Is there any value in describing what I remember of a philosophical argument from a long distant time of reading? I believe there is value, because, however abbreviated, simplified, even distorted the memory of the argument, it is nonetheless the form in which it retains its active force in thought. I might glance back for corroboration at the original source, searching for bits of relevant underlined text and the like, but I am unlikely to engage in the full work of properly revisiting the texts. For all of its shortcomings, my memory of an argument indicates key features that have somehow managed to retain their coherence and significance for me. So when I recently read contemporary criticism of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive project in terms of its one sided privileging of language (Graham Harman describing the thought of Bruno Latour), I cannot help but recall my sense of what Derrida seemed to be arguing. I can recall, for instance, the misunderstandings associated with his “there is nothing outside the text” statement. I can particularly remember that Derrida resisted the effort to position his work as triumphant assertion of the universal sway of language. Here then is my brief sense of what the contemporary over-simplified view of his work misses, which relates particularly to the way in which inhuman alterity figures within his deconstructive conception.
1. Language – the system of language – figures, for Derrida, as a means of unsettling a naturalised conception of truth, in which truth is tied to the experience of unmediated being, which finds its proper mode of expression in the immediacy of spoken dialogue, only then to risk losing sight of itself as it passes into technical modes of memory and communication (most famously, of course, via writing). Derrida reverses this paradigm, placing writing as somehow more original than either speech or the apparent simplicity of being. Rather than suggesting a new paradigm, however, a simple reversal of the old, Derrida’s aim is to question the possibility of ever shaping anything like a constitutive foundation for things – all aspects of experience and being are riven by a play of irreducible non-origin. This play is termed “differance”, a neologism that captures the sense both of spatial differentiation and temporal delay. This concept of differance is drawn from Saussure’s relational model of language, in which every dimension of language, from the phonemic to the semantic, is said to be structured in terms of patterns of difference; rather than substantial entities, language is characterised by relational terms. It is also for this reasong charcterised by an endless play of reference (of temporal delay) as one term summons another in order to emerge, but then only to summon further motions of reference. Derrida argues then that writing, in its evident non-original position, its freedom from absolute determination, appears emblematic of fundamental aspects of language. The apparently dangerous alien force appears at the very heart of the problem of language (and the metaphysics of being). This clearly sounds all very language focused, yet it is hardly an anthropomorphic, human meaning oriented conception. The point about writing is that it retains an alien character, it retains a sense of otherness. The sense of loss associated with the dead letter is precisely that of the relation to inanimate matter. Writing figures as a dimension of constitutive and irreducible alterity within the texture of whatever it is that being means. In this sense, the notion bears an affinity with Harmans’s contemporary notion of “tool-being”. Just as Harman argues, in relation to Heidegger’s tool-anaylysis, that the tool, although typically regarded as a lesser, mutely non-existent and non self-present mode of being, is actually the model for Heidegger’s conception of being (as a general ‘readiness-at-hand’), so Derrida demonstrates that the inhuman technical medium of writing is integral to the impossibility of being (and to the scene of its becoming within Western metaphysics).
2, For Derrida, otherness circulates within language (the outside is always already within the apparent autonomy of human meaning systems). Furthermore, language, even in its sense of distance and alienation – indeed precisely in terms of this detachment – is bound to a relation to alterity. This is most evident for me in Derrida’s analysis of the poetry of Francis Ponge. Writing within a phenomenological tradition, Ponge adopts an intentional mode of writing. He writes towards the specificity of particular everyday things – jugs, rain on the window, a pine forest. But this is not something that can be simply managed and manifested. It is not as though poetry can mimetically reconstruct the thing itself. Instead it summons the thing differently, through the resources of language, through the encounter between two modes of alterity – the otherness of language and the otherness of the thing. I suppose contemporary critics could argue that Derrida insists on a too pronounced gap from the world of things. Things appear under the heading of a general space of otherness, rather than as multiplicity of specific objects. Derrida clearly retains a suspicion of the notion of object, of the identity that it constitutes. Speculative realism is less circumspect. This indicates Derrida’s a key difference from the contemporary speculative realist scene: Derrida retains a more old-fashioned critical and skeptical emphasis, whereas contemporary philosophy is determined to somehow forge means to think the ‘things in themselves’. Even here it is worth noting that Harman insists that things cannot be fully known, that they are always percived and engaged with in terms of particular affordances. But wouldn’t this also affect their constitution as integral objects? Aren’t their boundaries also sketched in terms of dimensions of access? In problematising precisely such issues, Derrida’s philosophy retains its value and force.