Thursday, May 13, 2004

Derrida in contemporary literary criticism

Paul Beidler, a colleague of mine who teaches in our English program at Lenoir-Rhyne College,
recently sent me a copy of an article he just published, entitled "Meditation and Mediation, Secrets and Seizures: Tennyson's In Memoriam as Fiction/Testimony," Analecta Husserliana 82 (2004), 65-74. I told him that I was impressed that he, as an English professor, had managed to get published in a widely known philosophical journal, one in which Karol Wojtyla was frequently published before he became Pope John Paul II. The Pope was (and still is) quite a philosopher and phenomenologist, and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka used to get him invited to Boston to give papers on his phenomenological anthropology at her World Phenomenology Institute.

Beidler, who is very fond of Jacques Derrida, the father of "Deconstructionism," is one of our self-styled resident "orthodox post-modernists," and I often profit from my intellectual exchanges with him. What follows is a reworked version of some personal comments I sent to him in response to his article.

Beidler writes well, and I find his style of writing engaging, even if, as you'll see, I am not quite so confident of Derrida as he may wish I were. I basically think that Derrida makes some rather modest points about the finitude of human language and knowledge, to which I can't imagine anyone seriously taking exception, but then suggests conclusions about being and truth that vastly exceed any warrant he offers. For what they're worth, here are some of my reflections on his very engaging article:

1. On the claim that deconstruction is not negative or nihilistic but rather affirmative. Beidler asserts that "while deconstruction is often assumed to be a somehow negative or nihilistic enterprise, it is actually a discourse of affirmation," and he quotes John Caputo's volume, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (pp. 3 & 101) to that effect. However, as I asked Beidler, is there anything in what Caputo says that does more than merely affirm this to be the case? Is affirming something the same as showing that it is so? How does the affirmation that deconstruction is mistrustful of discourses that "prohibit," as Caputo says, help us to see that it is affirmative as opposed to negative? The lad who wants to cheat on his test may also recoil from discourses that "prohibit" him from doing so, but would this make his activity of cheating itself something affirmative and not negative?

2. On the claim that testimony implies the possibility of "fiction, perjury, and lie"--"that is so say, the possibility of literature." Does the possibility of conflating testimony and fiction/falsehood in the "radical ambiguity" Derrida finds in certain types of literature suggest in any way that the conflated terms cannot be radically distinguished in other forms of discourse? It would seem not, as any deliberate perjurer or liar knows. He can't help but be aware of the discrepancy between what he says and what he believes actually to be the case.

3. On the claim that "iterability is prior to existence." There are two terms that call for attention here--the first: "iterability." Testimony is described here as if it showed the primacy of iterability over existence. That is, although one testifies "about an instant, a moment--what happened, how one felt, what was done, etc."--the testimony "is really of or to a copy, a simulacrum, not to the instant itself," so that "only when the instant is re-cognized [remembered, reiterated] later, can one testify" (p. 66). This reminds me of the epistemological misstep by which Locke suggested that the object of our knowledge is not the thing itself but only the idea by which we apprehend the thing, thereby preventing us from ever finding a way of judging the accuracy of our ideas. I have no trouble accepting the notion of human finitude and fallibility. We can be mistaken about what we know, or what we remember. But the notion that things are utterly inaccessible and unknowable to us strikes me as a bit silly, just as the notion that a person can't testify truthfully about an actual event, even if mediated by the limitations of human memory and re-iteration. After all, liars know when they're deliberately lying. As to the other term, "existence," this is removed by this Derridian analysis of "iterability" from its place of primacy in a "metaphysics of presence" and relegated to a place of irretrievable absence, or, rather, to a field of "play" in which existence is conflated with ceaseless iteration. However, the fact remains that if we did not first exist, we could not re-iterate; and if we did not first experience existence originally, we would have nothing to re-iterate. It would be more accurate, in my opinion, to say that iterability is epistemologically prior to existence but metaphysically subsequent. I wonder how it could possibly be otherwise.

4. Accordingly, Beidler brings Derrida's analysis of iterability to bear on Tennyson's In Memoriam. Derrida draws our attention, he says, to the logical priority of "iterability." Tennyson's verses are "neither merely real (truth) nor fictional (art) . . . because iterability precedes existence," he writes. "The instant is always already split," so that it can only be re-cognized in and from another instant. But then, what of the opening statement Beidler makes in this section? For he says: "The event of the poem, Hallam's death, happened--it is real," thus signaling an instant of ineluctable reality from which he proceedes to differentiate "the poem and the thoughts and feelings it explores," which, he says, "are fictional--precisely because their existence is predicated on their iterability" (pp. 66-67). But what about his statement that Hallam's death "happened--it is real"? That statement and the existence of the instant to which it refers (the instant of Hallam's death) is itself infinitely iterable, is it not? Does this mean that Beidler's statement referencing Hallam's death is not true, that he is making something up, or even lying? Does that mean that the distinction he proffers between reality (Hallam's death) and fiction (Tennyson's poem about it) cannot be sustained? Why should the iterability of an instant mean that a statement about it couldn't be accurate or true, that it must be fiction, perjury, or falsehood?

5. Beidler's use of the Platonic language of "image" or "copy." For example on the top of p. 67 he writes: "In other words, since the poet's grief is inexpressible, all expressions and even conceptions of it are false--each is a pale copy, a shadow, a failure to convey." Again, near the bottom of the same page he writes: "To feel [the grief] is to re-cognize it, so it is elusive, always already having deteriorated into copy, into mere parody of itself." Now I think any of us can understand from personal experience how hard it is to put an emotion (like grief) into words, how far short of the visceral reality our words fall. In such moments, we may indeed feel how like a "copy," a mere "shadow," even a "parody" our written representations of it may seem. Yet does not this awareness of the discrepancy itself show that we apprehend, however imperfectly, the original experience itself? Why should anyone want to conclude that all expressions and even conceptions of the feeling are "false"? Does the fact that something is an image (like my reflection in a mirror) and not the original (my face itself) make it "false"? Can't images or representations be better or worse? Can't a letter express adequately what I wish to convey, even though it does so imperfectly? If one testifies to the "secret" of one's emotion, not by keeping the secret, but, like Tennyson and Derrida, undermining the sacredness of the experience through an endless sequence of "supplements," does this mean that one is saying nothing about anything at all, that one is merely engaging in a sort of linguistic masturbation?

6. On the question of whether Tennyson's indifference to factual detail matters. On p. 70 Beidler cites Mansell's claim that Tennyson may have scrupulously avoided knowing the facts about Hallam's burial. Then Beidler says that it "seems a shame to chastise Tennyson, as Mansell does, for not being authentic enough." He considers it a shame, apparently, because "Tennyson's method seems true to the truth of the priority of iterability," which means, as Beidler remind us (citing Derrida), that "there is no testimony that does not structurally imply in itself the possibility of fiction, simulacra, lie, and perjury." Thus Beidler suggests that "to obsess too intently over the factual details" would be to compromise the "compositional flow" of the text. But why should the unavoidable possibility of inaccuracy, falsehood, and even perjury in testimony lead us to dismiss a concern for truth and accuracy as "obsessing too intently over factual details"? Certainly it may be true that works of fiction (like poems) are often of much superior literary quality than works of mere testimony (like last wills and testaments). But what if Hallam never even existed? What if Tennyson's In Memoriam were based on pure fantasy--not merely on a fictional character, but on a psychogenic pathological projection, which Tennyson sincerely but mistakenly took for real? No matter how magnificent his poem, would we not take him for a poor, pathetic wretch of a man? Does truth and accuracy in "factual details" not matter after all?

7. On the claim that identity is founded in difference (or differance). On pp. 70-71 Beidler refers to Tennyson's account of how a baby's personal identity ("this is I") is established through a process of weaning ("I am not what I see and other than the things I touch"). I think this is fundamentally true of all self-identity. John Calvin says in the opening pages of his Institutes of the Christian Religion that we acquire self-knowledge only through knowledge of God. One could even argue, as suggested in Is There a Meaning in This Text? by K.J. Vanhoozer, that the identity of the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity is established in a dynamic play between identity and difference within the Godhead. Likewise, I would say that we come to know ourselves only through our relationship with others, with alterity, if you will—-through our relationships to the world, to others, and to God. Likewise, I agree with Derrida that individual words do not stand alone but only in a matrix or system of "differance," as he puts it, between words. But why should I think for a moment that the slippage of meaning between a sign (word) and what it signifies (referent)--the play of repetition or iteration in differance--"severs the authentic link to originality and identity"? Why think that? Why not rather think of language as adequate to convey truth, even if its communication falls short of being exhaustive? Wouldn't the same hold true of personal identity and differance? When Derrida points out that the one who says and undersigns "I" today cannot later replace himself or substitute himself for the young man he has been, or even speak for him, he is simply offering a critique of human temporality and finitude. The moment I say "now," it is past and gone, never to be retrieved; and my personal identity is captive to that diachronic dispersion. (St. Augustine is magnificent on this, by the way, in Book XI of the Confessions, which is devoted to a philosophical analysis of time, as you probably know.) But what should I conclude from the fact that my identity is defined only in relation to alterity? That I am or have no "self"? But why should anyone think that? Does our inability to define light adequately as either "particles" or "waves" prevent us from believing in light?

8. On the question why coherence-giving metanarratives collapse, when they do collapse. On p. 72 Beidler says that Tennyson's "intense, almost cataleptic absorption into the moment" in section 19 of In Memoriam "is the profound experiencing of the deepest truth. That truth is not the loss of a friend so much as the structural collapse of every coherence-giving metanarrative about the world." This truth, furthermore, comes to expression in the feeling of "the provisionality of being," which is a "mystery"--"something we actually can't know." I would agree that what you call the "provisionality of being," or what others have called its "contingency," is something philosophers have frequently noted. Some seem to have a more heightened sense of this than others. St. Thomas Aquinas made this the basis of one of his "five ways" of arguing for the existence of a First Cause whose being is necessary as opposed to contingent (or provisional). But that fact alone would seem to raise a couple of questions. First, it would seems to suggest that the deepest truth about things cannot be "the structural collapse of every coherence-giving metanarrative about the world," since many people throughout the ages, from St. Augustine to Billy Graham, have lived out their whole lives under the aegis of coherence-giving metanarratives about the world that appear to have served them well. Second, even in some cases where those metanarratives collapse, as Thomas' own did in a visionary encounter with God after which he put down his pen and wrote no more, the collapse seems to have been induced not by the lack of a Transcendental Signified, but precisely by its presence--or, rather, because the Real Presence of the Transcendental Signified was such as to overwhelm any human attempt to represent it, not as false, but as inadequate.

9. On the claim that the priority of iterability over existence is demonstrable. On the bottom of p. 72, Beidler writes: "That iterability is prior to being is demonstrable (to see this, simply try to imagine a word that can't be quoted or a thing that can't be represented or copied), and that this fact problematizes knowledge and truth is clear." But if one can't imagine a word that can't be quoted or a thing that can't be represented or copied, would this not demonstrate that iterability is posterior to being, rather than prior? Doesn't iteration (repetition, copying, imaging) depend on a prior original (logos, being, archetype)? That our human finitude frequently renders our knowledge inadequate goes without saying. We don't always know what is true. But is there anything in Derrida or anyone else that would lead us to suggest that we cannot communicate true knowledge about the world in more than trivial ways? For instance, in the course of his discussion of Tennyson's "catalepsies"--his feeling of the provisionality of being," his "profound experiencing of the deepest truth," which is a "mystery," something "we actually can't know"--Beidler remarks about this unfathomable mystery: "Moreover, it is true." Well, is it? Can we know that much? I would be inclined to agree that we can, even if this amounts to a confession of a great deal of ignorance. But is this not knowledge of something true?

10. On the claim that metaphysical undecidability is good because truth is grounded on the possibility of lying. Beidler concludes by stating that this [mystery of metaphysical ambiguity] is not only true, but also "good." It is good, he says, for three reasons: it is good "1) because it is in differance that death dies, 2) because difference is 'another name for "passion"' (Demeure 27), and 3) because the possibility of the lie is what makes truth possible." Here I'm afraid Beidler loses me. I have no idea of the significance he intends to attach to #1 and #2. The question of #3 is something I've already alluded to in earlier remarks, and, as I've suggested there, I don't quite think it works. I think the dependency-relation is rather the very opposite: the possibility of truth is what makes lying possible. Truth can stand on its own quite comfortably, it seems to me. Falsehood is always parasitic upon truth.

Philosophia Perennis takes off

As I was blogging this afternoon, it occurred to me that there was no appropriate philosophical forum in which to post certain pieces I like to write. Hence, the current blog.