Dabbling in New Realism: Maurizio Ferraris’s Introduction to New Realism (2014)

As I continue to avoid my Slow Reading of Difference and Repetition, I became curious to dabble in a “new realist” text for the first time. Maurizio Ferraris’s Introduction to New Realism (2014) seemed as good a place to start as any. A few pages in, I came across the following anecdote:

. . . it has been twenty years since I had a banal and yet crucial epiphany. I was in Naples, in the same place that had witnessed the baptism of new realism, and I opened a conference by Hans-Georg Gadamer, an affable grand seigneur, who explained that ‘being that can be understood is language’. I said to myself: this conference, of course, is language. And even the books I have read and written are language. But is Vesuvius, out there, language? And, more seriously, why should we reduce being to understanding? The question of Vesuvius challenged another one of my great teachers, Jacques Derrida, who had argued that ‘there is nothing outside the text’.

Really? How disappointing.

FullSizeRender 2I have no interest in defending Gadamer from this “banal and yet crucial epiphany,” but it’s unclear to me how something “out there”—Vesuvius, Everest, the Sun, the tree outside my window, or the window itself—poses any sort of problem for Derrida’s claim, Il n’y a pas de hors-texte (found in Of Grammatology). Though OG is certainly invested in the problems of language, speech, and writing, it does not relegate textuality to these domains (at least as they are traditionally or colloquially understood). Rather, textuality becomes the name—or one of the many provisional names—which Derrida gives to being (written, of course, sous rature). What seemingly begins as a benign though interesting analogy (being itself seems to function as text, web, writing, differance, trace, supplement) slips in and out of an improvised, deconstructive literalization (being itself is text, web, writing, difference, trace, supplement). Stuff that is “out there” exists. Derrida never denies this. But he does teach us to add the strikethrough; stuff “out there” exists in the same way language exists, which is to say, they both write themselves—regardless of whether or not “I” or “you” or “we” are around to observe or use them.

It seems to me that humanities scholars have become disenchanted with Derrida’s work, and this sous rature business probably strikes many of them as obnoxious rather than insightful. But this disenchantment has become an alibi for Ferraris to fabricate false challenges and to sweep Derrida’s oeuvre into a fabricated “postmodernism” that believes “that everything is constructed by language, conceptual schema[,] and the media.” It’s clear to me that materiality—mountains, solar bodies, my body, “the fact of a street corner at all” (Hollinghurst The Line of Beauty)—does not pose a challenge to Derrida’s thought; in fact, it is a major component of his daunting oeuvre. Regardless of the traction that this oeuvre might have for 21st-century readers, it is clear to me that Ferraris is writing fiction. This would be fine with me normally, but the fiction has to be interesting.

Alas, it gets worse. A few pages later:

. . . when my teacher Derrida wrote ‘there is nothing outside the text’ he implied that even heartbeat and breathing are socially constructed. Such a thesis is excessive and means everything and nothing, exposing one to easy criticism.

Whereas if we say that ‘there is nothing social outside the text’ we say something that illuminates the functioning of the social world. . . . [It] means highlighting a distinctive feature of the social world, explaining why documents are so important—in fact, the greatest technological innovations of the past few decades, i.e., computers and mobile phones, are essentially meant for the production of documents. This is a process that Derrida had sensed with dowsing and prophetic lucidity. Who else, at the time when the end of writing was being proclaimed, could have written that writing was going to boom and take over the world? But all of this goes to waste in a statement as easy to attack as ‘there is nothing outside the text’.

Where do I begin with my objections?

First, Derrida’s sentence implies nothing of the kind. “Social construction” is not a concern of Of Grammatology—as far as I know any distinction between nature and society would itself be deconstructed by Derrida’s argument, prey to a differance which is no more social than it is natural. Ferraris (and a whole host of readers who desperately want something called “clear prose” from Derrida) have imported that implication into a decontextualized claim.

Second, either Ferraris or his translator have strategically used a misleading English translation of Derrida’s sentence. Spivak later corrects her use of the word “nothing,” honoring the hyphen in the original French and translating it, “There is no outside-text” (see below). It’s clear that this sentence does not mean what Ferraris thinks it means (or implies). Whatever the ontological implications of Derrida’s claim might be, he is not saying that everything only exists in human language or discourse. What Derrida means by text is by no means delimited to human language or written marks (though those are certainly what concern him—and the authors he is reading—in this book).

Third, Derrida’s statement (even when correctly translated) is easy to attack when it has been taken out of context. Yes, when one reads Derrida’s claim alone and repeats it as if it were a straightforward “thesis” and not a sentence in the middle of many sentences in a specific section that comes at the end of a famous chapter, it certainly seems to mean everything and nothing at once. But if we actually read Derrida—and do not simply and stupidly (mis)quote him—then one should probably be more rigorous and honest. This is published prose, after all. One can’t just rely on the fact that Derrida was one’s “teacher.”

FullSizeRender 3
The pertinent sentence. (Of Grammatology, pg. 158)

Here’s the original context:

. . . if reading must be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above; as regards the absence of the referent or the transcendental signified. There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte]. And that is neither because Jean-Jacques’ life, or the existence of Mamma or Thérèse themselves, is not of prime interest to us, nor because we have access to their so-called “real” existence only in the text and we have neither any means of altering this, nor any right to neglect this limitation. All reasons of this type would already be sufficient, to be sure, but there are more radical reasons. What we have tried to show by following the guiding line of the “dangerous supplement,” is that in what one calls the real life of these existences “of flesh and bones,” beyond and behind what one believes can be circumscribed as Rousseau’s text, there has never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the “real” supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from a trace and from an invocation of the supplement, etc. And thus to infinity, for we have read, in the text, that the absolute present, Nature, that which words like “real mother” name, have always already escaped, have never existed; that what opens meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of natural presence(158-59, bold added)

But wait a minute. Isn’t Derrida explicitly saying that the “real life” of “flesh and bones” only exists as “writing” (i.e., language)? Isn’t this “Nature” that Derrida claims has “never existed” actually identical to the Vesuvius of Ferraris’s epiphany? And if so, doesn’t this longer passage from Of Grammatology confirm Ferraris’s account of Derrida’s thesis? Is there nothing outside the text? Language? Writing?

There is no outside-text because when I challenge myself to take up a reading task there is no stepping into a position out of (con/sub/para)text, which is to say, I can interminably follow traces, tracking the differing and deferral of the meaning I seek. Look to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (2011) or to the work of any archivist. Far from postmodern silliness, the interminability of the reading task is the material reality of the researcher. Derrida is clear that even if Maman or Thérese were available for interview or comment—the way George and Daphne are for the majority of Hollinghurst’s book—that a certain resilient and pestering absence would plague, more than that, ground one’s reading from the get go—thus, “the structural necessity of the abyss” (163). Again, this necessity (for Derrida) is not ethereal, not simply discursive, not conceptual. It is a material fact.

Naples and Vesuvius (Sunset).

And in front of Vesuvius—at the edge of the identical abyss to which OG refers—another resilient absence plagues the observer/reader/mountaineer/philosopher. The mountain might not be language (as Ferraris understands it), but the same process of difference and deferral that marks language or writing (as Derrida understands it) could be said to mark the existence of Vesuvius as well. But is this nothing more than a language game? No. It’s a statement about the real thing, Vesuvius, which no one—neither Derrida nor any of his contemporaries—ontologically or materially denies. Even if no one was around to see or observe the mountain, some sort of thing would no doubt exist, but that thing would carry on its surface and in its depths the traces of its lifespan: the evidence of its eruption, the grooves of its emergence from tectonic pressure and friction, the changes in ecosystem on and around it. There is no original Vesuvius, just as there is no “Nature.” There is only a ecological, planetary text, and the many names of differance—textuality, writing, trace—merely name the opening up of material formations, deformations, and transformations. Language (as we understand it) emerges in the same way and under the same nonhuman principle. There’s nothing primarily socially constructive about what Derrida calls “text.”

So what is the fundamental principle of New Realism? Ferraris writes:

. . . if the realist is the one who claims that there are parts of the world that are not depend on the subjects, the new realist asserts something more challenging. Not only are there large parts of the world independent of the cogito, but those parts are inherently structured, and thus orientate the behavior and thought of humans as well as animals

I find myself agreeing with this position, but only because I already find it in the work of Derrida and—more importantly—of Gilles Deleuze. Read Difference and Repetition some time.

Reading on . . .

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