The Real Universal, No. 3 – Part 4

For a pdf of the entire book, click here.

That was one inconsistency. Here’s another:

-Derrida’s theory of violence is an instance of the violence it theorizes. Derrida thinks that we can call all indigenous societies “violent,” and that we can do this on philosophical grounds, without having to check, on the simple grounds that they all possess language. He thinks, further, that we can call all language “violent” because sounds and marks begin functioning as words only when they refuse to discriminate among the multiple objects they designate. Language simply will not permit us to fix our regard on some particular thing; it is a hard-wired invitation to inattention, the inevitable thoughtlessness of thought, an inability to cherish, the ongoing obliteration of specificity. It would be enough at this point to restate Derrida’s claim that all culture is colonial: “Every culture institutes itself through the unilateral imposition of some ‘politics’ of language. Mastery begins, as we know, through the power of naming, of imposing and legitimating appellations.” Colonized people are as violent as the people who have colonized them because they give things names. If you want to stay close to Derrida’s reasoning, you have to be able to amplify these points with a certain ferocity, declaiming your view that every word is a red-hot cattle-brand, every noun a cauterant; that we speakers of language are the victims of an irreparable ontological wrenching, an abduction, after which we will never again be where we each most wanted to be, never simply and placidly there, as language yanks our head, over and over again, away from whatever we looked at last and towards that thing’s many substitutes and remote doubles. Of course, it is enough to paraphrase Derrida in this het up fashion to realize that his rhetoric of violence is, in fact, wholly optional. All language is general, sure enough, but one is hardly obliged to make that point in a manner that recalls angry severity or physical force, which last Derrida is stuck referring to as “empirical violence.” Other words would also serve: Maybe language is “alienating” or “etiolating“ or “schematic.” Language compels inattention, so maybe it’s just “rude.” To use the word “violence” to name all neglect of specificity is to discount the possibility that there is something specific about violence. Equally, it is to block the judgments that we are otherwise called upon to make about types and degrees of violence—judgments, in other words, about which kinds of violence we might wish to oppose in the first instance, today, before going home. Not that Derrida doesn’t himself sometimes distinguish between forms of violence, instructing us, indeed, which types to prefer. In Specters of Marx, Derrida says that people attached to their localities are “archaic” and “primitive” and then greets the possibility that modern, quintessentially American media—radio, film, telephones, television, what he calls “tele-technics”—will roust and scatter such people, subjecting to “the process of dislocation” anyone who still thinks he possesses a “native soil.”


So much for the second incoherence. Here’s a third:

-Derrida’s universalism is not really universal. So a Derridean might want to reply at this point that aboriginal people are never aboriginal, which is to say that they are always already displaced and dispossessed. The colonizers don’t have any ontological privilege or historical mandate. If everyone is already dispossessed, then metaphysically speaking, there’s nothing for a land-hungry settler to do. This is where Derrida is, in fact, closest to Lacan (or to Lacan/Žižek), offering his own theory of the barred subject, universal alienation, and our fundamental inability to reunite with the world, which in Lacan is simply Oedipus or the lost mother, hence the course of individuation or, worse, of failed individuation. But there are nonetheless questions of an Aristotelian/Hegelian kind about the relation between the particular and the universal—about, in other words, the realization of the universal in this or that particular. And here Derrida is perfectly willing to distinguish between people (and practices and institutions) who actualize this universal dispossession to greater and lesser degrees. It will be important at this moment to consult the passage in Of Grammatology where he concedes that the invention of “writing in the narrow sense” was an event of epochal significance because it involved “a prodigious expansion of the power of differance.” Speech is already mediation, already the active and productive coding of the world, but writing makes this truth overt and unignorable and potent. This means, in turn, that people with “writing in the narrow sense” are imbued with “the power of differance” in ways that non-literate peoples are not. What had been writing in nuce becomes writing in elaborated fact. More: Derrida thinks that some people can convince themselves that they are rooted or non-alienated and that it would be better if they were rendered fugitive. “Dislocation” is primal in Derrida, coeval with the fantasy of a settled community, and yet techno-media are granted the special power to effect that dislocation in some actualized and real-world form. And the word “dislocation,” of course, introduces as relevant context a rather striking set of historical referents. To insinuate that people would be better off having their land taken from them because it would correct their metaphysics is to offer  philosophical apology for dispossession.

I began with some questions: How can we tell the difference between deconstruction and the other philosophies of non-identity, notably negative dialectics? Who are deconstruction’s real enemies? Can just anyone be a Derridean? Answers should now be forthcoming: Derrida is unlike Adorno because he universalizes the civilizational technology of writing; because his inflated concept of violence refuses to distinguish between a Native American clearing a path through a forest and a European clearing a path through Native Americans; because his entire program is pitched against the non-literate, which could mean the badly educated, but mostly means the indigenous, who are not the philosopher’s Levinasian others, but rather his chosen adversaries, the unwelcome. If there is a politics to deconstruction, Derrida says, it is a “politics of exodus, of the émigré. As such, it can of course serve as a political ferment or anxiety, a subversion of fixed assumptions and a privileging of disorder.” Underlying this subversion—this bringing of disorder to the natives—we find a fixed assumption in turn, which arrives in the form of an analogy or even a sort of allegory: that emigrants are people in the condition of writing, no longer tied to a single place, spread out, propagated, published, a kind of human écriture. Human societies are just only when they approximate the condition of literature. Linguists, of course, have felt free all along to ignore deconstruction, preferring to stand pat on the idea that writing-in-the-narrow-sense is secondary to language-in-general. Linguists will tell you that the minds of children are set up to develop language, to absorb it from the vibrating air, whereas writing has to be in a different sense learned, which is to say taught, broken down into steps and lessons and drillable techniques. They will also tell you that most languages have never been written down, including the great majority of historically vanished ones. From that perspective, there is nothing more telling in Derrida than his dismissal of oral societies. His entire argument is designed to dislodge people without writing from historical and global primacy, or even to deny their existence. A linguist will hear this and think it all a bit dotty, since the numerical preeminence of oral societies is as well established a fact as any in the human sciences. But all of early deconstruction is an effort to set the terms such that these propositions become in some special sense plausible, and if we know that, we will be in a position, at last, to spot the biggest misunderstanding in all of critical theory. Deconstruction is not a critique of Western metaphysics; it is a defense of Western metaphysics from critique. When Derrida first published Of Grammatology, he mailed a copy to Roland Barthes, who was then serving out a stint at Johns Hopkins, and Barthes wrote back to thank him. In Baltimore, Barthes said, Derrida’s writing was “like a book by Galileo in the land of the Inquisition, or more simply a civilized book in Barbary.” And what we learn from the civilized book of deconstruction is that it is a mistake to think that one could ever be non-Western, that in Maryland no less than in North Africa, there is nothing outside the West. Il n’y a pas de hors-ouest.

Pownal, Vt • January 2024


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