Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Trace and the Gesture: Towards a new Hermeneutics

     I have been thinking through what follows clumsily for some time, occasionally bringing it up in conversation. It concerns hermeneutics (methods of reading). The default hermeneutics in the academy (in particular, English and literature studies) is deconstructionism, which is, as I hope to prove, a negative, binary means of reading. In contrast to this negativity, I wish to propose a positivist hermeneutics that avoids the constitutive lack of any binary. Whereas deconstruction proceeds from the discovery of an author or text’s betraying accidental mark, my new positivist method proceeds from an author or text’s revealed gesture.
     First, however, the negativity of deconstruction must be laid bare. Certainly, Derrida claimed that deconstruction was, at heart, an affirmation, a joyous play with the infinite unfolding of a de-centered language. Contrasting such affirmation with the “saddened, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauistic side of the thinking of play,” Derrida positions deconstruction as the “joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active interpretation” (“Structure, Sign, and Play” 292, Derrida’s emphasis). Such an affirmation is, Derrida claims, an attempt to move beyond anthropocentrism, which has “throughout the history of metaphysics . . . dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play” – all centerings that deconstructionism has toppled through its revelation of the central hiatus of all language, its displaying language as the play of difference alone. Now, such a conception of language and our comportment towards such a language can, in truth, form a move away from anthropocentric thought. Hence, Tim Morton’s quite amazing extension of deconstruction’s infinite play of finite signs through difference to all (Spinozian?) “existence,” in what he calls the “interdependence theorem.” And I agree with much of Morton’s extension, at least on the surface. Where Derrida and deconstructionists see language (and thought) as the infinite play of finite signs, Morton sees categories like “species” as the infinite play of finite matter, such that all existence faces the threat of passing into a profound indistinction (of life/nonlife in RNA, species/non-species with DNA) – thereby washing thought clean of binaries.
     Yet, I find at the heart of deconstruction’s seemingly joyous play a central hiatus that initiates a recapitulation of anthropocentrism’s constitutive structure: binary or mechanic articulations. Let us look at how deconstructionist reading works. Deconstruction functions through the discovery of a text’s accidental mark, from which the deconstructionist can discern the paradigmatic composition of that text (seeing through it, perhaps, the historical epoch the text emerges out of [New Historicism] or the text’s belonging to an unnoticed philosophical genealogy [as Derrida does to Plato in Plato’s Pharmacy in order to show that Plato, too, was a deconstructionist]). That is, the author or text’s accidental mark – or “trace:” deconstruction is a “seminal adventure of the trace” (“Structure” 292) – betrays its own belonging to the historical set and thusly can be said to stand as an example of that set. Yet the text can only become an example (can make the set intelligible through its own exposure) through the process of betrayed exposure. Such a method is supported by a system of interdependence, a system without a transcendental signified grounding it wherein meaning becomes lost in the infinite play of differences. Now, a difference is always negative (A is not B), and these differences likewise take the form of those accidental marks or traces an author leaves behind like clues for the deconstructionist private eye (Sherlock Holmes is, perhaps, the first deconstructionist). These traces and differences are, specifically, exposed visions of “errors” which open a text to example-ness, to a text’s standing in for the set such that the set becomes knowable. Here we see the reemergence of a particular-general, general-particular logical binary (inductive/deductive model of thought), a binary deconstructionism thought it had overthrown. Rather than relegating such a model of thought to the trash bin of Western thought, deconstruction has unwittingly taken it as its constitutive mechanics, which play out infinitely at its core. Difference is, properly, a decision machine setting two “terms” (it doesn’t matter what they are) in opposition such that they can enter into an indistinction that the machine itself can decide upon, thereby generating not only meaning and distinction between the two terms, but the power and perpetuity of the machine itself. Deconstruction, therefore, did not revolutionize Western thought; instead, it revealed the central workings of a bankrupt machine and brought it to its apex.
     What I want to propose is, hopefully, the overthrow of this bankrupt model of reading. In place of the deconstructionist accidental mark, the betraying trace, I offer the “gesture.” The gesture is, constitutively, a positive “mark” within a text or an author’s oeuvre in that it suspends the particular-general, general-particular logic of inductive/deductive thought (it accordingly shares much with the paradigm’s structure). What the gesture does, precisely, is reveal positively the author or text’s model of thought, its Entvichlungsfahigkeit, the philosophical element, its capacity to be developed. That is, it reveal’s a text’s potentiality, its ability to be able to not be and accordingly generate meaning. Yet in so revealing the text’s potentiality, the gesture does not reduce itself to a mere error or difference; rather the gesture reveals a text’s model of thought as such: a model of thought as a gestic model of thought, which is not a set, but rather a singularity.
     What then is the consistency of the gesture and how does one read the gesture? The gesture reveals itself in various manners, but, perhaps, never through a single element in a text. The gesture will not become visible in a single word, phrase, sentence, paragraph of a text as does the trace. Rather it seemingly unfolds both inside and outside the text, in the space between reality and virtuality, actuality and potentiality. If it were to be found in a text it would, perhaps, be in the subtle shades of other writers in a text, say, how Agamben recapitulates late-Deleuze, or how Benjamin comports himself towards Saint Paul without referencing him. Reading gestures is like an “art of citing without citations,” as a certain philosopher says. The hermeneutic of the gesture belongs, therefore, to the tradition of typology – the reading of the Old Testament for events that become fulfilled by the Messiah: Adam’s prefiguring the Messiah is the paradigm of the gesture. Such a hermeneutic involves the cultivation of a text’s capacity to be developed, to become fulfilled absolutely through an allowance of the fruition of a text’s “crystal-pure elimination of the unsayable in language” (Benjamin, Briefe 127) The gesture and the reading of the gesture are, then, aimed at the resurrection of language from the false death of the ineffable, from all mystery, all lack.
     The reading of deconstructionism that brings its central hiatus, its genealogical belonging to Western thought’s mechanic articulations to light is not a negative, derisive reading; rather it is a reading that brings into language that which has been secreted away, concealed in mystery. In other words, a reading of gesture.

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