Friday, May 15, 2009

"Supposing that writing exists": My First Derridaversary


During finals week, I promised myself a "reading treat" once all the papers were in. I wasn't gazing and sighing all week at a shelf full of juicy unread novels (there are many of those), nor was I gearing up for the poetry studies I'd planned for long summer nights. For some sick reason I decided my treat was going to be "Signature Event Context."

I have Limited, Inc. (the Derrida book out of which SEC is a chapter) sitting with all my hard-to-read books on a single long shelf. Because of their concentrated menacing presence, and my concentrated menacing workload, I haven't pulled any of them out since last summer. But my philosophy professor gave the class a thin Derrida packet. "You have this already," he tells me. I took one anyway, because I thought this was just the opportunity to ease myself into reading the hard-to-read books again, and to make that area of the bookshelf populated by poststructuralists, semioticians, and philosopher-critics look as friendly and inviting as it did last year.

So here I am again stumbling over parentheses and em dashes and coined words. Don't ask me why I let his orthography get in the way of his meaning. It's just what I notice when I first jump in.

I started reading Derrida a year ago, not because of deconstruction, his most well-known claim to fame, but because of something related to deconstruction yet much more specific -- the speech/writing hierarchy. Of course from the get-go I was on Derrida's side, the "Yo speech! Writin' ain't yo bitch no mo!" side. I honestly can't remember how I came across that problem (I'm fairly certain in wasn't in those exact words), but I remember once I knew someone was writing about it I was enamored. I got a pile of Derrida off of Amazon and began skimming this and that, not committing to reading anything in particular because I instantly saw how turgid it was. After a visit with my philo prof, we decided that if speech/writing was my thing, that I should read Plato's Phaedrus and then Derrida's reading of the Phaedrus, "Plato's Pharmacy."

Several months and a few boxes of post-it flags later, I'd nearly conquered reading Derrida. But not without the help of two books on how to read Derrida, and another book that's really a transcript of his talk at Villanova in 1994 called "Deconstruction in a Nutshell"(as if reading him talking is any easier than reading him writing, speech/writing hierarchy beefs aside). If they had published a Derrida for Dummies, I might have gotten that too. But now I think that would void part of the purpose of reading Derrida. And I don't think anyone who really appreciates him would ever write such a thing.

This was the first time I'd read something that I needed to read more than once, something I couldn't read right before bed, or right before class. Granted, I hadn't taken any upper level philosophy yet, and now I know there are many things that must be re-read. (My other buddy Barthes tells us "A first reading is to remind us of what we know. Re-reading is to show us what we don't know.") But even after reading modern Germans like Heidegger and Adorno, and hundreds of pages of long-winded old guys like Hegel, Derrida still wins the turgidity prize.

(Don't get me wrong about my liking difficult writing and reading -- it only works when it's part of the process of the meaning transfer or semiolinguistic communication or whatever moniker floats your boat. It does not work when you are trying to communicate something that's actually pretty simple to the general population -- then it just looks like a cover-up or like the Dr. hired to do the writing must have defended his or her sloppily written dissertation by simply befuddling the committee. Please see my "A Tour of Corporate Speak" from last year. Similarly, language that is too transparent can cause too many problems to get into here.)

I remember going chapter by chapter through "Plato's Pharmacy" and getting very excited when things started to click. I read each chapter three times before moving to the next one. Notes in pencil because I knew what I thought was important might not really be that important. That was my system. Little did I know my devotion to these complicated pages would lead to a period of isolation and lack of personal direction.

My confidence increased, I went online to buy more used books (more purposeful buying, less willy-nilly), and I noticed a bunch of them were coming from the same guy. I ventured to ask a question about Derrida (assuming he'd read all these things), and after making me apologize for bringing up such an intellectual sore spot with him, he told me what he understood about Derrida, which wasn't much more than I understood so far, in several lecture-ish emails. He was getting rid of all his books because he had quit grad school in English. He didn't have much else to say, so after clearing his shelves of the literature he no longer had any use for, I returned to my lonely studies and conversed instead with the post-it flags for the remainder of the summer.

When school started again in the fall, I told some of my English professors what I'd been reading. They all gagged. Even a philosophy professor said to me, "Derrida!? I've read two or three of his words..." And with regard to my senior project that I'd hoped to do on Derrida, I was respectfully directed away from dark waters of decon, and led into the safety zone of more purely literary topics. Considering my own doubts at understanding the material, and the nearly palpable waters of complex thought closing over my head, I climbed onto the literary lifeboat I'd been offered and redirected my project entirely.

A year later, as I work on that completely over-hauled project (now something having to do with American mythologies in literature informed by Barthes' Mythologies -- won't get into it here, and you can tell how non-committal I am) I think I really could now handle the kind of rigorous thinking and writing that my original speech/writing topic would have required. I'm not upset though, as producing a more literary writing sample is probably a good thing. I just don't want to leave that first project idea behind.

Though I still struggle with this kind of stuff, I get a sort of sick pleasure out of it too. I once offered up the term "word pervert" which my friend Henry latched onto, and then he painted a verbal picture of us word pervs as greasy library lurkers trading enseamed volumes under back-corner desks. It hasn't gotten to that point for me, but Derrida has definitely perverted my brain just a little.

And today, in reading "Signature Event Context" I'm reliving the pain and excitement of understanding (sometimes after only two readings, but three is safer), and I'm enjoying the deconstruction of the speech/writing problematic again. After a semester of linguistics, reading Habermas on universal pragmatics, and dealing with contradictions in how I think about writing and speech outside of literature (particularly in politics and history), I've got a whole new model of what a "discourse" looks like. In light of these new and varied tools for thinking about words and meanings (and now, contexts), I am excited to visit that mentally blocked off portion of the bookcase and see what I might find there with a different eye.

In Europe next week I hope to find some Derrida in French to liven up the book pile (or perhaps make it even more frightening).

It just seems very silly looking back on this past year (Has it only been a year?/Jesus it's been a whole year!) since I got so excited about Derrida. Silly because it was love-at-first-read simply because he's another person who supposes that writing exists.

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