Reading Derrida: The Semantic Slide from the Lure to Allure (Of Grammatology)

In just a couple of weeks, I start teaching a summer course in Contemporary Lit at URI’s Kingston campus. I had a hard time deciding on a course theme and the reading list, but I kept finding myself drawn to (lured by?) allure. A few summers ago (in 2013), I taught my best course ever on the (love) novels of Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Marguerite Duras, and Alan Hollinghurst. The students were engaged with the reading; they were turned on, as it were, by the topic; they came to class ready to think love in a variety of ways.

Though I wanted to replicate that course this summer, the “contemporary” felt a bit limiting. Though I’m familiar with a good deal of late 20th/21st-century fiction & poetry, I don’t think I can teach a course on love without retreating into the early 20th century  And so I moved—I’m not quite sure how—from a focus on love to a focus on allure. This movement brought about new problems: How might one theorize allure? How might one thematize allure? How might one make allure into the conceptual anchor of an entire lit course? 

These past few weeks I’ve been digging through books and running word searches. Though I can find a good deal of writing on desire, seduction, love, paranoia, and other matters of intimacy, passion, and pain (who couldn’t?), I’m having trouble tracking down work on allure. (Perhaps because allure is already so synonymous with love and desire and seduction that “allure” books would be redundant?) One of the only texts that has given me food for thought is Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Near the end of the chapter on Lévi Strauss, “The Violence of the Letter,” Derrida has a bit of fun with the activity of  bricolage—which “builds its castles with debris” (139)—before writing:

[T]he value of “social authenticity” is one of the two indispensable poles of the structure of morality in general. The ethic of the living word would be perfectly respectable, completely utopian and a-topic . . . as it is (unconnected to spacing and to differance as writing), it would be as respectable as respect itself if it did not live on a delusion [leurre] and a nonrespect for its own condition of origin, if it did not dream in speech of a presence denied to writing, denied by writing. The ethic of speech is the delusion [leurre] of presence mastered. Like the bricole, the delusion or lure [leurre] designates first a hunter’s stratagem. It is a term of falconry: “a piece of red feather,” says Littré, “in the form of a bird which serves to recall the bird of prey when it does not return straight to the fist.” Example: [« Son maître le rappelle et crie et se tourmente, lui présente le leurre et le poing, mais en vain (La Fontaine) ».]

To recognize writing in speech, that is to say differance and the absence of speech, is to begin to think the lure [leurre]. There is no ethics without the presence of the other but also, and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, differance, writing. The arche-writing is the origin of morality as of immorality. The nonethical opening of ethics. A violent opening. As in the case of the vulgar concept of writing, the ethical instance of violence must be rigorously suspended in order to repeat the genealogy of morals. (139-40, bold emphasis added)

To begin to think the lure. The delusion. The illusion. Commencer à penser le leurre. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, always attentive to the difficulties of translation, slides from one translation of leurre (illusion) to the second (lure). (We too can learn this semantic slide if we re-insert “leurre” in brackets, as I have done above.) Indeed, when Spivak translates, “Like the bricole, the delusion or lure,” she uses both translations at the same time when only one subject exists in Derrida’s original sentence, anticipating the example of falconry and the passage from La Fontaine.

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Derrida, Of Grammatology (1967, trans. 1974, corrected 1997), pg. 139

To begin to think the lure, then, is to recognize the illusion/delusion at the heart, center, or origin of a purported fullness or presence (e.g., a spoken word, a moral appeal, a meaning, an expression of love, an experience, a phenomenon, a ritual, a science). It is to read the sign—whatever form and content it may take—as a decoy, a snare that lures its prey into a security that has forgotten its own origin in absence, spacing, writing. A lure is allure. Alluring speech. Alluring presence. Alluring ethics. Alluring delusion. Alluring utopia. Michael Naas writes, “The leurre is . . . a decoy, snare, distraction or enticement, an artefact that presents itself as something natural and alive . . .. The leurre thus becomes a leurre of life by making itself as transparent as possible . . . effacing . . . everything that would suggest artifice or deception in order to give the impression of life and naturalness” (Reading Of Grammatology 113). How might we respond to allure? Naas suggests that Derrida enjoins us—through deconstruction—to make explicit to ourselves and others the conditions (and thus the origins) of the delusions dear to us all and to recognize fullnesses we have arranged for ourselves as the snares they are. (Spivak puts it a different way: to learn “a critique of what one cannot not want” [Outside in 51].) But this suggestion is not all that helpful when trying to slide, as I am, not only from lure to delusion but from the lure to allure, from the decoy or snare to the charm, temptation, and enticement. From the mechanism to feeling. Perhaps this isn’t quite right.

But perhaps it is worth pointing out that the etymological root of illusion and delusion is not, in fact, leurre but ludere (Latin). To play. Earlier in the Grammatology, Derrida defends the mutations of language Saussure and others bemoan and claims that “we can” learn to “love [the] play” of misspellings, deformations, monstrosities, and differance (42).

Perhaps in the slide from lure/delusion to allure, we might eschew the dream of breaking illusory chains that bind us and situate ourselves (instead) in the double bind of play and critique. To think the lure as lure, in this sense, would mean to think it (also) as allure, as an enticement to which we may choose to give consent and to which we might respond actively, playing the delusion/illusion as if it were an instrument. To do so might bring us back to the question of love—as lure, decoy, enticement, play, stratagem—and even to our relation to “the contemporary” in itself (it is, after all, quite alluring, no? the contemporary . . . so intimate in its very proximity, no? can you touch it? do you dare?).

Reading on . . .

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