On Jacques Derrida’s Parasitology

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On Jacques Derrida’s Parasitology

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Prolegomena to a Solicitation of Science

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The high degree to which AIDS, terrorism, crack cocaine or computer viruses mobilize the popular imagination should tell us that they are more than anecdotal occurrences in an irrational world. The fact is that they contain within them the logic of our system: these events are merely the spectacular expression of that system. They all hew to the same agenda of virulence and radiation, an agenda whose very power over the imagination is of a viral character.

—————————————————————————————————————- Jean Baudrillard, “Prophylaxy and Virulence.”

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.The Program of Deconstruction

In a conversation in 1994 Derrida made a statement, that for all posterity will re-mark his entire oeuvre: a statement as unveiling, as programmatic, as it was confessing. Food for foes, but largely unnoticed by friends. For foes it revealed how ‘dangerous’ and ‘confused’ he was, obscurantisme terroriste, as Michel Foucault once had himself utter; for friends, in the degree to which it was given notice at all, it would risk marginalizing hundreds of interpretations already sanctioned and canonized by the proper archeions. Still it has not attracted the interest it deserves. I cite:

All I have done […] is dominated by the thought of a virus, what could be called a parasitology, a virology, the virus being many things. […] The virus is in part a parasite that destroys, that introduces disorder into communication. Even from the biological standpoint, this is what happens with a virus; it derails a mechanism of the communicational type, its coding and decoding. On the other hand, it is something that is neither living nor non-living; the virus is not a microbe. And if you follow these two threads, that of a parasite which disrupts destination from the communicative point of view—disrupting writing, inscription, and the coding and decoding of inscription—and which on the other hand is neither alive nor dead, you have the matrix of all that I have done since I began writing.[1]

“All I have done is dominated by the thought of a virus.” Remarkable! “The matrix of all that I have done.” So much for all those solicitous ventures at breaking up his work in smaller, neat “phases ,” shifts of cynosures. In all sorts of departments (literature, law, arts, architecture, film, theology, politics, philosophy, etc.) many a scholar have unknowingly studied a new type of parasitology. The academia in total denegates this vibrant and extremely detailed form of “general” parasitology; that shall nonetheless haunt academia. Paul De Man’s warning that “the impossibility of reading should not be taken too lightly,” is more than fit. Paul De Man is among the few that have understood the true lesson of Kant, his true significance: that any set of conditions of possibility are intricate, problematic, aporetic, impossible.

The interview continues:

What I do with words is make them explode so that the non-verbal appears in the verbal. That is to say that I make the words function in such a way that at a certain moment they no longer belong to discourse, to what regulates discourse. […] And if I love words it is also because of their ability to escape their proper form, whether they interest me as visible things, letters representing the spatial visibility of the word, or as something musical or audible. […] Thus, I explain myself with the bodies of words—here I think that one can truly speak of ‘the body of a word’, with the reservations mentioned earlier, that it is a body that is not present to itself—and it is the body of a word that interests me to the extent that it doesn’t belong to discourse (p. 20).

Viral “bio-logics” is already at work within the sign, the grapheme, a fortiori any philosopheme or scienceme.

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Already in 1954, in his very first substantial academic work, The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy, Derrida coined the term ‘dissimulated contamination.’ Already there, in the Preface to the 1953/54 Dissertation, the “collapse of the phenomenological enterprise” (xl) was boldly announced. Philosophy in a Time of Terror, whose idea was born only few weeks after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, is but yet another application of the viral, auto-immunitary logic to the phenomenon of terrorism; here, Derrida, employs his analysis to make things less obscure, to be sure. We thus have almost 5 decades of persistent scrutiny of the viral. There is no reason that this plain fact should be overlooked.

“The virus is in part a parasite that destroys, that introduces disorder into communication,” alas! As Derrida will say: those very conditions of impossibility are precisely what accounts for the narrower, more restricted conditions of possibility. What had not already Derrida said about ‘communication’ in Signature, Event, Context? Communication is far from being immune to parasitic work; writing is undoubtedly a substitutive, supplementary term for the viral, and as we know, what applies to writing applies, a fortiori, to speech and thought, in fact to experience in general. The outcome is a tainted thing, a thing of the neither-nor, of what I myself prefer to coin ‘nigraphic.’ We shall come back to nigraphy and its pertinence.

Just suffice it for now to say that the viral, autoimmunitary logic applies no less to science and technology. Which is amply verifiable to us all. From our vantage point we can thus say that Kant was a very gullible man; but he had all reason to, since he was not at any fault: the Newtonian science was unequivocally successful, indeed. Its goodness, its usefulness was plenty, and no harm was there ever discernible. Therefore Kant simply assumed that knowledge is, that the simple and proper possibility of knowledge had already been demonstrated, Newtonian science spontaneously and naturally employed as highest court and truth witness, and that what presented itself as philosophy’s task accordingly was to establish, once and for all, the total and final set of conditions of possibility of knowledge. Today, however, such epistemic gullibility is not to be aligned simply with ignorance; it constitutes the highest crime against humanity.

Coming back to ‘communication,’ we surely are still Kantians, the heirs of Kant. The discursive paradigm relative questions concerning truth, semantics, knowledge, communication, etc., is fundamentally Kantian, still: to this date there does not exist one single research programme that addresses the very obvious relation between, one the one hand, the destructive, life-threatening wake of the most refined and advanced science history has ever seen, and, on the other hand, the epistemic foundations of this very same science. History’s judgment on us will no doubt be hard. Why are we not scientifically minded enough to judge our science according to its means and procedures? If we, with our very best scientific procedures and tools, measure science up against its full empirical impact on nature in general, we would find that our science must be in a serious predicament: it sure does not work the way we want and intend. And so, as long as we insist on the viability of the Kantian paradigm, we enforce ourselves, by that very same reason, to produce rhetorical and ideological tropes according to which science’s dysfunctionality is written off, in the best of cases and in the degree to which such destructive import is acknowledged at all, as mere eventual “side-effects.” Side-effects which that very same science, such as it is, then is claimed to be able to overcome, given time. Uncanny.

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The Word ‘Parasite’

Despite its Greek etymology of παρα, ‘beside,’ and σιτος, ‘grain, food, or by extension “one who eats at the table of another”, the word parasite appears rather late in the European languages. Its first appearance is traceable to Rabelais in 1535, and was recorded a few times in Shakespeare’s plays, e.g., Timon of Athens from 1607. Shakespeare has the hero inveigh his ‘Mouth-Friends’ as “most […] detested Parasites.”

Live loathed and long, Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites, Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears, You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies, Cap and knee slaves, vapours, and minute-jacks! Of man and beast the infinite malady Crust you quite o’er! (Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, III, vi (1607), pp. 53-59)

1607 also saw Ben Jonson’s explicit reference to a character as parasite. In his Volpone the hero addresses his servant:

Hold thee, Mosca,   …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… Take of my hand; thou strik’st on truth, in all:   …………………………………………………………………………………………… And they are enuious, terme thee Parasite (I, i, 1–3),

thus suggesting the current folk wisdom that the fly was a parasite. The popular use of the word was not, however, enough to give rise to a scientific knowledge devoted to the study of these apparently strange creatures. Notwithstanding the invention of the microscope in the 17th century, the discipline of parasitology appeared much later, dating probably in the mid 19th century with the pioneering work of the Belgian biolgist Pierre-Joseph van Beneden (1809–1894), who unraveled the life history of tapeworms and other groups.

But here we also should include Michel Serres’ The Parasite. (tbc)

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The Derridean Revolution

Newton’s ideological gravitational force made Kant fall, and the naive question asked: “What are the conditions of possibility of knowledge?” Still not daring to critically question the mythological horizon of our age old metaphysical tradition, we cannot but continue in the vein of Kant: “What are the conditions of possibility of communication?” How dare one call oneself a thinker without scrupulously inquiring after conditions of impossibility? And this is indeed what Derrida does. In his entire oeuvre, in fact. ‘Communication’ is in fact a very problematical concept.

A philosopher shall bracket his wishful sentiments, and not re-iterating ‘It simply is!’ without even grasping what ‘re-iteration’ implies. The Derridean Revolution lies very near that little prefix ‘re-.’ And the Sanskrit itar gave the revolution its impetus: identity is difference, other. What repetition ensures more than anything else is precisely that difference emerges; repetition qua difference thus became ‘iterability.’ And the prefix led to the law of general iterability. There is no special iterability, however much science, epistemics and theory/history of science pretend so. That iterability is general, means that there are no exceptions; it re-appropriates science no less than other human and other nonhuman agencies. Whatever appears as a mark, an incision, a grapheme is iterable. This is the grapheme’s internal context. This internal context will indefinitely disseminate, purloin the letters, the signs, the mathematical symbols. Such dissemination is what accounts for historicity. And due to its being internal, this context will never be saturated, decided, parousia; it will move, and work. General iterability is structurally something of the future. There is general iterability because of future, a future that “futures” and that is essentially disseminative. Presence is indefinitely delayed, postponed, deferred.

Nature feels in full what it is to be bombarded with a science that posits itself as exact, when both the very means of science as well as nature in and of itself obeys a différantial ontography: it can only hurt. But now, if science is itself part of nature in general, then this hurt is self-inflicted. Must we investigate into whether and to what extent nature is, also, an auto-immunitary process? And if so, what is our role in terms of responsibility?

In the medical sciences, what is the hegemonic conception of the virus and the parasite? It is: these organisms are secondary, derivative, eventual, external, etc. It is not the case, then, if any held such a hope, that these sciences have emancipated themselves from what philosophy still is clinging to; these sciences are just as hooked on mythemes as are most philosophies. Sure, Derrida wrote, paraphrasing Nietzsche: “Tympanize—philosophy!” And it is indeed the case that Derrida got himself engulfed in the deconstruction of philosophy. Nonetheless, the deconstruction of science is no less called for. Which is certainly vouched for—iff, then, one would only read Derrida’s early scripts on scientificity, ideal objectivity, truth, meaning production, writing, traditionalizing, intersubjectivity, etc.

The urgent task now is to tympanize science, to solicitate science, and expose its viral workings, its appositions. The motivation here is not only a theoretical one: that one enables oneself to see the analogy, the possible juxtaposition, the transference and contaminational resources, the applicability and iterability of philosophical deconstruction towards scientific deconstruction. Sure, the theoretical resources begs for such an application. But there is a second motivation that springs from nature, phusis. One can hint at what is involved by being a bit rhetorical: “If the Kantians are right—if we do have the true luxury of only having to relate to the pure possibility of things, as if it was only a matter of presenting the pan-script, in human terms, for whatever is and appears—how come, then, that nature is rampant with disturbances and destructions, some of which are irreversible, that undeniably are eyeing human scientific agency?”

Are not Kantianism utterly falsified? Already decades ago? The Kantian version of science and epistemics was reasonable at the time. Today, it is not only a farce; it is has become an unheard of fatal irresponsibility. Inquiring into the conditions of science and its very scientificity in general, obliges us to a full investigation into conditions of impossibility no less than conditions of possibility. The picture is a complex and aporetic one. What is terror and obscure—and effectively anti-scientific and irrational—is sanctifying knowledge as simply possible, brushing aside or exorcising all problematizations. Respecting Kant and science we scrupulously institute a new area of research that counter the current profligate nature of science, thus deals with science’s conditions of impossibility, whose principal aim will be to clarify whether and to what degree science can ever approximate a theory of special iterability.

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Mathematics, too, is Graphematic

The mathematization of nature definitely goes in the direction of freeing science from the hold of general iterability. One could venture to say that mathematics in itself is principally an attempt at escaping the fuzziness so readily granted to linguistic languages, just as, e.g., operationalized definitions are. Mathematics is, therefore, the result of humankind’s very first attempts at creating an iterability which is no longer general, but which is special. Mathematics considered qua a form of special iterability has itself a particular history; Galileo understood readily that the mathematization of nature boosted the very scientificity of science. He did not, of course, understand what it necessarily implied empirically for a nature increasingly subjected to such a epistemico-practical strategy.

But even mathematical symbols, formulas and theorems are, in the end, no less generally iterable than linguistic signs. Mathematical graphemes, just as any other grapheme, must be able, de facto and de jure, to be repeated for any future receiver, for any future sender, in any future context, for any future purpose, always already subject to uses and interpretations which are principally impossible to calculate, predict, steer and control. Evidentially, one can never control how any set of internal contextuality will evolve and work. Which enforces a situation where meanings, definitions, connotations, concepts are always already subject to the work of the undecidable and the undecidable of the work streaming to it from the future, from what-is-still-to-come. Such is, therefore, the “content” of internal contextuality in general: it is essentially never adumbrated, saturated, open-ended, irreducibly undecidable. This is why the grapheme in general, mathematical, linguistic, genetic, etc., is a priori split. The content of any grapheme is worked by general iterability.

Individual mathematical quantities—this or that number—are beyond need of interpretation and thus the imports of general iterability. But all mathematical quantities interrelate, and state complex relations forming complex theories in need of interpretation; history shows us that understanding mathematical formulas and theories are subject to controversy and conflict. Future works on mathematical graphemes through its general iterability. If, now, science cannot hope for a special iterability, science is forced to acknowledge its essential inexactitude. And thus, contrary Husserl and so many others, the difference between exact and rigorous falls apart; science, no less than philosophy, is only, at its best, rigorous, never really exact.

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The Hypothesis of Total Destruction

In Derrida’s 1984 “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)” one reads of a certain hypothesis of “total destruction,” asking: “Who can swear that our unconscious is not expecting this? dreaming of it? desiring it?,” then declaring: “The hypothesis of this total destruction watches over deconstruction, it guides its footsteps; it becomes possible to recognize, in the light, so to speak, of that hypothesis, of that fantasy, or phantasm, the characteristic structures and historicity of the discourses, strategies, texts, or institutions to be deconstructed.”[1] Notwithstanding that Derrida speaks here of nuclear war, and a nuclear war whose “absolute weapon,” whose “apocalyptic missiles,” will leave no trace of its destruction, thus a hypothesis of total destruction, leaving no remains, a traceless event, it will here guide a reading of a certain tangent of Derrida’s oeuvre which contends another version of the hypothesis of total destruction, thus proliferating the meaning of the hypothesis, watching over and guiding what here is to be deconstructed.

The hypothesis no longer being simply and uniquely one of nuclear total destruction; there are other missiles and missives—weapons of mass destruction—as well. Total destruction lurks in other planes of science, not sudden and violent as nuclear total destruction, to be sure, but all the more stealthy and tortured: ecodestruction, a physical violence just as much as the nuclear total war is. Science forages on nature in general while the quest for certain knowledge excavates. Knowledge preys on the conditions of itself: knowledge as autoimmunity. We will come back to the torture wheel of the autoimmunity of the epistememe in general.

This possibility of total destruction—known of since first explosion on, and thus no longer a mad apocalyptic fantasy—watches and guides the very footsteps of deconstruction, and provides that light through which deconstruction recognizes what is to be deconstructed. Anyway an intrigued statement, since elsewhere, and earlier, Derrida repeatedly contends that what has come to be known as ‘deconstruction’ is not a philosophical or otherwise invention. It is structural to all things textual. And things textual are far from being exhausted by in the colloquial sense. There are texts in the traditional sense, and there are things apparently distanced from the former texts, but whose functioning and conditions nonetheless comply to a certain textual logic: in this sense, many a thing is textual. Or ‘graphematical,’ then. There is a graphematical structure and logic that governs any text (poetic, political, scientific, philosophical, etc.) and any apparently non-textual entity whose workings nonetheless comply with graphematics.

Thus “La différance” clearly states, in 1968: deconstruction, or what thus named, is not an invention, but resides in the things themselves, in their graphematic structure, its perhaps first notable articulations traceable being a Luther’s Destruktion or a Heidegger’s Abbau. The graphematic structure of things, be they textual in the narrow sense or otherwise, instantiates différance into the things, a différance that can only disseminate itself infinitely. If no one or no thing can freeze or bring to a halt the work of auto-deconstruction—since it is to be always already underway and always to come as soon as there are anything reminiscent of the graphematic structure so salient in writing in the narrower sense—one can certainly help formalize it, demonstrate it, pro-duce it to consciousness.

Before “No Apocalypse, Not Now” he will thus demarcate, from a great variety of angles and sides, and for great many years, the very logic of deconstruction, but with no mention of this hypothesis of total destruction being made. Whence the transition from Derrida’s earlier technical, almost arid and neutral formalization of deconstruction as such, to the later hypothesis of its apocalyptic ambit? And is it implied, by Derrida and Derrida’s hypothesis of total destruction, that “total destruction”—beyond any Luther, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Derrida, beyond any thematization of deconstruction—would still and nonetheless guide the auto-deconstruction that does its work irrespective of our doings? Is it total destruction that is our horizon? This question opens up a host of other questions. We must mark the hypothesis from at least two vantage points: from the ontological and ontical deconstruction inherent in being and in all ontic things even only remotely reminiscent of graphematicity, and from the anthropogenic accomplice where ontological deconstruction is simply brought to consciousness, and whose aim apparently is a doubling and a simulation adding speed.

As I have done on other occasions, I just granted to this auto-immunitary schema a range without limit, one that goes far beyond the circumscribed biological processes by which an organism tends to destroy, in a quasi-spontaneous and more than suicidal fashion, some organ or other, one or another of its own immunitary protections. 16

 

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[1] Jacques Derrida, Positions (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 95–6.

[2] Jacques Derrida, “La Différance,” p. 4.

[3] Jacques Derrida, On the Name, trans. David Wood, John P. Leavey, Jr., and Ian McLeod (Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 108.

[4] Ibid., p. 106.

[5] Edmund Husserl, Ideen I, p. 270.

[6] Le Dissémination (Paris: Seuil, 1972), p. 65.

[7] “La différance,” p.14.


[1] Derrida, Jacques, NC, 27 / NA, 377


[1] Brunette & Wills, ed., Deconstruction and the Visual Arts, (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 12

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