Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cultural and biological devastation: Jonathan Lear

I have always enjoyed the work of Jonathan Lear. His account of Freud, combined as it is with his intense interest in and understanding of Aristotle, is the most vibrant and cogent one I think Anglophone countries have produced in a very long time (compare any one of his books on Freud to those of Anglophone theorists and the difference isn't even funny). Back in Illinois, I had the opportunity to listen to an early version of his new book Radical Hope in a talk, and the subject as well as Lear's excellent treatment of it have not ceased to be on my mind since. It couldn't be otherwise. Lear's daring and yet sensitive effort to produce a philosophical anthropology of the Crow and their fascinating leader Plenty Coups (Aleek-chea-ahoosh) not only introduces you to an amazing culture and its history, but also confronts contemporary virtue ethics with an immense problem that anyone within the field (or anyone even with an interest in it) is not likely to forget. And now that I have had time to get to the excellent book itself (now in paperback), I find myself returning to this problem with a better understanding of how Lear is trying to frame it.
This problem is catastrophe: what happens when a culture is faced with its own demise? Reproducing a significant Heideggerian distinction, we might actually call this cultural death, not cultural demise: Lear does not mean that this culture is threatened by biological extinction, and thus must work at preserving its bare life or surviving, but that, as a community, it will not be able to foster individuals that have any relationship to its norms or standards of excellence, that is, foster them ethically on the level of culture--a prospect that, he argues, is just as frightening. Now, this does not mean that cultural death is not related to the threat of biological distinction: just that--and we will come back to this repeatedly later--the ethical action under discussion in the book will tend to locate itself on the level of culture, while more pragmatic but not necessarily ethical action will be directed towards the needs of survival. Now this distinction is not merely me being fascinated once more with Heidegger: Lear's effort is explicitly conducted with the help of the excellent John Haugeland and constitutes a great attempt to reintroduce certain contemporary ethical assumptions centering around Aristotle back into the Aristotelian framework of Heidegger's thinking. That is, it is (putting it conversely) a work that attempts to bring Heidegger back to Aristotelian ethics.
The impact of the problem of cultural death upon thinking is clear. Once it is comprehended, one has to wonder whether this moment of cultural death is not the death of the concept of virtue ethics as well: unless we have something to say besides what virtues should be cultivated by a culture, unless we can say something about whether and how, in the face of the annhiliation of its traditional ways, any culture can have and hold onto virtues, we are not going to be on sure ethical ground. This is so not only in the sense that the concept and project of virtue ethics will find a limit. Indeed, some argue that something like this limit should apply, keeping us outside of the sphere of anything encroaching on the meta-ethical, as this problem forces us to do. But even if we accept this, the deeper ungroundedness of ethics would still apply: we would not have a secure basis because, as occasional references of Lear's book make clear, the problem of the death of a culture could perhaps more prevalent than one thinks. Even if we overlook the problems of mass migration caused by various political and economic situations throughtout the rest of the world, in America alone we face the anxieties about terrorism (not necessarily about acts of terrorism but rather how to adjust daily to the possibility of it, like some other cultures do) and certain events like Hurricane Katrina (not in the aspect of its brute destruction of life, again, but in terms of how we adequately can comport ourselves to the cultural devastation any displacement like that required by the disaster would entail). This is so even if we don't admit that this frequency of cultural death or devastation is empirically higher now for some reason: perhaps virtue ethics is haunted in its foundations by this risk--and haunted to a degree that previous philosophers could not register. Lear makes this point about Aristotle specifically: the Nicomachean Ethics, while it may speak of the acquisition of skills and excellencies, and even their devolution or loss, does not talk about the problems of handing down these virtues--at least in a way Lear feels comfortable advocating. This presupposes a sort of static model of virtue: while we can say culture gets passed down in learning, for example, this is merely to collapse the issue of handing-down or handing-over into something that is assumed will be handed-down or handed-over. What we encounter here is the same problem Heidegger encountered, one that is--I would argue--the most significant one about his entire endeavor and the most pressing for any modern ethical as well as ontological account, given our time and place: the problem of historicity. In order to address historicity, beyond the level of talking about nurturing and education, in order to talk about historicity itself, we must address the possibility of the death of culture as inherent to culture--that is, as inherent to any system or structure of virtues. And unless we address historicity, we will not be able to account for what is ethical in a world where that historicity itself is precisely what is in the balance.
In a few sentences towards the end of the book, Lear brings to the fore the whole problem in just a few sentences, and also the possible response (Plenty Coups's) to it that Lear advocates:

For a vibrant culture, it is traditionally the task of the older generation to adapt the culture's ideals to current challenges and to pass those ideals on to the next generation. But in the period 1870-1940, the Crow tribe went through such a collective disruption that there was no way to pass on those ideals in an unproblematic way. It was in this context that Plenty Coups drew on traditional tribal resources--the [traditional, but somewhat neglected interpretation of] the chickadee--to formulate an ego-ideal of radical hope. That is, he gave the tribe the possibility of drawing on a traditional ideal that would help them endure a loss of concepts.
-Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, p. 141

But what makes this problem, as Lear frames it, itself problematic for me is its use of the Heideggerian distinction we discussed above: the difference between the biological demise of a culture, its extinction, and the passing away of the possibility of handing-down culture. For the difference between death and demise seems to be distributed in an odd way when it is extended out beyond that of something like an individual: that is, when one assumes that culture has a structure like the Dasein of Being and Time. Are we to think that the realm of culture is separable from biological existence as this account makes it seem? Furthermore, are we to think that attacks against the culture of a community are more prevalent in our world today than attacks upon the existence of these communities? And, fundamentally, are we to think that the possibility of handing-down culture, even though it depends on the possibility of biological existence from one level to the next, acts as if it is indifferent to its bare existence and the threats to it in decision-making, with its eye, as it were, only on the level of culture?
Now, one can see that these objections might risk missing the entire point of Lear's work by asking him to be more radical than necessary. And I think that these objections do indeed miss the point, if one is trying to make them in the service of some hyper-liberal principle that does not settle for anything less than its own ideal, even for the sake of argument. We will encounter one of these ways of objection--or rather, contradiction--in just a moment. But I don't think they do when they are made to try and help Lear address what he is trying to address even more effectively.
For my second point, I think, is the most crucial and would be the most significant for Lear: the fact that his book presupposes that threats to the biological existence of a people are something that do not happen as frequently as threats to culture, or, even if this is not the case (it is not my goal to get into some empirical dispute), the fact that communities do not or should not have as much to do, ethically, about their biological extinction as opposed to their cultural death.
And to return to the risk of missing what Lear is saying, there is one way to precisely make this point that would be crude. It would be by framing it in a particular way around the Holocaust. Lear had to face questions about the Holocaust repeatedly, as he says in a footnote: When I have presented these ideas in lectures, I have regularly been asked about similarities to the Jewish holocaust in World War II (p. 163, note 42). But there is a way of asking it that would make our point only by shutting down the possibility of the discussion of ethics.
Now, I call this way of making our point crude not because it references the Holocaust--indeed this event does bear upon the discussion--but because this reference to it here would reference it as a contradiction. To put it another way, it is crude because is a way of putting our question, and a lot of other questions, that misunderstands precisely what is at stake in in it. For Lear may indeed be operating in such a way that he does not think what he is doing can address the Holocaust. That is, he may think that not only are the situations and ethical demands different in the two cases, but also that the first case is ethically relevant for him while the second needs a different set of resources to be dealt with. To extend this line of argument to its extreme, Lear might not think that the ethical sphere in which he is working (perhaps even virtue ethics itself) has any ability or, what's more, any need to address the Holocaust.
And all these possibilities are good reasons, I'd like to think--that is, if they are all not, on some level, also completely legitimate. For what is crude is assuming these objections ultimately have no reason behind them because the Holocaust must always be addressed by them. This is not something even Derrida--who thought there was no ethical position that would be fully able to legitimize itself--would hold. He would acknowledge that there are indeed reasons for granting ethical thought a certain sphere of operation: even if it were to be deconstructed, the point for Derrida is precisely not to make demands of this sphere that discount its reasons for operating that way (one must discount, instead, its reasonability, that is, its legitimacy, if anything is to be in fact discounted). And I call attention to the example of Derrida here because he indeed felt that the Holocaust needed to be and was being addressed nearly always--it was that important, that massive of an event. But the point is that using the Holocaust as an example here is one way to make unreasonable demands on a sphere which indeed, if it weren't subjected to an attack with this event, might be willing and able to extend itself to address it. It is a way to cut through all the complications of these levels in which ethical action may be operative but still unable to face up to this monstrosity--a level which could indeed apply to people who are indeed facing up to it, or, more likely, to those who are learning how to face up to it. I bring up this way of putting the question because it is a common form of contradiction in some circles, and, as I noted above repeatedly, my objection here will run up against, but hopefully distinguish itself from, that way of contradicting.
In the end, comparing the case that Lear bases his study upon to the Holocaust passes over the fact that, even if Lear is only operating on a level that refuses to address the Holocaust, a level that thinks it passes beyond where ethics has anything to say to it of significance, within these protocols of his discourse Lear seems to foreclose what he himself demands: that culture have some relationship to the maintenance of life or survival of a people. In other words, as we said above, putting the question of the difference between the extinction of a people and cultural death in terms of whether the Holocaust, as an extinction of people, can matter to Lear's argument--putting it this way simply misplaces the question's proper emphasis. The emphasis should be on how culture cannot separate itself from survival too much, otherwise the whole point of being concerned about the death of a culture becomes pointless.
Now we can look at the rest of the footnote, for this is actually what it seems to say with respect to the Holocaust: not that the Holocaust is something too extreme for the book to handle, but that it is an event where culture has been so separated from existence that any concern about culture seems actually, as far as decision-making is concerned, to be less relevant--either it will survive or it won't:

Crow concepts [or conceptions of virtues] could, I think, have survived their own holocaust. A more relevant analogy therefore seems to be the destruction of the Temple. With that destruction certain traditional forms of orientation--e.g. toward a priestley caste, toward the Temple, toward sacrifice--became impossible. There were no longer viable ways of so orienting oneself. Unlike the Crow, the Jews had their Book; and the rabbis were able to use it to construct a liturgy that would be specifically applicable in conditions of exile and diaspora. In this context, Plenty Coups's decision to tell his story to a white man so that it might be written down and preserved as a traditional story takes on added significance.
-Radical Hope, p. 163, note 42.

What's in question in the Holocaust is life, not culture. Now, in saying that this makes culture less relevant to decision-making, I don't mean to claim that, for Lear, culture in this moment becomes superfluous. It means that the thrust, the force of ethical decision is directed not towards the cultural aspect of a people but towards how they can survive. All the ethical resources of a people, all their virtues, are marshaled in that direction. Culture is still a big part of this effort and indeed decisions as to the preservation of culture do get carried out: but as far as ethical decision making goes, these concerns are not at the forefront. What would bear upon ethical decision-making is if culture itself had such a relationship to communal survival that destruction aimed at culture alone (here, the Temple) could cause havoc.
This may or may not be good reasoning. But one certainly sees the uniqueness of Lear's argument begin to come out into the open: what is so significant about the Crow as a historical example is that the destruction of their culture alone was enough to bring about particular forms of intense suffering. Lear thereby constructs an ethics that addresses adequately those forms of suffering, the suffering that can be caused by (let's call it) the mass displacements of a people alone--something very prevalent throughout history and indeed in our time--without having it also have to address the aspect of genocide that may or may not occur during this displacement. In short, a whole field of ethical action is opened that is not reducible to that of a people faced with biological annihilation. This avoids the ethical pitfall of having to have a people be threatened on the level of their bare life in order for various ethical questions to come to the fore: we should not be demanding, Lear seems to say, that a holocaust be necessary for these types of ethical questions to come up. In a way, then, it is precisely a discourse directed towards addressing the Holocaust. At the very least, Lear seems to be saying that it would be a mistake to insist that we interpret this field of actions immediately as those of a people faced with biological extinction. It would be just as much a mistake to interpret things this way as it would be to say that this people was in a normal ethical situation: there are many more ways ethical action understands itself and occurs.
But still, I think, the distinction Lear is making is still questionable: can we really separate off concerns for survival from concerns for living well--that is, from the concerns of this radical ethics? Even in the case of the Crow, whose concerns are--as Lear seems to argue--not directed towards coping with the biological? This is essentially the question Derrida poses to ethics, following Levinas, and he does so along precisely the Heideggerian line of thought that Lear is utilizing. I won't pursue Derrida's conclusions, but I think reduplicating some of his concerns here about Heidegger will allow me to come to my own.
For the problem is, as we said, the sort of analogy at work here: at a certain point, Lear seems to be thinking of a culture like Heidegger is thinking about Dasein. The problem is not exactly that of analogy itself, but the implications that it has for the terms involved, particularly culture. Now, Lear bases his remarks about Heidegger on his colleague John Haugeland's supple interpretation of Being and Time, an interpretation which specifies that Dasein should not be understood as a person but as a way of life, as a collection of actions or tendencies to action. And while this is a very good interpretation of Dasein--Dasein is most definitely something closer to Foucault's care of the self (a set of applied rules and norms in practice that become subjectivised only on the basis of this set) than a psyche, even if it is not totally conscious--when it is applied analogously by Lear the functioning of a culture must be interpreted accordingly as a certain way of life, as a certain set of norms and tendencies and actions.
And while this does not sound problematic in itself--what else is a culture except a set of norms and tendencies?--it becomes so when we introduce the problem of cultural death and extinction. For on the level of Dasein, acting in accordance with one's possibility of death--that is, being-to-death or being-towards-death--is more easily bound up with demise, Dasein's possibility of bare biological extinction. Now, this has been a problem for Heideggerians right from the start: being-towards-death often looks too much like being-towards-one's-demise, so that we constantly fear when we are thinking about what Heidegger means by being-towards-death that we will mistake our biological extinction for the event or phenomenon that Heidegger is getting at. When explaining Heidegger, one has to rigorously distinguish between the two, citing often that sentence in Being and Time that declares Dasein often comes to its demise or extinction before it has really come towards its death.
Now, since on the level of culture there is, it would seem, a greater difference between the phenomenon of the extinction of a whole people and the phenomenon of a cultural displacement--indeed Lear himself in the above footnote is precisely trying to hit home that there is, that we perceive it in fact often--this would seem to argue for the analogy. If we can tell a cultural Dasein's death apart from its mere demise more clearly than that death of which Heidegger himself speaks, we should have an easier time than the Heideggerians with getting a grasp on death and what to do about it. But I actually think this is not the case.
According to the logic of Lear's argument, the more robust a tradition, the more it is a part of not just the basic needs of a people but an expression of their potentials, their excellencies, which are not directed towards those needs. Despite the fact that one could point to many cultures whose robust traditions are directly related to--if not integrated in--practices of survival, if we assume what Lear seems to be saying, if we think that cultural activity separates itself off more and more from the basic function of survival, would this not demand that survival be necessarily presupposed by culture more and more? That culture become ever more complacent with its ability to survive, such that the cultural activities which develop become ever more dependent upon survival? Especially when they are handed-down? According to Lear's argument, it is obvious that a community cannot pass on through generations a highly refined culture--that means, a culture highly separate from the duties of communal survival--unless survival still is, on some level, active and possible. But if all this is the case, then what one thought was easier to distinguish suddenly becomes more difficult: survival, mere biological existence, though it would not be directly the matter or content of cultural practice, would become coextensive with cultural activity itself. That is, cultural activity would so presuppose survival that this activity, instead of being completely dissociated from it, would become intertwined with and dependent upon it intimately.
But this is not what Lear thinks. From the fact that culture, given his definition of it, does not presuppose its survival to be the matter of its activity, from the fact that survival would not be what cultural activity is constantly directed towards, Lear seems to think cultural activity is indeed separated from the activity of survival. What this means is that any threat to the community's survival will not be seen as a threat to its culture in the first instance. And the ramifications of this assumption are very extensive--indeed, wider in scope than how far we suppose a culture can get infected, as it were, by concerns for the community's survival; that is, whether it can or cannot change its content at all according to the demands placed upon it by the threat to its survival. What Lear seems to think is that survival does not become something that can be anticipated at all culturally. Only on the level of the basic functioning of a society--the level of resources--would there be a response to this threat, would there be any ethical decisions regarding how to deal with what is to come on the level of survival. In other words, even if culture addressed the threat to the survival of the society on its own proper (that is, cultural) level, this would only in fact be the devolution of culture. Culture that addressed biological survival would be a deficient form of culture (which is, of course, something different than saying it would be a bad form of culture).
And here is where the real problem with the use of Heidegger lies. While Heidegger grounded this assumption--the assumption that biological activity is not what is anticipated by Dasein, except in a derivative or deficient way--while Heidegger grounded this in the temporality of Dasein and its tendency to fall or be deficient, Lear seems to have this assumption rest on the the bare fact that it is possible for culture to not be an expression of survival. Simply because there can be a difference between cultural death and society's demise, this difference must be maintained for culture to not be deficient.
The problem is greater than whether or not one should really call this a deficiency or not. It is about exactly what one can anticipate. In Heidegger's case, the fact that anticipation is deficient when it deals with the level of biology is coherent, at least. In Lear's case, it isn't. For even if culture anticipates on its own proper level, like Dasein, how can one ever tell that it is not merely anticipating what is best for survival? This is the problem of radical hope and optimism that Lear addresses at length throughout the book.
For obviously there are more reasons for insisting that the difference between culture and acts of survival ought to be maintained than just the bare fact that it can be maintained. It makes sense to think of any culture worthy of the name as somehow, at bottom, different than a mere function of survival. But what is crucial is that, because cultural action can presuppose survival to such an extreme extent that survival is coextensive with culture as a basic possibility--as I demonstrated above--one will never be able to stop suspecting whether an act of courage at the level of culture is merely a function of survival, whether it is not merely an expedient that staves off the demise of the culture. In the end the distinction then reduces to the mere possibility of the distinction. But nothing in ethical action can ensure that the terms of the distinction will not be so intertwined that actually making it will correspond to or line up with the distinction itself. Lear insists throughout the book that Plenty Coups's act is separated essentially from a merely biologically advantageous action that would get the Crow through the day--what he calls mere optimism as opposed to radical hope. But cannot one always in the end doubt this claim?
I don't mean to question the integrity of the acts of Plenty Coups himself. I merely want to insist that what seems like a clear difference for Lear between a courageous act on the level of culture can be still seen as survival--and precisely because, in the end, Lear does not specify how the temporality of culture ensures this distinction. And it is not clear how Lear would go about this: he makes some headway in saying that cultural time can break across generations, such that Plenty Coups himself, who grew up in a certain culture, can say that after the culture passed, "nothing happened." But what is needed is some account of the continuity of this discontinuous time that would be able to distinguish itself from what is merely an effect of efforts to survive--and Lear, here at least, does not give us this. For even if cultural time appears to be determined by something beyond the level of mere biological functioning--for instance, the existence of institutions or rituals of education that indeed get transmitted across generations--is this not also explainable as a mere offshoot of reproduction and the demands of raising healthy children? The point is not to prove that the cultural is reducible to the biological, though: it is to show that, given the particular idea of time that Lear supposes works on the level of society, it would not be distinguishable from within that society's culture whether any act was ultimately due to its own effort or the efforts of striving for biological survival. Historicity or the handing-down of culture, in short, however it is attained by culture means, cannot escape the fact that it is also constituted biologically through reproduction.
There is a deeper reason, however, that causes Lear to not be more precise about temporality: it is the idea that culture can ensure itself though focusing upon an empty or enigmatic signifier--a particular ego-ideal, as the portion of the book that I cited first above said. But I'll return to this later, when I expand a little on this post.
The point is that given all this, is it not clear that perhaps what is necessary even in the situation of the Crow could be to respond to survival first, and then any issue of culture? When Plenty Coups takes action to preserve the tribe's land, at the expense of several of the old ways of the culture, could the result not be just as successful if what he was trying to ensure thereby was survival first and foremost? And could not this also be virtuous? Not in the sense that, in the case of the Crow, there could not have been virtue of a higher kind, but in the sense that there would be in all cases no higher, purely cultural kind of virtue, no virtue that was not also mere survival. At least it is clear that the ethical cannot be confined to the level of culture as Lear hopes to do. And while, obviously, there are better and worse ways to survive, this opens up the question not of whether these ways are qualitatively different than survival--that is, whether they are really not survival but culture--but whether and how differentiating these ways constitutes an ethics of survival. That is, what is opened up is a different ethics than an ethics concerned with cultural devastation. I'll leave off here, but will hopefully return to these issues, and the particular question of the ego-ideal in Lear's work, in the future.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Reading Heidegger's language

A few days ago I got an email from someone reading the blog here. It asked some general questions about reading Heidegger's "The Thing," saying the following:

I am a little handicapped with Heidegger (I think) because I do not speak German. "The Thing" is probably the easiest Heidegger essay to parody, especially since one spends so much time reading about the thingliness of the thing and the thing's thingness. So - here's what I am wondering. What are the connotations and the denotations to the words Heidegger uses in this essay in German? I am assuming that Heidegger is using "Sache" for "thing" as this is the most direct translation. But I wonder if Heidegger is using other words for "thing" in this essay that I don't know of because of my language barrier. FYI - I am reading the Albert Hofstadter translation in Poetry, Language, Thought.

Now, this I think is a series of great questions. Moreover the way they are asked outlines a particular orientation towards Heidegger that many people, I think, have (I certainly did): it is the orientation that prescribes really wondering what is going on with the words Heidegger is using and why they are so funny, in a way--one could generally say the "style" (but of course this is not how Heidegger would exactly put it), or perhaps the "approach" of Heidegger. Why is it so hard to make sense of? And--and here is the crucial question--does going back to the particular valences of the words he is using help? My answer was no: one really has to try and see the phenomenon Heidegger is getting at before one tries to look at the twists and turns of the language, and especially before one looks at connotations. This risks making a totally denotative Heidegger (I'd say Dreyfus is a bit too far in this direction, at least in his thinking and teaching Heidegger--not so much in his writing), but I would say that this is more profitable than a connotative Heidegger at the stage when you are getting to be familiar with him (reading texts for the first or second time), because the phenomenon is brought to light (especially in its structure) that way. Now, this does not mean the phenomenon is separable--by any means--from the words and their connotations: what usually happens is that there is a path of thought being pushed through by each sentence and word, and one has to respond by altering the phenomenon accordingly to bring it further and further to light.
The example of the jug in "The Thing" is a good one. Think of the jug first. Then bring it out bit by bit following the path of the words and their interrelation. Now, this does not mean "picture" a jug, and alter the picture. It means intending towards it, feeling yourself as you would feel about the jug if you were attending to it, that is, attuning oneself to the attending to the jug, and then look at the words and how they reflect this attending and bring out or separate the intention from it. "Reflect," here, of course, is the key word here: it is what makes this an approach focused more on denotation. One has to, in a sense, reduce Heidegger's language to reflection or mere representation of the phenomenon. That is, one has to reduce Heidegger's language to a discourse about the phenomenon. He warns against this himself in What is Called Thinking? where thinking itself is the phenomenon:

The question "What is called thinking?" can never be answered by proposing a definition of the concept thinking, and then diligently explaining what is contained in that definition. In what follows, we shall not think about what thinking is. We remain outside that mere reflection which makes thinking its object. Great thinkers, first Kant and and then Hegel, have understood the fruitlessness of such reflection. That is why they had to attempt to reflect their way out of such reflection.
-What is Called Thinking?, 21

I am recommending this against Heidegger, then. But I am also convinced that one can then correct this reduction of the language precisely by resubmerging it back into the path of thinking that the phenomenology (the alteration of the phenomenon in its exposition, from what is formally indicated to what is essential) demands. This, at least, is a good way to begin to approach Heidegger, I think, even though it risks setting up a dialectic of sorts. But I think it stays true to what Heidegger has to say about the path of thought:

When thinking attempts to go after a matter that has claimed it, it may happen that on the way it undergoes a wandering. It is advisable, therefore, in what follows to mind the path of thought rather than its content. To dwell properly upon the content would simply block the going-forward of the talk.
-"The Principle of Identity," in Identity and Difference, 23, translation heavily modified

In short, this means thinking on the "matter" (Sache) that gives thought. One can see that looking for connotations here doesn't and wouldn't add anything unless this is done beforehand. This was what I was trying to get at in my (impromptu) response, below: what "Sache" means and why it is what, in the thing, requires or asks for thinking. Here is what Heidegger has to say about this Sache in "The Onto-theo-logical Constitution of Metaphysics:"

This seminar [which this essay concluded] made an attempt to begin a conversation with Hegel. A conversation with a thinker can be concerned only with the matter of thinking. [...] The matter of thinking presses upon thinking in such a way that only thus does it bring thinking to the heart of the matter and from there to thinking itself.
-"The Onto-theo-logical Constitution of Metaphysics," (in the same volume as above), 42

The German is more interesting and more elucidating. Stambaugh, however, precisely because she thinks connotations mean too much here, does not translate the whole of it in the above passage (she thinks these connotations are untranslatable):

Dieses Seminar versuchte, ein Gespräch mit Hegel zu beginnen. Das Gespräch mit einem Denker kann nur von der Sache des Denkens handeln. "Sache" meint nach der gegebenen Bestimmung den Streitfall, das Strittige, das einzig für das Denken der Fall ist, der das Denken angeht. Der Streit aber dieses Strittigen wird keineswegs erst durch das Denken gleichsam vom Zaun gebrochen. Die sache des Denkens ist das in such Strittige eines Streites. Unser Word Streit (ahd. strit) meint vornehmlich nicht die Zwietracht sondern die Bedrängnis. Die Sache des Denkens bedrängt des Denken in der Weise, daß sie das Denken erst zu seiner Sache und von dieser her zu ihm selbst bringt.
-"Die Onto-theo-logische Verfassung der Metaphysik," 107

I'll see what I can do here to resist Stambaugh and bring it out, as it bears upon precisely what we mean by "matter:"

This seminar sought to begin a conversation with Hegel. A conversation with a thinker can be concerned only with the matter of thinking. "Matter" means according to the given determination of the point of contention--that contention that alone is, for thinking, the point that thinking tackles. The contending or contention however is not by any means only broken into by thinking, as it were, like picking a fight. The matter of thinking is the contention in a point of contention. Our word contending [Streit] (Old High German strit) means primarily not a confrontation [between two things] but a conflict. The matter of thinking makes thinking conflict in such a way that only thus does it bring thinking to the matter and from there to thinking itself.

Better translations are very possible. Bedrängnis is tough for me here and so I decided to play with the word "conflict" as both a noun and a verb (thus the "makes" in the last sentence--though that is way too causal for Heidegger): I hoped it thereby retains some of its affinity with "affliction." Regardless, the point (which I hope to be proving by example) is that if you got the phenomenon here, then the "play" on the words, their connotations, is more of the matter for the translator than the person who is thinking through and with Heidegger. And that the "Sache" itself is what is important: as this passage makes clear, it is what is at the essence of a point, what besets thinking and calls out for it (the Latin root of contention is contestare: to call out for a witness to testimony). It is that which does not make thinking stand over and against what is to be thought (another thinker's thought, for example), as if to confront it and struggle with it that way. It is that which is singular or one in any such engagement with what is to be thought: that which brings thinking to other thinking, that in which both have their being such that any confrontation between them is only possible in this one essential conflict. Insofar as language enters into this, it will be only to open up that essential conflict. That means that one doesn't really dispute with another thinker, for example, by quibbling over connotations--or at least this only happens after the essential has been touched.
In the end, it was interesting to even think again about the difference between Sache and Ding: I think if you were too immersed with Heidegger you wouldn't even think again about the fact that the two have serious affinity connotatively in German. I certainly was too immersed here--a bit too dogmatic as I say at the end. But you see that language here is precisely coming in for me when I already think I have a clear sense of the phenomenon. I guess this means that, in short, language in Heidegger should, ideally, act more as a corrective to the phenomenology than as something that communicates it. This would be true, then, for both newcomers and those to whom Heidegger is familiar. Anyway, here is the response:

To my knowledge, the word Heidegger is usually using is "das Ding" for thing, not "Sache." You're not wrong though: in German one can use either word for "thing." But for Heidegger, the reason it's not the latter is because "Sache" ususally means "the matter" or "the issue," not something more like an object, a stuff, an item, which is closer to what Ding means. Heidegger generally seperates the two because the first, in its more broad scope, is closer to what phenomenology tries to get at: "die Sachen selbst" is what Husserl says one has to go towards when looking at the phenomenon. In this sense, "Sachen" here means not what it is usually translated as ("the things themselves"), but something closer to "the matter at hand" or "for thought"--in short, and in Husserlian terms, the essence of whatever is concerning the phenomenologist, what it is as it is, that is, what it means for whatever to be what it is as such. This is different from it being a Ding--so different, in fact, that what Heidegger is doing in "The Thing" is precisely looking at das Ding so as to discern what about it makes it a Sachen for thinking, a matter for thinking or thought, that is, his type of phenomenology (different, of course, from Husserl's). In this sense, what is the Sachen here about the Ding is precisely its "thingliness," that is, what makes it, as a thing, be a thing--what makes it a thing as such. The odd words here--"thinghood" "thingliness"--are trying to refer to the thing in its being, that is, the thing in what makes it what it is, its as such, its essence (although one has to understand essence differently than with Husserl--but that's another issue somewhat).
The only other word Heidegger will be using repeatedly here for "thing" is Objekt: but this will only be translated as "object," never as "thing," precisely because, as you know, the essay is trying to get at the bottom of the difference between Ding and Objekt, and see the thing underneath, as it were, the object--the object being an ob-ject, what stands-apart-or-against us, as Heidegger says (taking ob- as the latin prefix for "standing-apart"). The point is to see the table, for example, or the jug, as something I can pick up and use, not as a set of points in Cartesian space--as I'm sure you know.
All this said, I don't think hunting around in the German is really worth your time: Hoftstader is usually pretty good at translating and Heidegger himself isn't usually trying to deceive you or play on words in a way that would repay this. What he does when he plays on words is groups together cognates, so as to show you an affinity between them: thus he'll gather together a whole bunch of words that start with über- or Ab-, or have -schick- in them (a word in itself meaning something, for Heidegger, like destination, which, if you grant Heidegger the affinities he is trying to piece together, makes up Geschehen, history, and Schicksal, fate, etc.)--but all of this is trying to work out the phenomenon, to show you certain things are part of its structure and are so because they are related to how we attend to them and other phenomena (which we might not expect the same attention to reside within). And if you haven't got a sense of this (for example, in "The Thing," the sense of a negative space inside the jug, that at once is and isn't space because it is meant only to contain, to lack, to hold in, and never to push out, like a wall would), you're going to be lost no matter how much German you look at. Frankly, my German isn't that good. You just pick up on the crucial distinctions (like that between Sache and Ding for Heidegger) by reading enough Heidegger--glancing at the German only occasionally when Heidegger draws attention to it or uses a phrase continually ("proximally and for the most part," for example, in Being and Time: the only reason I know the German is cause I got curious and was like, I wonder what the hell that phrase is after all! and looked it up.).
And, one more thing: Heidegger will always be easy to parody. Only when you got a sense of what he's getting at under his funny language does the drive to imitate him get serious--and often then, you're probably too serious about whatever Heidegger is talking about. If you want to look at the origin of that language and the necessity for its use, you really have to just ground Heidegger back in phenomenology. Otherwise he just looks ridiculous and obsessed with certain "intrinsic" aspects of German. And while this latter thing might be true, insisting on it doesn't get you anywhere when you are trying to understand him: it is said that Merleau-Ponty remarked that he didn't like the later Heidegger precisely because of this linguistic factor or obsession, and focused on his early work only for this reason. While Merleau-Ponty is on some level right (the workings of the language are a layer to phenomenality that is not exactly obvious or by any means traditional--though Husserl himself, it can be argued, insisted on similar things), it shouldn't just make you put down a bunch of the work: you have to keep yourself from doing that. I would say, though, that it is a healthy impulse, and it shouldn't be gotten rid of in principle: it's surprising how far Heidegger can take you away from what you are familiar with, even if you aren't suspecting him of anything, and you actually do feel repulsed at particular points by whatever he is saying. Keep that up: without it, you end up a little too dogmatic and you end up not understanding, I think, the operations of uncovering that Heidegger is really getting at.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hesitancies

I have expressed quite often a certain hesitancy with regard to various interpreters of Derrida, especially those that, over the years, have taken it upon themselves to maintain a privileged relationship with Derrida's writings, especially in English speaking countries. By "privileged" I mean the following: they have, either, prior to saying something about Derrida, translated a text of Derrida's, directly allowing his French to enter the English-speaking world, and usually in doing so (or prior to doing so) have consulted Derrida himself; or have taught Derrida constantly, and done so as his thought developed over the years, following and anticipating its course all the way. In both cases there is privilege, because--whether they wanted this or not--these interpreters have ended up representing his thinking, and done so to an extent not able to be performed by just anyone (qualified, that is) who talked about Derrida.
Now, this hesitancy is not necessarily a hesitancy revolving around the old problem of the "reception" of Derrida in the United States. Let me be clear: I don't caution against certain remarks of these interpreters because I believe that something has gone horribly wrong in the way Derrida's thinking has been represented (although many do make the case for this, preferring to call it deconstructivism rather than deconstruction--more on this later). In most cases, the interpreters I am referring to--one might cite John Caputo as well as John Sallis as particularly great examples--have recognized the necessity to respond to a thinking as important as Derrida's. Their interpretations (a word I am using very loosely, of course: one might also say explanations, teachings, translations, even asides), even if they are off the mark, are not off the mark because they mean to be, but because in the effort to teach, appropriate and ultimately think beside an important contemporary thinker, one is on a path that is still developing and extremely uncertain.
Rather, the hesitancy revolves around the particular dynamics of power and influence that come with these privileged positions: that is, their active ability to guide interpretation into the future simply because of these positions. Indeed, it is an issue of authority. But it is not one that argues against authority per se. It is one that simply asks for a level playing field (or something approximating this) with respect to a very contemporary thinker. Essentially, all that I worry about, and here urge others to worry about, is whether Derrida is distant enough from us to be able to think about him and alongside him in such a way that the discourse produced would, in turn, produce its own authority: Derrida, in short, would be someone to discuss, to study, rather than someone who could be used only in various dynamics of power on the part of students or "followers" of someone representing Derrida (which I would say is currently the case here). This would only be to take stock of the fact that Derrida is indeed discussed everywhere. In short, I think we are not yet at the point (in English-speaking countries, this I don't think applies to France, which has various points of view on Derrida, many very rich) where several Derridas can emerge, the way there are certain Kants (that is, certain established readings of or "takes" on Kant and also the various individual works of Kant). Part of this is due, I think, to the remarkable consistency of Derrida's project--something I have remarked about earlier (alongside Frances Ferguson, who makes this point well in a recent essay against Richard Rorty), and will expand upon later. But it is probably mostly due to this power dynamic, which I think would generally occur around any significant thinker (it definitely occurred with Husserl, for example, as well as Hegel, to go further back). (I would not, I'll add, simply reduce the reasons for this to that of "time" and not enough of it having passed yet. This presupposes--and I have expanded and will expand upon this extensively--that it "takes time" to understand a thinker, which itself presupposes that with time, with reading slowly, and not in a quick and fast and even mechanical or technical manner, a manner exceeding the "organic" power dynamics many of these people representing Derrida would impose upon the university, a manner that reads only bits and pieces of essays, but perhaps lots of them, with a certain regularity, as much of the reading of Derrida is done today in America--this presupposes that if one does not read in all these ways, one then, necessarily, comprehends.)
This could be said to be an argument for the "academicization" or "institutionalization" of Derrida--something people might say is not quite in the spirit of what Derrida wished. But--and here is my point--that institutionalization has, with these representatives of Derrida, already occurred. Some, indeed, have profited enormously by making it seem as if they are rebels within the institution because they precisely occupy the position of a representative of Derrida--someone who supposedly resists institutionalization, discussion, teaching. The hypocrisy (which I would say is something other than irony) has already gone that far. I think the challenge has always been how to incorporate Derrida into an academic discourse when he already has been incorporated there--not how to use Derrida to undo this discourse. Indeed, this I think would be the only way to understand precisely how to undo the incorporation, to force the acts by which a thinking is appropriated by a discourse into a different way of operating.
In arguing this, I explicitly am resisting the tendency in philosophy departments to appropriate Derrida as if there were a certain undiscovered and fresh version of him, untainted by (chiefly) American literary criticism's decimation of his ideas. This would be a move that renders what was called deconstruction into a school of literary criticism that should properly be called deconstructivism: in short, it was a bad reception of Derrida that made what he advocated--deconstruction--into a parody of what it really was. Not only does this move presuppose that Derrida is at home more in a philosophical tradition (something that I don't necessarily deny), indeed more of a phenomenologist than a critic or something of the like, but it also assumes that we can simply erase the thinking done around Derrida in other fields than philosophy over the last few decades, even the fact that it was indeed done in these other fields. What is even more indicative that this view is wrongheaded is that it can easily become a view of some literary critics: all it amounts to is an effort to try and level the playing field all at once and without any responsibility. Thus, while it seems to be a version of what I'm talking about here, I think it is really a pragmatic (and I don't use this term in a flattering way) and ultimately nominalistic shortcut.
This view does recognize something important, however: deconstruction was thought about as a hermeneutic, another mode of interpreting the world. If anyone has read even the first few pages of Grammatology, for example, it would be clear to them that this gesture is absolutely not what Derrida was talking about. Thus, there needs to be a serious rethinking of what deconstruction is. I would say this is generally being realized especially in literature departments, as they try to rethink the last few decades and all of the discipline's twists and turns. But what is absolutely lost by the people who are quick to say what deconstruction isn't, and relegate certain ideas about Derrida to the realm of "deconstructivism" (and the person under discussion in the next few paragraphs is definitely one of these, even though she is seen as belonging to the field of literary criticism), is that though deconstruction isn't a hermeneutic, it is absolutely critical that it always risk becoming one. And this, I would argue, is why one can't simply dismiss the past few decades and the people who have indeed represented Derrida in this time.
Now, as I've hinted, all these points most definitely apply to Gayatri Spivak and her work on and with Derrida: the work is very accurate, done in order to elucidate Derrida, and has its faults, when it has them, mainly because it is trying to think alongside someone who also does not have everything together in his thought.
And yet, particularly with Spivak's work, this hesitancy I have is the most strong, and I feel most forcefully the need to oppose the mode of representation of Derrida that Spivak has cultivated over the years with this "academicization" or "institutionalization" of Derrida I spoke about. It should be noted that Spivak has indeed contributed to this, holding many classes on Derrida over the years. But I would say that "institutionalization" in the manner I spoke of it above was not the result of this effort. And I would claim that the reasons for this can be seen if one takes the class, but also, in a more generally accessable manner, if we look back at her "Translator's Preface" to Of Grammatology.
Now, it should be clear that this preface was written in he early 70's, and doesn't obviously represent her thinking about Derrida fully now (for something closer to this now, see her appendix to A Critique of Postcolonial Reason and many of the remarks on Derrida throughout that book). But indeed a corrected edition of Grammatology went out in 1997, and one wonders whether the remarks here couldn't have been changed or corrected as well. Because they don't seem to be changed in any highly significant way, one is invited to see the remarks as "still valid" to a certain extent. However, to exactly what extent they are doesn't really matter to me here. What is more important to me are the particular ways of phrasing certain aspects of what Derrida is trying to communicate that pepper this preface and that orient even certain changes in phrasing in the most recent work of Spivak (which nevertheless are pretty minimal in my opinion, but like I said this is a different matter). And all I wish to do here is articulate them and what they, together, seem to say about Derrida and how to approach him. Hopefully this will warn people to be hesitant about them in the manner I suggested above. Of course this doesn't mean they are necessarily "wrong:" but unless they are pointed out, currently we don't usually get a chance to think about whether their correctness (if they are correct) has some kind of flexibility to it, whether the approach these ways of putting things allow may be accomplished differently.
I'll try and be brief. Here, in my view, are the particular "tics" in the phrasing:

First, a particular progressivism that is quite dangerous: Spivak situates Derrida rightly alongside the efforts of Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger and structuralism--a gesture correct in and of itself, and indeed merely one that reduplicates the gesture of Derrida in his essay "Différance," as well as "Structure, Sign, and Play"--but in such a way that we range all these thinkers around the thinking of différance and "how far" they go in thinking it. Not only does this presuppose that Derrida thinks différance as such, something that in itself is impossible and that Derrida repeatedly says is impossible, but that all the other thinkers in this tradition are able to be yoked together like this around Derrida merely because of they are thinking something similar. In this act we can see the future of literary theory and its willingness to move from Bataille to Heidegger to Leibniz in the blink of an eye, without wondering what precisely allows these moves: a thinking that generally critiques mimesis presupposes almost always a certain resemblance between the content of the thought of (or at least the general orientation inhabited by) various thinkers. When Derrida ranges these thinkers around a thinking of différance, not only is he trying to outline how a thought seems to be similar to that of others and perhaps even be inherited from them (something that Spivak is trying to reconstitute) but he is is also referring to three main members of a philosophical discourse in France at that time. In fact, one could argue that he does more of this reference than constitute a genealogy: since he is referring specifically to his papers which think these thinkers individually and at length, the point is not that a thinking of différance has been more or less accomplished over the years by various people, but that the philosophical resources that France (or, more specifically, a specific set of French thinkers) in particular has at its disposal at the time (in the moment in which we are, Derrida says, and we cannot let this "'we'"--which is itself in quotes--become indeterminate, at the risk of missing its strategic constitution: "...I am starting, strategically, from the place and the time in which 'we' are...", Margins of Philosophy, 7) are precisely those that merit a thinking towards (if one can say this) différance. No doubt Derrida too succumbs to the desire to occasionally range thinkers along a certain line which led up to a thinking of différance--this was most the case (and to many people's outrage, Spivak among them) it seemed in Specters of Marx. But I would argue that this is mistaken and incompatible with most of what he says: when Derrida says particular thinkers are not yet accomplishing a deconstruction of metaphysics or what have you (most importantly, I think, when he says this of Heidegger), we must not interpret this to mean that these thinkers, as Spivak says of the structuralists, "have stopped short" in any way (Of Grammatology, corrected edition, lix). There is no stopping short, because there is no way for them to go further: elsewhere (in "The Supplement of Copula") Derrida critiques Benveniste for applying this quantitative measure to knowledge or thought (without totally transforming, a la Nietzsche or Freud, the idea of thought into something more commensurate with being quantitatively determined), a critique or a reprimand that could be directed towards Spivak as well and, as I suggest, even towards Derrida himself. Structuralists do not come up short of a thinking of différance or of anything that Derrida himself might think. Neither does Freud, Nietzsche, or Heidegger, even when Derrida himself says something crudely like the following: "This is perhaps what Nietzsche wanted to write..." (Of Grammatology, 143: all the emphasis must be put upon the "perhaps" here, which would suspend the timeline that one would construct). No one should follow Spivak's tendency to simply think of things in the following manner, even if she tries to cancel out what she says by putting it all under erasure (sous-rature) or in quotes: "Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger... All three proto-grammatologues... It was for Derrida to 'produce' their intrinsic power and 'discover' grammatology, the science of the 'sous rature'" (Of Grammatology, l). What is in question here is, again, a tic in the phrasing that betrays a whole orientation or possible orientation in approaching Derrida--one that we should be hesitant about.

Next, an overemphasis upon the phrase "desire for presence:" Derrida uses this phrase often, but unless one completely rethinks what the word "desire" means, it risks being used precisely as Spivak uses it: as an equivalent, however qualified, for "mere prejudice," something that could be dismissed, cured, done away with, even if this were to require an immense effort or purging. It is what precisely makes it seem to be a longing, a nostalgia, but in the colloquial and not, again, in a completely transformed way: "it is a longing for a center, an authorizing pressure, that spawns heirarchized oppositions" (lxix). This is too simple, and one can tell precisely by the use of the word "spawn:" this word, linked metaphorically to production in the sense of phusis, of reproduction, of growth, is inappropriate here because it is being applied to what has already grown or reproduced--what is spawned here has already been spawned by the time that Spivak says it is spawned. Indeed, this is what makes it an opposition in the first place. Regardless, the point is that the desire for presence is not a desire in the sense of a baseless prejudice: it is, as Derrida particularly in Of Grammatology ceaselessly emphasizes and chiefly is attempting to articulate (this is the entire purpose of the second essay on Rousseau), a logic. This desire is logic itself. And it is only in this sense that it is baseless: this desire is logic itself as a baseless prejudice. And unless this thought is, logically, impossible, one hasn't conceived of what is meant by the word "desire" with enough rigor. At issue is the transit between the colloquial sense of "desire" and a desire that would be this impossibility of logic (in all the senses of this phrase, with the emphasis on the double genitive). Spivak moves too quickly between them, precisely because she is trying to find out a way to signify what Derrida is getting at--alongside Derrida who also is trying to find a way to signify what he is getting at. But in "Structure, Sign, and Play," for example, where this language of nostalgia gets its most thorough use (besides Grammatology), we find it very thoroughly qualified. To use it as often as Spivak does makes it seem, again, as if various thinkers' desire for presence were something that could be used to arrange them along a line leading up to Derrida, who, as she says, "seems to show no nostalgia for a lost presence" (xvi). The simplicity of the thinking here becomes explicit, precisely in the word "show:" by what standard of visibility is Derrida being judged alongside these other philosophers? It would seem to have to be a standard that relied upon a particular visible--that is, verifiable, commonly held, colloquial--understanding of desire and nostalgia, deriving from an idea of want, of lack, of need: not one that has a logic, or is simply logic itself.

Next, a pragmatist interpretation of Derridian ethics: this last point obviously indicates that any thought of a transformation somehow brought about by a deconstruction would have a quality too close to a production (in the colloquial sense of this word too), or something like a dispelling of an illusion. Underlying this is an idea of what deconstruction gives us. Spivak is uncomfortable, it seems, with this notion: it seems to be, as Stanley Fish recently concluded, nothing at all. The question is elaborated along the lines (or line) of filiation that we have already questioned: what makes Derrida different from Nietzsche, after all? We see here the internal inconsistency of Spivak's argument, even if she is attempting to try and follow Derrida in making it: of course if you situate Derrida alongside Freud, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, and interpret them proleptically as proto-thinkers of deconstruction, one will have to come back to the telos one has established (Derrida, only real, authentic thinker of deconstruction) and see if one can squeeze out of the circle that one has thus made for oneself. Spivak doesn't really seem to make it out, either. But again, it is also a matter of what deconstruction gives us that a general, and sometimes devastating, critique of metaphysics--of the manner of Freud, Nietzsche, or Heidegger--doesn't. It is, once again, a questioning of what differentiates deconstruction from destruction or disassembling or desedimentation. Here is Spivak's answer: "Perhaps the entire argument" (and the whole purpose of my discussion here is to question whether the indeterminacy here in the word "argument" is, at bottom, only a matter of one person trying to represent and speak for another: it is not clear whether "the entire argument" regarding how Derrida moves past a critique of metaphysics and into deconstruction of it, is Spivak's or Derrida's, and Spivak, it seems, would keep having this slippage work, simply because it obviously works in her favor, allows her to represent with a bit more authority)-- "perhaps the entire argument hangs on who knew how much of what he was doing. The will to knowledge is not easy to discard. When Derrida claims for himself that he is within yet without the clôture of metaphysics, is the difference not precisely that he knows it at least?" (xxxviii). At issue here is not whether one is in or out of metaphysics. It is how Derrida knows he is on the border between them--a border that cannot be crossed without coming back, without being rebounded back into metaphysics--where Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger, who were on this same border constantly, did not know it. Now this word "know" is seriously qualified by Spivak. But it becomes clear later that, again, what is meant is "simply a matter of attitude" (lxxiv): "Simply to recognize that one is shaped by differance, to recognize that the 'self' is constituted by its never-fully-to-be-recognized-ness, is enough" (xliv). This is, according to Spivak, what Freud taught Derrida, against Nietzsche: Nietzsche would have us somehow take over différance and use it against metaphysics, when Freud realizes that it is being used all the time. But the phrase comes to have a bit of an authority of its own throughout the text of Spivak here: what it says seems to govern precisely what makes deconstruction different from destruction, or a critique. In other words, it is precisely what makes, on the one hand, deconstruction different than something violent and extremely active, something with a very visible effect upon metaphysics, and, on the other hand, something that is not too passive, something that, in its very slow and delicate work with texts, combined with its insistence upon impossibility and the unconditional, merely looks like a change in point of view, a very weak passivity with little or nothing to actually do to metaphysics. Now, what is in question here, for me, is not whether this is a wrong characterization of deconstruction: I think this balance between passivity and activity is precisely what is at stake in it. What is wrong is the idea that the balance is achieved precisely through a recognition that is unlike that of Nietzsche or Freud or Heidegger: as if, presented with the various theses of Derrida (which were, no doubt, precisely what Nietzsche, Freud, or Heidegger, would have said, were really trying to get at all along), they would balk at them, reject them outright, whereas Derrida, without nostalgia for presence, accepts them wholeheartedly. For what is at issue is the fact that, indeed, deconstruction doesn't do much. It in fact shouldn't do anything: it is precisely the broaching of a limit that rebounds one back to where one was, a stepping forward that steps back, a mere opening up of what can be perceived to alterity, and alterity that is different than any perceivable alteity. It is simply the response to the coming of the infinitely other, a response which precisely allows this other to come. As such, it has nothing to say: all that occurs if something is deconstructed (if that is possible) is the opening up of a possibility. Now, Spivak knows this, but she characterizes it precisely as an act, as a recognition, as something that is not, as an act, impossible--is not an opening up of the possible precisely by impossibility. Instead of stressing the impossible, she stresses the possible: but because she in fact almost gets rid of the impossible in the same gesture, the action of deconstruction seems to look like it is actually possible when, in fact, it is doomed from the start. In the face of being doomed, in short, she removes its oppressiveness. And because this oppressiveness is remove, she can say that Derrida has somehow acquiesced to something Nietzsche, Freud, or Heidegger, didn't see or want: it was too impossible a thought for them, when, for Derrida, it is precisely possible. Thus we get odd sentences that Derrida seems to be "more effectively" questioning metaphysics, as if the difference were something that Derrida could actually do, recognize, take over or accept (l). We suddenly get the notion that everything is about acceptance--pop psychology at its worst. And what this betrays is, to return to the topic or tic at hand here, a fatalistic pragmatism: faced with the fact that deconstruction is all about calculating the incalculable or the impossible, of redoubling one's efforts to try and force the breakdown of one's own actions, that it is, in a way, all about making one's possibilities into impossibilities, Spivak tries to make it seem as if what we should do is simply face up to the fact that all our possibilities are impossible. As if facing up to the fact was a possibility. As if, that is, we should only (although this is not an "only" for Spivak in the sense of "merely") approximate as best we can a deconstruction that, of course, we can't be sure will happen. Now, this isn't questionable in fact: an approximation is, according to Derrida, how things will usually end up, as we can't indeed be sure an act will indeed open up alterity. But this is most definitely false in principle--and yet this is what deconstruction is all about for Spivak; this is what it gives us: the "should" in the sentences above. In other words, for her, deconstruction is all about trying to face up to something that one has some vague sense is right, but ultimately one can't get to unless one tries to approximate it as best one can. And it isn't that this is totally off the mark: it is just the idea of approximation, which seems to guide most of her political thinking (try and construct a politics that will approximate, as best as possible, what is impossible or totally transformative), is fatalistic: one thinks one sees the ends of all one's actions before one carries them out. This, I would say, is not necessarily what Derrida is getting at: it is a sort of pragmatism that feels good about making compromises if what is achieved is somewhere around the ideal. Ultimately, it makes deconstruction sound something like a regulative idea, except without any of the rigor that Kant gave this notion (Derrida, furthermore, himself critiques the regulative idea in Rogues). For Derrida, even this approximation, this compromising, would already be impossible, or only possible, that is, by virtue of an impossibility. And this impossibility is not something that one could be fatalistic in front of: one takes a stand on it, or is marked by it, even before one could possibly resign oneself to it and hope for something approximately near it.

Next, an interpretation of alterity that reduces its infinitude: in short, this is the interpretation of alterity that sees it as abyssal but doesn't know how to articulate it. This interpretation then, precisely to try and articulate it, then makes it into something total or homogenous, when, for Derrida, alterity is a sort of iterability, a sort of repetition of the other within the other to carry the other beyond the other. This point has much to do with the last--simply because opening up oneself to the other qua infinite alterity is the impossibility I spoke of--and, as I spent a lot of time with that, and have the hardest time articulating it (for I think it goes to the deepest foundations of Spivak's interpretation of Derrida), I won't say much more. The point, however, is that when one talks of the "totally other," what one designates by alterity already is itself becoming other. This, I think, is not emphasized enough by Spivak throughout the preface: it is what leads her to talk about the text as if it were "made up" of traces. For what is at stake here is an interpretation of the trace and its relationship to différance. Unless one reifies différance, the only way one can conceive of it is as a trace. Différance itself is a trace (if one can say this). Thus, nothing gets "made up" of the trace: like différance, whatever leaves traces or is "made up" of them would itself be a trace. So when Spivak explains a signifier, for example, and its relation to alterity, and does so by saying that it is already inhabited by the trace of alterity--well, alterity itself here is already a trace "itself:" alterity is not something that is related to, except when "relation" is conceived as an opening onto infinite repetition, to an alterity that is already different than the alterity that one relates to. Something similar can be seen to be at work in the following, which talks about how to read in a Derridian way:

If a metaphor seems to suppress its implications, we shall catch at that metaphor. We shall follow its adventures through the text and see the text coming undone as a structure of concealment, revealing its self-transgression, its undecidability. It must be emphasized that I am not speaking simply of locating a moment of ambiguity or irony ultimately incorporated into the text's system of unified meaning but rather a moment that genuinely threatens to collapse that system (lxxv).

It is clear that Spivak is, indeed, talking about locating a moment of ambiguity here, all her qualifications aside. For what is at stake is only a vague notion of how that moment of ambiguity is indeed "genuinely" threatening the system. She cannot, at this moment, specify what makes it genuine precisely because she does not have a concept of alterity that is clearly more other than merely, totally, and ultimately just genuinely other. The alterity that one opens up in the text at this moment is therefore homogenous: even though it seems to be more than just other, it is still too determinable because it is not infinitely recursive, or en abyme, as Derrida often likes to say. No doubt it is not this because--and here is where the pragmatism comes in again--one would not be able to see how the text always "seems to suppress its implications:" it goes without saying that it is not localizable in a crude way (one cannot pick at a point in a text that one sees is infinitely other) but one cannot suspect it either, catch at what seems to suppress its implications, without running into impossibility already, as soon as one thinks one sees something seeming a certain way. This is what it means for a moment of alterity in the text to be totally other: one precisely cannot be pragmatic in the face of it and somehow try and recognize it, try and approximate it, working with hunches or what seems to be the case, if only because the point is that one is always only working this way, even when one thinks one knows something clearly. Indeed, this approximation will have to be the result of the action, but that does not mean it should be the action's aim: for Spivak, this is the case, and this is why her ethics and politics is so strange. It confuses cause and effect and then calls them by a different name.

Finally, an idea that Derrida is always playing, in Of Grammatology in particular: Of Grammatology is a pretty straightforward text. We would not be mistaken to regard it as Spivak does, that is, as a text that, "denying the uniqueness of words, their substantiality, their transferability, their repeatability... denies the possibility of translation" (lxxxvi). That is, as a text that not only denies translation in its theses, but also, as she effectively goes on to say, in its form, its exposition: "each twist of phrase becomes at the same time 'significant' and playful when language is manipulated for the purpose of putting signification into question" (lxxxvi). The implication here is that this is happening in the book she is translating, De la Grammatologie. But I would say that this play is not as pronounced as it is in something like Glas, and that this should have been recognized by Spivak more at length, rather than resisted (as it had to be) by playing up the play sometimes at work in Of Grammatology. Why? Simply because the difference between these two texts (Glas and Grammatology) is indeed a difference. One can change this difference, defer it, but why would one do this in the direction of trying to establish, yet again, a filiation between them? Why this way and not the other? Grammatology is a lot more like the book on Husserl: it presents its arguments in a pretty straightforward manner, trying to adjust the philosophical discourse which it uses to deal with its problem, which lies, perhaps, beyond this discourse. When it transgresses this discourse, if it does, it does not do so in the same manner as Glas: or at least the similarity is not of the type that a mere emphasis upon "play" in the abstract, as Spivak seems to be bringing about, would produce. One could call the text more "philosophical," but I think this is too simple. No doubt Spivak was aware of this problem, but I think she opted for the more exciting solution: that here was a person who was not just presenting an argument, but changing the way arguments are made. But this is, again, too pragmatic: it is making Derrida's work, when it transgresses philosophy, precisely into another way to do philosophy. The significant thought should be, rather, the opposite: that one can bring about, somehow, with a seemingly philosophical, rational, calculated discourse, something that renders this discourse other. Thus we get a fetishization of play in the abstract (which is ultimately more empirical, more determinate, more perceivable: play is determined as play upon words--again we see the reduction of alterity at work) at the expense of the real play that is going on: the transgression of words by writing.

I hope that the overall picture Spivak gives us of Derrida has, through these various points, become clear. One could also emphasize that this Derrida is made into someone easy to defend: Spivak becomes one of the first in English to get on the side of her Derrida against certain others by calling them violent or "virulent" (lxi). She does this with Foucault, but also with Heidegger here in this introduction, who is dismissed too quickly--indeed, Derrida's ties to Heidegger are, though not of the order of an explicit inheritance, much more close than Derridians (and perhaps Derrida himself, though he is often good at marking this) would like to think. It is in the discussion of Foucault especially that the tone and manner of defense comes through: it is a certain self-righteousness that comes with the close reading of texts: precisely what Foucault, in the section that Spivak quotes in order to condemn him, tries to get at:

Today Derrida is the most decisive representative of a [classical] system in its final glory... It is a historically sufficiently determined little pedagogy which manifests itself most visibly. A pedagogy that tells the pupul that there is nothing outside of the text, but that within it, in its interstices, in its white paces and unspokennesses, the reserve of the origin reigns... A pedagogy that conversely gives to the voice of the teacher that unlimited sovereignty which permits them to read the text indefinitely (from the History of Madness, qtd. in lxi-lxii).

Spivak says that this should "give you a taste of the hostility towards the threat of the 'sous rature,'" (lxi) but in the end, it seems merely to give us an idea of what Spivak herself seems to be doing in quoting this: glorying in the fact that Foucault has not read Derrida closely enough, spent enough time with him, or realized that, indeed, texts are to be read in minute careful ways, in white spaces and unspokennesses, and indefinitely. Now, it must be asserted that Foucault is not exactly on the mark here when he says Derrida is authorizing the indefinite reading of texts--and Spivak herself in effect (I have to say this because she has thought it self-evident enough and so doesn't explicitly say) does indeed assert this. But we say that she indeed glories in the fact that Derrida is someone who authorizes unending reading because, in her efforts to correct Foucault, together with all the various tics that I've outlined above, she seems to be saying: so what if we do get to read indefinitely? Isn't that rigorous? Isn't that more rigorous than what you are doing? In short, Derrida is, for Spivak, an interpreter: if you haven't read like him, approximately, you are probably (like Foucault) not reading close enough or long and hard enough. To deny this, moreover, is hostility. This is virulence. It is, indeed, violence. It is what it would be not to read. You, you who oppose my Derrida, whenever you oppose my Derrida, do not read--if you read, you would not oppose him. A not unjustified claim in some cases (maybe even this one), but one that seems to try and be extraordinary and spectacular--not to say logically unfounded and universalist--precisely to cover up how everything in this idea of Derrida needs to be reversed: what Derrida perhaps accomplishes is not interpretation, is not close reading, is, as I have argued before, precisely something more like distant reading--if one can even still call it reading in the sense in which Spivak understands it. What is being consolidated here is precisely a dynamic of power of the type I am talking about (Spivak is on the side of Derrida, which means, somehow, she is in the position of being able to be on the side of him, which means she is representing him), and it is happening in the place of a justification why we should accept that dynamic or even why it is, here, necessary to establish. Violence and virulence in the abstract will always be put in service--in this type of defense that I am talking about--to cover this up, and, moreover, to try and appropriate Derrida against someone else--which reduces what Derrida advocates into something able to be appropriated (which by definition it isn't).
What is ultimately the goal of provoking, with all the remarks above, this hesitancy that I keep talking about? Trying to free Derrida from a certain dynamic, a certain filiation to a set of interpreters. The result would risk "academicization," but the point is to make Derrida approachable, to prepare people to enter into a thinking alongside him, if that's possible. This may indeed risk having too much faith in the possibility of discussion, but as it is I think the situation is horrible: people are mostly reading Derrida by themselves, becoming confused, and have no where to turn. When they encounter others, they simply assert that "that was not what Derrida was trying to get at:" the atmosphere becomes combative. This is why a certain hesitancy with respect to the "Translator's Preface" is necessary, I think: we currently are discussing Derrida less than reading him, and this preface here--in its scope and its ambition, as well as its renown, not to mention the mere fact that it is there right in front of the book, so we turn to it first when we turn to our Derrida in our self-righteous solitude and silence--has a particularly privileged position, even now. For many, it remains one of the main things that orients their approach to Derrida--if not in their view of him, in the way that this approach has taken place. This is not something that we should get rid of or expunge. It is simply something we should discuss more, out in the open, with less at stake in the particular handling of a proper name, despite the radical nature of the texts it is written under.

Note: This risk of "academicization" is precisely that--a risk. It should be recognized that Derrida's writings still challenge precisely that acadmicization. Unless we remember this, and read him accordingly, we will be erasing precisely that call not to erase the possibility of a discourse other than that from which we speak. It should be especially remembered that what Derrida says is indeed non-philosophy: attempts to seize him and place him under the banner of a particular department (as we have already seen with literature in the U.S.) must fail, especially when he is being appropriated by philosophy (along similar lines, it is also problematic for the French even begin to claim him as French, as they seem poised to do). However, we should also remember that Derrida is not simply non-philosophy: he does not share a relationship to philosophy which is that of simple opposition. But Derrida is not a philosopher, just as much as he is not a literary critic.
One more remark, which I perhaps should have been more clear about all throughout the above: I should note that several of these tendencies in Spivak are tendencies of Derrida as well. Thus in Positions, for example, he describes a "theoretical regression" (65), which seems too linear a view of the history of thought--exactly in the manner of Spivak that I hinted at. Helpfully, it is usually Spivak who points this out, especially in her work in the late 80's and throughout the 90's.

Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, depth, and the body, almost almost concluded

I forgot how long this essay was... I ended last time with the idea that, for Derrida, what we see in a drawing always prompts us to redraw what we see. This means that what we don't see (what is not visible) does not disappear from our vision and become merely the negation of visibility, but--and this thesis is surprisingly like that of Freud's in his "Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad,"--rather is simply replaced by something that we see again. In short, the withdrawal that made a line a presence, a depth, a phenomenon in the most technical sense of the term, for Derrida is not itself indifferent to its own activity but leaves a trace, a trace that itself takes over and supplants the phenomenality of this presence (this has the effect of rendering the phenomenon that would have appeared a trace as well). I asked, then, whether this means "that Derrida seems to have a radically different idea of the visible than Merleau-Ponty? " Here we begin to find out, but first we need recall Merleau-Ponty and him a little further:

But does this mean, then, that Derrida seems to have a radically different idea of the visible than Merleau-Ponty? As soon as I see, Merleau-Ponty said,

it is necessary that the vision (as is so well indicated by the double meaning of the word) be doubled with a complementary vision or with another vision: myself seen from without, such as another would see me, installed in the midst of the visible, occupied in considering it from a certain spot (VI, 134).

This, we said, indicated that vision itself was visible, that vision would intertwine itself into the visible just as much as the visible intertwined itself into vision (in depth, for example)—indeed, we can suppose that this is the meaning of that word “intertwine.” But we do not yet know how this intertwining of the former would be possible by virtue of the powers of vision itself. Vision would have to view itself, it would have to see itself seeing. This is the “enigma,” as Merleau-Ponty said earlier, and he solves it not by saying that the vision gains an added force that would allow it to blast itself outside of itself merely by becoming more intense, but by saying that vision itself supposes an invisibility dispersed throughout the flesh that allows this intertwining to be possible, that allows heightening vision to supersede or comprehend itself above and outside itself by dissolving into what is not itself.
This invisible would hold together vision and the visible underneath the flesh that we thought united vision and visible sufficiently (and does, except for this one crucial instance), remaining just that extra element which allowed the former to flip into the latter. In short, it would be the opposite of what Merleau-Ponty saw in birth, and we already see in characterizing it that way that it would therefore have to be one of the oddest and least natural (and therefore most technical) moments in bodily experience (supposing that birth is the most natural for Merleau-Ponty—most certainly a questionable presupposition). Merleau-Ponty therefore turns to the phenomena of the “double touch,” that Husserl (to take only one person who describes this phenomenon, but whose account of it is of course always within Merleau-Ponty’s mind) observed at length in the second book of his Ideas:

Touching my left hand, I have touch-appearances, that is to say, I do not just sense, but I perceive and have appearances of a soft, smooth hand, with such a form. The indicational sensations of movement and the representational senses of touch, which are Objectified [Merleau-Ponty would say, made visible] as features of the thing, “left hand,” belong in fact to my right hand. But when I touch the left hand I also find in it, too, series of touch sensations, which are “localized,” in it, though these are not constitutive of properties (such as roughness or smoothness of the hand, of this physical thing). If I speak of the physical [i.e. visible] thing, “left hand,” then I am abstracting from these sensations (a ball of lead is nothing like them and likewise for every “merely” physical thing, every thing that is not my Body). If I do include them, then it is not that the physical thing is now richer [i.e. more visible, by becoming more intense, as we said above], but instead it becomes Body, it senses [i.e. becomes the vision in the body]… The hand that is touching [i.e. the right], which for its part again appears as a thing, likewise has its touch sensations at the place on its corporeal surface… (Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book. Tr. Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer. Collected Works, III. London: Kluwer, 1989. p. 152-3, §36. In On Touching Derrida meticulously reconstitutes the logic of this movement between the visible and the tactile constantly at work in Merleau-Ponty that we—for the sake of convenience, but inexcusably—are reduplicating here. Suffice it to say that the movement is not so easy: one either posits, in accomplishing it, a) a synesthetic experience between not just these two senses but also all of them or b) an anesthetic experience that would allow the two senses to communicate (but again, also all of them) though their suspension. See his “Tangents” II and III, OT, 159-215.)

Upon reading this description, we understand, now, that this inclusion or exclusion of the localized touch sensations is where intertwining would occur: it is where the body becomes, in its vision, visible, and at the time where the body becomes, in its being visible, vision. The leap is accomplished from one to the other and back again, based on the perspective that we assume towards it. Furthermore, this perspective—this stance towards my own touching or vision—is only accomplished via the body’s motility, its movement through the visible as vision and vice versa. Thus we can finally understand that sentence which begins Merleau-Ponty’s reflection on painting: “that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.” Furthermore, we can understand fully how the painter lends himself to the visible: he looks at the world as if the world itself, the things in it, were looking back at him as if they were not just potentially seeing, but actively seeing, bodies—which, as we know, they already are. Merleau-Ponty says this all explicitly in a concise formulation: “inevitably the roles between him and the visible are reversed. That is why so many painters have said that things look at them.” This is what is meant by that point of view within the visible that would be “myself seen from without, such as another would see me:” one hand in a sense sees another as if it were foreign to it, precisely when it is able to also intertwine itself with the experience of sensing itself (as a system of two hands). It is in the reversing of the sensing and the sensed here between the hands that the intertwining is lodged.
But if this is the case, we now also know that it is in this reversing that something more than visible comes in. For in this flip between the vision and the visible, what sustains the identity of the body? We can understand, because of something like birth, how the visible might come to attain vision (though even this is just as problematic when we begin to think about that point at which one turns into the other). But it is absolutely unclear how the dispersal of a view outside of itself can retain the same power of vision, without some structure that would keep these two visions together: if we really think about it, how could any point among things really lend itself to a view “such as another would see me” while still remaining oneself? Merleau-Ponty helpfully points us to the case of the two eyes (which Husserl broached also in Ideas II): their overlapping of view, however, seems less natural. Merleau-Ponty, however, tries to inscribe it back into the bodily precisely as a structure that would merely be its non-technical extension, though of a radically different element than it: how is he able to do this?
He is able to accomplish this by conceiving of the reversing as precisely reversibility—as an ideal potential or structure that subtends the intertwining or always remains immanent with respect to it:

We spoke summarily of a reversibility of the seeing [or vision] and the visible, of the touching and the touched. It is time to emphasize that it is a reversibility always imminent and never realized in fact. My left hand [Merleau-Ponty switches the hands with respect to Husserl’s description] is always on the verge of touching my right hand touching… but I never reach coincidence; the coincidence eclipses at the moment of realization, and one of two things always occurs: either my right hand really passes over to the rank of touched, but then its hold on the world is interrupted; or it retains its hold on the world, but then I do not really touch it—my right hand touching, I palpate with my left hand only its outer covering… I am always on the same side of my body; it presents itself to me in one invariable perspective. But this incessant escaping, this impotency to superpose exactly upon one another… this is not a failure (VI, 147-8, emphasis added).

Because I can never actually witness the moment when vision is changed into the visible, this change or intertwining takes place. Though the logic may sound dubious at first, phenomenologically the description is exact. The question then becomes whether we can map on this phenomenon of the lack of coincidence of vision in the visible, its eclipse, with that of the reversibility beyond it that makes it possible. Obviously, we cannot: the reversibility itself is, properly speaking, a non-phenomenon, an ideal, only immanent and never realized in fact. This is why Merleau-Ponty calls it the invisible.
But how can one then be sure that this invisible reversibility of the flesh actually makes vision view itself? Merleau-Ponty attempts to think it as rigorously as possible so that it can get installed not just anywhere apart from the visible—in the realm of the transcendental, in a space that could be known without the visible—but right upon the back of the visible, such that it becomes “its lining” (VI, 149). In other words, Merleau-Ponty tries to think of how the invisible sustain the flesh such that, if the flesh were removed in order to grasp this invisible more clearly (even in our thought about it), “it is then that [it] would be inaccessible to us” (VI, 150). In doing so, he outlines two types of invisibility: precisely those that Derrida quotes in Memoirs of the Blind and then transfers to The Gift of Death. They appear most schematically in Merleau-Ponty’s working notes, though we could specify many places in his oeuvre where either one or the other sense is being used (indeed each time we have tried to talk about intertwining and even before about some aspects of the motile body, there in Merleau-Ponty one or another sense is present—thus our lengthy reconstitution of its logic). Of course they will be what we have already seen specified in The Gift of Death: the “visible in-visible” and the “absolutely invisible.”

(To be concluded...)