Monday, August 25, 2008

The mechanical hermeneut attacks!, part 1.5

This second post (or, rather, this bridge to the second post), as promised will discuss Ricoeur. But this does not mean it will not have a relation to the first. I ended this first post with an idea: instead of tracing the way recourse to the figure or concept of the machine is achieved throughout history (i.e. its genesis), focusing upon the strategic aspect of this recourse (i.e. its structure) could give us something of importance when considering Derrida and his reading.
As I tried to indicate, this strategy is in play in what I said in the last post:

we must so thoroughly understand close reading as contradictory if it is not also mechanical or cursory reading, that we understand how we contradict ourselves if we are not also understanding, conversely, that this machine itself produces rigor.

Before looking at the moment where the strategy itself is operative here, I should recall what I mean. I mean simply that in thinking about Derrida we have to understand recourse to the figure of the reading machine is, at some point, occasioned by the fact that only this recourse is what gives us both reading and the machine as we already know them. In other words, I mean to say that reading, even as we think of it proceeding naturally, is already mechanical; and yet that the machine is what at some point escapes its mechanicity and reads. (For ease, I'll subsequently refer to the whole of we have to understand here as the reading machine.)
Now, if this is clear, we can see that the strategic aspect of my approach to Derrida appears in this sentence as what takes all this and inflects it in a particular direction. It is clear that this element is the particular usage of "must." For while what I am getting at is the sort of interdependence of our seeing how reading can be accomplished like a machine and our seeing how reading is what happens when the machine breaks down or exceeds its being a machine--while this interdependence exists in understanding the reading machine, what the word "must" in the quote does is to establish the priority of seeing reading become mechanical (i.e. hypothesizing a machine that reads) over that of seeing the machine exceed itself (i.e. hypothesize how the machine breaks down). In short, the strategy lies in how we must understand reading in (or as) a machine, in order to understand the machine in (or as) reading.
In the last post I justified this priority--and thus this strategy itself--on the grounds that it emphasized a particular resistance of Derrida to pragmatism: doing things this way hit home that there was a history (the genesis of the concept of the machine which we referred to above) which a certain way of looking at the problem of the reading machine and Derrida in general would have to deal with before it could even think about this problem being overcome. That is, this strategy opens up to a history, and resists pragmatism because it does not simply try to deal with (in order to dispense with, conquer, or generally appropriate) what it has discovered (that reading should be seen as a reading machine). And what this history only further hits home is that any "overcoming" is impossible here: the attempt to try and anticipate how to think the reading machine (including being resigned to its resistance to being anticipated--i.e. fatalism) cannot be actually engaged in or even begun. The anticipation of it has to simply occur.
Now, there is a resistance to pragmatism here, but of course it does not escape being merely pragmatic on some level--if only because it too (even if not fatalistic) would constitute some anticipation of the reading machine and its problems (the quotation I made last time from page 84 of Grammatology goes on to confirm this). This means that the priority we have established is at some level more arbitrary (or--what is more accurate--prejudiced) than genuinely strategic.
But there is a better justification, one which I have employed more often recently and that I wanted to elaborate upon precisely because it is not as arbitrary. Or, perhaps, it is slightly more hospitable. I have said that conceiving of Derrida first as the thinker of the machine that reads (rather than the converse), even if it perhaps fetishizes the technical and mechanical a bit, resists thinking of him as a practitioner of a hermeneutics of suspicion. In other words, reading like Derrida with this conception in mind would resist becoming this suspicious hermeneutics. If this were the case, the arbitrariness would become more developed or refined (at least) as the particular resistance offered would indeed be mechanical: it would not issue from the simple essentiality of the mechanical in contradistinction from the natural (as might be assumed in my first justification), but issue from some complex way that the mechanical functions as a figure in the context of our hermeneutics and elsewhere. The strategy would be closer to justification (and hospitality) because it would bring itself within proximity to the only real justification of strategy: to lack any justification except carrying itself across a distance or difference between its own situation and into a situation where strategy in general must be rethought.
But, before we can conclude this, we are left with two questions regarding aspects of this second conception of Derrida. First, what is a hermeneutics of suspicion? Second, is the point where reading is understood as mechanical that very point where one can resist a hermeneutics of suspicion?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why Derrida? Why Grammatology?

I've been rereading Grammatology over this summer and it's left me with some need to revisit 1) why Derrida has interested me, and 2) why Of Grammatology has interested critics in the US.
If you'll permit the first autobiographical reflection, let me begin by saying I never really understood what he was saying until about a year ago, and I only did so because I just kept reading as much of him as I could. So the question really is why I continued to read him when I didn't really understand what he was getting at?
I was introduced to him in a class on theory--like many students, I think. I was initially very resistant to things that he was saying, being more Kantian and Hegelian in spirit, and more interested  generally in philosophy of mind. But what turned me on about him was spending a lot of time with a few essays of his--and writing papers on them. What was so great was that he was extremely rewarding if you read him closely and tried to piece together what he was saying. Some might call this his "play on words" or whatever, but what was really interesting to me was the high rationalism at work in the construction of his sentences: like any good novel, you can really get a lot by working through them. This made me less resistant.
As I took more and more classes in philosophy, which I was pursuing at the same time, I began to see that this sentence-level aspect of the way Derrida wrote was neat, but ultimately less interesting to me than the way he worked with the philosophical tradition. As I personally became more interested in phenomenology as I was pursuing philosophy of mind, I found he plugged himself quite thoroughly into that sphere. But this did not make me reduce him to this tradition--as some are too quick to do. I gathered that there was a particular intellectual field that was very diverse and yet very coherent that was orienting his discourse, of which phenomenology was a major part. And I began to piece this field together. In short, the tradition of French philosophy from Canguilhem on became an interest to me.
But at the same time, I just kept reading Derrida. And what was interesting to me then was his way of reconstructing other works: in short, I found that Derrida was actually an amazing teacher in his written work. He would have to reconstruct the entire logic of a discourse, and what this produced was actually a really neat way of introduction into a particular way of thinking about whatever he was talking about. Most might presume that the reconstruction would have to be skewed or distorted, but usually Derrida is also reconstructing how the field he is working in is thinking about the particular issues. Side comments and little aphoristic remarks are what allow you to grasp this. Indeed, they are unintelligible, but what was striking to me was not that they are unintelligible because they play with words or whatever: they are unintelligible in their content, because they presuppose an entire set of arguments and indeed a point of view in looking at whatever text you are considering. In short, I liked his patience--not because it produced rigor, but because it was symptomatic of that field in which he worked. A good example of what I mean is his discussion of Freud and the mystic writing pad in Writing and Difference. There he tackles Freud's 1895 Project for a Scientific Psychology, which many people in France were rediscovering at the time. He reconstructs the logic of this Project, and in doing so allows you to see what people are talking about then. But at the same time, he gives you a take on it--and all of this happens before he really begins to fiddle with what is going on. These little reconstructions and set ups--the way he poses the problems, were really neat to me, and what kept me going even though I didn't understand where the hell he was going with them.
Thus, a lot of emphasis upon the key words Derrida gives critical theory (trace, etc.) was completely lost for me, and mostly willingly--this was a healthy sort of ascesis that actually helped me not to use much of what Derrida said in my work on literature. It also kept me from immediately using him in my work in philosophy: my concern with Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty and others seemed to have its own impetus. And yet, as this reconstruction of mine makes clear, one can see that both these interests--in literature and philosophy--often take their cue from Derrida, or orient themselves around trying to figure out what he was about. At a certain time, then, it all started to pay off in the form of more and more interconnections, and I really got a sense of where he was coming from--in other words, the field was reconstructed. What was made clear, however, was that Derrida was more at home as a thinker within the tradition of philosophy than in critical theory and the study of literature--I found most people who talked about him there were really too far away from the study of literature at the same time as they were horrible at philosophy. However, his spirit was more within these other spheres, precisely because they addressed questions (gender, for example) that were escaping philosophy (although I know now that in certain spheres--like ethics--they weren't and aren't).
If I had to do it all over again, I think a quicker way of understanding him would be just to go to France and work in their philosophy departments. But I don't like the way they work as much as the Americans, as odd as we are, and so I think I would have lost a lot. Quicker wouldn't necessarily be better, I guess.
But all this brings me back to Grammatology--my second point. I read this first, I think, after some of the short essays that first introduced me to Derrida. And reading it then, sort of passively looking for those points of orientation I spoke about above rather than for the definitions of things like trace and differance, on the one hand, or the overall argument, on the other--reading it then and in this way was something that actually made the book much more coherent to me, I find.
Reading it now, the thing seems pretty crazy. Huge, sprawling, disconnected, extremely radical, the work is much less clear about the key concepts of differance and trace than Speech and Phenomena, and at the same time is so massive in its force and its demands upon thinking generally that it isn't clear where its argument most hits at other than the entire philosophical tradition--something that is done more economically, I think, in Dissemination and certain essays in Margins of Philosophy (e.g. "The Pit and the Pyramid," "Ousia and Grammê," or "The Ends of Man"--take your pick). So it isn't clear to me why people turned to it and still turn to it to understand Derrida.
And yet, I somewhat understand it if I focus on the analysis of Rousseau, which is quite simply just brilliant. However, this is so massive and, again, sprawling, that I don't know if it has the same effect now as it would when it first came out--that is, when there was a certain consolidated understanding of Rousseau as, well, merely contradictory (not focused upon and determined by something like a supplement). Better now to tell someone to pick up Speech and Phenomena, again if they want to begin to see what Derrida is about. In other words, Grammatology is all about extending to the utmost what is accomplished in the analysis of Husserl, because it actually grasps the hugeness of the consequences of that analysis in Speech and Phenomena.
What are these consequences? Simply put, that a phenomenology of text would be impossible. And, in fact, more than impossible: it would require, if one did not just back down in front of it, a total revolution of phenomenology, where the concern with essence upon which it is founded has to be completely evacuated. Phenomenology would have to proceed without phenomenology, then. Text becomes a privileged phenomenon, then, within the tradition, because it disrupts it completely, as well (and here is where Rousseau comes in) as anywhere there is a concern with essence.
In a way, though, you need to understand the basic thesis before you can grasp these consequences extended throughout Rousseau and (in the beginning of the book) Levi-Strauss. And--here is what I really think--the first part of the book does not totally introduce you to them as clearly as other parts of Derrida, notably Speech and Phenomena.
That said, it is clear that what really is great about this book is how you see the "method" of analysis take shape--and I think this is why it was and is so popular as a sort of introduction or primer. What is also remarkable is the repetitiveness of the analysis: like Dissemination, what we get is a focus upon the logic of the supplement at every moment it seems to come up in the discourse. And yet, unlike Dissemination, we get more of a setup that inserts this work of focusing within the current discourse: the long discussion of the economy of pity, etc. with Starobinski et. al. is very odd, actually, because it doesn't clearly do what it seems it wants to do. This is a double task: 1) reconstruct Rousseau's discourse and 2) reconstruct our way of reacting to this discourse as indicative of our current (that is, at the time of Grammatology) way of looking at what threatens to revolutionize our philosophical moment. If one focuses on the effort of reading to do this, one really sort of mistakes what Derrida is doing here--quite simply because it is too much setup and makes the real reading have to account for too much. In other words, this is too external to the task.
Where Derrida is really reading is when he is describing the supplement and showing how it always can be explained two ways. In other words, the whole effort of peeling back what Rousseau describes--which is the supplement--from what he declares--which is either that the supplement is bad or good in a particular case. Here the "method" is happening, and one sees how you have to go about it. You have to try and enter the protocols of the text, as Spivak often tells her students. This sort of vague phrase means really that you have to reconstruct a logic that the supplement, which functions as the center of this logic, its anchor, will have to disrupt. Getting a handle on this disruption means moving back and forth between logics, trying to make the structure of the disruption--differance--appear in how it leaves a trace in all those logics--or rather how all those logics become not logics but traces. In short, you do not just point out where differance is operative, where what Rousseau declares is different from what he describes. This is to say Rousseau thinks something "without thinking it." Rather, you show how the description is coextensive with the declaration--that is, you show that differance is coextensive with the articulation of the discourse itself. This is what Derrida means in the following:

It does not suffice to say that Rousseau thinks the supplement without thinking it, that he does not match his saying and his meaning, his descriptions and his declarations. One must still organize this separation and this contradiction.
-Of Grammatology, 245.

And this organization in fact exceeds what it organizes, as Derrida goes on to say. In the end, reading Grammatology, you really begin to see how this work of analysis functions--or at least what it would require. I personally think Dissemination ("Plato's Pharmacy") shows it more purely or at least more cleanly, but as it is, Grammatology remains a great example of this method or work--which is of course not a method and, as a working, an unworking.
But back to Rousseau: why this work is so amazing is not necessarily because it can account for things we that merely seem oddly contradictory in Rousseau ("I am the least vain of anyone," he says somewhere in the first book of the Confessions and remains for me the greatest, most hilarious example) as I might have suggested a bit earlier, but because this account proceeds in the way it does. Quite simply, it shows that Rousseau is a modern thinker of phusis, growth and generation. And at the same time it shows that this thought of growth is not possible for the moderns--a thought that in fact makes it possible that the ancients never really thought it either. Nature, that amazing force in Rousseau, is so conflicted that this becomes absolutely clear: however, its remains conflicted not because it is pure, but because it always has to articulate itself. In other words, because it is impossible, and impossible in such a way that it is the only thing that makes the discourse of Rousseau in its totality possible. Hegel, Marx, Freud, whoever--these thinkers might have very crucial parts of their discourse governed in this way by impossibility, but no one has it so totally and so crucially articulated it as Rousseau.
I could go on, but all I wanted to do was bring out both my reasons for reading Derrida and my reasons from shying away from various aspects of Grammatology as an introduction to Derrida--with the requisite highlighting of what is indeed important about it, which I think is not what we usually hear. We usually hear all this stuff about text and writing, but this is only the first part of the work (which I think many simply are content with reading, after which they put the book down). But all this is outlined in Speech and Phenomena and Writing and Difference. What is unique and important about Grammatology is that it works out the way that this problem of writing and text diffuses itself or allows discourses to be determined by it. Thus, it is appropriately wild and sprawling and odd--it has to exhaustively show discourse as trace. But this I think needs to be now seen as its virtue more than the simple thesis about grammatology as a positive science. If one wants this, one should look at a more pure, more clean analysis of Derrida's.
In other words, the sprawling, exhaustive aspect of the analysis here (the fact that it accounts for so much in Rousseau, not as much the aspect of the analysis that deals with inserting it into a current debate on Rousseau) has to be looked at as its odd core--its dispersion as its coherence, in a nutshell--because it is the most interesting working out of a way to talk about that impossibility: it is the work of analysis and reading when it is directed at what is impossible to analyze and read. In short, I think looking at it as less a finished work than a work in progress, a work of reading in progress, is necessary to appreciate it and indeed appreciate its genius. Looking for ideas like trace and differance needs to be done elsewhere. The analysis of Levi-Strauss should be looked at more in this manner too--and less as an attack or a condemnation of modern Rousseauism. But I might speak about this later--I've shied away from Levi-Strauss here so as to keep things simple and reconstruct my main thoughts about the book and my relationship to it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Specters of communism

(Thanks to comments from Grant, I revised a lot of this post--see his comments below for some good insights. It is basically an attempt to extend certain frustrations of Fredric Jameson in his essay "How Not to Historicize Theory" to the way the events of the last few weeks were covered in the news. Postscript: the general thrust of this article aligns vigorously with Jiri Pehe's August 24th article on the Prague Spring which everyone should read: there Pehe says "I suspect that our lasting reluctance to discuss the period [of the Prague Spring] openly is, more than anything else, a sign that the trauma of communism is still very much alive today, despite the last 19 years that democracy has had to take root.")
Bill Keller said the following in the Times a couple days ago:

Writing in The Financial Times last week, Chrystia Freeland recalled Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History?,” which trumpeted the definitive triumph of liberal democracy. The great nightmare tyrannies of last century — the Evil Empire, Red China — had been left behind by those inseparable twins, freedom and prosperity. Civilization had chosen, and it chose us.
So much for that thesis. Surveying the Russian military rout of neighboring Georgia and the spectacle of China’s Olympics, Ms. Freeland, editor of The Financial Times’s American edition and a journalist who started her career covering Russia and Ukraine, proclaimed that a new Age of Authoritarianism was upon us.
If it is not yet an age, it is at least a season: Springtime for autocrats, and not just the minor-league monsters of Zimbabwe and the like, but the giant regimes that seemed so surely bound for the ash heap in 1989.

This seems completely backwards in so many ways (even in referring by proxy to Fukuyama, who himself has backed away from that thesis for a long time now), but it comes down to the following for me: if we in America think this summer in particular heralds the return of giant post-Communist powers, as Keller says, it is only because here in America we never quite found a way to deal with their passing away.
Now, indeed, Keller himself seems to argue this when he says,

It turns out that if 1989 was an end — the end of the Wall, the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire, if not in fact the end of history — it was also a beginning.

And yet, he doesn't because he puts it in all the wrong terms: precisely the terms of return that I am speaking about. And this misses everything important.
In fact the verbal slip here is indicative: somehow Keller relegates "the beginning" of the end of the Soviets to the category of "end," discounting it as "a beginning," a beginning that was greater than that of an end. In other words, we have the beginning of the end, and then we have the end as a beginning, as a beginning that exceeds any beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. The beginning of the end of the Soviet empire is not really a beginning, even though Keller must still call it only a beginning.
And what does this real beginning, the beginning that exceeds any mere beginning of the end, bring about or begin? In short, resentment. The end of Communism was the beginning of the very indirect, passive aggressive resentment of the West instead of the Cold War's more direct and clear combat with it. And this is the real problem with Keller's analysis, what makes him miss the point entirely: he characterizes Russia as a country that has suffered a particular pseudo-psychological defeat that has been seeting under the surface all these years to resurge in a sort of nationalist aggression like we see now in Georgia. This is why, as he says, 1989 was a real "beginning"--and why saying this is something different than saying that in our "victory" over Communism we have not learned how to cope with its passing (my personal thesis).
Why is this so mistaken? Because it presupposes a sort of psychodynamic or communal-consciousness model of the operation of the state and its people that was probably only valid for thinking about the actions of Nazi Germany--if it is even valid there. Thus, he says the fall of the wall and the disbanding of the USSR did the following:

It gave birth to a bitter resentment in the humiliated soul of Russia, and no one nursed the grudge so fiercely as Vladimir V. Putin. He watched the empire he had spied for disbanded. He endured the belittling lectures of a rich and self-righteous West. He watched the United States charm away his neighbors, invade his allies in Iraq, and, in his view, play God with the political map of Europe.

Very nice, but this is also the way we talked about Bosnia, which, as we will see, is mistaken for the same reason: it moves quickly between an idea of nationalism or community and the idea of totalitarian psychological frenzy, without making clear what allows for the jump across between the two. Furthermore, it seems only to apply to the states of Eastern Europe and anything resembling a Communist or post-Communist society. It is as if, in the words of Sinclair Lewis, it couldn't happen here. In short, one could call it the logic of the losers. But doesn't this betray the fact that it is merely a way of bolstering the idea that we were and still are (despite all signs to the contrary) the winners? Something seething under the surface, the inner core of a repressed Communism: this is what, for Keller, motivates the action and the nationalism going on in Russia now. Similarly, China is seen--though Keller only moves towards this somewhat--quite similarly, since it has supposedly given up its real hardcore Communist core and embraced capitalism.
And as I began to indicate, what the idea of the return of Communism qua failed-resentful-post-Communism does is, however, more important than whether any of this actually really corresponds to the reality of the situation. This idea covers up the extremely pressing issue of dealing with the "minor-league monsters" which Keller dismisses here but are very much a problem of globalization in the wake of the fall of Communism--indeed despite what Paul Krugman maintains. These monsters aren't just hiccups in the process of globalization and--here is the flipside--neither are they the the fallout of the collapse of any major government that would challenge that of the West.
As I suggested earlier, one would need to see how we dealt with the Bosnian War (and Rwanda, and, now Darfur--though I'll confine myself to Bosnia) as the template for precisely how this work of covering up the real problem proceeds. What was so horrible about Bosnia was the similarity to a large scale nationalism working on such a small scale, and yet so effectively: this obviously came to a head in the unbelievable work of ethnic cleansing. (I should note that a great movie on Heidegger, The Ister, makes certain connections between Serbian nationalism and Nazism that are very well thought out and well depicted.) Indeed, we still can't really seem to cope with this sort of nationalism that we find now with Serbians, particularly in their reaction to the arrest of someone so unbelievably evil as Radovan Karadzic. What produces it? We must work here at the level of more minute and precise forces than those Keller seems to naively posit are at work. In other words, we must not be taken in, as Keller is, and so many are, by the size of the nations and the movements involved (the hugeness of China, in particular). At this huge level, the forces needed to unify a movement just fall into all the old categories of propaganda that now seem so extremely irrelevant: is it really the case that Serbs hate other ethnicities because people tell them? Adorno already in his time gives extremely good reasons why this is a bad way of putting the problem (cf. "Education after Auschwitz").
Now, our ignorance in the face of these problems is precisely not what is addressed by the policy we took in Bosnia. That is, this is not because there is no way to address this level of the micro-forces, it is just that our models of action, which stem from the policy of aid and international peacekeeping which were honed in Bosnia, and which devolved into full out war, precisely avoid them. What is needed is a new way of dealing with the spread of globalization and the destabilization that post-Communist or post-authoritarian regimes introduce into it as this spread occurs. Aid has the tendency, it seems to me, to merely compensate for this destabilization and restabilize, but it allows what is problematic--which is precisely not solely economic, nor cultural, but political through and through--to fester anyway. That is, the problem is a political problem, located at the foundation of the political union that constitutes these post-Communist states, and in some cases, can be ethnic. But it is a problem not of seeing these ethnic interests a s things that are psychological--rather one must think them as the thing that unifies the notion of political action. And again not in the sense of propoganda: rather we are dealing with the idea that politics is founded on a notion of a living body of a certain type, and a sort of filiation or purity between its members: in this sense it is very much ethnic, though not in a cultural way. This takes me into further territory, which is too complicated and confusing for me now. I'll wrap this up.
One thing is clear from all this, Communism still remains a specter--one cannot simply, as we have been doing, forget about it by trying to shift certain aspects of it (those that allowed these politico-ethnic regions to somewhat unify under Communism, if they did unify) into areas like culture, separate from the economy or from the operation of the political sphere in these countries as such. The key is to see that Communism does not return into our thinking as a big massive, homogenous albeit weakened force, like we often depict China and how Keller tries to get us to think about Russia (it is homogeneously resentful): we are realizing that our framework for dealing with these problems remains very locally (or rather, ethnic-politically) determined by Communism and Marxism in general as a model. This is chiefly Fredric Jameson's insight, and it is to his credit that he continually insists that this is still actually the greatest unifying discourse of our time.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The mechanical hermeneut attacks!, part 1

Three posts will move somewhat quickly from an explanation of the reasons behind a suggestion regarding Derrida's mode of reading I made a while ago (which will make up the concerns of this first post here), to a discussion of Ricoeur and the hermeneutic strategies of of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche (post 2), to a consideration of the mechanical hermeneut or reading machine that is, I confess, more appropriately identified with Jeremy Bentham than Derrida (post 3).
I confess this because my suggestion to consider Derrida as a reading machine (for this is what it was), even if it was only for the purposes of orienting oneself towards him, was somewhat unjustified and risked being very misleading. I think about it as an overemphasis, one that forced things in a particular direction so as to avoid another route that was clearly (to me) worse. This other route was, as any reader of the blog in the past few months knows, that of considering Derrida a close reader, a reader that spends a lengthy amount of time with a work, gets incredibly intimate with it, and with unbelievable rigor reveals all its ins and outs, its meanings and attempts at meaning; in other words, as one who generally sees his task as submitting philosophical texts to literary analysis. Instead, I said that Derrida might be considered first and foremost a sort of distant reader, a computer, a person indexing words like "pharmakon," someone who skims, who reads quickly, who needs a Cliffnotes to really get anything we consider meaningful; in short, as someone who resisted and escaped hermeneutics, not by being even more and more rigorous, but by falling back into meaningless, repetitive, mechanical calculation. As if he considered texts as documents to be searched, or as math problems to be solved.
My aim was to show that this was just as valid a way of approaching Derrida as the other because it is just as untenable--it requires just as much interruption in its application to Derrida in order to be able to apply. In fact--and to show this is the more radical aim--this reveals that the first approach, despite all its mystification of the act of reading (primarily by asserting that it resists science and reason, thereby securing its power for the humanities only--an old thesis that Gadamer radicalizes and that Foucault, in The Order of Things, destroys) is the same thing as the second, mechanical approach. But this is only so if it is also the case that the second approach is the same thing as the first: mechanical reading must somehow be close. In short, as I often said as I suggested all this, duplicating a formula from Margins of Philosophy that I have explicated elsewhere, the reading machine must break down for it to work: reading mechanically or cursorily has to be, at some point, close reading. (In this explication, I say: "If there is a machine that works, in order to be working it must at some point not even be that working that it is.")
This all means that what needs to be stressed is that the mechanical or mechanist understanding of reading is strategic, and thus only pragmatic at a certain point: it tries to combat how, at this moment in the history of reading, and in America, I should say, for I can only speak with any authority of events here where I am--here and now cursory, mechanical reading has not been understood. In other words, Derrida's reading, which is just as cursory as close, has always only been understood as close reading--albeit qualified as more intense, more intimate, than the average close reading. Thus, we very much need to understand precisely how far we are contradicting ourselves when we characterize his reading in particular and any reading more generally as good because it is rigorous. We need to understand that this is contradictory because what would seem to be, despite an entire tradition of notions of rigor, most rigorous would have to be a program, a formula, a mechanical procedure. This leads us to what needs to be thought, since it has never been conceived as such, though always presupposed: what would this mechanical rigor actually look like? Thus, what is necessary is that we begin to hypothesize a machine that would do something like reading, and work out its operation in all its aspects.
Getting a feel for this first problem, however, requires that we must get to the point that we are emphasizing now, the second or supplementary problem--the problem that indeed makes our understanding a misunderstanding if we leave it out: we must so thoroughly understand close reading as contradictory if it is not also mechanical or cursory reading, that we understand how we contradict ourselves without also thinking, conversely, that this machine itself produces closeness. In other words, if we conceive rigor as such, and indeed conceive it as a machine, we must then also show how this machine breaks down to become something like intimate, non-distant reading.
Now, the strategy lies in asserting this: we cannot get to this second problem without getting to the former--even if we somehow understand this latter problem first. This is the strategic element of our emphasis on the mechanical: we must get a handle on how this contradiction--viewed from the side of close reading being confronted with its own cursory double, the machine--currently only appears to us as a a danger, as a threat to our concept of rigor. In short, we must understand how, as Derrida says famously in the exergue to Grammatology, "the future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger." More radically, we must understand what Derrida means in the following, after he has just recapitulated Leroi-Gourhan's description of the emergence of writing:

In all these descriptions, it is difficult to avoid the mechanist, technicist, and teleological language at the very moment when it is precisely a question of retrieving the origin and the possibility of movement, of the machine, of the technê, of orientation in general.
-Of Grammatology, 84-5.

That is, we must understand how, in order to acclimate oneself to what is required by our anticipation of this future, in order to describe it so it can be understood, the recourse to a mechanical language and the thinking of a purely mechanical act of reading--while never able to be justified--is on some level oddly necessary. Necessary not because it allows some pragmatic form of acclimation, something that would allow us to anticipate anticipation, to practice it--and this is crucial--but because it keeps hitting home the impossibility of acclimation, of anticipation. In short, the necessity lies in how this act of working out a interpretative machine somehow works to retrieve the possibility of absoluteness in the absolute danger of which Derrida speaks--that is, what cannot be anticipated. Derrida will later call this possibility hospitality, and its structure is the same as that breaking down which is required for a reading machine to work (that is, the opening up of our second aspect of our question).
Now, at least, it is clear that the danger appears to our close reading because it is possible that in the future rigor in reading might indeed be ensured mechanically, via indexing or cataloguing and search-engine type algorithms. But if we look through history, indeed similar forms of this same danger appear--we are always on this horizon where rigor can be ensured mechanically or by technology. In other words, the reading machine is continually considered throughout history as what produces cursory readings--which, as we remarked above, is a completely unjustified characterization. But rather than tracing the genesis and structure of this characterization, which is what would be required to get some sense of the necessity we are talking about, we might expand upon it as a strategy. This is an act of expansion which requires going more into depth about what a machine is and does.
To lead us into the next post, we can at least begin to think of what a machine that would interpret could look like, and how it could indeed be rigorous despite our worries and the historical characterization of it as sloppy. Searle's famous Chinese-room argument actually provides a good illustration of this very point, emphasizing it albeit indirectly (because, of course, its concerns lie elsewhere): what makes interpretation (in the example, a complex act of translation) conscious or human is not the same thing as what makes proficient and even rigorous interpretation. The output from the room may be excellent without being able to be sure whether it came from a human or a machine. And while this is a problem for certain notions of consciousness, it isn't for certain notions of interpretation. Or is it? And how? We will pick this up again in the next post.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The hyperbole of Nietzsche, and Heidegger

The title of the post here brings out a contrast, a difference made visible by the ambivalence of the additive or supplementary: the comma with the conjunction counting Heidegger, tacking him on like an afterthought, in a set philosophers in which there exists hyperbole. In sum, the title announces a problem, rather than a solution. It is a question about the correctness of its formula, and it is accomplished already in its formulation. Hyperbole, it says, Is it also in Heidegger? Is there hyperbole in Heidegger? And this question, we already know, risks proving something that seems itself hyperbolic: Heidegger never ever used hyperbole. If he did, it was a million times less remarkable than any regular use of hyperbole.
But in a way this is already a miscalculation: to ask if there is hyperbole also in Heidegger risks presupposing that Nietzsche is hyperbolic. Is this true? In fact, it presupposes more than this: if it is possible for Heidegger to be hyperbolic here, as it were, along with Nietzsche, Nietzsche must be himself hyperbole--that is, 100% hyperbolic, some standard of real, authentic, total use of hyperbole--since Heidegger comes afterwards to measure himself against Nietzsche. But is this the case? To understand all this about hyperbole, then--and it should be obvious that we're talking about hyperbole in a wide sense, about the figure and the logic that makes it up--we must be vigilant enough to pose this question of Heidegger (Is there hyperbole in Heidegger?) and, at the same time, question this question, which is to question Nietzsche (Does there exist the hyperbole of Nietzsche?)--that is, to add (Heidegger) and subtract (him) at the same time.
Working out the formula, checking for mistakes, we nevertheless seem to see that this odd operation it forces us to perform has its basis in the extreme nature of the Nietzschian task. As we said, Nietzsche isn't prompting us to ask just whether he is (also) hyperbolic, like Heidegger, but whether hyperbole exists. Nietzsche makes us ask, first and foremost, whether there is such a thing as hyperbole at all, whether hyperbole is such a thing that could be used in Nietzsche to the extent that he can be said to be a standard, some sort of authentic user of hyperbole, in comparison to Heidegger. Thus, like the question of Heidegger, this risks proving something hyperbolic as well: in the entirety of Western discourse there never was any hyperbole. Hyperbole never existed. Until Heidegger's poor use of hyperbole, that is a million times easier to miss than any normal use of hyperbole, hyperbole was completely nonexistent.
Let's note that this more extreme of the two claims--more extreme, more hyperbolic, because it questions whether there exists at all what is the basis of its very question--already touches upon the question of madness, which seems to be inextricably bound up with hyperbole. Must we be mad to question whether there is such a thing as the hyperbolic? Before we answer yes, we must reflect: isn't this question--whether we can hurl ourselves (ballein) above ourselves (húper) at all--not the sanest question of our current status, of our being, of our self-identity, of whether we are what we are (because it is questionable whether we can be higher than we are)? Another way to put this would be to say it touches upon the question of the overman.
But, to return to the question, is there hyperbole? Is it in Nietzsche at all? Let's simply try to prove this--regardless of whether this might end up disproving things. To prove this, many are tempted to simply look at the title of Nietzsche's work that seems most hyperbolic (and also, incidentally, nearest madness): Ecce Homo. Already, there it is. But we also know, from Nietzsche's letters (October 30, 1888), that the title was chosen to test the censors. Regardless of whether this is true, it is clear that it could just basic, pointless blasphemy, rather than hyperbole. Already, then, we have a sense of what will be so troubling to our efforts to point to hyperbole: Nietzsche's hyperbole is, at the same time as it is hyperbole, dishonest. And while this describes perfectly just what hyperbole is--dishonesty, being above oneself--it also hints that there is no such thing as "pure" hyperbole--a hyperbole that would honestly just be hyperbole.
We have already disproven things then. This, it would seem, is what is so disturbing and disarming about the hyperbole in Nietzsche: at the same time as it is hyperbole, we sense that it isn't. This forces us to look at it as truth, however, which is just as disarming, since the claim is so grand. There is no way to get around the problem: either Nietzsche is boasting, or he is merely being descriptive. The two acts map onto each other so well that we are not left with any alternative between true and false. And thus with no hyperbole: the extreme or hyperbolic nature of his task is then to show that hyperbole actually outlines a structure of truth.
But, given what we know about Nietzsche, this seems itself problematic. For we might just as well think that hyperbole would actually be something very contrary to the rest of Nietzsche's claims. Why? Simply because hyperbole seems to make a qualitative claim. And Nietzsche, we know, is the thinker of the quantitative par excellence. How do we reconcile this emphasis upon hyperbole with the emphasis upon quantitative relations of force? How do we see one as the other? Can we see one as the other?
Let's look at a passage to outline the problem more clearly:

I am an evangelist the like of which there has never been; I know tasks so lofty that there has not yet been a concept for them; I am the first to give rise to new hopes.
-Ecce Homo, "Why I Am a Destiny," 1.

Isn't this a claim similar to that claim of Heidegger, the qualitative claim?

If a thinking question is not so simple and so outstanding as to determine the will and the style of thinking for centuries--by yielding to them what is the most profound issue to think--then it is best that it not be asked.
-Contributions to Philosophy (from Enowning), #5: "For the Few and the Rare."

Isn't the claim of Nietzsche a claim that says: it is almost better if the rest (of the evangelists, of those who thought they knew lofty tasks, of those who hoped) were dispensed with? In other words, that what makes up the hyperbole--the lump of that which Nietzsche is greater than (in a more normal hyperbole, "I could sleep for a zillion hours," it would be the hours)--is, despite its makeup, simply a set of identical things? Things that, because they are that set, can be dispensed with, compared to Nietzsche, who has more value? The question already arises, then, of whether this is indeed what Heidegger is here saying as well. And the more basic question of the relation of Heidegger to hyperbole. Perhaps we can address that now, in order to come back to Nietzsche.
Is Heidegger really saying that it is better for us if an unthinking question is never asked? In other words, is he serious? We would be mistaken if we said either yes or no. And yet, I maintain this is a qualitative claim, one which Nietzsche's claim, which should be quantitative and not qualitative, is in danger of approaching. How can this sentence of Heidegger be qualitative and not be serious? And, then, how can it not be unserious? And is either of these hyperbole?
It is just as much a mistake to say yes as to say no, because the particular type of qualitative claim does not move on the level here of identity. When Heidegger is saying that there is such a thing as a question, and that it is better off that a particular kind of question not be asked, he isn't talking about the existence of the question. He's not saying that a certain set of existent things have a particular quality--let's call it, being unthinking, or simply not being determinative enough of the will and style of thinking--which does not make them worthy of existence. The unthinking questions do not all exist such that they are identical in this respect. They do not have, that is, a relationship of identity with respect to each other. Their relation is, for Heidegger, that of sameness. Which means that a certain set of questions are unthinking in the sense that they all would not heavily participate in the determination of the will and style of thinking--even if they do not exist in the sense of just being present there. Thus, a question that is not yet on someone's lips, but is deep and unformulated in their mind, or scattered in notes somewhere, yet still ready to come together to become a question that is unthinking, that does not determine the will and the style of thinking immensely--this is what makes up the type of question that is better off not asked. This is what constitutes the quality of unthinkingness: essentially, what a piece of a question will do when it is eventually a question.
It is hard not to explain this in terms that are teleological (though Gadamer rightly calls this, and similar reasonings by Heidegger, only a "teleology in reverse"), but it is clear from this that when the question is better off being not asked, it does not mean that burning the pieces of paper with unthinking thoughts or silencing all the people who would only ask unthinking thoughts would not get rid of the quality here of unthinkingness. So, if Heidegger is not totally serious about what he is saying, it is not to be unserious or false. It is to be serious in a different way--and hyperbolic in a different way.
What is clear, however, is that this does not totally make a claim about truth or falsity in the way we found Nietzsche to be doing already. Heidegger is actually dismissing both alternatives--as we saw when neither saying yes or no would characterize his statement. What Heidegger is doing, then, is finding a different type of a claim to truth. Its relationship to hyperbole will have to be, then, ambivalent, insofar as hyperbole is not determined with respect to this new conception of truth. In essence, what Heidegger is doing here, on the level of our inquiry, is trying to show that hyperbole hits a limit with a conception of truth that is based on identities and things that are existent. What should we get out of this? Not that Heidegger lacks a certain ironic, jocular willingness to use hyperbole, or that his hyperboles are indeed serious, but that what he is in search for--if this were a concern for him--is a way of being hyperbolic that is precisely what we have already sensed Nietzsche resists: a way of being purely hyperbolic, hyperbolic in a way that is not at the same time a bit dishonest. What would this hyperbole look like? Would it still be hyperbole? This is where critiques of Heidegger may be launched.
But now we can return to Nietzsche and make more sense of the type of qualitative claim he is in danger of approaching. For there are actually two types of qualitative claim that we distinguished: the type that lumps things together based on their identity with respect to each other, that is, based on their existence, and the Heideggerian type, which lumps things together in terms of their possibility, in terms of their essence (that is, when we understand essence as the same or sameness). Is Nietzsche, then, in claiming that he is an evangelist the likes of which has never been actually claiming that it is better off if the whole set of previous evangelists are better off not existing? Or is he claiming that all other evangelists weren't really evangelists, wouldn't be evangelists when they came to be evangelists, and thus we would be better off if they never came to be this? Obviously, the answer is closer to the second: this is what Nietzsche comes close to claiming. But this is so only because we can't admit that this is a qualitative claim.
When Nietzsche is saying he is the first to give rise to new hopes, he is in danger of claiming that there is a particular quality that he has which others don't: that of being able to give rise to hope. But we can understand this in a different way: Nietzsche is so hopeful, so more hopeful than those who have been hopeful, so much more of a quantity of force, that to do any justice to the quantity, we have to make a qualitative shift. The shift isn't qualitative, however, since it is just to mark anew a qualitative difference. This is what it means to revalue in Nietzsche: to collect energy along a different distribution so that it gives rise to what seem to be qualitative shifts, shifts which actually can only really be described--can only really be--quantitative. In other words, suddenly there is so much more hope, that all the previous people who hoped look like they are less--to the extent that the phenomenon of hope that they exhibit seems different. What this does is not only make the phenomenon appear reversed or overturned, it determines the scale on which phenomena are compared upon quantity. Hope looks different because it is more, and thus also because it is not a quality.
The reason why this comes close to what Heidegger is claiming is actually, then, because it is closer to the first situation: really, the previous people who hoped should not exist--as people who exhibited the quality and not quantity of hope. Nietzsche isn't denying their right to exist as well. He is transforming, however, everything that centers around what right means. This transformation, then, is different than that effort of Heidegger's--it is precisely the reverse of that. This hyperbole of Nietzsche does not strive to make hyperbole pure: it seeks to infect the entire range of what is not considered hyperbolic with its hyperbole. One could say, then, that to read Nietzsche right, one has to take every word as hyperbolic--which means taking it as both true and false--whereas with Heidegger one has to look for another level at which hyperbole and truth would be more originary.
So, to return to our formula: Heidegger would be ambivalent with respect to the hyperbole of Nietzsche, precisely because Nietzsche's hyperbole would be dishonest--that is, would not be hyperbole. He would also be ambivalent because we could not be sure whether his hyperbole had any relationship to what seems like hyperbole in Nietzsche. Which makes the ambivalence into a reversal or opposition.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

"Not less, but more theory:" Jameson and pragmatism

Fredric Jameson has an excellent article in the Spring (2008) issue of Critical Inquiry which I just got around to reading, and it makes a lot of points that I have been trying to orient myself towards accepting here on this blog. While the article "How Not to Historicize Theory" responds mainly to Ian Hunter, its concerns actually never leave that of Jameson's continuing task: trying to extend the theses advanced in his work on postmodernism and utopia into the most pressing concerns of theory at this moment. This culminates in an amazing look at Bourdieu and a clear-headed rebuttal of the impetus behind pragmatism (which is anything but pragmatic).
If I have been hard here occasionally on people like Spivak and deconstruction, on the one hand, and, on the other, people like Jerome McGann or Stanley Fish and historicism (and the people don't exactly have a direct relationship to the movements here--as I will explain), it is because they all end up arguing from within theory for less of it, a position that Jameson shows here to be quite wrongheaded. This position is not wrongheaded because it is contradictory or hypocritical, as I have (I now see somewhat mistakenly) put it. It is wrongheaded because it makes theoretical endeavors attempt to do away with the types of conversation that theory valuably has started. In other words, this position is pragmatic, if not nihilistic. Now, I don't mean that pragmatism is nihilistic--far from it (I think its one of the most idealistic discourses). I mean that pragmatism--which can be summed up crudely as an effort to find and work within limits, to refine discourse by disabusing its pretensions to truth as correctness--too quickly gets confused with a nihilistic bent which is not pragmatic that nevertheless underwrites pragmatism's efforts. To be a bit clearer: what is desired by people like Spivak or Fish is, at the same time, to set an effective limit for discourse beyond which it is fanciful and has no relation to forceful, meaningful activity (including its own), and to somehow counteract the tendency in theoretical discourse to extend itself out into those fanciful areas. The first effort is pragmatic, the second is nihilistic. And while it is not necessary at all that the second effort occurs at the same time as the first--Rorty is a good example of someone who rigorously keeps the two separate--it usually, in the area of theory, does. It is no mistake that all these recent conferences on "The Death of Queer Theory" or "The Death of Post-Colonialism," in seeking primarily to limit a discourse healthily cannot do so except by talking about its being over with, its being ineffective--and not in the sense of being simply inaccurate, but somehow not even worth anyone's letting it exist anymore. Jameson distinguishes between these two well I think by calling this pragmatism conspiracy theory, and this nihilism cynical reason. The two have a methodological commonality, which is a hermeneutics of suspicion: they think that the effort of interpreting actions or documents or whatever boils down to looking for the pretension to truth at work. This pretension is what gets limited by conspiracy theory or taken away to be killed off by cynical reason.
The threat that makes these people and these discourses do this, as Jameson makes clear, is historicity, or what he calls historicizing. This should be rigorously distinguished from historicism, which tends to be in Jameson's eyes (but does not have to be, like deconstruction) one of those pragmatic conspiracy theories. When a discourse becomes capable of having its conversation recede into the past, and has to confront the fact that it has contributed to the larger structures of the institutions and fields that constitute the position from which it speaks--that is, when it begins to have to take into account how it ensures for itself the right to a discourse, it becomes very skeptical as to whether it can still remain pure. What is problematic for both historicism and deconstruction is that their purity was ensured by their anti-intellectual stance--that is, their critique of the continuous and homogenous narratives and knowledges that dominated their discipline before they arrived. Historicism's solution to this is to generally fall back upon the disciplinary framework itself--which usually makes it appear less cynical or nihilistic than it is--while deconstruction's solution is to insist more and more on the rigor of its method or the radical nature of its politics--which is the same thing as falling back upon the disciplinary framework. Now, this isn't as simple as merely claiming that these discourses are getting a taste of their own medicine--which is to say, that they are confronting the fact that they as discourses only have impetus because they are founded on what they oppose. It is showing that faced with a contradiction, both these discourses don't think that expanding their theoretical practice more and more would produce anything worthwhile--namely, a collective discussion. In short, Jameson's claim is that both these positions have the effect of advocating a sort of resurgence of the individual intellectual, the scholar-hero, the expert. Now, there is nothing wrong with being an expert, except that in the effort to diligently become one, the expert or hero sacrifices the collective interest, the fact that scholarship is also about discussion. That is, what is advocated by these positions is that each of us recede back into our own projects and confront each other when we are done with them, which is, in Jameson's view (and I agree with him wholly here), precisely what is not needed in scholarship that will have to confront the 21st century and its demands. What we need is some sense that we are all speaking, as a discipline, some similar language. What both of these discourses--and mostly these people at the front of them (we should be sensitive to the fact that at this level there are so many exceptions to anything anyone says that the generalizations are usually always unfair--though I don't think this renders them illegitimate, precisely for the reasons I'm outlining now)--what both of these discourses advocate is stepping back into our own private vocabulary.
And this is what is really confusing about them as positions and what makes them more than just instances of hypocrisy or self-hating or getting-a-taste-of-one's-own-medicine. For these discourses started out closer to the pragmatism of conspiracy theory. As such, they usually took the form of identifying large collective interests at work in individual decisions or in the determination of the individual. What this allowed was some sense that there were larger forces at play in all our actions. Thus, there was a hope at least that one could work at the level of this larger collective interest to make things better. The exposure of a collective interest was made in the spirit of changing collective interest. What happens in the sort of cynical use of pragmatism is that we think that we can critique these collective interests by ourselves. Indeed, these acts of exposure (deconstruction, historicism) were, it is now clear to us, not themselves disinterested. So why not face up to the fact that the best work we can do is going to be on the level of individual interest, dictated by the demands of the profession we have now--alas--shaped in our direction? This is what Jameson is describing in his conclusion:

Insofar as conspiracy theory celebrates... collective dynamic and seeks to replace the categories of individual agency with collective ones, it marks the first imperfect step in that direction. Cynical reason, meanwhile, while seeming to strip acts and events of their appearance of disinterestedness, might well pave the way for some ultimate awareness of collective self-interest as such.
-"How Not to Historicize Theory," Critical Inquiry, Spring 2008, 582.

This is not a happy prospect. It describes a crisis. For we should not have to recede back into our own individual works of scholarship in order to see that, in the end, what we really need is some sense of collectivity. This is why we need more theory, precisely in the time in which theory itself is being historicized. We can discuss, together, the historicization, which would give us a sense of where we are. The idea that theory is confused is probably a myth still perpetuated by cynics: it has an immense vocabulary to deal with all sorts of novel ideas--and if there is confusion, why can't it be discussed? Or at least, why not risk that this is the case? We have to dispel, perhaps, first and foremost the idea that theory is muddled. That it is not rigorous, that it is not a legitimate way to think about things. It presupposes precisely that we are all speaking languages no one else can understand. Or at least these misunderstandings, this muddledness itself, would not be able to take place collectively and prove to be useful. The time of wondering whether theory is legitimate or rigorous--of finding ways of making it seem so--has been long over with. To dispel this myth that we're muddled and to rid ourselves of this fear of becoming muddled seems actually more in the spirit of pragmatism, in fact, as well as in the spirit of anti-professionalization--one that does not take up at the same time a crass anti-intellectualism or a discourse against the university itself or indeed the (very) beneficial aspects of professionalization. It would be in fact, as Jameson says, more of a rebellion of professionalization against the commodification of knowledge that the sciences have suffered and yet continued to collude with--that is, the joining of research to R&D departments of businesses--and, which, in the future, will surely pose a threat to all intellectual life at the university whatsoever (who will look justified then?). Ultimately, what is not needed is the idea that theory is done with and we now need to wait for the next new approach to research and writing that will unify us. The unification must be brought about by us--and probably is easier to accomplish than everyone thinks since, actually, most of us are already on the same page.