It seems to me that every text we encounter in philosophy is actually three. The first text might be referred to as the literal text. Even though the literal text is right there, it is something we can never directly encounter because it’s always covered over by the hermeneutic horizon we bring to the text, our assumptions we have about the nature of the world, about the nature of society, the questions we’re asking (rather than the questions the text is asking) and so on. We can approach the literally text, but it also somewhat eludes us. Thus, the literal text always has the power to surprise us, but it is always receding and withdrawing as well. Much of this has to do with points Derrida made about citation and iterability in “Signature Event Context”. If we can never quite encounter the literal text, then this is because every text exceeds it’s context, such that it resonates differently depending on the context it falls into. Texts resonate differently when we read them at different points in life and when they are read at different points in history or in different social conditions. Indeed, texts can sometimes be unreadable because the questions we’re asking render the text completely opaque. This is why the work of criticism is literally inexhaustible. Criticism doesn’t so much seek to get at the literal text or the text in the Real, but rather produces a new text based on how a text resonates in a particular context or setting.
The second text is the text that Freud, Derrida, and Lacan taught us how to read. Drawing on Freud’s theory of dream interpretation, this text is divided or split between manifest content and latent content. The manifest content is what the text would explicitly like to do or argue. It is the project of the text as conceived by the author or what the author thinks he is doing. The latent text, by contrast, is what the text is actually doing despite itself. A perfect example of this play of manifest and latent text is Derrida’s reading of Husserl in Speech and Phenomena. Derrida is able to liberate an uncanny double of Husserl, a simulacrum of Husserl, by reading the traces of a dissident thought within Husserl’s text. Thus, Husserl wants to ground his phenomenology in presence (the “principle of principles” he articulates in Ideas I), yet in his discussion of time and expression, we find a Husserl that articulates a presenting without ground or sense-bestowing transcendental ego. Likewise, Saussure wants to treat speech as primary with respect to writing, yet in his distinction between langue and parole we discover that writing always precedes speech such that again, there can be no origin or foundation in presence. Readings based on this manifest/latent play often produce the most interesting encounters with a philosopher because they produce something new that departs from fidelity to a master, rather than simply trying to articulate the sense or meaning of a text. These readings are essentially psychoanalytic, even though they are not psychoanalyzing the author of the text. They read what the text represses, or for the other text within the text.
The third text is what we might call the text of the community. The text of the community is not the text itself, but rather the text as it has been received and interpreted by a particular community of readers (usually in the academy, but also among the various sects of a religion in relation to their sacred text). In this connection, think about the heyday of existentialism in the United States. During this period, Heidegger was understood as an existentialist in Sartrean flavor and the literal text of Heidegger, all those passages that supported a different project and reading, were largely illegible and invisible. Likewise, uncouple decades ago, Lacan, in the United States, was literally reduced to the mirror stage (especially in film studies). It took the pathbreaking work of Bruce Fink (who really brought Miller to the United States) and Zizek to liberate am very different Lacan where the mirror stage played a minor role.
In the article factory of the American academy it is seldom the case that it is the first or second text is discussed. Rather it is the received text, the text of the community, that is often the object of discussion in articles and at conferences. The same passages from the ur-text are cited again and again, the same books and articles from the master are cited again and again. As am consequence, the text of the community comes to replace and obscure the literal text, rendering it invisible and beyond the possibility of being read with new eyes, encountering all it’s strangeness, reading it “to the letter” as Lacan recommended. It is for this reason that it is sometimes prudent to cease discussing certain thinkers altogether for a time. This is what the Enlightenment thinkers recommended. Rather than continuing to grapple with the scholastics and Aristotle, they simply ceased talking about them. This was a necessary condition for a new sequence of thought to emerge. Likewise, Sartre had to go out of fashion in the United States in order for an encounter with Heidegger and the other phenomenologists to take place. The treatment Sartre received from the Heideggerians phenomenologists in the United States was unfair and failed to do justice to the richness of Sartre’s text, but this misses the point. The issue was not one of accurate readings, but of shifting paradigms and bodies of research, clearing a space in which a new sequence of thought might emerge. That required a repression of Sartre’s thought and a mistreatment of his text.
The issue here is not one of accuracy in reading, but of institutional power structures. Academics don’t read in a vacuum. Rather, which texts are cited and how they are cited is collective structure, akin to what Foucault called an “episteme” governing, guiding, and constraining what research scholars do. The mechanisms of these power structures manifest themselves in how grad students are trained, in the formation of canons of essential texts, in how texts are selected for publication by journals and presses, how talks are selected for conferences, and how discussion unfolds at professional conferences. The key point is that the canon is always somewhat contingent or arbitrary. Other figures, texts, and questions could make up the canon, yet the academy naturalizes the canon treating these texts and questions could just as easily form communities of the text. As a consequence, academe functions as a reterritorializing mechanism, striving to reterritorialize any dissident reading of any dissident reading of a thinker or any introduction of new or forgotten thinkers back upon the current cannon. This takes either one of two forms: either the text is outrightly rejected as minor or naive (Deleuze encountered much of this in his attempt to resurrect Hume in a French context), or the interpretation is treated as outrightly deviant and mistaken (Lacan encountered this in terms of his reading of Freud with respect to the IPA). Academe functions to minimize deterritorialization which comes as no surprise given how much time is bound up in our research and how much our professional lives are bound up with resonating with the texts of the community. Try, for example, to have a serious discussion of Dennett and Gould at SPEP and see what happens and what sort of responses you receive.
Repressed texts, of course, return at later points. Right now, for example, I think Sartre is ripe for a comeback. Part of the groundwork for this return has been laid by Badiou, whose work is deeply indebted to Sartre. Badiou’s work is able to effect this return of the repressed because his thought is quickly becoming canonical in Continental circles. However, this return of Sartre will be the return of a very different Sartre, now resonating with the topological and set theoretical preoccupations arising out of Lacan and structuralist thought, and not a return of the Sartre of “Existentialism is a Humanism”. If Sartre returns, it will be in a reading not unlike Lacan’s reading of Freud, where Freud was read not in terms of how he conceived his project, but in terms of the letter of his text, leading to appropriations and theoretical constellations often at odds with many of Freud’s own stated intentions. Lacan’s reading of Freud was an exemplary psychoanalytic reading, reading what Freud actually says, rather than attending to what Freud intended to say. If Sartre does return, it will literally be a new Sartre. This is how it goes.