The Recent History of the Past

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Wisdom lies in the interval between knowing thyself and promoting thyself, which explains why its generally so cramped and cranky.


Thanks Roger! I sometimes think the reason I’m never in the loop is simply because I fear nooses…

One of the things that most struck me encountering Derrida for the first time was the notion that there were two pasts. Before this encounter, I had assumed that the past was the Past, unitary, and that memory was my primary purchase upon it. I felt anchored, like a burr in history’s great shaggy hide. I felt central. No matter how scrambled I was, my frame and the frame of the world remained identical. That weatherbeaten phrase, ‘mind-altering,’ held no hidden profundity for me. Everything was always more of the same, more or less.

I got fucked up, then I woke up. Why, hello, sun…

You prick.

Derrida opened my eyes to the possibility that the Past was not quite so simple. What if what I called the ‘Past’ was a fabrication, a mere representation, forever trapped in the now, forever hurtling away from the blackness that had birthed it. What if the glass on the bottom of the existential boat was a television screen?

Derrida, in keeping with the linguistic formalism that was de rigeur among French academics at the time, theorized this problem in structural terms. Yes, Scott, you are rafting on a flat-screen, but it’s the only window you got, so you’re pinioned, you see, caught between transparency and transmission, dread truth and accursed fabrication. What you called the Past is in fact an originary repetition, a transparent transmission, and you will dwell out your remaining years trapped in the paradoxical in-between.

The Past was fractured into the past qua originary, and the past qua repetition–into the past as it is and the past as you make it. All of us, it seemed, were condemned to live two warring histories, the one always claiming to exhaust the other, only to be thrown back time and again by its infinite inexhaustibility. Thus the history of philosophy, the parade of pretenders to the throne endlessly overthrown. Plato. Aristotle. Kant. Hegel. Meaning, Derrida said, had the structure of a never-ending coup d’etat.

And so, in certain circles at least, Derrida swept the table, offering professional interpreters a dogma that promised both a contrarian political radicality on top of the prospect of never-ending employment. Expensive scarves and free meaning for everyone! Small wonder he was swept into office the way he was… Reagan should have been so lucky.

But I smelled a rat. Derrida’s biggest problem was also the most ancient: his inability to account for the cognitive difference, the fact that all claims are not equal. To be fair, he improvised an ingenious way to avoid confronting this problem–he was nothing if not a subtle thinker. The traditional way of hanging philosophical positions unable to account for the cognitive difference is to charge them with performative contradiction, to claim, in effect, that they require the very truth-function they are seeking to demolish to perform their demolition. Au contraire mon frere. Derrida actually embraced this performative contradiction: of course deconstruction begs the very transparency it demolishes! Performative contradiction is the natural state of all language all the time. And so the crafty Frenchman bequeathed to the world a theoretical outlook that recontextualizes its every refutation into an instance of proof–an example of what I’ve since come to call Performative First Philosophy.

But he still couldn’t account for the cognitive difference. And short of this, how could you say he had a remotely viable theory of meaning? He could explain why philosophers inevitably failed, sure, but the truly important question, certainly, was why scientists managed to succeed. Our lives–not to mention our sanity–literally depend on the reliable way language gets things right–the fact that not all differances are equal. Just consider the crucial ethical role of the past, the way crimes only become crimes after the fact. What about Holocaust deniers? You deconstruct them, they deconstruct your deconstructions, and…

Do we call it a draw? Infinitely defer the penalty kicks?

Needless to say I have a very different way of looking at things now. I still find it amazing the amount of water Derrida still draws in certain academic circles–but this just means that too few of my old professors are dead. The atavistic philosophies that seem to be replacing him strike me as even worse: whenever someone begins discussing Meillasoux or Badiou I always bring up Chaitin and his contention that mathematics is a branch of physics. Simply raising this claim, I remind them, relativizes their claims. I don’t need to be right, only cogent, and they find themselves back in the lap of ‘correlation,’ as they call it.

Which is to say, the ancient dilemma of the cognitive difference.

Naturalists don’t pretend to have solved this problem. They simply point out that not all claims are equal, and that when it comes to theory, scientific claims seem to be far and away the most reliable game it town. So, if we want to understand what the cognitive difference is, we’ll have to wait for science to pick its disordered way meticulously forward. And hopefully, we philosophers, groping in the dark the way we do, will happen upon some of the concepts it needs. A trunk here. A tail there.

And for some perverse reason, I now find myself stumbling in the most troubling–even terrifying–dark of them all, one that no one ‘serious’ seems even willing to entertain, though its spectre has hung like a haze about humanity since at least the ancient Greeks. The problem of nihilism.

At least I find myself back in the lap of a singular past. There’s no labyrinthine inside, no ‘absolute outside’ outside the dichotomy of inside/outside, just vectors of depletion and truncation, information that I happen to have and information I happen to lack. Derrida’s characterization of the formal structure of necessary insufficiency isn’t, as he wants to think, itself a performative exemplification of that very insufficiency so much as another garden variety distortion. There is no ‘cut’ between the past ‘as experienced’ and the past ‘as it is,’ but rather an informatic continuum of loss and distortion that either effectively integrates me into my environments or does not, ‘pasts’ that reliably engage the machinery of the present versus ‘pasts’ that do not.

Because the ‘past’ is nothing more than a kind of device, another bewildering dividend of evolution, one that can be refined, tuned to interact with other processes, onboard and off, as effectively as possible. It is neither window, nor screen–but a spade that allows us to rob those graves we need to. Party with the corpses.