PROTOCOL #8 (revised) – DERRIDA / NANCY       

5 APRIL 06



Aaron Krempa                                                                                               Philosophy 621

Protocol for 5 April : reported on 4/19/06                                                                 On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy



            I would like to begin by welcoming everyone back from break.  I hope all had a relaxing and restorative week.  Our last session, on April 5th, was illuminating with respect to Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the hyperdialectic, especially when placed in the context of the debate between Merleau-Ponty and Sartre.  Derek’s protocol brought the question of the hyperdialectic to the fore, and Hugh was quick to take up the answer in detail.  In The Visible and the Invisible, the two sides of his dialectic, the visible, which is all the things I can see, and the invisible, which is myself seeing, are thematically fixed, or decidable.  What interests Merleau-Ponty is what is going on in between the visible and invisible.  His interrogation, inter-rogare, ‘between-asking,’ of how the poles of this binary pair relate, yields his notion of visibility.  Merleau-Ponty thinks that something more is going on in the chiasm, or the crossing, of the visible and the invisible.  There is an ambiguity between them, a both/and and a neither/nor, both of which are in tension within themselves as individual pairs, and as two sets of pairs, similarly in tension with one another.  Hence, the four points and vectors of the X, the Greek letter chi, from which the term ‘chiasm’ inherits its meaning.  Merleau-Ponty does not question either of the poles, but grants to both sides that they are decided.  The interrogation aims at the chiasm and is concerned with visibility.  This is how he conceives the hyperdialectic, which differs not only from traditional notions of dialectic, from Hegel to Sartre, but also from Derrida’s deconstructive philosophy.

            Deconstruction is a strategy that aims to think the in-between of a binary pair.  It calls the predominately favored side of the pair into question as dominant, favors the formerly dominated side, and concludes an indecidability between the two.  Rather than thinking the in-between and the poles together in a chiasmic whole, as Merleau-Ponty does, Derrida wants to think the difference between the poles within the chiasm itself. 

            Our discussion of the hyperdialectic was thickened by a recounting of the Merleau-Ponty/Sartrean debate on dialectic.  Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, which was published one year before Merleau-Ponty’s death and, according to at least one scholar, lead directly to the latter’s demise, was a sociological reworking of the dialectic at work in Being and Nothingness between Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself.  These terms are recast in a social context as the practico-inert and praxis, respectively.  The practico-inert is the set of social conditions that we may act upon collectively in what he calls a ‘group-in-fusion’; such collective action constitutes praxis.  Sartre’s Critique is a response to Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the Dialectic, and does not attempt to overcome, in the sense of aufgehen, the polarity of the binary pair of which his dialectic consists.

            The end of Derek’s protocol directed us to the now infamous paragraph on page 68 which begins with Derrida asking whether tact – touching without touching, contact without contact – is knowledge or know-how.  We discussed the difference between savoir and savoir-faire, using my own experience as a former basketball player as an example.  We deemed the latter form of ‘knowledge’ to be akin to tact without contact; as one who ‘knows-how’ to play basketball, I have a type of ‘knowledge’ of the game even when I am merely a spectator of it, therefore, I touch the game without touching it.  Derek is interested in this notion of touching without touching as it applies to hospitality and virtue.  Hospitality might be conceived of as knowing what to do (savoir-faire) in the absence of the event of having to be hospitable.  If I understand Derek’s position, he wants to say that the intrusion of an unexpected guest – the true test of hospitality (see p. 1) – demands a type of hospitality that consists of contact without contact.  One might shake one’s hand upon arrival, yet the intrusion is an interruption of one’s daily life, and so creates a spacing, a distance between, the host and the visitor.  The question of virtue comes to the fore, and Derek wonder’s how virtue both touches and does not touch tact.

            At this point we took a break during which some of us engaged in an all-too-silly conversation on which philosophers we would most likely dress-up as for Halloween or some other such occasion. Hugh was absent during this discussion.  Thank goodness.

            Continuing with the paragraph at hand, we plunged further into the question of virtue and savoir-faire.  Hugh alluded to Aristotle’s understanding of the virtuous man, who simply does what the virtuous man would do without a set of regulations for his conduct.  This would translate into Derridean terms to ‘knowing-how’ to be virtuous without being virtuous.  This is, I think, something like what Derek wanted to approach, with true hospitality as a ‘being-ready’ to be hospitable even in the absence of a situation that calls for it.

Don brought our attention to Derrida’s bracketing of the word ‘natural’ near the bottom of the paragraph.  The bracketing allows for two (if not more) possible renderings of the sentence.  Does the law prescribe what is not, or what is not natural?  Hugh suggested that Derrida has in mind Kant’s categorical imperative in these lines.  The categorical imperative is not natural, but rather is self-imposed by man’s rational will.  Another significant point of ambiguity was found in the word avant, which can mean either ‘before’ or ‘in front of.’  Thus the penultimate sentence becomes problematic when we can read ‘before the distinction between the beings and the living’ in either temporal or spatial terms.  Maria reminded us of Kafka’s The Trial in which Joseph K. stands before, in front of, the law until he grows into an old man.  Finally he asks the doorkeeper to enter and is told that the law was always made just for him, and he could have entered at any time.  The law was, in fact, self-ascribed, though he never realizes this.  Continuing on the track of ‘natural’ law, Maria brought up Hobbes and Rousseau, claiming that Derrida might have in mind a ‘state of nature’ against the backdrop of which human laws are created. 

At this point I tried to re-textualize the discussion and pointed back to page 47 where Derrida uses similar, if not identical, language to talk about the law of abstinence, a certain tact, that says, ‘thou shalt not touch too much.’  Don picked up on this and reasserted the originary ‘O’ as the opening of the mouth, the initial spacing, and its connection with the immediate ‘perjury at the heart of the interdict’ of abstinence (see p. 67).  The perjury occurs because the law prohibits touching, but allows for some touching (not too much touching), or at least the possibility of touching (see p. 67).  The spacing of the ‘O,’ the ‘future of which is thinking’ (see p. 21) is the originary spacing between man and nature, the movement out of the ‘state of nature’ into the realm of human law.  The law remains untouchable; it interrupts all edicts but remains ‘before’/‘in front of’ all oppositions, like physis/nomos, which Derrida lists as one of the oppositions that gets discredited fundamentally.  Hugh elaborated by saying that touching without touching is a self-ascribed law that interrupts what we have learned to call ‘nature.’

I think we all left last class befuddled and at least somewhat frustrated.  I am not sure if my recapitulation does much to allay our confusion, but I think that Arsalan and Don were on the right track when they insisted that we allow the rest of the chapter, especially the next paragraph, help illuminate Derrida’s meaning in this enigmatic passage.