Monday, July 30, 2007
Derrida and Deconstruction
Heidegger meant by "the end of philosophy" the end of a philosophy rooted in metaphysics. He argued that the only real philosophical questions have to do with "being" (ontology) and that "transcendental" questions were meaningless. By the sixties, the notion of the "end of philosophy " had developed into the notion that philosophy was nothing other than the ideology of the western ethos. The liberal humanist tradition presented a de facto situation (its own pre-eminence) as a de jure situation (its truth). In other words, it presented its traditional privilege as a natural superiority. Such a position is ideological.
Derrida argued that Heidegger had not escaped transcendentalism, that his "Being" was as transcendental as any other "Transcendental Signified." He also argued that even if the charge against philosophy as ideology were true, the charge was levelled in the language of philosophy, which can not be escaped. All that was really being asked was that the dominant ideology (philosophy = the ideology of the western ethos) be replaced by another broader or at least different ideology such as Marxism (philosophy=discourse of the ruling class), Freudianism (philosophy =sexual symptom), anti-Freudianism (philosophy =phallocratic ideology). In the end, he argued, the order of reason is absolute, "since it is only to itself that an appeal against it can be brought, only in itself that a protest against it can be made; on its own terrain, it leaves us no other recourse than to stratagem and strategy."
Derrida did not quarrel with Heidegger's position that history, as perceived in the philosophic tradition was over; only that Heidegger himself had not escaped it. Derrida raised the question of what there was to say after philosophy was over (but ironically still in place, because reason is absolute and can only be questioned in its own terms). The strategy he chose was duplicity, the playing of a double game. He would operate in the language of reason, since there was no other, but try to lay traps for it by posing it problems it could not answer, exposing the inherent contradictions in apparently reasonable positions. He called this strategy deconstruction, after Heidegger's term destruktion.
For Heidegger, destruktion was essentially, the history of the inquiry into history. Dasein , the individual's being in the world, is often trapped by the everyday ordinariness of life into interpreting itself in terms of the world it knows and the tradition it inherits. This condition Heidegger calls fallenness, and the individuals who have fallen into it das man (the they). Anyone who wishes to live authentically must escape from the average everyday ordinariness of life and contemplate his/her own death (non-being, or nothingness). This is done through the agency of angst , a kind of generalized suffering caused by the fear of dying, and the intellectual exercise of destruktion. Destruktion, then is a combination of a negative analysis of "today," the average everyday world and a positive analysis of history that tries to achieve authenticity through the rigorous questioning of accepted authority. Often this means breaking a word into its component parts in order to trace its history.
Derrida's deconstruction is a more limited but even more rigorous form of interrogation. Since the "speaking subject," when he/she speaks, must speak the language of reason, there must exist some silent region where the double agent deconstructor can sort out his stratagem against the Logos, the rules of reason. In order for this to be possible, two conditions must maintain:
1. In order for the double game of duplicity to be played, the language of philosophy must already be full of duplicity (both in its sense of doubleness and its sense of hypocrisy or lying.)
2. The strategist (speaking subject, deconstructor) must resist the power of Logos (reason) by maintaining a indefensible position of empiricism, erasing the distinction between truths of fact and truths of reason. This will be accomplished through différance.
For Heidegger, difference was the result of temporality. Since history and language precede the self and help construct the self, the self can never step outside itself and see itself outside of history and language. The self (in Heidegger's language dasein) can only conceive an historically past self, different from the existential self experiencing the world in the present. In that sense, the self (as subject) is always different from the self (as object).
Derrida's concept la différance contains two notions: difference and deference, a separation of identity and a separation in time. Derrida came to his notion through an attempt to show the impossibility of Husserl's promise of a "phenomenology of history" by deconstructing the notion. He showed that a phenomenology of history would have to answer the question "how is a truth possible for us?" But if a truth is to be truth, it must be absolute, independent of any point of view(unless, of course, we are God, in which case the question is meaningless). Phenomenology seeks the origin of truth, and it locates this origin in an inaugural fact which by definition can only occur once.
The phenomenologist argues that only the present exists. The past is retained in the present through the present ruins of a civilization that is absent. The future is mooted, or predicted, but only in the present. But in order for the past to be retained in the present and the future to beannounced in the present, the present must not only be present. It must also be a present that is still to come (future) and a present that is already past (past). At this point difference appears. The present is not identical with itself.
This difference raises again the problem of the inaugural fact Suppose we have the trace of some inaugural event, say the stone foundations at L'Anse aux Meadows. Out of our present we may for ourselves assume these to be Viking remains, though we cannot with certainty know what meaning they had for their makers. We cannot make our meaning coincide with their meaning, yet we know that when that past was a present, it had all the properties of a present. That other must also be a same. Again, this failure of the past to coincide with itself is a source of différance.
If we are to develop a phenomenology of history we must posit what Husserl called "a principle of principles." This principle is that history is meaningful, and however confused or in need of mediation, it can be transmitted from generation to generation. It is univocal, even though it can never be articulated at any moment. Being and meaning can never coincide except at infinity, so meaning is always deferred. The de jure situation (what is right) and the de facto situation (what is fact) can also never coincide. The reason for this is that there is an originary difference between fact and right, being and meaning.
Another necessary but paradoxical concept is the idea of originary delay. Derrida argues that a first is only a first by consequence of a second that follows it. The first is only recognizable as a first and not merely a singular by the arrival of the second. The second is therefore the prerequisite of the first. It permits the first to be first by its delayed arrival. The first, recognizable only after the second, is in this respect a third. Origin, then is a kind of dress rehearsal, what Derrida calls la répétition d'une première, in terms of the theatre, a representation of the first public performance which has not yet occurred. The original, in that sense, is always a copy. In this way, Derrida deconstructs Husserl's principle of principles which always relied on being able to distinguish the original from later copies.
If we apply the same analysis to signs and things in the "real" world we come to the paradoxical situation that the sign precedes the referent. The sign "dog," precedes the four-legged barking creature because the creature is only recognizable as that after the sign "dog" has been applied to it. Derrida has shown that, contrary to Husserl's notion of a pure origin, consciousness never precedes language,, and we cannot see language as a representation of a silently lived through experience.
This is the core of deconstructive thinking. We can only understand the priority of the sign by an enquiry into writing. Earlier, we looked at graphemes (the units of writing) as a second-order sign system. Derrida sees the relationship between these signs as semiological. The graphic sign stands in for the phonemic sign. It is therefore "the sign of a sign," while the oral sign is the "sign of the thing." Writing is then supplementary. (Even the oral sign is supplementary, since it exists as supplement to the "real world." The graphic sign of writing is particularly supplemental since it is a supplement to a supplement, a sign of a sign.) In Off Grammatology Derrida argues that writing should not be subordinated to speech, and this subordination is nothing more than an historical prejudice. He argues further that to define a graphic sign is to define any sign. Every sign is a signifier whose signified is another signifier. Think of looking up signifiers in a dictionary. What you get is a list of other signifiers. Meaning is always deferred.
The idea of the supplement raises some interesting questions. We can think of the origin as a place where there is no originary, only a supplement in the place of a deficient originary. It is deficient for this reason. We can think of the supplement as a surplus, something extra added to the whole and outside of it. But if the whole is really the whole, then nothing can be added to it. If the supplement is something and not nothing, then it must expose the defect of the whole, since something that can accomodate the addition of a supplement must be lacking something within itself. Derrida calls this "the logic of the supplement."
In the same way, the present is only present on the condition that it allude to the absence from which it distinguishes itself. Metaphysics, Derrida argues, is the act of erasing this distinguishing mark, the trace of the absent. We may now define trace as the sign left by the absent thing, after it has passed on the scene of its former presence. Every present, in order to know itself as present, bears the trace of an absent which defines it. It follows then that an originary present must bear an originary trace, the present trace of a past which never took place, an absolute past. In this way, Derrida believes, he achieves a position beyond absolute knowledge.
Derrida distinguishes between a meditating on presence, which he defines as philosophy, and the possibility of meditating on non-presence. How can these two kinds of thinking, one of which takes issue with the other co-exist? Derrida argues that philosophy is always already there (not that it has always been.) Philosophy can only be a thinking of presence, since experience is lived and tested in the present. The other kind of thinking which is not philosophical cannot therefore appeal to individual empirical experience. Instead it appeals to a general experience.
At the level of text, then, the appeal is to writing in general. Every text is a double text. It is philosophical and and understood by classical interpretation at one level of its reading. But it also contains traces and contradictions, indications of the second text which a classical reading can never uncover. No synthesis is possible. The second text is not an opposite which can be reconciled. It is what Derrida calls its counterpart, slightly phased. It requires a deconstructive reading of the difference (what Derrida calls a double science or double séance).
The meditation on non-presence is a meditation on the self as other. Every metaphysical text is separated from itself by what Derrida calls a "scarcely perceptible veil." A slight displacement in the reading of the text
is sufficient to collapse one into the other, to make comedy wisdom or vice versa. Derrida's duplicity splits the metaphysical text in two, revealing its inherent contradictions. Derrida's analysis insists on the undecidability of words, their unresolvable contradictions.
One of the most important concepts in Derrida's analysis is the idea of "sous rature," (under erasure.) Heidegger often crossed out the word Being (Being) and let both the word and its erasure stand. He felt the Being was prior to and beyond signification or meaning, and hence to signify it was inadequate, though there existed no alternative. Derrida extends this practise to all signs. Since any signifier has as its signified another signifier, it always defers meaning and it always carries traces of other meanings. It must therefore be studied as defective, incomplete, under erasure.
A few (over-simplified) definitions:
Grammatology: The science of writing. Derrida proposes to move beyond traditional models of writing that describe its history and evolution to develop a theory of writing, to apply that theory and to move in the direction of a new writing. The difficult in doing so is the result of the relationship between writing and metaphysics.
The metaphysics of presence. The assumption that the physical presence of a speaker authenticates his speech. Speaking would then precede writing (the sign of a sign), since the writer is not present at the reading of his text to authenticate it. Spoken language is assumed to be directly related to thought, writing a supplement to spoken language, standing in for it. This is the result of phonocentrism the valorization of speech over writing.
Logocentrism: "In the beginning was the word." Logocentrism is the belief that knowledge is rooted in a primeval language(now lost) given by God to humans. God (or some other transcendental signifier: the Idea, the Great Spirit, the Self, etc;) acts a foundation for all our thought, language and action. He is the truth whose manifestation is the world. He is the foundation for the binaries by which we think: God/Man, spiritual/physical, man/woman, good/evil. The first term of the binary is valorized, and a chain of binaries constitutes a hierarchy.
Binary Oppositions: The hierarchical relation of elements that results from logocentrism. Derrida is interested more in the margins, the supplements, than in the centre.
The supplement: Derrida takes this term from Rousseau, who saw a supplement as "an inessential extra added to something complete in itself." Derrida argues that what is complete in itself cannot be added to, and so a supplement can only occur where there is an originary lack. In any binary set of terms, the second can be argued to exist in order to fill in an originary lack in the first. This relationship, in which one term secretly resides in another, Derrida calls invagination.
Originary lack: Some absence in a thing that permits it to be supplemented.
Metonymic chain: Derrida argues with Saussure's notion that signs are binary. (signifier, signified) The signified, he says, is always a signifier in another system. As a result, meaning cannot be in a sign, since it is always dispersed, deferred and delayed. (dictionary analogy). In terms of a text, then, all signifiers must be seen as defective. A signifier always contains traces of other signifiers.
Trace: The indications of an absence that define a presence. (The present is known as the present only through the evidence of a past that once was a present.) The traces of other signifiers in any signifier means that it must always be read under erasure.(sur rasure).
Erasure: The decision to read a signifier or a text as if its meaning were clear, with the understanding that this is only a strategy.
Difference (Différance) A pun on difference and deference. Any signifier (or chain of signification, ie. text) must infinitely defer its meaning because of the nature of the sign (the signified is composed of signifiers). At the same time, meaning must be kept under erasure because any text is always out of phase with itself, doubled, in an argument with itself that can be glimpsed through the aporias it generates.
Deconstruction: an attempt to dismantle the binary oppositions which govern a text by focussing on the aporias or impasses of meaning. A deconstructive reading will identify the logocentric assumptions of a text and the binaries and hierarchies it contains. It will demonstrate how a logocentric text always undercuts its own assumptions, its own system of logic. It will do this largely through an examination of the traces, supplements, and invaginations in the text.
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