Friday, December 31, 2010

A Thought for the End of the Year

I seem to have covered a fair amount of ground in my reading this year, often using this site as a “laboratory notebook” when I was trying to puzzle my way through some of the more difficult texts I encountered.  It therefore seems appropriate to approach the end of the calendar year with a paragraph from Jacques Derrida.  The source is “Plato’s Pharmacy” (in Barbara Johnson’s translation), where it is the opening statement (so to speak):

A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game.  A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible.  Its law and its rules are not, however, harbored in the inaccessibility of a secret;  it is simply that they can never be booked, in the present, into anything that could rigorously be called a perception.

I find it slightly ironic that I read this paragraph shortly after having wrestled my way through Derrida’s “From Restricted to General Economy:  A Hegelianism without Reserve,” which had left me with the impression that Derrida was wrestling his way through Georges Bataille’s analysis of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, with a particular emphasis on the Phänomenologie des Geistes, which comes out as “phenomenology of mind” in Alan Bass’ translation of Derrida’s essay.  I have no problem confessing that, having worked my way through this text in its entirety, I cannot say that I have formed “anything that could rigorously be called a perception” (or, in more verb-based language, “performed any productive act of sensemaking”) as a result of my reading.

One way to approach what Derrida has in mind with regard to approaching a text through “the law of its composition and the rules of its game” is through Johnson’s account of deconstruction in her introduction to Derrida’s Dissemination:

The deconstruction of a text does not proceed by random doubt or generalized skepticism, but by the careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text itself.  If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not meaning but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another.  This, of course, implies that a text signifies in more than one way, and to varying degrees of explicitness.  Sometimes the discrepancy is produced, as here, by a double-edged word, which serves as a hinge that both articulates and breaks open the explicit statement being made.

Note that the “double-edged word” for which Derrida is probably best known is “différance,” which has “differ” on one “edge” and “defer” on the other.

Where Bataille is concerned, however, I have to wonder whether signification was even remotely part of the game he was playing.  I like the way his Wikipedia entry refers to him as a “renegade surrealist,” since I often think of surrealism as a strategy through which all matters of substance (the domain of perception and sensemaking) have been forced to “defer” (to play with Derrida’s terminology) to some set of arbitrarily chosen “axioms of style.”  Substance is thus subjugated to a point where it is no longer part of the equation.  In the domain of literature, one assembles the text to satisfy the constraints of the axioms;  and what the reader does with that text (even if some of the words purport to be taking on the concept of “sovereignty” in Hegel) is his/her own business.

This could be taken as a reductio ad absurdum of the sort of prankishness that Friederich Nietzsche claimed as a motivation for much of his own writing.  However, this is far from the first time I have encountered this kind of subjugation of substance by style.  Much of the work of the New York School of John Cage and those who worked with him involved setting down some of those axioms and then just seeing whether they led.  (Cage once quoted Morton Feldman as saying, “Now that it is so simple, there’s so much to do.”)  On the literary side there is Oulipo, the “Workshop for Potential Literature” formed in France in 1960 by Raymond Queneau, described in the Oulipo Laboratory anthology as “a celebrated novelist and poet and a not inconsequential amateur mathematician,” along with the chess master François Le Lionnais.  I had a colleague who tried to take on Queneau’s “The Foundations of Literature (after David Hilbert).”  He assumed that, because the text looked like a paper on mathematics (metamathematics, to be specific), it must ultimately be about one or more theorems that are rigorously proved.  He was never able to entertain the hypothesis that Queneau was just playing with the “appearance” of mathematical text without making any commitment to stating (let alone proving) any mathematical propositions.

My point is that there may well be times when the author is simply trying to pull a fast one on the reader.  Thus, Derrida may have assumed that Bataille had something significant to say about Hegel;  and, because of his own serious interest in Hegel, he fell for the joke.  Now we have a new generation of literary scholars who will approach “From Restricted to General Economy” and miss the joke that Derrida was the butt of Bataille’s joke.  This sort of thing can go on for some time through a serious of purportedly “learned essays.”  They will support each other with the elegance of a house of cards, but who will have the courage to shake the table?

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