after a break, moving boxes, moving books…
books and boxes.
returning to charles taylor, where i left off more than a week ago. taylor, in overcoming epistemology, issues a challenge, a call to arms… tracing epistemology through the sciences to post-modernism (which i propose is more accurately structuralism and it’s posts-) where it gets lost in solipsism, only to be found again in and by the hermeneutic tradition. what is at stake for taylor is a knowing that allows us to engage the world and others in it. he is looking a ‘serious argument’ from the other side (foucault, derrida and nietzsche). from ronell (see stupidity), derrida (limited. inc) and even rousseau (the confessions) i am learning to be leery of the serious. and yet,
or perhaps because…
i would like to respond. before this can happen, if it can happen at all, a critical clarification seems to be in order. i am not the first to make it: as levi bryant at larval subjects writes it, there is epistemology and there is ontology. this seemingly straightforward discussion gets repeatedly muddied by conversants who pit themselves against derrida, foucault and nietzsche, as well as by those who rise to the latter’s defense. the confusion is, ironically, understandable. in nietzsche’s work, epistemology and ontology are notable bedfellows. if, reductively, might makes right… then the way we know and see and read the world is what that world becomes. in foucault, discursive modes carve out and create the world we see, live in and reciprocally determine even while being determined in the exchange. and in derrida, language strong-arms ways of knowing to such a degree that nature/culture, method/truth (and we could add here epistemology/ontology) cannot be distinguished. clearly the move to muddy epistemology and ontology in these thinkers has it’s ground.
yet as ground is precisely in question…
i’d like to spend some time with one of derrida’s better known texts: “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966). working through levi strauss’ research into the incest prohibition, derrida finds, with strauss, that the distinction between nature and culture is suspended in this universal no-no:
This scandal is the incest prohibition. The incest prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural… Derrida, Structure Sign and Play.
and yet how did we get to incest from epistemology and ontology? allow me a long quote from levi strauss to help make the connection:
let us suppose then that everything universal in man relates to the natural order, and is characterized by spontaneity, and that everything subject to a norm is cultural and is both relative and particular. we are then confronted with a fact, or rather, a group of facts, which, in the light of previous definitions, are not far removed from a scandal; we refer to that complex group of beliefs, customs, conditions and institutions described succinctly as the prohibition of incest, which presents, without the slightest ambiguity, and inseparably combines, the two characteristics in which we recognize the conflicting features of two mutually exclusive orders. it constitutes a rule, but a rule which, alone among all social rules, possesses at the same time a universal character. from the elementary structures of kinship, strauss.
in the slippage, what derrida will call the play of nature and culture, the red thread is revealed in its unraveling: what we had posited as natural, as out there, as ontological is at one with what we had posited as cultural, as historically situated, as epistemological. the impact of this find is dramatic: revealing for both strauss and derrida that the ways we know, our abilities to think a thing, an institution, a prohibition shape what we see and encounter in the world. this is not too far afield from heidegger, either. and on first read, perhaps this is the derrida everyone seems to know..? the derrida taylor all too quickly (and bizarrely) associates with ‘the spiritual stance of self-making… (p. 16)’ the derrida who claims the center is de-centered, oddly unaware that he is re-positing a center in the statement of decentering. ahhh… if all our theoretical enemies were only so easy…
permit me another long quote, this time from derrida, to re-complicate this story:
This example [incest prohibition], too cursorily examined, is only one among many others, but nevertheless it already shows that language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique. Now this critique may be undertaken along two paths, in two “manners.” Once the limit of the nature/culture opposition makes itself felt, one might want to question systematically and rigorously the history of these concepts. This is a first action. Such a systematic and historic questioning would be neither a philological nor a philosophical action in the classic sense of these words. To concern oneself with the founding concepts of the entire history of philosophy, to deconstitute them, is not to undertake the work of the philologist or of the classic historian of philosophy. Despite appearances, it is probably the most daring way of making the beginnings of a step outside of philosophy. Structure, Sign and Play (p. 285 in Writing and Difference), [brackets] mine.
so here, finally and surely, this is the derrida we all know..? moving through the history of philosophy, systematically pulling up concepts that complicate binaries and deconstitute foundations? surely this is the derrida who initiates the return to solipsism, to what did taylor call it… “self-making” as he peels back all other founding possibilities to reveal the worms below.
still again, this derrida, this antagonist is yet all too simple:
the other choice (which I believe corresponds more closely to Levi-Strauss’s manner), in order to avoid the possibly sterilizing effects of the first one, consists in conserving all these old concepts within th domain of empirical discovery while here and there denouncing their limits, treating them as tools which can still be used. no longer is any truth value attributed to them; there is a readiness to abandon them, if necessary, should other instruments appear more useful. in the meantime, their relative efficacy is expolited, and they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces. this is how the language of the social sciences criticizes itself. levi-strauss thinks that in this way he can separate method from truth, the instruments of the method and the objective significations envisaged by it. one could almost say that this is the primary affirmation of levi-strauss; in any event, the first words of the Elementary Structures are: “Above all, it is beginning to emerge that this distinction between nature and society (‘nature’ and ‘culture’ seem preferable to us today) while of no acceptable historical significance, does contain a logic, fully justifying its use by modern sociology as a methodological tool.”
given his way of surprise, and the very move to rethink essence and appearance, it would be premature to say this is in fact Derrida as he’d prefer to be read. but in the three derrida’s we’ve now seen and read, the pop image (if there is anything popular about these sorts of people, discussions, etc..) begins to shift and dissolve. stepping just back or aside from a rigorous upheaval of history, in this derrida, in this paragraph, we read derrida reading strauss and there is a (shocking?) pragmatism in the idea that even broken tools (metaphysics) must/can/will still be used, must still be taken up, until something better comes along. does this give pause to the idea that derrida was unaware of the metaphysical loop that his digs at metaphysics inevitably succumb to..? to say that derrida, even heidegger were aware that there is no escape – there is no outside of the text – is not to say there is nothing beyond what we make up, what we construct. it is to say, amongst other things, that in our very attempts to get ‘beyond’ epistemology, metaphysics, etc… we are repeatedly and undeniably caught in the webs we are examining and that derrida was clearly aware of this.
yet moving back into this last quoted paragraph, derrida writes: “the other choice… in order to avoid the sterilizing effects of the first one…” after positing two paths derrida recommends not the one less traveled by, but the one less sterile. less sterilizing. in the last two years, derrida has either come under harsh attack or dismissed with the argument that you can’t do anything with deconstruction except deconstruct. perhaps this call for something other than sterility, (would its opposite be passion? (re)production? even a little dirt?) could also give pause to this critique.
and where does this leave us in regard to the epistemology/ontology distinction we began with? while i am accusing taylor of such a mix-up, am i not inevitably engaged in the same cycle?
my response to taylor’s call is to offer something other than what he has been served thus far and to ask of him and his readers what precisely they are after in calling nietzsche, derrida and foucault to account. in the process i hope i have debunked a few of the most sterilizing myths surrounding what derrida was writing, where deconstruction found its own fathers (heidegger, strauss) and clarified the stakes for what could eventually begin to formulate a response to Taylor. to read derrida as thinker of nihilism, via nietzsche, is not to read him close enough. concluding with derrida, this point is made with voice and vigor:
turned towards the lost or impossible presence of the absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediacy is therefore the saddened, negative, nostaligic, guilty, Rousseauistic side of the thinking of play whose other side would be nietzschean affirmation, that is the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which his offered to an active interpretation. This affirmation then determines the noncenter otherwise than as loss of center…
there are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. the one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile. the other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology – in other words, throughout his entire history – has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play…
for my part, although these two interpretations must acknowledge and accentuate their difference and define their irreducibility, i do not believe that today there is any question of choosing – in the first place because here we are in a region (let us say, provisionally, a region of historicity) where the category of choice seems particularly triviall; and in the second, because we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the differance of this irreducible difference… derrida, structure sign and play [extractions from the concluding paragraphs].
if taylor was asking for a way to engage the world and others, the move to ‘conceive of the common ground…’