ON THE INCIPIT TO DERRIDA’S “STRUCTURE, SIGN AND PLAY”

Commentary on the incipit to Derrida’s essay, originally a talk given in October 1966,

STRUCTURE, SIGN AND PLAY IN THE DISCOURSE OF THE HUMAN SCIENCES

La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines

(Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence, Editions du Seuil 1967, page 409)

“Il y a plus affaire à interpréter les interprétations qu’à interpréter les choses” Michel de Montaigne

“Peut-être s’est-il produit dans l’histoire du concept de structure quelque chose qu’on pourrait appeler un «événement» si ce mot n’importait avec lui une charge de sens que l’exigence structurale — ou structuraliste — a justement pour fonction de réduire ou de suspecter. Disons néanmoins un «événement» et prenons ce mot avec précautions entre des guillemets. Quel serait donc cet événement? Il aurait la forme extérieure d’une rupture et d’un redoublement”.

Title: “Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences” [begins in the semiotic element "discourse" and the modality of uncertainty rather than in things and the modality of certainty that structuralist scientism adopts, the tension between epistemic (sciences) and semiotic, the sign is the suture, the bridge and the gap between structure and play]

Epigraph: “There is more need to interpret interpretations than to interpret things” – Montaigne

[Against the hegemony of the referential use of language, the need for hermeneutics, even of the discourse of the sciences. A hermeneutics of things is posited too. A unified approach to words and things in terms of interpretation is possible, an allusion to Foucault's LES MOTS ET LES CHOSES (literally Words and Things, published in April 1966). Derrida is perhaps also responding to Foucault's famous talk "Nietzsche, Freud, Marx", published in 1967, but given at Royaumont in 1964. Here Foucault says: " si l'interprétation ne peut jamais s'achever, c'est tout simplement qu'il n'y a rien à interpréter. Il n'y a rien d'absolument premier à interpréter, car au fond, tout est déjà interprétation, chaque signe est en lui - même non pas la chose qui s'offre à l'interprétation, mais interprétation d'autres signes" ("if interpretation can never be finished, it's simply that there is nothing to interpret. There is nothing absolutely primary to interpret, because at bottom everything is already interpretation, each sign is in itself not the thing that is offered up to interpretation, but interpretation of other signs". Derrida alludes to this whole problematic with great economy, by means of a citation from Montaigne. Foucault also tells us: "The existence  always being approached of an absolute point (that Foucault later calls the "centre") of interpretation would be at the same time that of a point of rupture"].

“Perhaps [good use of modalising adverb, staying in the element of uncertainty and interpretation introduced by the title and by the Montaigne quote. In the same year (1966) Godard said he made his films not to criticise Foucault's theses but to introduce a little more doubt into his way of expounding them] something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could [conditional, coherence in modalisation] be called an “event,” [one thinks of Heidegger and Ereignis, and of the debate Sartre/Levi-Strauss/Foucault. Sartre's famous reply also came out in October 1966 in L'Arc] if this word did not entail a load of meaning which it is precisely the function of structural–or structuralist–thought [good use of "or" to introduce a hesitation between the two adjectives, to raise the question of their possible identity or not, and to question the self-evidence and universality of structural thought, which may be only that of a movement localised in space and time] to reduce or to suspect ["reduce" - phenomenology, "suspect" - the masters of suspicion, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche (he alludes again to Foucault's talk (1964) and to Ricoeur's book DE L'INTERPRETATION, published in 1965), structuralism is both progressive and regressive for Derrida. In the French text, the word is not "loaded", but it's meaning is loaded with presuppositions that it is according to Derrida the mission of structural analysis to unpack, and not to just dismiss]. But let me use the word “event” anyway, employing it with caution in quotation marks. But what would this event be? [conditional, often used in French with the sense of reported but unconfirmed: “But what is this event supposed to be?”,  It would [conditional again, these last two conditionals are missing in the English translation, thus mitigating the modal coherence of the text. They are replaced by a single "will"] have the exterior form of a rupture [allusion to Foucault's text] and a redoubling [this is the opposite of a rupture. It means intensification, but also repeating a year at school, and also in linguistics it means reduplication, a repetition of a syllable producing a tense, modal, or aspectual effect].

This incipit is very well written, giving us a sense of the philosophical context and of the problematic that Derrida is trying to transform and to make a contribution to.

NB: I was moved to do this little analysis of one of the texts of Derrida’s that I like the most on reading Adam Kotsko’s humoristic annotation of Derrida’s text as if he were commenting on a student’s essay.

 

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LATOUR AND HERACLITUS: being-as-other

It is most strange that the first Greek works on being concluded that continuity and self-identity ought to be drawn from being when literally all the grammatical examples – even Aristotle’s categories – stated the exact opposite, deploying the others necessary for the continuation of existence. The hypothesis of a substance beneath subsistence had no reason to exist, and went contrary to the most common facts, even the facts of grammar, and yet it is this forking-off that triumphed – and all because the Sophists had to be silenced and Heraclitianism prevented from devouring everything in its path – or so it seemed. AIME rethinks, in every sense of the word, this forking-off, and is attentive to the evidence: being is the copula that marks alteration, the alienation, the jump, gap, passage, the exploration of the other beings necessary for the temporary and partial maintenance of the identical”. From AIME site.

Also here: “The special contribution of habit is that it is very good at defining essences, continuities that appear to be durable and stable because breaks in continuity are omitted even though they remain “highlightable” and “retrievable” at every moment. It is not that “existence precedes essence” but that behaving like an essence is a mode of existence, a way of being that cannot be substituted for any other and that no other can replace. Without habit, we would never have dealings with essences, but always with discontinuities. The world would be unbearable. It is as if habit produced what stays in place on the basis of what does not stay in place. As if it managed to extract Parmenides’s world on the basis of Heraclitus’s. We can say of habit that in effect it makes the world habitable, that is, susceptible to an ethos, to an ethology.

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WHAT ORDER SHOULD AIME BE WRITTEN IN?

I think it is good to begin with double-click, [DC], as this idea of transport of information without transformation contaminates our presuppositions about potentially every other mode. Suspending [DC] is related to the phenomenological reduction, of beginning by suspending the natural attitude. The order in the book is already a pedagogical order. The order of discovery, as explained by Latour in BIOGRAPHY OF AN INQUIRY and COMING OUT AS A PHILOSOPHER, begins with the mode specific to religion [REL]. Beginning with [REL] would have the advantage of clarity but I think the analysis of religion is flawed and contestable. However, beginning with [REL] also has the advantage of starting with a mode where it is easier for many moderns to see the distortion that [DC] brings about, the “belief in belief”. The transfer of this result to the next mode in Latour’s order of discovery, science or [REF] would be facilitated. Other orders could be adopted for particular audiences.

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REVIEW Of GRAHAM HARMAN’S “THE THIRD TABLE”

My review of Graham Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE has now exceeded 635 views on academia.edu. Neither Harman nor any of his acolytes has given any response to my arguments.

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My article on Graham Harman’s abstractive ontology published in French

An article in French by me on what Mehdi Belhaj Kacem’s “Lettre à Tristan Garcia” can teach us about Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy has just been published.

L’ONTOLOGIE ABSTRACTIVE DE GRAHAM HARMAN:                                                         à l’épreuve de la ‘Lettre à Tristan Garcia’ de Mehdi Belhaj Kacem

It is a rewritten, and in my opinion much improved, version of my original review of the “Letter”, which can be found here on academia.edu. I found translating it allowed me to clarify my concepts and I am pleased with the result, although I would like to write a greatly expanded treatment of OOO in French now.

MBK GH

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BIFURCATIONISM OF OBJECT-ORIENTED PHILOSOPHY

Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy is the polar opposite of the AIME project, in that for it all the modes of veridiction are in the “sensual” realm, and thus sham, simulacra, illusion. Harman’s philosophy thus pushes the bifurcation of Nature to the extreme. It is antithetic to any idea of empirical investigation, as its posited real objects are inaccessible to all forms of experience and knowledge. In effect, this amounts to posing the philosophical as a unique overarching meta-mode.

Harman is one of the most vocal defenders and most vocal critics of Latour’s philosophy. His book PRINCE OF NETWORKS was the first major general evaluation of Latour’s metaphysics in English. A very interesting and very useful exposition of Latour’s early metaphysics in the first half of the book is followed by the outline of Harman’s radically opposed metaphysics in the second half.. Harman argues that the real is composed of objects that withdraw from all relation. This has the unfortunate consequence that real objects are untouchable, invisible, and unknowable. All that we perceive and interact with, all that we know and care for is by stipulation unreal and illusory. Any view to the contrary is branded as “reductionism” (also called “undermining” and “overmining”, depending on the path of reduction). Time is unreal, a thesis explicitly defended by Harman. The existence and nature of these real objects is untestable, no trial can attain them as they are inherently non-relational and inaccessible. The title “object-oriented” is thus a misnomer, as is the name “object” for these entities forever hidden in the depths of being , bearing no relation and no resemblance to what we know and perceive as objects.

This philosophy is a form of absolute ontology comparable to that of Parmenides: Being is immobile (time is unreal), non-empirical (all scientific, sociological, and common sense objects are “shams”), maximally intelligible (the only direct access is a priori intellectual intuition and deduction, however indirect access exists for art guided by this philosophical Stimmung), and exclusive (any entities other than these real objects are “sensual” illusions, deprived of real being).

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RELIGION: MODE, META-MODE, OR SUB-MODE?

This raises the question of the status of religion for the inquiry. It elaborates the hypothesis that religion is a mode. Alternative accounts are possible. One hypothesis is that religion is a sort of sub-mode of a more general mode or group of modes.. Another is that religion is an overarching meta-mode, englobing all modes. In each case the specific difference of religion is maintained, but analysed differently. Only the anthropological inquiry can decide which hypothesis is verified.

It is by no means self-evident, without consulting its practitioners and representatives, that religion is a mode on the same plane as any other mode, rather than an overarching understanding containing all modes. For example, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly in ALL THINGS SHINING argue for the need of a return of the sacred, which they analyse in terms of a pluralism of values and of the “understandings of Being” that correspond to them.Their aim is to restore our awareness of and receptivity to the different modes (values, understandings of beings), to “lure back the gods”, to “become receptive to a modern pantheon of gods” (222). In effect, they argue that REL is both an overarching meta-mode (the ontological pluralism of values, modes, and beings), and one specific mode, that they include under a more general grouping of modes that they call “poiesis” (which corresponds to MET).

Dreyfus and Kelly argue for a renewed sense of the sacred in terms of a pluralist sensibility to multiple valuues embodied in a modern pantheon of “gods”, ranging from emblematic figures (Roger Federer, Marilyn Monroe , Albert Einstein) to works of literature. This both poses religion as an overarching background framework for the whole inquiry into multiple modes of existence (pluralism of modes) and includes the beings of REL under the more general mode of MET (pluralism of beings). They also give an analysis of the religious mode of existence (in their terms “understanding of being”) as a separate mode on a par with others. They link REL to love in the form of a new sense of agape, that they assign to the “Jesus figure” of the gospels.

This analysis is very interesting as they describe the birth of a new mode in terms of a division of labour between the ontological genesis (called “reconfiguration”) and its semiotic formulation (“articulation”). They argue that Jesus as the ontological reconfigurer introduced a new practice and mode of existence, but that this new mode would have gone unperceived if Saint Paul as semiotic articulator had not furnished the language to make it discernable and intelligible.

They describe what one could call the dilemma of incommensurability: either the new mode cannot be understood in terms of pre-existing modes and its practitioners are unintelligible, or it can be understood and it represents no real transformation or break compared to the previous modes:

“if Jesus really revealed a radically new way of life there could be no current language for expressing it. So, if one tried, one would either be unintelligible, and so seem to be crazy, or one would make sense and then the transformation wouldn’t be radical. How can there be a middle ground? In the New Testament, thanks to Paul, we get to see before our very eyes an example of how to manage this seemingly impossible task” (108-109).

So for Dreyfus and Kelly a new mode of existence includes a background framework, paradigmatic beings (in this case Jesus, but also devils and angels), a particular mood or value (agape), and a semiotic formulation (the gospels and epistles). This complexity is responsible for the hesitation over the status of religion. As sensitivity to a multiplicity of values, religion is a meta-mode, as receptivity to the passages of a multiplicity of different sorts of beings it is a sub-mode of poiesis, as understanding of being it is a mode.

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