Monday, October 10, 2011

Writing for Derrida

No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he or she doesn’t understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language.
– Jacques Derrida

Yesterday (October 9, 2011) was the seventh year since the death of Jacques Derrida, the inventor of deconstruction.

Most people (including writers) don't think much about Derrida, but I think his invention may have been most significant philosophical development of the second half of the twentieth century.

I write this being one who has read only a moderate selection of what he wrote and not being anywhere close to being a 'Derrida expert'. But like everyone else, I have my own pithy definition, which is probably wrong:

Deconstruction begins with recognition that writing is a natural entity without metaphysics.

Once that step is made, where it goes from there may be useful or not.

One thing is for sure: Derrida raises the hackles of religious fundamentalists and secular foundationalists alike. That makes him attractive right there.

Now he is compared to a variety of anti-foundationalists — Nietzsche, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Quine (who dissed him), Rorty, Foucault — but what distinguishes him is his claim of writing itself as the object of his study.

I've read that some deconstructionists say that since virtually anything humans make or do can be considered writing (a statue, a film, a dance, a walk in the park, ...), anything can be deconstructed.

I'll just say that I define writing to be that which I can type on a Mac keyboard into a simple text editor.

Now forty years ago, I was using an APL keyboard. And one can do some interesting writing (APL programs, naturally) with that. And then there's the infamous Space-cadet (Symbolics Lisp Machine) keyboard . But I'll just stick to the Mac keyboard.

But still there are things one can consider to be writing sticking with that. Math is writing when it is done in LaTeX math mode, for example. One could do it in MathML, but LaTeX is the most elegant language for writing mathematics ever invented. Math is not writing if it is done in Word or PDF.

Here is Schrodinger's Equation:

i\hbar\frac{\partial\psi}{\partial t} = \frac{\hbar^2}{2m}\nabla^2\psi + V(\mathbf{r})\psi

Copy and paste it here and see. (Also see and right click on a formula to see its MathML translation.)

The proofs of Euclid's Elements are literature like any other.

Computer programs are writing. (See 433 Examples in 132 (or 162*) programming languages.) The way they are portrayed sparsely on a screen make many look like poems.

Writing web pages and ebooks in HTML/CSS/JS is certainly writing. (You need some of this to make poems look good on various displays, for example. You don't write poems in Word or PDF.)

I'm sure I'll think of other things that are writing.

So whatever it is you write, give a nod to Derrida.

Current events note: How would Derrida respond to 'Operation Wall Street'? The excerpt below seems to be right on target.

The ‘New International’ is an untimely link, without status ... without coordination, without party, without country, without national community, without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class. The name of New International is given here to what calls to the friendship of an alliance without institution among those who ... continue to be inspired by at least one of the spirits of Marx or of Marxism. It is a call for them to ally themselves, in a new, concrete and real way, even if this alliance no longer takes the form of a party or a workers’ international, in the critique of the state of international law, the concepts of State and nation, and so forth: in order to renew this critique, and especially to radicalize it.
— Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, the state of the debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International

"Derrida seeks to do the work of inheriting from Marx, that is, not communism, but of the philosophy of responsibility, and of Marx's spirit of radical critique."