[printer friendly version ]

ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)

Book Review: Disentangling the Dispersion of Deconstruction

Tilottama Rajan. Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology: Sartre, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard. Stanford University Press, 2002.

Reviewed by Dr. Victoria Grace
(Senior Research Fellow in Social Sciences, Canterbury University, New Zealand).
 

            Tilottama Rajan offers a scholarly analysis of the recent intellectual history of the emergence and dispersion of deconstruction. Her book is a valuable contribution to current debates on the role of phenomenology, deconstruction and poststructuralism in the broad interdisciplinary field of cultural theory (a term encompassing both humanities and the “critical” social sciences). It is a welcome contribution precisely because she disentangles strands of theory (with particular focus on ontologies) that have become too vague and synonymous as they have moved from their European continental home to the Anglo-American context. She not only isolates these threads to better articulate their interrelationships and points of departure, but she develops her own argument regarding their differences through consideration of specific authors on the European continent. Rajan analyses the emergence of deconstruction, its debt to phenomenology, and its relation to the Anglo-American term “poststructuralism”. This argumentation is executed with an exceptional erudition.

            Through Rajan’s analysis of the “pre-texts” of Sartre, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, she finds the origins of deconstruction in the mid-1940s within the critical ontological engagements of a phenomenological project. Her argument isn’t framed in terms of a return to phenomenology but rather as a “genealogy of its effacement.”1 How, why and through who referring to whom has this effacement occurred, and of what is it made? To follow this path Rajan considers the intellectual commitments and debts of Derrida’s early work, particularly its relation to that of Sartre and Husserl, and the “constructive” engagements with phenomenology by Levinas, Blanchot, de Man and the early Foucault.

            A deconstruction in dialogue with, or in Rajan’s better wording “conjugated from” phenomenology, insists on philosophy articulating its reading from the place of writing (écriture). This place embodies the unavoidable double condition of human existence of being simultaneously the being en-soi and the being pour-soi. The being in-itself is undivided and identical with itself, is itself, whereas the being for-itself allows a consciousness of itself, an awareness of itself; in Sartrean terms the en-soi is immanent, the pour-soi is transcendent. In his early works, in particular in The Order of Things, Foucault expresses this doubling as the analytic of finitude.

            Common to what Rajan characterises as the early deconstructive thinkers was a resolute foregrounding of the aporia, the absence, the nothingness, gap or negativity inherent in any form of positing, and hence integral to analysing (deconstructing) the process of positing. This non-structuralist philosophy confronted the rise of the social sciences in the academy of the mid-sixties. The social, or human sciences rode the wave of structuralism that enabled them to (apparently) mimic the non-humanism of the natural sciences and take on the mantle of a positive knowledge of the social, psychological and economic through forms of realism and empiricism. Rajan claims that both deconstruction and poststructuralism can be understood to a certain extent as responses to structuralism, but whereas deconstruction “counters structuralism with a phenomenology”, she analyses the body of work she specifically defines as poststructuralism to be rejecting that phenomenology, and replacing ontological aporia with a problematization of structure articulated through the technical deployment of linguistic models.

            An insightful analysis of the intellectual history and philosophical commitments of poststructuralism(s) is one of the important contributions of Rajan’s book. Where in Anglo-American contexts the term “poststructuralism” tends to overlap with usages of the term “deconstruction”, Rajan suggests the redundancy of this duplication might reflect an Anglo-American appropriation of French theory that in fact discounts important aspects of the term “deconstruction”. Conversely, the duplication might foreground a reluctance to subsume “deconstruction” within the term “poststructuralism”. Rajan meticulously analyses the palimpsestic history of these theoretical contributions across specific theorists spanning the last five decades.

            Although the term has an Anglo-American derivation, Rajan refers to and analyses the “poststructuralist” thought of selected key European (specifically French) theorists, thus apparently legitimating the use of the term. She observes how responses to Derrida’s “debut” in the US in the mid to late 60s served to frame the “linguistic turn” of poststructuralism as a repudiation of phenomenology, as well as a surpassing of (and emancipation from) structuralism. Rajan notes how, according to Judith Butler, poststructuralism is founded on its “constitutive loss” of phenomenology. She identifies two main strands of poststructuralist thought: an affirmative and a negative, whereby this “constitutive loss” animates negative poststructuralism but is fully erased from the affirmative variety.

            Affirmative poststructuralists are unconcerned with the ontological problematic of deconstruction and phenomenology, and use “deconstruction” as a “tool”. She argues that affirmative poststructuralism, while rejecting structuralism, in fact deploys deconstructive techniques against systems and structures (not against itself) and therefore effects an analysis of systems and structures in the guise of agency and practice. As such this form of poststructuralism performs a curiously (ironically) binary analytic through constructing (not deconstructing) oppositional terms (here she refers to Barthes’ word/text, author/scriptor, and Deleuze and Guattari’s parallel pairs of root/rhizome, royal and nomad science, striated and smooth space).

In this [affirmative] version, poststructuralism is simply the unscrutinized foundation for ‘oppositional practices’ such as postcolonialism or ‘poststructural anarchism’ that borrow its anti-humanism, progressivism, and ‘destruction’ of the past, but not its intensive scrutiny of language. Poststructuralism of this kind locates itself in the critical human sciences, which are ‘post’-structuralist only in overthrowing the orthopaedic human sciences, whose commitment to pragmatic anthropology they still maintain.2 

Given that “poststructuralism” of this type arguably has attained an orthodoxy within the critical social sciences in the Anglo-American academy over the last few decades, Rajan’s comments should prompt some serious reflection. Furthermore, Rajan notes how Ulmer’s exemplification of poststructuralist practice portrays Derrida’s grammatology as a “new organisation of cultural studies” which is “responsive to the current ‘era of communications technologies’.”3 She acknowledges Derrida’s unease with the “progressivism in the American academy and its emphasis on agency and practice.”4 In support of these claims she refers also to John Mowitt who apparently maps out a trajectory connecting affirmative poststructuralism of the 60s with “cultural studies” of the 90s.

            Rajan spends more time considering negative poststructuralism, presumably because of its more complex and ambivalent linkages to, and points of departure from, deconstructive and phenomenological projects. The difficulty of trying to establish clear-cut, systematically argued categories in which to place these heterogeneous and braided flows of philosophical thought transpires in the confusing way in which carefully isolated strands become re-entangled in a later context or through consideration of another author. Rajan, however, continuously draws our attention to these puzzles and develops further analyses of these re-entanglements. She specifically explores a shift that she argues is apparent between “early” and “late” phases of Foucault’s work, and presents a nuanced and interrogative reading of the “poststructuralist turn” evident in the later work. Through this substantial discussion she points to the way the “remainders” of deconstruction and phenomenology evident in Foucault’s “negative” poststructuralism, simultaneously transpire and are disavowed.

            In the last two chapters Rajan turns her attention to the work of Jean Baudrillard. Given the discussion in her book to this point, I was fully anticipating that the argument regarding negative poststructuralist trends would culminate in an exposition of how Baudrillard’s writing on symbolic exchange, seduction, reversibility, illusion, the double, the transparency of evil opens up new possibilities for considering the “unsaying” of a phenomenological and deconstructive project. This, however, seemed strangely missed by Rajan’s commentary on Baudrillard’s work. She only obliquely refers to “reversion” in the context of discussing Symbolic Exchange and Death, an omission that can be read to suggest Rajan directs only a sideways glance at the heart of Baudrillard’s agonistic epistemology. A kind of explanatory demand in Rajan’s reading of symbolic exchange actually erases Baudrillard’s point about reversibility.

            To state of Baudrillard, as Rajan does, that “it is clear that his own anthropology figures a nostalgia for a unified, nonalientated, organic world”5 voices a reading of Baudrillard that is “conjugated” from a fundamentally dualist ontology. “Unity” is Rajan’s word, one that is never once invoked by Baudrillard. To assume that a critique of duality results in a phantasmatic endorsement of a “unified” world precisely reveals a dualist presupposition in the very approach to such a critique.

            As Geniusas has more recently suggested,6 Baudrillard’s “raw phenomenology” is a phenomenology of absence, but as such it is a phenomenology that is not situated within the binary of meaning or non-meaning, meaningful or meaningless. It is about reversibility, about the ex-centric displacement of meaning, the real, subjectivity; about the resistance of the object to appropriation and meaning – demanding that we grasp its “incessant appearance and disappearance.”7

            It is not possible to think non-duality from a dualist frame, even though the seductions of a fatal strategy might “affect” the reader. That Rajan should stumble at this point in relation to Baudrillard’s work is ironic given that the whole point of deconstruction might be to open the way to a fatal strategy of thought. Affected by Baudrillard? Rajan certainly is. I couldn’t help but wonder why yet again we have the dignified intellects of Sartre, Derrida and Foucault portrayed as those sovereign authors who “claim”, “call”, “argue”, “suggest”, “state”, “distinguish”, whereas Baudrillard appears throughout Rajan’s two chapters on his work in a rather petulant emotional state as one who “complains”, “rails”, “rants”, “attacks”, “denies” is “hysterical”, “angry”, “fascinated”, “bitter”, “cynical”, “stubborn”, “unpredictable”, “desperate”. Whose emotions are these exactly? And in reaction to what?

            No-one has articulated better than Rex Butler what is risked by the reader of Baudrillard who enters the agonistic duel of theory that Baudrillard presents throughout his entire corpus. He says of Baudrillard’s writing that it:

…attempts to form a relationship with that with which it cannot attempt to form a relationship, attempts to describe something that at once is excluded to allow it to be represented and only exists after the attempt to do so. In a sense, therefore, it must seek to represent nothing. But the risk and the strategy of writing […] is that it is only by daring to represent nothing, to offer nothing in exchange for the appearances of the world, that the world necessarily recognizes itself in it, that we catch the world up, bring about an exchange with it.8

Anything short of such an encounter with Baudrillard’s writing somehow infects it with a sterilising agent.

            On a positive note, in discussion of Baudrillard’s place in this mosaic of twentieth century French theorists, Rajan recognises and explains the significance of Baudrillard’s unique insights into the very conditions of possibility for poststructuralist thinking (particularly “affirmative poststructuralism”). As Rajan writes, “the antihumanist logics of poststructuralism either imitate or mimic the obscene object of postmodernity.”9 Indeed.

            This is not a philosophy book for philosophers, but a philosophical analysis of theory for other analysts of theory. Although writing about philosophy, Rajan is an interdisciplinary thinker and writes from interdisciplinary concerns for an interdisciplinary readership. This book is important for readers interested in the debates it explores, debates which are so central to contemporary cultural theory.
 


Endnotes

1 Tilottama Rajan. Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology: Sartre, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard. Stanford University Press, 2002:xii.

2 Ibid.:37.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.:44.

5 Ibid.:259.

6 Saulius Geniusas. “Baudrillard’s raw phenomenology”. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Volume 35, Number 3: 2004:305.

7 Ibid.:235.

8 Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard. The Defence of the Real. London: Sage, 1999:96.

9 Tilottama Rajan. Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology: Sartre, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard. Stanford University Press, 2002:54.

 


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)

[Main Page]   [Contents]   [Editorial Board]   [Submissions]