Thursday, October 14, 2004

Derrida's death

With Derrida’s death last week, we can mark something else that has definitively passed: the inscriptive paradigm. The obituaries in the UK press at least have made a point of how his work was necessarily difficult. I’ve never been convinced by this. In fact it is easy to invoke the key points of deconstruction without writing turgid texts about it: the author never fully controls the text, meaning is contingent and relative to context, there are no ontological essences (being, truth, justice, the good, the beautiful, the soul etc), but rather philosophy is a complex set of disruptive discursive processes, that the project of western philosophy has oriented itself nonetheless around ‘presence’. Done.

While all these themes have been important and have changed the landscape of European thinking, Derrida’s work was always a fundamentally disembodied engagement. Although his texts are full of body parts (invaginations, folds, hymens etc.), his thinking began by avoiding the embodied ground of all meaning. For Derrida, the origin of language is mystical – a differance that cannot be formulated or figured outside of a fluid metaphorisation that changes from text to text. The suspicion was always that his thought was directed by messianism, and that phenomenology’s attempt to transcend the mind/body dualism in favour of a differentiating flesh would always suffer in favour of an ontology of deferment and the a venir. Derrida’s critique of presence threw the baby out with the bathwater: we lost a sense of the immediacy of the embodied moment and the ethical possibility that opens out from this.

The problem then was the deconstruction was always going to be taken as a cul-de-sac, the endgame of metaphysical thinking. That was why Deleuze became so popular in response – offering a processual materialism that emphasised new beginnings as much as historical structures. Of course, the big problem for European thought is that deleuzianism has become yet another dead-end. It has steered itself into an anti-humanist cybernetic/germinal impasse which makes no sense whatsoever outside the tiny academic cliques that foster it. In the age of US global empire and the Islamic fundamentalist response mechanisms it has bred, European philosophy needs to search again for an opening and a language that offers solutions to contemporary global crises, not employment opportunities for those who continue along the arcane path into the scholastic forest.

What is required to counterbalance all these endpoints is a humanistic philosophy that encompasses incorporation as much as inscription. Post-Derrida and Deleuze, language must be positioned as originating within a social context – within a network of desire, need and expression. Language emerges out of gesture, out of song, out of intonation, out of repetition and difference… Wittgenstein’s notion of language games is close – but he describes the mechanism not the motive: he cannot answer why language changes. And perhaps the ‘subject’ drops out (as the anti-humanists would like). But instead of the fundamentally irresponsible notion of machinism, there still needs to be a deeply grounded sense of responsibility and ethics. Without it, European philosophy is dead and buried, leaving a wide open schism between positivist science and mystical/evangelical religious worship, with no critical discursive practice in the middle.


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