In light of the Derrida discussions I’ve been left feeling paranoid, wondering whether I’ve gotten everything entirely wrong and have just failed to understand the big-D. This wouldn’t be a surprise, given the difficulty of his work and the fact that I haven’t engaged with it deeply for nearly a decade. At any rate, I’ve gone back to Lee Braver’s wonderful A Thing of This World to determine whether my reading is off the mark. There, Braver cites the following passage from Of Grammatology:
Yet if reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language [my emphasis], that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above; as regards the absence of the referent or the transcendental signified [my emphasis]. There is nothing outside the text. And that is neither because Jean-JJacques’ life, or the existence of Mamma or Therese themselves, is not of prime interest to us, nor because we have access to their so-called ‘real’ existence [my emphasis] only in the text and we have neither any means of altering this, nor any right to neglect this limitation. All reasons of this type would already be sufficient, to be sure, but there are more radical reasons: What we have tried to show by following the guiding line of the ‘dangerous supplement,’ is that in what one calls the real life of these existences ‘of flesh and bone,’ beyond and behind what one believes can be circumscribed as Rousseau’s text, there has never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the ‘real’ supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from a trace and from an invocation of the supplement, etc. [my emphasis]. And thus to infinity, for we have read, in the text, that the absolute present, Nature, that which words like ‘real mother’ name, have always already escaped, have never existed [my emphasis]; that what opens meaning and language is writing as disappearance of natural presence [my emphasis]. (OG, 158 – 159)
Declarations such as this can be found all over the place in Derrida’s works. So a couple of questions here: First, how is this not the claim that language is a primary modeling system for all human relations to everything else? I find it notable that in all the Derrida discussions so far there’s been no reference to the idea of a transcendental signified in the form of a referent. Derrida is exceptionally clear in this passage. Language is a primary modeling system rendering any access to beings apart from language impossible. As Circling Squares has so nicely put it (here and here), the thesis is that signifiers only ever refer to signifiers without ever being able to touch a signified. To be sure, trace and differance “open” language, but the fact remains that the thesis is that our relation to being is always only restricted to the framework of language or signs (it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference) as a primary modeling system.
Second, how are those defending Derrida against the charge of correlationism understanding “correlationism”? Between the Kant discussions that took place a year or so ago and the Derrida debates, I get the sense that defenders of anti-realism understand the charge of correlationism to be the accusation of Berkeleyian idealism. Hell, in the Kant discussions I even got people telling me Kant is a realist because he advocates the existence of things-in-themselves (i.e., being(s)(?) apart from humans and correlation). I was derided for suggesting that Kant is a Berkeleyian idealist. But I’ve never suggested such a thing. The charge of correlation is not the charge of Berkeleyian idealism or the thesis that perception, mind, language, etc., “makes” being. Correlationists can very well advocate the existence of some sort of being apart from the human or language. Rather, correlationism is the thesis that being can only ever be articulated in terms of the correlation such that we can have no knowledge of a) whether the beings making up the field of phenomena (the “for-us”) exist independent of us as they appear to exist for us (Brian Cantwell Smith, for example, argues that being-in-itself is pure flux that is then carved up by discourse and perception), or b) such that we can never know whether the objects we experience as phenomena resemble beings-in-themselves. This is exactly what Derrida is saying in the passage above. Because language is a primary modeling system, we can have no knowledge of whether being itself is anything like it appears to be to us through our linguistically/semiotically mediated frames. That’s correlationism.