In the centre of it all

The Puzzle of Philosophy

One of my favourite aspects of reading continental theory or philosophy is the connects that pop out at you from the pages. The more well versed you are in the tradition, the more things will connect and pop out at you while reading. This is even true within a single text: If you read Being and Time a second time new things will develop out of the reading that weren’t apparent during your initial reading. Because you know where the text is headed, the journey becomes fully new. Subsequent readings allow us to see the dense layering that exists within the text that is not apparent initially. One becomes more attuned to the painting that is being put together by the artist, and is able to see how the various parts of the tapestry fit together.

When we read multiple texts by various authors, it often seems as if we can reach out and bring different parts together, as if we are putting together a puzzle. The more we explore, the more elements of that puzzle come into focus. As a result, new things and new connections might come about that weren’t there in previous explorations.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. This puzzle is not the same as a typical puzzle. It does not ‘exist’ in a way that can be ‘discovered’. Instead this puzzle is a work of art that the reader is constantly producing while reading. Each of us is capable of creating our own puzzle or tapestry that brings together different elements from seemingly divergent (or not so divergent) readings. In this act one is acting both a creator and curator: Some pieces might initially fit together, but will require weeding at a later date. But throughout this curatorial process of addition and subtraction (affirmation and negation, one might say…) something novel is created. Through this curatorial process, the puzzle is constantly going through a process of becoming. In this way, the puzzle is never “finished”. Instead, it is always moving, shifting and transforming in various directions.

An initial connection: Derrida and Sloterdijk

In the villa of Ormen,  in the villa of Ormen/ Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah/ In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all/ Your eyes. -David Bowie

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve begun reading Derrida for the first time as part of a reading group through the Turtle Island Cooperative Farm and Research Centre (which is doing some really interesting work, and you should check them out!). I’ve really been appreciating this reading so far, as it has opened up a variety of questions and connections which engage with others areas of thought that I have thought about. By connecting Derrida’s project to these other areas, I hope to open up something new, or at least to transform my own creative process in some way.

In his work, Derrida comes to a world that is dominated by structuralism and phenomenology. These are two very distinct and different discourses which are each, in their own ways, attempting to overcome the system of metaphysics which dominated the Western tradition since the time of Plato and Aristotle. Derrida believes that, despite their attempt to escape the metaphysics of presence and logocentrism that are central to the Western philosophical tradition, both phenomenology and structuralism fall prey to what they are attempting to escape. Phenomenology attempts to escape the mediated presence by doubling down into the phenomenal experience, whereas structuralism attempts to alienate all subjective experience in favor of a cold realism. Yet, as Derrida shows in his work, both fail to overcome what they critique of Western metaphysics.

Despite this, Derrida does not believe that these discourses are worthless. In fact, he garnishes high praise of both discourses, which he claims allowed the very possibility of his own pursuits [in other words they allowed his tapestry to take shape]. Rather than suggesting that these discourses are worthless, Derrida uses them as a starting point for his project of deconstruction.

Basic Schema
Basic Structure.

Structures tend to depend on a centre. For Derrida, it is this centre which acts as a foundation and a limit on the system itself. In Christian theology, the centre of the system was God. The system would not work without God holding the structure in place and allowing everything to function. Yet, at the same time, within the system, the centre is on the one thing “which while governing the structure, escape structurality” (Margins of Philosophy, 279). The centre is the presence or logos of the system–thus a system that depends on the centre is, for Derrida, logocentric. The entire system depends on its logos. For the structuralists–who wished to move away from the transcendental—the sign retains the place of God in the centre of the structure. In this way, the sign remains transcendental, and structuralism remains logocentric.

The structure itself functions as a kind of container, holding the system within. This allows the system to be demarcated or differentiated against those things that don’t fit within it. Thus, each system is granted an inside (y) and and outside (z). For Saussure–a prominent linguist who Derrida spends a great deal of time responding to–the sign is the unity of the signified and the signifier. The signified being the object, the signifier the word describing that object. Writing, on the other hand, is the representation of the signifier; it is a representation of a representation. Writing falls outside the natural system of speech. As a result, it falls outside of a ‘natural system’ that Saussure believes there to be. Writing is thus Othered, and placed outside of the structure. Yet, writing continuously changes the way that we speak, shifting the way that words are pronounced, and sentences are structured. In this way, writing is both political and violent. The written word can pervert the spoken language, as people begin to speak as the word is written. Instead of protecting language, the written word attacks it. Thus the system as a whole, for Saussure, must be set up to protect against the violence of the written word in order to protect the natural order.

Saussure
Saussure’s System

This system of inside verses outside looks a lot similar to the sphere of Europe that is put forward by Peter Sloterdijk in his trilogy on Spheres. According to Sloterdijk, the European system “places…God into the center of being and grants him insight into his own universal orb from within” (Bubbles, 89). For Sloterdijk, the Europeans treated God as an immunological system of protection against the outside (those who weren’t a part of Christian Europe).

Sloterdijk
Sloterdijk’s Europe

This connection all fits within Derrida’s reading of logocentrism. Both the Christian/European tradition as well as structuralism fit within this category. Saussure’s structuralism simply replaces God with the ‘sign’ as a transcendental logos.

Derrida

With this system in mind, we finally get to how Derrida hopes to deconstruct the system. According to Arthur Bradley, a commentator on Derrida, deconstruction is too often understood as destruction. “As its unusual etymology – with those two apparently contradictory prefixes ‘de-’ and ‘con-’ rubbing shoulders against one another – suggests, ‘deconstruction’ actually describes a double process that is both positive and negative, both destructive and constructive” (Bradley, Derrida’s Of Grammatology, 42). But, deconstruction does not put things back together, as we would typically understand construction. Instead, it helps us move in a third direction between destruction and construction, understanding the thing that is constituted. According to Bradley, “deconstruction is not something we do to a text from the ‘outside’, so to speak, so much as something that we reveal about the way in which any text is internally constructed” (Ibid., 43). Derrida himself says the following of Deconstruction:

“Deconstructing this tradition will therefore not consist in reversing it, of making writing innocent. Rather of showing why the violence of writing does not befall an innocent language. There is an originary violence of writing because language is first, in a sense, I shall gradually reveal, writing. “Usurpation” has always already begun. The sense of the right side appears in a mythological effect of return” (Of Grammatology, 37)

Deconstruction does not come from outside the system. Instead, it reveals the internal contradictions of a system which undermines the system itself. This is what happens in Sloterdijk’s Europe.

The people sought to protect against the external with God, but as Europe continued to expand, the sphere itself came to encompass everything. God was no longer necessary against the outside forces. God died not because of an attack from the outside, but because of the logical end of the system. For all of the worrying about the outside, no defence was prepared against the internal attack. In Of Grammatology, and Structure, Sign and Play Derrida suggests that Structuralism’s system will ultimately come to an end in the same way. The internal structure itself is undermined by the violence of writing—not because writing attacks from the outside, but rather because it is already internal to the system itself. Like Europe for Sloterdijk, Saussure has already invited the undoing of his system into the very structure of its sphere.

More Connections: Derrida, Christianity and Capitalism.

In a similar vein to the system of European Christianity and Linguistics, Accelerationists have suggested that Capitalism will be undone not by an external force, but instead by the contradictions internal to the system.

capital

Capitalism creates a new logos: Capital. Capitalism depends against its external limit. This limit excludes things like communism and anarchism, but historically has also excluded groups like homosexuals who have not fit into the heteronormative way of life. This latter example provides evidence of one way that capital defends itself against the outside: it constantly seeks to bring those things outside of itself into itself so that it can make more money off of them. One can look at the difference between the influence of the initial pride parade at the Stonewall bar and the corporate influence of contemporary Pride to see how capital has taken advantage of something that used to be outside of itself. (One could say something similar about the way that capitalism was adopted at a State level by the Soviet Union, and the way that China is, today, among the most capitalist countries in the world).

The reason for these examples is to show that capitalism provides a unique, but strong, defense against external threats. Capitalism is the most effective deterritorializing force that we know of in history–much more effective than Christianity. As Deleuze and Guattari suggest, it is able to reterritorialize everything with capital as it continues deterritorializing its outer limit. Yet, perhaps, if we think about the other structures which are logocentric, and think about how they produce their own destruction from within, we can understand a potential end of capitalism as well.

Derrida’s understanding of this system as theological is immensely helpful for understanding how this sort of overcoming will take place–and there are so many connections to be made between Derrida and other thinkers who produce this sort of overcoming from within. In a lecture series that I recently read through: “Security, Territory, Population,” Michel Foucault suggests that the thing that leads to the destruction of Christian hegemony in Europe is not some external force, but Christianity itself. Unlike Sloterdijk, this deconstruction does not take place because of territorial expansion, but because of the practices of the Church undermining the pastoral order. Foucault suggests that within the system of the Church, there was a requirement of obedience to the pastor (like a sheep to a shepherd). But, over time, pastors and congregations adopted practices like asceticism, communitarianism, and the inerrancy of scripture. These practices stripped the power of the pastorate (giving it to the individual, community, or scripture respectively). This ultimately led to the stripping of political power from the Church in Europe. Yet, these very practices came out of the pastorate themselves, it was not the result of some external force. It was the pastorate itself which led to the undoing of its power—not some external force (See Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 242-248).

I can’t help but bring up the philosopher Slavoj Zizek here as well. Zizek suggests that only thorugh Christianity can one become an atheist. For Zizek, most formations of atheism remain within a system of theology. For instance, many atheists turn to science as a transcendental centre on which they place their faith. It is science, they believe, which can provide them with truth, meaning, and understanding about the reality that we live in. Because of this, God is no longer necessary, as God has been replaced by science. Yet, such a system of thought remains theological. Like the linguist who retains the divine in the transcendental sign, the atheist retains the divine through their faith in science. For Zizek, it is only through God’s death on the cross that one can become an atheist. The main difference between Zizek and Derrida (as well as Foucault) is that Zizek is a thinker of the dialectic. He believes that this process is a dialectical one. Yet, still for Zizek, the way outside of Christianity does not occur on the basis of some force external to Christianity. Instead, Christianity can only be overcome through itself: Theology can only truly be negated through the affirmation of Christianity to its radical conclusion: That God is dead and there is no transcendental or divine left to save us–not science, not the sign, not God (see Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf; The Frail Absolute).

capital

Having gone through this pathway of Christianity overcoming itself, we can perhaps return to the structure given of capitalism. Capitalism is consistently deterritorializing its outer limit, but what of its inner limit? Deleuze and Guattari suggest that capitalism has both a relative and absolute limit. The relative limit is the capitalist social formation. This limit is constantly being decoded and deterritorialized by capitalism in order to create more wealth. Deleuze and Guattari say of this process that capitalism “is continually drawing near the wall, while at the same time pushing the wall further away” (Anti-Oedipus, 176). Capitalism doesn’t allow a full deterritorialization. it seeks to “encaste the merchant and the technician, preventing flows of money and flows of production from assuming an autonomy that would destroy their codes” as such a deterritorialization or decoding would go past “the real limit” (Ibid.).

Such an analysis of capitalism suggests that the way to overcome capitalism is not by means of a dialectic struggle from the outside, but rather from within. That capitalism itself leads to a contradiction through which is will overcome itself. Deleuze and Guattari suggest this even more powerfully in one of the more well known passages from Anti-Oedipus

“But which is the revolutionary path? Is there one?–To withdraw from the world market…in a curious revival of the fascist ‘economic solution’? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and a practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process’, as Nietzsche put it: in this manner, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.” (Anti-Oedipus 239-240)

Like Derrida, that solution to the structure is not to overcome from without, but from within. This is to attack the structure by driving the structure to its logical conclusion. This is, arguably, more dangerous when it comes to capitalism than when it comes to metaphysics (though one could argue that realities such as racism are just as grounded in faulty logocentric metaphysical systems). Deleuze and Guattari themselves become much more cautious of this sort of acceleration in A Thousand Plateaus.

Closing remarks

My goal in these brief musings has not been to solve anything. I have likely opened up more questions for myself and others than I have closed–but that has been the precise point. My goal was to connect things–things that have likely been connected before, and will likely be connected again–but to connect them as my brain connects them while reading. To open up new thoughts, and to produce new pathways.

These connections should not be taken as fixed. Deleuze and Derrida, for instance, have much different projects, and should not be taken as producing the same theory. That said, there are connections between the two (connections that likely result from their mutual admiration for Nietzsche). In any case, I’m excited to read more Derrida over the next 7 or so weeks. It’ll be interesting to see what other connections pop out.

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