Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Learning to read finally

--Without trying too much to verify, my sights always set on convincing you, I will tell you a story and describe for you a point of view. Indeed the point of view shall be my theme.
--Shall I just listen? Or observe? Silently watch you show me some drawings?
--Both, once again, or rather between the two. I'll have you observe that reading proceeds in no other way. It listens in watching.

-Memoirs of the Blind (Mémoires d'aveugle)

How to read in a truly, rigorously Derridian way, or way influenced by Derrida, was illustrated to me tonight by my professor--an amazingly brilliant and rigorous Derridian--indirectly. I basically brought up a question that made him show me. I was putting a question to him as to whether the text we were reading (Bergson's Matter and Memory) was really putting things into question in its inquiry or whether it was just engaging in the inquiry in this way (i.e. with its specific terms) because it was a function of the historical moment--both ways that he had suggested this text could be read, but, as I found out, neither of which he endorsed unless they were understood in this Derridian way... which his response to me soon outlined. He said in reply, "I've been trying to get you guys to see that these texts have to enact or perform what they want to say. With Bergson, it seems to me, if you don't see it as performing what it wants to say, you're fucked."
That is, if you don't see it as supplementing what it says with how it says it, you're fucked. Now, as he said he said this before. What changed this time with me was that I understood what peformance, what the way a text says as opposed to what it says, did for him, for a person who really read in a Derridian way.
I had taken this performance by the text of what it wants to say as merely a way of the text to confirm what it says or couldn't say as well through the content. In other words, for me it really just recapitulated what was being said, duplicated the content in the form such that one could see that the author was showing you not just the truth of what was said in the content but also in the form. To a degree this is right. But it doesn't really do anything, it doesn't really put anything at stake.
For my professor, when he says look to how it performs what it wants to say, this means look at how the way the text is written, over and above its mere content, invests the content with a sort of supplementary task: the content must come near what the form is saying or wants to say but can't (because it isn't content). In other words, if you look at the way the text means as opposed to the content, you see that the enactment of meaning on the part of the text invests a sort of desire into the text for closure, for fulfillment in the content of what is being said. This is a big deal and totally changes things.
For if you see the text performing what it wants to say, then, over and above instances where the content doesn't sucessfully perform the enactment, you'll see a movement of the text becoming necessary or desired that stems out of the text itself. In other words, apart from any authorial intention, the text must mean what it enacts in its form. The form, in its enactment, creates a necessity for the text to both in its content and in the future unfolding of its form to be consistent with the desire or wish that the enactment constitutes. Does this make sense? The text will have to do something, and because it must not only communicate something in its content, but because in the way it means it must enact that content as true in some way. The enactment then necessitates a direction of the unfolding of the text in conformity for that desire for truth. Thus, apart from any authorial intention or, as was the case in my question to my professor, historical determination, the text has an inner necessity.
This is why Derrida can read philosophical texts for metaphors, and why people don't get that he is reading some sort of necessity in them. If Heidegger must have recourse to the word spirit, or Freud to the written trace, and if Derrida reads these philosophers for those moments of recourse to metaphors, it is not because those words are intrinsically interesting (though this can be the case), but that they mark moments where the text is performing something, and, in that performance, necessitating a movement that gives you a clue to why they might say something next--i.e. why Heidegger might use Spirit in a lecture and then in an address to a university in support of the Nazis (this Derrida does in his book Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question), or why Freud would use writing in his early work and then in his late theory of memory in his essay on the Mystic Writing Pad (Derrida does this in "Freud and the Scene of Writing").
In other words, the recourse to metaphor is an instance in which the text is working to perform, through a more descriptive language, what it wants to convey in its content, and this performance invests both the content and form itself with a necessity that exceeds intent and history and even coherence--it is due to writing itself and its need to mean and its inability not to mean. Seeing this is what a good Derridian reader like my professor sees, and what Derrida himself laments is rare--as he says even in his last interview:

...these grafts of poetry onto philosophy, which are anything but confused, or ertain ways of using homonyms, the undecidable, or the ruses of language, which many read in confusion [when they read my texts] because they fail to recognize their properly logical necessity.
-Learning to Live Finally, 31

This is how you can be fucked if you don't see it, how something can be totally unprofitable reading! You don't see the desire in the performance that will usually be there besides the content. You don't see that this desire sees something proper or necessary in the text, that it really constitutes a domain of power that the text must in its unfolding in the future, also enact and also include in its content to fulfill. Anyway, that's what a Derridian sees in this that I didn't before tonight.


metaphysicallycomplicit said...

This seems to be a fascinating blog, I must say. I've barely just discovered Derrida, so I'm finding some of the entries very useful.

I had some passing comments to make regarding this post though. I may be completely off the mark here. (bear with me if I am. I'm new to this!)

You seem to accord some sort of coherence to the text's 'form' and 'content'. But may there not be just one central thing the text is trying to say? And may it not be trying to say it in only one particular way?

Julia Kristeva ends up saying something very similar to what I'm trying to imply with 'intertextuality': various meanings within the text overlap and the reader is in engaged in a constant production of meaning.

Mike said...

I think you're totally right--it was late and I was just trying to jot down what I thought I learned in class and so had to accord some coherence to the terms "form" and "content" as discrete, opposed aspects of a third thing, "the text." And this is wrong, and especially wrong for the conception of Derridian reading that I was trying to tease out of my professor's remarks. In other words, Derrida or anyone doing a reading in a Derridian way would and should agree with the thrust of what Kristeva is saying that you indicate--that is, rather than have to spaces where meaning develops itself (form and content) there is a textual unfolding that isn't reducible to either of these spaces (is one central thing the text is trying to say, as you put it).
Indeed, I'm trying to get at (poorly and hastily in the post) how the text for Derrida can "say" in this "central" way, rather than as something which can be reducible to form and content. In order to do that I was using those terms--and as you rightly say, this doesn't really fit my task.
Put a different way, I'm trying to get at precisely what happens for Derrida when "various meanings within the text overlap." The overlapping, the confusion in the ways the text offers us a reading--i.e. never in a singular form but always in a multiplicity of ways that, in the end, cannot be reduced to a reading--indicates a movement of the text itself for both Derrida and Kristeva that is not reducible to something banal like "authorial intention" or "history" (though for Derrida this movement does tend to move more into a type of history, the history of the "destining of being" as Heidegger would put it or, as Derrida says, the history of the determinations of being's presence and of being as presence).
This movement in these moments of overlap, where it produces its irreducible (i.e. unreadable, if one wants a single authoritative reading) multiplicity, often takes the form my professor indicated: the text will overshoot what it says with how it says it. Style, punctuation, spacing, merely graphic marks like the , . ; or "" will be able to mean--not to mention metaphor and metaphoric displacement. All of these ways open up an infinite play of signification that cannot be reduced down to one meaning. This is what I really mean by the term "form," which you're right to indicate I use hastily and stupidly!
But in the process of constructing a reading, of indeed limiting down and reducing the text to an interpretation--which we have to do--Derrida says (and this is what I'm trying to get at) that you can do this responsibly by looking at this way the text exceeds what it wants to say as constituting its own type of desire, its own type of movement that determines and delimits meaning just as much as "what" gets said. I was mistakenly, before this post, taking this movement as something merely (re)confirming, for Derrida, the movements within the "what"--i.e. I was looking at it as merely what disrupted the "what" for him, and not giving it its own realm of desire, of displacement, that determines the oneness of the text's way of meaning to be irreducible--to be, that is, only one way from which we must produce (i.e. not transcribe) meaning.
It's tough when you try and talk about Derrida any time, because everyone is coming at him from so many angles!

metaphysicallycomplicit said...

I think I do agree with what you're implying. And yes, it is rather difficult to talk about Derrida, especially with constantly needing to resort to a very self-reflexive use of language.