Jacques Derrida: On Touching–Jean-Luc Nancy (Stanford University Press).
Original French publication: Ed. Galilee, 2000.
The evening began with a brief review of the first meeting, held on Jan. 25th, primarily to orient our approach to the text. As it turns out, this review occupied much of the first half of our discussion. The first major point to recall was the crossing of difference suggested when we consider the ‘vertical’ relationship of Heidegger’s Being of beings and Saussure’s ‘horizontal’ relationship between signs. Hugh suggested that we think of the two relationships as ‘arbitrary,’ resulting in an understanding of the “arbitrary nature of the sign” and the “arbitrary nature of Dasein.” The important question that a young Derrida recognized was the question of the difference. If we can imagine the vertical and the horizontal relationships crossing paths, then we have found our way into the node exploited for deconstructive work.
Taking the above as background, we
started again. The text on the table, On
Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy (2000) by Jacques Derrida, represents an
important moment in the late thought of Derrida. One the one hand, as the title
and authorship clearly indicate, it connects two very important thinkers,
Derrida and Nancy. On the other hand, it marks a momentous emergence in the
parlance of Derrida, namely the body.
This is inevitably, especially in post Merleau-Pontyian French thought, going
to involve an interaction with Merleau-Ponty himself. Granted, the body had
been on the edges of Derrida’s work in various concepts for years. One in
particular arises through his consideration of the German Geschlecht (sex, gender, type, race, genus). The body is always
implied if we are going to talk about Geschlect,
or indeed in other words that entered Derrida’s work as he progressed,
including ‘invagination.’ Another ‘body-ish’ moment emerges as Derrida considers
Heidegger’s hands, both in his considerations of the worldhood of the world
(constituted as the interplay of the ready-to-hand and the present-to-hand) and
as Hugh pointed out, there is a picture of Heidegger leaning through a window
frame, creating an interesting visual metaphor of the hands on the outside and
the subject on the inside, sundered by the frame, existing somehow across it.
The point to take is that whether we are asking after the sex of Heidegger’s
hands, or their race for that matter, we are still on the periphery of the
‘body.’ As we find Derrida turning to
Continuing to situate ourselves, the group began to consider a few moments in the history of French phenomenology. It is even before Husserl and Heidegger that we see the lived body emerging as a concept. Le vécu, as it emerges in Merleau-Ponty’s work, is influenced by Bergson and Alain, the former for obvious reasons relating to Matter and Memory or his thoughts on Time and Freewill; the latter in his influence over the young existential phenomenologists (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty) as they studied in the 1920s at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. The status quo curriculum was Neo-Kantian, the underground reading list developed interests far outside this influence – particularly resulting in close reading of Bergson. Indeed, the ground was ripe for Husserl’s contrast between Körper und Lieb, or the body of the natural world and the body of the lived-world. After ruminating a bit more over the entrance into France of German phenomenology, and the particular role of Levinas, we took a smoke break.
* * *
When we returned from the break, the
time had come to turn to the text at hand. Le
Toucher, the French title, was fittingly our first stopping point. The
translation issues that we will likely need to keep an eye on emerged from the
first moment. The title, indeed, is often something available to be judged well
before one considers the cover. The title calls us to look for the book, seek
it out in the library or on Amazon.com – and a title, as Hugh assured us, is
never arbitrary in Derrida’s work. The first question would then be an
‘ambiguity’ in the English, shall we render the French as “The Touch,” or “The
Touching,” or even “
(The) To Touch”? Or should we perhaps be so bold as
our translator to implement that “On” that we find in so many Latin inspired
translations of Aristotle’s and other’s treastises. [Indeed, as we will likely
see this week, Derrida himself uses this tension in considering how to render
“On the Soul,” as De Anima or Peri Psuchēs, holding out the Greek
connotation of peri (around,
At this point, we were given a very helpful tool by Hugh, namely the careful parsing of the translation of l’indecidable. Indeed, my own French dictionary suggests that the proper translation is ‘un-decidable,’ while Hugh, I think rightly, suggests that this rendering would give the English reader the impression that a decision is impossible. The proper translation, particularly given Derrida’s interests in keeping open the decision, is ‘in-decidable.’ This rather gives us hint that although a decision is possible, one simply cannot be made here and now. This led us into an excursion in which the group turned to Hugh for guidance on getting our heads around deconstruction and the famous example of: difference/differance.
The question emerges when we ask ourselves ‘what is the difference between difference and differance?’ In the French pronunciation of this question, there is simply no audible difference, but when it is written, we find that sneaky petite ‘a’ quite easily. We might then answer our question that the difference between difference and differance is the difference between writing and speaking. Difference is not a third thing, it is the hinge or the slash that simultaneously holds the two sides together and apart, connecting them for reflection and keeping them from collapsing into a unity.
Someone here asked whether we could think of this ‘in-decidability’ as a continuation of the Merleau-Pontian notion of ‘ambiguity’, and was answered that Hugh’s dissertation had indeed explored this very question – in particular relation to Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, only happily coming upon Derrida’s project later. Hugh stands by his conviction, developed in that work, that they are not the same. Hugh suggested that the development of ambiguity in the French tradition is constituted in the shadow of de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), in which existence itself is considered ambiguous in the sense of undefined. As the concept gets transformed in Merleau-Ponty, we find that it is recast in terms of sens (or Sinn in Husserl’s German), and thus the ambiguity of experience gets cashed out as an undefined source of meaning. Hugh suggested that “in-decidability” is not sorted out into meanings to be articulated, indeed there is no primacy given to meaning. The in-decidable has no place and no status of its own. It emerges only in the hinge or bar between two terms. Which of course brings us back to the notion of touch, for it is in the difference that two concepts touch, through the hinge.
So, the “How To” of deconstructive home un-repair: Start with one important term, find the second term lurking therein, then ask after the hinge, usually giving the hinge the name of the secondary term (in honor of its lower status). At this point, someone asked what would ‘end’ a deconstruction, or to cash out that term, what is the telos of the method. It is clear where to stop the reduction in phenomenology, it is clear where natural consciousness becomes philosophical consciousness in Hegel, what is the end of deconstruction? What is to keep us from propagating endless binary oppositions, other than time and interest? Hugh suggested that there is none. Then he asked us what was the origin of deconstruction, if there was to be an end? This of course leads us to ask after the difference between the origin and the end, and we find ourselves treading down a new course of deconstruction, mis-en-abîme. This appears to me now to be trading on the ambiguity (or is it indecision) in the question itself, between end as in a temporal completion and end as telos. So in a sense, I would still think this question remains an open one for the group to keep in mind.
So, we found ourselves far from the text for most of the night, but never really leaving it out of consideration. One interesting moment that we ought to press Hugh on this week arose concerning the phrase “death of between,” innocuously sneaking in on p. 2 of the text. But since we never left the preface, and Hugh recognized the need to think through this phrase, our entrance into the first chapter was put off till next week. We ajourned and assigned ourselves to be responsible to the end of chapter 3, ideally back on schedule by the end of our next session.