Derrida and the Philosophy of Education
Philosophy consists of offering reassurance to children. That is, if one prefers, of taking them out of childhood, of forgetting about the child, or, inversely, but by the same token, of speaking first and foremost for that little boy within us, of teaching him to speak—to dialogue—by displacing his fear or his desire. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (1981)
Jacques Derrida is indeed a most profound thinker of matters educational, addressing in highly provocative and original ways through, more or less, “unconventional” readings of the history of Western metaphysics, some of the most basic philosophical questions of teaching and of learning. Michel Foucault and Edward Said have suggested – albeit in derisive ways – that deconstruction is perhaps nothing else but the elaborate expression of a new didactics, a poststructural pedagogy of the text. (See Said 1978; Foucault 1965. In an appendix to the 1972 edition (the original was published in the form of a Thèse d’Etat in 1961), Foucault responds to what he perceived to be an “attack” on his work by Derrida in the “lecture” “Cogito and the History of Madness,” trans. Alan Bass, in Writing and Difference, 31–63 by describing deconstruction as nothing more than a conservative and well-entrenched “pedagogy of the text.”) And yet, on the one hand, to say Derrida presents the means to a “method” of teaching, and this only would be wrong, for there are no directives to educational practice prescribed, no rules imposed upon the right to a “freedom of thinking” or responsivity, and no apriority of absolute truths to be found as could suffice to constitute the operational basis of an ideal model or mode of instruction. But, on the other hand, the “philosophemes of deconstruction” carry on the “contradictory and conflictual” polemos of a theoretical backdrop that looks forward to the real necessity of informed action transcribed across the poststructural, post-phenomenological passage from “thetic” to “athetic” rationality.
The “movement” of deconstruction is away from an obstinate stance of single-minded opposition ready to tear down the existing “system” and toward an economy of reflective matriculation within the structurality of the institution to a working out of the essential trials of its undecidability at the expense of the metaphysical grounding of its architectonics. Due to the awareness of the stretched parameters of the dilemma of this “double-sided” stratagem, the tensions of its aporias open up the ethics of deconstruction with respect to the politics of education, and there is no need to enact the finality of the last word on the subject, especially in the form of a statement, “of positional or oppositional logic, [overdetermined in] the idea of position, of Setzung or Stellung” (Derrida 1983). This would be both problematic and irresponsible given the non-adequation of the “critical demonstrativity” of Derrida’s texts with the desire for settling upon an undisputable and self-revealing truth. The metaphysico-theoretical fidelity of such a standard closing of argumentation seeking to culminate in a full stop of studied silence would most surely contravene the unpredictable interspaces of the risk of writing that opens signification up to an insertion of the alterity of the Other and invites the creation of the difference of meaning as the disseminative interruption of a stable conditionality of the sign. There is therefore a canceling out, in advance, of the possibility of any coming to resistance an examination of the ethico-political exigencies of deconstruction could run against in relation to a “thinking of the end” as the telos of philosophy by being contrapuntal to the curricularization of pedagogy oriented from the “historico-topologico-sociocultural” regulation of its implementational styles. Still, we must proffer reasons and bestow “sound reasons” in good faith for the sake of the institutional reason of deconstruction as a just way of thinking and knowing. It is necessary to justify, in principle and by practice, the tendency of a hesitation to simply conclude that Derrida is a “philosopher of education,” thus accepting responsibility for the lack of clôture to those unread or underread texts of Derrida’s the “educational texts,” as I have described them, writings that will always already be open before us.
For nothing can be taught or learned other than what is believed to be known and understood.
From the above premise follows the “theoretical matrix” of deconstruction. Derrida has developed its principles most conspicuously in Of Grammatology. The point is that it is indeed feasible to intervene at the base of the institutional monolith amidst the play of the forces of the particular implications and effects, leading to and resulting from the exclusion of writing by metaphysics. Through the imperious dismissal of exteriority, the ethnocentric terms of the limits of signification and meaning creation are posited in the immediate (tonal) substantiality of the voice or speech for the reduction of difference within the ideal determination of the self-presence of the logos. In this sense, it is the nonethical beginnings of the “ethicity” of the teachings of metaphysics and the “living reason” of the spoken word that warrant, because it underwrites the closing off of the trace of otherness. The unique importance of the “grammatological” focus when juxtaposed against the anteriority of its semiological influences is remarkably suitable here. Its consequences for education resonate when the confrontation of writing and voice within the Derridean conception of a “poststructural” version of “understanding” or “meaning making” surpasses the nomothetics of speech; a reinterpretation of philosophy through the cultural politics of the sign is necessary.
An analytical “breaking down” of the constituent features of the reason of its prejudice concerning consciousness and language delegitimizes the onto-theological groundedness of the voice feeding a pedagogy of mimesis, an imitativeness of the example or a clarifying of explainability required for the sake of perpetuating the illusion of truth from the demands of an altogether “natural” or “good usage.” The problem of negotiating the arbitrary objectification of the semantic values of the cognitive and affective results comprises the interpretative bandwidth of the episteme framework that constructs the institutionalization of theory as praxis. I would contend that this realization brings to the fore the importance of the question of ethics for deconstruction relative to the theme of education, teaching, and learning. And this is where we will already have begun to examine and articulate the pedagogical ramifications of deconstruction so prominent in the radical specificity of the scope of Derrida’s engagement with the genealogy of philosophical concepts. By enabling an investigation of the semiologicality of the metaphysical model of cognition crucial to the scene of a “classical pedagogy” that posits the flawless transmission of signs between the relational formulizability of a “sender-receiver” dyad and, hence, the possibility of the inter-exchanging of well-received meanings, deconstruction reveals how the privileging of speech over writing is the ethnocentric outcome of comprehending the representationality of language formations or their potential for expressivity solely as an “economy of signification” involving the immediate and auto-affective substantiality of the spirit of the voice. This skepticism of the teleology of the predication of the desire to communicate can lead to a pushing beyond the “vulgar” notion of a teaching and learning directed, without doubt, as the transference and implantation of the truth of knowledge from “above” and “outside” the psychico-experiential realm of an intersubjective violence. For example, it permits a renouncing of the tabula rasa theory of the inscriptibility of a malleable consciousness of unblemished wax to be shaped or given image by the artful engraving of a master teacher operating at the critical points of a “weakness to know” where the clean slate of subjective being is at the mercy of the probing intentionality of the deep etching of signs.
Derrida characterizes the conventional or classical act of teaching and learning to be the pragmatic reproduction of the “metaphysics of presence” as cultivated from the premises of the interchangeable chain linking of its orienting function at the fabulaic center of the syntagm of the Western mythos of “pure origins,” uncorrupted beginnings. As the arche-thememe of logocentrism defining the effluence of the voice, it stands in symbolic difference and non-difference to itself, a mise en abîme of an archetypal thinking of the plenitude of the sign that guides the conceptual immanence of an archive of cultural knowledge, be it scientific, aesthetic, philosophical, religious, and so on, to render it replicable without a hint of doubt. For example, Derrida’s reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau regarding the origins of language “before the letter” concentrates on the foundational and corollary arguments detailing the elements of a pedagogical method relying on the phonocentrism of an image of the natural piety of humanity to bring out the extent of the incoherence of the utopianism of an idyllic vision of a “community of speech.”
Deconstruction exposes the blindness of the figural identification of innocence prior to the exteriority of the voice as the mark of writing – e.g., the worldliness of delimited contextuality and the predictable consequence of sign-meaning correlations – through which a resistance to the difference of supplementation is operationalized by the romantic appeal of the rhetoric used to secure the nostalgic call for the elimination of the violence of culture from the organismic whole of a society capable of pure spirited, unaffected relations of genuinely filial obligation. Derrida “turns back” upon Rousseau the question of the social construction of concepts such as “immediacy,” “propriety,” “nature,” and so on. The point is to show the ways in which the applicability of deconstruction for the general problem of education extends from its ability to liberate the repressed contradictions always already present within the constitution of the texts on the subject referred to, using the selected terms of their expressions and expressivity to interrogate the deeper facets lamenting the catastrophic passing of naive simplicity to learned experience. The nonethical postscript of the irreversible transformation of the child is represented by the inculcated ability for the apprehension of the metaphysics of the sign and the debility of representation, (de)contextualization, removedness, and supplementarity, honing the displacement of the truth of the Being of being in the moment of the reversal of self-identity through teaching and learning. Deconstruction, however, if we are to believe Derrida, does not, cannot, nor does it wish to exact the death of logocentrism and to eliminate it, despite troubling the epistemic validity of a phonological prototype of signification that linearizes the relation of signans and signatum. It inhibits the reduction of the play of difference in an effort to counteract and counterbalance for the mitigation or repression of the presence of the Other within the expression of the Same.
Behind the improbable terms of the educational connection of semiology as an “old science of signs” and deconstruction as a “new way of reading” lies the presupposition that “there has never been anything but writing” (Derrida 1974), a circumspection bringing to fruition the contextual overdrift or grafting on of the grammatological to the pragmatico-theoretical field of (philosophical) anthropology. To keep within the “age” of Rousseau and a certain “autobiographical temporality” of a self-present écriture is not difficult for Derrida, when considering the structural ethnology of Claude Lévi-Strauss. For it is through the teaching of one, the former, who excludes the supplementarity of writing yet, nevertheless, wants to add to a supposedly ideal state of human nature and provides an educational manual to do so, that another, the latter, transforms the discipline of anthropology as a science of difference wanting “to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin that transcends play and the order of the sign, and for it the necessity of interpretation is lived as a kind of exile” (Derrida 1978). The ethical aspects of the deconstruction of the ethnocentrism of the description of the Nambikwara in “The Writing Lesson” of Tristes Tropiques illustrate the ramifications of the intersubjective violence Lévi-Strauss exacts upon this group of people in light of the cultural politics of a structuralist agenda dismissive of script, but still using the distinction of the graphie to hierarchize, categorize, and exoticize the Other by Western criteria of belief, knowledge, or education.
The logocentrism of semiology encompasses a theory of language and representation that reduces the elements of teaching and learning to the preserving of (self-)presence; in fact, it precludes, on a more significantly ethical plane, the possibility of the recognition of difference outside of a closed system of an authenticating set of limits, the opposite extremes for inclusion and exclusion. The cultural politics of the sign works through these opposite extremes by reinforcing the objectification of value toward the “practical” purpose of the inclusion and exclusion of entities. To say, and Lévi-Strauss does, that the Nambikwara lack the mark of “writing” and are therefore closer to nature than to culture is not only to be wrong but also unethical, because the judgment recuperates the stereotypical image of the “primitive mind” as diachronically untaught and technologically undernourished, in other words, as the animate presence of “being lacking.” It is an ethnocentric caricature of “prescientific genius” supporting the mytheme of the bricoleur and not a depiction of the empirical reality or the truth of the situation. With the deconstruction of the phonocentric normativity of the laws governing the intersubjective violence of the unspeakable trace of the writing of the Other, the possibility, the hope, through which we can and must learn to reflect upon the ethicity of our own thinking and practices of representation is situated in the in(deter)minable unfolding of différance.
… as always, [with] the institution of limits declared to be insurmountable, whether they involve family or state law, the relations between the secret and the non-secret, or, and this is not the same thing, between the private and the public, whether they involve property or access rights, publication or reproduction rights, whether they involve classification and putting into order: What comes under theory or under private correspondence, for example? What comes under system? under biography or autobiography? under personal or intellectual anamnesis? In works said to be theoretical, what is worthy of this name and what is not? (Derrida 1996)
We would include with this proliferation of questions the need to address the consequences of theory for the “topo-nomological” archive of the educational institution and the classification of knowledge in accordance with the historicity of the sign, and the means of consignation, the construction of a gathering place of domiciliation before and after the letter (see ibid). A deconstruction of the normative rendering of what it means to think, to learn, to teach, and to know begins to take root in the earliest of Derrida’s “texts” before Of Grammatology, where the nonnatural ethics of speech informing the socio-theologico-philosophical violence of metaphysics are put into doubt. It would not be hyperbole to suggest that from the start this poststructural, post-phenomenological mode of intervention plays upon the thematic variability of the most fundamental and essential versions of the educational problematic of supplementarity discerning the continual transitivity of the human subject, for example, the heterogeneity of origins and the paradoxes of mimetology, childhood, reason, subjectivity, and so on as problems of mediacy and mediation. In short, it is the non-ground between presence and absence deconstruction “breaks into,” slowly making it possible to imaginatively empathize or “fill up” the openness of the abyss of this excluded space, the space of the writing/teaching of the Other, to reapproach the responsibility of the horizon of intersubjective violence and the ethnocentric teleologicality of the cultural politics of the sign.
What is education? The death of the parents, the formation of the child’s consciousness, the Aufhebung of its consciousness in(to) the form of ideality. (Derrida 1986a)
…it was neither consistent nor desirable to be a candidate for any new academic title or responsibility. Not consistent given the work of political criticism in which [he] was participating, not desirable with regard to a little forum that was more internal, more private and upon which, through a whole endless scenography of symbols, representations, phantasies, traps and strategies, a self-image recounts all sorts of interminable and incredible stories to itself. (Derrida, “The Time of a Thesis,” p. 48)
It is this complementarity, this configuration [“often scarcely readable, but solid, between the most immobilized, contracted academicism and all that, outside the school and the university, in the mode of representation and spectacle, taps almost immediately into the channels of the greatest receivability” (Derrida 1979)]—everywhere that it appears—that we must, it seems to me, combat. Combat simultaneously, and joyously, without accusation, without trial, without nostalgia, with an intractable gaiety. Without nostalgia for more discreet forms, sometimes (sometimes only) more distinguished, less noisy, that in large part will yesterday have prepared the way for what we inherit today. (Ibid., p. 43. Derrida here explains what deconstruction ought to inspire in remarks made to the États Généraux de la Philosophie, a meeting of approximately twelve hundred participants who congregated at the Sorbonne on June 16–17 of 1979 to find common ground through which to combat the deteriorating situation of the discipline of Philosophy)
Deconstruction is justice. It is perhaps because law (droit) (which I will consistently try to distinguish from justice) is constructible, in a sense that goes beyond the opposition between convention and nature, it is perhaps insofar as it goes beyond this opposition that it is constructible and so deconstructible and, what’s more, that it makes deconstruction possible, or at least the practice of a deconstruction that, fundamentally, always proceeds to questions of droit and to the subject of droit. (1) The deconstructibility of law (droit), of legality, legitimacy ot legitimation (for example) makes deconstruction possible. (2) The undeconstructiblity of justice also makes deconstruction possible, indeed inseparable from it. (3) The result: deconstruction takes place in the interval that separates the undeconstructibility of justice from the deconstructibility of droit (authority, legitimacy, and so on). It is possible as an experience of the impossible, there where, even if it does not exist (or does not yet exist, or never does exist), there is justice. (Derrida 1992)
The “real-as-absent” ground deconstruction covers, on both sides, as it were, how one should not speak of the university and the situation of its repositioning of ethics toward the possibility and impossibility of justice, that is, the undecidable responsibility symptomatic of the irreducible difference of an academic community in extension. This “double-edged” pragrammatology Derrida endorses, a metacontextual metadiscursivity critical of the sign of reason embedded within and exemplified by the regulatory principles of the institution, does not refer to a predestined plan of action, demands no disciples or followers, and concedes to the direction of no political program. Instead, it invites interpretation and invention that will produce a performative intelligibility or an inkling of purpose “yet-to-come” (avenir) out of the non-projection of a justification. The notion is terrifying for some and self-mockingly illogical for others, especially concerning issues of institutionalized practice and pedagogical or techno-scientific, for example, and other research areas we have delineated pertaining to the disciplinary system of the university. But considering the outcome of reason once rendered for a future action is a moment of insurance or assurance already finite and past, there is no immanence of aspirations left other than a feigning of presence suffered as a remote controlling of praxis toward the unconditionality of what is the certainty of a non-end, the non-end of certainty.
To end, I would like to cite Derrida himself, for what he has admitted with respect to the risk and necessity of his own educational journey of/through deconstruction as a curiously convoluted and arduous path that eventually lead him to his post of Directeur d’Études: Institutions de Philosophie which traces the openings of deconstruction unto the horizons of the future and the possibility of an authentic pedagogy without boundaries or margins. When asked by Jean Hyppolite to explain the direction of his thinking, Derrida replied, “If I clearly saw ahead of time where I was going, I really don’t believe that I should take another step to get there” (Derrida, “The Time of a Thesis,” p. 36). I will leave you to fill in the rest.
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