Deciding over Derrida’s Différance

As far as I understand Jacques Derrida’s différance, he observes that we understand our experiences as distinctive, but not exhaustive, communicated links or marks comprising an on-going decisive chain of experiential moments. As to the language we use to describe our experiences, a word has contextual meaning, both from its usage at any given time as well as from its etymology over the course of time. I tend to agree with this attendance to context as furnishing meaning, and I can also spot the rabbit hole that it poses. For example, to understand some word’s definition, I might look it up in the dictionary and be left to rely upon the definition of whomever decided what it meant while, at the same time, face all sorts of words in the definition that now need looking up, too – Sisyphean, indeed! Cruel but so usual. On the other hand, thanks to whomever for compiling the dictionary, a pretty utile compendium, I have to say.

To be clear, I am not intending to invoke logocentrism, by which all our words are accorded a decided meaning from a cultural centre, which propagates existing biases or “privileges”; Derrida would roll over in his grave. Granted, I may already have laid grounds here to be accused of logocentrism, myself, by writing with words (and I confess to using English because I didn’t think anyone had the patience to muddle over Wingdings). My present aim is to suggest how we might address the afore-mentioned rabbit-hole dilemma by searching for or (… almost afraid to say it) by deciding upon some definitions of our own. Not like a dictionary, but more like– well yes, okay, like a dictionary, but one that we’ll fashion from the ground-up, like when the light bulb would go on above Darla’s head, and Spanky would snap his fingers to say, “Hey, everyone! Maybe we can put on a play!” So, in the spirit of dissemination, hey everybody, maybe we can compile a dictionary! A real, deconstructive, crowd-sourced dictionary!

I’m not really compiling a dictionary. I’m just trying to make some sense of Derrida and différance. Let me try to illustrate what I mean from my own experience. Sometimes I play Walking Football, a version of the game where players are not permitted to run. Naturally, the debate is over what differentiates walking from running. We’ve agreed that walking means “always having at least one foot in contact with the ground during the striding motion.” Running means “having both feet leave the ground at some point during the striding motion.” This makes for certainty, and so long as our eyes are trained enough to spot feet in motion, which I can spot sometimes so clearly, with such immediacy, that its more like I’m watching, not playing – I’m ghinding it tuff even now to ghet the right words, but trust me. And so long as each player is willing to obey the rules – and, ohh my, there is always one who just won’t, you know who I mean… *sigh… Anyway, so long as they’re not just words uttered that then float away in the breeze, our definitions of the rules for walking and running are useful.

Luckily, too, I might add, when we clarify the rules, we do so out loud, together, and don’t whisper it around in a circle, like when my daughter plays Telephone at a birthday party – after all, we want everyone to be clear. Finally, even if we have trouble spotting feet in motion, because it all happens too quickly, or even if that one player is a cheater at heart, the definitions themselves remain clear, and usually at least one or two of us can remember them well enough to recite back, as needed, usually with a lot of finger-pointing and furrowed brows. One time we even wrote the no-running rule on the gym chalkboard, and even though no one challenged this, on the grounds that writing is secondary to speech, everyone still understood why it was scrawled there, by which I mean everyone knew exactly who should read it the most (that’s right: You-Know-Who. Wow, does every game have that player? Incorrigible.)

Bottom line: accountability is down to the sincerity and respect offered to each player by every other player who decides to participate. As an aside, the need for a referee, an arbiter, is all the more clear when the stakes are as high as bragging rights and free beer. But, even as we play for fun, the rules exist or else the game, as such, does not. (On that note, I find a lot of players just don’t like Walking Football and would rather play with running, and that’s fine, too: it’s their decision, and plenty other like-minded players keep both games afloat. I find the Walking game amplifies decision-making, so maybe this feature just appeals to me. And I still play traditional football, too.) My broader point is that any one person must decide to accept what has been defined and, likewise, any group of people must reach a consensus. Shared meaning matters because, otherwise, as I say, we don’t have a game, or else we have a very different one, or we just have anarchy. But whether that person, alone, or the group, altogether, searching for a way to decide upon meaning, has the patience to delve down the rabbit hole… well, yes, context does indeed matter – both usage and etymology. I’ve said and written as much, myself, for a long time. So, in light of all this, I hope I’ve gathered a little something of Derrida’s différance. I’m still learning.

Another illustration: in my teaching, I occasionally introduced this matter of contextual meaning by offering students a list of synonyms: “slim,” “slender,” “skinny,” “thin,” “narrow.” Each word, of course, has its own particular meaning. “If they meant the same thing,” I offered, “then we’d use the same word,” so just what explains the need for all these synonyms? Well, students would say, there are lots of different things out there that possess or demonstrate these various adjectives (my word, not theirs), so we’ve come up with words to describe them (and I think that’s a charitable “we,” like the Royal “We.”) As the discussion proceeded, I might ask which of these words typically describe human traits versus those – leaving aside metaphors – that typically do not. Next, which words typically possess positive connotations, and which negative, or neutral? And, as it pertains to the personification metaphors, which words are more easily envisioned versus those that really stretch the imagination, or even credibility? Eventually, I would shift from ontology to epistemology, posing the questions at the heart of my intention: For any of the previous questions about these synonyms, how do you know what you’re talking about? For what each of these words could mean, where have your assurances come from? Of course, the most frequent reply to that question was “the dictionary,” followed by “my parents” or “books I’ve read,” or “just everyday experience, listening and talking to people.” Occasionally, the reply was something akin to “Who cares… it just means what it means, doesn’t it?” In every reply, though, one common thread was detectable: the involvement of other people as part of the meaning-making process. Fair enough, we can’t all be Thoreau.

One more example: when is “red” no longer red but perhaps orange or purple? Well, for one thing, if you’re colour blind, the question means something entirely different, which I say not flippantly but again to illustrate how important dialogue and community are to deciding what something means. For another thing, we might wish to ask, in keeping with context-dependency, “Why even ask?” Again, this is not flippant or dismissive but practical: when does it matter so that we distinctly need to identify the colour red? Where a group of people might face the question over what is red versus what is orange or purple, we might expect some kind of discussion to ensue. And, whether asking as part of such a group or as a hermit, alone, I submit that one person’s decision about what is “red” is ultimately down to one person to determine: “Red is this,” or “This is red,” or even, “Gosh, I still can’t really decide.” Even a coerced decision we can still attribute to the one who forces the issue – one person has decided on behalf of another, however benignly or violently: might makes (red) right, as it were.

Coercion introduces a political consideration about whose authority or power has influence, similar to needing referees on account of those players who decide to run. The point, for now, is simply that a decision over what something means to a person is ultimately made by a person, leaving others to deal with that decision on their own terms in whatever way. But other people are part of the meaning-making process, even passively, or else I wouldn’t need language to begin with since the rest of you wouldn’t trouble me by existing. Not to worry, by the way, I appreciate you reading this far. From what I understand (and I am convinced I must learn more, being no avid student of either postmodernism or Derrida), his observation of différance either discounts or else offers no account for the arbitrary decision-making that people might make when they decide they’ve had enough. People tend to land somewhere in a community, and it’s the rare person who lives and plays wholly and uncompromisingly by their own rules. However, the fact that he felt différance was worth the effort to publicise and explain to the rest of us does reflect an arbitrary decision on the part of Derrida and says something about him.

So this is where I have more fundamental trouble understanding Derrida and différance – the very notion of “different,” as in, in what world could there not be an arbiter? Even a life alone would face endless decisions: what to eat, where to go, when to sleep, and so forth. From such musing – speaking of rabbit holes – I was led to reading about another philosopher named Jacques, Rancière, and what he calls the axiom of equality. In pure nutshell form, I take this to mean that no (socio-political) inequality exists until it has been claimed to exist – and note that it’s claimed in a boat-rocking kind of way, what the kids these days are calling “disruptive.” The upshot is that equality, itself, can only ever be theoretical because someone somewhere inevitably is and always will be marginalised by the arbitrary decisions of cultural hegemony. Still learning.

Back to the Walking Football analogy: if the rabbit hole of defining a word in the context of those that surround it, and then having to define, even further, all those words, and on and on, and experience is inexhaustible, and what’s the point, and lift a glass to nihilism… if that kind of limitless indefinite deconstructive search-and-compare lies at the heart of what is different, then maybe Derrida just found it difficult to reach agreement with other people. It stands to reason that, if he played Walking Football, Derrida might be the worst cheater on the floor, continually running when he should be walking, then denying it just the same as he tried to gain advantage. Maybe, fed up being called a cheater, he would take his ball and go home to play by himself, where no one could say he was wrong. Being alone, who would be there, whether as an obedient player or as a sneaky one, to challenge him? In fact, maybe that’s why he chose to return to play the next day – for all the arguing, he enjoyed the game, or the attention, or the camaraderie, or the exercise, or whatever, more than being accused of cheating. I wonder if, perhaps, in the great game of philosophy football, he would have been the only rival to strike real fear in Diogenes – I mean awe & respect kind of fear, just to clarify, and I mean if they had lived at the same time. It’s hard to know about Diogenes since nothing he wrote down ever survived, and these days, I doubt more than a few can recall any of whatever he said, besides that lamp-carrying honesty thing. (We should all have such good spirit when it comes to our first principles.) Anyway, I think Diogenes played for Wimbledon.

Well, I am being unkind to Derrida. Evidently, he was a kinder person by nature than I have let on, as well as an advocate for all voices, all people. And the professional care, the uncompromising expertise he took to convey his ideas, to trouble himself with delving down the rabbit hole so arbitrarily – to go down at all but, moreover, to go so far when he might, just the same, have decided to halt. Delve as far as you like, but accept responsibility for your decision, every time. In that respect, how does Derrida differ from any other person facing decisions? Did he have still other motivations? No player who kicks a football is deliberately playing to lose, not unless they have been coerced by someone else to do so. On the other hand, for all I know, maybe what Derrida called red I would call blue. Be careful not to pass the ball to the wrong team! (By the way, in sport, dynasties are remembered precisely because they eventually come to an end.)

Was Derrida no less accountable and open to scrutiny than you, or me, or anybody else? To suggest that a word only makes sense based on how it differs from those around it is no less arbitrary than its reciprocal suggestion, that a word only makes sense based on how it describes only what it describes. Half-full / half-empty, six of one… Two sides of the same coin are still the same coin. Alternatively, who put him up to all this? Meanwhile, on his own, surely Derrida had it within himself, as people do when they reach a point, simply to say, “Here is enough. I decide to stop here. For me, [the item in question] means this.” If that doesn’t ring true and sound like him, well, I’d say that can be just as telling of his character; I heard it suggested, once, how we can be helped in knowing something by what it is not. So, fine – for Derrida to stake the claim called différance, I’m willing to concede him that moment. We all land somewhere, and we’re all hardly alike, even when we’re alike.

We are, each and every one of us, individual. But together we comprise something just as dynamic on a larger scale – one might construe us societally, or perhaps historically, anthropologically, or on and on, in whatever way through whichever lens. For me, différance appears an attempt to speak for all about all, prescriptively. A grand stab at philosophy, no question, and that’s the beauty of the equality of philosophy, with thanks to Rancière: we all have a part to play and a right to respond. For the time being, as I have understood Derrida and his thinking, and I willingly stand to be instructed further, différance strikes me as ironic, being an advocacy for the dynamic development of people and language and culture that self-assuredly asserts its own accuracy. That is not an uncommon indictment of postmodernists. What’s more, it is ohh, so human.

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