Saturday, October 25, 2008

Deconstruction as "overturning binaries"

I'm a little tired of the description of deconstruction as the exploding of binary oppositions. Handled correctly, this way of describing the strategy is helpful, but in most cases, it's a bit deceiving. If you read a lot of Derrida, you'll begin to wonder why this description is even used in the first place, because deconstruction really only concerns itself with singularities, and can't really be deployed, ever, by approaching singularities with this general schema. What is needed is an emphasis on how what this description describes would only be the resulting appearance of the deconstruction, its product, if you will, and could only be perceived by foregoing the deconstruction--that is, by abstraction. If this emphasis is made, the whole situation changes. Unfortunately, it often isn't.
Why this description is used in the first place, is because Derrida precisely tried to abstract and generalize about what he was doing in his texts--texts which had already been published--in an interview in 1971. There he attempts to describe deconstruction as a strategy, and comes up with the following:

...What interested me then [when he was writing "La dissémination" and "La mythologie blanche," that is, in the late 60's], and that I am attempting to pursue along other lines now, at the same time as a "general economy," a kind of general strategy of deconstruction. The latter is to avoid both simply neutralizing the binary oppositions of metaphysics and simply residing within the closed field of these oppositions, thereby confirming it.
Therefore we must proceed using a double gesture, according to a unity that is both systematic and in itself divided, a double writing, that is, a writing that is in and of itself multiple... On the one hand, we must traverse a phase of overturning. To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy... To deconstruct that opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.... [And on the other hand,] we must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new "concept," a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime.

-"Positions," in Positions, 41-42

Now, one has to, first and foremost, see this strategy as itself, in the context of the interview, at that moment in history and in the history of the intellectual scene in which Derrida was working (the Marxists, for example, were pushing him hard, for example, for some concrete political positions or at least for some relation of what he was doing to political action, as they were all recovering and assessing May '68)--one has to see this description of the strategy as itself strategically organized. Unfortunately, this didn't happen, at least here in American classrooms, where Derrida was mostly being received: all over the US the passage (or more usually only a couple sentences from the passage) was distributed by overexcited professors getting off on the thrill of doing something new. The result was that they themselves knew--or at least sensed--what Derrida was up to, and believed it was very germane to crucial tasks in the university and culture more generally (and in their works it was used to engage in these tasks, confront these problems--quite rightly, I think), but their students only got their confused descriptions of what they sensed--this description being the most succinct and (what's most important) the easiest to teach.
But why so easy to teach? As always, one has to (beyond paying attention to the context) also pay very close attention to what is said here in order to really grasp it. Especially the phrase which precedes the remarks about overturning and marking, etc.: I mean the phrase about the "double gesture," that is "itself divided." Explaining this remarks--which indeed is a bit tough, I imagine, for someone to decipher who has not read a lot of Derrida--would qualify everything that follows. For what this means is that the description of deconstruction as the overturning and marking of a binary opposition would be seen not as a step by step schema so much as an aporia. But I have never seen this part taught: only what follows gets quoted. The result is a reduction of the complicated and, one would think, extremely crucial statement to a sound bite. The reason behind this, and the result's teachability, must lie elsewhere: probably in the vividness of an idea of overturning, and the vividness of the idea of hierarchies.
Let's look for this in what gets taught. This is--instead of close attention to the crucial passage-- that Derrida is saying here 1) what gets deconstructed is a binary opposition between two concepts belonging to metaphysics, and 2) deconstruction is undergone when you overturn the hierarchy of these concepts and show their opposition in the first place to be false.
Now, think of how odd this is! But also think of how easy it would be to see the action of deconstruction actually at work: deconstruction is like an approach you take to two things that you know exist--two objects--and it is the undoing of the perception of a difference between them--or, worse, the existence of them as separate. It isn't a resolution of these things--nicely sidestepping Hegel here, and an airy idealist "all is one" conclusion--because you also show thereby that the two things were hierarchically arranged. In fact, this is the real product of deconstruction: not the undoing of the difference--who can tell what two things would be like if they weren't different? student's ask in desperation--but the revealing of the hierarchy, the exposure of an injustice, of the fact that metaphysics isn't peaceful. Deconstruction is visible, then--as violence exposed.
So the original quote gets emphasized in all sorts of wrong ways--since, to begin with, for deconstruction nothing simply exists or is there. But this is besides the point: the point is that I might have done more justice to what Derrida said just now than some teachers simply by quoting even the little bits that I did. Of course, what gets taught isn't totally false: all the words like "hierarchy" and "overturning" and "binary" that were actually in the quote get used. Or, maybe it just is false: in any other discipline than literary or culture studies in the 80's and 90's, such a skewed rendering of a set of words would indeed be called totally false. But, I don't mean to knock literary studies: Derrida wouldn't even be in the States if it was up to philosophy departments--things would have stayed nice and clean and boring as hell until the late Rorty and the late Bernard Williams (but significantly they both had heavy continental influence). The point is really that the high stakes of literary studies--the particular political and social advances it was helping to make, and, essentially, its need to show that interpretation could (with a disturbing ease) reveal violence (that is, hierarchies that needed to be overthrown)--were more important than accuracy at that time insofar as teaching was concerned. So something extremely odd got thrown about everywhere when it probably should have been brought back occasionally to the actual statements from which it originated.
Or at least, more thought given to how it was taught. If we're going to talk about binaries in the future, then, I'd recommend a stress that falls less on the individual terms of the opposition than on the opposition itself. The point is not so much to see what is opposed as to see how the opposition is necessarily going to be there even before you grasp those two things--that is, how the binary or bifurcation inhabits the perception of something to begin with. Then the problem isn't one about the relationships between the opposed things in all of their structure, but about how exceeding this opposition looks impossible. That is, it makes it seem as if another and yet another series of oppositions will just replace the first one.
And this, this is the infinite regression or interminability that is the phenomenal mark of deconstruction at work. It is this appearance of the impossibility of getting out of using oppositions that is the real problem with oppositions, and what will, in the end, allow you to--as you try and get your way out of them--in fact deconstruct the original opposition by opening it up into this infinite replacement or displacement. In short, the process here, the procedure, appears interminable, as Derrida emphasizes in The Post Card (384), and it is this apparent interminability that, when engaged with or written about, will end up deconstructing of the opposition you started with. This is really what Derrida means by a divided writing or doubled gesture: at the same time as it it writing about its own operation's impossibility, it also inscribes the binary. The result is a dual writing that brings the terms of the binary out of the realm of their merely possible effects and into the realm where they will have to reorganize themselves in order to have any effect: that is, the realm where the terms of the binary break down their opposition because they have to reform otherwise to accommodate something beyond their current possibilities--that is, the impossible.
What is crucial here is, then, that the impossibility is still only an appearance, like the interminability of the replacements. But the impossible isn't hiding a real possibility that exists. So we can't ever be sure that, indeed, the impossible will at some point become possible, at the same time as we can't be sure that the impossible will remain impossible for the binary. But what happens here is that the terms have indeed been opened onto radical alterity, and that is enough: for then we aren't dealing with the two terms as if we can control them. This makes the operation one open to the singular nature of the two as they encounter alterity, because it isn't just fitting them all into some schema. The cultivation of the uncertainty is the point. If only to make us, at some point (but how could we be certain where?), uncertain of even uncertainty. But I'll stop here. All I want to do is mark how what Derrida is saying in this interview can otherwise be described--not as the application of a schema, but as a process open to (or of opening to) singularity as the uncertain advent of alterity within a constituted set of oppositions.


Sand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sand said...

Yes. Great post.

The fundamental problem, which is of course forever impossible to resolve, is that it's literally impossible to describe deconstruction without betraying it; the only description or summary of deconstruction which would do it justice would be full deconstruction: it would be Borges's impossible map, identical to what it represents. The 'political' model of deconstruction, the reversal or undoing of binaries, is just as insufficient as my own favorite model of deconstruction, the structural one (you've heard me use it before).

All of which is fine conceptually, but it's a very real problem of pedagogy. You have to START somewhere; it's impossible to teach deconstruction by doing it, you have to abstract somehow. I think every single introduction to deconstruction has to start with the words - "Everything I am about to tell you is not accurate or sufficient." Or something. I dunno. But it's something I've often puzzled over: how the hell do you teach Derrida without betraying him? It's our very appreciation for Derrida, our love for his work, which forms the basis of our responsibility towards his work to teach it 'properly,' but that same responsibility leads to an inevitable betrayal.

Sand said...

PS - commented the first time without being logged on to my Gmail - I wanted my traffic sign to appear!

Mike Johnduff said...

You're totally right. And I'm always surprised at how on the same page we always are. My works-in-progress talk will be concerned with precisely what you were talking about: the language we use to teach or introduce Derrida and the problem of betrayal that you outline... My solution (and I am somewhat saying this in the post) is to reverse the procedure. Start with abstraction, reason, etc. Which really means, don't abstract, just actually do a "full deconstruction." Why? Because deconstruction will end up talking about itself. Once you step out of the thing and try to explain it, you really actually are losing the chance of explaining it. This is what de Man did, I think, but managed to make his way of stepping out of the problem look like the real McCoy just enough for a whole generation of students to be fooled.

Adam P said...

"The point is not so much to see what is opposed as to see how the opposition is necessarily going to be there even before you grasp those two things--that is, how the binary or bifurcation inhabits the perception of something to begin with."

Your point here is extremely well-taken. The emphasis in teaching deconstruction ("If there even is such a thing!" Derrida often claimed) is far too methodological. It is reduced to mere abstraction; however, true "deconstruction" unfolds--it is never applied, as such.

"And this, this is the infinite regression or interminability that is the phenomenal mark of deconstruction at work."

My work now focuses on the serious political implications of the truth that arrives and reveals itself through this so-called infinite regression. Derrida's differance takes to task Hegel's more naive form of identity-in-difference, where Hegel finds truth in such circular regression: now we see why thinking the aporia using vulgar conceptual modeling will always fall short.

The inherent metaphysical violence inscribed in mere signification has serious political consequences if such "serious" thinkers would get their heads out of their "anti-deconstructionist" asses and articulate it in meaningful ways. Zizek made a feeble beginning in his new work entitled Violence but there is so much more that could be written, said, and (spare me a passionate, naive, revolutionary moment) done!

Keep up the good work on the blog. I find myself nodding along with nearly all of your posts. If only more individuals in the academy where--dare I say--as enlightened as you seem to be on such topics...

adam p said...

Pardon the typos and poor syntax. I'm short on time today. That brings me to my next compliment... I applaud you for making time to post so frequently. I just started my blog last month on similar topics, but it has hardly risen off the ground.


Mike Johnduff said...

Thank you Adam for your comments/praises!

But I'm reminded now of something that I meant to say to Sand.

I think a really good way of putting this problem of betrayal that you outline--maybe I'll put it this way in my paper--is by saying the following: Derrida never writes about anybody. Or, since the word means almost the same thing, on anybody. So we see him saying (about Le facteur de la vérité): "Not only did I not criticize Lacan, but I was not even writing some sort of domineering or objectivizing meta-discourse on Lacan or on a text by Lacan. By virtue of my writing I was engaged in a scene that, at the same moment, I was showing (doubtless through little phrases that no one reads [How right! I was just remarking this in the post! He's even a good reader of how he is read!]) to be incapable of closure..." (in "For the Love of Lacan," Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 16). He doesn't write on or about anyone, not even a text by anyone--this latter phrase is a somewhat surprising way of putting it, but is also of course exactly right.
At the same time, though, of course, all he does is write about others. He writes about them without writing about them... and does so such that this without is without being without (sans sans sans, he says in Pas)... you know how it is.
So the point is just to deconstruct Derrida, if you want to write about him, I think. The idea seems to be out there that we can indeed provide some meta-commentary. This probably has some disciplinary/economic cause behind it: the proliferation of "Introductions" to philosophers gives assistant profs something to do. And perhaps things are better off for that--though I'd rather see one of these professors teach directly to us, rather than by this odd mediation, as if they have no faith in the teachability of Derrida (something we are sympathizing with here), but at the same time also have absolute faith in their own ability to write about him (something I think we're pointing out is a misplaced faith).
This is why, as you say, so many commentaries or introductions start with "I know this is impossible." But this is a bit disingenuous, over and above the fact that it is saying that it is disingenuous. How? Well, because really, in the end, they are out to stop at some point and say, this commentary is indeed a metacommentary, fragmented or inaccurate as it is--I speak of most of these intros, not the good ones. They don't give in to the impossibility enough, and end up reducing it--that is, the quasi-transcendental limit of their discourse which is writing "itself"--or making it coextensive with the particular inaccuracy of their text, its failed effort to be a metacommentary. But the failure of a metacommentary is different, I think, than the particular failure that Derrida is engaging in when he both doesn't and does write about something. Furthermore, this metacommentary nonsense, the writing of things that start with "I know this will all be inadequate," seems to make the whole thing about who knows what or how much and who does the impossible more knowingly, which I think is really quite wrong--it just produces more Spivaks. You can't deconstruct more knowingly.
Anyway, just a few thoughts.

Sand said...

I have to kind of agree-disagree with you a little bit, Mike.
I would insist on differentiating between claiming to know and claiming to do, or not do, as the case may be.

The Spivak Effect, as we might tentatively call it, would be to claim that not fully doing is a privilge accorded by a superior knowing: that is, "I don't HAVE to fully deconstruct, or fully explain, or account for my abstraction, because I know more than you and can do more than you." This, I agree, is a complete conceptual and pedagogical fallacy about which no more need be said.

But I think there is a very real ethical problem that I still do not see a satisfactory solution to, which is our dual responsibility to Derrida and to our (future) students. To say to a freshman taking an intro Lit. Theory class, "Sorry, kid, I can't simplify Derrida for you because that would be a betrayal of Derrida, so I'll just deconstruct and you have to make what you can of it" is to risk a betrayal of our responsibility to our students. The fact of the matter is that no-one I've ever met has picked up Grammatology without a hint of background or instruction and just magically understood deconstruction. I pray that if those students are out there, I get to have them in my classroom, but I'm more inclined to expect that I'll end up with students that need explaining to. If we take seriously what Diana said in class the other week (there are no dumb students, there are only students where it takes longer to figure out how they learn or understand)we are still left with the problem of opening up deconstruction without reducing it.

Who will we owe a greatest debt to - Derrida or our students? In fact, of course, both debts are a debt to ourselves - will I betray my own understanding of what I owe Derrida or will I betray my own understanding of what I owe my students?

As I said, I still don't know how to resolve this problem. I actually find that the move of disclaiming successful reduction can be quite a potent one if used, as I suggest above, to recognize an ethical burden rather than to demonstrate authority or superiority. One of the best intros to deconstruction that I've ever read is Martin McQuillan's in Routledge's otherwise uneven collection Deconstruction: A Reader, in which he basically goes through a number of ways to explain or describe deconstructon and after each one said, "Actually, that's not it." I reminds me of a similar problem in yoga philosophy, which is the problem the sages had of describing to aspirants the state of full enlightenment, samadhi. The problem stumped them so fully that often in Sanskrit one finds enlightenment described simply as "netineti," which just means "not this, not this." Very Hegelian, I know, but apt in this case as in many others (Indian philosophers discovered the dialectic at least 2000 years before Hegel, BTW, just as an aside...)

Finally, I wanted to add that while Derrida is uncannily canny about the metaphysics of his own textual motions, I find it important to take his pronouncements about himself with a grain of salt. If we take Derrida at his word about his relation to the texts whose scene of writing he renegotiates, we might be tempted to conclude that he feels no responsibility to approach those texts fully or correctly; if that is the case, can anyone be blamed for reducing or irresponsibly approaching Derrida's own work?

Mike Johnduff said...

I totally agree--that is, on the dialectic being discovered before Hegel... and before Socrates, too.
I also totally agree with what you said: there has to be a way to open up a space in which deconstruction can happen. But sometimes, I think, this makes it sound as if deconstruction wasn't already happening there, in the space in which you open it up--this is precisely the problem of the epoche in Husserl that Derrida was first interested in: Husserl was like, hey, in order to be able to see the phenomenon, to do phenomenology, we have to suspend judgments etc. about the particular thing we're looking at. Derrida was like, no way dude: even in the suspension something is both being suspended and asserted at the same time.
In other words, the problem can be shifted too far towards the opening up, which makes deconstruction look like something you have to prepare for. Spivak tried to deal with this problem of opening up, and I think she did a good job for her time. Jean-Luc Nancy is trying to get better at it, with his notion of dis-enclosure, but at the same time the real distance that Derrida cultivated between Nancy and himself I think stands for something: that he thought that what Nancy was getting at was some sort of mediation of what, for him, should be an infinite demand or bind.
But that brings us back to square one, which you rightly point out. There has to be a way to get somewhere in the sphere of what Derrida is doing--as you say, yes, totally, no one comes to him without reading something in the tradition he is inserting himself within... and often the more of this tradition you read the better you understand Derrida.
So I totally agree with what you're saying--most of the time I'm more on that side of the fence than on the side I'm espousing now, in fact. But there's got to be a third way, and that's what I'm interested in.
That is, I don't really agree with your (and, as I'm trying to say, mine too, only from the other side) way of putting it:

Who will we owe a greatest debt to - Derrida or our students?

Again, I'm putting it the same way, only affirming Derrida. But I'd also like to think that there's got to be some way out of the choice here. Somewhere, though its only vague to me now, there is a way that the debts are shared out, or at least become somewhat coextensive with each other.
That said, I totally agree that we need to be able to clearly put into language what the hell he is doing--that first and foremost. My beef with the meta-commentaries is usually that they are really overly hard to understand, for no reason other than they want to imitate Derrida. But there's something essential about writing on Derrida, I'd like to think, that causes that. Maybe, though, its just a lot of people being stupid, and I should just focus on my own right way to explain it to students--that seems worthwhile to me and is more and more becoming what I enjoy about this whole shebang!