Or this is what seems to be the case these days. After years of anti-realism being the status quo in American Continental circles, it now seems that everyone is stumbling over themselves to show that their favorite thinker is really a realist. Such appears to be the case with Adam Kotsko, in a rather snide and lecturing post responding to what I believed to be a rather generous post on Hägglund and Derrida in light of the Derrida debate that came out of nowhere on my blog last week (I repeat again that the post that generated that debate wasn’t even about Derrida). Quoting me, Kotsko goes on to write in his, to put it mildly, colorful fashion,

A recent post by Levi is illustrative of the attitude at work:

Currently I am reading Hägglund’s Radical Atheism with great excitement and a strange sense of affinity. Throughout, Hägglund explores Derrida’s conception of time and its implications. Hägglund’s book is marked, at the outset, with three virtues. First, the clarity of his prose and his argumentation is to be highly commended and is something to be emulated. Second, this is not a slavish book devoted to a pious repetition of Derrida, but develops arguments and lines of thought in its own right. Third, Hägglund develops a realist version of Derrida that doesn’t restrict these claims to the human, texts, or language, but extends it to all life (here I’m left wondering why he restricts these ontological claims to life, rather than going all the way and extending them to all beings).

The third point is what I’d like to address: that’s not a version of Derrida, it’s just Derrida. Yes, Derrida’s method almost always involves the analysis of some particularly representative or symptomatic text. Yet those texts are about something. He’s not just analyzing them to be clever, he’s analyzing them because he believes them to be particularly illustrative of the difficulties of analyzing whatever phenomenon he’s analyzing. So, for instance, Of Grammatology is not primarily about the texts of Rousseau, it’s a book about human language in general. The Animal I Therefore Am is about animals. Rogues is about politics. On Touching: Jean-Luc Nancy is about touching. I could go on and on, as could anyone with access to the backs of these various books. This is the simplest possible point: Derrida talks about a lot of things.

As is his general modus operandi, Adam reduces my position to a mere straw man (“Derrida is just trying to be clever” and this reading of Derrida is just “common sense”) and then proceeds to argue that something like Hägglund’s reading of Derrida is “just plain obvious”. No, it is not at all obvious that this “just is” Derrida. Derrida’s textual engagements are indeed about something, but that doesn’t entail that they are about a world independent of humans and language. It is perfectly legitimate to read Derrida as carefully demonstrating that due to the play of language any presence (i.e., one variant of realism) is impossible. Under this reading, Derrida would be carefully demonstrating the ruin of presence due to the play of language patiently in each text. In his post, Kotsko mentions Derrida as an “internal critic of phenomenology” citing texts like Speech and Phenomena and implying that I’m unfamiliar with this work. What Kotsko fails to mention is that Derrida’s critique of Husserl revolves around showing the play of signification in his thought (er Adam, did you miss that first chapter on sign and signs and the distinction between expression and indication?) and that Derrida’s critique of Husserl revolves around showing that representation always and necessarily precedes presentation, thereby spelling the ruin of Husserl’s principle of all principles.

In order for a realist version of Derrida to get off the ground what is needed is an account of representation that has nothing to do with the human or language. In other words, it would have to be shown that this primacy of representation or the trace, this trace that was never present, would be something operative in all beings even if humans and language did not exist. I am not suggesting that such an account of trace is impossible– this is precisely what I find interesting in Hägglund’s work and was what I was suggesting could be done in my onticology –but it is not self-evident that it’s there already in Derrida. Why else would we have readings of Derrida as an anti-realist by talented scholars like Lee Braver in A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism? However, such a reading requires, I believe, sifting through a lot of gravel and text that suggest the anti-realist reading to get there.

All this aside, I find it very interesting that everyone is suddenly stumbling to be a realist. In his little essay on Mao, Zizek remarks that ideological battles are won when your opponents begin using your vocabulary to articulate their own positions. It seems that something like this is beginning to take place.