Saturday, October 12, 2013
Beyond Hyperreality: the Beginnings of a Critique of Relativism
In his now canonical 1967 essay, Jacques Derrida provides a notorious critique of all brands of critical, humanistic thought by claiming that the structure of every theoretical framework is founded upon an arbitrary centrality. That is, all fields of study merely appropriate the same material resources but attempt to organize these resources around their own proposed “center” (Derrida’s word). Instead of arguing that successive fields of study might persistently better approximate the location of the mystical center, Derrida claims that all fields are engaged with one another in an endless intercourse of “play,” and that even within themselves all fields experience perpetual reconfigurations and reorganizations that establish perpetual patterns of play. In what is perhaps the essay’s most infamous and controversial statement, Derrida overturns the existence of the concept of the center:
Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible. As center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible. At the center, the permutation or the transformation of elements (which may of course be structures enclosed within a structure) is forbidden. At least this permutation has always remained interdicted (and I am using this word deliberately). Thus it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted the very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it. The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. (“Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences 279)
The final sentence has invited everything from praise, mimicry (in the entire practice of deconstruction), admiration, skepticism, dismissal, and outright condemnation. Various critics have attacked its paradox, its impenetrability, and its elitism. Others have praised it for its insight, its iconoclasm, and its influence. All of these assessments possess legitimacy, and critics argue over Derrida’s relevance to this day. However, there is one looming criticism that persists to this day which I aim to challenge in this post: the charge of relativism.
Relativism is not directed specifically at Derrida, but at the whole of what typically is labeled as “postmodern theory,” and it charges (in short) that theory has abandoned its claims to absolute truth and correctness in any objective, logical sense (logic itself being a target of the human sciences). In many cases, from Wittgenstein to Lyotard, relativism became the first accusation levied against the postmodernists, despite their vastly different theoretical approaches. In some cases, the figures themselves (or their claims) appear to invite the criticism: Lyotard, who suggests that capitalism is the only system to have ever existed (from our perspective); Wittgenstein, who claims that individuals practice their own language games which in turn constitute their own forms of life; Baudrillard, who claims that reality itself has vanished behind the veneer of simulacra; Butler, who claims that bodies do not exist, but only the system of expressions they project; Latour, who claims that tuberculosis could not have killed Ramses because tuberculosis wasn’t invented until 1882 (tuberculosis was discovered, of course, not invented; but Latour is making a melodramatic comment). All such theorists invite criticism for these seemingly relativist remarks.
But does Bruno Latour mean that the bacterium which causes the disease known as tuberculosis didn’t exist in the time of Ramses? Does Baudrillard mean that actual material reality has vanished, or that we no longer experience it (like in The Matrix)? Does Butler mean that physical bodies don’t exist? Relativism seems to eschew the notion of objective reality entirely; but are these theorists honestly adhering to such a position? And is Derrida, the ultimate theoretician of deconstruction and poststructuralism, the spokesman for this apparently frustrating moment of philosophical history?
I argue that relativism represents a misunderstanding of poststructuralist theory, and I hope to demonstrate this claim in my post.
Relativism encounters its most objectionable circumstances in sociopolitical circumstances. A poor man murders a rich man for his wallet, and certain actors argue that we attempt to understand the murderer’s perspective; this kind of relativist posturing is extremely common in sociopolitical circles, but it is not an actionable perspective supported by theorists such as Derrida. In actual material programs and situations, the nuances of poststructuralist theory often lose their subtlety and become lost in the rhetorical grandstanding and empathic appeals of those involved. For those who read poststructuralist theory (and read it closely), we can see that what look to be paradoxes, contradictions, or falsities are in fact gestures toward something else: a higher resolution, an amplified receptivity, or an adapted perspective. If we pursue the problem in a dialectical fashion, then we must always be prepared to take the next step; but the presence of the next step doesn’t negate the existence of truth entirely. What it does, on the contrary, is propel us toward it. Dialectics is propulsion.
Later in “Structure, Sign and Play,” Derrida explains the notion of play, this whimsical component that constitutes the true nature of a conceptual field:
This field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions. One could say […] that this movement of play, permitted by the lack of absence of a center or origin, is the movement of supplementarity. (“Structure” 289)
The imposition of a center has the effect of limiting a field; the center establishes boundaries, limits, borders by which all interior components now gain the semiotic status of concepts. In effect, the imposition of the center creates a field of epistemology. It establishes a framework of knowledge in which its individual terms and ideas can be said to have substantive meaning. However, Derrida says, by the very nature of the mutability of the center, the field slips into a state of play. Terms begin to stand in for one another, trade meanings, and even manifest in forms of mistaken use, misspelling, or combination with other terms. As these new terms proliferate, they serve to inspire more substitutions and interchanges; thus, the state of play is infinite. Derrida does not connect this to the fluidity of human use (as Wittgenstein does), but to the materiality of language itself. Humans are not always aware when they use words incorrectly, substitute one for another, or even introduce a new term. Language itself, through its almost parasitical permeance, invites and seduces us. Of course, this grants a degree of anthropomorphism and intention to language that may not be there; but the point is that it is not in human actors either. The intention, the awareness, is nonexistent. Language, like an evolutionary process, simply adapts.
None of this denies the material existence or objectivity of language, or of physical reality itself. Instead, it suggests that material reality as we know it is changing. The words and equations that we employ in order to know the world, to calculate it and figure it out, do not stop at mere representation – they actively alter the matter they appropriate. Like a mirror that reflects the image of an object, it also has an external effect on that object. In order to reflect, mirrors must capture and bounce back light, thus bouncing back an image; but in doing so, they bounce that light back onto the object. Merely stand in front of a mirror and shine a flashlight into the glass. The mirror will reflect you holding the flashlight, but it will also bounce the light from the flashlight back onto you. What the mirror reflects is not an image of you as you are without a mirror in front of you:
The mirror can only reflect you as you are in front of a mirror.
The degree, amount, intensity of light present on your body will never be the same in front of a mirror as it is when there is no mirror next to you, even if that degree is minuscule. What the mirror reflects is the image of you being reflected by a mirror. Thus, the inevitable question arises: which is the original; the image of your reflection in the mirror, or the body being reflected? The answer is obvious: there is no original.
Just as we cannot think of the image in the mirror as an accurate representation of an eternal truth, neither can we think of networks of words, signifiers, or concepts as accurate representations of eternal truths. As soon as the medium intervenes to reflect its object, it changes its object. The original is lost.
But the idea persists.
Derrida explicitly comments that the lack of an origin opens up a field of play, prevents the field from arresting a constant structure, a structure consistent in its finitude. As we acknowledge the rupture of history from its origins, we immediately constitute a new origin – a new event. As Derrida masterfully communicates, every new dismissal of centers, origins, events, merely introduces new centers, new origins, and new events. The relativism now appears immanent: the more we try to establish something closer to truth, the more we merely introduce new models, new epistemologies, thus appearing to remove ourselves even further from any high, spiritual, metaphysical notion of Truth.
This, unfortunately, is a misinterpretation. We are not leaving truth behind, or abandoning it, because we have mistakenly posited truth as something anterior and preexistent, something that we must analyze, experiment, and interpret our way back to. If poststructuralism and its bedfellows have taught us anything, it is that we need a new definition of truth; and that this new definition, while resisting the old High Church sacredness of Logos, is substantial and effective nonetheless.
We can no longer appeal to notions of what the Founding Fathers originally meant when they wrote the Constitution. Their original meaning, their original intention, is not only useless; it is virtually nonexistent for us in our culture. We can only hope to understand what the Constitution means for us, today, in our culture (and it’s possible that it may mean incinerating it entirely). We can no longer ask whether or not Jesus Christ actually walked the earth; we can only ask what his existence is (and means) to us. We can no longer ask what 9/11 was; we must continue to ask what it is. While these approaches may deny the importance of an original, or even its existence altogether, they do not deny that there is something of truth in what these figures, images, symbols mean to us. Just as Derrida’s systems engage in infinite play, so do our modes of production, our networks of signification, our fields of knowledge; but despite their endless play, they can still construct ideas, and where there are ideas, there are truths.
I will not take this space to explore Alain Badiou’s new and radical concept of multiple truths, of truths that cause ruptures in the fabric of what is known and expected, although this philosophy seems to have some relevance here. The task of distinguishing “multiple truths” from simply an obfuscation of relativism is too expansive and tiresome for a blog post. I’m more interested in the perpetuation of poststructuralism and its related methodologies, sciences and studies which, in my opinion, have not nearly had their say. The new movement deemed “speculative realism,” instead of tossing poststructuralism to the dustbin, is instead providing a bold new reinterpretation of its claims, even if some of them unsuccessfully sail the narrow strait between the Scylla of insanity and the Charybdis of obscurity.
But beyond even the radical methodologies being boldly crafted by the speculative realists, there remains much substantive content to dredge up from the depths of poststructuralism. If there is any literary form that is conjuring the old specters, it is Science fiction. Studies in Science fiction, particularly those conducted by Fredric Jameson, Carl Freedman, and N. Katherine Hayles have brought poststructuralist terminology together with Science fiction literature (although Jameson’s and Freedman’s brand of Marxist hermeneutics opposes poststructuralism in some ways). Despite its recent disfavor in academic circles, including literary departments, the allure of poststructuralism lingers on.
But what does all this mean for relativism? As the title suggests, this is only an initial step; in my personal opinion, Derrida’s writings offer something as far from relativism as we can get. They offer a complex, rigorous, rational study of the operations of language, signification, and systems of communication (whether these be systems of language, knowledge, or culture). If Derrida suggests that there is no center, it is not to emphasize the relativity of meaning and truth, but to merely suggest that systems, by their very nature, resist concretization. The more we try to calculate and capture language, the more it calcifies; and, consequently, the more quickly it dies.
Rather than consign these theorists and philosophers to the dustbin of relativism, we need to see how their ideas can illuminate truth in different ways. To conclude, an example: in discussions of freedom, the object is typically referred to as a constant, an ideal, something essential that can be discerned and achieved. Freedom is thus taken to mean something strict and definite. In this sense, freedom is equated with truth. While I do not intend to dispel the myth of freedom, I do think there is something to the myth of how freedom has been conceptualized; and that is to say, how it has been formed around the gravitational singularity of a center. In my opinion, this center is that of the individual. The individual constitutes a certain concept of freedom, and much of science and knowledge seems to support this center; but this center, despite its apparent universality, is still a historical construct. It is still, despite any disbelief in the matter, something that we have made as a center.
Without the individual, the concept of freedom does not disappear; it merely morphs, it adapts. Without the individual, we do not lose touch with freedom as a truth. It merely functions as a truth in a different way. Truth, in this sense, still exists, and exists powerfully; but it can only ever exist in simultaneity with the culture that organizes it. Like the mirror that reflects that object being reflected, truths can only be true for the entities for which they are true. Tautologies galore, and I do not deny this; but there’s more.
Once made into truths, into centers, these things (for what are they prior to their centralization?) complete a complex retroactivity. By their very centralization – by their being made into truths – they achieve the illusion that they were truths all along. That their essence of truth-ness existed prior to their projection; that they were prescribed as truths. This very process of truth-making is more than simple illusion and false consciousness; for if that was the case, then this would mean that there is an ultimate baseline, a ground zero of truth that we can work our way back to. The true illusion, in fact, is that there is any origin at all, any ground zero. The appearance of illusion is an illusion. The wild retroactive loop by which they appear as truth – by which they appeal real – makes them real, makes them into truth. Ascribing relativity is merely a dismissal of the complexity of the situation. The “truth” (oh, the ubiquity of a word…) is that truth doesn’t preexist us, it isn’t anterior to us; it is made along with us, and this making exists within a constant state of play.
We should not see this as a diminishing or diminution of truths. It is not a debasement or degradation. It is the process of the process of truth. The realization of the realization.
The revelation that all truth has ever been is a continual process of revelation.