16 December 2008

Spivak and Derrida

I haven't read Jacques Derrida in French (I tried to, without much success, since my French is very, very elementary), but some of those that have say that he is much clearer in the English translation of Of Grammatology done by Gayatri Spivak. Will it be critical heresy to say that, just maybe, Spivak has added to the value of Derrida and may, just maybe, be superior to the French thinker?

Perhaps we should start using the word transformation, which is Spivak's English translation of the concept of Derrida of translation. Translation theory is a tremendously advanced field of literary study, and I do not want to get into it, though I would not have met Spivak had I not participated in a conference on translation at Warwick in the eighties, where we luckily sat next to each other at the same table for lunch. I would rather venture into the relatively unexplored field of second language literature (not just second language writing, in which much has already been done). Specifically, I wish more critics and writers would address the question of how the second language affects creative intentions. For example, when I write in a second language, do I know that there are certain things I cannot express? Or am I completely satisfied that whatever I want to say I can say in the second language? Again, my caveat is that I am not talking of just literal levels or communicative competence. I am talking of literature, where the entire history of the word (as the now pretty old New Critics were fond of saying) enters through the word in a text.

1 comment:

  1. Spivak is of course an absolutely brilliant analyst of texts, but her work is basically out-of-body, as Derrida's is. So its conclusions must all be taken with a grain of salt.

    Out-of-body Thinking

    Derrida gets the language for his epistemology from Husserl. Phenomenology starts with a "principle of principles" that "primordial presence to intuition is the source of sense and evidence, the a priori of a prioris."

    This means that "the certainty, itself ideal and absolute, that the universal form of all experience (Erlebnis), and therefore of all life, has always been and will always be the present. The present alone is and ever will be. Being is presence or the modification of presence. The relation with the presence of the present as the ultimate form of being and of ideality is the move by which I transgress empirical existence, factuality, contingency, worldliness, etc." [Speech and Phenomena, 53-54.]

    However, the choice of the words "present" and "presence" to indicate the ground of all knowledge has some very unfortunate consequences. That choice sets up a confusion between two completely different meanings of the word "presence."

    One meaning is "phenomenological presence". This refers to the immediate access to being in the original act of knowledge. It does not refer to time at all. So, phenomenological presence might be better expressed by calling it presence-to-being. That would save it from being confused with the other meaning of "presence", what we should call "temporal presence", that is, the occurrence of an event at a particular moment in time.

    Derrida also calls this living presence "the now". This reinforces the confusion between presence-to-being and occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time. It is also unfortunate that Derrida uses the word "form" in the phrase "the universal form of all experience". What he wants to refer to is the "universal basis of all experience", which is not a form. It is an act. But this word-slippage is also quite telling, and one of the many clues in Derrida's work that he is confusing the order of abstract concepts and the order of actual reality.

    This epistemology leads to the cornerstone mistake of claiming that iterability is an a priori condition of knowing, whereas in fact iterability is an a posteriori result of knowing. An original presence-to-being (insight) occurs in time. Consequently it is repeatable. So, iterability is not "inside" phenomenological presence, it is extrinsic to it. This mistake is made all the more easy since both relationships are necessary. Once you get this, then all of Derrida's objections to realist epistemology collapse, and his whole philosophical system collapses into imaginary ashes.

    I have discussed these issues at length in my article "Dealing With Derrida", which you can find on the Radical Academy web site. http://radicalacademy.com/studentrefphilmhd1.htm

    Although running down Derrida's mistakes in his text is difficult, once you get the key point that he was dissociated, the whole pattern of his out-of-body thinking makes sense. Once you discover Derrida's dissociation, you find it in many thinkers. There is a lot of out-of-body thinking in philosophy and social theory. Perhaps leaving one's body is an occupational hazard for professional thinkers. Dissociation is the result of trauma, and trauma is easy to come by.

    There are many sources of insight into dissociation. I recommend Trauma and the Body (2006) by Pat Ogden et al. as a start.