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Martini or Bikini? The Question of Differance Between Philosophy and Literature

Rex Olson
Duquesne University


Let us begin with an unconventional text. Let us say for the sake of argument it is Jacques Derrida's text. After all his writing is not unlike the text we have before us. In looking at his text what sense do we make of it? Doubtless some of you will see something like a martini glass, though to do so means disregarding what seems to be a misplaced olive. Others of you surprised at that suggestion will chuckle, lean over to the person next to you and whisper, "I saw a person in a bikini." And still others will offer interpretations at odds with those which are most common.1 To see one figure, either as a martini or a bikini, is at the same time not to see the other. Like Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit, we cannot hold in mind both figures at the same time, because their configurations depend on the “same” textual ground. Our experience of text will always be one moment a martini, a bikini the next, and Derrida wants to show us that every interpretation, every insight into a text is at once its exact blindness, to the other in itself, and to the very conditions of its possibility2. So if text for Derrida is the condition of possibility for every interpretation, whether martini, bikini, or otherwise, then it must also be the condition of its impossibility. That is, his text must be neither a martini nor a bikini precisely to the extent that it signifies beyond the limits of a meaningful interpretation as such.

When in Of Grammatology Derrida postulates “there is nothing outside the text,” he means for us to read there is no-thing or being outside the text3; interpretation as the pursuit of some meaning and ground will always be a disciplined activity which seeks to repress the inherent slippage of text4. And text, so situated, will always achieve a certain resistance in the face of any interpretation. This apparent nonsense in the notion of Derrida's text has stirred extraordinary controversy over the way his writings have been received. What could such nonsense mean? Can we say with any certainty whether his text expresses a rigorous philosophical method, or a kind of literary madness? Or to put this differently, is Derrida a transcendental philosopher, as Christopher Norris argues, or a literary genius, as celebrated by Richard Rorty? And what implications might our judgments of his text have for the future, whether of Western philosophy or literature?

For us the question of disciplinarity in Derrida's text takes the same aporetic form as that of the martini/bikini figure. In responding to this question I will argue that Derrida is a serious philosopher whose work has been misunderstood by philosophers and literary critics alike. My remarks will suggest first that the commentary surrounding the reception of Derrida’s work has failed in some sense to "get Derrida right." Of course I am aware of the apparent hubris of this position which serious readers of Derrida may dismiss as naive. But at the same time I mean for the force of my claim, regarding how we understand Derrida, to resist the kind of modernist relativism which can be attributed to those who would read him from some unquestioned position “outside” his text. Second, I will argue that his notion of text or differance (along with its numerous incarnations) serves as the organizing principle of his philosophy, that it functions in some sense as a critical philosophical “method” but with disseminating effects which take on the appearance of literature. Third, I hope to show that his text, to the extent it embodies an auto-critical motif, finds its pedigree within a certain Kantian tradition, thus exceeding and extending its legacy in a way Derrida's predecessors since Kant could never have imagined5. Finally, my comments today are fundamentally schematic; in most instances the broad, unanchored sweep of my claims presupposes an understanding of the history of modern critical philosophy with which most historians of philosophy would naturally quarrel. Rather than follow the conventional history of modern critical philosophy, I focus on critique as the structural pivot for advancing that history and for situating Derrida's thought. Not to do so, I think, is to risk mistaking his notion of text for a martini or bikini as many scholars working in the disciplines of literature and philosophy have unwittingly done.

For the past twenty-five years or more no other thinker has exerted a more powerful influence on the way critical theory and practice have been conducted in this country than Jacques Derrida. Most understanding of his work has come from its appropriation by the literary critical community. This community was largely responsible for the translation, commentary, and dissemination of his writings into English. Following the symposium on "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man" which convened in October of 1966 at Johns Hopkins University, Paul de Man invited Derrida to Yale as a Visiting Professor in the Humanities in the fall of 1975. In 1979 the publication of Deconstruction and Criticism, which featured Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, and Jacques Derrida, introduced the "Yale school" of deconstructive criticism to the American academy. Based on his association with the Yale critics, Derrida would come to be known first and foremost as a literary theorist and not as a philosopher. Indeed, many academics in this country, who claim to know something of Derrida’s work, still follow the earlier interpretations of Derrida, especially those by Paul de Man, Jonathan Culler, Terry Eagleton, and Vincent Leitch. Though admirable in their own right, these theorists would nevertheless misread Derrida's notion of text, of differance, of archi-trace, of invagination, of supplementarity, of erasure, of deconstruction to mean a kind of literary trope whose disruptive force would serve to establish deconstruction as a form of rhetorical criticism. This introduction of deconstructive criticism to American literary studies would give rise to a "theory" movement that many traditional literary humanists criticized for leading the profession away from literature. They feared that "theory" not literature could become the object of inquiry, and that departments would hire theorists who may have no understanding of literature, let alone any interest in it6. To a limited extent this fear was justified. Indeed, numerous English departments, in response to the heightened interest in theory, sought to redefine the object and scope of their intellectual activity in terms of "textual" or "cultural" studies7. Their desire was to “deconstruct” the traditional English department in order to realize a more all inclusive, expansive ground for literature. This redrawing of curricular lines not only opened the literary canon to multiple perspectives, but also permitted students to explore the relation between literatures, and all this could not have been possible without justification on theoretical grounds. Thus, the changes in literary studies, which swept through English departments across the country, were in no small measure the indirect consequences of Derrida’s reception in this country as a literary theorist.

In time, however, there occurred a small but vigorous philosophical backlash on both sides of the Atlantic. British philosophers, such as David Wood, Christopher Norris, Robert Bernasconi, and John Llewelyn, and such American philosophers as John Sallis, Irene Harvey, John Caputo, Leonard Lawlor, along with Rudoph Gasche, David Caroll, and Herman Rapaport in comparative literature, would challenge the prevailing view that Derrida should be construed as a literary theorist. Their position was to wrest Derrida from the hands of literary critics by showing how deconstruction, as a touchstone of textuality, belonged to a tradition of philosophical criticism. Toward this end the commentary on Derrida is generally divided into two groups: one group ties Derrida to Kant; the other ties him to numerous philosophical predecessors.

Both Irene Harvey and Christopher Norris, for example, claim that Derrida's project belongs to a post-Kantian critical reason in which the expression of enlightened thought--its language, representation, or writing--is inherently problematic. The mode of enlightened thought siginifies beyond its limits as a reflection of reasonable thought to shatter the classical mirror of philosophy. Hence, critical philosophy after Kant no longer recognizes itself in the mirror, except indirectly, and only after deciphering its image through the shards which otherwise give it a literary cast. In as much as Derrida focuses on the non-causal conditions for the possibility of such critical thought Harvey and Norris consider him a transcendental philosopher.

Other commentators, namely Allan Megill and David Caroll, have studied the critical role of art and literature in Derrida's work and argued that it radically extends the Kantian tradition of aesthetic critique. Whereas Megill characterizes Derrida's use of art and literature as revealing an aesthetic theory, Caroll demonstrates how that which seems merely aesthetic is profoundly critical. His view differs from other leading commentators in so far as he sees the origin and end of Derrida's criticism as exceeding the a priori ground of any particular faculty, i.e. reason in the first instance, and imagination in the second. In this sense, it seems, he finds the a priori at work in the function of critique itself, as it manifests in the relation between the aesthetic and the theoretical moments of Derrida's writings.

The commentary of the second group, specifically that of David Wood, Rudolphe Gasche, Herman Rapaport, and most recently Leonard Lawlor, is largely a response to Paul Ricoeur's reading of Derrida in Study 8 of The Rule of Metaphor8. In this study Ricoeur seeks to hedge off the disruptive power of Derrida's critique of philosophical language, which Derrida sets forth in his essay, "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy.9" Ricoeur views Derrida as obliterating the difference between speculative and poetic modes of discourse, so that the identity and foundation of philosophy is virtually unrecognizable, at least from Ricoeur’s rather philosophical vantage point. In arguing to preserve the pure form of philosophical identity, Ricoeur assimilates Derrida to the later Heidegger then proceeds to dismiss their work as a radical poetics. Rather than accept Ricoeur's characterization of Derrida, the commentators in the second group seek to articulate the philosophical differences between Heidegger and Derrida, thus arguing on methodological grounds that Heidegger and Derrida should be viewed as serious philosophers who are anything but engaged in literary practices.

For Lawlor and Gasche the critical move in Derrida's thought signifies a dramatic break from Kantian transcendentalism. Their respective projects, Imagination and Chance10 and The Tain of the Mirror11, trace the force of Derrida's criticism to Husserl and the origins of transcendental phenomenology. For Rapaport the philosophical differences between Heidegger and Derrida depend on their respective views of language and temporality. He contends that it is only after reading Maurice Blanchot that Derrida comes to appreciate the "linguistic turn" in Heidegger's thought and hence its undoing of temporality as the horizon which organizes the development of Western intellectual history. Until this discovery, he claims, Derrida is critical of Heidegger's early essays for unwittingly idealizing the ground of human subjectivity (Dasein).

Despite the enormous contributions this commentary has made in the name of Derrida and philosophy, there remains a blind spot at the center of their collective views. The problem is that with the possible exception of Carroll this commentary never gets beyond the immediate sense of Derrida's text to see how it might be a recurring motif whose structure is inherited from Kantian critical philosophy. In other words their efforts to show the philosophical influences on Derrida--that he is Nietzschean or Hegelian or Kantian or Heideggerian--presuppose intellectual differences that fail to acknowledge the historical frame in and against which such thought takes place. In short, they tend to read his text (or differance) in its transcendent form as mere difference without attention to the interior condition being deferred to in the act of making such differences count. How is it possible, we might ask, that Derrida can be aligned in critical reflection with each of these thinkers yet be found uniquely different from each of them at the same time? What else might account for this apparent conflict of interpretation? Doubtless this commentary rightly assumes that if philosophical inquiry is to advance it must overturn the thought of a given thinker by locating the exception to the rule in his thinking. But it wrongly assumes that simply designating a thematic or conceptual difference between thinkers represents such an exception, especially since Kantian critique is the fundamental structure at stake in the history and as the horizon of modern critical thought.

It is precisely this common ground that goes unnoticed in the confrontation between philosophy and literature on the question of Derrida’s notion of textuality. Beyond the concern over who gets Derrida right the battle over which discipline his work belongs is symbolic of a larger issue at stake between philosophy and literature: That is, whose rightful property is this business we call criticism? Certainly it is understandable that with each discipline committed to criticism as its sovereign practice we would find quarrels over how to understand Derrida's text. For Derrida, more than any other philosopher, leaves us with a term like differance that is so self-critical, so self-effacing, that it opens the boundaries between philosophy and literature, allowing us to see how each discipline flows into the other, thus occupying the same, if not identical, space. The silent "a" of differance is the hinge or inner fold of this and every difference. It is the condition, in effect, that makes possible the disciplines we know as philosophy and literature in its belonging exclusively to neither. And in belonging exclusively to neither the purity of mind as expressed in the articulation of difference dissolves into madness--when difference is beside itself in a fit of differance. Here the ordered world which difference means for us to see moves beyond its clearly defined boundaries, to dance before our eyes, in a glittering, shimmering matter. What appears otherwise as madness, literary or poetic expression, Dionysian ecstasy, even wilding in Central Park occurs as part of and in relation to a critical gaze that contests the metaphysical boundary of difference. Whereas Anglo-American philosophy tends to find its identity in rationality and the search for a 'fool proof’ logic, Derrida's differance pushes thought into realizing the full engagement of its criticism. His critique, which manages to respect the interior seam of difference, is the final “step back” to an undetected, unmarked presence which had remained “outside” the history of self-critical thought ever since Kant first made critique the property and work of modern philosophy. For Derrida to inscribe difference as differance, then, is to fully discharge “what is” ultimately philosophy’s debt to Kant.

Now in what sense do I mean this? How can differance or Derrida’s sense of text be payment in full for a Kantian debt? With the inscription of difference Derrida exhausts a recurring Kantian motif whose presence remained unnoticed within the horizon of critical philosophy for every thinker after Kant whose ideas claimed a critical and radical departure from his. This is not to say that the desire to "break" with metaphysics had not been already present as an innovative and driving force in the history of modern philosophy, the divergent paths of neo-Kantian epistemology and aesthetic critical philosophy are evident; rather, it is to say that in a long line of critical thinkers since Kant--Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Heidegger--Derrida is the first to re-mark or inscribe the presence of a self-critical rule, whose unconscious reception in the thought of his predecessors made their claims to "break" with metaphysics appear as something altogether “new.” We find this, for example, in the kind of intellectual shell game being played among the modern critical philosophers: in Nietzsche's critique of Hegel, Heidegger's critique of Nietzsche, and Derrida's critique of Heidegger, with each charging the former of being "the last metaphysician.12" Each wants and believes their thought to be the last critical word on philosophy. What persists as interesting here is the tightening of the critical turn philosophy takes toward itself, as each successive thinker looks to uncover what lies unintended in the critical philosophical writings of thinkers since Kant. In this tradition philosophers look to push the thought of a given thinker beyond its limits in order to illuminate that which is otherwise concealed in the presence of thought itself. Nothing is new except the unfolding of that which heretofore remained present yet unacknowledged. Within this historical context differance not only shows how differences in thought are necessarily sutured together, but in taking the more subtle, critical turn to defer to that which cannot be seen--a trace of a trace--which at the same time insinuates itself in the midst of the difference we do see--it also leads us to the position that "there is no outside the text," no outside differance, if you will. For every claim, assertion, proposition, judgment, however anti-rational it purports to be, will inevitably find itself entangled in the very metaphysical conditions from which it struggles to extricate itself. That Derrida manages to find this here, a metaphysical moment in the history of such critical excesses, can be the only thing "new," since the manifest claim of each thinker to "break" with metaphysics will have been revealed, in succession, to be a critical failure of its ability to get beyond a certain Kantianism.

We find this Kantianism at stake in the martini/bikini figures of Derrida's text. To return to these figures we discover that the a priori condition of possibility for their appearance is not the being present of lines as such, but the question all of us had to put to this text, whether we were conscious of it or not: namely, what is (does) it (it) (mean)? To ask “what is it?” is the very question that defines our engagement with the world as distinctively human. It sets us apart from all other animals, and in this sense operates as a metaphysical reflex, which grants us the possibility of worldliness. In this sense,"what is it?" reflects the presence of mind, in a Kantian sense, which enables these or any figures to appear. We say the figure is a martini, or a bikini, or something else. For these figures appear by virtue of the names we give them—names that are culturally, historically, and idiomatically bound, but which transcend these aspects in the name of knowledge. To say the figure is a martini or a bikini or something else means that we know it as such. It means that it is for us as a martini or as a bikini or as something else. And to know it as such means that we know it as a “substance” or an “essence,” which is at some distance from the “real” thing we are claiming to know. The problem is in the saying. We cannot be certain in saying “what something is” whether the linguistic reference to “martini glass,” in keeping with our example, points to the concrete thing itself, “this” martini glass, or to the categorical sense of the term, “a martini glass,” the genus to which all particular martini glasses would belong. Indeed, to ask the question, "what is it?" of something is an effort to reduce the metaphor of its being, to focus our gaze so that we arrive at the most meaningful or knowledgeable distance from things, much like using the lens of a camera to pull an object from its field into clear view. Knowledge, then, is the capacity to identify correctly the “essence” of a thing or being, the being of a thing in its “essence,” as a “martini glass” or a “bikini.” This, all in an effort to bring a sense of order and meaning to an otherwise undisciplined world.

But such a move toward knowledge, Heidegger reminds us, represses the brute fact of a thing’s being, beyond any split reference between the species and genus of things. In other words, to know the "what" of a thing sublates the very facticity of its being, its isness. We do not see, or we forget, that the figure before us is for us as it is. That is, the martini glass is only as it is, a martini glass. The hermeneutical-as structure conceals the very fact that the martini glass also and simply is. With this, we must take care not to see Heidegger’s hermeneutic as that which reveals the latent meaning and ground as if it were behind some curtain, waiting to be uncovered; rather, Heidegger means for us to glimpse what is the twisted relation of the figure to its ground, which is, accordingly, the ontological complexity of things. From this ontological point of view, the difference we see between martini and bikini figures obscures the common ground of their being, what is for Heidegger their more fundamental relation. The question "what is," then, becomes the site of an irreducible knottedness. Under Derridean critique the "what is," the first and smallest unit of thought in philosophy, is at odds with the text of its own terms--what and is. No term or thing or figure is ever simply present; it can only be present under erasure, in its textualized doubleness. In other words, "what is" is by virtue of its being (in relation to) "what is not"—with every not being the negative condition which enables every letter to appear as we see it. The identity of a thing, its name, then, is always tied to its non-identical trace, and all this at one and the same time. For Derrida such critique is a re-marking and re-making of the time frame which thus has no origin and no outside this indivisible fold.

In arguing for this notion of text Derrida extends the spirit of Kantian critique to its fullest measure, right down to and including the letter, in this case the letter "a" of differance, the last penny owed. His acknowledgment of Kant in this gesture, however modest it may seem, is indeed epoch-breaking. It succeeds in moving philosophy beyond the horizon of its modernity to re-mark it, now in and as a postmodern space. Such a move for Derrida does not mean that philosophy comes to an "end" in being merely a literary, self-referential, and non-realist activity. That would be to find it as Rorty, Baudriard, and others have intended to produce it. Nor does it mean that philosophy finds its ultimate resting place in Kant's notion of the sublime, or in Hegel's absolute knowledge, or in Nietzsche's eternal recurrence of the same, or in Marx's dialectical materialism, or in Freud's unconscious scenes, or in Heidegger's insistence to think more. No, the "end" and future of philosophy reside in the uncanny space between philosophy and literature, where philosophy finds itself, acknowledges itself, in the very writing of its criticism.

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1. For a discussion of this phenomenological relation see Paul de Man’s essays in his Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), especially “The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida’s Reading of Rousseau,”
pp. 102-141.

2. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. A more precise translation of Derrida’s notion of text reads “there is no outside the text” (158). The difference may account at least in part for the differences in the way Derrida’
s thought has been received.

3. It is important to note that Derrida’s formulation seeks to articulate a difference between interpretation, as a form of hermeneutics, and reading, which exhausts the semantic ground of interpretation. For Derrida reading is not be confused with our “everyday” notion of encoding and decoding signs in order to access meaning. Rather, reading is a self-critical writing which transgresses the relation between interpretation and meaning, or the interpretation of meaning, to recognize the invisible, privative moment as that which grants meaning its presence as something to be interpreted.

4. My reference to Kant here and throughout is to the tradition that is hermeneutic and deriving not scientific
and empirical.

5. See Joseph Berger, “U.S. Literature: Cannon Under Seige” New York Times 6 Jan. 1988, and Christopher Clausen, “It is Not Elitist to Place English Literature at Center of English Curriculum” Chronicle of Higher Education 13 Jan. 1988: A52. Also, for a survey of theory’s influence on English study see William Cain, The Crisis in Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1984).

6. The department of English at Syracuse University, for example, where I taught as an adjunct for some time, experienced this shift, hiring several young, 'cutting-edge' theorists who then redefined the curriculum and themselves as the Department of English and Textual Studies. Now of course the pendulum has swung back. All those young theorists have left, and the department like many others, looks to hire individuals with a literature background first and theoretical interests second.

7. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning in Language (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981).

8. Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy” in Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982. pp. 207-271.

9. Leonard Lawlor, Imagination and Chance: The Difference Between the Thought of Ricoeur and Derrida (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992).

10. Rudolphe Gasche, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986).

11. “There have been great thinkers since Hegel who have opened new paths--Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, [Heidegger]. But the question is whether they have continued philosophical thought or whether they have written its criticism. What can that thought mean which belongs neither to positive science nor to classical ontology? What is the place of this thought and of its language?
It is precisely because Hegel is the last of the great metaphysicians--not only for us; he, himself, was clearly conscious that philosophical thought as such was coming to an end with him--that his thought interests us.” (Jean Hypolite, “The Structure of Philosophic Language According to the “’Preface’ to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind” in The Structuralist Controversy 157-8)
The self-critical turn in philosophy after Kant permitted Hegel to see the “end” of metaphysics in his own thinking. It also enabled Heidegger to proclaim Nietzsche “the last of the great metaphysicians,” and Derrida, the same of Heidegger. On Nietzsche see Heidegger’s “Nietzsche’s Fundamental Metaphysical Position” in Nietzsche: Volume II, Eternal Return of the Same (New York: Harper & Row, 1984. On Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche, see Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979). See also Of Grammatology, especially “The Written Being/The Being Written,” and in Margins, “Ousia and Gramme: Note on a Note from Being and Time.