Deconstruction, or Derrida’s work, begins in phenomenology. Derrida starts his dismantling or unravelling of the metaphysical tradition by unravelling Husserl. And Derrida’s work will be marked from first to last by this engagement. In a work as late as ‘Specters of Marx’ we find Derrida reading Marx through the prism of phenomenology. I’ve said it before, but I think it’s important – everything that’s wrong with Derrida’s take on use value, and the relation between use value and exchange value, comes from his determination to see Marx in terms derived from phenomenology. The book’s last chapter, containing Derrida’s discussion of commodity fetishism, is subtitled “The phenomenological ‘conjuring trick’.” And here’s a key passage, in which Derrida discusses the transformation of the table’s wood into a commodity:
“Whoever understands Greek and philosophy could say of this genealogy, which transfigures the ligneous into the non-ligneous, that it also gives a tableau of the becoming-immaterial of matter. As one knows, hule, matter, is first of all wood.” [What is the relation of this ‘first of all’ to the ‘first’ that Derrida finds and criticises in Marx?] “And since this becoming-immaterial of matter seems to take no time and to operate its transmutation in the magic of an instant, in a single glance, through the omnipotence of a thought, we might also be tempted to describe it as the projection of an animism or a spiritism.” (‘Specters’, p. 191)
These last references to animism and spiritism aren’t unimportant; but to an extent they’re decoys. The really important phrase here is “the omnipotence of a thought”. Derrida sees exchange value as performing a phenomenological reduction on use value. And this is the basis of Derrida’s critique of Marx. Derrida believes that there is a pre-critical and a post-critical thought – a short-of and a beyond of transcendental criticism. He believes that any ‘materialism’ – like Marx’s – that has failed to traverse a Kantian or Husserlian transcendental space, will collapse into a naïve ontologising metaphysics. And so – with considerable textual violence – Derrida wrestles Marx into this phenomenological space, in order then to move beyond this (supposedly) naïve materialism.
What violence is involved here? In the first place, an understanding of exchange value in terms of “the omnipotence of thought”. Marx isn’t really discussing thought in the fetishism passage –commodity fetishism is not a form of ideology. Fetishism, rather, arises from “the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them” – not ideas, beliefs, or intentions.
But the focus of this post isn’t Marx but Derrida: the relation of deconstruction to materialism. [NB: I noticed, once I’d written this, that The Accursed Share’s latest post also covers this ground.]
Let my try to summarise my understanding of Husserl. [This is sure to be embarrassing…😉 ] Phenomenology begins, if I have things right, with the phenomenological reduction. Husserl ‘brackets’ the world as it actually is, in order to focus on phenomena: our experience of the world, or, better, our experience full stop. This isn’t a form of doubt or scepticism; it’s a philosophical strategy. Nonetheless, one of the distinctive features of Husserl’s account (a feature that, as I understand it, further distinguishes the phenomenological reduction from Descartes’ radical doubt) is Husserl’s use of the concept of intentionality. Thought, for Husserl, is inherently other-directed. [I should stress that I’m going on secondary literature here; and on my own sweet nothing hunches.] We know that thought is about something beyond itself, because this is simply part of the essence of thought. And [this, it seems to me, is the weird, key move] simply focussing on thought (or experience) itself, turns out to already give us the world, already give us everything we originally bracketed, because the thought that there is something beyond thought, something we began by bracketing, is part of thought – all thought – as such.
The manoeuvre’s strange (if I understand it). Husserl starts by saying – let’s bracket the actual world, and focus purely on our own consciousness. Then this bracketing turns out to be entirely contentless, entirely meaningless, because everything we seem to have bracketed is already there within consciousness. As consciousness’s other-directedness, its intentionality.
It is, I guess (?), a little like Kant’s move to the transcendental perspective, except without the residual transcendental realism of the thing-in-itself. For Husserl, Kant’s transcendental idealism and empirical realism entirely collapse into one another – because the noumenal world, awareness of which serves to distinguish Kant’s transcendental perspective from his empirical one, has been abolished.
Okay. Now on my read of Derrida, Derrida entirely endorses this manoeuvre. Derrida’s critique of Husserl only gets started once he’s followed him thus far.
Because Husserl has collapsed the common-sensical or philosophically naïve distinction between a transcendentally real, material world ‘out there’, and the world-for-us, in thought (collapsed this distinction in part by means of his idea of intentionality) Husserl is able to entirely assimilate form and matter. Or, rather, assimilate form and matter in a new and interesting way. For a thing X to actually exist, for Husserl, is nothing more than for our consciousness of thing X to behave in a certain way. For object X to subsist, materially, is for the intentional thought directed-toward-X to behave, within our consciousness, according to certain rules. And these are rules governed by the principle of iterability. The naïve transcendental realist says – X subsists, in the real world, and causes our experience of X also to persist, to be repeated, with certain more or less determinate differences, as X impinges on our consciousness. Phenomenology says: the iteration-with-differences of an intentional thought directed-toward-X entirely exhausts any philosophical understanding of the existence of X.
More or less. I stress that I really don’t know Husserl. I’m hoping the general shape of this gloss is close enough that it’ll allow me to make the point I want to about Derrida.
Derrida sees Husserl as being motivated by an ideal of pure presence: pure consciousness present to itself, identical with itself, filled with the clear light of its own plenitude, and so on. Derrida’s critique of Husserl is based on developing Husserl’s own logic of iterability, in order to suggest that the telos or rational centre of thought that Husserl wants to imagine is undermined by the arguments Husserl uses to establish it. Because iterability necessarily implies limitless different contexts, and because any intentional thought depends on iterability for its very existence as thought, no thought or meaning can be fully present or accessible to consciousness.
And Derrida connects this to death. In a very substantial departure from ordinary usage [assuming there is such a thing – but I hardly think the phrase ‘ordinary usage’ has lost all cogency] Derrida sees empirical death as a particular instance of death-in-general: the non-presence of consciousness to itself. Iterability brings death, in this sense, into the soul of existence, and ruins Husserl’s attempt to imagine a purely living thought.
But all this is based on a prior following of Husserl down the path of the phenomenological reduction. And – my argument goes – this path is itself an attempt to escape death, in Derrida’s sense, and in the ordinary sense too.
By the end of his career, Husserl had decided that death was impossible. The soul is immortal, consciousness can’t die, because the world itself must be exhaustively understood, by philosophy, in terms of intentional thought, i.e. consciousness.
(I’m sitting here with a book (David Carr; “The Paradox of Subjectivity: The Self in the Transcendental Tradition.” [Have I read it? Of course I haven’t read it!]) that begins by saying philosophers “like Foucault and Derrida” have “mounted a forceful attack on the concept of the subject or, more broadly, on what is characterised as the ‘metaphysics of the subject’.” I can see where this read is coming from – Derrida does, of course, attack a certain concept of the subject. But I don’t see how Derrida is anything other than fully committed to the ‘metaphysics of the subject’, in most important senses.)
I.e. Philosophy begins with the omnipotence of thought, which can be contrasted with the supposedly naïve metaphysics of Marx’s ‘ontologising’ materialism.
When Derrida criticises Marx’s (supposed) nostalgia for the purity of use-value, of hule, of matter, and claims that Marx has failed to understand that exchange-value is always already present, always already haunts use-value – and thus that capital is inescapable – when Derrida performs this analysis of Marx, he is very closely recapitulating his engagement with Husserl. Again, the reference to “[w]hoever understands Greek” is sort of a red herring – because the real relevance of “hule”, in this passage, isn’t the Greek word in its Greek usage, but rather its adoption by Husserl as his term for the Given. Husserl tells us that hule is the Given; and then tells us that we are mistaken to believe that there is a noumenal world from which this Given derives. For Husserl the concept of intentionality can do all the work we need in terms of the other-directedness of thought.
And, again, intentionality must be understood in terms of iterability – which is to say, exchange.
Now let’s very quickly return to Derrida’s engagement with speech-act theory – his essay on Austin and polemic with John Searle.
In the original essay, of course, ‘Signature Event Context’, Derrida attacked a certain philosophical understanding of communication, by laying stress, as usual, on the contamination of pure presence by iterability. Searle, in a polemical reply, ‘Reiterating the Differences’, levelled any number of accusations at Derrida, most of them stupid. (Searle doesn’t seem to have read much Derrida, at least at the time he wrote that essay). One of Searle’s remarks, however, entirely hits home, IMO. Searle says Derrida confuses permanence and iterability.
Now, as I say, Derrida does not confuse permanence and iterability. He assimilates permanence to iterability, for phenomenological reasons. But Searle is (I think) absolutely right to draw attention to this, and point out how weird it is. What kind of whacked-up philosophical idealist do you have to be to assimilate permanence to iterability?
In his interminable polemical reply, Derrida has fun with Searle’s misreadings and blunders. But there’s sort of an air of hysteria about Derrida’s performance – if Searle’s such an idiot, why this incredible demolition job? (A question that Derrida will later ask about Marx’s take on Stirner). One reason, I think, is that Derrida doesn’t have a good response to this central accusation. Derrida has to place iterability at the centre of philosophy for his critique to get off the ground. But only certain philosophical systems provide Derrida with the resources that enable him to mount this internal critique. And Austin’s doesn’t – because Austin isn’t an idealist.
Which brings us to a passage in Limited Inc’s ‘Afterword’. Derrida is about to ridicule Searle’s book on ‘intentionality’. He prefaces his ridicule by emphasising the profundity of his own engagement with the question of intentionality – and “clarifying” the idea of iterabilty:
“[I]f the law of iterability, with all its associated laws, exceeds the intentional structure that it renders possible and whose teleo-archaeology it limits, if it is the law not merely of intentionality (nor for that matter merely of the language or the writing of man), then the question of the specificity of intentionality in this field without limit remains open: what is intentionality? What does ‘intention’ properly mean as the particular or original work (mise en oeuvre) of iterability? I admit that this enigma grows increasingly obscure for me. It communicates with the greatest questions of being, of meaning and of the phenomenon, of consciousness, of the relation to the object in general, of transcendence and of appearing as such, etc. My frequenting of philosophies and phenomenologies of intentionality, beginning with that of Husserl, has only caused my uncertainty to increase, as well as my distrust of this word or of this figure, I hardly dare to say ‘concept’.” (‘Limited Inc’, p. 130).
“what is intentionality?” Derrida rarely asks philosophical question so straightforwardly – “when the question is not yet determined enough for the hypocrisy of an answer to have already initiated itself beneath the mask of the question”. (‘Writing and Difference’, p. 98). This is, indeed, a question that baffles Derrida, or baffles deconstruction… because it is, IMO, a question that deconstruction is constitutionally incapable of answering. And this question is very closely connected to the always-deferred project I mentioned in my last long post on Derrida – the project Derrida announces in ‘Speech and Phenomena’; then re-announces (without having moved any closer to it) in ‘Glas’: “the very concept of constitution itself must be deconstructed.” Here, at these crucial moments in his work, when Derrida takes us to an enigma or question he can only pose, and never answer, Derrida touches on the limits of his project.
Why? Because, for Derrida, iterability is the transcendental condition of intentionality: iterability constitutes intentionality. And iterability is also the mechanism by which all deconstruction operates – deconstruction locates iterability within the heart of ‘presence’. But as the transcendental condition of presence and of intentionality, iterability itself cannot be deconstructed. And, crucially, the philosophical resources Derrida requires in order to give iterability this transcendental status are themselves based on the prior deployment of the “‘concept’” ‘intentionality’. Thus: everything begins in “the omnipotence of a thought”; in a phenomenological reduction. And this reduction is both constituted and constituting. No matter how far deconstruction travels from classical metaphysics, it must always retain its link to this conceptual sovereignty.
There are two deaths.
On the one hand there is the internal death of the sign – the death that is thought’s non-presence to itself.
On the other hand there is the death that is the absence of the sign.
Notoriously, Derrida’s work denies the second kind of death. According to Derrida, there is nothing outside the text, and the thing itself is a sign.
But it is possible, I believe, to perform a quasi-deconstructive analysis of Derrida’s texts, which would argue that the ‘second death’ is both effaced and required by Derrida’s treatment of the first.
To be sure, Derrida himself at times moves toward such an argument. I think particularly of his great middle period works, surrounding ‘Glas’. And right from the start Derrida says that to think “I am” is also to think “I am mortal” – and therefore, at the limit, “I am dead”. The question is what Derrida means by this “dead”; what Derrida wants to mean by it; and what vicissitudes of meaning are at work within this word, which the consciousness behind or within the deconstructuve text cannot fully control.
“I am dead, Horatio. Wretched Queen, adieu!
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time – as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest – O, I could tell you –
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead.”