Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Derrida versus the rationalists, and why I might be more postmodern than I thought

Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). Photograph by Matthew Mendoza/CC-BY-SA 2.0
When Jackson Pollock adopted his "action painting" technique, he challenged the dominance of the easel and the brush in Western art. When I was searching for a picture for this post, I found an article by Carl Raschke that linked the ideas of Derrida to Pollock and I liked it. Given that Blue Poles, the most famous (and notorious) piece at the National Gallery of Australia, was, according to the conservative minority who tend to dominate public opinion here, "painted by barefoot drunks", the Raschke's connection between Derrida and Pollock is rather clever.

When looking into the ideas of critical theory recently, I stumbled upon an essay in the New Humanist by Peter Salmon. Tonight I read it for the second time and, as is now my practice, I decided to write up my "essay notes". The main concept is that of deconstruction.

The essay, entitled "Derrida versus the rationalists", tells the story of Derrida's rise from relative obscurity after giving the lecture "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. Salmon says Derrida wanted to "bury" structuralism, and, apparently, it worked. When asked where he was going with this, Derrida replied:
I was wondering myself where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point where I do not know any longer where I am going.
If I go back to my notes from a recent seminar on ontology and epistemology, and rather than try to explain deconstruction (which I grasp only incompletely), what strikes me is that Derrida argues that we may not be able to know everything. 

The advance of science suggests that as we improve our methods over time, we, as in humans, can know everything. Sure, this might be an eternal quest, like counting the grains of sand on a beach. But if we were to suspend the sand content of a beach at a particular point in time, then, we could, plausibly at least, count all of the grains of sand.

But Derrida asks, in effect, what if we cannot know everything? The essay cites Derrida using terms such as "the structurality of structure" to point out that a structure is "contradictorily coherent" because it "rests on the notion that there is a centre or an organising principle behind it", such as "essence, being, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man" - in effect, some remnant of intelligent design whether we call it God or some such "metaphor".

Now I am intrigued. So to learn a bit more about Derrida, I turn to Alain de Botton's "School of Life":


As I read and write, I like to listen to my favourite composer, John Adams. I learned of Adams from the soundtrack of the game Civilization III. I have since watched Adams conduct the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House for the 2013 premiere of his Saxophone Concerto, and I listen to his works most days.

But in the spirit of new discoveries, I deferred to a colleague's recommendation of Ryuichi Sakamoto. As I perused my music streaming service, I discovered that Sakamoto had written the score for the documentary Derrida. This puzzled me, as there is not meant to be a God (or metaphor or organising principle)! I promptly bought the DVD.

As with Pollock, Sakamoto's work is regarded as deconstructionist. This prompted me to look at Derrida's influence on art, and introduced me to yet another rabbit hole. Drawing on Paul Cézanne's claim to tell Emile Bernard the truth about painting, Derrida wrote The Truth in Painting. Marvellous. 

On the way past the rabbit hole, I noticed Art History Unstuffed, a website created by Jeanne Willette. There is an interesting article about Derrida and The Truth in Painting on the site. I shall return!

Before I decided to buy the DVD of the Derrida documentary, I started to watch a bit of it on Youtube.  In the introduction, Derrida makes the following distinction between "the future" and "l'avenir":
In general, I try and distinguish between what one calls the Future and “l’avenir” [the ‘to come]. The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There is a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future, beyond the other known future, it is l’avenir in that it is the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival.
I realise I know nothing. And I don't mean entirely in the sense of a Socratic paradox. I mean I really feel the inadequacy. I have so many books and have read so many but it means nothing. 

It's counting all those newly-discovered parts of atoms in grains of sand in an ever-expanding universe of beaches. It is implausible that I could ever have the time or ability to know.

It is a personalised experience of Derrida - not only can I not know everything, which is no shock at all, but I cannot even know everything I want to know in the time I have left (even if that happened to be until 2070). This has consequences for so many things.

For instance, my research philosophy or my reading program. What is it I want to know, and how do I prioritise such things? The young Benjamin Franklin was able to devise a plan for his own conduct. Indeed, I am now well into his 13 week program devised in the eighteenth century. But how do we create our own individual plan and purpose? 

I thought I knew, but I most often seem to go against my nature. But wait - what if Derrida is right? What if we cannot ever know, regardless of time or ability? What if my nature is simply my contradictorily coherent organising principle that stops me from seeing the truth?

Whoa. This is getting a bit Stoic. Cato the Elder guides me: What if I embraced fate? The concept of "my fate" is difficult to define. It cannot be true that my fate will happen regardless of what I do. But if by fate I mean all of the external events and things that I cannot control? 

If... God is time, and if my fate is what God wills, then... if I love God I must also love my fate. Or [insert metaphor here] as Derrida might have suggested.

An approach that I keep deferring to is to go where things lead. Today, the whole Derrida train has gone from Jackson Pollock to Ryuichi Sakamoto and back to a documentary on Derrida, and back to Stoicism (where it started this morning). This morning, I wrote:
I need to put more thought into my day.
Yet if I had planned this journey, today's felicity would have escaped me. But did I not put more thought into my day, today? And how can I know?

The New Humanist article closes with a quote from Derrida that sums up today's journey:
For not only am I not sure, as I never am, of being right in taking this step, I am not sure in all clarity what led me to do so. Perhaps because I was beginning to know all too well not indeed where I was going, but where I had not so much arrived as simply stopped.
I might be more postmodern than I thought.

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio