Deconstruction & Therapy
3 My discussion will focus on texts from Derrida’s early classical deconstructive period that influence Staten and Glendinning’s readings See Henry Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida, (Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1985) and Simon Glendinning, On Being with Others: Heidegger, Derrida, Wittgenstein, (London: Routledge, 1998).
4 Stanley Cavell, A Pitch for Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 63. Cavell is referring to Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature, Event, Context,’ Limited Inc, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 19.
93 Wittgenstein has far stronger affinities with deconstruction that Stone recognises, but that the value of Stone’s account is that it draws attention to some of the particularities of Wittgenstein’s style. The challenge for a deconstructive reading of Wittgenstein, however, is to articulate the affinities between Wittgenstein and Derrida without assimilating their distinctive rhetorical techniques. I will argue that Glendinning’s work is of particular interest in this regard, for he draws on Wittgenstein’s work to re-think the deconstructive moment, but I will also raise some difficulties with both Stone and Glendinning’s readings.
As the above account suggests, this chapter addresses readings of Wittgenstein as a critic or as a practitioner of deconstruction rather that proposing a comprehensive reading of Derrida’s project. So although I will use some key ideas from Derrida’s thought to help explicate my reading of Wittgenstein, and although I will draw on Wittgenstein to critique certain aspects of deconstruction, the main aim of my comparative discussion is to explore the possibilities opened up by Wittgenstein’s particular rhetorical practice.
Derrida’s account of deconstruction
The deconstructive method shows that words are a priori repeatable and hence always possible to mimic. The central target of deconstruction is the ‘metaphysics of presence:’5 the idealisation of self-present meaning such that ‘ univocity’ becomes the ‘telos of language.’6 Deconstruction, as Derrida characterises it, is not an empirical claim about our use of language - for example, the claim that concepts are usually neither ideal nor pure;7 rather it attempts to ‘to account for the necessary or structural possibilities of the functioning of any language.’8 In Chapter 1 I looked briefly at
Derrida’s argument, in ‘White Mythology,’ that concepts are both generated and undone by a more general metaphorical play. Now I will turn to Limited Inc, where Derrida proposes a similar dynamic in the context of the term writing. I will focus on Limited Inc, because all three theorists I go on to consider relate this text to Wittgenstein’s work.
5 See for example Derrida, ‘Form and Meaning: A Note on the Phenomenology of Language,’ Margins o f Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 157-158.
(1 Jacques Derrida ‘White Mythology,’ Margins o f Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 247.
7 Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc, trans. Samuel Weber (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 116-117
In ‘Signature, Event, Context’ the opening essay of Limited Inc, Derrida replaces what he takes to be the traditional philosophical account of the task of writing - the representation of presence - with an alternate account. He emphasises the capacity of writing to disengage itself from any given context, and ‘graft’ itself into new situations. Writing, on this view, is always able to function in the absence of its author and its intended receiver.
A writing that is not structurally readable - iterable - beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing. . . . Imagine a writing whose code would be so idiomatic as to be established and known, as secret cipher, by only two ‘subjects.’ Could we maintain that, following the death of the receiver, or even of both partners, the mark left by one of them is still writing? Yes, to the extent that, organized by a code, even an unknown and non-linguistic one, it is constituted in its identity as a mark by its iterability, in the absence of such and such a person, and hence ultimately of every empirically determined ‘subject.’ This implies that there is no such thing as a code - organon of iterability - which could be structurally secret.4
Derrida’s claim is that the notion of writing he outlines does not just describe written text but also other forms of communication including speech, which is often taken as the site of self present meaning. He extends the boundaries of writing to include ‘the totality of “experience” in so far as it is inseparable from this field of the mark, which is to say, from the network of effacement and of difference.’ According to Derrida, ‘[t]he possibility of repeating and thus of identifying the marks is implicit in every code, making it into a network [une grille] that is communicable, transmittable, decipherable, iterable for a third, and hence for every possible user in general. ’ 10 Writing, in Derrida’s view is ‘an iterative structure, cut off from all absolute responsibility, from consciousness as the ultimate authority, orphaned and separated at birth from the assistance of its father. ’ * 11 For Derrida this generalisation of writing amounts to the claim that misunderstandings and new readings are a necessary possibility of all texts. 12 As Glendinning writes in On Being With Others: ‘In its most clearly critical aspect, this approach aims to show that the condition of possibility for conceptual identity is at the
9 Derrida, ‘Signature, Event, Context,’ 7-8. 1(1 Derrida, ‘Signature, Event, Context,’ 7-8. 11 Derrida, ‘Signature, Event, Context,’ 7-8. 12 Derrida, Limited Inc, 57.
95 same time the condition of impossibility of the rigorous unity required by the ideal of conceptual exactness.’13
Before beginning my discussion of the relation between Wittgenstein and Derrida’s work in detail, I want to draw attention to the affinity between Derrida’s insistence that there could be no such thing as a ‘structurally secret’ code, and Wittgenstein’s critique of a truly private language. In the discussion that follows, all theorists agree that Wittgenstein and Derrida each challenge the ideal of self-present meaning. The dispute, as we will see, concerns the consequences of this challenge, the vision of life and language that follows.
Staten’s reading of Wittgenstein as a ‘deconstructionist’
The first major study to argue that Wittgenstein practices a form of deconstruction in the Investigations was Henry Staten's 1985 book Wittgenstein and Derrida. In his book Staten argues that there are two ‘axes’ to Wittgenstein’s later work, a deconstructive or ‘interpretivist’ ‘axis’ and a normalising ‘axis’ that promises to bring an ‘end to interpretation’14 by returning words ‘home.’ 15 By identifying two axes, Staten hopes to do justice to the multifaceted nature of Wittgenstein’s writing, and point out some of its internal tensions. Staten associates the deconstructive axis with Wittgenstein’s open- ended style of thought, his insistence that rules are subject to contingency and that meaning is never fixed, and his critique of the fantasy of a truly private language. He associates the normalising access with Wittgenstein’s appeal to the conventions of everyday life and with his suggestion a certain agreement in forms of life is what makes communication possible.
Staten links this normalising axis of Wittgenstein’s thought to the work of Charles Altieri. According to Altieri, Wittgenstein should be read as a critic of deconstruction because his ‘project’ entails ‘a “normalization” of philosophical language, a return to “real life,” a dissolving of fruitless and misguided speculation by a recognition of how things really are.’16 Staten accepts that such a reading is ‘well informed, consistent, and, as far as it goes, accurate . . . yet we perceive the limits of this reading when we find Altieri calling ‘forms of life’ the ‘irreducible ontological base’ of Wittgenstein’s
l3Glendinning, On Being with Others, 79. See also Derrida, ‘Signature, Event, Context,’ 19-20.
14 Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 74-75.
15 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 2nd edition, ed. G. E. M Anscombe and R. Rhees,
trans. G.E.M Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1958), §116. If> Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida, 75.
investigations.’17 He goes on to ask: ‘Is there any more thoroughly metaphysical concept than this?’18 In Staten’s view, however, the metaphysical presumption of Altieri’s account is challenged by the deconstructive axis of Wittgenstein’s thought.19
To help make his case, he draws attention to those passages in Wittgenstein that stress the deceptive side to ordinary language. For example, the tendency of ‘surface grammar’ to make certain misleading analogies, certain fantasy-pictures appear seem natural to us.20 In Staten’s view, ‘it is the normality, the at- homeness of ordinary language—to which we are supposedly to be returned by Wittgenstein—that creates the blindness, the unconsciousness of distinctions.’21 He concludes that,‘[ tjhere is a profound complicity between normality, between “ordinary language,” and philosophy.’22
In the face of this complicity, Staten believes that the deconstructive axis of Wittgenstein’s thought reminds us of the contingency of language, its openness to new interpretations. His argument is that the metaphysical tendencies of Wittgenstein’s thought, and by this he means Wittgenstein’s appeal to ordinary language and to the agreements in language and life that make meaning possible, are continually ‘destabilized’ from within the text.23 For example in sections 193 and 194 of the Investigations, Wittgenstein contrasts a real machine, in which there may always be a ‘distortion of the parts’ with a ‘machine-as-symbol,’ in which no distortion seems possible. According to Staten: ‘ [t]he possibility of a particular movement as given in the diagram of the machine or ideal machine seems absolute and immutable, whereas an actual machine is subject to accidents.’24 Staten continues: ‘Wittgenstein wants us to stop thinking of the operation of rules on the model of the machine-as-diagram and thing, rather, in terms of something actual that is subject to contingency, to which accidents may happen. To think an essential law of contingency, as Derrida does is to generalize as a “grammatical rule” the principles of the kind of critique that Wittgenstein here instantiates.’23 Although Wittgenstein does not explicitly formulate a
17 Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida, 75. Staten is quoting Charles Altieri, ‘Wittgenstein on Consciousness and Language: A challenge to Derridian Literary Theory,’ Modern Language Notes vol. 91, no. 6 (December 1976): 1409.
18 Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida, 75.