Friday, August 03, 2007

Against Repetition: Phenomenology

I had occasion to reopen Jacques Derrida's Speech and Phenomena and found some interesting passages on the subject of repetition. Of course this reading differs from previous readings. If we call it a rereading we might mean that the text hasn't changed, though strictly speaking this isn't quite the case, as my copy of the text bears traces, marginal and otherwise, of prior readings; or we might mean also that I am the same person who read it on a previous occasion, although in fact I have changed and am consumed by different interests than I was on previous readings; or we might mean that the activity of reading is the same, though, again, in my case this isn't true since (a) my medication makes it easier for me to concentrate these days, and for that reason I am a stronger reader, (b) my most recent reading is more informed than previous readings, and (c) I'm not so meticulous in rereadings as I am in initial readings. Therefore it might be more precise to say that I had occasion to read Speech and Phenomena anew, or something awkward like that. If I say instead that I've reread Speech and Phenomena, or even that I've reopened it, which seems less problematic on the surface though it harbors the same issues as rereading, my reasons are stylistic, and it should be understood that "rereading" implies something more or something other than a brute repetition of the act of reading. That said, I had occasion to reopen Derrida's Speech and Phenomena and found some interesting passages on the subject of repetition. The first passage I'd like to consider concerns the critique of ideality in Husserl's phenomenology.

[T]his ideality [of the object, of the signified], which is but another name for the permanence of the same and the possibility of its repetition, does not exist in the world, and it does not come from another world; it depends entirely on the possibility of acts of repetition. It is constituted by this possibility. Its "being" is proportionate to the power of repetition; absolute ideality is the correlate of a possibility of indefinite repetition. It could therefore be said that being is determined by Husserl as ideality, that is, as repetition. For Husserl, historical progress always has as its essential form the constitution of idealities whose repetition, and thus tradition, would be assured ad infinitum, where repetition and tradition are the transmission and reactivation of origins. An this determination of being as ideality is properly a valuation, an ethico-theoretical act that revives the decision that founded philosophy in its Platonic form. Husserl occasionally admits this; what he always opposed was a conventional Platonism. When he affirms the nonexistence or nonreality of ideality, it is always to acknowledge that ideality is a way of being that is irreducible to sensible existence or empirical reality and their fictional counterparts. In determining the ontōs on as eidos, Plato himself was affirming the same thing.

(pp. 52-53, Derrida's emphases)

Derrida goes on to say that "this determination of being is paradoxically one with the determination of being as presence" (p. 53). Now, off the top of my head, my understanding of what Husserl says about tradition in "The Origin of Geometry" differs from what Derrida is saying here, and we can imagine a sedimented tradition in which what gets repeated are references while the reactivation of origins remains but a possibility. As I've still not read Derrida's Introduction to "The Origin of Geometry," I'll lay that aside for the moment.

In pointing to the possibility of repetition, does Derrida intend for us to question its reality? And are we necessarily led to question its conditions of possibility? Clearly Derrida is dissatisfied with the idea that ideality is both something that does not exist and something that exists as a way of being. So does he mean for his critique to extend to repetition itself? Perhaps. He says, "The relationship with my death. . . lurks in this determination of being as presence, ideality, the absolute possibility of repetition" (p. 54). If death is something that should be directly confronted philosophically, then the determination of being as the absolute possibility of repetition presents a problem. On the other hand, Derrida does say that "every sign whatever is of an originally repetitive structure" (p. 56), and when he says that "speech is the representation of itself," it is on the basis of a "primordial structure of repetition" (p. 57). So it appears that Derrida is not uncomfortable with repetition itself.

Without reducing the abyss which may separate retention from re-presentation, without hiding the fact that the problem of their relationship is none other than that of the history of "life" and of life's becoming conscious, we should be able to say a priori that their common root–the possibility of re-petition in its most general form, that is, the constitution of a trace in the most universal sense–is a possibility which not only must inhabit the pure actuality of the now but must constitute it through the very movement of differance it introduces. Such a trace is–if we can employ this language without immediately contradicting it or crossing it out as we proceed–more "primordial" that what is phenomenologically primordial. For the ideality of the form (Form) of presence itself implies that it be infinitely re-peatable, that its re-turn, as a return of the same, is necessary ad infinitum and is inscribed in presence itself. It implies that the re-turn is the return of a present which will be retained in a finite movement or retention and that primordial truth, in the phenomenological sense of the term, is only to be found rooted in the finitude of this retention. It is furthermore implied that the relation with infinity can be instituted only in the opening of the form of presence upon ideality, as the possibility of a re-turn ad infinitum.

(p. 67)

Derrida's key critical concepts (trace, differance) appear to be grounded in a possibility of repetition. Does Derrida mean to challenge the relation to infinity that a certain conception of repetition implies, or does he limit himslef to a critique of ideality as it informs a Husserlian understanding of presence?

Let me just stipulate that Derrida is basically on target in his reading of Husserl. There would still be another direction for a phenomenology to follow, namely, the bracketing out of the possibility of repetition. That would mean that presencing is not what (Derrida says) Husserl says it is. (Can we bracket out presence too while we're at it?) That would also mean that the purity of ideality, its absoluteness, could not be assumed. Do we know whether ideality is pure or impure, whether it doesn't fade in and out, or whether it isn't melodically contoured? We might want to say that there is purity of eidetic intentions, but even that is questionable, especially if it is so only on the basis of the possibility of a power of infinite repetition.

Conceivably Derrida's critique is substantially the same as mine. We both, after all, are suspicious of sameness, and my understanding of repetition assumes the repetition of the same when perhaps it needn't. Derrida's differance, however, the sameness that is not identical, seeks to salvage something from repetition whereas I would be content to let it sink or swim in a sea of doubt.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 3:05 PM.


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