Simon Critchley’s “Clotural Readings II: Wholly Otherwise”

This essay is a chapter taken from Critchley’s book, The Ethics of
Deconstruction
. The major project for the book as a whole is to illustrate
Critchley’s contention that deconstruction, as a method of reading philosophy,
necessarily involves an ethical demand. In an earlier chapter of the book
Critchley makes clear that the notion of ethics which the deconstructive method
correlates to is not that of philosophical tradition but rather that of Levinas.
“Clotural Readings II” is the fourth chapter in the book; it engages Levinas’s
readings of Derrida’s work in order to follow Levinas as he attempts to discern
and describe the ethical position of the deconstructive method. Critchley
illustrates these folded readings, Levinas in a sense deconstructing Derrida’s
deconstructions, through three different lens: time, skepticism, and
indication. Each of these sections could stand along as a brief but rich
reading of the conjunction between these two thinkers. I will attempt to treat
each section, drawing out the claims of primary importance and interest.

The section on time is called It’s Today Tomorrow and begins with the question
of whether Levinas understands Derrida’s work to be against the philosophical
tradition or simply repeating it. Critchley notes that Levinas views a
trajectory of critical philosophy with its origins in Kant, developed by
Husserl, and completed by Derrida. Here already we get the indication of where
Critchley is headed. Derrida is both within the tradition and a challenge to
it. Specifically, the critical lineage Derrida is attached to is that of the
critique of metaphysics and the transcendental illusion, the idea that a priori
forms of reason constitute the nature of ultimate reality and therefore human
understanding can achieve an absolute comprehension of something like god. Kant
began this project, and Husserl contributed to it: “By bringing Being back from
its sojourn in a supersensible Platonic realm and giving it over to
appearance…”(148). Derrida thinks through the end of metaphysics, according to
Levinas, through his challenge to the possibility of the plenitude of the
presence. Despite Husserl’s advance for critical philosophy, his notion of
presence remained problematic, and it is through his challenge that Derrida
continues the critical project. The point of this challenge is that “The
immediacy of experience is the new transcendental illusion” (149). Derrida
laces his critique into the preceding critiques of Husserl and Kant. If Kant
and Husserl’s work lead to an equivalence of Being and appearance, Derrida’s
work indicates that the phenomenon always slips away from the phenomenologist.
Following this discussion Critchley suggests, in a claim that he thinks
resonates with the thoughts of Levinas, that deconstruction may be operative
between the break with philosophical tradition and its continuity according to
a logic of closure. Critchley reads “Wholly Otherwise” very closely to discern
the character of deconstruction as Levinas sees it, attempting to play out the
critique of presence Derrida fosters and which Levinas finds so satisfying. In
this light, the trace is noted as a sign for an absolute past which has never
been present. The trace leads towards ethical subjectivity and the
deconstruction of presence which reveals this trace is methodologically
ethical. Critchley asserts that for Levinas, “…the futural movement of
difference, its temporization, which always defers the fulfillment, or
parousia, of presence, is reabsorbed into the present, fissuring the latter and
usurping its authority” (154). However, simply due to the operation of this
critique within the tradition, an effect of the challenge is in fact a
restoration. Even in criticizing presence, in splitting it open, presence
endures and is preserved. This doubled reading and doubled writing belongs to
what Critchley calls the logic of closure.

The second section of the chapter is called Scepticism. Levinas is simply a
satisfied reader of Derrida and has important concerns to raise. In a move we
may find reminiscent of Derrida’s own critical posture in Violence and
Metaphysics, Levinas suggests that “What remains constructed after the
de-construction is certainly the stern architecture of the de-constructing
discourse which employs the present tense of the verb to be in predicative
propositions” (156). It seems that perhaps neither Levinas nor Derrida are able
to wholly avoid the logocentric language of philosophy’s tradition. The question
is then raised as to whether deconstruction, far from being a radical
innovation, is merely a modern version of skepticism. Critchley suggests that
while neither Derrida nor Levinas are engaging skeptical projects, Levinas sees
a homology between the refutation of skepticism and critiques of his work. In
the Levinasian view that ontology refuses transcendence by an endeavor towards
totalizing comprehension, the refutation of skepticism has been instrumental in
that process. This refutation is already clear in Plato, and is recapitulated in
Husserl’s phenomenology. Heidegger’s philosophy of Dasein made Heidegger
doubtful of whether a skeptical position was even tenable without suicide.
Levinas’s shift is to acknowledge skepticism as that which always returns to be
refuted; it is a ghost within the tradition. Critchley notes that in this
thought Levinas finds a strange alliance with Hegel who also respected
skepticism for its resistance to dogmatism. Levinas asserts that there is an
irreducible difference between skepticism and its refutation, and that this
difference is effectively a diachrony that initiates a movement not
ontologically simultaneous but transcendent. It is this quality in skepticism,
and the skeptical quality in Derrida that appeals to Levinas. Skepticism is
here proximate to the movement by which the ethical Saying can only be said by
way of ontological thematization that denies it, but which temporizes
diachronically through the trace. It is Critchley’s aim to indicate that
deconstruction is diachronic and therefore fosters the disparity between the
Said and the Saying, thus signifying the ethical despite its betrayal in
ontological proposition. Critchley spends a significant amount of time
reviewing the diachrony between the Saying and the Said in Levinas’s work, as
it is the demonstration of this diachrony that makes deconstruction ethical. He
notes Levinas’s position that the philosopher’s project is the reduction of the
Said to the Saying through a logic of skepticism or of interruption. We may
also understand here a parallel movement of interruption in Levinas Otherwise
than Being, in Derrida’s deconstructive method, and in the ethical subjectivity
itself. Critchley’s review of this movement is effective and takes the time to
play out this notion in both the writings of Levinas and its relations to the
work of other thinkers. I think that this second section of the chapter offers
a very clear and effective reading of the Saying/Said relation through the lens
of skepticism. Critchley writes: “It is as if skepticism were sensitive to the
difference between my unthematizable ethical relation to the Other and the
ontological thematization of this relation,” and further, “Ethics signifies
enigmatically, as a determinate pattern of oscillation, or alternation. One
might say that ethics signifies undecidably” (167-8). Critchley concludes this
section by suggesting that both Levinas and Derrida indicate that ontology and
ethics do not constitute an opposition but are actually interdependent.

The final section of the chapter is called Indication. This section begins with
Levinas’s critique of Derrida for fostering his deconstruction of presence
without leaving the gnoseological signification of meaning; which is to say
that Derrida maintains the theory of knowledge he adopts from his predecessors,
particularly Husserl. There are two aspects to this Levinasian critique. The
first aspect is that Derrida’s characterization of philosophy as a metaphysics
of presence allows for the deconstruction of presence but not for a statement
of non-metaphysical positivity. Derrida travels a path of negation that does
not articulate the Other positively. Critchley wants to claim that despite this
deficiency Derrida’s work signifies the ethical because it declares that the
history of philosophy says more than it wants to say. In proposing totality it
names the ethical. Hidden in the noise of ontology is the whisper of an
originary ethics. The second aspect of the critique is centered on Husserl’s
notion of indication. Levinas’s position is that Derrida fails to radicalize
this notion, a movement that would open onto the ethical. What follows from
Critchley is a summary of the Husserlian analysis of the ambiguity of signs,
and the distinction between expressive and indicative signs. In brief, Husserl
wants to affirm the expressive sign as that which is identical to its meaning
and the indicative as that which is associated with non-given, non-identical
associations. Husserl’s theory of meaning, which privileges the expressive,
necessitates that despite practical interlacing between these two kinds of
signs they are fundamentally distinct. It is this threshold of distinction that
Derrida deconstructs in his text Voice and Phenomenon. Derrida’s position is
that the practical entanglement of these signs is not reducible but
constitutional; as Critchley reports: “…at the origin, indication is always
added to expression in a relation or logic of supplementarity” (173). Derrida’s
move is to complicate the origin necessary for Husserl’s theory of meaning by
hopelessly entangling expression and indication. Where Levinas aims to go
further is in the radicalization of indication. He will affirm that the terms
of an indicative relation are not identical in the way expressive meaning is
logically identical. Thus Levinas will declare an extrinsicality between the
indicated and the indicator. Here we should immediately recognize the method at
work: Levinas is finding diachrony and otherness within the indicative sign. As
the ethical arises from exteriority we can also see that this movement towards
diachrony is also a movement towards the ethical nature of indication.
Indication, as a kind of ethical speech, acknowledges and traces the separation
between the same and the other. The difference between Derrida and Levinas here
is that while Derrida effectively recognized the infection of expression by the
exteriority of indication, he did not see that in doing so he had found the
trace of the ethical. Following this point Critchley moves on to consider the
mode of articulating these signs, particularly the distinction between the
verbal and the nonverbal. This distinction does not resound to that between
signification and non-signification. Signification for Levinas is not simply
verbal, it is facial in the very particular sense of the face that Levinas
offers. Critchley’s concluding remarks refer to the non-verbal quality of
ethical signification. The core point here is that the primary and originary
signification is sensibility, vulnerability to the world. For those who are
interested in such things, the final pages of this chapter describe the
relationship between sensibility and animality in order to complicate
criticisms of Levinas for his humanism and anthropocentrism.

This essay is thorough and careful in its reading of both Levinas and Derrida.
It is clear in announcing its intentions and following through on them. I
believe that it is certainly a powerful articulation of the ethical character
of deconstruction. In addition, the engagement with the philosophical
tradition, particularly Husserl’s theory of meaning, is immensely valuable.

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~ by ando07 on April 22, 2007.

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