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Limits of Disenchantment | Deconstruction | Jacques Derrida

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Peter Dews - NLR September/October 1995
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  Peter Dews In a passage from The Case of Wagner  , * Nietzsche affirms that ‘Hegel is ataste.—And not merely a German but a European taste.—A taste Wagnercomprehended—to which he felt equal—which he immortalized—heinvented a style for himself charged with “infinite meaning”—he became the heir of Hegel. —Musicas “idea.”—’ 1 Nietzsche’s virtuoso attack on Wagner’smusic for its portentous depths and sham reconciliations, traits which he seesas inherited from Idealist metaphysics, but which here mask egoisticcalculation and a manipulation of emotion which violates aesthetic form,marks the emergence of a distinctively modernist sensibility. For this newoutlook, philosophical and aesthetic attempts to restore meaning to adisenchanted universe are in deep collusion with what they seem to oppose.As Charles Taylor has recently reminded us, by the late nineteenth century:‘Victorian piety and sentimentality seemed to have captured the Romanticspirit. For those who saw this whole world as spiritually hollow and flat,Romanticism could appear as integral to what they rejected as instrumenta-lism was. It merely offered trivialized, ersatz, or inauthentic meanings to The Limits of Disenchantment 61  compensate for a meaningless world.’ 2 Astutely, Nietzsche suggests that‘transposed into hugeness, Wagner does not seem to have been interestedin any problems except those which now occupy the little decadents inParis. Always five steps from the hospital. All of them entirely modern,entirely metropolitan problems.’ 3 Against such mystification, the newaesthetic of modernism strove for a coldness, remoteness and impersona-lity which Nietzsche already anticipates when he invokes against Wagner‘the great logic, the dance of the stars’.Since the time of Nietzsche’s polemics, this suspicion of depth andmeaning—of any mode of significance which cannot be relativized to aspecific practice, framework or perspective—has recurred throughouttwentieth-century art and philosophy. One might have thought that thedisenchantment of the world classically described by Max Weber, thecollapse of belief in a cosmic order whose immanent meaning guideshuman endeavour, would be a trauma of such magnitude that philosophycould do little other than struggle to come to terms with it—and indeedthe shock waves of this collapse have reverberated throughout nine-teenth- and twentieth-century thinking. Yet there have also been manyphilosophers who appear to have registered no turbulence at all. On thecontrary, they are eager to drive the process of disillusionment further.Richard Rorty, for example, advocates a ‘philosophical superficiality andlight-mindedness’ which ‘helps along the disenchantment of the world’and which, he believes, will ‘make the world’s inhabitants morepragmatic, more tolerant, more liberal, more receptive to the appeal of instrumental rationality.’ 4 It is arguable, however, that Rorty can thinkthus only because he assumes that we can take  seriously meanings which weknow we have created, and which flimsily veil the indifferent universe of physicalism which Rorty—for all his hermeneutic gestures—regards asthe ontological bottom line. Other recent thinkers have been intolerant of even this residual soft-heartedness. They have considered it their job totrack down and eradicate those last traces of meaning which adhere to thehuman world, to dissolve any intrinsic significance of lived experienceinto an effect of impersonal structures and forces. The impulse here is stillPromethean: for meaning, as Adorno emphasized, implies  givenness —it issomething we encounter and experience, not something we canarbitrarily posit, as Rorty and others too quickly assume. And this verygivenness seems often to be regarded as an affront to human powers of self-assertion. It is for this reason, no doubt, that so much recent Frenchthought has raised the question of whether, as Herbert Schnädelbach hasput it, ‘man himself has become, after God and nature, an anthropomor- *This essay forms the introduction of Peter Dews’s book, The Limits of  Disenchantment. Essays on Contemporary European Philosophy ,to be published byVerso in 1995 . 1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner  ,in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner  ,trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York 1967 , p. 178 . 2 Charles Taylor,  Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity ,Cambridge 1989 , p. 458 . 3 The Case of Wagner  , p. 176 . 4 Richard Rorty,  Philosophical Papers Volume I: ‘Objectivity, Relativism and Truth’ ,Cambridge 1991 , p. 193 . 62  phism’. 5 And while contemporary Critical Theory in Germany hasinsisted on preserving that island of human significance known as the‘lifeworld’ from deconstruction, there are serious questions, as we shallsee, about how reliable the insular dykes and defences might be in holdingback the tide. Tracing the Reduction of Meaning The dominant paradigm of hostility to meaning in recent Europeanphilosophy has undoubtedly been deconstruction, which initiallyappeared on the scene as a radicalization of Heidegger’s overcoming of metaphysics. The thought of the early Derrida is marked by adetermination to go beyond Heidegger which focuses on his mentor’srefusal to abandon the philosophical quest for meaning, in the form of   Seinsfrage —the question of the ‘meaning of Being’. In his lectures onNietzsche from the late thirties and early forties, Heidegger argued thatNietzsche’s doctrine of the ‘will-to-power’ represents both the culmina-tion and the definitive exposé of the subjectivism of Western metaphysics.In its equation of ‘being-ness’ [  Seiendheit  ]with makeability or manipula-tion [ Machenschaft  ],it announces the ‘age of completed meaninglessness’ inwhich ‘meaninglessness becomes the “meaning” of entities as a whole’. 6 But at the same time the very extremity of this experience of the collapseof meaning opens the way for a questioning of the meaning of Being assuch, as opposed to that of entities, a meaning which the history of metaphysics plunged into oblivion. Thus for Heidegger the  Seinsfrage isapost-Nietzschean question. It is distinct from the various interpretationsof the totality of beings, and of the being of entities, which a metaphysicsfixated on the objectifying notion of presence has offered over the pasttwo thousand years. These interpretations culminate in the Nietzscheandoctrines of the eternal return and the will-to-power, which finally givethe game away.But, as is well-known, Derrida refuses to recognize this distinctionbetween Being [  Sein ]and beings [  Seiendes ]as Heidegger proposes it. In hisearlier writings, he takes Nietzsche’s part against Heidegger, claimingthat Nietzsche’s distinctive  practice of writing has contributed to the‘liberation of the signifier from its dependence or derivation with respectto the logos and the related concept of truth or the primary signified.’ 7 This is because ‘Reading, and therefore writing, the text were forNietzsche “originary” operations...with regard to a sense that they donot first have to transcribe or discover, which would not therefore be a 5 Herbert Schnädelbach, ‘The Face in the Sand: Foucault and the AnthropologicalSlumber’, in Axel Honneth et al, eds,  Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished  Project of Enlightenment  ,Cambridge, Mass. 1992 , p. 314 . 6 Martin Heidegger,  Nietzsches Lehre vom Willen zur Macht als Erkenntnis,Gesamtausgabe , vol. 47 , Frankfurt am Main 1989 , p. 289 ;  Nietzsche: Volume 3 : TheWill to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics ,trans. Frank A. Capuzzi, JoanStambaugh and David Krell, San Francisco 1979 , p. 177 . 7  Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology ,trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,Baltimore 1976 , p. 19 . 63  truth signified in the srcinal element and presence of the logos.’ 8 Fromsuch a standpoint Heideggerian thought could be seen as reinstatingrather than destroying ‘the instance of the logos and of the truth of beingas “primum signatum”.’ 9 Indeed, Derrida draws the conclusion that the‘meaning of Being is not a transcendental or trans-epochal signified (evenif it was always dissimulated within the epoch) but already, in a truly unheard  of sense, a determined signifying trace.’ 10 In his manifesto ‘Différance’, Derrida returns to the issue of how his ownthought of  différance goes beyond Heidegger’s thought of the ontologicaldifference between Being and beings: ‘And yet, are not the thought of themeaning or truth of Being, the determination of  différance as the ontico-ontological difference, difference thought within the horizon of thequestion of  Being ,still intrametaphysical effects of  différance ?’ 11 In thisfunction of being ‘older’ than the ontico-ontological difference Derridaterms différance the‘play of the trace’, which ‘no longer belongs to thehorizon of Being, but whose play transports and encloses the meaning of Being: the play of the trace, or the différance ,which has no meaning and isnot.’ 12 It should be noted that Derrida’s intention does not seem to be to claim, innihilistic fashion, that there simply is no meaning. He merely asserts thatthe sense conveyed by Nietzsche’s writing is not a discovery or transcription of some ‘transcendental signified’. He does, however, seem to becommitted to the view that a process which ‘has no meaning’ is logicallyprior to all meaning, or that the ‘text as such’ can generate meaning as an‘effect’. 13 Indeed, it is clear that in his earlier writings Derrida accepts as astarting point the structuralist account of the constitution of the semanticunits of language. In ‘The Ends of Man’, for example, he gives such aninterpretation of the focus on system and structure in French thought of the sixties. Structuralism, on his account, consists not in ‘erasing ordestroying meaning. Rather it is a question of determining the possibilityof  meaning on the basis of a “formal” organization which in itself has nomeaning, which does not mean that it is either the non-sense or theanguishing absurdity which haunt metaphysical humanism.’ 14 Theimplication of this approach, Derrida suggests, is that whereas phenome-nology effected a ‘reduction of meaning’, structuralism in its ‘mostsrcinal and strongest aspects’ involves a ‘reduction of  meaning’. Derridadoes not question the possibility of such a reduction. Indeed, he againmakes the point that one of its consequences would be a break with the‘ hermeneutical  question of the meaning or the truth of Being’, as conceived byHeidegger. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid., p. 20 . 10 Ibid., p. 23. 11 Derrida, ‘Différance’, in Margins of Philosophy ,trans. Alan Bass, Stony Brook, NY 1982 , p. 22 . 12 Ibid. 13 See for example Derrida, ‘Hors Livre’, in  Dissémination ,Paris 1972 , p. 13 ;‘Outwork’ in  Dissemination ,trans. Barbara Johnson, London 1981 , p. 7 . 14 Derrida, ‘The Ends of Man’, in Margins of Philosophy , p. 134 . 64
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