Saturday, September 5, 2015

An Interview with Cli-Fi Literary Critic Tom Cohen


.......them) than the traces of “histories” claimed or ironed out or fetishized. We can, in any afternoon, be closer to old Rome (which the West of course never fully left) than the 18th century—but that can flip by evening, go prehistorial, or contract to the time bubble that the tele-socius lives in today: the kleptomediacracy’s various trances.

[SKG] Why can one observe a strange and uncanny "duplication" of / in deconstruction, which seems to cross-out the "ethical" implications of deconstruction? For example Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida? Why did Derrida write "Memoires" in defense of Paul de Man and accepted the politico-ethical ruin of his own project for years in the same movement? Was this happening on purpose? If this happened on purpose, why did Derrida want to be seen as a good humanist european later on, when he decided to publicly reconcile himself with Habermas?

[Tom Cohen] This is a difficult cluster of questions since the term “ethical” jumps around—from the doxa of the ethical (how the world perceives, judges, scapegoats) to something else. So each question is really about the politics of presenting oneself (JD), or one’s brand (as you say, as “a good humanist European”). To the extent Derrida angled toward the latter to counter the trap set for him by (necessarily) defending de Man, he was in another trap—as you imply. Thus the binary Derrida and de Man that you sketch, the good deconstructor versus the ethically bad one, is unreliable, and that would have been Derrida’s initial aim to demonstrate vis a vis de Man. But the storm there was too decisive publicly, and his own discourse was compromised in trying to play both sides initially. The reversal that is interesting to me, however, is where this form of the “ethical” is mere doxa, and that from the anthropocene perspective, it may be “de Man” who was the “ethical” one, Derrida the mutating strategist caught in his own public adjustments. Today, it is not the “ethical” or “religious” or “political” Derrida this is interesting, after all. The strategy evaporated with the residues of 90’s critical culture he was trying to outmaneuver while playing to.

[SKG] You have worked intensively in the field of literary theory, how would you see the subversive potential of literature in comparison to the almost lost and forgotten subversive potential of philosophy/thinking? How should a subversive thinking and writing look like today, is it perhaps neither literature nor philosophy?

[Tom Cohen] I don’t think there is a “subversive” practice that is apparent today. I think we have entered a zone of totalization—from kleptomediacracies to the occlusion of ecocide broadly to academic retrenchments. Things are poised at once before a manifest reset of various systems (economic, political, resource related) and in a somewhat zombie posture. The critical project of transformation that transformed thought and technics in the 20th century (to use an arbitrary market) is in default broadly before the disclosure of climate change realities. They had not thought that relation to the biosphere and the limit of resources, or runaway global heating, and so on. Time is no longer “out of joint” merely, we have competing different times, diverse spells and formalizations thereof, accelerated telemarketing and anesthesia. So the “left” concepts of revolutionary justice are hollowed to a great extent now, and the scramble for the next last phase of resource extraction unleashed. This promises to be a very difficult “century,” and what survives at the other end should bear no comparisons to the present—which is, for the moment, still “peak” everything.

[SKG] As a leading scholar in the field of deconstruction, I want to ask you now a few questions about deconstruction, the first one is, is there really an à-venir for deconstruction, or will there only remain a future (presence) for deconstruction? Is deconstruction maybe only so successful, because it simply feels comfortable to be a deconstructionist—that is, there is no risk to it and it does not have to “engage”? But what would the heritage of deconstruction then be?

[Tom Cohen]  Again, a tangle of assumptions make these questions provocative but cross-circuited in ways. To begin with, I do not pretend authority on this question for several reasons. “Deconstruction” was a third person effect that Derrida posited—with many mutations, public pretenses, and secret histories. When Derrida said “if it exists” he wasn’t being rhetorical, and often it does not. It certainly could not have any credibility if it made someone feel “good and comfortable” being one (but who decides if one is “one”?). And to the extent that had, given the personalities involved, become a sort of embarrassing club of academics defining a crony order by association with Derrida the individual (who was never, quite, the one that signed his texts), it has been disastrous—except in fulfilling its primary purpose for Derrida, which was to manage the archive of his writings after death, and to prepare readers for some possible future reading when this meme (deconstruction) might return credibly.

So “deconstruction” today has no active credit or credibility, which is too bad. I am not worried about the “heritage” of deconstruction—and think JD erred in calculating it to the point where it entered his rhetorical strategies. It is irrelevant to me if it survives or not, since that will occur by itself (or be prevented). I am not speaking of university institutions and their players, where much of this occurs against a sad backdrop of collapsing cultural contracts (education) and denial (by humanists). I think all should be thought against an assumption of extinction—short term or long—and thought backward from it: such would braid the traditions it needed. What does get lost with a part of what you call “deconstruction” is active access to the pre-inscriptive sites of memory formation, and that is key, together with the cognitive ticks of reconstitution (or relapse, as de Man called it). This took root around the thinking of literariness in general, and “history” as a fabrication in particular. Today it may take other forms.

The key, whatever you call “it,” is kick starting or cultivating a thinking more ruthlessly auto-critical than has been the case (least of all today), to create new sites. This cannot be indexed to a “politics” in the old sense—before “occupy” has its moment, crude infra-generational war will likely emerge. The question, today, is to prepare for a thinking outside of the Potemkin systems, including the academic ones, which includes all schools predicated on 20th century masters and currently in place. “Deconstruction” would perhaps re-animate when its “destructive” import returns to it (rather than the preservative one at present, and even in the “late Derrida”), but then it will not need the name as such. I don’t see that word retaining any value except as a museum piece. That is not to say the resource of Derridean writing or “deconstructive” thought goes away—it is endless.

[SKG] It's very interesting to read, that you see the amplifying of the "hyper-critical strategies" in Derrida as a (inherently destructive) de-canonizing tool. For me it seems to be sad, that this tool became almost like a pistol made out of soap like in the first Woody Allen movie "Take the money and run", where Woody Allen’s escape from jail was not possible, because the rain set in at the last prison gate and destroyed his soap-pistol. If you like - it would be really great - to read a little more about these interesting fields and strategies. Would you see your concept of "destructive" also in line with Walter Benjamin‘s "Über den destruktiven Charakter" and the "Thesen zur Geschichte" or would you deduct it from other traditions. Which ones? Wittgenstein's note on philosophy "I destroy, I destroy, I destroy" ? Heidegger's "Nicht auf das Biegen, auf das Brechen kommt es an" - it's the breaking that counts and not the bending? Where do you see destructive tendencies of hypercritics already at work in non-domesticated spots of Derrida? I think, that to reach these spots – the reading strategies/traditions had to be radically altered? How would you define your tool of “auto-criticism” - would you see it in relation to Derrida’s idea of “hypercritique”?

[Tom Cohen]  You are asking for a book. Too much here—so, to simplify my sense: Yes, this is surely in Benjamin, and the two texts you mention are not in opposition on this point. Perhaps the trick is just to see that the famed “angel of history” is actually a comic cartoon for B., a summary and dismissal of material-theological idioms—the Marx and Hebraisms he adapts here—and the tradition of aura, identification, proper names, personifications and hermeneutic relapses that go with it. And said “angel,” a messenger, without message or god or power, who looks back and is paralyzed—“wanting” to give the hordes of the undead what they want from him, making whole, redemption, knowing he cannot but facing them, the last human face and personification of a disappearing trace.

And “he” is  borne off, this cartoon (it is one already in Klee’s deconstruction), by a “Storm.” The word is repeated at the head of the last sentences, is a climactic term yet names also a storm of marks and points that emerge again from bounded language, run wild into untapped biosemiotic networks and elemental laws—that is, it is not a human “archive” that is of final concern. This is clear in Thesis XVIII (again), when organic life on earth is summoned as a measure. That is the “time” we are in, the anthropocene. The problem is that to so tear away and trash said angel (which encompasses all of humanistic linguistic habits and extends, today, to the financial systems and kleptocratic capture of geo-power, already planning and executing geo-engineering feats and totalized bio-surveillance systems and insect drones and so on), the other hero of the parable in the text is compromised or ruined: the materialistic historiographer whose praxis, Benjamin’s, is hypothetical.

It is a suicidal text, which is its condition of posing itself as one of the anthropocene. At the same time, with Benjamin, one is stuck with his appalling (at times) manipulation of metaphors. The “modernist” Benjamin is of little interest today in fact, but there are others. But back to auto-critique—no one practices this today, which was the signature of deconstruction in its emergence (and which de Man represented a limit to, since he dismissed “deconstruction” itself as a program). That is why the contemporary university-theoretical culture is such a lame-seeming animal, in which a unique generational bloom of graduate student came to take possession of critical gossip, archival tending, sophisticated recyclings and extensions—yet in an often descriptive mode, so that your career theorist of today is often a discretely conservationist regardless of claims to thread new media, techno post-humanisms, without risk or wager involved. (It may be all the risk-takers and most fevered intelligences got into finance at the time, or that university culture breeds coteries, dependencies, and so on, given its psychology and training: one must never forget the current soil on which these mushrooms sprout, reflected so abruptly in the university’s deflation of the “humanities” systematically—without any particular resistance or re-orientation.)

[SKG] When I read Derrida, which I do regularly since at least 17 years, it always seemed to me, that deconstruction is too systematic, too classical, pre-programmed and foreseeable to remain really subversive and to-come, even if Derrida calls his works "dissocié, séparés, distraits" (cf. i.e. Psychè, Avant-propos, p. 9). But is Derrida really always writing on the height of his early formalisations like in "Hors livre"? Was Derrida's work really ever surprising for anyone outside his own innermost circle of adepts (cf. i.e. Bennington's ultra-hagiographic and -canonic book "Jacques Derrida" with the subverting (really?) text "Circonfession")?

[Tom Cohen]  I can only speak as a reader. I agree with the outline of your experience—with the caveat, always interesting, that despite this larger outline the specifics of Derrida’s sentences, wherever, can always erupt into a counter-claim that refutes that. Depending on how you read him. For me, nothing is less interesting than when Derrida says what he “believes.” Or where he interprets himself, which he always claims last word on. What is there are lines of force, tools, openings—hence the need, if there were such, to recraft from this writing different “Derridas,” some at war with one another, and choose which is relevant, ignoring his attempts to shape that or manage his own auto-immune cycles (or that of his servicers). The poor guy got stuck being a philosophic rock star, enjoyed it, but entered contracts of dependency with all sorts of groups to do this. This is too familiar terrain to go over. So if the question is how deconstruction became boring, it is only partly his fault.

I find the “late Derrida” contaminated this way, but always recall that, essentially, every occasion was the opportunity to write more, to extend his powers, hit and miss. Hence the absurdity of ink spent on a deconstructive “ethics” that goes, essentially, no where, casts a spell over academic minions who want so much to be good, yet is the occasion for more writing, some very interesting. It is interesting that you mention Bennington’s book, which did much to change Derrida’s late phase. A brilliant series of attempts to transcribe Derrida without citations, that should have initiated a phase of writings in which Derrida himself could be backgrounded, and these trajectories explored without endless reversions to exegesis “on” the master. Instead, they did the opposite—make Derrida accessible to a next generation of Anglo academics, launch a British “Derrida” in the wake of what could be called the American experiment (ending in a kind of fiasco, “de Man,” an unreliable entity). That British deconstruction would do much to access the global media of the global lingua franca, but also created a natural cronyist-homosocial syndicate (the old Anglo model bred in boys’ schools and the royal-imaginary, what gives us London as the mafia center of global financial piracy today, responsible for some of the fetishism (“Apply Derrida”?), and edgelessness of “deconstruction” in that form. This might someday be examined wrily: the dependence of a certain faux Derrida’s generation within this loop of Anglo-translation—a different subordinate mentality tied, nonetheless, to the global lingua and its academic networks. A contamination that had been as disseminative as it was costly, since today it is precisely that fetishization—the exegesis of Derrida according to Derridean algorythms—which coincides with the “disappearance” of his work that Derrida, in the last interview, remarks (“sincerely,” he insists).

[SKG] May I go here in a more systematic direction and prolong my argument:  how much is really left of Derrida’s own very complex fundamental strategic axiomatics from the beginning of his works to later on? Is there not an accelerated movement of a diminishing of hyper-critical forces in Derrida observable you already spoke about in some of your answers? Does this implosion of deconstruction occur accidentally? Or is it the other way around - Derrida really spells out/ lays bare the very limited axiomatics of deconstruction and this (all too systematic) spelling out leads in the same movement (Derrida’s “I digitalize like a madman” / “Je posthume comme j’espire”- writing with two hands - writing as crossing-out?) to his worldwide inthronisation and to a neutralization of his “method” (implied here of course, all his rumination, that it is no method etc) as a serious tool for an à-venir or the easy prey of a singular philosophic school? This would mean for me: deconstruction (as it left the hands of Derrida) would have exhausted its own credibility (through forced omni-presence which must equal death, since pure life for Derrida is death) on purpose as a work of a singular person/idiom/gesture/signature. Or: now we can try to start a new unheard of move (but maybe the all too forced “unheard of” / “inventive side” of deconstruction is also hard to bear !!! Who could/should claim to invent something new? ). If Derrida should have really tried to exhaust/devastate his own invention with his almost St. Paul like fever to bring “deconstruction” to an end of the world (his book with Malabou on travelling) - to make it “real” (cf. Voiles) and in this move make “it” “transsubjective” and “inhuman” - I would absolutely admire him for that! Others could then start to visit the ruins of the ruins of deconstruction. Wipe their eyes and ask with a chapter of Mille Plateaux: Qu’est-ce qui s’est passé? Deconstruction would be again everywhere and nowhere - all and nothing (like he wrote in his “Letter à un ami japonais” (1985)) - outside again - bound to nothing more that nothing? Or again in “Entre crochets” where it is perfectly clear that deconstruction is not limited to concepts, to discourse … etc.?

[Tom Cohen]  I am very sympathetic to this line of question—even presuppose it. As you suggest, one should not confuse Derrida with Derrideans, contemporary or subsequent. You ask: Does this implosion of deconstruction occur accidentally?  Derrida apparently saw this, understood the auto-immune “deconstruction” that had settled in long in advance, and which he danced with, sometimes contaminated, sometimes not. In the “last” interview referenced above he seems to disavow that—the reading of him, heirs, his own survival (his works), and so on. Thus he saw a series of “bad” readers, as mentioned, the last of which were the people he had spawned to disseminate loosely, i.e. keep his text archived or read. He miscalculated, or knew they would do so formally alone. So—assuming the question is whither this project, which is itself an odd question (does one ask that of others, or just let them be)?

Part of the problem is that his “late” phase showed these calculations too much, and created a persona for him that his tribe pursued as if it was the literal efflorescence of some philosophical program—the stuff on ethics (about which Derrida knew nothing), religion, politics so called, etc. So alternate readers are called for, without this proper name, as you suggest, but I am not sure the category “new” matters much now except to carpetbaggers. The problem today is cognitive crony-capitalism that moves the pieces on the table around the board and thrills to the facility of doing such. The mutation that is implied doesn’t do that, is resisted, like invested hedge funds that can’t alter a strategy because the markets went against them and they hold indefinitely. The way to read Derrida, I tend to think, is by threads, tranches, fragmentation—not the infernal effort of a seriously limited coterie of translators and academics to identify an encompassing Derridean re-formulation, as if the guy did not write enough for himself.

Derrida bred archivists in his last phase, cultivated hangers on and courtiers, had to promote the dumbed down and embarrassing versions of himself—in order to assure worker bees for the afterlife, carriers (this is what Sloterdijk calls them) to a future generation. It is highly unusual that a major authorship should be so involved in trying to manage his afterlife, but typical of Derrida, and knowingly futile up to a point. My sense is much in his text waits to be hooked up anew to horizons that had nothing to do with the suffocating pieties of the late 90’s or his exit years. And that would be the mutation—which we lazily call the anthropocene. The regressive nature of Derrideans, academic careerists who have hung their romantic self-images on association with “Jacques,” and are no different from any other generation of such in terms of conservative temperament, vanity, and political smallness in academic terms (that is, crony culture), was a betrayal written into the scenario. The Borg only works when it is forward moving and assimilating—not when it circles upon itself. This is why I suggest people invested in this tradition ignore the trap of Derridean exegesis and turn their tools at the aporia of today—financialization and megadebt, mediacratic trances, the problematics of carbon, extinction events, new temporal formation. Also, that they shed Derrida’s resolute Euro-centrism.

[SKG] This brings me to a new point, has Derrida really cha(lle)nged the old ideas of history, and what do you think of Derrida's probably latest idea of an "tout autre histoire" (Voyous, p.216)?Why does he still call this "histoire"? And why is he using / regressing (again) (to) crypto-heideggerian theorems from the period of his Ereignis-Denken in his latest works without further in depth analysis? And why has Derrida written nearly nothing really serious and non-simplifying about the Heideggerian concept of "Seynsgeschicht/e" and even lesser about the Deleuzo/Guattarian concept of an unconscious, machinic and contingent history of desire? Should one not see this as a real shortcoming of deconstruction? Is not his (maybe not all too serious) formula "de platon à freud et au-délà" overused and his approach to philosophy in the end all too simple, violent and homogenizing? Is there a problem of "history" in Derrida and how would you formalize it?

[Tom Cohen] I am open to all these points leading up to the final question. It can’t be answered simply since putting “history” into question initializes Derrida’s trajectory. So one has to not go back to that term as a measure of anything—at least as constituted. In fact, it is one of the side issues or collateral damage of an era of climate change that other temporalities protrude and efface our working “histories,” e.g. the geological but not only, since today one would have to add the mediacratic, telemarketing, and so on. I would only say of Derrida, to the degree one might, that he required various buttressments to stage his interventions. Early on, de Man had called him out about this—saying, yes, what you are doing is exemplary, but you don’t need “metaphysics” of a canonical “author” to do this, which is to say, it gets in the way. But Derrida did need such buttressments. If you listen to him, sometimes, he is Shakespearean in inhabiting other voices or positions—to then peel away otherwise. Who is this Derrida that writes? His persona gets in the way, just like the hagiography. The truth is that, partly due to Derrida, the referentials have altered in any case today, and some of these routines read exactly as you suggest, as demur. I think we need give up the model of “history” we think is there, along with the notion that something, originally, could be “deconstructed” (the verb) decisively. Look around you—metaphysics everywhere, exponentially clever, in iphones, in fast food chains. And yet, like “capital,” it is no longeritself or recognizable simply. We are in another plateau now. It’s very interesting, as long as one is not sentimental.

[SKG] What could be the point Deleuze would make against Derrida and vice versa? Are not the deleuzo-guattarian arguments on this topic in the "Géophilosophie"-Chapter of QuPh? and in MILLE PLATEAUX far more concise than anything Derrida has written on this topic in the late 67 and early 80's of the last century? Derrida has only a “Géopsychanalyse” to offer?

[Tom Cohen] Derrida doesn’t invoke or hail the geo often or in general (a difference from Nietzsche and Heidegger differently). It is interesting to find in Circumfessions that his mother’s name was Georgette and he allows the implications to resonate—given where mother in Derrida leads, to the non-mother of khora. (Kind of like the “mother” (non-mother) of Psycho.) The geological threads the discourse from without. But part of this is his peculiar use of Europe and Euro-centrism to anchor his project, whose archive he identifies with as producing him. So his posture here is delimited internally (the anthropocene is indifferent to the West’s self-privileging confabulations, as to any other “nation” in isolation—it is speciesist).

[SKG] Is not Heidegger the only one who will have said and insisted, that "metaphysics" won't disappear - but will remain as "disappearing" in technology (the janus-head of technology), what you described as the "exponentially clever" aspect of metaphysics here and now?

[Tom Cohen] I would agree. I read a recent piece by Timothy Morton trying to portray the import of OOO (Object Oriented Ontology) through Heideggerian platforming—as the underbelly of Dasein—and it reminded me, as did another piece I read recently by Krystof Ziarek on the anthropocene, to what degree Heidegger was anticipating the contemporary disclosure. Whether one can resuscitate Heideggerian language for these purposes today is a question (probably not), but Derrida’s use of Heidegger in this respect leaves many things off the table. While I think it necessary to point out that whatever was called metaphysics has not gone away (look around) but only proliferated and found other soil—perhaps this is linked to climate change denial itself—I prefer what I take to be the implication of de Man in this regard: that “it” never existed to begin with, and was a prop necessary for certain auto-narrations of the West within philosophico-critical designs.

[SKG] Has not Heidegger sufficiently shown, against the humanist naivité of Derrida, that it is impossible (in the usual - not the derridean sense) to deconstruct metaphysics. Consequently Derrida's attempt to reduce Heidegger's "seynsgeschichtliches" Denken (which I would translate as "being-stratificated"-thinking and not as being-historical-thinking) to a banal historical and epochal (Heidegger always writes epoche in greek letters) conception, that we all know as the inde(con)structable) history of philosophy, burger king, the beatles, or, or - had to fail?

[Tom Cohen] Well, I don’t know that it is a contest here. And one cannot speak of Derrida’s humanist naivete simply if at all—though he tended to chose a humanist motif in his later work, as if to affirm a community of, well, humans in their contemporary agons and reading programs. He chose (mistakenly I think) to be “hospitable,” perhaps thinking he could outwit the machines of re-appropriations (being, already, “Derrida”). I think metaphysics is shaped by Heidegger in measure for narrative purposes—and the disappearance he names reads a bit like Benjamin’s aura (where was it to begin with exactly?). For the first, that arises as if an error and the tag of time of Being (the Greeks), and thus he can pin it on Nietzsche, he thinks, in order to execute a reversal or inversion the former seemed to claim. Derrida does that same thing, a bit, to Heidegger, basically replacing the latter as if before Nietzsche in some regards (though Derrida’s reading of Nietzsche is at once virtual, troubled and deficient), that is, by almost undoing the narrative of metaphysics at all. The word drops away from his work. This, again, is why de Man is a tonic, who implies it was all there from the emergence of “text,” perhaps Homer in the West. Hence, the scam of “metaphysics” as a narrative base.

[SKG] To prolong my last question a little, should one really follow “Derrida”/ “deconstruction(s)” in the ruins of the impossible possibility of metaphysics into a process of endless mourning (like formalised i.e. in his Derrida's "Fors") and melancholy? Or shouldn't we try out something else?

[Tom Cohen] My sense is Derrida overplays the “mourning” routine—what was an intervention becomes an App, like so much in him. I think, yes, “Destruktion” need be recovered from the banalities that the term “deconstruction” has drifted into—but again, you are dealing today with a generation of university graduate students who have arrived, a community inordinately sensitive to having its limitations critiqued, or drifting off the reservation for fear of cost-benefits. This is particularly amusing with Derrideans, who mistake association with “Jacques” either for some secret society of initiation or genealogical passing of the torch, resulting in the small, policing, patronage systems such types practice by their nature. The result accords with the state of critical discourse and the university today. So many things are about to mutate, by forces outside of “sovereignty,” and it is not just a question of choosing to try something else, or new. Of course that is necessary—but will have to arrive from without.

[SKG] Professor Cohen, we are near the end of this interview, so I would like (if I may) come back to an earlier point, the problem of history in Derrida which I would tend to see as a residual problem linked to the unsolvable problems of transcendental subjectivity Derrida was left with after his early works on Husserl and Hegel. Is there so to speak a problem with the problem of history in Derrida because of this unsolved residual? How would you see this point?

[Tom Cohen] It is interesting to see how often, today, Derrida would seem re-assimilated by slow nuance to Husserl—as the rubber-band snaps back to default setting of the mainstream. The problem with history, or the point you ask about, is that it doesn’t exist. There never was a “history,” only narratives, mnemotechnics, cultural writing systems, more or less living or externalized archives—all of which have been rescrambled in the last decades (think of Chinese cities, or the internet). The anthropocene is a direct reminder of this. Derrida knew this, but it was not useful to say as such—Benjamin is here already, even if his rant is at “historicism.”

[SKG] Don’t you think that Derrida has simplified his own deconstructive strategies, when you read his very simple historistic/logicistic formalization of the double gesture of deconstruction in ("Force de loi" p.48), his almost historical-systematic strategies in his final Seminaires on animality and sovereignity and compare it to his earlier (pretended?) forced anti-genealogical strategies eg. in “La Dissemination”? Why all these polemics against a pretended (never really shown) primacy of gathering over dissemination in Heidegger which is really not there? Derrida's blindness for the depth of Schizo-/Strato-Analysis/Rhizomatics and Ereignis-Denken is for me the main weak spot of deconstruction. Derrida definitely should have written a large size monograph on Deleuze (cf. the also maybe pseudo-traces of this in his short text after Deleuze's death in "Chaque fois unique" and in his Seminaire are far away from interesting) and a serious one on Heidegger: "De l'esprit" / "Donner le temps" / "Apories" / "Spectres de Marx" are not really serious, because Derrida always tries to neutralize the complexity of Heideggerian thoughts - with his stone-old arguments from the late sixties - instead of writing an inthronisation for Jean-Luc Nancy in "Le Toucher" with its infinitely boring tangents about stone-old ideas like "auto-hetero-affection" and phenomenology.

[Tom Cohen] I have a different perspective. I am not sure what you mean by his “forced anti-genealogical” strategies, since my sense is those were not forced (i.e. one essence of the “deconstructive” meme) but were, on the contrary, diverted, modified, even suspended for narrative strategies of a sort. Thus sometimes the stone-old arguments of the ‘60’s, as you say, would at times have been the un-played-out touchstone that would have been diverted by many latter shifts of address. There are in a sense virtual Derridas which might have emerged diverted by strategic choices, strategies, and effect of surrounding himself with yes-men toward the end, short-circuiting provocation—and these might be generated still.

When asked, for instance, to write on “materiality” a propos de Man, what emerged was a very very long essay going back to undo de Man’s reading of him—a matter of who won a discussion, if it was one—deferring the topos to a few pages at the end, applying the X without X to get out of the matter (or question of matter). A shame. It was pertinent, and he might have chose to recover the dormant import of Benjamin’s use of the term or anticipate where speculative materialism sees itself today, having eclipsed the issue of language to stage itself (a familiar occlusion).

Similarly, le Toucher seems to me not to “enthrone” Nancy but to try to eviscerate his pretension of exceeding deconstruction, and thus regressing to a pre-critical realism despite himself—it is very nasty on that level, but displays an extraordinary sense of rivalry in the face of possible mutations. So, rather, a defacement of Nancy as a performance, much as all of his memorial talks on contemporaries invariably performed appropriations of them. As Hillis Miller wrote, Derrida required to have the “last” word, or simulate it, in part by outliving many.

The third generation Derrideans, the merry band of academic fetishists and Oedipalists we know and love today, never apprehended that not being so critiqued was not a sign of embrace and identification, but the opposite—being beneath the radar entirely. Derrida, by the way, suppressed inter-deconstructive critique, the usual way a field of thinking progresses, signaling they should all attend to some vague enemy out there. The one “not” of the family required a simulacrum family logic, muting the critical abilities of the group, ending up in today’s irrelevant and small circuit exegesis of him.

[SKG] This brings me to my final question, which seems to lead us to the center of Derridean thoughts again; do you believe, that Derrida really provides a "model" of "une autre ouverture de l'événementalité" (Spectres de Marx, p.125) in which events really take place without being absorbed by the classical (onto-theo-archeo-)logic of universality vs. singularity? Is Derrida's work really an outline for a "materialistic historiography"? Or are Derrida's ideas of "material inscriptions" in the end still too humanistic, idealistic, emancipatory and messianic and need a correction?

[Tom Cohen]  In order of the three questions above: no, no, and possibly. To the degree that the latter are rhetorical streams, experiments, and inventions of the “late Derrida,” however, I think those can be peeled back—but, at the moment, produce unproductive memes. (The whole otherness of the other shtick, troping Levinas, or a deconstructive “ethics,” seem to be typically interesting misfires.) One can separate these out, but needs a fresh slate to do so. The “anthropocene” provides that. The point of course is that this is the repository, or was, of the techniques by which mnemo-technics broadly are called to account within the broader traditions—that was it import, and curdled for a while under the term language (which can no longer be used that way)—and that should be brought into the scans and critiques others will have to launch as the era of climate change unfolds more obviously than today.

[SKG] Cordial thanks for the interview, Professor Cohen.

This is the interview:

[SKG] Dear Professor Cohen, you are a leading scholar in the field of literary studies, media theory and deconstruction, how would you introduce yourself to the audience? How would you describe the outlines of your philosophical project?

[Tom Cohen] I am an amateur of the forces of semiosis, mnemonic powers, and I read these before the contemporary horizons of ecocide and the anthropocene. That excludes nothing—yet is also very limited in ways. The “anthropocene” is a funny, opportunistic term—but valuable, since it pretends to name from without a material scar in bio- and geo-historialities. It is not a binary term, it cannot be deconstructed, it is in fact wonderfully stupid. And yet it withdraws (while accelerating) the anthropo-narcisst fold: it can only be read after or without, an archive without human readers; and it can simultaneously generate enthusiasm for taking “responsibility” for the whole earth, and promoting geo-engineering feats (and global corporatocracies to do so). The term appears, however, as the speech act that calls it forth above all (Crutzman’s accidental blurt of the term)—since not even its “time” is agreed upon. Nonetheless, it positions the category of an era of the “anthropos,” however defined, as one of ecocide, mass extinction events, auto-extinction. It requires a different reader that is not of the “anthropos.” It also requires something else than Derridean hospitality riffs, if ecocide as a logic precedes the pretense of the home—one of the ways that Derrida puts off the logic of the ecocatastrophic.

[SKG] Do you remember major events that pulled you into this thinking?

[Tom Cohen] I think you find this sort of consciousness taking root in a variety of contexts and even uneducated milieus—that is, it is not just an “intellectual” or critical alertness. In fact, the latter is quite resistant to putting in question the referential machines and contracts that define (or drive) its sense of property and power, or the need for survival by acquisition. It is quite astonishing, really, that humans arrive at a point of self-erasure after a mere 3 or 5 thousand years of writing and proliferations, or a mere 500 years after colonizing the “new” world hemisphere, or a mere hundred and fifty years after hydro-carbon exploitation.

[SKG] Recently you have started the Critical-Climate-Change-Project with two books on OpenHumanities.Org, which I have read with great pleasure, what is the main idea of this project and how is it connected to the task of a more critical reception of deconstruction?

[Tom Cohen] The premise of the project is that, given these “new” algorithms (“climate change”), all 20th century inflected idioms undergo diverse mutations. The project would make a platform for such to assemble themselves by experimentation, hence “critical” climate change—the manner in which the latter phrase as a sort of stand in rips and re-orders critical projects.

[SKG] Do you see a future for Derrida's idea of an "technicité originaire" (and the implied critique of Heidegger's idea of technics) in the age of the menacing total destruction of our planet?

[Tom Cohen] Yes and no. The “trace” is a useful non-figure to evoke and track—the central techno-weapon of Derrida’s elaborations. The figure of trace is irreducible—and should not be thought as exclusively Derridean. It seems all but appropriated, inversely, to the promoters of geo-engineering to come, the “earth systems” crowd. These latter apprehend a sort of originary technicity but literalize that under the name anthropocene to promote a corporacratic era to come (only corporations can accomplish these things, and now own science broadly). So there is no one way this can be turned on its own. I do think there is a pulsion deriving from “deconstruction” regarded as a broad cloud of interventions that is key here—but only because it left tools to do so. I don’t identify that simply with “Derrida,” as a name or persona, and I don’t think it will in any way “save” the planet. We are beyond that.

[SKG] In your latest book "Theory and the Disappearing Future" (together with Claire Colebrook and J. Hillis Miller) you have written an intense essay about Paul de Man. What is the decisive point in this essay and the (late) work of Paul de Man for you? Would you see in de Man's reception of Walter Benjamin a possible corrective for a new form/modulation of deconstruction?

[Tom Cohen] De Man is interesting as an event and anomaly—an algorithm rather than a set of precise idioms or pre-occupations. Hence, my interest in re-reading his “abjection” from academic theory as a symptom of the latter. De Man was the one who was most resolute in pursuing the “irreversible” implications of thinking the erratic production of humanist ideology through what he called language (and ourselves, perhaps technics, media in a certain sense, mnemonic inscriptions). More so that Derrida, who can seem, today, regressive. In this, de Man was on the same page with the Benjamin of the Theses—where the latter virtually recalls geological time as the index of the human parenthesis. Compared to this, Derrida’s recycling of “weak messianism,” however hedged as a messianism without the messianic (easy to say), is regressive.

Since Benjamin is more rooted in the popular intellectual consciousness, and de Man produces a Benjamin we are closer to today—well, that is also useful. The point now is, what constitutes an “irreversible” position in relation to thinking the anthropocene, and de Man gives a foretaste. That is different that pretending one wants to recycle some “new” deconstruction along such lines. The word itself is entirely depleted and useless at present, since it always had a tentative afterlife anyway. To curdle it into some academic tribe clutching the cultural capital of a name is delusory on a certain level—and has proven counter-productive even to legacy-mongers in the academy given the fortunes of the term in what debates there are today.

In any case, it is interesting to see what Derrida comes to occlude, banish, or disenframe from his address—that would be a certain “materiality” outside of concepts, the machinal as bound to memory, “climate change” in its diverse extensions (which would suspend the premise of “deconstruction” as a transformation from within of a cultural destiny wired to reading and writing), but also, I have realized, cinema. The last absorbs the preceding in a curious way. And, of course, where he comes to occlude “de Man” in the end as well. One must read from and with these occlusions in mind today to find what in Derrida returns power to the current scene. And (I should stress) it is not necessary in itself. The question today is what in Derrida gives us tools in the 21st century and what does not, for a variety of reasons. There is no one “Derrida,” and what has not been grasped by some is that the “war with himself” he claims is for real.

[SKG] Could not this perhaps final phrase by Jacques Derrida (“Je suis en guerre contre moi-même”) be seen under the perspective of Derrida’s concept of “auto-immunity”?

[Tom Cohen] We allude to his “final” interview (changed in title in English—and you can see the group of legacy shapers dumbing it down—into “Learning to Live, Finally,” evoking the pathos of a dying philosopher so as not to take in that war). This is also the interview in which he says something very scandalous toward his followers. Basically, he disowns them. I think Derrida splits in this final,fortuitous (but clearly thought out in advance) interview. What does a certain Derrida split with—that he is at “war” with himself? Why is this title deleted from the “last” interview in the final English version, ameliorating and curtailing this war, since it is so threatening to some, notably “Derrideans,” for this stock of characters who have turned “deconstruction™” into a family franchise have been amusing—becoming everything deconstruction angled against, in order to preserve and capitalize the name “Derrida” (as a Vatican run orthodoxy of policing extenders wired to some patronage system). Very amusing. So Derrida had to go, on the way out, with this—a sort of vomiting, and tearing the contract with the “late Derrida” he had fabricated so as better to insert that into the academic mainstream. Part of that strategy was to cultivate a more and more submissive circle of friends, acolytes, entrepreneurs, carriers (this is what Peter Sloterdijk calls them)—in short, getting ready for the Derrideanism without deconstruction one sees today, sadly. So Derrida had to say, on the way out, no.

The same way he says on the way out that he is not for “marriage”—avoiding the hurt feelings. Similarly, in this interview Derrida denies having heirs, or even contemporary readers, and puts off that prospect to “later on,” should it open up. He expects his work to disappear within weeks of his death—this despite (or because of) the archival machine of submissive legatees that emerged in the third generation of Derridean allies. So, here there is another Derrida turned against the persona he’d fabricated and cultivated as an assurance against disappearance. But to recover the Derrida at war with this other is to turn toward the reading of the anthropocene itself, not by but of “deconstruction,” which avoided it (Derrida occludes addressing, as said, ecocatastrophics). That is a more interesting prospect; such a project voids the direction of “derrideanism” as a preservative reading; and it selectively accepts or dismisses, rewrites and pursues threads from the Derridean corpus it chooses to activate. It edits.

[SKG]  I would like to come back to a short remark you made in your answer to the fourth question, where you stated that "the premise of “deconstruction” as a transformation from within of a cultural destiny wired to reading and writing" should be suspended? Your readers will already know, that you have already written a lot about this topic, especially in your two volumes on “Hitchcock’s Cryptonymies”, but can you tell us a little more about your considerations?

[Tom Cohen] Well, the word deconstruction is elusive, accidental, and later on manipulated —say, by Derrida, as a third person entity (like “psychoanalysis” for Freud), that nonetheless was indexed to himself and his signature. Even de Man disavowed it in taking up the term. So, one could say that “deconstruction” in its appearance was, as Derrida insists, a gamble or wager—and that wager was that something which impedes the Western culture in its structuration could be displaced, dismantled, read otherwise and from an alterity that did not link back to a consciousness. And its wager was, to a degree, that interrupting this machine, of metaphysics or logocentrism, so called, opened to an alternate premise of translation—of which names would come trickling out, promoting (or rewriting) itself as a certain mode of “justice.” The wager nonetheless is that alternative modes of reading, modes that refused to concretize meaning regimes, would alter the production of the real.

[SKG] What role is played by the formula of "a materiality without matter" coined by Derrida in his last lecture on Paul de Man ("matérialité sans matière" Derrida, Le ruban, p. 134) in your thinking? How would you see this interpretation of de Man, if you would add Derrida's own ideas of a "matérialisme de la khôra", "matérialisme sans substance" in (Spectres de Marx, p. 267) with its obvious (quasi-)messianic subtones? Should one differentiate between de Man and the interpretative lecture of de Man given by Derrida, and why?

[Tom Cohen] I think when Derrida uses his “X without X” formula he is cheating—playing to the audience a bit, since the term “X” gets to linger nonetheless, and tends to return to its original affiliations. That is a hook for readers who need that term perhaps but compromises the deconstructive. “Late Derrida.” Compare this to the sous rature of yore. So when he applies this to de Man’s “materiality of inscription” it seems to me a strategy of disappropriation, and if anything, de Man’s phrase might rather be transposed as a matter without “materiality.” (De Man’s term tropes Benjamin’s “materialistic historiography,” to begin with, where the latter parries and voids the term “materialism” as he does that of the “historical,” as in historical materialism). So this parrying comes already with a history, and the “materiality” sought has a sort of matter in marks, scripts, traces, mnemonic formations of neural paths and marked public spaces (including screens). Derrida, of all people, comes closer to enphantoming the old sense of “materiality” he was loathe to engage as sheer metaphysics, the worst of the worst, by banishing it from his work mostly (except, as you say, around khora, otherwise). Derrida, who inhabited paradoxical networks of time he could always suspend, had difficulty accessing what would have been natural to that position—allowing for different types of trace; encountering differential time formations and agencies that were irreconcilable, marking a machinal operation he could not, so to speak, deconstruct. That lack is felt today. To some degree, the formulation of the “to come” was a lure and trap as a tool.

De Man and Benjamin’s turn on this point already appealed to a ghost term outside of binaries, not susceptible of being deconstructed, a different type of non-word—of which there are some in circulation. That is why, today, the anthropocene authorizes a certain deflation of some of Derrida’s rhetorical maneuvers and strategies (some forget that is, essentially, what his text leaves us—no positions). So some of Derrida’s gestures have to go for the moment: one can take some things, without entire folios of script. The tendency of Derrideans has been appalling in this regard from the point of view of instinct, strategy or anything else: just do more exegesis on Derrida, read him according to his text, try to get it “right,” and in the process never quite, shore up the name, memorialize the persona, etc. Disastrous. Derrideanism without “deconstruction.” And first, one must be able to criticize certain “Derridas? (there are enough to spare) from the point of view of deconstruction itself, now in the name of the anthropocene logics that are current. Derrida chose to ignore these, and died as they were becoming fully media aware—changing the referentials of all, including “archive.”

So: no more “messianisms without the messianic,” or democracies to come, or the pathos of undecidabilities in a faux ethics of the “other,” and so on. What remains—well, khora, humanualism, much else. But I would recommend to those choosing these paths to ignore for now the name “Derrida” or be busy transcribing his texts—just go to work with what you have imbibed, and write to these new horizons. That is what I call a melancholic deconstruction without “deconstruction”—since it is no longer about “survival” (as Derrida pretends), least of all of the proper name. Freud linked mourning to melancholia but only the first has been fetishized, including by Derrida, for the wrong reasons—and even Derrida has to plug this receding rhetorical move at a point (mourning for absolute mourning, and so on). This said, Derrida seemed to know this and in his last interview turns against the “late Derrida.” He says he is at war with himself there, that in fact the reading of him has not begun, that he has no heirs perhaps, that such a reading might begin “later on”—that it will all disappear within weeks of his actual death, all of it. This “later on” indexes generations beyond the present and, implicitly, the anthropocene. So a certain Derrida allies with this reading against the person of “Derrida” he had, strategically, crafted. He is “at war against (contre) ‘himself’.” Or, J.D. versus “Derrida.” 

[SKG] If I may, I would like to come back to what you spoke of as “What remains—well, khora, humanualism, much else”in the answer to my last question - could you be so kind to let us know a little more about this complex field?

[Tom Cohen] My suggestion is that Derrida was the greatest of rhetorical thinkers—rather Shakespeare like in his powers, if one understands the term rhetoric in a certain way—and that any variety of Derridean interventions are rhetorical innovations that do or do not maintain their traction today. The ones that played to the “persona” that was being managed and built and defended against, as the glue to an imaginary community (there are no “deconstructors” by virtue, simply, of miming Derridean styles or invoking difference—this deadend is palpable), recede as irrelevant. What tools have import are the ones more remote from the attempts of Derrideans to codify things like an “ethical” deconstruction, and so on, as if the “late” Derrida represents the telos and apex of some cryptic teaching. In fact, much of it is spinning; there are many surprising relapses adapted to occasion, there is much cunning, there are performed “Derrida’s” and manipulations of what certain readerships think they want from him. . . . He had to manage a corporate enterprise by then after all; keep a gang of servicers happy and available; and fight off the auto-immune zones that were concretizing already about him. Something was wrong in this picture—and the guy should have exiled himself for several months on an island to scribble what occurred to him outside that juggling act. One really has to conclude that Derrida bred second-level, dutiful followers to program for the necessarily job of consignation and academic memorialization—the price of archival survival, and the faux premise of controlling his afterlife despite knowing better. This corruption then is indexed by the “war” with myself, where another Derrida, with a certain nausea no doubt, and despair, turned against that artifice, always partial, almost self-contaminating.

His entire choice of the rhetorics of alterity (Levinasian in dna) or the X without X formula were expressions of rhetorical compromises and traps in certain ways—he’d always assumed, being “Derrida,” these would be implicitly doubled, ironized, but at the same time, he was consciously bidding to construct a “hospitable” Derrida, to Trojan horse the mainstream in his afterlife: serious conflict here, and the inertness of “deconstruction” today is its lifeless residue for the moment. There was something weakened in the late Derrida, despairing, and he seemed to draw and enjoy the comfort of acolytes to excess—or as a practical calculus. These strains: humanualism—which does not direct us to thinking

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