Sunday, April 27, 2008
Reading like Derrida, continued
Posted by Michael Duffy
If I have stressed in my previous post the mechanical nature of Derrida's reading, it is because reading mechanically is the only way we can picture the welcoming of contingency, meaninglessness, and what is out of control in or beyond the control of any close reading.
That is, if I have stressed the resistance to close reading that is at work in Derrida's process of reading, it is to bring to the fore the fact that, for Derrida, a text is not what is on any old page, but is what is almost impossibly constituted in it. For Derrida--and this cannot be stressed enough--a text is almost impossible.
It is perhaps only when we get our heads around this fact--that hundreds and hundreds of pages or words or marks may actually make up one element of a text--that we can understand how, in its being almost impossible, texts are nevertheless the most common things in the world. They are everywhere: but their nature (if one can put it that way) is precisely to be made up of marks that are never reducible to any particular semantic unit--they can be made up of periods, strings of blank spaces, and on the other hand, whole chapters, entire works, pieces of three or four works collected (as it were) together. One might say they are the relations between any particular element of any text (a semicolon here and a semicolon there)--that is, the difference between them. But it is only when the space of this difference is not conceived positively--that is, when it is already, as this difference, different from itself--that we understand what Derrida is getting at: this is why the elements of a text are not reducible to any stable unit (nor even a series or type of unit such as we have been using to exemplify this fact: a semicolon and a whole corpus might be the same element in relation to another; that is, we are not just talking about how a semicolon and a semicolon can make up a text, but how a semicolon and a whole body of work, in their relation to each other, also can do this). It is only in this way, then, that one can say the text must therefore be only the words on the page--that is, when we conceive words as only one type of mark. This point, though, is of course one of the most important: a text is only its elements--it is only what is there. To borrow a formulation Derrida uses in a not-unrelated context (in "Geschlecht II") the text remains only as constituted as the words (qua marks) on the page.
If we are to take the difference between work and text seriously, we can only conceive of a text in this way: there is no work at all--only the almost impossible phenomena of texts. And what is clear about this--we are trying to bring this out by saying that they are almost impossible--is that texts themselves do not exist. They only perhaps exist: this is why they are almost impossible. For if they are going to exist, they will exist precisely beyond our ability to submit them to our close reading: they will exist within that area beyond any particular grouping of elements that we might specify to make up a text. Their possibility, then, occurs only within the space where, for us, they are almost impossible. And yet they may be (almost) always occurring there. And this is why "mechanical" reading is the only way for us to get there--and even it will have to fail. I should note, however, that this mechanical reading does not have to show itself as such, as it does in texts like Dissemination: indeed The Gift of Death and many of Derrida's later texts, which seem to have (and we can see now how stupid it is to classify them in this way) less puns, less play, more gravity, more common language, etc.--these texts are precisely where this "mechanical" mode of reading is perhaps most intensely operative as it is in something like Glas.
I'll sum up these conclusions of these two posts below--hopefully to demystify (with the help of the content of these two posts: obviously in summary form they will appear odd) what it is like to read like Derrida. I gather from how hard it was to figure out this all for myself over the years that people--for whatever reasons, and especially "deconstructionists" or followers of Derrida--think this mode of reading is impossible to teach, if only because it runs constantly up against the impossible itself (the impossible, that is, for us) when it is done right. But this, I think, has only lead to that mystification which produces explanations of what Derrida does as some sort of unbelievably genius close reading. Indeed it is that, but it is so much more--and precisely by taking this closeness into the realm of distance. In conclusion then, we can say that:
1. The text is not what is on the page.
2. The text is almost impossible.
3. The text does not exist. It only perhaps exists. It should be clear this is only #2 said differently.
4. The text's elements are not reducible to words, nor any stable unit whatever (they can be any unit: even--and we have not stressed this perhaps enough--what is considered to be outside the work: history, politics, geology, physical phenomena, etc. etc.). It should be clear this is only a corollary to #1 (in fact, it says the same thing).
5. If the text exists, however, it is only the elements that that make it up. In other words, it is only (among other marks) the words on the page, in the sense that it is not made up of the elements of any other text.
6. The text is only read when one is willing to, in being close to it, also be as far from the words on the page as possible.
I should also note that I speak of "the" text here, because I'm considering it as the object of study. There are, if they exist, only texts--this is why we can say #3, and several of the other points here from which this point follows and in which it plays a part. To consider this point in itself, though, might take us too far afield for now: the main goal is to correct the misunderstanding that simply equates reading like Derrida with close reading.