Friday, December 4, 2020

Peter Salmon's "An Event, Perhaps"

Peter Salmon was born in Australia but now lives in the UK. His first novel The Coffee Story was a New Statesman Book of the Year. He has written for the Guardian, the Sydney Review of Books, the New Humanist, as well as Australian TV and radio. He has received the Writer's Awards from the Arts Council of England and the Arts Council of Victoria, Australia.

Salmon applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida, and reported the following:
From page 99:
… am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.’ Or, as Baudelaire put it twenty years earlier, ‘God is the only being who, in order to rule, does not even need to exist.’

It is one of the fundamental ‘properties’ of ideal objects is that their interactions must be logical and formal. Their essence must be independent of any set or sets of circumstances. An isosceles triangle, a perfect circle, horseness, cannot be affected by space or time, or they are not ideal. For Husserl, language as spoken is problematic. Elements of expression can only stay non-real because they take place in what he calls the ‘sphere of solitary mental life’ – self-consciousness, immediately and absolutely present to itself. This privileged sphere is abandoned, and its contents contaminated, when they enter the realm of the empirical, the real, circumstance – when they are said out loud.

For example, I may have a meaning-intention in my mind, but it cannot, by definition, be delivered in a pure state to my interlocutor (we will later see this problem re-emerge in Derrida’s argument with the speech act theories of Searle). So Husserl proposes a perfect language in which meaning is absolute and absolutely transparent, and that happens ‘in the blink of an eye.’ This is the interior monologue. Thus, in what Derrida notes is a paradoxical move, Husserl attempts to fix the essence of ex-pression (to press outward) in the unexpressed, in ‘the voice that keeps silence.’ ‘Self-presence must be produced in the undivided unity of a temporal present so as to have nothing to reveal to itself by the agency of signs.’

Two objections present themselves. First, as Derrida has argued, the guarantor of the ideality of language is, in fact, speech. Second, what is this ‘in the blink of an eye’? Husserl is once again seeking a unit of time so small it no longer exists, the absolutely punctual in the flowing thisness of the temporal.

But Derrida is out-phenomenologising Husserl. Is what Husserl is describing what actually happens? Is the experience of absolutely self-present meaning true to our experience in any recognisable sense?

What happens when we speak, in all the ways outlined above, and including the voice in our head? Philosophy, alongside…
I would love it and hate it if the reader opened at this page! First the love - it is all about Husserl, with whom I became obsessed while writing the biography – most of what was cut was about his work. My aim with the book was to present Derrida as a philosopher, that is, doing what philosophers do, trying to explain how complex and interesting life is. He has too often, particularly in the Anglosphere I think, been treated as either a semiotician (ok) or a fraud (not ok) that I wanted to go back to his grounding, and his grounding is Husserl.

But I would hate it because my reason for this approach is to produce a clearer, more quotidian Derrida – in no way to simplify, but hopefully to make more explicable for the general reader. To do that I did have to ask the reader to do a little bit of heavy lifting early on, and this section is right in the midst of that. Frankly, brain-wise, it’s the plum in the middle of the hardest bit – so if you, the reader, are ok with this, the rest of the book is a breeze, frankly.

To attempt to paraphrase myself, Derrida found it odd that philosophy, that great written field of human endeavour, always dissed writing in favour of speech. Husserl took this to a limit where he thought only the voice we have in our head is uncontaminated, and therefore true.

Derrida points out that language is, in its essence, social. The words we use pre-date us, the things we say create thought (rather than capturing it), and if there were no interlocutors, language would not even exist. Every thought you have (right now) is a collegiate experience in many ways.

Thus Husserl, so philosophy. The model of a thinking thing inside us, that produces thoughts, turns them into language, and the transmits them, fully formed and perfect, to another person is bunk. Things are, says Derrida, much, much more complicated than that. And a lot more interesting…
Visit Peter Salmon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue