Friday, October 3, 2008

"I don't believe that there is any perception"

The following--from a discussion at Johns Hopkins during the great structuralism conference in 1966 (!) that took place right after Derrida delivered his "Structure, Sign, and Play" lecture--might help out some of my phenomenologist friends trying to wrap their heads around Derrida. Doubrovsky's great question at least allows you to approach the more structuralist and semiological mode of that essay's articulation:

SERGE DOUBROVSKY: You always speak of a non-center. How can you, within your own perspective, explain or at least understand what a perception is? For a perception is precisely the manner in which the world appears centered to me. And language you represent as flat or level. Now language is something else again. It is, as Merleau-Ponty said, a corporeal intentionality. And starting from this utilization of language, in as much as there is an intention of language, I inevitably find a center again. For it is not "one" who speaks, but "I." And even if you reduce the I, you are obliged to come across once again the concept of intentionality, which I believe is at the base of a whole thought, which, moreover, you do not deny. Therefore I ask how you reconcile it with your present attempts?

DERRIDA: First of all, I didn't say that there was no center, that we could get along without the center. I believe that the center is a function, not a being--a reality, but a function. And this function is absolutely indispensable. The subject is absolutely indispensable. I don't destroy the subject; I situate it. That is to say, I believe that at a certain level both of experience and of philosophical and scientific discourse one cannot get along without the notion of subject. It is a question of knowing where it comes from and how it functions. Therefore I keep the concept of center, which I explained was indispensable, as well as that of subject, and the whole system of concepts to which you have referred.
Since you mentioned intentionality, I simply try to see those who are founding the movement of intentionality--which cannot be conceived in the term intentionality. As to perception, I should say that once I recognized it as a necessary conservation. I was extremely conservative. Now I don't know what perception and I don't believe that anything like perception exists. Perception is precisely a concept, a concept of an intuition or of a given originating from the thing itself, present itself in its meaning, independently from language, from the system of reference. And I believe that perception is interdependent with the concept of origin and of center and consequently whatever strikes at the metaphysics of which I have spoken strikes also at the very concept of perception. I don't believe that there is any perception.

-From The Structuralist Controversy, Discussion of "Structure, Sign, and Play," 271-2

Translating Husserl into the language of structuralism and specifically semiology was primarily the work of Merleau-Ponty (good friend of Lévi-Strauss), and if one reads certain remarks of his from the late 50's you can get a good sense of what that work of translation entails--you can piece together the puzzle that semiology poses to the phenomenologist of the non-French tradition, and begin to read, because all of a sudden you are launched into the types of conversations that were held after his classes there. Suddenly, this more formalized remark of Derrida's--no less extreme in its conclusions--from 1959 might also help, because one understands that it basically says the same thing in a less semiological language:

The question of the possibility of the transcendental reduction cannot expect an answer. It is the question of the possibility of the question, opening itself, the gap, on whose basis the transcendental I, which Husserl was tempted to call "eternal" (which in his thought, in any event, means neither infinite nor ahistorical, quite the contrary) is called upon to ask itself about everything, and particularly about the possibility of the unformed and naked factuality of the nonmeaning, in the case at hand, for example, of its own death.
-"'Genesis and Structure' in Husserl's Phenomenology," in Writing and Difference, 167-8

All this is evidence of the benefits of a historically minded approach to philosophy, which doesn't so much focus on the appropriations and misappropriations of particular philosophers (Husserl or Heidegger), but tries to reconstruct the discourse in which those appropriations are happening. It is also helpful in discussions of Kant, say (who is dealing with the British empiricists and materialists, like Priestley), and Descartes.


Steck said...

Would this mean that it would be correct to say that perception is not really a basic phenomenological structure, but rather a just a mere fact gained through science?

Mike Johnduff said...

Yes and no--for Derrida, it seems, it isn't a phenomenological structure. At the same time, it isn't a fact. Science can try to get to it, but because it tries to establish, like phenomenology, that the fact exists, it would miss this nonphenomenological perception. Unless both were taken up in a deconstruction, something gets missed about perception. In this way, then, we can have something like a scientific deconstruction: the idea that Derrida is not amenable to science isn't true, really.

Steck said...

So Derrida is trying to get beyond the duality of phenomenology vs objects that is in Heidegger? He tries to capture that perception is not part of phenomenological coping yet it is also something meaningful which makes it more than a brute fact. Is that right?

Mike Johnduff said...

It's more like the difference between something meaningful and a brute fact--which means it precisely isn't something meaningful, and that yes, he's trying to get past that duality. It isn't meaningful for any existing hermeneutic/phenomenology--any interpretive scheme. We have to invent a new scheme each time there is perception--that's the real way to put it. Which means that perception isn't something that exists, even though we know it happens. Perception is an event, completely arbitrary, that at each moment comes in to the set of interpretive practices you've set up to prompt them to be radicalized, somehow, to meet it. It's like trauma. But all the time.
That's a bit hyperbolic, but it's really what he's sort of getting at. Perception isn't a phenomenal structure, or a fact, but an event. So each event of perception is radically different, radically other from any other: you can't group them all together and call them, either by looking for a shared phenomenal structure or a certain empirical factical existence, "the type of thing that happens when we see or smell or touch or whatever." There are no types, no genera.
But at the same time, everything we can actually specify, all the resources we have to designate perception will become genera or types in the face of the event: so, there are no types, and there are only types. Or rather, there are no types or groups or structures or phenomena, precisely because all we have in the face of the event will be things that can only inadequately classify or disclose a structure of the event. This is what he means by talking about the "singularity" of the event, or its "radical alterity."
Another way to think about this is to get rid of the idea of essence: say I perceive or have a perception. Heidegger would somehow say that there is the ontic, everyday happening of the perception which participates or has its essence in in the authentic or originary structure of perception. Derrida would collapse these to say that every perception, every ontic phenomenon, would be authentic, would be perception essentially, perception as such. But if you say this about each and every perception, you will be evacuating the meaning of "as such:" because the term is defined in opposition to what it is not, when everything is perception in its essentiality, there is no essence--or, more accurately, no way to tell whether it is essential or ontic, accidental, arbitrary, etc. (sorry for using such a wide spectrum of terms to get at this, I don't know what background you have in all this and so I'm casting my net wide).
Now think of a perception from this standpoint, after the binary here becomes undecidable. You won't be able to, in a way, and that will be precisely a perception: it is what breaks down the sort of binary that you have--and in the face of which all you have just becomes a binary.
Another way of putting all this is by saying that perception is not a structure, phenomenon, or fact, but an aporia. Does that make sense?