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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.

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.

Derrida’s passion for the impossible

Derrida was an atheist with Jewish roots who spoke about God in his own way. In Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida John Caputo makes a controversial encounter with Derrida’s relationship to religion, arguing that deconstruction is a passion for the transcendent. Moreover, Caputo claims that we have not understood deconstruction properly, that is, we have read it less and less well, if we fail to see it as an aspiration for the religious or prophetic. More specifically, deconstruction is interested in making room for the tout autre, the “wholly other”. In other words, it is a “passion for the impossible”, the excess or plenitude of existence, an act that surely sets in motion a transgressive vector: it is “a passion for trespassing the horizons of possibility”.

Deconstruction is primarily a strategy of calling forth, provoking or uncovering the unrepresentable. As such, it is impregnated with the impossible or the transcendent. It is prompted or haunted by the “spirit/specter of something unimaginable and unforeseeable” (p. xix). Caputo notes that religion is precisely a covenant with the impossible, unrepresentable or unforeseeable. It is a pack or promise made between the wholly other and its people. But for Derrida, deconstruction is religiousness without concrete, historical religion. That is, Derrida is beholden by the dogmatics of no particular faith. For him, it is more a certain experience of or tormented relationship with the impossible as such. Stated otherwise, Derrida prays and weeps to God but does not know to whom he is praying and weeping.

Although this all may seem rather uninteresting, it is significant that Caputo applies this profound specter of religion to all states of affairs; for instance, anthropology, justice and politics. The bent of deconstruction, its posture of expectancy, runs deep. It can never be satisfied because the impossible can never be present, it is always that which is coming. As such, we must open ourselves and our present to something new, that which is uncommon, strange, impossible. Or, as Caputo puts it, “Were the horizon of possibility to close over, it would erase the trace of justice, for justice is the trace of what is to come beyond the possible” (p. xxiv). In this case, Derrida’s religion or notion of transcendence is not otherworldly, even if it is “spiritual” or “out-of-this-world” in some respects. Moreover, rather than a list of dogmatic propositions or historical/narrative accounts of God’s dealings with humankind, what we are usually familiar with in religions, Derrida’s religion is prophetic, messianic and eschatological, an opening towards the future of what is to come.

The scandal that Caputo is proposing is to say that deconstruction is circumcision: a cutting into the Same to open up the possibility or the event of the Other, the tout autre. Anticipating the discussion to follow, Caputo is worth quoting at length here:

The circumcision of deconstruction cuts it off from the absolute, cuts off its word form the final word, from the totalizing truth or logos that engulfs the other. Deconstruction proceeds not by knowledge but by faith and by passion, by the passion of faith, impassioned by the unbelievable, by the secret that there is no secret. It is called forth by a promise, by an aboriginal being-promised over to language and the future, to wander destiner-rant, like Abraham, underway to who knows where. Deconstruction proceeds in the dark, like a blind man feeling his way with a stick, devoid of sight and savvy, of vision and verity,…where it is necessary to believe, where the passion of faith,…is all you have to go on (p. xxvi)

The messianic logic of Derrida can and has been applied to all aspects of existence. For instance, democracy is a democracy to come, a democracy otherwise than its current state, a democracy beyond its current limitations and deadlocks. This is not a democracy that can be totalized, classified or closed any more than we can define God. More profoundly still, as Bernauer acknowledges in Foucault’s Force of Flight, “Foucault says of human begins what Eckhart says of the divine being: whatever you say God is, that is what God is not; you cannot say what human begins are but only what they are not” (p. 56). The point is as follows: we cannot say a thing concerning humanity or the God or politics to come. We are blind to the future and no positive ideal holds. Indeed, the remark Bernauer makes of Foucault is the same one made by posthumanist studies: once we have defined humanity within strict boundaries of demarcation and mastery, we have already failed to grasp the human as such.

A non-linear thread from Derrida to Deleuze

As we saw earlier, Derrida’s development of the concept differánce prevents any system from ever being completed or closed. His point is that any identity is always constituted by its opposite. In other words, meaning only arises in extension to how any given representation differs from another. In this sense, differánce always subverts and deconstructs whatever it is a part of. And, given that this a universal feature of all meaning, it is immediately and automatically active everywhere.

By contrast, Deleuze develops the “notion of a fundamental both / and or difference that is inseparable from dynamic systems that are at the ‘edge of chaos’” (Jeffrey Bell, Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 4). For Deleuze, a dynamic system is one that presupposes both the stable and the unstable, structured and unstructured. Living organisms, for exampled, maintain a fixed continuity simultaneously with a fluctuating lifeblood, neither conflating one nor the other. In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari extend this concept to the abstract machine, what they describe as “a double articulation” or  “a double bind.” This both / and referred to in such terms refers to the inseparability of stability and instability as the precondition for dynamic systems themselves. As Bell puts it, “The abstract machine is precisely this double articulation, the fundamental both / and (ordered and chaotic, or chaos-mos), that is inseparable from identities and from transformations and becomings of these identities” (p.4). Otherwise put, and bearing a semblance to Derrida, difference is presupposed and a precondition for dynamic systems to exist at all.


For Derrida, being is the oppositional conflict between binaries, but what is more real than even this duel of forces is the difference between them… But Derrida shows through his elaboration of différance that neither term in the binary truly conquers the other because both need the other in order to stand out, and that both are, in fact, constituted at their foundation by this continual supplementation of difference. Thus, no term is beyond the other, but both are equally inscribed within the more primordial differential space between, that “bottomless chessboard upon which being is put into play”… Derrida privileges the bottomlessness of the chessboard duel in order to call out the essential arbitrariness of privileging any one term over the other… So for Derrida, what is most real, then, is the abyss of différance, or the bottomless aspect of the chessboard, which is to say that it is an ultimate transcendental emptiness out of which everything impossibly, endlessly, and agonistically emerges and in relation to which nothing has a more or less significant relationship… For in relation to an ultimate indifferent emptiness, everything is classified at its base by an essential equivalence, with no thing expressing a greater degree of goodness or beauty or truth than the next thing, thereby ensuring that it is only through subjective imposition—that is, by way now of a thing’s commodified form and exchange value—that any worth whatsoever can be attributed to it. The market all too happily accepts its ontological construal as in line with its own justification and continued sprawl and thus renders the critical, liberative edge of Derrida’s deconstruction largely domesticated. For within this Derridean scheme, all we can do is arbitrarily hope that somehow a universal realization of this bottomless abyss will help in chastening our imperial ambitions, mitigating the still inevitable conflict of power. Yet all the while, the new imperial logic of the market spreads increasingly uninhabited over this bottomless frontier, aided by having the last remaining vestiges of any other obstructive metaphysical values removed from the sociopolitical chessboard (Ben Suriano, “On What Could Quite Rightly Pass for a Fetish” in ‘God is Dead’ and I Don’t Feel so Good Myself, pp. 38-40)

see Derrida, Margins of Philosophy; Of Grammatology; and Writing and Difference

Self-Centered Altruism, Part II

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud writes: “under the influence of the ego’s instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the reality principle. This latter principle does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road (Aufschub) to pleasure”

Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, vol 18, p. 10, quoted in Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, p. 19.

I think this is a remarkable quote, to touch again on the nature of selfish altruism. Freud’s point, while not dealing with ethical norms in particular here, is that all living is for pleasure, even if it happens to be a detour. The quote comes in a section by Derrida in Margins of Philosophy that pertains to putting the authority of the consciousness into question. Derrida argues, following both Freud and Nietzsche, that consciousness is anything but presence, what we popularly privilege subjective existence to be. On the contrary, consciousness is always the effect of “byways” and “modalities” that are not proper to it (p. 17). I take this to be of significant import in regards to altruism because it expresses that we are never fully cognizant of our true motives. There is a topography of differing forces underlying what we represent as the conscious.

The Parallax of Belief

I think it is pretty clear that the opposed movements of belief and unbelief are always-already a minimal difference inherent to one of the terms….which term that is happens to be a parallax view, to my mind. On the one hand, theology considers atheism to always be parasitic on some form of theism. The argument goes, according to continental philosophy of religion mostly, that there is no such thing as an unbiased, universal vantage point. Moreover, one is always-already socially interpellated to view the world from a particular perspective. As such, all interpretations of reality are situated within a horizon of taken-for-granted epistemological assumptions. In other words, every position depends on act of faith. Or, in less religious terms, every positions is contingent upon an absolute presupposition. Thus, nihilism–more popularly known as atheism outside of France–is somewhat of a theology; albeit an a-theology.

On the other hand, the tension between immanence and transcendence is considered to be a minimal difference/gap in immanence itself, according to various forms of materialist discourse. Theism and atheism, in other words, are not externally opposed but are rather characterized by internal overlapping; they are both inherent to a larger whole that encompasses them both. Žižek describes this minimal difference spectacularly:

The tension between immanence and transcendence is thus also secondary with regard to the gap within immanence itself: “transcendence” is a kind of perspective illusion, the way we (mis)perceive the gap/discord that inheres to immanence itself (The Parallax View, p. 36)

The split between the theism and atheism is merely the noncoincidence with finitude itself; so says Žižek. Accordingly, there is no rapport between one and the other; no synthesis or mediation is possible between the two. Instead, with this parallax view, one must constantly shift perspectives between the two points. Given this insurmountable gap, no neutral common ground is possible. They are two sides of the same coin, but can never touch.

A good example of this incommensurable dialectic is Jastrow’s Duck-Rabbit. Cunningham describes the deadlock of viewing the picture as follows:

One either sees the duck or the rabbit – never both at the same time. The mind oscillates between the two. But what must be remembered is that the appearance of two (God or Nature, duck or rabbit) disguises the one picture upon which they are made manifest. In this way there is only ever one, but this one picture is able to provide the appearance of two despite their actual alternating absences: nothing as something; the completely absent rabbit as duck, which is yet equally the completely absent duck as rabbit (Genealogy of Nihilism, p. xiv)

For another clarifying example, see the Moebius strip. We are dealing here, according to Žižek, with two levels that never touch yet are excruciatingly close.

…the paradox consists in the fact that these two series never overlap: we always encounter an entity that is simultaneously—with regard to the structure—an empty, unoccupied place and—with regard to the elements—a rapidly moving, elusive object, an occupant without a place….they are not two different entities, but the front and the back of one and the same entity, that is, one and the same entity inscribed onto the two surfaces of a Moebius strip (The Parallax View, p. 122)

This comes very close to the apophatic strand of Christian theology. While some people are more comfortable with rigidly classifying people along hard lines and lumping them into oversimplified categories–especially when it comes to religion and politics–the contemporary discourse scene is much more ambivalent. Jon Stanley has an excellent essay in the recently published “God is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself entitled “Why Every Christian Should ‘Quite Rightly Pass for an Atheist'”. He begins with some apropos quotes:

Only an atheist can be a good Christian — Ernst Bloch

Only a Christian can be a good atheist — Jürgen Moltmann

I quite rightly pass for an atheist — Jacques Derrida

His best material emerges when he speaks to the fact that the early Christians were accused of being an atheistic cult because they did not worship Caesar. That is, a Christian would “pass for an atheist” by denouncing the official religion of the Roman Empire and all that it entailed; particularly its violence. Today there is very little tolerance for “blurring the boundaries” between belief and unbelief, but this was clearly an ambiguous category for the early Christians. For Stanley, Derrida is an unlikely (or is it likely?) ally in acknowledging this tension.

Derrida has also continually drawn attention to the “porous boundaries” between atheism and theism. Leaning on the apophatic tradition of negative theology, he speaks of a certain type of atheism that “at times so resembles a profession of atheism as to be mistaken for it,”… (p. 13)