Derrida on Lucretius and modern genetics

Our perception of dynamic systems theory in Derrida is further confirmed in his discussion of atomist theories as outlined in Mes chances [Taking Chances]. Lucretius’ cosmological account readily presents us with a theory of system that directly parallels Derrida’s ontology of writing:

In the cosmology of Lucretius, the pre-phenomenal, primordial state of undifferentiated matter is represented as an infinitely descending cataract of atoms. Because these atoms move in parallel trajectories, from top to bottom, in a continuous stream, there is no contact between them, and therefore no possibility of existence as such. The clinamen is the oblique deviation or departure (in French, one would say ‘écart’) from this parallel and non-interacting descent of particles. The collision and combination (or ‘agglutination’) of atoms resulting from this swerve leads to the creation of the world and its phenomena. It is important to note that the occurrence of the clinamen is purely arbitrary…1

What is of peculiar interest here is Derrida’s reading of the clinamen as an indeterminate occurrence that yields maximum consequences. Although the deviation is minimal and arbitrary, the chance inauguration is retrospectively legitimized and translated as necessary. That is to say, the accidents of the event become frozen.

All of this suggests furthermore that the emergence of order from atoms is not fixed in totality but can dissolve and enter into new combinations. Derrida’s theory of system in relation to the Lucretian atom is characteristically meaningless, which is to say it possess no intrinsic meaning. Given that all relations are in the end arbitrary it goes without saying that all minimal elements can emigrate from their identifiable compositions and join a different articulating structure. Consequently, all atoms, marks or traits of a given relation are repeatable from one environment to another. In Derrida’s terms, they exist as traces.

The atomist “combinatorial principle” of chance and necessity in all complex systems serves as a comparable model to “the scriptural metaphors of modern biological and cybernetic theory” insofar as both are concerned with the double articulation of indeterminate excess and self-regulating code.2 In this respect all systems are “necessarily conservative (the condition of their existence and persistence) but equally inherently unstable (the condition of their dynamism).”3 This oscillation between disrupting chance and regulating containment is no less true of linguistic systems, but Derrida’s argument is much broader: the random process of condensation and combination of heterogeneous elements can be generalized to encompass all systems.

Although Derrida is hesitant to take positivistic steps that would identify him too strongly with the natural sciences his atomist materialism is nevertheless implicated in the field of molecular biology, specifically in modern genetics. As the genetic ‘script’ of DNA that transmits genetic information and contributes to hereditary processes of evolution suggests, organisms always contain a certain logic of chance mutation in the reproduction and perpetuation of themselves. Genetic theory shows, in other words, that the “process of copying or editing” a ‘text’ is always susceptible to errors: “additions, deletions, transpositions”.4 Johnson’s analysis demonstrates, moreover, that Derrida’s initial idiom of inscription is noticeably altered to include “what one might call…‘bio-genetic’ metaphors”, such as germ(ination), insemination and seed, particularly in ‘La dissemination’ [Dissemination], ‘Glas’ [Glas] and subsequent texts.5 However, Johnson is correct to point out, in my judgment, that Derrida’s implicit consideration of modern genetic theory and atomistic dissemination are supplemental articulations of a wider theory of writing proper. That is to say, Derrida is not concerned with bio-genetics or the atomist tradition per se as much as he is interested in a broader ontology of writing.

This at once brings us to Derrida’s proposed program for rewriting the constraining logocentric heritage of Western metaphysics. As the metaphoricity suggests, Derrida’s strategy of deconstruction involves tampering with the code in its process of reproduction.6 On this bio-technological basis, one forces the telos of an entity to stray from its intended destination by means of cutting and transplanting its codes to form new sequences. In fact, this means of interventional transformation can also be found in Derrida’s scriptural lexicon: the meaning of texts are, after all, amplified and contaminated by subsequent works or citational grafts that reproduce textual chains in new contexts. Or, to refer back to Derrida’s interpretation of Lucretius, the creation of variegated things in the world is a result of atoms or particles colliding and agglutinating into random combinations.

In all these examples the strategy remains the same: philosophy evolves by selecting and recombining the “continuous drift of differences” handed down by the system.7 More specifically, Derrida’s practical intervention involves choosing sequences of texts that do not follow the conventional trajectory of Western philosophy: “Derrida’s own selection of forces is intended to keep the system moving, to ensure the continual transformation of the code, the continuous differentiation of the ‘supplément de code’.”8 Expressed in other terms, Derrida is sensitive to pick marginal, suppressed, ‘tout autre’ forces and prove how they are in fact more powerful, which, it goes without saying, strangely approximates deconstruction to Darwinian natural selection. In short, Derrida’s program is to accelerate the process of discontinuities!

1 Johnson, System and Writing, 134.

2 Johnson, System and Writing, 137.

3 Johnson, System and Writing, 138.

4 Johnson, System and Writing, 166.

5 Johnson, System and Writing, 166.

6 “If Derrida’s bio-genetic metaphor is followed to its logical conclusion, then his proposed rewriting of the logocentric programme could be expressed in terms of genetic manipulation. In genetic technology, alternations in the DNA of a cell are obtained by means of the splicing and grafting of sequences of the genetic code, and this recombination of sequences can serve to modify aspects of metabolism or anatomical structure.” Johnson, System and Writing, 182.

7 Johnson, System and Writing, 163.

8 Johnson, System and Writing, 186.


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2 responses to “Derrida on Lucretius and modern genetics”

  1. Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

    For an excellent argument regarding subjectivity and the emergence of uncommon thought from meaningless chaos and depressive moods or existential angst see here:

  2. Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

    Levi Bryant has a good post up over at Larval Subjects considering the resonance between cybernetics and system theory, an illuminating connection that I only hint at here. I concur with Levi: “I’m always amazed that people aren’t screaming cybernetics from rooftops everywhere”. For his full post, see here:

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