Our dear colleague Levi Bryant continues to grapple with Derrida, as the push-back he’s received has made him wonder if his reading might be wrong after all. After some study, however, he’s decided to stick with his reading, supported by the famous “there’s nothing outside the text” passage. In a comment to the post, I develop the possibility of what I call Kantian and Hegelian readings of Derrida, which I’d like to put forward in a more schematic way.
- The Kantian reading: Kant famously argues that we have no access to the things themselves unmediated by the a priori structures of human experience (most notably time and space). In the Kantian reading of Derrida, he repeats this move but with the proviso that the structure of human experience is fundamentally linguistic in character. Drawing from structuralist linguistics, he specifices that this means human experience is structured by relations with no positive terms, such that the Kantian a priori structures of time and space become deferral and difference, respectively — or, generalizing to a more fundamental principle, human experience is structured by differance. [A note: I’ve always been annoyed that the standard translations leave this term in French. Simply misspelling the English word seems better to me.] The thing itself is always, as it were, in retreat from us, and we will never catch up — all we can know is the trace that ultimately points to its perpetual absence.
- The Hegelian reading: In this reading, all of the above would still be true (and therefore the fact that Levi finds evidence for the Kantian reading would be no counterargument) — but instead of viewing the play of differance as an obstacle between us and the objects, it would posit differance as an inherent obstacle within all objects. In this view, the problem isn’t that we can’t get at objects beyond the play of differance, but rather that there just is no such thing as “objects” in the sense of a self-consistent self-presence. The way that human beings relate to the “outside” is just a special case of the way that all objects relate to each other, opening the path for a deconstructive ontology. This reading of Derrida seems to me to be the dominant trend among his most prominent and creative followers, including Nancy, Malabou, and Hagglund.
What seems to be causing problems for Levi in accepting the Hegelian reading is the fact that Derrida is constantly using linguistic terms, but Derrida’s point in “mutating” such terms to more general and sometimes barely recognizable meanings is to highlight the fact that there is no “proper” or “natural” way to speak of such things. By using linguistic terms for his “ontological” claims (though doubtless he’d be uncomfortable with characterizing things this way), he is actually emphasizing that language does not exhaust of “fit with” being — because, by definition, nothing “fits,” nothing can find a stable point of rest.