Monday, October 18, 2004

Pornography: on insensitivity toward Derrida

First of all, I am not familiar with the work of Jacques Derrida. Whenever I have tried to read him, when I wanted to read him - for instance the essays on Blanchot in The Law of Genre, on Kafka in Before the Law or on Celan in Shibboleth (all collected in Acts of Literature), I soon became lost and demoralised. But the response in English-speaking nations to his death has roused me to defend him from the reserves of what I think I have understood.

However, I understand where the critics are coming from. Leonard Bast’s recollection of Derrida's influence on his time as a student reminds me of sitting in a common room in my first year at university listening to fellow students announce that their next set text was "Duh-reeder". Who's that? I asked. But I knew of Derrida. If this was their tutor's pronounciation, one could only imagine the nature of their reading.

Bast demonstrates how Deconstruction became a mechanical device for reading texts, particularly among those with a political agenda and/or a need to formalise the study of literature. It explains why English departments have become staffed by people who seem to have no affinity for literature. I suppose studying the "merely literary" cannot really justify a career.

I had a taste of it attending a course in preparation for university. The English teacher got everyone to buy one book, and one book only: something called Issues. It was a book of sociology. This was meant to help us to read the set texts. One of these was Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole, a novel that, we were told, "gives an insight to Working Class life in the 1930s". That it was sentimental tripe was irrelevant; apparently literary discernment stopped one discovering the noble suffering of ordinary people (i.e. those who didn't appear in novels).

This is why I chose to study philosophy at university.

My only encounter with Derrida in those three years was a reading of the essay Signature Event Context (SEC). It was given by a philosopher familiar with Derrida's background in phemenonology. He explained this essay was slightly out of character with Derrida's usual work; it was perhaps more programmatic than others. In very crude summary from dim memory (I'm not going to re-read it!), SEC argues that as language depends on repetition of the same words through almost infinite and infinitely varying contexts, then absence of writer and context is also necessary. Our presence in writing is erased by writing. It is, I suppose, another expression of The Death of the Author, this time adding The Death of Context. It is a simple idea to grasp. Perhaps too simple. In the Guardian's revealing survey of the extent of British philistinism, the British philospher Roger Scruton says that "For Derrida, there is no such thing as meaning - it always eludes us and therefore anything goes."

Anything goes. That awful catchphrase of a caricatured postmodernism! One can certainly construe from my summary of SEC – as well as from the literary criticism of those who influenced Derrida (such as Maurice Blanchot's essay The Essential Solitude) – that if language works this way then there is no definitive meaning and we might as well give up. But this would do a violence to what should be the patient response of our helplessness.

I would like to compare the implications of Derrida's literary philosophy with Scruton's own arguments in regard of something apparently very different: pornography. He made these in a TV programme a couple of years ago. From what I can recall, Scruton said that porn could be damaging to the individual. It distances the self from the consequences of human interaction; it offers a form of solipsism in place of real life. (All banally true, but in the context of the programme, it was a sudden outbreak of sensitivity). As a Right-wing libertarian, Scruton might well have said: anything goes. But in this case, his arguments were sane and thought-provoking. I don't believe he was condemning porn but saying only that there are dangers. One could only concur that one has to keep in mind the importance in human relations of community and reciprocity - not isolation and selfishness, if not also self-abuse.

If we apply Scruton's concerns to writing, then we would have to regard a piece of writing as a person - an individual that you meet face-to-face – rather than communicating a concrete truth at our disposal. In this way, meaning becomes less stable, although it is not destroyed. Indeed, this is part and parcel of what we call literature. Take James Wood in a recent review: he says Muriel Spark's most famous fictional creation remains so because the novel "so beautifully creates a vital and intriguing character - Jean Brodie - while simultaneously asking us to reflect on how well we can ever know people at all, whether real or invented by novelists."

Would Scruton condemn Muriel Spark for writing nonsense because we do not fully know Miss Brodie? Of course not. If literature can make us feel this movement between closeness and distance, between clarity and obscurity, and between certainty and unknowing, then it does not require a huge leap to recognise that language also partakes of these oscillations. Our task, from what I understand from Derrida, is to remain sensitive to these movements.

Scruton's anger and disdain for Derrida is perhaps significant as it indicates a fear that certainty is most threatened where it is most deeply promised. He is like the masturbator confronted with a real woman who resists his desires.

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