As I mentioned earlier today, I’ve been enjoying Lee Braver’s chapter on Derrida in A Thing of This World as I try to figure out whether I’ve gotten it all wrong about Derrida. Braver’s reading is comforting to me as it basically confirms exactly the sort of reading that Bogost, Morton, Graham, Cogburn and I have been defending (I had seriously begun to wonder whether I had read an entirely different set of books when I spent a lot of time with Derrida a while back). I also find this reassuring because certain people who have been accusing me of not knowing what the hell I’m talking about (I’m not referring to Adam or Alex here), devoted a reading group to Braver’s book a while back and seemed to have no objections to this portrayal of Derrida at that time. For Braver, Derrida’s arguments follow from the properties of language he outlines and these arguments revolve around the impossibility of language referring to a real independent of language that isn’t always already contaminated by the play of the signifier. I am not suggesting that that reading is right, only that it is not crazy or sloppy to advocate this reading. Moreover, Braver is not some sloppy literary critic who just hasn’t understood Derrida (a rather insulting characterization of literary critics that’s popped up a couple of times in discussions), but is a well-trained philosopher who has done a good deal of careful and rigorous interpretive work. Braver’s no slouch.
However, what interests me most about Braver’s reading is his critique of concepts such as trace, differance, and arche-writing on pages 464 – 494. There, following Rorty, Braver observes that,
Derrida’s susceptibility comes from using the kinds of terms that Rorty nominates as the necessary condition for other important phenomena, that is, arche-writing, trace, and above all, differance. And indeed, as the original self-differentiation that is the source of all further differences, differance is frequently described as the necessary condition for articulation, enabling entities to be distinct from one another and thus to be themselves which allows us to know and name them. In other words, like Being itself, differance is ‘what makes possible the presentation of the being-present.’ Derrida defines differance variously as the condition of “temporalization as well as relationship with the other and language” (Derrida, G 60; see also Derrida, Ltd, 129), of the “sensible plenitude” and “all that one calls sign” (Derrida, G 62; see also Derrida, WD 71), “the positive sciences” (Derrida, G 63), “the opposition of presence and absence” (143), “languages” (268; see also 315), and “nominal effects” (Derrida, MP 26). Differance is “the very opening of the space in which ontotheology– philosophy –produces its system and its history” (6), and, of course, “this movement of differance is not something that happens to a transcendental subject” (Derrida, SP 82). In order to do Heidegger one better, it even “is the condition for there being an envoi, possibly an envoi of being, a dispensation or a gift of being and time, of the present and of representation” (Derrida, “SOR” 136). His commitment to the indefinitely open future should prevent any totalities, but Derrida speaks of “the structure of textuality in general… This is how a text always comes about” (Derrida, EO 51; see also Derrida, Ltd 48; Derrida, Dis 209). He writes that differance operates everywhere, concluding that “for me, life is differance” (407). He calls iterability a structure that is “universal and necessary” and asks rhetorically, “Wouldn’t the apocalyptic be a transcendental condition of all discourse, of all experience even, of every mark or every trace?” (466)
Braver’s worry is that Derrida’s differance, trace, and arche-writing sound suspiciously like the metaphysical grounds or arche he seeks to undermine, thereby situating his thought strictly within the field of metaphysics as ontotheology. The immediate rejoinder to this criticism is, of course, that differance, trace, and arche-writing are strictly speaking, no-thing, and therefore are immune to the charge of being originary presences. However, here Braver is quick to point out that Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception is also no-thing, serves a similar role to Derrida’s trace, arche-writing, and differance, yet nonetheless becomes a target of deconstructive critique in Derrida.
[As an aside, I here have to say that if it is true that for Derrida trace, text, arche-writing, and differance are “ultratranscendental conditions” for everything, why does he continuously fall back an a discussion of texts whenever discussing anything in the vulgar sense? One of the cornerstones of Derrida’s own exemplary deconstructive readings consists in reading the texts of an author in the fold between their stated intentions and what they actually do. I’ve been criticized for employing this very sort of reading with respect to other thinkers, suggesting that somehow I’m betraying the letter of the text. But this technique of reading is something I learned from Derrida (and Lacan). In particular, it’s a sort of reading Derrida deploys in Of Grammatology with respect to Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Rousseau. There he shows how the texts of these thinkers “speak” against the stated intentions of the authors (e.g., for Saussure he cannot avoid treating writing as a condition for speech despite his express intention to see writing as a derivative representation of speech).
I see no reason not to employ a similar methodology with Derrida. And here, if it is true that Derrida wishes to treat text, differance, arche-writing, and trace as an ultratranscendental condition of everything, why does he always behave as if texts (in the vulgar sense), discourses, etc., are the primary modeling system? Earlier in the Derrida discussions someone mentioned that in Of Grammatology, Derrida treats DNA as a writing system. Apart from the fact that Kate Hayles has done an exemplary job showing why computer language and things like DNA can’t adequately be treated as languages in texts like My Mother Was a Computer, I find myself wondering whether we can really imagine Derrida approaching DNA as a text in its own right. Were Derrida to broach the theme of DNA in a sustained way, wouldn’t we see Derrida analyzing texts by scientists about DNA, rather than investigating DNA itself (while, of course, drawing on written texts about DNA)? Wouldn’t he treat language as the primary modeling system of DNA? Isn’t this really part of Derrida’s appeal and strength? That he allows us to approach everything through text (in the vulgar sense)? Isn’t this exactly how Butler makes use of Derridean methodologies in her critique of the biological basis of sex in Gender Trouble, for example? And wouldn’t anyone who tried to approach DNA itself in a Derridean way be accused by many other Derrideans of naivety as a consequence of believing that we can talk about referents independent of language?]
But I digress. What interests me about Braver’s worries is not so much what they say about Derrida, but what they make me think about OOO. It seems to me that OOO is “post-metaphysical” (as the term is used in Derrida and Heidegger’s sense, not OOO’s sense) in precisely the way that Derrida wants. For OOO there is no ultimate arche or ground out of which everything issues like differance, power, God, force, Being, Substance, etc. There are just objects. Nor are these objects all the same. There are semiotic objects, fictional objects, animals, subjects, natural objects, groups, perhaps universals, etc. Hell, maybe there’s even God (theorized in the proper OOO sense, however). There is no one type of object upon which all other objects are based or founded (OOO is not a materialism, though it has no problem with matter). These objects do not originate in some Grand Pooba object out of which everything issues, but rather are destroyed by other objects and emerge out of other objects.
Finally, for OOO objects are not only withdrawn from each other, but are withdrawn from themselves as well. Substance does not name an “in-itself presence” that resides in a joyful identity with itself, but refers to beings that are fissured both internally and with respect to other entities. Nothing is completely present, there is no transcendental signified. Isn’t this above all what deconstruction is asking for and isn’t this a move beyond metaphysics as the metaphysics of presence? Isn’t this precisely a world without ultimate arche that would ground everything else and from which everything would originate, and without terms that are fully present and self-identical? Evoking an analogy that I’ve evoked in the past from Zizek, wouldn’t this amount to being healed by the Wagnerian spear that smote us? Rather than seeing differance, trace, and arche-writing as the ruin of substance and metaphysics, the claim would be that “no! this is itself metaphysics, but a metaphysics that has yet to comprehend itself as it still has one foot in the old metaphysics of presence as the normative ideal of what metaphysics is supposed to be!” However, this withdrawal would not be an effect of language or text, but would be the very being of objects, regardless of whether or not language exists or humans are involved.