It looks like some debates about Derrida are emerging once again. I don’t wish to ignite that fracas all over, but I was interested in something James over at Critical Animal says. James writes:

But still, this idea that Derrida was never invested in creating his own philosophical positions seem to either come from too narrow of a reading of Derrida, or too narrow of an idea of philosophy, or both. If you look at the ‘late’ Derrida, he is clearly trying to work out ideas of cosmopolitanism, friendship/fraternity, and hospitality. Frequently in a non-anthropocentric register. He did so both through recourse to other texts, but also through a profound number of insights of his own that were not mere textual glosses.

I haven’t read most of the posts in the current round of Derrida debates, but I was surprised by James’ remarks here. Are people really claiming that Derrida develops no philosophical position or that he only gives textual glosses? I’ve never thought such a thing. It’s always seemed to me that Derrida is making rather strong philosophical claims. To me it seems that Derrida’s core thesis is that reality is structured by the signifier for humans. At the heart of this claim are the two central theses of structuralist linguistics that 1) signifiers are differentially constituted (hence all the stuff about differance and the trace), and 2) that signifiers only refer to other signifiers. As Lacan articulated the latter point, “the signifier represents the subject for another signifier”. Within this framework, then, the referential function is undermined as language only refers to language, never to world. Derrida constantly explores the limits of language– hence his interest in Levinas –but only, it seems to me, as opening on to an Other that exceeds all possibility of being articulated in language.

Methodologically, the conclusion that follows from this is that talk about the world can only ever be talk about talk or language. This can take the form of the analysis of texts, of speech, of the semiotics of clothing, etc. But working in the background is always the thesis that reality is a signifying construction. To talk about an object such as the telephone on my desk is thus not to talk about my telephone, but about a signifying construction (here reference should be made to Derrida’s discussions of manifestation and phenomena vis a vis Peircian semiotics in Of Grammatology). So sure, Derrida talks about hospitality, cosmopolitanism, friendship/fraternity, etc. (whoever suggested otherwise), but isn’t this always on the horizon of a nominalism where reality is linguistically constructed and where we are inextricably trapped within language? Put a little bit differently, of course Derrida talks about objects all the time (coins, cats, dogs, weapons, etc), but he can do this because all of these objects are texts. His dialectic thus unfolds perpetually around a play between the trace of an Other perpetually withdrawing from language and unreachable and the text of being that’s a signifying construction. One operation consists in demonstrating how attempts to fix reference or presence are always undermined by the play of the signifier (“Parergon”, his reading of Kant’s third Critique is an exemplary example of this), while the other operation consists in marking the place or site of the always undetermined Other (the gift might take place, but if it does it will always be an event that takes place behind our backs, that can’t be anticipated, that can’t be known if it does happen, and that can’t be pinned down). The former operation ceaselessly reveals the manner in which signifier refers to signifiers, rather than a transcendental signified (a concept, form, essence, or universal apart from language) or referent (entities that exist independently of language). As a consequence, manifestation or phenomenality is an effect of this differential play of language or the signifier, not a being apart from language itself. The caveat, of course, is that there is always the possibility (which is simultaneously impossible) of a withdrawn Other. This really isn’t what Derrida is arguing?

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