Month: November 2011

What is Continental Philosophy?

I don’t know. Todd May, one of my philosophical heroes as activist and thinkers, has a post up about removing himself from the Pluralist Guide and writes:

I find it ironic that those who accuse analytic philosophy of logic-chopping would resort to such a rhetorical strategy…. It is the continuation of a siege mentality that becomes more anachronistic by the day.

I couldn’t agree more on the point about the anachronism. (The rest I won’t comment on.) I came out of two heavily Continental schools (SUNY Stony Brook and DePaul), and I remember well the siege mentality some profs had. But I think this is purely generations–and in fact was localizable to a certain era of people working on Heidegger, Derrida, and a few others. But none of that has been true for at least ten years, not because Anglo American (the word analytic is itself anachronistic by many decades) philosophers have found an abiding love for SPEP-type programs, but because I haven’t heard any continental-type person under a certain age even use “logic chopping” as a phrase for supposed “analytic” philosophy.

What was the last article you read in epistemology or philosophy of mind that was logic chopping in the old sense? Moreover, when two dominant subsets of what gets called Continental philosophy involve those studying Badiou and his use of set theory and the other being the speculative realism inspired, in part, by his student Quentin Meillassoux, it’s hard to maintain with a straight face that Anglo American philosophy involves a certain mathematical and/or scientific mindset and Continental doesn’t. This is all the more the case since the most prominent “Derridean” of my generation (more or less), Martin Hägglund, writes consistently on evolutionary theory, while Adrian Johnston, the Lacanian heir-apparent, works through recent neuroscientific work and is as apt to quote Stephen J. Gould as he is some obscure German idealist.

That’s not to say there isn’t some “divide,” but I think the discussions of teams and logic chopping, etc., is an anachronism, not because people still use old ways of thinking about this, but because it’s not something that concerns anyone of my generation and younger. “Logic chopping” belongs up there with “groovy” for being able to identify the age of someone without need of a license or birth certificate.

(I was going to stop there, but some anecdotal (lack of) evidence: when I was coming up through DePaul in the 2000s, it had passed from the era of focusing on studies of Heidegger. By the middle of the decade, most doctoral students were working on the history of philosophy, critical race theory, and/or feminism—and thus practiced a “plague on both your houses” approach to both previous incarnations of continental and Anglo American philosophy. That has receded a bit at DePaul since I left, but the point is made: the siege as often as not comes from within.)

Derrida and Grammatology

Graham and Levi are up with posts on Derrida. Since I’m spending part of the day reading Levi’s recent paper on time and Derrida, let me make a couple of notes:

1. It’s true that Of Grammatology is not your go-to source on Derrida and realism. But it’s also not your go-to source on directions for your fridge or how to light a fireplace properly (two other themes of my day, come to think of it). It’s an immanent reading of Saussure on language and, I think, knock-down. Let’s not confuse issues here about the metaphysics of presence. Here’s what Derrida does: he notes that Saussure argues that all signs (thus the coupling signifiers and signifieds) are nothing but the differences from other signs, which are also embedded in different socio-cultural languages such as French.

But Saussure then says, that’s all true, but it’s also the case that there is consciousness, which is outside of any particular language group and whose presence to the spoken word gives it its vitality (thus the langue/parole distinction). But Derrida notes, isn’t “consciousness” another sign? And “speaking”? How can Saussure make this exception for two signifieds, when he has said this is true of all signs? Well, it happens, Derrida notes, that this meets up with a notion of unmediated self-presence one finds elsewhere in the Western tradition.

Does anyone disagree with this reading? Does anyone disagree that Saussure is forcing an argument and in fact, by his own logic, proves the historicity of concepts that he wants to put out of play?

Also, this talk of “metaphysics of presence” confuses things: I don’t think Graham or Levi believe in the unmediated access of self-to-self, which is the avowed discussion of the first part of Of Grammatology. This is the theme of Derrida’s reading of Husserl in Speech and Phenomena of the same year, and it’s true that Derrida doesn’t issue a program there, à la Zizek or Badiou, since deconstruction for him parasitically works through the forced contradictions inherent in texts that try to prove one thing (unmediated self-presence) and end up proving another (helpless mediated through difference/deferral).

I just reread Of Grammatology to teach it last week and I, too, as someone arguing for the realism of time in relation to Derrida can find it …well not helpful. But that’s a tick of conflating what’s he demonstrating (the unworking of self-presence in Saussure and Rousseau) with what it’s not (realism, etc.). Unless one wants to say the real is unmediated self-presence—the most powerful example is the God of onto-theology–then I don’t see the problem.

2. Derrida, though, is also offering a political text through and through, as Levi notes. And here is where I find Derrida’s work really good–thus the reason I discuss it at length in The State of Sovereignty. Rousseau doesn’t just argue for self-presence but, to put it very simply, for a natural self underlying the tricks and appearances of civil society, which also includes the institution of writing. Levi rightly notes the use of “nature” as a political cudgel, and here Derrida identifies the use of nature as a political category that premises an outside that is produced from within a society–something Rousseau himself warns about but can’t help but repeat.

Does anyone want to follow Rousseau in identifying reality with a modernist conception of nature? I take it Graham and Levi and especially Tim Morton don’t. And does anyone want to repeat Levi-Strauss’s and Rousseau’s ethnocentric accounts about so-called natural beings corrupted by language?

So again, what’s the problem?

This isn’t to defend Derrida just for the sake of defending Derrida, but it’s to point out that if one wants to critique correlationism (the idea that what is real must be indexed back to the conscious subject, an argument that entails the correlate that what is most real is the consciousness of self, since in the self relation there is not even the distance of a correlation) or the political effects of an idea of nature, well Of Grammatology is a good place to begin.

(As for Derrida’s reading of Aristotle, his respect for Aristotle on his own thinking of time is noted in “Ousia and Grammê” among other places, which is more telling on these points than jokes made in “White Mythology.”)

(Also, thanks to Levi for sending me his article…a helpful read, where he nicely lays out the multiple directions of his work.)

Departmental “Shadow Figures”

A few days ago, Eric Schliesser had up a post at APPS about those profs who are widely influential even if they don’t publish a lot:

I call them “shadow figures,” because characters like this don’t tend to be noticed outside–they are not cited much and their influence is diffuse. (When I was a student [undergraduate and PhD] the name “Dreben” was bandied around by folk-in-the-Harvard-know, but I had no clue who this could even be.) Moreover, due to an otherwise sensible peculiarity of the Leiter rankings — where folk are not allowed to vote on the department from which they received their highest graduate degrees — they also rarely impact public ranking.

Let’s add this to the list of reasons to be question why anyone takes Philosophical Gourmet or any other rankings absolutely seriously, as in students who won’t go to a #7 school even if it fits their interests perfectly if they get into a #6 instead. I can think of a great list of people who have influenced me but who may not be well-known, though I wouldn’t mention them here since it would come off as a back-handed compliment. But surely those “shadow” figures are more influential than someone pumping out numerous monographs read by just a few people….

Some links…

1. Here’s a faslanyc interview with Levi Bryant where he carefully goes through his version of OOO.

2. Benjamin Noys has a paper up on about Guy Debord’s work on time and politics.

3. Paul Kahn has a response up at Immanent Frame over criticisms of his Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. I’ve been following the posts (with my book on sovereignty dropping this month, why not?) but I think once one follows Schmitt into the abyss of his decisionism, there’s never getting out. Kahn’s response starts with this canard:

I knew that my new book, Political Theology, would be controversial. It covers a lot of ground; it produces odd conjunctions; and its rhetoric can sound extreme. It pays little attention to academic conventions and often cuts against popular, political expectations…

Let’s just say, I think his critics, whom he invariably finds “offensive,” etc., are not worried about his ducking supposed academic conventions (really? Read the work and you’ll see it’s not exactly an assault on the form of the academic monograph) and the criticism is that it accepts “popular, political expectations…” I’d want to do a thorough reading of the text before I say more, but I never have much sympathy for defenses of one’s work that begin with “you pedestrian fools just don’t get my outré stylings…”


Why I’m so Wise…

Because when I’m reading a classical text, I forget how my younger self probably worked out these very difficult set of ideas. But I look back, having forgotten that I probably worked it all out and think, “what a dope my younger self was not to get this stuff.” Then I pat myself on the back for my older wisdom.


Deconstruction and Saussure

Memorial has several graduate courses that are taught by a series of profs on a given theme. For example, we are deciding for next semester the theme for our philosophy grad students next semester, and each prof in the department will lecture on that theme from his/her given competence. For the humanities grad students, I’m lecturing today on language, and I chose to go back to Derrida’s reading of Saussure. This leads to a couple of questions;

1. Does Derrida’s early grammatology have as its working premise Saussure’s linguistic system, however “deconstructed”? On the one hand, it would seem to, given its pride of place not just in Of Grammatology but also how that reading of Saussure provides the very language for many of the works of that period. (In fact, if you are deconstructing each of these terms, such as premise, for their hidden play and indecidability as you read this, well, then you may be stuck in Saussure and the arbitrariness of the sign.)

2. Would deconstruction get off the ground using other readings of the linguistic sign, e.g., Chomsky’s generative linguistics? I think, in the end, it would, but it would mean a whole different slew of deconstructive “vocabulary.”

There are many more incisive questions to be asked. But for me, this is why I prefer to think of Derrida’s work ontologically, as a thinking of time and temporality, not because I think one could just jettison its avowed context in given readings, but also because these temporal stakes become clearer later when Derrida makes his political turn. While this risks producing another metaphysics, concentrating on the play of language itself risks reifying Saussure’s interpretation of the linguistic sign, which is itself a metaphysics of the philosophy of language.