Mark Poster (Information) – Is Deconstruction Computer Ready?

The question I shall raise in this chapter concerns the status of Derrida’s concept of writing in relation to the computer: does the introduction of computer writing herald a stage of communication unforeseen and unaccountable by Derrida’s method of textual deconstruction, or does deconstruction itself rather open theoretical analysis to computer writing by destabilizing, subverting or complicating writing in a pre-electronic age? This question is not meant to invoke and oppose two technologies of writing: manuscript/printing vs. electronic writing, although the issues I want to raise do have a certain link to the technologies that are a condition for the possibility of various forms of writing. Instead I am interested in the relation between the subject and the text as these terms are reconfigured in the move from print to electronic writing. I am interested in the differences in the way the subject is constituted by the process of writing in the two cases.

More specifically I shall analyze how the introduction of electronic writing functions to destabilize the figure of the subject as it is drawn in the great traditions of Western thought, the Cartesian subject who stands outside the world of objects in a position that enables certain knowledge of an opposing world of objects, or the Kantian subject who is both outside the world as the origin of knowledge and inside the world as an empirical object of that knowledge, or the Hegelian subject who is within the world, transforming him or herself, but thereby realizing the ultimate purpose of the world’s coming into being. Electronic writing, I shall argue, disperses the subject so that it no longer functions as a center in the way it did in pre-electronic writing.

Gregory Ulmer argues that Derrida’s interpretive strategy accounts for these effects of computer mediated writing on the subject. He contends that “Derrida’s texts … already reflect an internalization of the electronic media, thus marking what is really at stake in the debate surrounding the closure of Western metaphysics.” Yet in order to raise the question of the mode of information Ulmer finds Derrida’s position insufficient. He finds it necessary to carry Derrida’s thought further, developing what he calls “applied grammatology,” in order “to provide the mode of writing appropriate to the present age of electronic communications.” In the end, Ulmer is unsure if Derrida already heralds the new age of writing or if he only glimpses it but does not really come to terms with it. Derrida’s relation to the mode of information contains ambiguities that need to be clarified.

At several points Derrida explicitly points to electronically mediated communication as the context of his work. In Of Grammatology, he characterizes the present age as one in “suspense between two ages of writing,” one in which “linear writing” and “the book” are at an “end.” In Positions he claims that Of Grammatology presented “the current upheavals in the forms of communication, the new structures emerging in all formal practices, and also in the domains of the archive and the treatment of information, that massively and systematically reduce the role of speech, of phonetic writing, and of the book.” In États généraux de la philosophies a conference of 1979, Derrida’s short intervention of 16 pages discussed the role of “information technologies” on five separate occasions. His main theme was the need for “vigilance” at a time when the media threaten to undermine “critical capacities for evaluation” by the “control, manipulation, diversion or cooptation of discourse.” The Post Card too may be interpreted as an essay on the question of electronic or “tele” writing. Finally, in a 1988 talk at UC Irvine, Derrida pointed to the destabilization of the subject when the writer uses a computer, although he did so with his usual strategy of complication. Here he argued that the computer makes for reversibility and easy supplementarity of insertion of texts; yet, the computer protects linear writing by expanding its capacity for integration (that is, the ability to erase annotation, and thus other voices, from the principal text). Thus, Derrida urged, whether the integration is by an author, another person, or a collectivity, the computer destabilizes them, inaugurating a new situation of limits. But then again, he hedged, it may also be understood as extending old situations, old kinds of linear writing. Computer writing then is a minor but not insignificant theme in Derrida’s work, a theme, significantly, that is often inserted in his texts at the point at which he is situating his position in relation to the general social context.

In this chapter I shall (1) analyze Derrida’s early position on the relation of the subject to writing; (2) discuss several kinds of computer writing in relation to the subject; and (3) assess Derrida’s later position, especially in The Post Card, as a theoretical strategy for the analysis of computer writing. In the chapter I shall explore both the way deconstruction enables a comprehension of electronic writing and the way computer discourse opens questions about the adequacy of deconstruction, especially with regard to the question of context.

Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, Margins, and Dissemination argue that certain attributes of writing characterize all experience, that these attributes have been overlooked or repressed in the Western intellectual tradition, and that, in the present situation, the urgent theoretical task is to explore these attributes of writing in order to upset and destabilize the intellectual tradition, because it is limiting or constraining in some way. In order to clarify what he means by writing, Derrida often uses bookish terms even though he is not referring to books in the literal sense. One of these terms is “textuality.” In the Western philosophical tradition, thinkers analyzed texts for their “meaning” whether this was construed by logical or rhetorical analysis. The metaphysical assumptions of the tradition define “being,” including the being of books, as contained, closed, stable, finite entities which are transparent on the one hand to the author, in the case of texts, and to the actor, in the case of social action, and, on the other hand, to the reader or interpreter of those beings or realities.

In this quest for meaning, certain features of the analytic field are not noticed, even though they are important to that field. Derrida’s most common term for this occluded level of reality is “textuality.” Dominick LaCapra aptly delineates the term as the “relational networks of ‘instituted traces’ in general.” When Derrida writes that there is nothing “outside the text,” he is using the term to refer to qualities of “experience in general,” not just to qualities of books.

These “networks of instituted traces” are differences that make it possible to argue that stable, bounded meanings exist but, at the same time, undermine the claim that these meanings are closed and self-sufficient. Structuralist linguists argue that a speaker cannot competently use a language and at the same time attend to the structure of differences that enable that language to function as a language. Derrida contends that a reader of texts or an interpreter of culture who attempts to uncover stable, closed meanings cannot at the same time elucidate the “textual” conditions under which alone it is possible to have meanings at all.

For example, in printed books words are differentiated by spaces and traces or marks. Also, as contrasted with face-to-face speech, printed books may be distant, temporally and spatially, from their authors. These seemingly innocuous, elementary but fundamental aspects of texts present serious difficulties to those who assume that the world and book consist in knowable entities that are representable in some final way. In this spirit Plato distrusted writing to the extent that he aimed to define truth as a mental experience in which an ideal reality corresponded perfectly to its mental representation, in other words, to the extent that he sought something we call “truth.” In its distance from that mental experience, writing is in opposition to speech and is haunted by a certain distance from it. Writing is thus burdened by the “disgrace” of being a mere copy of a mental reality. The theses of the full presence of the word to the mind, of the mind to the real, and of all three to the truth are hallmarks of Western rationalist culture, even though these terms take on very different relations to each other at different points along the trajectory of that tradition.

Derrida’s move from speech to writing is an attempt to see writing as always already anterior to speech even as it may “follow” speech in a given situation; it is a method of interpretation that moves from a search for metaphysically fixed meanings to an exploration of the ambivalent play of differences in the “text”. His nodal categories – writing, différance, pharmakon – display the concepts of the logocentric tradition as binary oppositions which do not account for this logic. Writing as Derrida uses the term is not in opposition to speech but anterior to the distinction between speech and writing. Speech is always already haunted by the non-identity of author and truth, always already “writing.” Since a position which makes a duality out of speech and writing does not take this into account, Derrida develops a different sort of category, a noncategory, one that follows an “undecidable” logic in which an element of “writing” is already within speech, in which the opposition between hierarchical terms is not final or clear, in which writing and speech perpetually “oscillate” so that each cannot be fixed in relation to the other.

As Derrida is fully aware, to argue such a position requires that one submit one’s own argument, even in the process of making it, to the ‘logic’ of difference, to the instabilities of textuality. The seemingly precious or frivolous playing with words in Derrida’s writing is but one of his strategies to keep his own writing open to its own qualities of textuality, to prevent its closure and therefore its return to the very position he is attacking. If Derrida were simply to reverse the poles of the binary opposition speech/writing, for instance, to give fixed priority to writing over speech, he would be rendering his own position subject to the very same criticism that he is making of logocentric writers. For that reason he continuously searches for terms that illustrate the qualities of textuality which operate to prevent closure.

The Derridean effort to forestall a closure of meaning in his own text, the insistence on vigilant, unrelenting subversion of textual stabilities, the consistent disruption of logocentric discourse and its attendant subject – these hallmarks of deconstruction have been interpreted by some, including at times Derrida himself, as the first step toward a new politics, a politics that goes beyond the outworn standpoints of liberalism and socialism. The political problem then is the creation, the genesis, the giving birth to the new. Derrida positions his intervention at a transitional point in history: the program of deconstruction appears when the age of the book is over and when the politics associated with that epoch is exhausted.

Such a self-positioning, let it be noted, is not itself new. At least since the Enlightenment, probably since the Renaissance, influential thinkers perceived themselves in an age of transition and saw the need to give outline to a new politics. Closer to Derrida, Nietzsche certainly contextualized his work in this manner. As we shall see in a moment, like Derrida, Nietzsche resorted to the figure of the mother and spoke of the new politics as a “birth.” In one joyous mood, he writes, the “free spirit” will give “birth to a dancing star.” Alternatively and more ominously, Nietzsche imagined his creation as a terrifying threat.

The question I want to raise concerning the relation of deconstruction to computer writing is about the issue of context and politics. Derrida’s contribution to an understanding of computer writing is limited, I shall argue, by the way he figures the inscription of his position in the present situation, and this limitation has political consequences. I accept

1 that deconstruction is a profound critique of logocentric texts and the (male) subject’s relation to them, a critique that draws attention to the disruptive role of textuality understood as written traces;

2 that Derrida presents this critique in a situation he rightly defines as one of general confusion amidst massive historical change, inscribing his position as a step necessary to clarify that historical situation;

3 that because logocentrism plays a key role in the present culture its critique has prime political importance;

4 that one major problem is to develop a politics that avoids the totalizing strategies and stabilizing closures of the old “modern” politics, which are closely related to logocentrism.