the (unseen) reality of the way in which citizens cannot see what actually happens and that the individual is now totally defeated and is subject to the object world. Watergate, like other political examples he brought forward, was about power. Baudrillard noted,

Everybody belongs to it more or less in fear of the collapse of the political. And in the end the game of power comes down to nothing more than the critical obsession with power: an obsession with its death; an obsession with its survival which becomes greater the more it disappears.

Elsewhere in the book on Simulations,Baudrillard wrote in the essay, “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media” that, the end result is implosion, as the system of simulacra collapses in upon itself. He wrote,

..the mass media, the pressure of information pursues an irresistible destructuration of the social. Thus information dissolves meaning and dissolves the social, in a sort of nebulous state dedicated not to a surplus of innovation, but, on the contrary, to total entropy.* Thus the media are producers not of socialization, but of exactly the opposite, of the implosion of the social in the masses. And this is only the macroscopic extension of the implosion of meaning at the microscopic level of the sign. This implosion should be analyzed according to McLuhan’s formula, the medium is the message, the consequences of which have yet to be exhausted.

Media makes events and then absorbs the events in a manner that is circulatory–a new postmodern system of false exchange in which nothing is exchanged but information is served up to an addicted and enchanted audience. The result is an implosion, an inward collapse. When meaning is neutralized and imploded, society too reaches its implosion point. This is who we are now. Today we live in a world that has vastly more media and more information than Baudrillard could have even imagined. Even in his own time, culture, after all, was dominated by the hyperreal in which there is no possibility of critique and all that is left is “intellectual dandyism.” or a display of information as style, also known as “talk radio” and cable television.

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Jean Baudrillard and the System of Objects

JEAN BAUDRILLARD (1929-2007)

The System of Objects (1968)

“GARAP”

Baudrillazilla

Jean Baudrillard, the versatile French philosopher was a prolific writer whose chief claims to fame are his postmodern refutation of traditional Marxism and his influential articulation of postmodernism as “simulacra”–that is, a copy of a copy without an original. Like most French intellectuals, Baudrillard was deeply disillusioned by the events of May 1968, and the failure of the social revolution predicted by Marx and the reinstallation of bourgeois authoritarian order, which demonstrated not only the middle class docility but also the opposition to real social reform. Capitalism had triumphed and the desire for commodities and social stability was more potent than the desire for reform and revolution. Like Frederic Jameson, Baudrillard looked for a more modern or postmodern critique that included not just the economy but also the culture it produced as well. While traditional Marxists had separated politics and culture from the “base, or mode of production, Baudrillard recognized the importance of culture in conveying the ideologies of capitalism and in maintaining these economic practices. The Marxists had maintained that the economy was more important or more “real” than the superstructures of culture, but this neglect of culture had been challenged by the Frankfurt School, particularly in the early works of Walter Benjamin and the later works of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

The emergence of a consumer society after the Second World War forced traditional Marxism to change in order to take into account mass media and its role in creating consumers and in creating desire for the objects put forth for possible consumption. Baudrillard, however, went beyond the approach of the Frankfurt School. Adorno and Benjamin continued the Modernist tradition of believing in some form of authenticity, that there was such an entity as “fine art” and that “Art” could be autonomous and free from popular culture. Baudrillard had no such illusions. For Baudrillard the entire society, the total culture was but a system of signs. In his books, such as Le système des objects (1968), and Le socièté de consommation (1970), the philosopher reconstructed the political economy of Marxisn on the basis of the semiological theories of the sign. As Jameson once said, “No society has ever been saturated with signs and messages like this one.” In making the role of the cultural sphere his main focus, Baudrillard examined the life of signs in society. To the extent there can be a subject (a dubious entity within Postmodernism), s/he is confronted by a controlling world of objects.

These objects are organized into systems of signification that are, in turn, broken down into 1. non-functional objects, 2. functional objects, and 3. metafunctionlal objects. Baudrillard examined these objects from the perspective of Ferdinand de Saussure (signs) and Sigmund Freud (psychology) in order to reveal the secret life of objects and their hidden meanings. Objects loose their singular nature and are subordinated into systems that are relative to each other, just as language is understood only within a network of relationships which constitute meaning. In order to explain the embeddedness of the object within the sign system, Baudrillard wrote in the beginning of “The System of Objects,”

If we consume the product as product, we consume its meaning through advertising. Let us imagine for a moment modern cities stripped of all their signs, with walls bare like a guiltless conscience. And then GARAP appears. This single expression, GARAP is inscribed on all the walls: pure signifier, without a signified, signifying itself..Signified despite itself, it is consumed as sign..Advertising, like GARAP, is mass society, which, with the aid of an arbitrary and systematic sign, induces receptivity, mobilizes consciousness, and reconstitutes itself in the very process as the collective. Through advertising mass society and consumer society continuously ratify themselves.

In other words, we consume the sign. We all live in a new world of leisure and mass media, which produce an alienation of conspicuous consumption and empty affluence (“affluenza”) in which, in America, according to Baudrillard, the consumers desire what others have. This fundamental alteration in the human species from using or utilizing what is considered necessary to desiring what is not necessary, except psychologically (desire), has resulted in a culture of affluent individuals surrounded by objects (signs), not people (who are also signs). Everyday life is now determined by manipulation of commodities and messages, all of which become an organization and display of domestic goods to be desired and consumed. Commodities are part of a “system of objects” that are correlated with a system of needs. Objects are offered within the context of other objects, and the collection of objects creates a total meaning. As Baudrillard wrote, “It is even the ultimate in morality, since the consumer is simultaneously reconciled with himself and with the group. The becomes the perfect social being.”

The brand name, which as Baudrillard stated is “the principal concept of advertising, (which) summarizes well the possibilities of a ‘language’ of consumption,” plays and essential role in imposing a coherent collective vision and this totalizing brand creates similitude, homogenizes and organizes everyday life into consumer items/signs/objects signifying “Jaguar,” the “granite counter top,” the Versace dress, and the Jimmy Choo shoes–all “brands” and objects of desire (not necessity). Consumer mentality is a kind of magical thought that generates consumption. Baudrillard noted, correctly, that this “code” constituted by brands is totalitarian and totalizing and that, for the first time in history is universal, a code that no one escapes. The code is a form of socialization but conversely, the code rules what is also a primitive mentality, which “believes in” the omnipotence of thoughts and in the omnipotence of signs. In contrast to traditional neo-Marxists, Baudrillard rejects the socio-cultural approach, insisting that there is no way to distinguish between “true” and “false” needs in a system that is governed by magical signs. In fact what is consumed is not the material goods themselves or actual objects–the point is that the actual objects are merely signs of needs and satisfaction of desire, a desire that will always return.

Consumption is a system that is a productive activity, requiring education and effort. One believes that s/he must insert be socialized into and become part of the consumer society. Consuming becomes a mode of social activity and becoming a walking sign (board) system of brands is now socially normative behavior. In other words, although consumption is a system that assumes the regulation of signs and the integration of the group, it should not be assumed that consumption brings either satisfaction or pleasure. Consumption is the production of coded values, a sign system which replaces moral values of days of yore. This consumer-based system of signs is organized by codes and rules of consumption, not guided by “natural” satisfaction but by and through a system of social indoctrination. The satisfaction involved is fleeting and momentary and is invested, not so much in the actual object itself but in the brand which is a signal of a certain kind to a certain group ordained to recognize and invested enough to care about the meaning of the sign.

The order of production of the signs manages the system of (cultural) “needs” by the order of signification that determines the social prestige of the purchaser and maintains the value of the system of goods to be consumed. The result of the belief system is fatal to classical Marxism: there are are no revolutionary forces; no theory of subject as an active agent of social change; there is only reification in which the objects dominate the “subject” and human begins become thing-like or, more precisely, sign-like. From the Baudrillardian perspective, we are now at a higher stage of reification and social domination by objects than described by the Frankfurt School. We (magically) believe in the social power of Jimmy Choo shoes and we believe in the stock market, until it collapses or implodes, weighted down by the false magic of the signs and wonders. According to Baudrillard, “In order to become object of consumption, the object must become sign.”

This book, The System of Objects, was one of his earliest works and was a frankly Marxist critique–via Freud–of the consumer society. As indicated by the date of publication, 1968, this form of analysis was paralleled with Guy Debord and the Situationists who were investigating the idea of spectacle. But in the wake of May 1968, taking a Marxist approach was difficult and his later books, such as The Mirror of Production (1973). His later works from 1970 on, including La société de consummation (1970), Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe (1972) refute his prior position and constitute a critique of Marxism as too conservative and is dependent upon Capitalism and its system which it “mirrors.” Later works, such as his ideas on the simulacra, discussed in the next post, point out that historical materialism as conceived of by Marx cannot exist in the new exchange of simulacra.

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Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part Two

FREDERIC JAMESON (1934-)

Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1984)

Part Two

In Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1984) Frederic Jameson (1934-) examined film and architecture as forms of postmodernist culture that displayed the marks of the “waning” that was the Postmodern. Examples of this “early” postmodernism, that is, postmodernism avant la lettre, can be found in films made by Hollywood in the early 1970s and early 1980s. As a neo-Marxist theoretician, Jameson termed these films “nostalgia films” created out of collages of drifting memories of past times and of past films which were then pasted together into a pastiche of other films, half remembered. It is important to pause and take note of the collective ages of the Baby Boomers for whom these so-called “nostalgia” films were made and marketed. The age of the viewers would have been thirties and forties and it is their knowledge of popular culture that is put into play. Depending heavily upon the adult audience’s cultural memory of Hollywood, movies, such as Star Wars (1977), Grease (1978), Chinatown (1974), and Body Heat (1981), became the leading examples of a trend of cinematic intertexuality that would become the foundation of later works, also based upon intertextuality, such as, Pulp Fiction (1994) and L. A. Confidential (1997).

Jameson referred to a phenomenon he called the “waning effect,” or the impact of the commodification of objects in which movie stars are commodified into their own images, a condition that Andy Warhol understood quite well, displaying Troy Donahue with the same indifference he lined up cans of soup. Postmodern works, whether early predictions of the breakdown of Modernism suggested by the works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, or later manifestations of actual Postmodernism, such as the referential photography of Jeff Wall, are all conceptual examinations of what makes a work of art see-able and recognizable to an audience with a rich collective memory of both high and popular culture. In the process of exploring a trail of quotations of earlier works, these artists made the familiar unfamiliar and uncanny, by revealing the means of the making of “art” as a concept. Jameson understood that (postmodern) “theory” had become a new kind of (nostalgic) discourse and that Postmodernism is marked by a sense of an end of philosophy and as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

In redeploying Marxism as the new neo-Marxism of Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Jameson straddled the divide between the Cold War and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, where, as Fukuyama put it, history ended. Therefore in the essays, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” and “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Jameson defined Postmodernism in Neo-Marxist terms. For Jameson, Postmodernism is not a style but a periodizing concept that is correlated with the emergence of a new kind of social life and a new kind of economic order: modernization in a post-industrial consumer society. Following the Frankfurt School, Jameson combined philosophy with political science and sociology and literary criticism and, as were Adorno and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), also concerned with the society of the media and the spectacle in an age of multinational capitalism. Most observers would agree with Jameson that the 1960s was the critical period, the break with Modernism, which ushered in two new and significant features in mass media: pastiche and schizophrenia.

220px-American_graffiti_ver1

 

American Graffiti (1973) an early nostalgia film by George Lucas

Pastiche is compared with parody, which is possible only when the artist can play off a prevailing style in order to mock the original and to ridicule its mannerisms. Parody is based in a belief in a norm, such as Andy Warhol’s parody of the pretensions of Abstract Expressionism. But when there is no belief in “normal language,” as in Postmodernism, art becomes fragmented and privatized with each group of artists speaking in a private language called “theory” of art or art commenting upon art. For example, in the art world, Pluralism followed upon the demise of the “last official style,” which was mid-1960s Minimalism, and it was the seventies that ushered in an age of pastiche. In this era of stylistic diversity and heterogeneity, pastiche appeared as an imitation of a particular and unique style but wore a stylistic mask. Pastiche speaks in a dead language and is supposedly neutral. One could return to Friederich Schiller (1759-1805) and revisit his concept of satire, which was one of the tools of Schiller’s “sentimental artist,” who is always detached and alienated (like the Postmodern artist). Pastiche is blank parody and blank irony, without a sense of humor (unless the humor is black, as in Pulp Fiction). Art is about itself but in a new way. This is not “art for art’s sake” but a sign of failure of art as an aesthetic of the new. Art can no longer be defined as an aesthetic of the new.

Within Postmodernism, stylistic innovation is no longer possible. All that is left to do is to imitate dead styles and to speak in dead languages. Schizophrenia is a reflection of the radical break in time and space between Modernism and Postmodernism. Classical Modernism was an oppositional art–opposed the established art forms or opposed to the prevailing ideology that could be both a scandal and offensive to the public as with Dada. Today, the provocative challenge of Modernism to reality is taken for granted by the art institutions and the art public and all subversion is co-opted by the established order. Contemporary art has shifted its position and is now fundamentally in and part of our culture and can no longer exist outside of the system, as art becomes a commodity production linked to styling changes. With no future “shock” to move towards (because everything and anything “new” is immediately commodified), then art can only recycle, reuse and repurpose. Time folds back upon itself. Without a sense of past and present and future, the sense of history disappears and there is a loss of capacity to retain our “own” past as life that is lived in the perpetual present. Perpetual change obliterates traditions and transforms reality into images and time is fragmented into a series of perpetual presents in the plural. In this existential present, the past becomes a referent and an opportunity for formal inventiveness. As Jameson remarked,

Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream is, of course, a canonical expression of the great modernist thematics of alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation, a virtually programmatic emblem of what used to be called the age of anxiety. It will here be read as an embodiment not merely of the expressionism of that kind of affect but, even more, as a virtual deconstruction of the very aesthetic of expression itself, which seems to have dominated much of what we call high modernism but to have vanished away–for both practical and theoretical reasons–in the world of the postmodern. The very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and outside, of the wordless pain within the monad and the moment in which, often cathartically, that “emotion” is then projected out and externalized as gesture..

The past can be approached only through stylistic connotation of “pastness” or glossy qualities of image-as-fashion. The intertextuality of Postmodern art is deliberate and built into an artificial “aesthetic effect.” The result is a “history of aesthetic styles” that replaces the “real history” of art. The aesthetic then becomes a sign and these signs program the spectator to recognize the appropriate “nostalgic mode of reception.” This pastiche of a past that has been stereotyped causes a “crisis” in historicity because the subject has lost the ability to recognize or to organize past and present into a coherent experience. Schizophrenia is a breakdown in the signifying chain, creating a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers: a linguistic malfunction. This schizophrenic disjunction is a form of écriture–writing–or a cultural style. Therefore, Postmodernism cannot be a style and can only be a cultural dominant that is oppositional to Modernism and confronts the modern movement as a set of dead classics. The familiar depth model of Modernism is replaced by textual play and multiple surfaces, meaning that the cultural language is now dominated by categories of flat space, rather than categories of time or history, chronological or temporal categories.

With the disappearance of the individual and the consequent unavailability of personal style, pastiche reigns as a dead language, an imitation of dead styles. Postmodern pastiche is speech through masks or voices culled from the imaginary museum of global culture. Pastiche foregrounds practice and orchestrates the primacy of historicism as a random cannibalism of the styles of the past recycled into “neo” or a “simulacrum,” as Jean Baudrillard said, an identical copy for which no original as ever existed. The “Neo-Noir” film is a simulacrum of “Noir” movies, which were highly artificial and stylized morality tales from the American film industry of the 1940s and 1950s. The black and white image of Noir was recycled into the “Neo-Noir” film in color and is an image of an image and, according to Jameson, is the final form of commodity reification. It was the French, starved of American films during the Second World War, who discovered these crime movies, considered B movies and named them “noir” films and created them as a particular genre. The French noticed the return of the Le mode rétro, or nostalgic film, as a restructuring of a pastiche of films made decades ago, a time long gone by, the time of the parents of the Baby Boomers. These nostalgia films were projected into the collective and social level in an attempt to appropriate a missing past of an era lost in time.

Follow the discussion in Parts One and Three.

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Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

Deconstruction

The Truth in Painting (1987)

In 1905 Paul Cézanne wrote to the younger artist, Emile Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” One can immediately imagine how Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would have seized upon such a statement with its promise of “truth” “in painting,” two dubious precepts. Derrida would be compelled to deconstruct such a proposition. Despite its name, the Deconstruction that is associated with Derrida is not an act of destruction or a breaking up, instead Deconstruction, like Structuralism is an activity or performance. Deconstruction is reading, a textual labor, traversing the body of a text, leaving “a track in the text.” Unlike other forms of critical analysis, deconstruction cannot happen from the outside but, as Derrida stated, “Deconstruction is something that happens and happens from the inside.” As he stated to an audience of academics at Villanova in 1994 (in English),

The very meaning and mission of deconstruction is to show that things–texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices of whatever size and sort you need–do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they are always more than any mission could impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy..A “meaning” or a “mission” is a way to contain and compact things, like a nutshell, gathering them into a unity, whereas deconstruction bends all its efforts to stretch beyond these boundaries, to transgress these confines, to interrupt and disjoint all such gatherings.Whatever it runs up against a limit, deconstruction presses against. Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell–a secure axiom or a pithy maxim–the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might say that cracking nutshells is what decontsructrucion is. In a nutshell.

Deconstruction does not appeal to a higher logical principle or superior reason, something which Derrida considered to be metaphysical. His goal was to upsets the system of hidden hierarchies that composed philosophy by producing an exchange of properties. His major target was the hierarchy between speech and writing, in which speech was presumed to have preceded writing, this giving to speech a (false) priority and the (false) presumption of origin. In inverting the hierarchies embedded in paired opposites, Derrida insisted neither element can occupy the position of origin (such as speech over writing) and the origin looses its metaphysical privilege, which is why he insisted on deconstructing the Structuralist system of polarities and oppositions. He pointed out that the pairs, far from being equal or balanced, were, in fact, hierarchized, with one term being preferred (culturally) over the other. If this is the case, if “good” is preferred over “bad”, then the meanings of each/both term/s are interdependent. If the terms are interdependent, then they cannot be separated or polarized. If the terms cannot be separated or opposed in any final way, then their meanings are also interdependent and inseparable. This logical march which deconstructs

Structuralism began with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) who was concerned with the problem of transcendence, the objectivity of objects, and their existence outside of temporal consciousness. In other words, the object had to be a form of knowledge of the object itself, not the mental acts which cognitively construct it. Phenomenological reflection suspends or “brackets” the question of existence and privileges the experience-of-object, which is the “object to be described” and this privileging means that the identity of the object must be ideal. But Derrida did not believe that Husserl’s transcendental acts of pure perception existed or that such states of purity could exist. Husserl posited an absolute ideal of objectivity, geometry, in order to differentiate between subjective and objective structures. Derrida asserted that Husserl “lodged” objectivity within subjectivity or self-presence, and that if this is the case, then the self must differentiate itself from the object and thus, Husserl introduces the idea of difference.

Derrida charged that Husserl created a structure of alterity or the otherness of the meaning or self. Living presence, according to Derrida, is always inhabited by difference. To express this differently, so to speak, difference creates an endlessly deferred meaning as the self and the object oscillate, unable to fix a position. By deconstructing Husserl’s philosophy, Derrida relocated his philosophy as writing. Without this “fixing” of a position, then a transcendental position is impossible, for if Derrida is correct and Husserl is merely writing, then yet another metaphysical account of the mystical thing in itself is revealed to be a figurative fiction. To the dismay of traditionalists, Postmodernism robs us of the fantasy of certainty. If we can never be certain, we can never know the truth. In contrast, the “close reading” of the Structuralists, that sought to find “unity,” gives way to a new close reading–Deconstruction–that seeks the “uncanny”–a Freudian term–that works against the bounds of the text. “The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar…” said Freud, referring to something that is repressed but recurs, responding to deeper laws, which for Deconstruction is that which is hidden in the text.

Deconstruction intervenes in philosophical texts, seeking what is not acknowledged, and intercedes in the field of oppositions and their hierarchies and works within the terms of the system in order to break open the structure and to breach its boundaries to determine what might have been concealed or excluded, or repressed. To deconstruct a discourse is to show it undermines the authority of philosophy and reveals its literary/rhetorical aspects. In identifying the rhetorical oppositions that structure the ground of the argument Deconstruction deconstructs philosophy as language, as writing. In The Truth in Painting (1987), Derrida interrogated Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) by introducing the concept of the passé-partout or what Americans refer to as the mat that encircles the painting or print or photograph, i. e. the work of art. He wrote,

Between the outside and the inside, between the external and the internal edge-line, the framer and the framed, the figure and the ground, form and content, signifier and signified, and so on for any two-faced opposition. The trait thus divides in this place where it takes place. The emblem for this topos seems undiscoverable; I shall borrow it from the nomenclature of framing: the passe-partout. The passe-partout which here creates an event must not pass for a master key.

Using the concepts of inside/outside and the idea of betweenness, Derrida was led to the next obvious question: “What is art? Then: Where does it come from ? What is the origin of art? This assumes that we reach agreement about what we understand by the word art. Hence: What is the origin of the meaning of “art?” The modern meaning of art must begin with Kant’s third Critique which was then commented upon by Georg Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1818-1829), who, in turn was over-writen by Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art (written 1935-7, published 1950/60) and Derrida also used Kantian the concept of the “parergon” to question the supposed autonomy of art and its relation to various discourses, such as history and philosophy, which seek to preserve its autonomy. The parergon is the frame, the boundary between the art work (ergon) and its background and context, and in surrounding the painting, the frame guarantee its musical/metaphysical autonomy as “art.” Kant rejected the boundary-conditions and prevented the invasion of art’s privileged domain by assuming a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, or that which is proper to the domain of art and that which is outside the properties of art itself.

Kant introduced the metaphor of framing in an attempt to delimit a proper space of aesthetic representation, but in so doing, Kant perceived a problem, an undecidability in some seemingly marginal details that could not be detached without altering or upsetting the composition. For example, what is intrinsic to a sculpture with drapery? Should the body be considered as autonomous, that is self-sufficient without the drapery, or is the drapery intrinsic to the work of art itself? Decorative outwork was perceived of as part of art’s intrinsic quality, such as clothing on statues, which is not part of the essential form, and architectural details that are purely functional but that cannot be excluded from the overall artistic impression. Therefore for Kant, the parergon is a hybrid of inside and outside, frame, clothing, column, and there is no deciding what is intrinsic to artwork and what belongs to the outside frame. From the standpoint of Deconstruction, this “Framing” discourse is the chief concern of aesthetics which legitimizes its own existence by fixing a boundary between art and other modes of knowledge, including history and theory. “Art” becomes “art” through boundaries that exclude its other. Clearly, this notion of “frame” and the idea of “boundary” are both figural constructs hidden in plain sight within the discourse of aesthetics.

The frame is another variation of the Structure. Rhetorical figures, such as the “frame” in art, exist within discourse for a reason. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What is at stake?” why is the frame/the structure necessary? In asking why it is necessary to place art within s structure, to produce boundaries to validate “art,” he then demystified the notion of aesthetics as disinterested value. Aesthetics in “interested” in the sense that it defines and therefore produces “art” via these framing devices. The frame must be present in order to structure and the purpose of structurality is to both contain art within and exclude all that is deemed non-art. In the case of art, that which is “not art” is excluded in order to shape and form “art” as an entity that is transcendent. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What particular interests are served by aesthetics”? Contrary to the notion of a discourse that assumes art gives access to the realm of timeless and disinterestedness values, any discourse on art is always and inevitably bound up with interests that belong to the outside (of art).

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Jacques Derrida and the Center

“Force and Signification” (1967)

De-centering the Center

It should never be presumed that Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) attempted to solve problems or to promote new solutions. His mission as a philosopher was quite different: Derrida was a Deconstructor or a close reader of modern philosophy from Rousseau to Kant to Marx to Freud to Saussure to Freud to Husserl to Lacan and so on–a nearly clean sweep that included Nietzsche and Hegel and Heidegger–very little was beyond his inquisitive reach. Derrida located the end of classical philosophy in the philosophy of Husserl whose phenomenological tradition was a source of thought from Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Merleu-Ponty, all of whom took their departure from the East European philosopher. Rather than extending or commenting upon the philosophy of others, Derrida responded with a form of discourse that was not philosophy but a critique of philosophy, not in terms of its content but in terms of language itself. The difference between his approach to philosophy as a philosopher is rather like the distinction between literary analysis, such as close reading with an eye to interpretation, and a linguistic analysis with an eye to “shaking”the structure. As Derrida explained in “Force and Signification,”

Structure then can be methodically threatened in order to be comprehended more clearly and to reveal not only its supports but also that secret place in which it is neither construction nor ruin but lability. This operation is called (from the Latin) soliciting . In other words, shaking in a way related to the whole (from sollus , in archaic Latin “the whole,” and from citare , “to put in motion”). The structuralist solicitude and solicitation give themselves only the illusion of technical liberty when they become methodical. In truth, they reproduce, in the register of method, a solicitude and solicitation of Being, a historicometaphysical threatening of foundations.

It is with Derrida’s writings from the late 1960s that philosophy become rather hybrid and bifurcates into the interpretation of philosophy and “theory,” meaning that with Derrida, the era of Post-Structuralism or Post-Modernism begins. “Theory” is writing about writing and critiquing philosophy as a work of writing or as literature and thus straddles the distance between philosophy and literary theory, using linguistics and Structuralism as intermediaries. Previously, as Derrida noted, philosophy established its now unique territory by naming itself and by defining its own margins and drawing its own borders as a separate and impenetrable entity. In order to hide the fact that philosophy is writing with no particular claims to the truth while at the same time claiming truth as its goal, philosophy, from Plato to present, constantly builds and rebuilds its own foundation(alism) to contain its own logical fissures within. Derrida’s project is to question these “foundations’ of philosophy or to be more precise the very grounds of philosophical practice by seeking and finding these gaps, crevices and cracks papered over by confident rhetoric. The critique of the texts reveal arbitrary literary devices which perform exclusionary tasks which allows the foundation to maneuver or to shift without aggravating the instabilities. As long as the traditional center remains preserved, it can govern the surrounding structure.

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Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Derrida “shakes” the structure of structuralism by pointing out that the “structure” is a figural metaphor that contains meaning, in other words meaning is contained and controlled within a structure which has meaning in and of itself. But the center of the meaningful structure holds only as long as it is not visible and paradoxically must remain outside the structure, in the sense that the center exists, must exist, but must also denied, hidden. Oddly the center is within the structure but escapes structurally itself in its condition of being hidden. In “Force and Signification,” Derrida described the structure as a “concrete totality.” The design of the structure appears more clearly when the content or meaning is neutralized and the structure is reduced to a skeleton. But as he explained, the structure is haunted by the memory of “meaning and culture” and this state of being haunted presents a return to nature. The structural consciousness, or the (self) consciousness of what has been repressed, is a “catastrophic consciousness.” Derrida explained the concept rather poetically,

Thus, the relief and design of structures appears more clearly when content, which is the living energy of meaning, is neutralized. Somewhat like the architecture of an uninhabited or deserted city, reduced to its skeleton by some catastrophe of nature or art. A city no longer inhabited, not simply left behind, but haunted by meaning and culture. This state of being haunted, which keeps the city from returning to nature, is perhaps the general mode of the presence or absence of the thing itself in pure language. The pure language that would be housed in pure literature, the object of pure literary criticism. Thus it is in no way paradoxical that the structuralist consciousness is a catastrophic consciousness, simultaneously destroyed and destructive, destructuring , as is all consciousness, or at least the moment of decadence, which is the period proper to all movement of consciousness. Structure is perceived through the incidence of menace, at the moment when imminent danger concentrates our vision on the keystone of an institution, the stone which encapsulates both the possibility and the fragility of its existence.

The Center is a significant linchpin to philosophy for not only does it maintain the shape of the frame it also contains (secrets) the (hidden) assumption of presence or logos. Logos is vitally important to philosophy because it guards the “truth” that the structure is now capable of generating. As a figure or metaphor, the structure is given a center, or a point of presence, a fixed origin. Naturally Derrida find issues with the notion of the “figure” that is kept hidden within the texts. The function of the center, philosophy’s most present figure, is to orient, to balance, and to organize the structure, making it stable. The organizing principle of the structure is to limit the play inside the form and to close off play so that the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible. But, as Derrida pointed out the center is no the center, for the idea of the centered structure is just that an idea and a metaphysical one at that. The function of the imaginary center is to express a desire, a longing and a reassuring certitude that even the greatest philosophers fall victim to. The structure becomes an object itself, literally a thing itself that guarantees a unity of form and meaning, is conceived on the basis of a (imaginary) full presence, which is beyond play, guaranteeing unity within the structure.

Although de-centering was pre-figured in Nietzsche in his critique of metaphysics, in Freud’s critique of self-presence, and in Heidegger’s destruction of metaphysics–of Being as Presence–but Derrida declared they are all trapped in a circle. The metaphysics of presence can be “shaken” by the concept of a sign, understood as a “sign-of,” or a displacement, a stand in for that which is absent. The concept of the sign, as Derrida has made clear, is determined by opposition to another sign which is always embedded, hidden within, haunts, the sign itself. If one understands that the structure is a “Sign” that is understood in terms of its opposition, a non-structure or an open-ness without boundaries. Derrida’s operation is to search for issues in philosophy that which is hidden, forbidden, or repressed, because it is these repressed problems that haunt philosophy. (Irigaray made the same observation when she asserted that the patriarchy rests upon the body of the murdered Mother who haunts the Father.) Derrida still seeks within the writing of philosophy that which must hide (from philosophy itself) in order for the discourse to remain “philosophy” or a discourse that transcend “writing” or “literature.”

In questioning “presence,” Derrida questioned the entire idea of the “subject.” If the human subject is abandoned, then there must be a shift from subject to text, in which subjects are constructed through language, an ultimate de-centering. If this is the case, for Derrida, there are only interpretations or perspectives and no final conclusions because signs are interdependent. Therefore, we are unable to escape the constraints of language, which constructs us and constructs our unconscious and there is no alternative but to operate as non-subjects within language. Impacted by his experience of May 1968, Derrida often wrote in intense terms and he was inspired by the philosophy of Nietzsche, who thought of this figurative drive, the desire to create a “figure” is the will to truth which is always the will to power. The drive for knowledge is linked to the desire to contain writing within a structure which is also is the drive to appropriate and conquer. There is incessant figuration in the unconscious. In “Force and Signification,” (note the word “Force”) Derrida dealt with the structural analysis of Jean Roussert, one of Structuralism’s leading figures in literary theory, who had written “Forme et signification. Essais sur les structures litteraires de Corneille a Claudel” in 1962. While Derrida was not challenging Rousset as he did Claude Lévi-Strauss, he commented,

Structure is then the unity of a form and a meaning. It is true that in some places the form of the work, or the form as the work, is treated as if it had no origin, as if, again, in the masterpiece—and Rousset is interested only in masterpieces—the wellbeing of the work was without history. Without an intrinsic history. It is here that structuralism seems quite vulnerable..

The problem, simply stated that the concepts of both structure and center are figurative. Derrida agreed with this perspective that all language is metaphorical, working by means of tropes and visual, and thus literary “figures” to be “seen,” meaning that there is no clear distinction between philosophy and literature. A trope, from the Greek “topos” means a turn, a way, a manner, is the expressive use of a word or a figure of speech, or a word or a phrase that is an embellishment. Linguistically a metaphor in language does not reflect reality but constitutes it through substitution and, thus is rooted in speech alone. Language, then, works by a transference of reality to sign, a process by which all meaning shifts, and this disorderly metaphorical transference is a threat to orderly language and results in a proliferation of meaning that has no origin and no end point. Derrida referred to the structure, therefore as a “literary thing.” He continued,

..the notion of structure refers only to space, geometric or morphological space, the order of forms and sites. Structure is first the structure of an organic or artificial work, the internal unity of an assemblage, a construction; a work is governed by a unifying principle, the architecture that is built and made visible in a location.

Structuralism has as its goal the concept of totality in order to retain coherence. The structure is an agent of prohibition: it hides or ignores all that is incomplete or missing or accidental, its role is to organize meaning and the completion of a totality. The structure acquires meaning by anticipating the telos, a goal, a direction. This resulting enclosure is a force. As Derrida wrote, “Force is the other of language without which language would not be what it is.”

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Jacques Derrida and “Différance”

Différance (1968)

Différance and Deferral

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was a prolific writer who had the disconcerting ability to use a thousand words when one or two would do. Différance is typical of his poetic excess and opens with

I will speak, therefore, of a letter. Of the first letter, if the alphabet, and most of the speculations whig have ventured into it, are to be believed. I will speak of the letter a, this initial letter which it apparently has been necessary to insinuate, here and there, into the writing of the word difference; and to do so in the course of a writing on writing, and also of a writing within writhing, whose different trajectories thereby find themselves, at certain very determined points, intersecting with a kind of gross spelling mistake, a lapse in the discipline and law which regulate writing and keep it seemly.

This remarkable beginning sets out the philosopher’s entire enterprise, his desire to write about the writing of philosophy and to examine philosophy as writing. Derrida also had the gift of seizing on detail and spinning out his observations into thoughts and thoughts into positions. This essay, given first as a talk at the Socieété française de philosophie in January of 1968, was published in the summer of the same year in Théorie d’ensemble, a Tel Quel enterprise. The late sixties and early seventies were marked by a series of career-making articles in which Derrida systematically and laboriously re-read and reinterpreted European philosophy. Delivered a year after his interrogation of Claude Lévi-Strauss in “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” Différance marks his precise engagement with the father of Structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) with side forays into the philosophy of Hegel and Heidegger and Nietzche and even Freud.

The bulk of Derrida’s writing is about language, his entry point into philosophy. He regarded the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) as being mistaken in his attitude towards writing and accused him of being both logocentric and ethnocentric for his naïve theme of “lost innocence.” The Biblical notion of the Fall is a frequent one in the studies of Lévi-Strauss as if “primitive” people were long lost Adams and Eves being driven from the Garden by the acquisition of writing, the fruit of all culture. For Lévi-Strauss, writing was an instrument of oppression, colonizing the “primitive” mind (nature) with culture,and for him structuralism for was nothing less than a search for the universal structures of human intelligence. This structure is a set of unconscious rules that both structures a culture and expresses the infrastructure of speech (and writing) through a language system. Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologies (1964-1971) consisted of four volumes, containing eight hundred myths, which showed “how myths operate in the minds of a culture without the people being aware of the fact..” In a proposition that would impact a new generation of French thinkers, Lévi-Strauss suggested that the unconscious precedes, comes before, the thinking subject and provides order for human subjectivity through its imposed structures upon human thought.

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Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

In considering how human beings develop ideas or discourses, Lévi-Strauss imagined or proposed the creation of culture through a cultural character inspired by his own father, a bricoleur, a handy person, an engineer, a fabricator, who used everything at hand to create structures–myths, stories, accounts–to explain events. Notice that Lévi-Strauss is thinking of language and not actual making of an object but of a process of how a discourse is constructed through found words, already-ready concepts that are reshaped linguistically within the logic of the structure. Although the bricoleur is a hunter-gatherer of cultural ideas, one should not confuse the hunting activity with an allegorical assemblage with multiple parts. Lévi-Strauss always considered the structure of culture as bi-polar, that is, one element had to be off set and contrasted to its other.

Lévi-Strauss based his structural anthropology upon Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1913) and considered that this structure of the mind operated in terms of opposition that, he thought, was necessary for any culture in order to make the world comprehensible. His extensive study of myths implied that the bi-polar myth was universal, a rather Kantian operation of a storytelling a priori. These ideas of a hidden unconscious will be taken up by other writers and it is clear that the philosopher attended the famous lectures of Lacan who stated that the unconscious was structured like a language. Like Lévi-Strauss, Lacan was attached to the notion of an “origin” for human consciousness, found in the “split” that creates the social subject. But Derrida parted company with what he considered to be a nostalgic fixation on mythic origins. For Derrida, there is no “pure” authenticity, and, according to this citizen of Algeria, sensitive to magical thinking, this sentimental theme of purity is but a Romantic illusion, yet another example of Western ethnocentrism.

In this essay, Derrida dealt with the consequences of the bi-polar or opposing signs. Opposition of signs can be maintained only if one term is believed to be final, but because the terms are paired in difference, there can never be a final term, only be an endless play of signification. As Saussure noted, “..in language there are only differences.” Derrida stated that these differences play a role in language and have distinct effects. As he said,

Retaining at least the schema, if not the content, of the demand formulated by Saussure, we shall designate by the term différance the movement by which language, or any code, any system of reference in general, becomes “historically” constituted as a fabric of differences.

Derrida found “play” or oscillation between terms to be of great importance. In a reversal of Lévi-Strauss, he insisted that writing is a precondition of speech, that not only does writing or the idea of writing exist prior to speech, writing makes speech possible. Writing (écriture) is the name of the structure, which is already inhabited by the “trace.” This notion of the “trace” was a concept borrowed from Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who wrote in “Note on the Mystic Writing Pad” (1925) that writing was a metaphor for workings of the psyche (or what Lévi-Strauss regarded as the unconscious structure of the mind), which an ever-receptive surface for thought that could retain a permanent trace of experiences (writing). The “surface” of the human mind is the unconscious, once a virgin surface, which retains permanent traces, or memory which can be energized into consciousness and affect the thinking subject.

The trace or what Derrida called the “arche-trace” is the formation of writing and of the difference that takes place in the sign. Therefore, writing is the most primordial activity of differentiation, a pre-vocal process that operates to inaugurate language, bestows consciousness and institutes being through speech. Ever fond of reversals, Derrida proposed that writing, a non-being, emerges out of silence, a necessary non-being that precedes being. Of course, “being” is a term indebted to Heidegger, a necessary but metaphysical word that, in Derrida, is always sous rature or under erasure, always crossed out, including all variations of the verb “to be.” Because writing precedes being, then, it must come before language. Consequently, Derrida reversed “the crucial pair” of language, the signifier and the signified into the signified and the signifier. It other words, that which is to be signified (meant, expressed) must precede that a which is the signifier. Logically, this reversal introduces the trace which exists as a force and formation of writing: the trace as an already-there precondition that precedes. “Difference” is the term that Derrida selected to re-formulate the relationship of being and non-being in the context of écriture or writing. “The pure trace itself does not exist,” Derrida said, because the trace institutes the possibility of the sign–precedes the sign, is necessary for the sign. Thus, for Derrida, the sign marks an absent presence, because rather than present the object, we employ the sign whose meaning is always deferred because the thing represented is always absent.

To take note of this space of deferral or absence, Derrida created the term “différance,” (mis)spelling the word with an “a” to signify that the “différance” that could not be heard only seen graphically or in writing. The “a” is silent in speech, and, according to Derrida, silent like a tomb. “Tomb” (oikēsis) in Greek is linked to “house” (oikos)which in turn is linked to “economy” in what he called an “economy of death.” The “a” exists in an intermediary zone, neither speech nor writing, because this letter, this non-sound cannot be represented (spoken/heard) through the senses. That said, différence exists in what Derrida called temporization or suspended in time or temporization and in space, meaning the to express this suspension between the “becoming time of space” and the “becoming space of time.” The “a” compensates, as he said, for the resulting loss of meaning and that this compensation is “economical.” Différence, within the structure of paired opposites, is to differ, to be the other to a term, and therefore the difference is to defer, to delay, to postpone what is an endlessly deferring meaning.

To that end, Derrida pointed out that différence/différance has several meanings. First, to “differ” is to be unlike, second, “differe” (Latin) is “to scatter, to disperse,” and third “to defer” is to delay and postpone. To “disperse” is a spatial operation, to “defer” is temporal, a pair of operations that is compensated for by the “a.” Therefore, différAnce is productive, constituting causality–cause and effect–différance is neither word or a concept. As Derrida explained,

Essentially and lawfully, every concept is inscribed to a chain or in a systematic play of differences. Such a play, difference, which is not a concept, is not simply a word, that is, what is generally represented as the calm, present, and self-referential unity of concept and phonic material..The difference of which Saussure speaks is itself, therefore, neither a concept nor a word among others..In a language, in the system of languages, there are only differences.

Derrida likened the deferral of difference to the “structure of delay” present in Freudian theory, a delay (Nachträglichkeit), explaining that the concept of the “trace” forbids retention (memory) because its past is always present. Therefore like Being, the trace must be placed sous rature. For Derrida the play of difference made it impossible to separate speech and writing. He argued that because language uses codes (signs) there is always a play of forms which assumes differences which are retained as traces. This play of differences preexist language itself which has no origin. Likewise différance is non-cognitive and has no real presence in itself; its function is to solicit or to shake language. Saussure’s notion of différence as a spatial one–terms are laid out in a system, positioned as opposites and pairs, but Derrida deployed the “a” to make the point that différance is temporal because each sign carries within it the trace of other other. Meaning as a result is always endlessly deferred because there can be no final resting place for the sign which moves along a chain of signifiers. With no possibility of locating a transcendental signifier or point of origin or end, Derrida has deconstructed Saussure’s system of language.

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Jacques Derrida and Logos

NATURE AS CULTURE: DERRIDA’S TRACE

The Problem with Origins

Following his tour de force presentation of “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” in 1967, Jacques Derrida astonishingly published three books: De la Grammatologie. Collection Critique (1967), L’écriture et la différence (1967), and La Voix et le phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (1967). These books were a remarkable outburst of philosophical re-thinking of modern philosophy through a re-reading of foundational texts. Sadly for Americans who did not speak French there was nearly a decade before translation: Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs was translated by David B. Allison in 1973. Of Grammatology was translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in 1976 and published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, the site where Derrida had made his American debut. Two years later, Writing and Difference was translated by Alan Bass. Perhaps because of the lags in translations and publications, American explicators tend to discuss these seminal reputation-making books in toto, generalizing the content into a discussion of Derrida’s intellectual project. But, that said, this trio of books, consisting a collections of essays, all attack the presence of metaphysics laced through modern philosophy. The relationships among these books posed a problem of even the early readers as translator Alan Bass pointed out,

Derrida first says that De la grammatologie can be considered a bipartite work in the middle of which one could insert L’écriture et la différence. By implication, this would make the first half of De la grammatologie —in which Derrida demonstrates the system of ideas which from ancient to modern times has regulated the notion of the sign—the preface to L’écriture et la différence..The last five essays of L’écriture et la différence, Derrida states, are situated or engaged in “l’ouverture grammatologique,” the grammatological opening. According to Derrida’s statements a bit later in the interview, this “grammatological opening,” whose theoretical matrix is elaborated in the first half of De la grammatologie —which, to restate, systematizes the ideas about the sign, writing and metaphysics which are scattered throughout L’écriture et la différence —can be defined as the “deconstruction” of philosophy by examining in the most faithful, rigorous way the “structured genealogy” of all of philosophy’s concepts; and to do so in order to determine what issues the history of philosophy has hidden, forbidden, or repressed. The first step of this deconstruction of philosophy, which attempts to locate that which is present nowhere in philosophy. i.e., that which philosophy must hide in order to remain philosophy, is precisely the examination of the notion of presence as undertaken by Heidegger.

“Presence,” therefore, precedes everything and permeates philosophy which, as Derrida pointed out, attempts to expel it but, like philosopher Edmund Husserl, always return to lean upon what is essentially a belief system. From a Derridan perspective, this metaphysical system of thought is dependent upon “logos,” language, the word, expressed as the sign. The sign, in turn, was based upon the assumption of the existence of equally metaphysical concepts such as “essence, truth and the foundation of belief” but most importantly a “presence.” The speaker whose immediacy gave authenticity to the word/sign and weight to the signifier. In Of Grammatology, Derrida noted that the idea of “presence” is the desire for something beyond language itself or a transcendental signifier of Logos. Logos implies something beyond any mere speaker; logos implies something far grander that guarantees word: idea, world spirit, God, some point of origin from which speech emerged. The problem for philosophy is that the discipline attempts to erase or eradicate writing, conceived of as “secondary” to speech and gives itself over the the presumption that philosophy is not mere writing but transcends marks on a page. But, Derrida warned, “..the wandering outcast of linguistics has indeed never ceased to haunt language..”

This “haunting” of philosophy by logos needs to be recognized and Derrida’s philosophical project is to re-read and to undermine philosophical texts with the plan of finding internal contradictions embedded in the supposedly perfectly transparent revelation of pure thought (speech). According to Derrida, phonocentricism, or the centering and privileging of the voice (primary, present) over writing (secondary, absent) controls structural linguistics and orders the field of study without being acknowledge. In returning to his duel with Claude Lévi-Strauss, he insisted that the “logocentric epoch” or the “structuralist turn,” is founded upon the concept of a structure which, in turn, depends upon the center or the concept of a center. Furthermore, this Center is (Heidegger) Being or Presence, the ontological ground, the source of origin making certain, reassuming the value of speech. Indeed Logocentrism relates to centrism, or the assumption that the structure has a center. The ultimate center, then, is an authorizing presence, made manifest by the human desire to posit a central presence, logos, in the heart of language and this desire is a longing for a center. Reason, in this case, coils back upon itself. The desire for the center predates the center and once centrality is willed into the structure, the center is outside itself.

With the mind-numbing assertion that the center is not the center, the history of contemporary (or postmodern) deconstruction begins with Jacques Derrida and these three books, De la Grammatologie, l’écriture et la différence, la voix et le phéomène, which in 1967, began with a challenge to both Saussure and Husserl over this fundamental question of presence. Derrida criticized Ferdinand de Saussure for studying only speech rather than that also looking the connection between speech and writing, and in “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” he criticized Lévi-Strauss who also considered the verbal as being primary and originally and presented writing as dependent, implying that writing was a mere technique, a symptom of civilization and the loss of innocence. According to Derrida, these philosophical rejections of writing were signals embedded in the texts of the broader tendency of logocentricism or the nostalgic longing for the divine mind (God), the impossible self-presence of the full self-consciousness of the subject. This self-consciousness is also a fantasy of being able to say what one means, of controlling words and their intent through the fullness of presence or the totality of existence.

Just as Derrida was unwilling to accept existentialism, the romantic philosophy of self par excellence, he also noted that when constructing his philosophy of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl assumed a principle of the voice or the inner soliloquy–the ability to think and speak simultaneously. Most of us expect that when we speak our speech comes from our own personal “psychic interiority” or the depths of the mind cloaked by the speech act. We think that we speak directly and “naturally,” meaning that we assume that speech is spontaneous, compared to writing. When we write we are at a distance, a remove from the fullness of speaking, reproducing mechanically our second-hand unspoken thoughts. Writing, we assume, is a mere transcript of speech, artificial, not authentic, and alienated, rather than connected. But these assumptions and beliefs, which permeate philosophy, are naïve and rest precariously upon an unsustainable belief system. Derrida explained that, contrary to the assumption that logos pre-exists communication and can be traced back to some kind of primordial paradise, language is no pure and has never been pure. Writing has always preceded speech, not the other way around.

The distinction between speech and writing depends upon difference–speech is different from writing and vice versa, just as presence is the opposite of absence. Opposition is fundamental to Structuralism but, as Derrida said, “The living present springs forth out of its nonidentity with itself and from the possibility of a retentional trace. It is already a trace.” Writing invades the assumed ontology of language/linguistics as difference or “trace,” or distinguishing mark. This “living present,” or the trace, which is always present, is the effect of difference, of spacing between terms. Because of the ineradicable trace, according to Derrida, transcendental meaning through speech is a fiction necessary for philosophy. Modern philosophy depended upon such thinking in that the “metaphysical” is a thought system that allows us to think and depends upon the figure or metaphor of a foundation, a ground, a place to put the thoughts to follow. This first principle or starting point is defined by what is excluded by binary opposition.

Kusakabe_Kimbei_-_Writing_Letter_(large)

Photograph of Japanese woman writing by Kusakabe Kimbei

As Derrida pointed out in “Structure Sign and Play,” it is necessary to structure these neat oppositions in order to control surplus meaning and indeed Structuralism and its entire edifice was “built” on binaries: signifier/signified, sensible/intelligible, speech/writing, diachrony/synchrony, space/time, passivity/activity–these oppositions are axiomatic but the ultimate point of reference, the prime assumption, is the “presence of a presence.” The idea that the present can be frozen is, of course, a convenient fiction. In addition, Derrida revealed, these binaries, far from being mere organizing principles, are actual ideologies, ways of seeing that give preference toward one term over the other. Logos spawns hierarchized oppositions in terms of a superior term, denoting presence and an inferior term, which is fallen. There is something Biblical about binary oppositions: one term is “innocent” and the other is “fallen.”

Derrida’s insight is indicative of his “origins” as a colonial from Algeria, an colonized person in the heart of French intellectual territory, a Jewish man in a Gentile nation. At the heart of his critique of Lévi-Strauss was his ethnocentrism and imposition of cultural superiority over the “natives” of Brazil. But Lévi-Strauss was hardly along in his flawed thinking: previous philosophers had, since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, used a nature/culture opposition, implying an unfortunate evolution of human beings out of an originary Arcadia after living in an innocent state of nature as speakers. The culture of writing becomes a supplement or an excessive appendage, that both adds and substitutes, that is both detrimental and beneficial. However “beneficial” civilization might be, the first term of the pair, “nature,” is still longed for as a kind of lost innocence, and becomes the privileged entity. For Rousseau, nature is self-sufficient but human beings need culture, the supplement, the impure interloper. But for Derrida, there is no original and an un-supplemented or pure nature is impossible, because humans are present.

We can never know nature and because we are culture our concept of “Nature” is already a supplement because it is we who have “written” or fabricated it. Like Being, Nature escapes our comprehension and yet the concept of necessary in order to speak of culture. Nature must be sous rature, put “under erasure”–we cannot understand nature but we must have it, erased but nevertheless present. In other words, there can be no concept of “nature” without “culture,” and the “nature” is assumed to pre-exist “culture” has no meaning without the existence of “culture.” In realizing that the terms are weighted in preference, in understanding that these weights are ideological, Derrida pushes philosophy out of the Garden of Logos.

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The Metaphysics of Structuralism

DERRIDA AND THE DECONSTRUCTION OF THE STRUCTURE

Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of Human Sciences (1966)

Jacques Derrida’s (1921-2004) full frontal attack on the movement that had just ended the reign of Existentialism, was not only on the Structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, he also had to dismantle the founder of Structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure himself. In order to do so, Derrida examined what would be the the weak points on any argument–its assumptions–and found problems. Structuralism is based upon language which makes it possible for humans to speak and the most significant contribution of Structuralism is the realization the first, language is structured, and second, that this language is arbitrary and is comprehensible only through the network of relationships, and third, that people do not speak language, language speaks the person. Human thought itself is likewise structured by language and this structure is based upon binaries or opposite pairs. To put it simply, in terms of words, we understand “day” because it is arranged in the network opposite “night.” But, that said, what a Structuralist analysis is interested in is not content but the structure itself. This distinction between content and structure is the difference between a formalist reading of a text, which focuses on the intention of the artist in terms of content, and Structuralism which proposes a structured communication.

In his four volume Mythologies, Lévi-Strauss was unconcerned with the “meaning” of myths and more interested in the universality of how myths are put together. Regardless of origin a myth revolves around pairs who are set in opposing relationships to each other. The Raw and the Cooked, Lévi-Strauss’s second book in his series linked the distinction between “raw” and “cooked” to the distinction between “nature” and “culture.” This paired/opposite arrangement is significant and will be one of Derrida’s main targets of the Structuralist method. The main first problem is, as he pointed out in “Structure, Sign and Play,” is the idea of the structure itself and that problem is that “structure” is a figural concept or a definitive “shape,” if you will. And, if that is the case, which it is, then any structure has to have a center. As Derrida noted,

It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the episteme -that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy-and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the epistemé plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement. Nevertheless, up until the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure-or rather the structurality of structure-although it has always been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin.

The idea of the center proposed many problems for Derrida. First that the structure denies its own “structurality” in other words the structure is not conscious of itself and “neutralizes” the very fact that maintains its existence, namely the center. The center, Derrida maintained has a “presence” and an “origin,” both highly problematic for the philosopher. First, the “center” is not located “within” any particular “structure” but is part of the “totality” itself or the entire system of thought, what Derrida called “the condition of the épistemé.” This center contains, in the literal and figurative sense, “free play,” and this governing of free play or uncertainty, creates a feeling of certainty. In other words, the structure of the binary oppositions limits any play in-between or outside of or beyond that set of pairs. Derrida explained,

The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay based on a fundamental ground, a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the freeplay. With this certitude anxiety can be mastered, for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were from the very beginning at stake in the game. From the basis of what we therefore call the center (and which, because it can be either inside or outside, is as readily called the origin as the end, as readily arché as telos), the repetitions, the substitutions. the transformations, and the permutations are always taken from a history of meaning [sens]-that is, a history, period-whose origin may always be revealed or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of presence.

Derrida was pointing out a nearly unsolvable problem in Structuralism, the fact of the Structure itself. An integral part of the Structure, the center is a structural matrix that is “kept out of play,” that is, the center is unacknowledged on one hand but on the other hand, the analysis itself is dependent upon the balance and coherence and organization that is deployed around a controlled point, the center. Therefore, the center is the origin or the fixed subject, the absolute archia, meaning that without the center there would be on foundation (archia) and this archia is what Derrida called, the “essential operation of metaphysics.” The purpose of the centered structure is to limit the possibility of the kind of play that might interfere with the neat placement of opposing elements in interpretation. The center, therefore, is protection against what Derrida called “freeplay,” and in fact rules out play. But, and here Derrida made one of signature moves, he asserts that “play” precedes the operations of structuralism. The point that Derrida made is that the structure is so rigid and bounded and so pointedly centered, that this will toward boundary must have a purpose. And if that purpose is to control play (and it is) then, play has to have existed otherwise there would have been no need to asset and impose a structure.

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida’s room of his published books in his home in Ris Orange, France, 2001

It should be stated at this point that “structure” does not necessarily mean a little box that contains play which is bouncing round inside, but any structuring device, from thesis, anti-thesis, thesis, beginning, middle, end, or Freudian modeling, such as id, ego, superego or consciousness and unconsciousness. As Jean-François Lyotard pointed out in Discourse, figure (1971), the “figure” lies at the heart of discourse. The fact that Lyotard wrote this book five years after Derrida’s paper indicates the impact of the essay. Lyotard, echoing Derrida, pointed to the fundamental contradiction between two disparate elements. Derrida would call this internal discrepancy a “scandal,” and he located this scandal at the heart of the writings of Lévi-Strauss, specifically on the thorny issue of incest.” According to Derrida,

In the Elementary Structures, he begins from this axiom or definition: that belongs to nature which is universal and spontaneous, not depending on any particular culture or on any determinate norm. That belongs to culture, on the other hand, which depends on a system of norms regulating society and is therefore capable of varying from one social structure to another. These two definitions are of the traditional type. But, in the very first pages of theElementary Structures, Levi-Strauss, who has begun to give these concepts an acceptable standing, encounters what he calls a scandal, that is to say, something which no longer tolerates the nature/culture opposition he has accepted and which seems to require at one and the same time the predicates of nature and those of culture. This scandal is the incest-prohibition. The incest-prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural.

Clearly, Derrida uncovered a hidden or unacknowledged problem within Lévi-Strauss’s writing on incest, that is Lévi-Strauss “confused” universal with natural and disregarded the “prohibition” part which is, of necessity, an aspect of the cultural. This critique exposed the reason for the existence of a center, which, once again, should not be thought of as one of think of the bull’s eye on a target, but as the agent of “structuality” itself or the organizing principle around which the structure organizes itself. Nature and culture are opposites and that (binary arrangement) structure is made possible by the center which controls any intervening third or uncontrollable term. Witheringly, Derrida chided Lévi-Strauss for not thinking through his own philosophical system, “Once the limit of nature/culture opposition makes itself felt, one might want to question systematically and rigorously the history of these concepts. This is a first action.” To be fair to Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist was attempting to finding a way to organize his materials, but Derrida’s criticism was quite devastating, for he uncovered a process that worked, until it failed to examine itself or do what he advised: “to step outside of philosophy.”

Then Derrida took up the subject of the myth makers themselves, those whom Lévi-Strauss called bricoleurs or those who constructed culture from what the anthropologist called <“the means at hand.” Lévi-Strauss, who was pretty handy with mechanics, borrowed the idea of bricoulage from the language of people like his father who worked with their hands, making, repairing, fixing, inventing, all he while using the tools and the elements at their disposal. In thinking of myth, Lévi-Strauss was making point that myths are preexisting and that storytellers retell preexisting stories, sometimes rearranging the elements already ready. Now Derrida himself will later find this idea of preexisting materials important but for this essay, “Structure, Sign and Play,” he noted that the bricoleur was opposed, by Lévi-Strauss to another sort of creator, the engineer. It is at this point that Derrida will attack a second troubling aspect of Structuralism, the idea of an “origin.” He wrote,

If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur. The engieer, whom Levi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who would supposedly be the absolute origin of his own discourse and would supposedly construct it “out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth,” would be the creator of the verbe, the verbe itself. The notion of the engineer who had supposedly broken with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that thee engineer is a myth produced by the From the moment that we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse breaking with the received historical discourse, as soon as it is admitted that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage, and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning decomposes.

Derrida had pointed to a far more obvious problem, the metaphysics that lurked at the heart of Structuralism. As noted previously, Structuralism moved away from the unique and subjective human mind that creates independently. But as Derrida found, the Structuralist philosophers had assumed a “metaphysics of presence”–that the human being can spontaneously express her/himself–and that language is a transparent medium for an inner truth. The continuing criticism of Lévi-Strauss as a thinker is far more severe than any criticism of his work as an anthropologist could be. First, Lévi-Strauss had already been called out by specialists in anthropology for errors in data and second, if, as he affirmed, his sole concern was a way to structure his data and not the content itself, then, when Derrida picked holes in the method, the entire notion of “structure” collapsed. As Derrida explained his own impact, “For lack of expressly posing this problem, we condemn ourselves to transforming the claimed transgression of philosophy into an unperceived fault in the interior of the philosophical field.”

Derrida noted that the concept of the structure, as the “interior of the philosophical field,” was “totalizing.” Either Structuralism was empirical or it was not. If it was empirical and aspired to totalization, then the transplanting the techniques of linguistics to the field of anthropology is a reflection of the desire to totalize the materials of anthropology. If the structure provided a means of controlling (through an unacknowledged center) the vast data of anthropological materials, then it is totalizing. However, Derrida located the whiff of metaphysics at the heart of the method which was supposed to be empirical. This presence of metaphysics at the heart of empirical science was another “scandal.” The “center” had always always been a factor in human philosophy: in the spiritual age, it was God, who “organized” the world, in the scientific worlds, the center was rational thought, and with Structuralism, it was revealed, in some sense, that the center was constructed or was a deliberate, not transcendent, construct. This revelation of the constructed nature of human thought was, as Derrida put it, a “rupture” or an “event” in the field of philosophy.

The “rupture” was an acknowledgement that totalization, i.e., the structure, was driven by desire to control all elements. Desire is “irrational” or unconscious and cannot be accounted for and like God stands outside the Structure. Desire drives not just the structurally of the structure but also the way in which it contains its interior elements. Derrida noted that Structuralist anthropology began as a comparison of cultures with the West as the “center” or the point of “origin” being the standard by which all other societies are measured and evaluated. The West may be a convenient starting point for Western anthropologists and it may be a useful center, but by establishing European cultures as the center, there is a suggestion of superiority and Eurocentricism sneaks in, contaminating the work. The possible contamination of the research is not at issue here: the problem is that this center or what Derrida called “the central presence” cannot be accounted for or escapes evaluation and cannot be compared to anything else.

In contrast to classical philosophy, which privileged the “presence” and the “intention” of the speaker which indicates a conscious subject creating the signified, Structuralism stressed the signifier which rendered the “speaker” unconscious or acted upon by language. Derrida acknowledged that it is impossible to do without structures or without centers and, what is important to acknowledge is that the role of the structure is to manage the freeplay or the excess. However, the excess, the supplementaries of the Structure need to be taken into account. Given that here are elements that escape control, it is important to consider the possibly of “freeplay” or excesses to proscribe interpretation. As Derrida pointed out, Lévi-Strauss was quite aware of the internal problems within his system. He “named” this problem as excess or supplementary–elements that could not be contained within the structure. But for Lévi-Strauss these “supplementals” a term he also used, were interesting but not important to his entire project. Derrida, however, pounced upon these elements that could not be contained by the system–“freeplay”–and argued for allowing all aspects of the discourse to be mobilized.

The “rupture” of which Derrida spoke was the realization that “the center is not the center,” in other words the center is conceived of as inside the Structure but in order to function, it must not be “seen” or acknowledged and therefore must exist outside the structure/system. The Structure contains the play and play is integral to the structure itself. Given the importance of play all meaning becomes discourse. The transmutation of fixed and centered (transcendental) meaning into discourse or constructed meaning. The signs which operate within the discourse point to other signs which, in turn, indicate other signs, and so on until meaning is unfixed and unbounded and de-centered. What has been recognized by the play among signs is “history” itself, as Derrida explained,

Besides the tension of freeplay with history, there is also the tension of freeplay with presence. Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternativeof presence and absence; being must be conceived of as presence or absence beginning with the possibility of freeplay and not the other way around.

The assertion of the importance of the Other to the Center–Play which should be free was also the expression of an outsider to the entire edifice of Western philosophy. The role of Outside temperamentally suited the young Derrida, still being supervised by Jean Hippolyte, in his relative youth and in his status as one of the “colonized” from Algeria. The method Derrida deployed against Lévi-Strauss was that of what was then called “close reading,” which would be named later as Deconstruction. Derrida, in order to remain Outside, became a writer who read the works of others, analyzed the texts and found buried or unrealized inconsistencies within the writing and, as if under his spell, these discourse gave up their buried surpluses, their hidden excesses, and were allowed their moment of freeplay. Derrida had no wish to de-construct in terms of destruction. He was quite able to come to terms with the “irreducible differences,” he found in the works of Lévi-Strauss. Derrida argued “..we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the difference of this irreducible difference..” a statement that predicted the direction his own take on philosophy which would be based on what he would call “différance,” “difference” misspelled with a “silent” “a.” In the end he gave the listeners at the Symposium a prelude of things to come,

I admit, with a glance toward the business of childbearing-but also with a glance toward those who, in a company from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.

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Jacques Derrida and Post-Structuralism

JACQUES DERRIDA (1921 – 2004)

The Path to Post-Structualism

Jacques Derrida was a notoriously difficult philosopher to comprehend, especially for Americans, who are baffled by his writing style and his purpose. Americans, being pragmatic, prefer ideas that can be applied to the real world and Derrida’s works seems to belong to the realm of the esoteric and untethered from actuality. Certainly, for English speakers, Continental philosophy is challenging. English sentences are relatively brief, constructed in terms of beginning middle and end. German sentences are characterized by their often extreme length–pages in some instances–their many digressions and add-ons–and the oddity of the verb at the end. French writers, that is those who write non-fiction, tend to layer their texts. The writer has a point to make and makes it and then makes it another way and then makes the same point yet another way. Derrida, however, needs to be approached, not was an ordinary philosopher, but as a poet of sorts. Basically, he was a reader who read the works of other philosophers and who then writes about the writings of others. Derrida is also a reader who reads and contemplates words and enjoys playing with words and creates word play. If one wanted to visualize his books, a flock of starlings would be a good analogy: the flock swoops in one graceful direction and then gathers itself together to swarm off in another arc. The reader of Derrida needs only to follow along and enjoy the ride.

In retrospect it is interesting to note how many French philosophers were impacted by Algeria, Jean-François Lyotard taught there, Pierre Bourdieu did his military service there and studied the sociology of the post-colonial nation, and Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, both Jewish were born there. In the article, Algeria’s Impact on French Philosophy: Between Poststructuralist Theory and Colonial Practice (2011) Muriam Haleh Davis listed these notables:

What were the implications of Algeria’s role in social theory, and how do we make sense of the fact that the list of thinkers directly influenced by events in Algeria — Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean-François Lyotard, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and Michel Foucault — reads as a canonical list of French philosophers?>

In Out of Africa: Post-Structuralism’s Colonial Roots (2010), Pal Ahuluwalia made the case that the end of (French) colonialism in Algeria also marked an end of all of the promises of Modernism. On one hand, the Enlightenment had high ideas and made extravagant promises, while at the same time its agents busily conquered and colonized non-Western lands in its zeal for imperialism. Modernity was full of contradictions that imploded under their own weight. As Ahuluwalia noted, the attacks on received wisdom came from marginalized outsiders, such as Derrida and Cixous, who were pushed to the fringes because they were Jewish. He stated, “the most vigorous dismantling of the assumptions of Western intellectual orthodoxy comes from its margins” Cixous referred to the generation of French philosophers who came of age in the 1960s as the “incorruptibles.” Indeed, most of this group had outsider status and, having no vested interests in the status quo, proved to be the most trenchant critics of established modes of thought, hence “incorruptible.”

Derrida described himself as “little black and very Arab Jew” and indeed, in some of the pictures of him as a young man, when the light is right, he is notably darker than his companions, but in other images, he is not “little black” at all. It can be presumed that Derrida was expressing his personal feeling of being marginalized. His biographer Benoît Peeters described his intellectual life as an outsider who was at the heart of French thought, a man in the middle who always stood somewhat apart from a society that had named him alien. It is predictable that it would be he, in an act of audacity, who would put Structuralism under an analytic spotlight and would challenge its leading thinker, Claude Lévi-Strauss. It is interesting that one of Derrida’s first forays into the writing of Lévi-Strauss is an oblique accusation of ethnocentric thinking uncovered in Tristes Tropiques (1955). This popular book by Lévi-Strauss is neither fish nor fowl, both biography, memoir, and an anthropological of his time in Brazil that is more anecdotal than scientific. In his essay, “The Violence of the Letter: From Lévi-Strauss to Rousseau,” published in Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida enlarged upon an essay, “Nature, Culture and Writing” published in Cahier pour l’analyse. Indeed, as Benoît Peeters reported in Derrida: A Biography (2012), Lévi-Strauss himself responded to the analysis by writing to the editors,

..aren’t you playing a philosophical farce by scrutinizing my texts with a care that would be more justified if they had been written by Spinoza, Descartes or Kant? Frankly I don’t think that what I write is worth so much fuss, especially Tristes Tropiques, in which I didn’t claim to be setting out any truths, merely the daydreams of an ethnographer in the field–I’d be the last to say there is any coherence in them.

Whether or not Tristes Tropiques was “serious” enough to bear the weight of Derrida’s analysis is perhaps immaterial for the younger philosopher found a contradiction, unrealized by the anthropologist at the heart of this book. In Lévi-Strauss chapter, “The Writing Lesson,” there is an assumption of the superiority of writing illustrated when the anthropologist handed out pencils to the supposedly untouched native tribe in Brazil. But this move against Tristes Tropiques was not the serious attack on Lévi-Strauss, that would be a paper given by Derrida, not in France, but on the shores of provincial America, at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. This now famous paper, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of Human Sciences,” would deliver a coup de grâce to Structuralism on the very day when this relatively recent philosophical trend was being “introduced” to America.

The year was 1966 and Derrida was a young upstart, looking to make his mark. Writing in Johns Hopkins Magazine in 2012, Bret McCabe discussed this famous event. “Structuralism’s Sampson” is about how and why such an important event took place in, of all places, America. The conference was organized by René Girard, Chair of the Romance Languages Department, Richard Macksey, and Eugenio Donato as “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium. A number of philosophical notables, such as, according to McCabe, “Roland Barthes, Lucien Goldmann, Jean Hyppolite, Jacques Lacan, Charles Morazé; former Johns Hopkins faculty Georges Poulet, Guy Rosolato, Nicolas Ruwet, Tzvetan Todorov, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Johns Hopkins faculty Neville Dyson- Hudson, Donato, Girard, and Macksey.” The Belgium scholar, Luc de Heusch, would not attend and Derrida was a last minute fill-in. Although very junior to most of the speakers, he came well armed. McCabe recounted how J. Hillis Miller missed Derrida’s paper, given on the last night of the symposium, and heard from his colleague Georges Poulet: “I have just heard the most important lecture of the conference—it’s against everything that I do but it was the most important lecture.”

derrida11

Jacques Derrida

This statement by Poulet proved to be prophetic, for, in retrospect it seemed evident that a single paper took the “structuralist” turn and diverted it to “post-structuralism,” which in the case of Jacques Derrida would become a branch of philosophy called “Deconstruction. In America all of these French tendencies were lumped together into a rather reductive version called “theory.” In his book From the New Critics to Deconstruction. The Reception of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism (1988), Art Berman noted the uneven and un-chronologial publications of French philosophy. Berman explained, in part, that

Culler’s Structuralist Poetics was published in the United States in 1976, by which time the publication in France of Derrida’s De la grammatologie, which inaugurates post-structualism, is an even seven years old. Of Grammatology was published in the United States in 1976; yet de Man’s Blindness and Insight, which relies upon Derrida, was published in 1971, the year before Jameson’s The Prison-House of Language (1972), analysis of basic structuralist assumptions and preceding post-structuralism.

Today’s students are fortunate to have access to most of the philosophical works of this and the pre-war period, translated from French, German, Russian, Czech, and so on but it is important to have a sense of chronology and context. In order to understand the break announced by Derrida it is important to understand just what it was about Structuralism that left it so vulnerable to attack. Part of its vulnerability was Structuralism’s claim to “science” and “empiricism”and it is this very aspiration towards certainty and rigor that Derrida would target. The next post will discuss The Metaphysics of Structuralism.

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Jean-François Lyotard and the Figural, Part Two

Discours/Figure (1971)

Part Two: Veduta

In 1971, in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s 1966 presentation Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, the Deconstruction of Structuralism was well under way. Jean-François Lyotard proposed the Figural which opens the discourse to heterogeneity (multiplicity) by introducing a difference that cannot be rationalized or subsumed within the rule of representation. Because of its attachment to vision (the eye) the figural cannot be brought under the logic of identity as an opposition to the text. Discourse is not the opposite of the Figure; the Figural is not the opposite of the Discursive. The discursive system cannot deal with the singularity or the disruption of the figure. The Figural is not the figurative but because it is embedded in vision/seeing, the figural is linked to art making. Politically, the Figure is that which rebells against a system (of language) and resists the totalizing effects of the linguistic network, marking the subversion of that which has been repressed. Psychologically, the Figure is the (Freudian) denial of that which is desired through negation. Historically, the Figure is the event, that which disrupts history and interrupts its supposed trajectory. The Figure breaks through the seamless Discourse as a ghost which haunts its conquerer.

Like Theodor Adorno in Negative Dialectics (1969) a few years earlier, Lyotard insisted upon the singularity against totality or “identity thinking.” The figural (the eye) marks this resistance to the text, a coexistence of incommensurable heterogeneous spaces, that of text and the figure. The discursive is actually interwoven with the figural and vice-versa. As Lyotard explained,

Only from within language can one get to and enter the figure. One can get to the figure by making clear that every discourse possesses its counterpart, the object of which it speaks, which is over there, like what it designates in a horizon: sight on the edge of discourse. And one can get in the figure without leaving language behind because the figure is embedded in it. One only has to allow oneself to slip into the well of discourse to find the eye lodged at its core an eye of discourse in the sense that at the center of the cyclone lies an eye of calm. The figure is both without and within.

In 1856 it was Karl Marx who said, “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary” and so it is that the figure is always haunting discourse. In January 2014, mathematician Vlad Ionescu explained,

The figural is exactly that which comes as Unheimlich into language, breaking it into forms (visual and linguistic) that fall short in comprehending. It is not a mere variation on the sharable language but precisely an effect that this language fails to grasp in its own syntax and morphology.

The figural cannot be comprehended and becomes an ungovernable excess or alterity that disrupts the illusion of transparency that drives discourse. The figure “points” away from discourse, calling attention to the unauthorized Other that lies outside the boundaries of text. The act of pointing is referential or indicative of something else, and its function is both paradoxically necessary to and disruptive of signification. Designation is figural and introduces the visible to textual space but immediately seeks to suppress the necessary but disruptive Other. The sensible, i.e. sensory, field is absolutely heterogeneous and impure, and this encounter between textuality and vision (the eye) happens at the edges of discourse, around the periphery. The figural, then, is the Other, rejected by semiotics or phenomenological theory, but returns persistently in the realm of the visual arts, where it is allowed to exist.

For Lyotard, deconstruction is the account of figurality by suggesting a plurality or multiplicity (heterogeneity), not an opposition, as the characteristic of the differential nature of the sign. He introduced an alterity of the visible into the textual space of linguistic signification. In so doing, Lyotard was refuting the rules of discourse which define the space of communication but he is also foregrounding the fact that in order for a purely textual discourse to function, the figural must be repressed. The philosopher locates this repression of the figural by the textual in the history of the visual arts. In an italicized chapter in the middle of Discourse, Figure, “Veduta” Lyotard noted that while Medieval manuscripts allowed text and image to coexist, by the Renaissance the figure was excluded from the text and was given its own and separate field, the visual arts, i.e. painting. The total separation would take time and lingering instances of heterogeneity within works of art, in which two systems of visual communication coexist in unresolved differentiation. In Massacio’s Trinity (1427-8) below, a flat Romanesque armature encases a deep Renaissance space with contains a sculptural body of a crucified Christ.

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Trinity (1427-8)

Lyotard understood that Renaissance perspective was a totalizing and constructed system of en-visioning that was totally divorced from actual vision. Like the camera obscure which cut off peripheral vision and thus flattened the curved field created by the human eye/s, the result of perspective was a “cube” that was “closed” as opposed to a curved space which is “open.” The example that Lyotard used in Discourse, Figure was one put forward by Pierre Francastel (1900-1970) who wrote on The Tribute Money (1425) by Masaccio (1401-1428). The Tribute Money below demonstrated a very rare example of an open, not closed, visual space. Technically, the painting is an example of a “continuous narrative,” or a story told across time in three scenes in the same expanded space. This is a Medieval convention carried over into the Early Renaissance. Thus, the “figure” of the tax collector who both initiates the movement through time but who also shifts in time himself, pivoting from center stage to stage right is the Figural that disrupted the Discourse of Renaissance perspective.

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The Tribute Money (1425)

Perspective depends upon the fiction of one eye at one point in time immobilized within a net of orthogonal lines meeting at the vanishing point of a horizontal horizon line. The Figural (the tax collector dressed in orange) cannot be contained within this field of representation. Indeed the role of the tax collector functions like the Figure itself–he points, he designates, he references to that which is beyond the peripheral vision of the paralyzed eye and the flattened plotted space of the cube. This gesturing of the over “here” and then the indication of the passing of time which goes over “there” is the deixis, the “pointing outside itself,” as Bill Readings expressed it. But Lyotard had an even more radical example of two heterogeneous “spaces” co-exising, however uneasily, without ever being reconciled to each other.

Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) was painted one hundred years after Masaccio’s didactic narrative of “the tribute money.” Less a story and more a presentation of the French ambassadors to the court of King Henry VIII, The Ambassadors shows two sharp-dressed men standing in a shallow space, backed by a green brocade curtain. The two fashionable ambassadors, looking older than two men in their twenties, flank, bookend, a set of open shelves crowded with symbols of diplomacy and religious principles and scientific endeavors–in other words, discourse. But oddly, at the bottom of the painting is a distorted skull, an anamorphosis or an object from another system of vision. When viewed by the mobile spectator from a skewed angle, the skull becomes apparent or enters into the space to the right of the center of the centralized perspectival space of the Ambassadors themselves. Regardless of what it may or may not symbolize, the skull, from a Lyotardian point of view, is the Figural, another space, another form of seeing embedded in and disrupting Renaissance space.

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Hans Holbein. The Ambassadors (1533)

The Ambassadors indicates that the position of art is a denial of the position of discourse. The skull is the returned of the repressed, the persistence of the negativity that is always present at the heart of the positivity of rationalized space. The position of art indicates a function of the figure, in this case the skull, which is not signified, indicating that this disruptive function haunts the edge of and/or within discourse. The symbols in this painting are transcended by the figure, that is to say, a spatial manifestation of the skull which the linguistic space of the Ambassadors cannot incorporate without being overthrown, an exteriority which cannot be interiorized as a signification, because what the skull “means” is not important. The skull, in a Lyotardian analysis, is art as plasticity, not textuality, art as desire, not discourse, art as a curved extension, not the cube, in the face of totalizing invariance and all consuming reason. The skull is about the eye and its (repressed) desires as explained by Sigmund Freud.

Lyotard used Postmodernism to introduce figurality by suggesting that a figural work of art is to block together motivated and unmotivated language. According to Bill Readings in Introducing Lyotard. Art and Politics, “blocking together” is overprinting or superimposition, an occupation of the same space by two things, while each remaining distinct. This “blocking” is a form of Dream Work–apparently unrelated objects lying adjacent, denying their unspoken meaning. Blocking permits denial of desire through negativity: “this is not my mother,” as Sigmund Freud pointed out means “this is my mother:” Die Verneinung. Linear or Renaissance perspective was understood as a kind of text that produces a fiction of “space” based upon straight lines at the expense of and the exclusion of the Other or curved lines. But Lyotard insisted on the presence of heterogeneity of curved space in vision and insisted on a different kind of seeing at the margin of vision, seen in the veduta of Canaletto’s distorted perspective of a townscape. The denied, Verneinung, asserts itself by its negation and the curved space of the eye’s “savage” vision strains against the cubed boundaries of Canaletto’s frames. The presentation of only one possible construction–the box of the camera obscura–deforms all others compared to a pluralistic presentation of numerous focal points and the viewer can choose among them indifferently.

As in The Tribute Money, Lyotard thought of time figurally, rather than as an ordered sequence of moments and attempted to think time otherwise than by a means of historical discourse with its presumed teleology. He understood the Postmodern as a temporal aproria or a gap in the thinking of time caused by the time of the “event.” Lyotard championed the style of hyperrealism as a temporal freezing, in which a moment–an arbitrary “event” is arrested by the snapshot, disrupting the “flow” of time itself. The figural force of this event/that moment over “there” gestures to and disrupts the possibility of thinking of history as a succession of moments. The postmodern is a rethinking of a culture. The Postmodern is necessarily a figure for the modern discourse.

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