Writing and the absence of Context: Derrida

In Signature Event Context (here from Limited Inc) Derrida offers this note on the relationship of writing to context:

At the same time, a written sign carries with it a force that breaks with its context, that is, with the collectivity of presences organizing the moment of its inscription. This breaking force [force de ruptureis not an accidental predicate but the very structure of the written text. In the case of a so-called “real” context, what I have just asserted is all too evident. This allegedly real context includes a certain “present” of the inscription, the presence of the writer to what he has written, the entire environment and the horizon of his experience, and above all the intention, the wanting-to-say-what-he-means, which animates his inscription at a given moment. But the sign possesses the characteristic of being readable even if the moment of its production is irrevocably lost and even if I do not know what its alleged author-scriptor consciously intended to say at the moment he wrote it, i.e. abandoned it to its essential drift. As far as the internal semiotic context is concerned, the force of the rupture is no less important: by virtue of its essential iterability, a written syntagma can always be detached from the chain in which it is inserted or given without causing it to lose all possibility of function­ ing, if not all possibility of “communicating,” precisely. One can perhaps come to recognize other possibilities in it by inscribing it or grafting it onto other chains. No context can entirely enclose it. Nor any code, the code here being both the possibility and impossibility of writing, of its essential iterability (repetition/alterity).
[Derrida (1988), ‘Signature Event Context’, in Limited IncNorthwestern University Press, p9] 

This sense of the discontinuity between the context of textual production (indeed cultural production in general) and the resulting text is greatly troubling for anyone trying to use writing to investigate other places, other people, other times.  I have turned to Becker, Benjamin & Barthes (especially S/Z) to help find ways around this problem but it might be that it is impossible to do so.  If so we will not only have to live with Ankersmit’s metaphorism but learn to embrace & acknowledge it.

“The Parameters set by Values”

“the field of force, generated by values and convictions, which defined the sphere of instrumental rationality”
d’Avray, Medieval Religious Rationalities, p 163

“Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic proc­esses, knowledge relationships, sexual relations), but are immanent in the latter; they are the immediate effects of the divisions, inequalities, and disequilibriums which occur in the latter, and conversely they are the internal conditions of these differentiations; relations of power are not in superstructural positions, with merely a role of prohibition or accompaniment; they have a directly pro­ductive role, wherever they come into play.”
Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1, p94


“There were formal rules and formulae to regulate dispensations from the rules.”
d’Avray, Medieval Religious Rationalities, p168

“the unwritten rules which qualify the application of the law”
Zizek, Did Somebody say Totalitarianism, p34

“the netherworld of unwritten obscene rules which regulate the ‘inherent transgression’ of the community, the way we are allowed/expected to violate its explicit rules.”
Zizek, For They Know not What They do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor, plxi
Wesley Rykalski

d’Avray / Foucault

In d’Avray’s compelling volumes on rationalities (CUP 2010) there is no trace of Foucault. There are no index entries for power. Yet d’Avray has worked, through Weber, to remarkably similar conclusions to Foucault on what power is and how it functions in society.

“The chameleon-like character of instrumental rationality explains why its universality is not patently obvious. In a combination of values and instrumental reasoning the instrumental element is hard to distinguish.” “We have defined instrumental rationality as the ability to put two and two together logically and causally (granted premises which may indeed vary enormously from culture to culture and person to person).”
d’Avray, Rationalities in History, p59

“Instrumental rationality is like the water added to different kinds of dehydrated foods: the outcome conceals the common component. Or is like an adroit speech-writer, who can promote almost any kind of conviction. It wears the livery of the values it serves. Thus
instrumental rationality is universal, but it is shaped by value
d’Avray, Rationalities in History, p135

“Was this simply about power, instrumental rationality uncoupled from
… values?” 

d’Avray, Medieval Religious Rationalities, p146 

“Power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective. If in fact they are intelligible, this is not because they are the effect of another instance that “explains” them, but rather because they are imbued, through and through, with calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject; let us not look for the headquarters that presides over its rationality; neither the caste which governs, nor the groups which control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society (and makes it function); the rationality of power is characterized by tactics that are often quite explicit at the restricted level where they are inscribed (the local cynicism of power), tactics which, becoming connected to one an­ other, attracting and propagating one another, but finding their base of support and their condition elsewhere, end by forming comprehensive systems: the logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them, and few who can be said to have formulated them: an implicit characteristic of the great anonymous, almost unspoken strategies which coordinate the loquacious tactics whose “inventors” or decisionmakers are often without hypocrisy.

Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1, p94-95

The equation of power & instrumental rationality is the perfect marker of this.

It is this congruence that proves the crucial importance (the centrality) of ‘theory’ to History. Just as you cannot read an edited text without its critical apparatus (see West, M (1973) Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique, BG Teubner p7) you cannot read society or culture with out the appropriate critical apparatus: sociological, anthropological, literary, psychological, & critical theory.

“the past as a process of becoming the present”

“Paradoxically,the past remains the most useful analytical tool for coping with constant change, but in a novel form. It turns into the discovery of history as a process of directional change, of develop- ment or evolution. Change thus becomes its own legitimation, but it is thereby anchored to a transformed “sense of the past”. Bagehot’s Physics and Politics (1872) is a good nineteenth-century example of this; current concepts of “modernization” illustrate more simple-minded versions of the same approach. In brief, what legitimates the present and explains it is not now the past as a set of reference-points (for example Magna Carta), or even as duration (for example the age of parliamentary institutions) but the past as a process of becoming the present. Faced with the overriding reality of change, even conservative thought becomes historicist. Perhaps, because hindsight is the most persuasive form of the historian’s wisdom, it suits them better than most.”

Hobsbawm, E. J. (1972) ‘The Social Function of the Past- Some Questions’, Past & Present, No. 55 (May) 


Thinking About the Work in the Thing

In his discussion of the common medieval practice of storing wealth as gold ornaments and pawning or, especially, melting them down in times of monetary need Marc Bloch offers this insight:

But a custom like this also bears witness to the low value set upon the element of human labour in the economy of this period.  If anyone could so easily resign himself to losing the value of the work embodied in the material, it is evident that this could not have represented a very high proportion of the loss.

Bloch, M (1967) ‘Natural Economy or Money Economy: a pseudo-dilemma’ in Land and Work in Medieval Europe, trans JE Anderson, Routledge & Kean Paul, London

Besides the fact that this one passage seems to refute all attempts to place objects and the material at the centre of analysis of life-in-society (for reasons similar to this) it also cearly speaks to the one crucial similartity between the medieval and now: the gulf between elite consumption and dependent labour.   

Identity as Textuality: Gender as ‘Code’?

text as the production of society

In this blog I have suggested that we should (following Barthes injunction to do so) use S/Z as the starting point for thinking about other codes/voices that could be involved in the construction of texts (i.e. the harpocratic code & the cryptographic code) and I think we could work with gender & sexuality in texts in the same way.  

things in texts are just that; things in texts

One of the problems of History (one of its main ‘disciplined errors’ in Foucault’s terms [Foucault, M (1971)]) is that things in texts are taken-as [Edwards, D (1997)]  though they were things outside texts and not for what they are.  So a character in a text who referes to a person ‘in reality’ will be counted-as that extra-textual person.  When that extra-textual person is just one more Code/Voice at work in the social production of the text. 

“is there a women in this text?”

This problem is especially acute in the pre-modern as the control of textual production was typically reserved to men (even in those circumstances where high status women could commission works the labour was most likely carried out by men).  If we take the enclosed female figures discussed by Bynum [Bynum, CW (1987Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the religious significance of food to medieval women, University of California Press] we can see that they are just that; figures.  The problem of Holy Feast and Holy Fast is that it is about the wrong thing and thus simply wrong in every way; its sub-title should really be ‘the social significance of the trope of medieval women’s relationship to food in the writings of selected hagiographers’.

The Prosoponic Code/ The Voice of the Actor

We should take the extra-textual person present in the text as figure to be one more warp or weft in the fabric of the text.