Derrida, Presence, Bricolage and Play

An image of the French philosopher, Claude Lév...
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Initially, and somewhat unfortunately, I should confess to not owning or having a hard-copy of ‘Limited Inc/Signature Event Context’ (trans. 1988) to hand as I write this. Thankfully, however, I do have a well-thumbed slightly beaten-up copy of ‘Writing and Difference’ (trans. 1978). And it is – as many before have noted and referred others – from this theoretical pontoon, or, perhaps better yet, this springboard that one might profitably launch into the swirling sea of Derrida’s thought. Although whether one can survive the tempest (sic) caused by the rupture of the episteme at Derrida’s hands, and his decentring of structure and structuralist concerns by an act of their own architectonics, is, perhaps, another matter not to be dwelt upon here. So, let’s assume then that we have both gotten our sea legs and equally swallowed a large lump of ginger to guard against any potential nausea that such journeys can and do regularly provoke.

I’d like first of all to address Derrida’s notion of ‘presence’ in his founding formulations on structure, sign and play (Op Cit. Ch. 10); addressed obliquely as they are to Austin but also more directly in reply to John Searles critique (which I shall be avoiding here as that dialogue is in itself worthy of a doctoral theses).

Presence then, for Derrida, is located at the heart of the discourses of the human sciences; it is a point said to be situated unavoidably at the centre of structurality; it is the point of departure from which an unorganised structure (i.e. a thing) becomes knowable as an organised structure (i.e. an object). Presence is nothing less than the essential nucleus around which ideas of form and structure may constellate, and those ideas which govern the inhering structures within any given structure take their cue. This much is clear. There are however decentring forces at play within this significance attributed to the presence of structure by D.

Presence is also that which alludes and escapes significance, and speech acts of signifiance or lexicalisation more generally. The concept of a centred structure, for D, has at its kernel an essential ‘thingness’, a coherence which escapes capitation, a total resilience to linguistic certitudes. Presence it seems is characterised by its organising effect and its affective lack. That is to say, at the point of presence there are paradoxical forces in action pushing the lack into coherence, semblance and signifiance, whilst, in coincidence, pulling the organised structure back into the uncertainties of the space of drift and play. Clearly then, when D begins to address himself to a critique of Austin’s (following Chomsky some years earlier in 1957) addendum discourse on performance and the performative aspects of locution, peri-locution and illocution in the speech act, the context of the speech act, and prior to the speech act, he is, in fact, undermining those speech acts at an archaic level. I use the term archaic quite intentionally here, as D is quite clear about the substratum to which he believes his critique of structure and structuralist thought more widely finds its most devastating application; here we are at the stratified level of (p. 353) “eidos, arche, telos, energeia, ousia, (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia, trancendentiality, consciousness, God, man and so forth.” Put simply, D wants his reader be accustomed with the layer of ‘order’ which contains, allows for, nourishes and firmly roots the manifest upsurges of the eidetic register of life-experience which we call phenomenon in-the-world. D’s concern at the point of presence is clearly a deep concern, it is an archaic concern for a rupture in the structurality of structure. I shall pause here so that we might reflect closely on this crucially important point in situating D’s critique of nothing less than Geisteswissenschaften.

We will recall that the anthropo-ethnologist Lévi-Strauss had developed the comparison of the ‘bricoleur’ with the ‘engineer’ as a binary-opposition exposing the contrast between two distinct methodological approaches to transforming unorganised structures into organised structures (see The Savage Mind, 1966). LS’s term bricoleur finds traction in the signifying process of an approach to building or repairing things with the tools and materials on hand, as opposed to engineering from the ground up, so to speak. In contrast to the methods employed by the artisan or craftsman, whom LS terms the engineer, the bricoleur is pragmatically adroit at many tasks, and re-engineers pre-existing or broken structures in clever, novel ways through an adaptation to the limited tools and materials available to hand. This is the hallmark of the bricoleur’s strength. Thus, where the engineer takes on whole projects akin to the meta-narrative formation, the bricoleur mindset approximates more to the archaic mythopoetic mindset (i.e. the eponymous ‘Savage Mind’) by identify the individual tasks required to achieve a given project in a step by step fashion. For LS then, the scope of the bricoleur is limited and finite; he just makes do, whereas the scope of the engineer is open in the sense that he is prepared to envision new methods, tools and material solutions. So which of these might one realistically imagine to be more successful in negotiating in the realm of the barred relation (see Saussure) between the signifier and the signified? The answer to this rhetorical question is quite clear.

LS’s proposition of a latent mythopoetic binding at the centre of structuralist concerns keeps pace nicely with and is a synecdoche for Carl Jung’s analytical notion that primordial universal types (archetypes) sanction the feeling-tone of significance of symbols in the collective mind to traverse into the realm of the personally meaningful sign possessed and wielded in personal consciousness; here then, the mythopoetic binding of LS is being utilised by D to resolve the paradox of essentialism at the core of the concept of ‘presence’ (as, previously mentioned, for it exhibits both coherence and an essential lack which affords for play and drift – which pull the structure into coherence by virtue of the centre of presence and push the structure apart by virtue of the same ‘centre’). It is also noteworthy, perhaps cricuial, that for LS and later D, the succession of mythopoetic thought is characterised by a signifying chain in constant flux, movement, drift or play of binary-oppositions and incited into ‘action’ by difference (appositely not unlike the magnets paradigm you already mentioned).

D (1978: p. 360) writes: “If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from a text of heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur … [the engineer appears forced] to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth.”

This it is suggested by D that bricolage (vide pragmaticism) is responsible for the creation of the engineer (vide positivism) from the substance of myth itself. At a stroke we have been guided by D into beginning to unveil the paradoxes freighted by the term ‘presence’ as packed to overspilling, teetering degree of significance. On the one hand presence functioning with coherence, congruence, and organisational properties, and on the other presence functioning to menace, endanger, and defy the very possibility of the signifier; whilst, together, in coextensive congress, both aspects of presence act as if unified at the level of mythopoetic functioning as a binding point in a chain of meaning, a point of captation for the sign to seek momentary reprieve, a button to the upholstered furnishing of symbolic discourse lending its latent, diverse powers to a single manifest moment where the symbol inhabits a signifier. – Albeit that the presence of the signifier might be said to be always lodged in and linked with a signifying chain of alternative meanings and significances. D has to his own satisfaction, it seems, demonstrated that the critical consideration of and close scrutiny of presence brings into focus a necessarily new, if irregular, position in relation to the signifier and its mythologisation at the hands of [Cartesian] notions in tandem with an overreliance and thorough over-determination of the powers attributable to Cogito.

One is left then with something rather unsettlingly risky and dangerous to contemplate; it is akin to situating the mythopoetic function as if a sticking plaster acting as a binding to hold together the variously distributed discourses of history, each variously located into conforming to coherence as (p. 363) little more than “a historical illusion.” D is however more than alive to the precariousness of this new irregular position to which he has found himself the chief protagonist. Nonetheless, whilst offering platitudes, D is not in a position to afford us any formulation for a route to solution (or a solution itself) to the somewhat cruel problematic he has brought into focus against the future of sophistry, epistemology, and empiricism.

(p. 365) “Totalisation, therefore, is sometimes defined as useless, and sometimes as impossible … but nontotalisation also be determined in another way: no longer from the standpoint of a concept of finitude as relegation to the empirical, but from the standpoint of the concept of play.”

So, one might reasonably then ask, what ‘is’ this supposed relation between presence and play?

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