Dr. Louis N. Sandowsky
(ex. “Café Phenomenologicum” or “De-con-structive Evening”)
* Transcript of a recording by Anna Shmerling (Fall – 2000)
Louis: Good evening everyone. Sorry about the cramped conditions. I’m still negotiating with the powers-that-be over a more suitable venue. But, as this is the very first meeting, I hope that you’ll cut me some slack and have a good time anyway...
…Although a beginning is a sensitive time, I’m just going to launch into it. That is because it is something to which one must inevitably return anyway – so let’s just celebrate the arbitrariness of the initial point and direction of the movement and see where it takes us on the way back to the beginning. Edmund Husserl, the father of modern phenomenology, defined his enterprise as an “eternal return to beginnings,” and it is the spiraling pattern of this dynamic with its deconstructive (and thus transvaluative power) that interests me. So, please allow me to begin with a contemporary lens-piece on phenomenology by way of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive gaze.
Jacques Derrida’s first published book (1962) is actually a translation of Edmund Husserl’s essay, "The Origin of Geometry." His Translator’s Introduction is a considerable work in its own right and, in terms of its number of pages, it dwarfs the essay that it translates. It is a radicalization of Husserlian thinking, which contributes to the formative development of deconstructive strategy. The book's orientation is also very much influenced by Merleau-Ponty. However, Derrida omits any substantial references to his work. I meant to speak to him about this surprising omission when I met him in 1992, but I didn’t find a suitable moment to bring it up. However, I did say to him that I didn’t like his writing. I couldn't resist mentioning this in the endnotes of my Doctoral Thesis. Introducing myself in such a way was a purely strategic manoeuvre, which was geared toward catching his attention at a time when he was being mobbed by the usual sycophants and bombarded with inane questions while everyone in the room hung on to his every utterance. The trouble is – Derrida can’t open his mouth without someone shoving a microphone into his face….
There is a point in the Afterword to my book, After Derrida, Before Husserl: the Spacing Between Phenomenology and Deconstruction, where I talk about the strategy of the text. Basically, my thesis played with a number of Derridian techniques, which performed a kind of mirroring of Derrida’s strategies in his readings of Husserl. He wrote two books that are really pivotal. I’ve already mentioned the first text – a fascinating book, called, An Introduction to Husserl’s "Origin of Geometry." It is basically a translation of an appendix to Husserl’s last, unfinished text, called The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Derrida’s introductory essay is a massive thesis in its own right – and it is enormously important as a seminal work on phenomenological deconstruction. In 1967, he published three books simultaneously, one of which was Speech and Phenomena. In this book, he seems to take up a diametrically opposed orientation to his earlier text, which celebrates the radicality of the Husserlian enterprise. It is a very weird turnaround and it makes it very difficult to figure out what Derrida’s position is in relation to Husserl’s phenomenology. He refers to this double-sidedness in an interview entitled Positions. The later text, Speech and Phenomena, is the dark side – the shadow of the former.
What I did in my thesis was mirror this double-sided strategy, with respect to Derrida’s own discourse on phenomenology, by taking up his invitation to re-read those in whose wake he had written. Rather than simply talking about the different kinds of deconstructive analyses at work in Derrida’s writing (which I do to a certain extent), in effect, I did them. And so, this thesis is heavy on strategy. The reason for this hard-core strategic play lay in the need to cover the ‘middle-ground’ of what deconstruction is doing – without merely echoing its sensational (and more popular) claims. I shall read the endnote to you.
inspiration came from Derrida himself when I met him a few years ago during his
Basically, Speech and Phenomena is supposed to be a critique of Husserl’s Logical Investigations. This is a pivotal text for phenomenology. It was published in 1901, it is in two volumes, it took Husserl about ten years to write it, and it was the culmination of a massive re-evaluation of the direction he was taking after Frege’s damaging critique of his earlier work – The Philosophy of Arithmetic. The Logical Investigations occupies a static phenomenological position, whereas in the earlier Philosophy of Arithmetic Husserl tried to take constitution and time into account – which brought him very close to a kind of Humean psychologistic perspective. The point is that all the texts, all the commentaries, which are focused on Derrida’s engagement with Husserl in Speech and Phenomena, look purely at his analysis of the limits of the Logical Investigations. But, actually it is just a ruse. What Derrida is really interested in is Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness – a text that is based on lectures that were presented in 1905 (with appendices from 1910), but were not published until 1928. Derrida’s re-reading of Husserl’s lectures on time consciousness actually provides the basic theoretical matrix that is at work in his discourse on ‘différance’ and ‘trace’. The logics of this will come out over the next few weeks.
Derrida’s writing is full of misappropriations and misdirections. He is an artist. Hitchcock is another favourite of mine who liked to use a form of sleight of hand in his work. He had a wonderful trait of throwing in clues to misdirect the audience. This forces us to work a little harder. In my text, After Derrida, Before Husserl, I didn’t want to take the same route as other commentators have done. I actually wanted to do something that was quite Derridian in style, which is why I told him that I hated his writing – just a little bit of misdirection to get his attention.
A student: Playing his own game.
By the way, Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations was Martin Heidegger’s
principal text on phenomenology with respect to its treatment of categorial
intuition (parts and wholes), and it is basically ‘The Bible’ for most
phenomenologists. In this text, Husserl also talks about a variety of different
forms of signification that are at work in discourse – including discourse with
oneself. His meticulous descriptions of these forms disclose a complex manifold
of different intentional structures of experience. When we express ourselves,
there is a different self-relation to what is said than that of the one who is
listening. This is also expressed in the analytical linguistic school – e.g.,
Derrida comes along and says that this is not quite right. Basically, if there is to be meaning, then, first of all, the condition of the possibility of meaning lies in a certain structure of repeatability. And, its repeatability relies on the structure of difference and deferral, which are borne out of indication. It turns the whole argument on its head. What he is doing is drawing from classical material – from Plato, and specifically the Phaedrus, where Socrates talks about the purity of live speech, live discourse, and how a written text is a lifeless representation, and therefore is not to be trusted. Derrida effectively deconstructs this ancient prejudice, which, he maintains, has repeated itself throughout the history of Western metaphysics. For instance, when one considers Chapter Ten of Plato’s Republic, entitled, “On Art”, we are introduced to the thought of the work of the artisan as being more noble than that of the artist. For Plato’s Socrates of The Republic, the ‘real world’ is a world of ideal forms – those that are originally intuited by the artisan in the construction of a table, a construction that, in a sense, always refers to the pure form as its material representation. Plato’s limited idea of the notion of art introduces an impoverished interpretation of its function – where it is reduced to the mere representation of material forms, which are already merely representations of transcendent forms. In other words, Plato maintains that art is nothing more than a representation of a representation. The work of the artisan is considered to be nobler because, as a first-order representation, it is meant to represent something original – it refers to a true originary source.
Derrida turns this whole structure on its head. His principal thesis is that if we are to talk about ‘presence’, it is only possible, because of the structure of ‘re-presentation’. Usually, the particle ‘re’ is added after the event. We normally begin by thinking about something that is ‘present’, which is then repeated. Derrida reverses the order – it is only through the ‘structure of iterability’ / ‘repeatability’ that things can stand-out as ‘present’. We find this logic concerning the primacy of the ‘possibility’ of repeatability in Kant and many other philosophers too: that ‘cognition is primarily a matter of re-cognition’. So, what Derrida is saying is that, basically, the principal motivation that has traced itself throughout the history of Occidental philosophy, is the desire for ‘immanence’ / pure unmediated ‘presence’ – which includes such senses as ‘to be in close proximity to’, ‘knowing oneself,’ ‘being at one with what one is saying’ – without the value of the sign. In a sense, the whole tradition since Plato (Derrida maintains that this includes Husserl’s phenomenology) has cast the ‘sign’ into a secondary position. He wants to put the whole question of the ‘sign’ right back into the foreground of philosophical thinking (or writing). So, basically, he inaugurates a critique of this distinction between ‘expression’ and ‘indication’ – which carries with it an implicit ethical and metaphysical hierarchy.
However, if we loop this back onto Husserl’s discourse on the differences between indication and expression, the logic appears to go awry. We express ourselves through words that we utter, and we don’t have to first indicate what we are saying to ourselves in order to say it. Husserl maintains that this would be absurd. Why should expression be riddled through and through with indication? That would mean that I first have to indicate what I want to say, before I can actually say it, or that I have to indicate to myself what I am saying after I have said it, in order to understand what I already wanted to say. So, we get caught up in kind of an infinite regress. Here, absurdity equals redundancy, and if we take into account the actual context of Husserl’s distinction between indication and expression we find a perfectly legitimate argument against Derrida’s reversal of the hierarchy. Husserl argued against psychologism and representation (or phenomenalistic) theories of perception, which basically say that any intuition, any representation must first be represented. This is a circular logic, which suggests that representation requires representation of the representation, and so on. This leads to an infinite regress. Husserl cut out the whole infinite regress with the development of his discourse on intentionality.
A Student: So, Husserl is saying that we are always transparent to ourselves?
Louis: Not exactly. Living in one’s speech is not equal to having a ‘total grasp’ of the meaningful resonances that are in play. What Husserl means when he says that we are living in the act of speech is that we don’t represent it to ourselves. It is not as if there is some kind of ‘intermediary’ between myself and meaning, myself and world, or myself and myself – or a gap between consciousness and world that needs to be bridged by signs. That would be a Cartesian view. To understand consciousness properly means that I am living in the gap – where ‘gap’ is to be valued only as a metaphor since it is just as correct to say that we are living in the ‘intertwining.’ This is the meaning of intentionality – where living in one’s speech is to live through an intentional directedness toward something. One is already living ‘in’ the relation.
For instance, if I am to speak to you, you first have to make sense of what I am saying. You have to refer to your own life experience, to your own understanding of the language, of the terminology that I am using – and you make inferences, you try to figure out the meaning. Because I am the speaker, I don’t have to do that. This would be Husserl’s argument regarding the redundancy of indication in this sphere. However, Derrida wants to raise the issue of the ‘sign’ to a kind of transcendental level by looking at the fundamental structure of signification, e.g., ‘repetition’, ‘iterability,’ ‘representation.’ This dimension actually precedes meaning as the condition of the possibility of its presence. It is only by the play of difference and association through repetition that there can be such a thing as the presence of meaning, since all meaning is constructed, maintained, and dissolved in time. The word ‘maintenance’ is important here. Not only does it make reference to the ‘now’ (maintenant in French), but it also means ‘to hold in one’s hand.’ Derrida is a Neo-Heideggerian – it is very much a case of the ‘ready to hand' and 'presence at hand.’ We also think of ‘maintenance’ in the sense of ‘that which is maintained through time’ – it has duration. Derrida is bringing out the temporalizing structures of signification that must always already be at work in the heart of expression. So, from that point of view – he is right. But, it is far from being clear that it is an appropriate criticism of what Husserl is doing. In any attempt to engage in the logics of what Derrida is doing in his Speech and Phenomena – you get caught up in a labyrinth.
Josef: What you said just now, if I understood you correctly, is that in order to understand what you say to me, I have to deconstruct it. In the same way – in order to say it, I need to take something, which lies in me, deconstruct it, and construct it a priori.
Louis: That would certainly be Kierkegaard’s way of explaining it. Yes, very much so. And, what’s more, he would also say that this is at work in a self-relation that strives toward authenticity. He speaks of the movement as ‘double reflection.’ Through this discourse, particularly in his book, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard effectively lays down a very plausible ‘speech act’ theory. However, the crucial point in his discourse on the function of double-reflection has to do with authenticity or emancipation, and operates on a different level to Husserl’s discourse in the Logical Investigations.
A Student: Could you please explain in a few words: what is deconstruction?
Louis: All right…if you like labyrinths then that is a good place to start – deconstruction.
With that you are probably wondering why I called this meeting “Cafe Phenomenologicum.” Because, Derrida repeatedly says that he is a phenomenologist. He is a phenomenologist indeed.
The word, deconstruction is to be related to two elements in phenomenology. One can be found in the work of Edmund Husserl, and the other, in the work of Martin Heidegger. In Husserl, we have a method known as ‘reduction’ or ‘bracketing’: the epoché. It is a method that is central to phenomenological praxis and yet it represents something of a conundrum in itself. Throughout Husserl’s career, its various forms of implementation became more and more sophisticated.
In the later genetic analyses, where he is interested in what constitutes consciousness over time (bottom-up, so to speak), he required a particular form of reflective orientation on the formation of the many sedimentations (memory traces) that are in play. Husserl’s discourse on the ‘Ego as substrate of habitualities’ in the text of the Cartesian Meditations is one mode of access to this dimension of activity in passivity and passivity in activity.
Whenever you make a decision, you don’t have to keep repeating that decision at a conscious level again and again. In a sense, it sinks down into the sedimented depths of consciousness, where it continues to trace itself as an ‘abiding style,’ a characteristic way of engaging with situations as they crop up. These layers of sedimentations form the genetic constitution of consciousness – our development, our maturation, and our distinctive style.
In order to arrive at this genetic orientation, he instituted a particular form of reflective shift within the horizon of the ‘epoché.’ This is the method of Abbau – which literally means ‘to un-build.’ It is a method of de-construction whose inverse correlate is Aufbau, which marks the possibility of a re-construction. This is not to be confused with Heidegger’s project regarding ‘the destruction of Western metaphysics or onto-theology.’ To provide some background to this, it is important to understand that Heidegger was very much aware that when we engage in discourse on the meaning of Being, we have to do so, using the very language that we wish to examine critically. This is why Heidegger is unable to disentangle his inquiry on Being from the detour through that being which asks the question of the meaning of Being. So, there is a problem. However, there is something very violent about the notion of ‘destruction.’ And, it harbours a naïve hope of completion and a clean beginning.
Language cannot be cleansed from the manifold ways in which it clings to metaphysics. In a sense, all that one can really do is use that language with a careful degree of irony. When Derrida comes along, he re-inserts the ‘con’ back into de-struction, thereby putting the eschatological moment into suspense with de-con-struction. Here, the ‘con’ is the ‘against’ which simultaneously implies ‘concatenation:’ – inter-wovenness – the bringing together of differences precisely as they stand out against one another as differences. There is a re-constructive element that can not be ignored. It announces a procedure that has the capacity for endlessly creative work through the play of difference or différance. In that respect, Derrida is closer to the Husserlian orientation, in which ‘Abbau’ and ‘Aufbau’ are intertwined. Re-construction remains a highly problematic notion in Heidegger’s writing. It is true that rather than wanting to forge ahead, he only desired to get to where he already was, but the text of Being and Time demonstrates that it was not possible to recuperate the ground that had been lost through the detour that originally defined the twists and turns of its rigorous interrogation of the meaning of Being. Of course, there are most definitely re-constructive elements in Heideggerian phenomenology, which Derrida brings out through the operation of the ‘con’ in de-con-struction. I think that Derrida re-reads Heidegger through Husserlian eyes, and when he re-reads Husserl, he does so through Heidegger. So, whenever Derrida is engaged with phenomenology, there is a whole pluri-vocal dimension – there are many voices occurring.
Deconstruction, here, picks up on Heidegger’s attitude with respect to the language that is used in the process of destruction or deconstruction. The very language that is supposed to be available for critique is the very same language that is unfolding that critique. So, basically, deconstruction is not a philosophy; it is not a system – it is u-topic /‘no place’ / non-lieu – it does not take up a position. Derrida’s deconstruction is a kind of ‘quasi-parasitical’ praxis. It insinuates itself within the philosophy that opens itself up to critical analysis – deconstruction. It does not do so from an outside. If it did engage from outside – there would be nothing more than an argument. There is no argument. The language of philosophy, indeed, all language must ultimately deconstruct itself – the reason being that there is no other language. There is no other great meta-language beyond to which we can appeal. We have this language – that is all.
Josef: I have a question. You presented us with a certain aspect of language – you said that speaking with a language is like picking yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Louis: Yes, I like that metaphor.
Josef: When you say one thing, you get at least a double meaning, if not a lot of meanings. Now, deconstruction – if I understood well what you said now – means that you try to look beyond the straight meaning of the thing, into the meanings within the meanings of the language itself, which the language carries in itself…
Louis: That’s right.
Josef: And – well, what are you trying to do?
Louis: Very good point, and I hope that we will begin to discuss this at length over the next few weeks.
It seems, at first glance, that Derrida is just playing games. He has had to answer to many accusations – ranging from the criticism that his writing is philosophically frivolous to the view that it is basically nihilistic and destructive. However, the true power and subtlety of his arguments elude such labelling. For instance, Derrida has always maintained that he is not simply indulging in negative theology.
Josef: You take apart a watch, and then you have all these things in front of you. I don’t even know if you want to put them together, but they have no meaning as a watch. Now they are just screws, pieces, springs, etc. I see them, but I still want the watch. If the whole process is just to see the screws, it is not interesting…
Louis: That is not what Derrida is doing.
Josef: (I am sure it is not.) But, this means that we want to see the meaning behind the meaning, which means – what brought us to thinking that.
Louis: What you are doing now is giving us a hermeneutic, which is Heidegger’s programme. That is where Derrida diverges from what Heidegger is doing.
Basically, a hermeneutical program looks at linguistic traditions, etymologies, the contextual usage of words, lexical associations, semantical relations of significance, structural rules and orthographic changes, etc. and tries to get back to some kind of original meaning. Derrida would say that there is no original meaning to uncover.
A Student: I have read about this kind of analysis of signs in language, which are everywhere when we think about Derrida. When we unfold the language we unfold the signs, and then we get the deconstruction of the thought and we see the language in different perspectives.
Louis: Right. This is a very interesting point.
A Student: I also think about différance in connection with Lacan and psychological criticism.
Louis: All right. Yes, indeed.
And, Lacan’s discourse on the unconscious as a field that is structured rather like a language is very much influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure, who was mentioned earlier. He is a pivotal figure here. In his Course in General Linguistics he spoke of language not as a system of finite meanings, but as a system of differences. It is only through difference that meaning can be constituted. So, in a sense, we are looking at the space between. This is very important for Derrida.
I have always liked to see deconstruction as a kind of textual analogue to psychoanalysis. If we look at the structures of language, the symbolic performances at work, we are often unaware of these mechanisms. In a way, Derrida is a contemporary Socrates. He is getting us to question, at the deepest level, what we mean by meaning. It is a classic philosophical question – what is the meaning of meaning? Now, the questioning must inevitably turn toward the non-present condition of the possibility of meaning – in a sense, to go beneath the meaning. There are a few different ways of engaging with this…. To go beneath the meaning in these terms is to turn to the structurality of meaning, e.g., relations of difference and similarity, symbolic associations, a network of signs and structures – which is actually an a semic space. But, is this not still an attempt to unearth ‘the’ source, the ‘foundation’? The telos of such an interrogation would be pure and immediate disclosure of origins. However, although Derrida takes this route to a certain extent, he actually puts the telos into suspense. The discourse on the ‘trace’ is a prime example of this deferment of the issue of a primordial source or starting point. It actually signifies the erasure of an origin. Furthermore, although he constantly plays with metaphysical constructions, he does so through a constant process of substitution that permits certain transvaluative shifts in orientation.
Derrida substitutes metaphysical names like time, space, consciousness, with a variety of neologisms and familiar terms made strange, e.g., spacing, temporizing, disseminating, tracing, writing…. Actually, he substitutes ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’ and everything else with ‘textuality.’ He is often being misrepresented in reference to his saying that there is nothing outside the text. This is the famous Derridian declaration. A number of very pedestrian philosophers came along protesting that he was just promoting a new textual form of idealism. No. When Derrida very keenly gets rid of the author, one might think – “What’s going on? Texts don’t write themselves, do they? Authors write them.” But, the point is that when an author is engaged in writing (yet another footnote to Plato), he is engaging in a tradition. The linguistic limits, narrative forms, content, goals, etc. – are, in a sense, pre-established, because each writer is writing within a community, and that community is, in a sense, ‘a text’. We are articulations of texts grafted upon one another.
Mor: Then we are not saying anything new, we are just repeating.
Louis: Although there is still the crucial issue of style, which involves a transformational element to repetition…. Basically, yes.
We are just using the language, which is the outside of our inside. We cannot advance beyond the limits of the language. If we do try to push it to its utmost limits, the language collapses – it reaches the moment of aporia. This is where the logics fundamentally collapse in on themselves. And, for Derrida, Gödel’s discourse on undecidability is very important in this regard.
With all of this, we have the disappearance of the writer. There is no source-point. All we have is endless reiteration. No beginning and no end. In other words, there is no fundamental / primordial meaning that we can return to – or, most importantly, there is no arrival at a pure foundation to which we can look forward.
Derrida is basically re-situating discourse on the role of the writer. Whenever we think of a writer, we think of an agent, we think of an Ego – we think of a particular and independent person. But, we are all operating within a linguistic community that has a history, which is played out through us, and which is being continuously re-written. The history behind us is not static. And, this is also true of the relation between the writer and the writer – who is just as equally, reader. We cannot actually find any kind of monolithic Ego here.
One of the things about Heidegger’s hermeneutic is that the movement involves deconstructing the language we use so that we can prepare the path for our arrival at the primordial meaning of Being. But, in taking a detour through that being which asks the question of the meaning of Being – which is Dasein – he finds that he cannot return to the original question. He cannot articulate it. The language won’t let him. Propositional statements always miss the target (Heidegger’s memorable comments at the end of his essay “Time and Being” make this abundantly clear). The thing is, that with the first half of Being and Time (which has remained the unfinished ‘whole’ of Being and Time) – there is still the working assumption that the project can be fulfilled. So, even though Heidegger actually uses a number of deconstructive strategies, his analyses are still ruled by a telos.
This is Derrida’s point of view – that Heidegger’s orientation in Being and Time has a goal, an aim; that Heidegger thinks that he is going to get to the end of it. There is no end to it. Take it far enough and you end up losing all meaning, and find yourself left merely with all the nuts and bolts. And, then you just see how it fits together. A dis-assembling of a horizontal order doesn’t reveal very much in the way of meaning. The understanding of the ways in which the pieces fit together has to do with grasping the ‘vertical’ dimensions of such structurality. It opens up the space for further critique actually, rather than endless reiterations and thus merely reinventing the wheel countless times.
So, Derrida will look at any particular epoch in history, any particular moment, and say – here we have a dyad, two poles, e.g. res extensa and res cogitans in Descartes, Being and beings in Heidegger, or the opposition of the authentic and inauthentic, and so on. Let’s go back to Plato – we’ve got a dyad there too – the world of becoming and the world of pure forms. And, actually, here we have just a reiteration of the old plenum / flux opposition between Parmenides and Heraclitus. So, all this is reiteration – again and again. What Derrida does is – he takes these arguments and pushes them to their very limits, to see what traces itself out at the moment of collapse. And, the most fascinating Derridian directive, for me anyway, is that there should not be any pre-established agenda at work; deconstruction never quite knows where it is going, it must (and this is thematized in the essay, “Différance”) embrace both ‘chance and necessity.’
Heidegger did not know where he was going, either – he only thought he did, but the method informed him otherwise.
Josef: We all know, when we start writing a paper, that we don’t know it until we finish. This is not something that springs out of your head, like Athena out of the head of Zeus. You write what you write, and then you change what you have written…
Louis: And, the narrative form itself largely determines what the outcome is going to be…
Josef: Yes, and you can be influenced also by the reaction of those who read it – that is all true. But, saying that what you are writing or saying does not have a certain unitas (unity) – something, which keeps it together – is utterly untrue. We cannot accept it as said, unless there are meanings behind this meaning, but the straight meaning is quite impossible. We know what we say. We know that we don’t know it exactly. Also Heidegger, when he sat down to write his book…
Louis: …he wrote the first half and didn’t write the second half – exactly.
Josef: He forgot about time in the meantime.
Louis: But, actually, you will find a lot of the issues that he had intended to raise in the second half in his Grundprobleme…(The Basic Problems of Phenomenology).
Josef: The big point is – everybody who has written a paper in philosophy knows that he really does not know exactly where he is going, but he knows it very well when he gets there. When you finish the paper, you look at it. Then – either you say it is shit, or you say – maybe it has something. Excuse me.
Louis: That’s alright – we are all friends here. Although the language of phenomenology is full of powerfully expressive polysyllabic terms that allow one to grasp a vast range of different nuances of meaning, sometimes there is nothing like the most basic monosyllable to get the point across. So, you might hear me dropping a few as well. You’ve set the precedent. So, our critique of eschatology becomes full blown scatology.
Josef: I like the approach.
Louis: Hang on…are we talking about Heidegger or Derrida?
Josef: Derrida. But, I adore Heidegger. He wrote the most important things that I have ever read.
Louis: It’s a shame that he was such a bastard (oops, two syllables).
Josef: But, he is very important. One insight of Heidegger is worth any book of philosophy. For instance, his approach to the problem of conscience – what is it? Is it in you? Is it outside of you? Is it how you judge yourself? Do you listen to yourself or don’t you listen to yourself? It opens a lot of new ways to see yourself.
Louis: I just have a real problem with the inconsistency between Heidegger’s life of writing and the way in which his lifestyle wrote itself. What about his own conscience? Given the focal position of his discourse on authenticity and inauthenticity in his philosophy, it is impossible to understand how he lived with himself with any degree of equanimity.
Perhaps I’ll make some photocopies of a piece I wrote a number of years ago, called “The Dialectics of Emancipation and Authenticity in the Works of Kierkegaard and Heidegger.” As well as looking at the relations between Kierkegaard and Heidegger, this paper also looks at certain relations between Heidegger and Freud. This particular direction of my paper was inspired by a paper that David Farrel-Krell presented when he appeared as a guest lecturer at Middlesex during my period as an undergraduate. At that time, he was looking at the close relations, both phenomenological and theoretical, between Heidegger’s discourse on Dasein and its sense of un-homeliness (unheimlich) and the way in which Freud writes about the ‘uncanny’ (also from unheimlich). When this discourse is brought into relation to Freud’s discussion of the death-drive in the essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” we find ourselves at the entrance to a very intriguing area. Not many people have explored it, and yet it is rich in possibilities. Freud is a thinker whose ideas will pop out of my mouth at these meetings again and again – and from Derrida’s too (in a virtual sense), his writing is very much influenced by Freud.
A Student: I would like to add something about Derrida, Freud, and Lacan – something like reason of being…. You know the phenomenon of falling into the story and then losing your tracks and the tracks of the author and, next, you find out different sides of the author of the novel. And, also the uncanny – all these feelings come out. In Derrida, on the surface, you can see, you can tell…
Louis: The ‘uncanny’ has a multitude of different meanings. The one which has most resonance for me is where ‘the familiar’ has its ‘strangeness’ restored to it. This is very disconcerting, and when Derrida and Heidegger write about it, it becomes very interesting indeed. And, of course, this goes all the way through Freud’s writing.
One of the reasons that I see it as something that is really fascinating from a philosophical point of view has to do with the way in which I sometimes like to sum up Husserl’s phenomenology as ‘the philosophy of the mundane.’ It sounds kind of weird to say that – as if I meant that it was a philosophy of the obvious. What I really mean is that Husserl invites us to turn to that which is most familiar to us in such a way as to restore its strangeness. It is a question of restoring our wonder in the face of that which we most take for granted. He had this great insight that that with which we are most familiar is actually the most invisible. Precisely for that reason, we can see that phenomenology is basically deconstructive. The Eidetic reduction hints at this. You deconstruct the familiar to the point at which it becomes strange to you. This kind of revelation is often the most penetrating. You think – “My God! I’ve walked past here every day of my life, and I have never really noticed it before.”
A Student: You see the signs, but you cannot recognize them.
Louis: That’s right. When one is ‘living-in’ or, better, ‘through’ the sign / signification one is not automatically ‘reflecting’ upon it. So, in a way, I like to think of Husserl as starting this whole re-orientation. He is certainly the first one who really made it thematic at a methodological level.
Mor: Hegel makes the distinction between ‘the familiar’ and ‘what is known’.
Louis: Is it in his Phenomenology of Spirit? It would be interesting to find out.
The key word for Derrida is, actually, ‘presence’. He takes this from Heidegger – the German expression is Anwesenheit. In Speech and Phenomena, where Derrida is pretty tough with Husserl, he maintains that the whole of the philosophy of the Occident has been obsessed with the idea of presence – to break down all the intermediaries, in order to get to the ‘thing’ in itself. Husserl, of course, initiated phenomenology under the banner ‘to return the things themselves,’ so one can easily think that he must be just another metaphysician. What he says, in contradistinction to psychologistic phenomenalism, is that when we engage with the world, we do not make doubles of things in our heads, as the representative, or sign theory, or image theory suggests. We are engaging ‘with the world’. But, we don’t primarily engage with just ‘things’ – we engage in ‘states of affairs’ (the German expression is Saschverhalte), relations of significance, which actually constitute their meaningful contours. They are not to be found in a pure world as it is in itself. As Heidegger said, we live in an equipmental world – things are ready-to-hand and not just present-at-hand. When we say that everything has an intrinsic meaning, we are not just talking about utilities, artifacts, things that we have created – we also refer to natural formations. In my classes on phenomenology and existentialism, I sometimes use the example of a great block of rock on a little island where the residents live in awe of its presence and worship it. Then they die out for some strange reason. A hundred years later some explorers turn up and say – “Oh! What a nice block of granite!” But, where is the divine, where is the sublime? Here, we have a bunch of geologists and they don’t encounter the object in the same way. The point is that we live in the world that is familiar to us, that has meaning, and it is our engagement that brings meaning into the world. We don’t simply do that individually, because we ourselves are brought into a world where this meaning is bestowed upon us; it lives in us, through us, and we, ourselves, are transported by it. We are not just simply language users – we are used by language, we are born into language and borne by it. And language, when it writes itself, is also none other than thinking itself, where style and content take the articulation of language into different dimensions.
Josef: When you say ‘language’, you mean ‘society’?
Louis: In this context, yes.
So, Husserl says: “back to the things themselves” – that is, to their significance, to how they stand out, to what they mean to us. He does this by exploring the notion of intentionality – the directedness of consciousness towards things. Consciousness is always consciousness of something – the preposition ‘of’ is vital, because consciousness can be nothing in itself. And, rather than being imprisoned in a box, consciousness is always already out amongst the things.
Husserl comes up with something
called ‘the Noetic-Noematic relation.’ The Noesis is like the thesis – the way,
in which you look. The Noema is, in a sense, the product or fulfilment
of that. The classic example of this structure is the one about Napoleon: where we have two
propositions – ‘the victor at
At the level of discourse, the Noema is really what is meant by saying something – the meaning of the meant. So, when Husserl talks about Noeses and Noemata, the object Napoleon is somewhere outside of all of that. He does not really matter, we are not talking about him except as the signature of a multiplicity of different narrative types. What counts is the narrative form of the address. The story is empty without the narrative. Narrative establishes significance.
So, when Husserl’s phenomenology directs itself ‘to the things themselves,’ he does not mean this in a Kantian sense. In fact, if anything, he is parodying the Kantian discourse on a ‘thing in itself.’ It is very easy for a philosopher, who is not familiar with the phenomenological tradition, to come along and say: “To return to the things themselves? – Husserl is a metaphysician!” No. The call: ‘to return to the things themselves’ is to be understood according to the phenomenological concept of intentionality.
When you begin to look at the structures of intentionality, you begin to understand that it is riddled through and through with multiple forms of signification, with signs. But, these are not the objective signs or symbols that we normally talk about. This transitivity, this transcendence that gives difference and similarity is none other than the opening up of the structurality by which we understand the functioning of signs. In a way, Husserl is Derrida’s greatest ally, but Derrida, for some strange reason, willfully misreads Husserl on certain occasions. If you have read the earlier text – Derrida’s Introduction to Husserl’s “Origin of Geometry,” it is very hard to understand what he is doing in the later Speech and Phenomena, because in the former text he captured the radicality of Husserl’s enterprise only to go on and eventually undermine it. He has certainly taken Husserl’s own invitation to go with Husserl beyond him but, for some reason, Derrida does this strange turn around. This is the problem that I was faced with in my Ph.D. Thesis. It will be made available later on, when you are more familiar with deconstruction and you want to understand something about the development of its methods. I have noticed that in Israeli Academia you can learn a little bit about Derrida in Art Departments, Architecture Departments, or Literature Departments, but it is very difficult to find opportunities to learn anything about Derrida ‘the philosopher’ in a Department of Philosophy. I find him a very rigorous thinker, and I think it’s time to redress the balance. So, this is one of the things that we are going to be looking at. That is what my Ph.D. Thesis is about, so when some of you are a little bit more familiar with this sphere of issues, I’ll make it available to you, if you are interested.
Sergei: I have a question. The reason why I laughed, when you talked about the difference between Noetic and Noematic is because it was exactly the question I asked Dr. Navon just today. He gave me one answer and here I hear something a bit different.
Louis: What was the answer he gave you?
Sergei: He says that most of history explains the meaning of the word in Latin, or Greek probably. Noematic is the meaning of thought object, and Noetic is the meaning of the process of thought.
Josef: No – the contrary, as far as I know. Noesis is how you get the object. Noema is how the object is in you.
Louis: The language is rather tricky here. Husserl is very clear to say that the Noema is not ‘in’ consciousness, like some mental object. It is actually transcendent to consciousness. It is an intentional object. The parallelism of noesis and noema is a theme that comes out clearly by means of the phenomenological reduction and the eidetic reduction of experience to the fundamental structurality or essence of how consciousness encounters phenomena meaningfully.
What Husserl makes thematic is that a Noesis is a kind of thetic directedness – it is a certain manner of interest, a certain tone or kind of illumination. The Noema is the fulfillment of that, but it is not out there in the thing. Neither is it inherent in consciousness. We are not dealing with a simple Cartesian dyad of res cogitans and res extensa.
Sartre has a lovely metaphor for intentionality – rays of light shining out of our eyes. Plotinus’ universe is a nice analogue, where there is blackness, and only that which is made visible by the light truly exists. The light touches things, and as it does so it makes them stand out / speak out. When the light moves on, those objects cannot be seen any more. Of course, the Berkeleyans among you are bound to say: “There! You see? – ‘Esse est percipi’ – ‘To be is to be perceived!’ Those things that are no longer illuminated no longer exist.” Someone else will come along and say – “That’s rubbish: it’s just that we can’t see them, but they are still there.” When you are working within the phenomenological dimension, you can’t actually take that step. You have to adhere to what Berkeley is saying, but only from a ‘methodological’ point of view – because we are working within the field of perception, and we cannot step outside of that. If you are to look for evidence of something (and the rules for prescribing what actually constitutes it), you have to look for that ‘within’ experience. You cannot look for some kind of independent, extra-experiential criterion. To do so would be to fall back resolutely into a naive metaphysic.
If we return to the thought of illumination, we know that many different-colours / tones are possible and, in each case, an object that is illuminated will appear differently. The Noema is the meant precisely as it is meant. You have a way of looking at something (illuminating it), and the Noema is the fulfillment of that way of looking.
Sergei: Suppose, I am looking at that piece of granite like a geologist, and thinking: that is twenty million dollars!
Louis: So, that is your Noema – ‘a twenty million dollar piece of granite.’
Sergei: And what is Noesis?
Louis: Noesis is the desire for it. It is the way of looking that will, basically, reduce this piece of granite to nothing more, than the symbol of twenty million dollars.
Sergei: So, I don’t understand what is the difference between those two.
Louis: It is a difference that must be understood in intentional terms. It is a difference that is borne of an essential intertwining. Every ‘desiring’ has a ‘desired’ – that is what is most significant here.
I can look at a house, and it can fill me with fear, because of a particular kind of symbolic association that it sets up in my mind. The Noema is the house that I fear. But, someone else will come along with an entirely different Noema, and say that it is a good investment.
Sergei: So, what is the Noesis?
Louis: Noesis is the manner of engaging with it. Together with its noema, it is like a bubble that appears above the head of a cartoon character, containing a bright light-bulb surrounded by lots of dollar signs.
Josef: Does the Noesis have to do with ‘Abschattungen’ – different ways of seeing the same thing?
Louis: Yes, it does – very well observed! ‘Abschattungen’ means perspective variation[s].
Here, we are talking about the profiling of a thing in space. It is a good point, but it depends on which text you refer to. It is implicit in his Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness where Husserl talks about the way in which hyletic data (‘stuff’ of sensation) are constituted as a continuous flow of different aspects of the same spatio-temporal object. The object as-a-meaninfgul-state-of-affairs-as-a-whole would be its noematic sense, though Husserl does not use the term noema in this text. One can also say that each Noema is never actually quite present as a whole either, because it is always already participating in other noematic configurations (as in a reference to a larger gestalt). It is always a matter of profiling. One is inevitably brought back to the issue of the essential interpenetration of the noesis and noema in this regard because one also has to take the continuity of experiencing itself into account. Abschattung has a distinctly spatial characteristic to it, since the expression refers to the different orientations of an object that may be seen from one angle to the next. The consciousness of duration itself – that is consciousness as a continuum of living-experience is simultaneously implied. In Husserl’s discourse on the self-constitution of consciousness as a continuum, he speaks of ‘Ablaufsphänomene’ (‘running of phenomena’).
Now, ‘Ablaufsphänomene’ and ‘Abschattungen’ are enmeshed with one another – they are necessarily bound up. They have to be, because when you look at an object it never gives itself wholly in one perspective. And yet, in a sense, it does. According to an aural perspective, the relation between the immanence and transcendence of a melody in relation to its constituent notes that run off successively is an exemplary instance of what I’m talking about. If we return to the visual perspective, when I am looking at a die (singular dice), and I see one of its faces, I don’t stop there – I know it’s a die. I know that there are other faces that I don’t see, that they are transcendent to my vision at this particular moment. So, you can say that the Noema is the die as-a-meaningful-whole, but there is also a sense, in which a Noema is never complete either, because it refers to a greater project of which it is a part. However, you get caught up in rather abstract temporal analyses, and it gets very complicated – I don’t think we need to go that far at the moment. Let’s just say that the horizontal relation to an object that is extended spatio-temporally coincides with consciousness’s own vertical relation to itself as a continuum. Without the givenness of the temporal continuity of consciousness, there could be no continuity of the givenness of the profiles of an object that articulate its extension as the self-same spatio-temporal thing.
What is particularly important here is how Derrida has studied Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness with great care. I shall make photocopies of Derrida’s essay, “Différance” and another text about his work, entitled, Derrida for Beginners. We’re going to have great fun reading this latter text! It is very funny. As for the former essay by Derrida…well, all I can say is that I shall do my best to make it as painless as possible. However, some pain will remain attached – and this is a very necessary part of acquainting oneself with Derrida’s deconstruction. So, all the pain-freaks among you are in for a good time.
Différance – Wow! This is a concept and a half! Well, it is, actually, half a concept. As Derrida says, it is a quasi-concept – it is not a real concept, it is more of a stratagem.
Différance with an ‘a’ – this is very interesting, because in French it does not sound any different to différence with an ‘e’, and this is part of the strategy. Remember what I was saying earlier on about Plato’s Phaedrus and how, according to Socrates, the live word was what actually counted, and that writing was merely a kind of a representation of a representation – a dead discourse. So, purity of meaning is very much associated with the voice, the sound. Again, this is related to what Heidegger writes about phonocentrism – where primacy is given to the voice, the sound, hearing – a good old Platonic tradition.
Derrida inaugurates a re-situation of discourse on meaning by provisionally looking at the graphic sign, rather than the phonetic sign (the phoneme). Basically, what he does by introducing différance is to say – when différance is announced, you are not going to be able to determine the difference in meaning by listening. You can only see it, because of the insertion of the graphic sign. This is just one of the components of his strategy and it is brilliant. He also speaks of différance as the ‘archi-trace’, and he speaks of the ‘A’ like the tomb.
A Student: Like an Egyptian one?
Louis: That’s it – exactly.
Différance is also derived from the Latin verb differre, which comprises both ‘difference’ of a spatial order and ‘deferral’ of a temporal order. So, space and time here in differre, which again comes up in ‘différance,’ are intimately intertwined, as distinct from the Greek diapherein, which is purely ‘difference’ of a spatial order.
Derrida wants to play with this condensation. The intertwining of spatiality and temporality comes up very much in Husserl’s writing, followed by Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. It also comes up in modern relativistic physics. It is an important theme for twentieth century Western philosophy and science. However, this theme actually goes back several thousand years. Especially, if you care to turn to the East to take a look at certain Buddhist texts. There, we find the ancient concept of ‘Pratitiya Samutpada’, which means ‘Interdependent Origination / Dependent Arising’ – which basically says that there are no distinct objects in themselves, that they are all already caught up in a fabric. Space and time are woven into this fabric – they are the fabric, in a way.
Derrida talks about the trace / tracing. If we deconstruct meaning to the point at which we begin to understand something about its constitution (and he says that here we are actually following a long tradition, especially if we want to look for the fundament, the ground zero, on which we can re-build the world), we are turning to the question of its origin. But, this is not to speak of an original ‘meaning.’ The deconstructive turn unearths a structurality that actually undermines the possibility of arriving at such an origin and bringing it to presence. The structurality of difference and deferral refers to a trace structure that always already erases itself. A rigorous deconstructive approach to constitution constantly postpones arrival at any kind of telos, for telos here would be nothing other than the realization of an Absolute origin. The realization of both origin and telos in terms of presence would only ever be an obfuscation of the essential non-presence that originally constitutes meaningful presence.
With respect to the issue of the interdependency of difference and deferral, which smudges the apparent line that separates space from time, we find that they are not independent properties of space and time. They are, rather, the spacing and temporizing through which they unfold. In other words, deferral is a temporal determination that is also spatial in that it is form of extension. It is ‘to postpone’, ‘to put off until later’ – to ‘delay.’ There is always a delay in the givenness of meaning – there is no completeness – and this is one of the conditions of its being-given. This is because – primordially – it is always fluid; it is going through the process of change precisely because it is in time. It is the delay by which the same can register as the same without being identical (i.e., stretched out in time) – thus announcing its extendedness. It is spaced out through time. So, here we have an intertwining of space and time, where ‘spacing’ also means ‘duration’. Derrida’s analyses are always shifting from one side to the other, demonstrating that the metaphors that we use for space are also the same metaphors that we use for time – and that this is no coincidence.
Josef: It is even necessary, because we cannot understand time. So, we just translate it into spatial terms.
Louis: That’s right.
One thing that I really like about Husserl’s writing on time, though, is that he was the first to really talk about time in a manner that did not just simply spatialize it. In an important sense, his discourse temporalized spatiality in a way that no other philosopher had done before.
So, basically, Derrida plays with the idea of différance as the origin, while signing the point of the absolute impossibility of any origin. It is the very erasure of the origin. This is really difficult to understand.
Derrida talks about the archi-trace. To understand this you have to look at a number of different metaphors. One of Derrida’s favourites is to be found in “Freud and the Scene of Writing” (Writing and Difference). Freud was fascinated and delighted by a special type of (mystical) writing pad that we have all played with as children. It has a clear surface and a simple implement, which you impress upon it. Because it has black wax underneath a middle sheet of something like rice paper, you can see the image that stands out from the impression. Then, you pull out the middle sheet that both separates and binds the transparent surface and the wax tablet beneath, and you can’t see the image any more. Nevertheless, the engraving is still there in the wax. That is the trace, but we can no longer see it. In a way, what Derrida is bringing out are different kinds of unconscious traces, but not traces of anything that was prior to them – they are just traces. We normally think about traces ‘of’ something, but this view does not apply in this case. And, when Derrida says that différance or the archi-trace signs the erasure of the origin – that is because there was nothing that preceded the trace. When using the expression ‘trace’, you can get completely confused, because its meaning radically diverges from the tradition in which it always implies that it is a trace ‘of’ some thing, a text, a meaning. One is required to entertain the idea that there is nothing behind that trace. It is the very possibility of tracing, the writing of meaning, the coming to presence of some thing – the very possibility of ‘iteration.’ And, it is the very possibility of temporal spacing – temporizing (as in ‘deferral’) and spacing. So, we cannot escape the ’always already’ with différance. ‘Always already’ preceded meaning, and this nature of the ‘always already’ is also the erasure of itself as an origin in the traditional sense. So, you have no beginning point and no original meaning that you can uncover. There is just simply this structuration, the structurality.
A Student: How far back?
Josef: This is the problem. We can very well imagine that the traces have been invented – that they came out of nothing…
Louis: There are often points in Derrida’s writing where he leaves us with nothing to say since, according to his discourse on différance, nothing precedes the trace.
Josef: They were even invented before writing. They were invented for themselves as different traces, or maybe they were created by throwing heavy objects, or whatever. I mean, the traces really appear as traces of nothing at the beginning of this. But, with time they became something. Now, how do you give them back their original nothingness, and why should you?
Louis: Derrida at that point leaves us with very little to say. I’m not sure whether one is entitled to say that ‘the traces really appear as traces of nothing at the beginning.’ The trace can be set at odds with appearance and there never was an original beginning.
However, I am reminded of the way, in which Husserl speaks of the primordial flux in his Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness. He says that it is an Ur-region (primordial horizon), for which names are lacking. As you [Josef] said to me many times (and you are absolutely right), you can’t bracket this dimension, because you literally have nowhere else to go. In a way, what Derrida has done is come along and tried to bracket it. He leaves us with différance. And, there really is nothing to say, but he has proved one thing – you can still keep inventing names. And, that is actually very important. In a way, there is hope in that.
Josef: Because you create different names.
Louis: Yes. But even when we utilize the same name. For instance, he still uses ‘trace’ interchangeably with its common form, but it takes on a radically different meaning in his usage. He still speaks of ‘time’ to a certain extent, but he substitutes this word with others, like temporization, writing, etc.
What is happening is that we undergo a radical re-orientation with respect to the way these words are used, through exploring their different resonances on their own terms – without trying to reconcile these differences within a common or vulgar concept. There is an important sense in which language is engrossed in itself. By making this thematic, we begin to see how language is actually always already exteriorizing itself, multiplying itself, differentiating itself. So, in a way – there is a kind of hope in this.
A Student: I have a problem with grasping the connection between this board with the wax and the traces – where do they go?
Louis: They are still there in the wax.
A Student: Then, I see the meaning of the word as now, but I have a problem concerning the present, the board that has the signs, and the meaning…
Louis: All right. First of all, I have mentioned Anwesenheit before, which is usually translated as ‘Presence’, certainly by Heidegger and Derrida. There is also Presence in the sense of the temporal present – the ‘now’ (in German it would be Jetzt), but the most important expression is Gegenwart…
Josef: Which means ‘against you’, ‘looking at you’…
Louis: The full expression for Husserl is Lebendige Gegenwart: the Living Present – which is formally translated as waiting-towards.
If you think about the ‘present’ as something that stands out, something that is manifest, it is very closely linked to the ‘present.’ But, ‘that-which-is-manifest’ is given ‘in’ the present in the temporal sense. This whole discourse on presence is, in many respects, ‘the’ Western obsession. What Derrida is doing is displacing it, by saying that we have to look for the structurality of this (which is also to take into account the temporality / temporalizing of such structurality). And, looking at the structurality, we are often trying to unearth that which is not actually manifested. So it is with the trace in the wax – it is there, but it is not manifested. So, he wants to talk about a constellation of different senses of presence, the present and non-presence: the presence of the present, the temporality of the present, the occultation of that which was once present, and, most significantly for Derrida, the trace as a non-presence which has never actually been present. He also shows how the present itself cannot be a discrete moment.
Classically, the present is used as the criterion for the assessment of whether something is real or not – because that which lies in the past is no longer real, and that which is in the future, does not actually exist yet. The present itself is always going beyond itself – a ‘waiting-towards’ in Husserl. And, the present itself in Derrida’s writing means all these things. He wants to deconstruct the philosophical hegemony of presence. He is basically saying that it is precisely because we are so fascinated by presence that we actually miss what is going on. He wants to restore rights to difference, and, in a sense, to nothing (as in the absence of meaning) – to the trace, to that which is not visible, to that which extends itself beyond the present by never actually having been present, and to that which is actually responsible for the deferral of the present in the present actualization of something.
Josef: This sounds very metaphysical.
Louis: It does sound very metaphysical, yes. Derrida is using the language of metaphysics and having a great time playing with it, but he is not giving us a metaphysical system.
In a way, he is doing what Nietzsche did with his introduction of the principle of Eternal Recurrence. When he employs this multi-faceted stratagem of his own, he actually provides a perfectly good substitution for any other popular cosmological theory of his time, which has its own limits that cannot be refuted. Actually, if you read Stephen Hawking’s writing on the Big Bang and what has come to be known as the Big Crunch, you can see that Nietzsche would not be disappointed. So, again, what you have is a recursive folding – where the unfolding of time is, simultaneously, a helical folding back on itself.
What we are doing now is chatting, giving an overall picture of some of the strategies employed in some of the themes. Basically, I don’t want to give too much away. I want you to read the material that I have provided over the next week, and then get back together, and I want to hear what you think. I have been reading this stuff for years, so it is very familiar to me. In a way, I have forgotten how to ask questions about it again, and I am hoping that you are going to do that.
In a way, Derrida is the philosopher’s philosopher. The reason I like his writing is because, not only is he considered to be the bad boy of philosophy, he has ‘rigorous’ fun with what he is doing…
Josef: … and most philosophers can never forgive him for it.
Louis: And, most ‘academic’ philosophers dislike Derrida, because of the strategies of misdirection that he likes to employ. The whole reason for this is his intention to unsettle the relation between reader and text.
Many writers in the deconstructive tradition, that have come along in Derrida’s wake, treat his texts as being somehow canonical. It seems that there isn’t any urgency in re-reading the texts with which Derrida himself has engaged – as if they have somehow been exhausted by his deconstructions. The chief epigram and quote for Chapter Three of my doctoral thesis is Derrida’s comment: “One must, above all, re-read those, in whose wake I write”. He invites us to avoid simply taking his word for it, and to re-read for ourselves. Many contemporary writers in the deconstructive milieu have not done this. The reason that I respect Derrida so much is because he fuels my compulsion to re-read Husserl again, and again, and again…. I took up his invitation – this is very important. I think that we should do this as well – not just read Derrida, but also read some of the original texts that he talks about. The thing is that he is always giving us a different narrative style to bring about reiteration in a helical (spiral) format. It means that you don’t go back to that text in the same way – you have a different manner of approach to it. By unsettling the relation between reader and text, this means to open up a new space of engagement with that text, where it is possible to set up another form of dialogue. So, although it is the same text, you have an entirely different dialogue with it. This is marvelous! He is waking us all up from our dogmatic slumber, in this respect. So, if we can kind of introject that, I think that we can also have a bit of fun.
Josef: I can give an example of what you are saying, not touching Derrida. Years ago I was at the meeting of the society of philosophers – the real one. In the last discussion they spoke about openness in society. I had been sitting and listening, but in the end I couldn’t stand it, so I got up and asked:
“Everybody here has been speaking about openness and about allowing everybody to do whatever, but do you really think that one of you can influence another person to think like he does?”
They smiled and looked at one another, and then the older fellow of the Israeli philosophical group told me:
“Look. We are too old to change our ways.”
Really, these were his words. For me, this was fun, because then I knew why I came.
Louis: But, why didn’t you present them with a rejoinder to that? What has age got to do with it? Such an attitude really has no place today. And, at your own grand old age, you have one of the most open minds that I have ever come across…
Josef: Really, this was very interesting…. It is a considerable problem. Since then I have been walking the halls of Academia and listening, and listening – and I have a very good idea that he was absolutely right…
Louis: Do you really think that it is applicable to you?
Josef: Not really, because I have fun. That is, when I find an idea, which I did not have before, I am glad. And, then I inflict it on one of the people, for whom I write these papers. Some of them like it. Some of them tell me – well, it is a very nice paper, you get your 95, but I don’t understand the last part. It is also possible that my idea wasn’t so wonderful, but anyway…this is what happens when people are inside some sort of routine that they have to keep…
Mor: Maybe that is what happens with professional philosophizing.
Louis: It is also one of the reasons why academic philosophy is generally so esoteric. It is like – ‘I am the only one who knows this – which helps me to feel secure in my job.’
Sergei: Then I have to tell you this – this is the most esoteric course I have ever attended.
Louis: Perhaps, for now…but the point of these meetings is to unpack it all.
Sergei: I don’t remember ever sitting in any other class and listening to a sentence that I haven’t comprehended.
Louis: Patience…wait until you actually start reading.
I said that I did not want to do what I’ve actually ended up doing this evening. I tried to give you a crash course on some of the strategies and principal motives in deconstruction. It is a massive field, because it is a quasi-parasitical form of writing. You can’t really engage with Derrida’s writing, unless you know something about the tradition that he is subjecting to deconstruction. In order to talk about différance in relation to deferral and difference, you’ve got to understand something about contemporary discourse on space and time; otherwise you are going to be completely mystified. Derrida knows all this stuff and plays with it.
Humour will be of considerable help. Please check out Derrida for Beginners. Have you read any of Woody Allen’s books? One of his texts – I believe that it’s called Getting Even – has got a short section called “My Philosophy,” and it is the funniest thing I’ve ever read. It is quite clear that he knows his philosophy, but he manages to take the piss out of it as well. I wish I could write something like that – teach a little bit of philosophy and make people laugh at the same time – brilliant!
Josef: He writes from outside – he can say whatever he wants.
Mor: He doesn’t need a tenure…
Louis: That’s right.
[To Sergei] Why do you hate Deconstructing Harry so much?
Sergei: I don’t like Woody Allen at all. This is the only Woody Allen movie that I like; I hate all the others.
Louis: Oh, surely you’ve seen Love and Death though – his parody of great Russian literature?
Louis: And, you didn’t like it?!
Sergei: It’s stupid!
Louis: The sassy black sergeant in a Russian uniform of the Napoleonic period, but with a stereotypical American drill-sergeant’s voice, leaning over him saying: “You love the Russian army, don’t you?”
Sergei: What’s so funny about that?
Louis: It’s funny! Your comment was even funnier…
And, when the great concubine of the Russian aristocracy sits in an opposite booth to Woody in a theatre, stylishly waving her fan and fluttering her eyelashes at him, while he responds by rolling out his tongue and panting…that’s not funny?! All right, never mind…
...I also think that the screening of a Monty Python Double Bill would be rather informative as well as being great fun. The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life have some very existential and deconstructive motifs.
Mor: That’s British humour.
Louis: Yes, indeed. Nothing but the best! As Derrida would say, “embrace chance and necessity” – we don’t know where we are going. Believe me, I have no idea where we are going.
As a provisional plan, though, we should take a look at the shorter essays, and when it comes to the earlier stuff – I will at least help you with the history of the critique. For instance, we will look at “Form and Meaning: A Note on the Phenomenology of Language.” I’ll help you with the phenomenological background in order to demonstrate what Derrida is getting at. “Freud and the Scene of Writing” – we’ll take a look at that too.
I believe that if you come to Derrida without having much of a philosophical background he is not going to make much sense. Once you do understand something of the background, you will get to grasp the techniques that he is using – since he repeats them in a number of different contexts. It is not a case of a brand new strategy in each essay. Once you begin to get used to what he is doing, through repetition it will start to make sense. But, don’t expect to grasp everything immediately. Do not forget the temporality of learning. Sometimes, I am a bit rough on my students – I throw a lot of polysyllabic expressions at them, and they don’t understand any of it. As an undergraduate, I used to look at my own philosophy classes that way, saying that I didn’t understand any of it. But, six months later it would just click into place – while shopping in a supermarket, eating breakfast, or watching television. I would notice some kind of sign and find myself shouting – “Oh! Yeah, now I understand what that means!” And, that’s how it works. No one can predict when that is going to happen, but I can guarantee that if – even at a subliminal level – you notice these referential structures then the sense will dawn on you. So, stick with it.
Anna: This is what happened to me with Hamlet and the epoché.
Louis: Well, there you go. “Time out for a joint.” Actually, do you think that Gregg’s is still open? Why don’t we all go down there and have some coffee?
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