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Response to Soper; Response to Plant

LETTERS

Dear Radical Philosophy,
I am writing to make some criticisms of Kate Soper’s article
‘Feminism, Humanism and Postmodernism’ in RP55 (Summer
1990). I would first like to challenge the following passage:

.

.

If this sameness itself is challenged on the grounds that
there is no ‘presence’ of womanhood, nothing that the term
‘woman’ immediately expresses, and nothing instantiated
concretely except particular women in particular situations, then the idea of a political community build (sic)
around women – the central aspiration of the early feminist
movement – collapses. I say the ‘idea’, for women still
come together in all sorts of groups for feminist purposes,
and will doubtless continue to do so for a good while to
come even if their doing so transgresses some Derridean
conceptual rulings. (p. 13, emphasis added)

I would like to argue that Derrida is not challenging the fact that
when we meet and talk face-to-face we appear more present than
when we use written communication. What he does attack is this
empirical experience of presence being used to establish truth,
that is the metaphysics of presence. To erect truth on the basis of
presence we confuse the de facto and the de jure, the philosophical
fault par excellence (Descombes, Modern French Philosophy,
1980, p. 140). For example our empirical experience of speech
coming before writing as we grow up does not allow us to
privilege speech over writing as a general system. As Of
Grammatology shows us:

(1) the subordination of writing to speech is a prejudice,
which not even the special case of so-called phonetic
writing substantiates (although it is the case most favourable to this hypothesis); and that
(2) the definition of the graphic sign is really the definition
of any sign (that every sign is a signifier whose signified is
another signifier, never ‘the thing itself’, visible, present
before us ‘in flesh and blood’).

(Descombes, p. 147).

Kate Soper confuses an argument that self-presence is impossible
as the basis of truth and that our idea of presence is problematic,
with the claim that we cannot come together because we are not
really there. To make the simple point as well the argument that
presence is based on the trace of the other applies to men as well
as women. In the essay’ Freud and the Scene ofWriting’ (Derrida,
Writing and Difference, 1978) Derrida shows that there is a
writing before speech in the form of the structure of the psyche.

This serves to complicate our ideas that face-to-face communica-

58

tion is totally transparent by inserting the disruptive effects of
radical alterity, even in the psyche, the location of the ‘purest’

self-presence.

A comparison can be made with what Derrida says about
speech-act theory. Although based on commonsense notions of
everyday language use speech-act theory erects an entire theory
on the basis of these notions which work quite well enough for
practical purposes. Derrida questions this form of general theory
making from an empirical experience but this does not entail
denying the experience (see Norris, ‘Derrida’ for this argument).

I am also critical of the phrase ‘Derridean conceptual rulings’

which I find hard to understand. I don’t think Derrida would deny
that his terms can have conceptual effects but their intention and
in their use by Derrida they disrupt any idea of a conceptual rule.

A similar fault is made by Barbaralohnson when she suggests that
Derrida claims a privileged understanding over Lacan on the basis
of writing. The problem is that writing is not a concept or frame,
it is ‘above all the structural impossibility oflimiting this network,
of putting an edge on its weave, of tracing a margin that would not
be a new mark’ (Derrida, Positions, 1987, p. 40). Therefore
Derrida’s ‘conceptual rulings’ are precisely not that.

If we go through the general strategy of deconstruction or
double science in Positions (pp. 41-43) this will be clearer. The
first phase is the overturning of the philosophical opposition. It
can be argued that Cixous and Irigaray remain in this phase. This
phase is necessary or we ignore the violence of the opposition, that
is that one term governs the other (soul over body, speech over
writing, theory over practice, male over female etc.). However,
the next stage is the emergence of a new’ concept’ which can no
longer be held within the previous regime. These are undecidables
which resist speculative dialectics and resist any stable solution,
e.g. resist becoming conceptual rulings. To give an example
pharmakon is neither remedy nor poison, neither good nor evil,
neither the inside or the outside, neither speech nor writing etc. I
think this also answers the point made that Derrida’ s criticisms are
‘posed from the very terrain of the binary oppositions he warns
against’ (Linda Kintz quoted on p. 15, RP55). To leap out of these
oppositions too quickly can leave the field untouched (Derrida,
Positions, p. 41). The undecidable maintains the opposition but
puts it under erasure (sous rature). Derrida would avoid any
simple leap into intertextual freeplay it la Richard Rorty (see also
The Post Card for the idea of a system, the post, which is a system
in which letters can go astray).

I would also disagree with the statement that Derrida’s strategy of ‘in-differentiation’, ‘recommends changes at the level of
discourse and consciousness rather than at the level of materialeconomic and social – circumstance’ and that ‘it refuses to
discriminate between “world” and “text'” (RP55, p. 15). When a
criticism like this is made I find it hard to understand if the writer
has read any of Derrida’ s work. For brevity I will quote two

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

passages by Derrida which would refute the statements made by
Kate Soper:

What is produced in the current trembling is a reevaluation
of the relationship between the general text and what was
believed to be, in the form of reality (history, politics,
economics, sexuality, etc.), the simple, referable exterior
of language or writing, the belief that this exterior could
operate from the simple position of cause or accident’

(Positions, p. 91)
Every week I receive critical commentaries and studies on
deconstruction which operate on the assumption that what
they call ‘post-structuralism’ amounts to saying that there
is nothing beyond language, that we are submerged in
words – and other stupidities of that sort. Certainly,
deconstruction tries to show that the question of reference
is much more complex and problematic than traditional
theories supposed.

(Derrida in Kearney, Dialogues with Contemporary
Continental Thinkers, 1984, p. 123)
One could also consult 0fGrammatology, The Ear of the Other,
To Speculate – On Freud and virtually any other text. Again
Derrida is not erasing the difference between ‘world’ and ‘text’

but problematizing it, our every day assumptions may be fine in
practice but can we make general theories on that basis?

Deconstruction does not refuse to participate on the field of
materialism and idealism but it does approach the field in a radical
way. For the most comprehensive analysis of this problematic see

Positions.

I think the posing of the relation of Feminism, Humanism and
Postmodernism is a very important task and one that is very hard.

However, I feel that Kate Soper does misunderstand the position
of Derrida. I would agree that Derrida can be read in a conservative or quietest way, of which Richard Rorty provides the prime
example. I think that deconstruction does have important political
implications which are valuable to the radical left. Of course I
cannot say much in relation to feminism, if Derrida does get in the
way then I am sure his work will be sacrificed. However, I do feel
that Kate Soper’s comments show a lack of understanding which
can only further right -wing readings of Derrida (whether they call
themselves postmodern bourgeois liberals or not). I would like to
close with Derrida’s description of deconstruction:

deconstruction (I use this word for the sake of convenience, though it is a word I have never liked and one whose
fortune has disagreeably surprised me) was not primarily
a matter of philosophical contents, themes or theses,
philosophemes, poems, theologemes or ideologemes, but

especially and inseparably meaningful frames, institu~
tional structures, pedagogical or rhetorical norms, the
possibilities of law, of authority, of evaluation, and of
representation in terms of its very market.

(Derrida, The Time of a Thesis: punctuations,
pp. 44-45, emphasis added)

Mr Benjamin C. Noys

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

Dear Radical Philosophy,
I am grateful to Benjamin Noys for his comments on my article,
which I accept may have misconstrued Derrida at one or two
points. In regard to my reference to ‘Derridean conceptual rulings’, however, I think he may have missed a touch of irony. I
certainly did not wish to imply that Derrida’ s attack on ‘presence’

meant that ‘we cannot come together because we are not really
there’ .

I am sure that no collocation of bodies can be ruled out by an
argument, and I do not think Derrida intends us to suppose that it
can. My point was rather that Derridean theory made it problematic to regard such ‘comings together’ as evidence of the kind of
consensus and effective unity of purpose which is intrinsic to
collective political endeavour. In the act of coming together and
making ‘common cause’ we sink or conflate differences (or the
play of difference) of the kind the theory requires us to observe,
and in this sense defy its scruples.

‘Conceptual rulings’ may, I admit, not express this well and
show too little respect for Derrida’ s wish to preserve his terms
from all taint of ‘presence’. But Derrida is nonetheless quite
capable of fairly rule-like formulations (e.g. ‘Grammatology
must deconstruct everything that ties the concept and norms of
scientificity to ontotheology, logocentrism, phonologism’ (Po~
sitions, p. 35), and I suspect my own formulation was prompted
by a prescriptive current in his own writing.

As for the strategy of ‘in-difference’ , I think my article is less
averse to this than Benjamin Noys implies. I did, however, sound
one of two cautions about the ways in which a policy which is
advanced in a spirit of gender-alertness might conceal or encourage a certain gender blindness or literal indifference to gender. I
cited Linda Kintz’ s suggestion of a possible blind spot in Derrida’ s
argument in this connection, but I don’t in fact think this problem
is something internal to Derridean argument or resoluble within
it (and if it were I think Derrida would sort it out as well as
anyone). I think it has to do with political discriminations in which
all of us are caught up.

That would be part of my reply to the final points in the letter
about my charging Derrida with idealism. Everyone with an
interest in the matter from Engels onwards can claim to have
‘problematized’ the relationship between ‘world’ and ‘text’ (‘base’

and ‘superstructure’), but anyone who does so and who also
continually defers any statement about how the theoretical ‘revaluation’ of the relation between ‘general text’ and the ‘form of
reality’ relates to the ‘form of reality’ can be charged with a
certain prevarication about how far they wish to sustain the
difference in question. As I tried to suggest in my article, I may
tremble (slightly) at the approach of a male stranger on a lonely
walk even as my thoughts about gender relations are trembling on
the verge of embracing ‘in-difference’. Faced with that disjuncture, one cannot help feeling that until the ‘form of reality’ catches
up, then what may seem a good idea (for example, to act neither
‘like a woman’ nor ‘like a man’) may be an impossible practice.

Kate Soper

59

unusual gathering –

Dear Radical Philosophy,

the fact that there were, unusual at such things, equal
proportions of men and women?

Self Determination and Power Event
What a curious review in Radical Philosophy 55 of the ‘Self
Detennination and Power’ event held in Govan recently!

Sadie Plant’s view that ‘many were disappointed by the
atmosphere of complacency’ really would have to be supported
by some evidence. It would be evidence that would contradict the
experience of the vast majority of the people attending over the
two days.

Similar problems in perception are evidenced by her view that
Scottish Child offered a romantic image of childhood as justification for looking at these themes with Noam Chomsky, George
Davie and a whole string of commentators, writers and ordinary
people.

I really am curious about this ‘romantic’. It can’t be gleaned
from a reading of Scottish Child magazine. Certainly nothing like
this exists south of the border, but a cursory glance reveals that this
is no consumer title presenting heaps of advertorial copy based on
a partial or romantic view of childhood.

Perhaps Sadie Plant found other things romantic about this

the playing of soft music over the p.a. during breaks?

in a cultural and political context where the adjective,
literary, is used as an accusation, the prominence of artists,
musicians, writers and poets as part of the programme?

Or was it ‘romantic’ that post-industrial Govan was the site for
such a gathering on Common Sense philosophy that was attended
by a large audience, 10% of whom came from the immediate
locality, a third of whom were unwaged, many had never been
near a philosophy class in their lives, and the one group clearly
under-represented were professional philosophers from institutions of higher education?

If ‘a more coherent and immediate paradigm is urgently
required’ for change in our society (the organisers’ ambitions for
the event were much less high-minded), are we to see such light
emerge from your reviewer’s Queen Mary and Westfield College? We watch with interest.

Derek Rodger, Editor, Scottish Child, Glasgow

PII (formerly the Warwick Journal of Philosophy), is published at The
Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick.

Feminist Philosophy Edition
Volume 3, No. 1, Spring 1990

This edition includes articles by: ~~ lrigaray, Margaret Whitford,
Alison Ainley, Susan Kozel, Chnstlne Battersby, Dee Reynolds,
Deborah Fitzmaurice, Alison Martin, Alex Klaushofer

,
Future editions will be dedicated to Kant’s Critique of Judgement
(volume 3, no. 2, Autumn 1990) in commemoration of the 200th
anniversary of its publialtion, and Economies in Philosophy (volume 4,
no.1, Spring 1991). These will be available at a cost of £3.99 (plus 40p
p&p.) per copy.

The Feminist Edition and other back numbers are available from PIl,
clo David Webb, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick,
Coventry CV4 7AL, at a price of £3.50 (plus 40p p&p.).

60

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

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