Skip to content

“There is nothing outside the text”

January 30, 2010

I’m wrapping up Braver’s A Thing of This World. I’m on the last chapter, which covers Derrida. I’ve got two complaints.

First, Derrida uses the concepts signifier, signified, and referent in ways that closely follow Saussure. What is important is that a signified is not a referent—but Braver seems to think they’re the same thing. However, this doesn’t screw up his analysis that much, because the relationship between signifier and signified and signified and referent are formally homologous for Derrida.

Second, and more substantially, I think Braver’s reading of “There is nothing outside the text” is not radical enough. Consider the following possible meanings:

  1. “There is nothing outside the text” implies some sort of radical idealism—like Bishop Berkeley ramped up a notch. Language gets between us and reality, and we’re therefore locked inside the so-called “prison house of language.” Language, on this view, is like the colored glasses that distorts our view of reality.
  2. “There is nothing outside the text” implies not that language gets between us and reality, but that reality is in part constituted for us through language. That is, concepts aren’t like colored glasses, but like cookie cutters: they don’t separate us from the world, but they allow us to cut up the stuff of the world so that it is what it is for us. (I.e., different cookie cutters produce a different reality—which is what Foucault says over and over again.)
  3. “There is nothing outside the text” could also mean that the structure of reality is homologous to the structure of writing. On this view, the phrase could be roughly translated as “everything—including what we call ‘reality’—is written.”

Derrida flatly denies #1, as Braver rightly points out. But Braver offers #2 as an explanation of what Derrida means by the claim that “there is nothing outside the text.” This is not right. Derrida does accept what I describe in #2: he would agree that the world is constituted as it is for us through language. But this isn’t what he means by “there is nothing outside the text.”

The best warrant for #3 rather than #2 immediately follows the appearance of the infamous quote in Of Grammatology. Braver himself quotes what Derrida says after the “nothing outside the text” line:

In what one calls the real life of these existences of “flesh and bone,” beyond and behind what one believes can be circumscribed as Rousseau’s text, there has never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references ….

The latter part suggests what I say in #2 above: the stuff of the world “comes forth” for us through language. But note what it is that “comes forth”: writing (=supplements). Flesh and bone itself is written (or “supplementaryin nature), and then comes into existence for us through language. Derrida is insisting not only that the stuff of the world is brought into relief only through language, but also that the stuff of the world is written.

What exactly that means is possibly best understood by reading “Qual Quelle,” in Margins of Philosophy; there Derrida shows how self-sufficient entities are ontologically impossible.

In any case, Derrida is not making a claim about language—he’s making an ontological claim. One of the biggest problems is that people read Of Grammatology as belonging to the philosophy of language, where it is actually a treatise on ontology or metaphysics (although it messes around with these).

UPDATE: Braver goes on to quote this line from one of Derrida’s other texts:”What I call ‘text’ implies all the structures called ‘real,’ ‘economic,’ ‘historical,’ socio-institutional, in short: all possible referents. … [E]very referent, all reality has the structure of a differential trace.” This confirms my claim that he’s not talking about how the stuff of the world appears to us, he’s talking about it’s ontological constitution.

Advertisements
7 Comments leave one →
  1. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    January 30, 2010 6:19 pm

    “there Derrida shows how self-sufficient entities are ontologically impossible.”
    That sounds impressive. Can you summarise how he shows that (I should read it myself but I’m in a rush)?

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    January 31, 2010 10:18 am

    You’re being sarcastic, right?

    I probably don’t have it right in what I said above. It’s more like he says this: a self-sufficient entity could never appear to or interact with any other entities.

    It’s probably been 5 years since I read this, so I may not remember it right, but he says something like the following. He plays with the word “source,” as in the source of a river. A river can only appear to us because it’s source (or its “origin”) leaves itself or empties itself. If it never emptied itself—if it were walled up and self-sufficient—it could never appear to us.

    The condition of possibility for interaction with things in the world is that they are not absolutely or ontologically self-sufficient or self-present. They have to give a piece of themselves to others. Existence is fundamentally an exchange of sorts.

    If there were not an exchange, whatever “it” is would be like a black hole for which nothing leaves nor enters, and without any influence between it and the surrounding world.

    What goes along with this is that whatever “it” is must not be static for us to see, hear, or talk about it—so that even referents are fundamentally shifting, in principle. If they weren’t shifting, they couldn’t be a referent.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    February 1, 2010 6:28 pm

    “You’re being sarcastic, right?”
    A little, sorry. I’ll try to restrain my analytic tribalism…

    “The condition of possibility for interaction with things in the world is that they are not absolutely or ontologically self-sufficient or self-present.”
    If ‘not absolutely self-sufficient’ means ‘interacts with something outside it’ then this follows necessarily, sure. If something had no interactions with the rest of the world, we couldn’t interact with it. Does ‘self-sufficient’ mean something more than this?

    I mean, Medieval Christians would immediately say that God (who serves as the best example of a supposedly self-sufficient being) interacts with us, but is still absolutely self-sufficient, because although God has an effect on us (e.g. by causing the world to exist) we have no effect on God, and a fortiori God does not in any sense ‘depend’ on us affecting God in a certain way.

    They’d also say that something could be static, but we still interact with it dynamically because its effect on us is the product both of its power (which is static) and changes in us. So when we, say, open our hearts to God’s grace, God affects us in time, but without Himself changing.

    That’s not obviously contradictory. Is Derrida saying it is?

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 1, 2010 6:56 pm

    “Medieval Christians would immediately say that God (who serves as the best example of a supposedly self-sufficient being) interacts with us, but is still absolutely self-sufficient, because although God has an effect on us (e.g. by causing the world to exist) we have no effect on God.”

    I think Derrida would deny this: how could God interact with us unless he heard our prayers, or something like that. If we take the adjective “impassive” literally, this follows, doesn’t it?

    Unless we go all out with magical thinking …

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    February 2, 2010 1:41 pm

    Yeah they have debates about this. Some modern Christians say ‘God hears our prayers, therefore we have some effect on God’. More classical ones say ‘God knows about our prayers, not because they act on him but because he actively creates them, as creator – his knowledge is self-knowledge’. The latter raises problems about free will, but you might be happy with that. Alternatively, you could deny that God hears our prayers, and deny that he knows anything.

    Or, you could say ‘even if God isn’t impassive and can be acted upon, this action never, say, keeps him alive, and so he doesn’t depend upon it. Hence he is self-sufficient.’

    So there’s three apparently consistent ways to have a ‘self-sufficient’ being appear to us.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 2, 2010 9:38 pm

    These seem to be pretty magical to me. God acts while remaining impassive? That’s like saying I’m moving while standing still.

    Of course this wouldn’t stick to the latter one, but I wasn’t saying that a being can’t be self-sufficient in the sense of depending on us to remain alive …

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 2, 2010 11:23 pm

    By the way, I wouldn’t dismiss Derrida unless you’ve read and understood Of Grammatology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: