Saturday, September 25, 2010

This will end by the time you're finished reading it, I'm pretty sure of that (sort of, well maybe not)

I am currently reading lots of Jacques Derrida at the moment. He is the quintessential philosopher of the twentieth century. Every book I pick up mentions how his philosophy, has impacted throughout our lives in many different ways – in the universities, but also throughout culture in general. The buzz word with which his name will be forever linked with is deconstruction. Sometimes mind-boggling, sometimes self evident, it is, by my understanding (which most certainly should not be taken as the final say, especially with regards to this), a way of describing the things that we take as permanent as being things in time, which change, adapt, compete, and, summoning up the vaguest use of the term, evolve. He showed that language was free, that it shaped all we see (to go slightly poetic for a moment), and that things have a way of surprising us, shifting right before our eyes, in a sea of rolling waters, on a beach of shifting sands.

And yet, those seas and beaches still provide the context in which this change occurs. Derrida recognised this well enough, acknowledging his dept to metaphysics. Taking a Hegelian approach, taking critique as a necessary consequence of a position (be it philosophical in the traditional sense, or simply a belief), it could be possible to call Derrida a metaphysician of the highest calibre. It was not simply that he was against metaphysics. Rather, he opened metaphysics to change, sands shifting.

Lyotard spoke of a postmodern fable, of the death of the sun, the death of the universe. It is a fable that leaves the question open. It is a fable of modern science. It speaks of the most permanent structures that modern science can conjure up for us, and it speaks of their deaths. It is a fable of change, reminding us that even that which is most permanent within our lives will change immensely, over timescales unimaginable, and that this is a certainty. And yet, when faced with such a possibility, there is a question which lingers.

What is this question? How does one articulate a latent fear, a distrust, or an idea that this view is somehow incomplete? Is it incomplete?

To go back to Hegel, it carries within it, as a concept, the idea of permanence, of eternity. It carries within it a staunch possibility of eternity. It carries within it the concept of death, but also the concept of life, of a life, of the life of the sun and the life of the universe. It is a fable not to be taken lightly.

The postmodern has been called a rejection of meta-narratives. But by standing at this metaphorical edge, across the abyss beckons a conception of an absolute eternity.

Now, my reading of Derrida is pretty basic at this stage (half-way through his seminal Of Grammatology and dipping in and out of Writing and Difference). His project is ambitious, vast, sometimes perplexing, sometimes even frightening. But his is not a rejection of permanence. It is an opening up of the question of permanence.

A narrative is always an act of making something permanent, and it occurs to me that, without this act, fundamental to any narrative with a beginning, a middle, and end, there would be nothing to deconstruct. And without the possibility of a permanent loss, from time, from existence, of something (a moment, a memory, a taste, a smell, life itself), there would be no possibility of narrative, no point to an act of narrativisation, of an event or as a fiction.

In a film that followed the thinker around for a couple of weeks (a film that could probably have benefitted from a bit more consideration of narrative), Derrida speaks of the fact that he cannot write a narrative. He pauses after that. It is a point worth noting. I imagined that there was the slightest look of longing in his eyes when he said this, as if thinking of a long lost love. Maybe there was.

In any case, in the Hegelian sense, the drive towards narrativisation, towards permanence, should never be overlooked. That perhaps is the hidden message, the repression of deconstruction. Narrative, as a defining term of some nameless drive to make permanent, may be something which none of us can, or should, get away from. Perhaps deconstruction opens up the possibilities of narratives unimaginable.

Things change and shift, but in doing so hold latent that idea of permanence. The drive to narrative is not something which should be overlooked, or treated as 'merely fiction'. And the possibility of permanence, or solidity and eternity, cannot but be with us.

The sands may be shifting, but there is always a beach upon which those sands shift. And when we shift our perspective from the sand, and place the beach in a wider context, perhaps placing it at the edge of an island, over a vast time period, long enough for that beach to be no more, then there is still an island. No matter how ultimately illusory this permanent setting is (from the perspective of impermanence), it is still there.

I think Derrida knew this all too well – and that is why I may have seen a hint of sadness in his eyes at his inability to write a narrative. And, facing the death of the sun, and ultimately the universe, Lyotard's fable is still open, still a question which perhaps will never be answered.
And perhaps it cannot be answered because, in some sense, it should not be answered.

But that most certainly does not mean that we shouldn't or cannot try. That's the beauty of a Hegelian/Derridan style discourse. Just when you think you've found the edge, you realise you're right back at the beginning, the centre, the end, again.

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