Deconstruction is America; or Derrida’s Empire

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I want to begin by asking three questions about the philosophy of Jacques Derrida that I don’t think have ever been adequately addressed.

My first question goes back to something that Jacques Rancière said in an interview around the year 2000. I should note first that Rancière is one of the great unacknowledged Derrideans, a philosopher whose core arguments often work by transposing into a directly political key positions that Derrida was taking in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Derrida is typically thought to have taken an ethico-political turn late in his life, but much of the interest of Rancière’s project lies in how effortlessly he devises an emancipatory or radically democratic program just by epitomizing the lessons of the supposedly pre-political Derrida. Rancière’s writings on aesthetics have been a boon to the many of us who had been thinking all along that deconstruction could stand to be quite a bit more than vulgar than it was, though I don’t think anyone could have predicted that it would be Rancière who would be keeping Derrida’s thought in front of us even after the latter’s death in 2004, or that deconstruction would survive into the present mostly in this post-Maoist vulgate, weaponized and plump.

Here, then, is Derrida on the whetstone. In an interview published as “The Distribution of the Sensible,” Rancière is asked to explain how novels and plays and maybe paintings can assist in the struggle against a managerial pseudo-politics. How does art equip us against the administered society? The first point to understand, Rancière responds, is that literature is not speech. It is important, indeed, to resist speech as celebrated by Plato, because the spoken word establishes fixed identities and fixed spaces. If you celebrate speech as opposed to writing, it’s because you want to know at all times who you are talking to and where you both are. Conversation to that extent always has a kind of police function, allowing me to visually ID my auditors and thus generating the position of the appropriate addressee—language meant for some persons and not others.  Speech is language under surveillance. But write out that same language on a page (or elsewhere) and everything changes. Script and the printed text don’t try to pin anyone down, establishing instead a “regime”—really a non-regime—“based in the indetermination of identities, the delegitimation of positions of speech, the deregulation of partitions of space and time.” We often think of language as best when it is living and intimate: words spoken to a lover, arguments shared around a seminar table, the poet we finally get to hear read her works out loud. But it is Derrida’s signature argument, here adapted by Rancière, that language is never really intimate in these ways—that it is always adrift, separated at once from the person who speaks or writes it, from the person to whom it is addressed, and from the things in the world that it putatively names. The words you speak and write aren’t really yours; nor can you ever be sure they will carry the meanings you intend them to have; nor can you guarantee that they will reach the people for whom they were devised, or that they will reach only them. Derrida’s core claim is that this is nothing to worry about—that, on the contrary, a liberated philosophy will have to keep faith with a language thus unfixed. Rancière’s way of getting at this—and this is the formulation that deserves our close attention—is to ask us to consider the “equality that comes to pass on a written page, available as it is to everyone’s eyes.”[i]

Writing is egalitarian and radically democratic because anyone can look at it. If I point out now that the premise of this claim is incorrect—that not everyone has the seeing eyes to pore over a printed page—then it immediately becomes unclear how to assess deconstruction in this form. You don’t have to feel outrage on behalf of the blind to feel that there is a problem here. Knowing that blind people exist, and presuming that Rancière knows about them, too, how are we to assess his claim? If it can’t mean what it says—“available to everyone’s eyes”—then what does it mean instead? And while we’re at it, what is the status in the vaunted critique of phonocentrism of people whose lives are for whatever reason sound-centered?—people, in the first instance, who don’t read, a group that would include most blind people, since current estimates indicate that fewer than one in ten ever bother to learn Braille. You might be tempted to shrug off the problem as negligible, by declaring the three to four percent of the population who are in some sense or another blind irrelevant to the project of deconstruction, but then your impatience would suggest the magnitude of the problem, which is that deconstruction, in order to preserve the conceit of its “everyone,” has to declare some people extraneous to its program.

But then why are we talking about blind people? Rancière almost certainly isn’t referring to eyesight. He’s not talking about the freedom that comes into being when we look at a written page; he’s talking about the freedom that comes into being when we read one, and interpretive charity would demand that we not parse his words with this exasperating literalness. What is at stake in deconstruction is not the freedom of the sighted, but the freedom of readers. The written page is available to everyone’s eyes, and what they do with those eyes is read. But then, of course, this revised claim is even harder to defend than the first. Interpretive charity only aggravates the issue. A philosopher might just about get away with the claim that anyone can look at writing—not strictly true, but true-ish. It is, however, ridiculous to claim that everyone can read the writing that they (almost) all see. A few numbers will bring the problem into focus: Current estimates suggest that roughly one in five adults in the US are functionally illiterate, meaning that they cannot without assistance perform the readerly tasks that a bureaucratic society routinely expects of them. So what is their status in deconstruction? But then Rancière is actually presuming higher literacy—the paragraph in question is mostly about Flaubert, so he has to be premising his claim on people who can read nineteenth-century novels—in which case the percentage of adults in the US eliminated from his “everyone” rises to roughly seventy-five percent. What we’ll want to take away from this—the starting-point, I would offer, of any clear thinking about Derrida and the Derrideans—is that deconstruction has secreted away within itself, as its precondition, a major historical event, which is the arrival of mass literacy in Western Europe and the United States after 1850, which event it then daintifies into the fiction of a universal literacy: Writing is available to everyone.[ii]

But then rather than write off Rancière’s argument as a pious mistake, it would be more revealing to consider the ways in which it is inconsistently right. The easiest way to bring historical thinking to bear upon deconstruction would be to point out that it was closer to the truth in 2000 than it had been in 1800. That’s what it might mean to say that deconstruction’s claims are covertly historical—that they require a France that has existed in some centuries, maybe two, but not in most. And then, of course, the point would have to be repeated in a geographical register: Deconstruction is truer in some places than it is in others—plausible in those places (and only in those places) where one can just about say that everyone has access to writing. A philosophy, then, for Seattle and Minneapolis, but less so for Long Beach, CA or Mesa, AZ; for Norway and Finland, but not for Niger or Afghanistan. The claims of deconstruction realize themselves unevenly upon the planet.

When Derrida offers his own version of Rancière’s argument in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” his English-language translator assigns him the word “anyone” rather than “everyone.” “Isn’t writing … essentially democratic? … ready to do anything, to lend [itself] to anyone.” One wonders whether that switch matters—from “everyone” to “anyone.” Derrida is doing something complicated here. He has been calling attention to the ways in which speech, unlike writing, is radically localized (or can be readily mistaken as such); it is uttered and sprangles briefly, just here, within earshot, and then vanishes. His point is that the permanence of writing—the ability of language once written to live on as a kind of object—makes it impossible to localize in this fashion, hence impossible to control. Writing will tend to travel, especially in the print marketplace (which thereby reveals itself as deconstruction’s second great historical object, alongside mass literacy), and so find its way into new situations, unenvisioned by its authors, where it will be read in ways that these could not have anticipated and are powerless to countermand. Derrida’s way of putting this is to say that writing is “errant … wandering … uprooted … unattached to any house or country.” A drifter, a hobo, a train-jumper, homeless…[iii]

At the same time, and as an extension of this point, Derrida is arguing that this writing-on-the-move cannot tell a reader what it means. No text can comment learnedly on itself, sparing the reader the labor of interpretation, since any self-commentary will re-join the text upon which it remarks, as text, and so require interpretation in its own right. Your favorite book will never pull you to one side and obligingly say something other than what it said the first time you read it—something fresh, something less oblique and roundabout: OK, you want me to break it down for you? Most saliently, no text can tell you what lies before or behind its own writing. If a book were a person, we would say of him that “he doesn’t even know who he is, what his identity—if he has one—might be, what his name is, what his father’s name is. He repeats the same thing every time he is questioned on the street corner, but he can no longer repeat his origin.”[iv] Not just a homeless person, then, but a crazed and amnesiac homeless person.

There’s more. Derrida is also interested in the ability of writing to outlive its authors, and what’s distinctive about his position is that he thinks of this ability not as an extension of an author’s powers into posterity, a major poet’s claim upon the future, but only as further evidence of how little control a given author had to begin with. Writing inevitably leaves authors behind, projecting itself into scenarios where they simply cannot follow. His way of putting this is to say that the death of the author is implicit in all writing—that a patch of language cannot count as writing if it ceases to be intelligible upon its author’s death—and that it, by contrast, is the creature that will not die, a thing “not completely dead: the living dead, a reprieved corpse, a deferred life, a semblance of breath.”[v] A zombie, in short—a homeless, crazed, and amnesiac zombie.

This brings us back to the “anyone.” Writing is essentially democratic, ready to do anything, to lend itself to anyone. If en reprise you hear a certain erotics in this last phrase, that’s only as it should be: Writing, as praised by deconstruction, is nothing if not game—slutty, DTF and not just sometimes, “giving itself equally to all pleasures” while “wandering in the streets.”[vi] Here’s the puzzle: The subject of deconstruction is simultaneously the person capable of reading A Sentimental Education, bizarrely misrendered as l’homme universel, and this homeless, crazed, and amnesiac zombie-whore, not easily mistaken for a librarian or associate professor of Romance languages. And yet perhaps this position is less ambiguous than I’ve just made it sound, provided we realize that what’s being named here as “the subject of deconstruction” is not, in fact, a single position, but rather two distinct positions—the co-subjects of deconstruction: the reader plus (an anthropomorphized) writing, though it would be important to recognize that we-who-are-now-reading remain in the dominant position. We are precisely not the zombie-whore; we are the ones who indifferently dally with the nameless runaway. Still, even though writing thus allegorized is not a generalizable type—not an image of universal humanity, since most of us live in homes and deny ourselves at least some pleasures—it (he? probably she?) nonetheless re-stages the claim to universality in precisely the terms that Rancière will take over, as the wanton’s promise of universal access. Radical democracy means never getting to say no.

The word “anyone” promises a lack of discrimination—writing will open itself to anyone and most certainly to us, the anonymous johns of écriture—and this is what can make it sound like a Jacobin term, the pronoun of the democratic revolutions, their promise of capoyarchy or rule-by-who-knows?. And yet the word “anyone” at the same time insinuates limitations, and this in two different ways. It is almost always spoken over atop contextual assumptions, referring back to an established set, whose members one is declaring equivalent for some particular purpose. “Anyone” usually means “any member of the relevant group, which I don’t need to spell out to you.” This is a limitation that also afflicts “everyone,” which tends to be contextually bound in just this way: “Everyone” rarely means tous le monde, but then neither does tous le monde. It’s just that the word “anyone” introduces a further limitation that it doesn’t share with “everyone,” which we can flush out simply by making them the subjects of the same sentence: You ask, “Who do you want at the party?” And I might respond: “I don’t care. Everyone can come.” But then I might respond: “I don’t care. Anyone can come.” That I don’t care is the coin of my democratic indifference; it is what makes me the sans-culottes of this weekend’s festivity. But if I say the latter—that “anyone can come”—I probably mean any subset of what was already an implicitly bounded group, any thirty of some possible hundred, but not everybody. The sentence “anyone can come” might even house the concession that we don’t have room for everybody, that if everybody came, we would run out of gin. Not everybody, but anybody.

So that leads to my first question, which is: What do we make of deconstruction’s claim that writing is available to anyone? Or that literature is? And that question, once asked, generates at least two additional, closely related variants:

Can anyone be a Derridean?

Can everyone?

[i] Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics (2000), translated by Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), pp. 14-15.


[ii] Literacy statistics come in various forms. One recent set is available from the National Center for Education Statistics, A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century (NCES Publication No. 2006-470).


[iii] Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Dissemination (1972), translated by Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 61 – 171, quotations at pp. 144-5, 143.


[iv] ibid., p. 143.


[v] ibid., p. 143.


[vi] ibid., p. 145, 143.


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