Reading Derrida part 1: rage against the machine


Jacques Derrida is too eagerly portrayed as a gleeful anarchist. While post-structuralism does resemble the act of ruining a game of Jenga and running away snickering, Derrida’s ethos in his own writing is that of a sage who thinks slowly and carefully.The postwar philosophy I’ve read is experienced more as a leisurely stroll through a Japanese garden than a sprint through flawless logic. Deconstruction doesn’t need any dynamite to plant; it simply re-focalizes any given dualism in human thought so that it undermines itself before our eyes — modest work in practice.

Derrida is pretty hard to read. It’s partly the time and place. He tacitly admits that he’s using the rhetoric of a “Last Philosopher,” except this time he really is the last of an incredible vein of Last Philosophers, from Nietzsche onward, “Last” because they’ve read more widely and deeply than us, and because they are out to destroy metaphysics. His writing is a blow-by-blow grapple with structuralism and semiotics, which get more obscure with each passing day as they fade into memory, so some familiarity with early 20th century theory is needed.

But if he had written out his thought in plain, lucid prose, he would have been a hypocrite. He’s out to prove, after all, that language is slippery, constantly pulling out the ground for its own interpretation.

So, the picture above is a diagram inspired by a model Derrida offers at the beginning of “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” He’s basically outlining the common conception of Structure or structural thought, but teases us with a certain “Event” which will rupture this model. (It should be “metaphorical displacement,” it’s not the only kind.)

It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the epistémé—that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy—and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the epistémé plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement.

The structure is the collection of rules and traditions legislating how we speak and write all day every day. What’s scary is that they existed before we did — how else could we utter anything in the first place? “Free speech” controversies are such liberal sideshows that would be sobered by any serious thinking about how language works: nobody really believes in free speech.

The structure sits on a foundation of our collective knowledge, which Derrida identifies with the greek word epistémé to emphasize its longetivity.

But then we have this image of an infernal machine, or an eldritch cyborg, digging and drilling and penetrating into the “soil of ordinary language,” strip-mining it of its words and concepts, digesting them and assimilating them into its own composition. My inadequate drawing went for limp tree roots because I couldn’t decide on infernal machine drill bits or eldritch cyborg tentacles.

Writing is hard; the easiest course to take is write the way you talk. As a friend once said, America’s southern writers are the best because they talk the best. The written word is just the spoken word in code. And this is the framework of de Saussure’s linguistics.

Derrida is about to argue that this is wrong. The metaphorical displacement machine is an incorrect model. More precisely, it is a dream sign.

What he emphasizes about this model of structuralism is that it is centered, or has a center. It has always been “neutralized or reduced” because we force a center onto the model, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to talk about it in the first place. The machine in my doodle looks stationary and stable enough on its epistemic columns, but the real thing is constantly roaming the landscape of everyday speech (or parole). Like in quantum physics, theorists have an observer effect to worry about: they can only look at a distorted image of their object of study, like the astronomers who find exo planets by looking at the gravitational mirages made by their suns.

The center is what allows for “play” within the system’s totality. The “play” doesn’t become radical — it doesn’t fundamentally transform its structure — because such a move is “interdicted,” and Derrida really wants us to pay attention to his word choice. An interdict is a forbidding of something, but it is also “between diction,” which leaves open another meaning. It’s not that the system is a rulebook-thumping despot, but that it sometimes confounds itself into silence as part of its operation. Theory gently nudges us toward the more interesting ideas, and that’s why it usually deserves our patience and tolerance of its jargon and density — these are counter-intuitive and non-obvious ideas about how things work around here that need to be developed carefully; they could potentially be instrumental in our liberation. Turn on Fox News to see what “straight talk” does for you.

But anyway, this incorrect model is a dream sign. This is because the premise that the discourse’s structure has a center, and that a center-less structure is unthinkable, is “contradictorily coherent.” A coherent contradiction is an oxymoron, but it’s a common thing. We are all pretty comfortable with coherent contradictions in late capitalism: look how much despotism is necessary to protect our freedoms in this century. Derrida writes:

Coherence in contradiction expresses the forces of a desire.

We’re in psychoanalytical territory now. The unconscious is the experimental movie of your life: the power of the id manifests itself in enigmatic signs which we experience in our dreams. Indeed, our recollection of our dreams is another filtered reproduction, as our cerebral ego tries to normalize them. To see the horrible true natures of our desires would be like the film EVENT HORIZON, or something, and we need shuteye.

These dream signs are also contradictorily coherent. They are the synthesis of a given desire (a lack which must be filled) and the counter-desire to repress that desire.

So this machine is a big embarrassing dream sign of Western thinking. What does it repress? That the machine has no center.

Derrida makes his task as difficult as possible, which I suppose is why having done it he ushered in post-structuralism. You cannot claim that the center of the sign system doesn’t exist without rejecting the sign itself.

The sign cannot in itself surpass this opposition between the sensible and intelligible.

But that didn’t stop structuralists from trying. They bracketed off the sensible, the actual existing world and the flesh-and-blood readers living in it, while their Formalist comrades bracketed off the author’s intentions.

The sign is an intense fusion of the signifier and the signified, or the word and the concept the word evokes in context. If the signifier “Open” is in neon red and blue, its signified is that the restaurant is open.

Derrida is outing the signifier as a metaphysical concept. This is the Jenga block that gets plucked out. But that metaphor is too easy. Derrida isn’t so irresponsible as to weed out any metaphysics in the cultivated Western garden on sight. That would have us naively reducing the sign to the signified, which is only half of what a sign is. We are then metaphysically complicit — well, I’ve done worse things.

There are more important insights here. One is that semantic dualisms pave their own way to their deconstruction, because they repress the key thing that sustains them. Take the classic doublet of Nature/Culture. The split represses the problem of incest, which humans have a harder time avoiding than animals do — is human incest nature or culture? Incest is banished to the unthinkable, but it’s also perversely what the opposition depends on by its absence. And indeed, structuralism banishes post-structuralism to the unthinkable. Nothing is safe from deconstruction because ideological doublets can always be questioned. Masculinity depends on a degraded and devalued Woman to define itself against, and it can be a stressful thing, not just because men have to measure up against a negative definition, but because the repressed can always return — Woman is a banished part of men, and men with the behaviors they’re encourage to have, may not take the news so well. Creating a solid core of an identity means you now have borders to patrol.

Which leads to the other insight. These semantic doublets can always be questioned because there isn’t really a foundation to our thought. That’s what people mean when they say “It’s turtles all the way down.” Every foundation is dependent on another foundation. The machine is digging through ordinary speech because structuralism desired (and then repressed said desire) for a natural foundation of language, from whence all other rules came, that was in there somewhere. Ironically, Derrida has the “transcendental signifier” not Out There but sequestered in the earth, like the dead dinosaurs we dig up and burn. The clue was there all along that this framework is not sustainable.

While this whole lecture of his was an intervention on a model, I find myself overwhelmed by the model and the way it was expressed. It’s not every day a work of theory moves me to draw something up. This blog is about literature loosely called modernist, and my biggest take-away point here is that throughout literary history moves a certain bundle of contradictions that bring forth texts we call Modern. They can have different outlets in different times and places: novels in the Anglo-American world, theatre in the Weimar Republic. I see no reason why these outlets wouldn’t include post-war theory.

I didn’t cover everything, but I think that’s pretty much post-structuralism’s opening move. But Derrida’s implicit argument is that writing is way more problematic than we thought, which is, funny enough, not at all a novel claim in philosophy. If writing is a code with a missing cypher, we are then left with the problems of GRAMMATOLOGY.



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