Introduction to the Introduction
So, I’ve been writing the material for the new course I’m teaching on Male Dominance over at the Centre for Feminist Thought. The Unit I’m working on right now is on Irigaray’s reading of Plato’s ‘Analogy of the Cave,’ and what that tells us about the mistakes made in Platonic/essentialist accounts of how words mean what they mean. As you are all painfully aware, we spend rather a lot of time right now arguing with people about how words mean what they mean, and whether the word ‘woman’ has any meaning at all, or whether we are in fact just some palimpsest-void-Frankenstein’s-Monster-type-creature who can be inhabited by anyone who feels like it. As you also probably know, I spend rather a lot of time on Twitter shouting at people about essentialism, and why it’s not a good enough account of how words mean what they mean, or whether things exist, and sometimes that seems to degenerate into days arguing about carrots. Anyway, this piece of writing started as an introduction to some rather dry exposition on Derrida’s critique of Plato, and well, then it got kind of fun. It touches on a lot of issues relevant to the present debate, so, I thought I’d share.
This is a piece of exposition of Derrida’s analysis of ‘original repetition’ which I wrote as part of my PhD work. Deconstruction is fundamentally an ontological project, not a theory of language. Derrida started his career analysing meaning for very much the same reason as Irigaray’s corpus is based on her analysis of Plato’s ‘scene of representation,’ because Western philosophy’s essentialist story about ‘how words mean things’ tells us something very significant about our ontological assumptions. Specifically, it tells us something about the effort to construct meaning/Being/subjects/selves as self-identical or sovereign and to deny the fact that all entities exist only in relation and in networks of dependency.
Like Irigaray, Derrida’s project is based on critiquing Plato’s effort to construct what he calls the ‘ideality of meaning’ – which means ‘the idea(l) of meaning as represented by the Platonic Idea,’ and, more generally, philosophical idealism. (Note, following non-phallic both/and logic, the critique of idealism shouldn’t lead to a reductive materialism, but to the understanding that everything human comes into existence through the interaction of matter and idea). Derrida’s argument – which is actually a demonstration – is that the abstract concepts which identify what is ‘the same’ in every concrete instantiation of the concept depend on repetition, because you can only say two things are ‘the same’ if there are two things. What this means is that the concept of identity depends on difference, and every effort to remove difference from identity involves some act of erasure or repression. This ‘twoness’ of repetition which underpins the self-identity of the Idea is analogous to what Irigaray is pointing at as the mechanism of reflection or specularisation in the ‘scene of representation,’ and throughout the text she often specifically references the repression of ‘repetition’ and ‘semblance’ in the construction of the Platonic Idea as Sameness or Self-Identity. This is, I would argue, a direct allusion to Derrida’s argument, which made a big splash in French intellectual circles in 1967, six years before Speculum was published.
In its most basic terms, Irigaray’s argument about the necessity of reflection or mirroring come down to the fact that we can only ‘conceive’ (note the pregnancy association) an object, if there is both us and the object. Humans do not generate ideas straight out of the purity of our minds (like Athena from Zeus’s head), they do not have a single origin inside us. Rather, we generate concepts in dialectical interaction with the world, through the interaction of our minds (ideas) and the world (often matter, also, other subjects). To refer this to the present debate, this is why trans activist claims about the sovereignty of identities (‘I am what I say I am’ (which is pretty much what God says from Burning Bush)) are ontological bunk, and necessarily involve trying to dominate others as reflecting surfaces (which is what pronoun protocols are, see ‘Ontological Totalitarianism by Numbers’). You do not have an ‘identity’ independently of other human beings. Nor can you simply ‘socially construct’ concepts which name the material world in defiance of how the material world actually is. If your concept doesn’t actually work to allow you to ‘grasp’ the material world, the world will tell you about it pretty damn quick. *Thwack*
What this comes down to is the fact that concepts are not actually representations, that is, they are not immaterial pictures we just have in our minds. The deconstructive tradition, which Irigaray is placing herself in by using the phrase ‘scene of representation,’ is in this respect fundamentally a critique of the very idea that concepts should be understood as mental pictures (formed in the first instance on the back of our eyes, like a mirror – hence also why the critique of representation is a critique of the Western privileging of vision as the allegory of knowledge…See?). That type of representation of representation makes us think that concepts are just things we conceive – generate – with our minds (or our mind’s eye), while the object of our concept is out there, somewhere in the world. And then we spend an enormous amount of time trying to work out how to stick the concept and the object back together. (Here I always end up thinking of a not-very-co-ordinated toddler repeatedly failing to stick two bits of Lego together, although that’s not quite right, because it is us who broke the two pieces apart in the first place and then can’t work how they fit together. As Wittgenstein would have it, it is philosophising that is creating the problem it can’t solve).
If you start from the assumption of representation, from a subject-object dualism, it becomes very hard to explain how concepts relate to objects, and you then allow the possibility of all kinds of idiotic notions about how ideas for very basic material features of the world are just ‘socially constructed’ and you can just as well make them up any old way you like because ‘I WANT.’ (See, toddlers…who think they’re God). Here, both Derrida and Irigaray are working in the tradition articulated by Heidegger’ critique of essence in Being and Time (‘Existence precedes essence,’ why indeed, yes it does). Heidegger’s basic argument is that human being must be fundamentally understood as what he calls ‘In-der-Welt-sein’ (don’t you love a good German compound noun), which means, ‘Being-in-the-world.’ We are not sovereign identities, we are, rather, a type of ‘Mitsein,’ or ‘With-Being.’ Everything exists between. Or as Irigaray points out in ‘Plato’s Hystera,’ it all comes down to the passage.
In Heidegger’s model, concepts are not representations, they are tools – they are things which allow us to grasp, interact with, and manipulate the world. He famously illustrates this by talking about using a hammer. (Notably, Wittgenstein was also on a roof using a hammer when he realised his previous Platonic inspired treatise on how concepts work like pure abstract crystalline logic was a load of old tosh and went off to write the Philosophical Investigations). If we understand that we are beings-in-the-world, and that concepts are tools that interface between us and the world, as we materially interact with it, it suddenly becomes much easier to understand how concepts and the world relate to each other. (Part of the problem here is that philosophers tend to think about the world, not do stuff in it). This also usefully explains why the trans activist effort to efface sex and replace it with gender identity causes so many material fuck-ups. As I once said to Grace Lavery, what you are doing is taking my hammer, replacing it with a fish, and telling me I can still hit nails with it.
That Grace Lavery – alleged post-structuralist and friend of Judy – had no damn idea what I was talking about is also usefully illustrative of the fundamental intellectual mistakes at work here, and how the Platonic ‘scene of representation’ is implicated in all of this. As I try to explain in the ‘Butler and Bodies’ essay, the reception of deconstruction was utterly messed up by the fact that people’s Platonic assumptions run so deep. People simply assume that if meaning works, it must work in the way Plato said it did – concepts must be mental representations, or immaterial essences, that function by gathering together everything that is ‘the same’ in concrete particulars and abstracting from them (hence all the intersex and ‘some women are infertile’ arguments). Because they are still wedded to the belief that that is the only way meaning could possibly work, when that model is critiqued, what people then hear is ‘there is no meaning.’ This is the sense in which all allegedly post-structuralist thinking that propagates extreme social constructivism (hello Judy) are just reverse-Platonic exercises in massively missing the point. (And allegedly ‘deconstructing binaries’ by just reversing them and/or, erasing differences, doh).
Because the fact is that the human capacity for meaning-making transparently works; not perfectly, of course, but, within specific interactions – context, relation, time / web, matrix, text / body, voice, matter – meaning works with a remarkable degree of precision. (The determination of meaning will increase in direct relation to the specificity of its context. That’s why, for example, moral judgements must be made in relation to concrete instances, and we need human judgment to interpret the universality of law. It’s also why if you take signs out of their context and repeat them ad-infinitum and Tumblrise everything together it feels like meaning is degrading…. Ta-dah! Post-modernism. The next thing you know sociology professors will be writing peer-reviewed journal articles that consist of nothing but randomly arranged memes they nicked off Twitter. No, that could never happen). Anyway, the point is that it is not the job of thinking to tell people that a core feature of our being-in-the-world that transparently works to a high degree of reliability does not work because they’ve done some clever-ass theory or played Platonic jiggery-pokery with a bunch of definitions. It’s the job of thinking to explain how things work. And it’s the moral obligation of thinking to make pretty damn sure it understands how things work before making bonkers suggestions about how to fix things. (If your working model is made up wish fulfilment, you will break things, not fix them).
While we’re here we should add that despite the endless parade of edgy blue-hairs, extreme social constructivism is not ‘sophisticated,’ and nuanced, dialectical, forms of realism or materialism are not ‘naïve’ or ‘simplistic.’ Extreme social constructivism is like a stoned-17-year-old-who’s-just-discovered-solipsism’s idea of a sophisticated idea. And no one who espouses this nonsense lives in the world as if what they are saying is true. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to walk around without constantly banging into things. Anyway, the basic point is this: If your theory is telling you that an empirical phenomenon (like meaning, or the existence of human selves, or the capacity for moral judgement) doesn’t work when it evidently does, then your theory is either wrong, or is only part of the story. (I think the latter is true of Platonic essentialism… clearly pattern recognition, working out what is the same and what is different, is a part of the story, as long as we remember that what is different is as important as what is the same).
The conclusion that should be drawn from the deconstructive critique of the Platonic Idea is not that meaning doesn’t work (or that subjects don’t exist), but that it doesn’t work like that, or not only like that. This is precisely the conclusion drawn by the feminist strand of deconstructive thinking Irigaray is working in. What is notable – inevitable – here, is that it’s the reverse-Platonist, masculinist, strand of that tradition – the one that thinks if things don’t work as the Phallus says they should then they don’t work at all – that has come to stand for ‘post-structuralism’ in the intellectual landscape. Because who listens to women?? Or rather, who listens to women when they are challenging the entire phallic economy of Western thinking??? Of course, when they collude with it (hello again Judy), they will be paid double for their efforts, for helping the Father bury the body and cover up his material exploitation so he can carry on accumulating profit in the game of specul(aris)ation.
Irigaray’s insists that the phallic economy, the reduction of mother-matter to mirror, is a woman/earth-erasing exploitative racket that is held in place by the masculine insistence that this is how things must be, because otherwise there is no meaning, form, or order, and we will all be plunged into the dark earthy depths of feminine chaos and madness. (This is related to the dialectical reversal adopted by the masculinist social constructivist side and given a liberatory ‘queer’ spin. Because if putting solid impenetrable boundaries around things is identitarian, binary, black and white, ‘othering,’ and generally ‘bad,’ then we should obviously just smash everything up and turn the whole world into schizophrenic grey goop. Seriously people, you were supposed to have learned something about thinking in either/or terms about insides and outsides. I have three words for you: Semi. Permeable. Membrane. It’s what makes life go).
For Irigaray, the phallic insistence on the necessity of the Idea is erected over the fact of fundamental constitutive relation, multiply evidenced by the ‘aporia of original repetition,’ conceptualisation as being-in-the-world, and the coming into existence of all human life through sexual conjunction (let’s talk about gametes and men’s seed) and the two-in-one-being of material gestation. That is, the phallic economy is built on a massive conceptual lie – which corresponds to an act of repressed exploitation, a debt to the bodies of women and the earth that is never recognised, and allows the Father, the Phallus, and Capital, to merrily carry on with the business of rape, pillage and accumulation. It is here, however, that Irigaray finds hope. Because if the phallic economy is a lie based on denying the fundamental conditions of existence, it follows then that there must be another way. This is what we will explore more fully in the last Unit of the course, ‘Thinking Otherwise.’
So, that turned into a ramble twice as long as the exposition it is introducing. I hope it was useful. Now, on to the Derrida. As I said, this was written as part of my PhD work, so, like the parts of my dissertation we will look at in later units, it’s written in quite a technical philosophical register, with a sad lack of jokes and swears. Forgive me….
The fact that one of the earliest formulations of Derrida’s project was as a critique of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ indicates that exploring the ontological implications of time was central to his thought from its inception. Proceeding from this moment, the object of deconstructive critique remained – in significant respects – formally stable throughout its many iterations, the structure denoted as ‘presence’ in the early work – and principally excavated through interrogating the linguistic sign qua Idea – giving way, by the last stages of the project, to the intellectual conceit named as “ipseity in general.” (R: 11) The structure of the ipse is determined, Derrida’s tireless forensic repeatedly reveals, by two interlaced features, the pretense of temporal and spatial self-presence or self-identity, and its being is maintained, therefore, by a ruthless, persistent – and ultimately untenable – suppression of the reality of time and relation. The fact of the ontological reality of time and relation is not, however, simply asserted by Derrida, but systematically demonstrated through the activity of deconstructive analysis, which functions to reveal the way in which any entity posited as a temporal/spatial identity (the strategy hereafter referred to as ‘identitarianism’) is necessarily maintained by a nexus of disavowed temporal/spatial relation which brings it into contradiction with itself and undermines its claims to identity.
For expository purposes we will focus here on just one axiomatic example of deconstructive analysis, the undermining of the presence of the ideality of meaning (as the emissary of being in general) by the temporospatial relation Derrida names différance, spacing or iterability. According to the analysis proposed in the triumvirate of Speech and Phenomena (1967), Of Grammatology (1967) and ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ (1967), the identitarian inclination of Western metaphysics has led to the consistent privileging of the ‘living sign’ of speech over the ‘dead sign’ of the written word. This is because, Derrida will suggest, the phoneme allows us to conceive the sign as nothing other than the expressive externalization of an ideal intelligible interior meaning, an emissary of, in effect, a pure noetic apprehension of essence. It thus functions to posits the self-present identity of meaning and sign, and to construe the sign as nothing other than the means of conveyance of the ideality of meaning which issues from a singular origin within the mind of the subject.
We have, however, no reason to consent to the empirical existence of ‘noesis,’ and, as Derrida’s textual excavations reveal, the attempts to construct meaning as a self-present identity invariably rely on a necessarily artificial exclusion of the ideal from any evidence of its imbrication with principles of temporal and spatial relation. The reason for the necessity of the exclusion stems, Derrida suggests, from the fact that the ideal exists only as an abstraction from the empirical fact of repetition. If we remember, the Divided Line gives us no explicit exemplar of the process of ‘noesis’ and can ask us to conceive it only as a reversal of ‘dianoia,’ the process by which the intellect abstracts to ideal entities on the basis of the perception of repetition (and illustrated by geometry). What this reveals is that the phenomena that we may denote as ‘the repetition of the same’ is the condition of possibility of ideality. In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida informs us that meaning does not arise as the consequence of a “pure and primordial presentation…in the original,” (SP: 45) but rather, “ideality is the very form in which the presence of an object in general may be indefinitely repeated as the same.” (SP: 9) Consequently, “ideality is not an existent that has fallen from the sky; its origin will always be the possible repetition of a productive act.” (SP: 6)
For Derrida, the fact of repetition is evinced by the grapheme, those multiple and material traces which stands in the same relation to ideal meaning as material particulars (or instantiations of a triangle) stand to the Platonic idea (or form of the triangle). The repression of writing by speech is thus a denial of the fact that meaning derives from abstraction from repetition, a denial which is impelled by the fact that repetition implies, necessarily, temporospatial relation and thus undermines the claim of ideal entities to absolute temporal and spatial self-presence. The fact that repetition necessarily implies relation in time and space derives from the fact that for something to repeat itself as the same, there must be, a priori, a minimum of two entities involved, entities which are neither temporally or spatially identical with themselves. The structure of this necessary two-ness which underpins the ideal one, will be named by Derrida ‘iterability,’ or ‘primordial repetition,’ and the fact that this structure implies variance between one mark and another in both temporal (deferral) and spatial (difference) registers will be captured by the neologism, différance. Thus, to Derrida’s mind, the very existence of an ideal entity – that which posits itself as a temporal and spatial identity – depends on the structure of repetition, a structure which necessarily implies temporal and spatial différance. This internal contradiction in any identitarian positing is what Derrida’s careful textual forensic intends to repeatedly reveal, and is expressed in the general formula of the one aporia “that infinitely distributes itself” (FL: 250), the ‘aporia of original repetition,’ viz:
The condition of possibility of x being an identity
Is the condition of impossibility of x being an identity
R Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005)
SP Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973)
FL ‘Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’’ in Acts of Religion, Ed. Gil Anidjar(London, New York: Routledge, 2002)