Dynamic systems theory: Derrida

The problem with how Derrida has been (mis)received by others is a concern Christopher Johnson is all too familiar with. The emphasis in literary criticism as concerns Derrida, for instance, has largely been on deconstruction, and understandably so. That is to say, criticism has almost exclusively focused on the instrumental power of deconstruction as a potential and radical critique in writing. However, the error with reading Derrida in this limited and biased way is that we miss the second moment of deconstruction: a general theory or ‘ontology’ of writing itself. As will become evident, this question of writing is integral to deconstruction itself.

The other side of the Derrida equation is a positive and general structure of writing. In contrast to the ‘orthodox’ interpretation of Derrida’s work that construes his texts in terms of “destructive criticism, a philosophy of nihilism, or a theory of infinite polysemy”, Johnson is ready to propose a scriptural model that strikes a strong similarity to dynamic systems theory.1 In this case Derrida comes much closer to a wider episteme of the life sciences, something that would significantly short-circuit the ‘critical’ reputation he has suffered under.

Taking as an example Artaud’s account of the painful experience of writing and his struggle to inscribe words given the infinite possibilities grammar provides, Derrida notes that the inauguration of all creative productions arise from this excessive condition. This anguishing experience of writing for Artaud, according to Derrida, is generalizable for all advents of inscription because it requires one to cut out a plethora of possibilities that jostle for actualization. In other words, the crisis of cleaving and dividing the infinite heterogeneity itself into determinate irruptions is always and necessarily violent.

This cruelty, however, must not be understood in an exclusively moral or anthropological sense. Derrida’s broad sense of the term violence in his model of inscription is, rather, meant to suggest that it is rigorous, implacable, calculating and applied. For Derrida, it is the “passion of inscription”.2 Although the passion and anguish of inscription are applicable to spoken as well as graphical expression, Derrida privileges writing because it bears a stronger intensity. As we all have likely experienced, writing is more restricting, constraining and difficult than speech. Additionally, scratched and clawed graphical inscriptions are more enduring than speech. After all, it leaves a permanent, tangible mark upon its selected medium.

This account of Derrida’s general economy or theory of system, however, still leaves out its exact functioning. That is to say, how does it work? By way of contrast, Derrida corrected the flat, static and univocal method of structuralism by employing his own voluminous and hydraulic metaphors. What was lacking in structural analysis, according to Derrida, was force and overflow—two elements structuralism had a proclivity for subordinating and suppressing. This simultaneous movement of two extremes—force and form—can also be thought of in terms of the opposition between the respective traditions of Apollo and Dionysus in Western metaphysics; a distinction famously made by Nietzsche. On the one hand, Apollonian philosophy has a “tendency towards synchronism, reductive closure and the hypostatization or reification of structure” whereas Dionysian philosophy tends toward unrestrained force.3 But it is noteworthy, Derrida’s economy vigilantly avoids presenting these two as mutually exclusive alternatives. The strategy of deconstruction, after all, is the undoing of complimentary opposites. For Derrida, Dionysian force and Apollonian form function as an inseparable pair.

Returning to our analysis of graphical inscription it can be said that the Dionysian force flows vertically. However, this ascensional force must eventually come down and stabilize in the necessary support of an Apollonian form. To be more precise, the undifferentiated force eventually must descend and stabilize in a temporary equilibrium or homeostasis. This combined movement of hydraulic ascension and fall is, for Derrida, the very process or economy of writing. What is more, their intersection is the very condition of possibility for inscription: by themselves these dual polarities produce nothing. For Derrida, and characteristic of Nietzsche as well, the carving of a graphical inscription requires descent, work and bending. That is to say, it is the very process of cutting into a resistant medium.

The originary moment of inscription, however, cannot be thought simply as a pristine and total origin. Rather, after force has descended and made an etching in the earth this same force survives by circulating within the economy. The moment of determination therefore is both singular and persevering. Derrida characterizes this continuation and circulation of force as repetition. It would be erroneous, however, to think of this repetition merely as the return of the same. In contrast to “a second apparition identically doubling the first”—a characteristic move of logocentrism—Derrida argues that a lesser effect or ‘trace’ is preserved out of the violent descent from infinite excess to finite form.4 In brief, it continues as ‘differing nuances’. In this way, the temporary homeostasis or Apollonian form is always open to destabilization and further transformation given its complicit contamination of Dionysian force.

1 Christopher Johnson, System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 9.

2 Johnson, System and Writing, 23.

3 Johnson, System and Writing, 42.

4 Johnson, System and Writing, 56.


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