Higher Education Philosophy

Longing For An Impossible Past – Derrida’s Of Grammatology And The Coronavirus As The Inauguration Of An Age Of Writing, Part 2 (Jared Lacy)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

Furthermore there is an element of nostalgia implicit in this desire. Like the armed protestors who stormed city capital buildings across the United States, there is a sense among certain students and faculty, that in the age of Coronavirus and social distancing, we have lost something like a parousia, an unmediated full presence, that had obtained at some point in therecent past. There is a general wish “to go back from the supplement to the source.17 

This is described in terms of birth and rebirth or awakening and re-awakening: “birth is the birth (of) presence. Before it there is no presence; and from the moment that presence, holding or announcing itself to itself, fissures its plenitude and starts the chain of history, death’s work has begun.”18 

From this rebirth, or re-awakening in the context of Rousseau’s encounter with the great dane, is therefor the means by which presence is supposed to be regained. Rousseau describes his experience of being knockout by a large dog and the experience of re-awakening wherein, we are told, he says “I came to myself”: “I was born in that instant to life, and it seemed to me that I filled with my light existence all the objects which I perceived. Entirely giving up to the present moment, I did not remember anything; I had no distinct notion of my individuality, not the least idea of what had happened to me; I did not know who I was nor where I was; I felt neither evil nor fear, not trouble.”19 

The apparently typical ego dissolution experience which Rousseau describes, figures presence as in opposition to imagination—“Rousseau would like to separate the awakening to presence from the operation of imagination”—in that “this pleasure, which is the only pleasure, is at the same time properly unimaginable. Such is the paradox of the imagination; it alone arouses or irritates desire but also it alone, and for the same reason, in the same movement, overflows or divides presence.”20 The operation of imagination then, in dividing presence and prohibiting a state with “no distinct notion of … individuality,” amounts to a state of self-reflection as representation—consider one’s own image reflected back among the grid of images of the mediated presences of the Zoom meeting.  The idea that when this operation of the imagination “appears, signs … and letters emerge, and they are worse than death” reflects the conservative slogan for re-opening the economy which states that “the cure is worse than the disease.”

However, as with Rousseau and his state of re-awakening—the means by which one is supposed to make a return to presence, to the source—the open-the-economy protesters have their sights set on a source that is already a supplement as, indeed, when “one wishes to go back from the supplement to the source: one must recognize that there is a supplement at thes source.”21 In other words, while what these protesters objected to, like Rousseau and his public festival, could be understood on a certain level as representation/supplement interrupting their access to an originary presence/source, they failed to realize that, by nature of this formulation, the source they wished to return to was already a supplement.

This can be seen for instance in the way that during the height of pandemic response measures there was a prevalent fear of an impending totalitarian police state, while several weeks later, when protests against the killing of George Floyd erupted across the nation, many of the same conservative voices promptly abandoned any critique of policing in favor of their more typical law-and-order rhetoric. What this shows is that, by seeing the possibility of a police state as a supplementary interruption of the source, by failing to see that—insofar as the police state that is feared has always been the lived reality of Black Americans throughout U.S. history—there is a supplement at the source, “it follows—but it is a liaison that Rousseau [and conservative protesters] work[] very hard to elide—that the very essence of presence, if it must always be repeated within another presence, opens originarily, in presence itself, the structure of representation.”22

That being the case, this type of nostalgia is indicative of what Lauren Berlant, in her book Cruel Optimism, refers to as cruel optimism, in that what the open-the-economy protesters (as well as students and faculty who spend their energy bemoaning socially distanced learning) “desire is actually an obstacle to [their] flourishing.”23   In this case, what is desired can be seen as an obstacle to flourishing by virtue of the fact that resistance to social distancing measures can directly increase the death toll. However, on a less extreme level, as Berlant says, optimistic relations (in this case, opening the economy or resuming face-to-face learning) “become cruel … when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.”24 

Indeed, it is relatively apparent that this nostalgia which the public festival in the age of COVID-19 refers back to, which is seen as “a form analogous to the political meetings of a free and legiferant assembled people” is nothing other than the neoliberal order that has dominated global politics and economic policy for the last forty years—the utopian illusion of which, while short lived during the neoliberal heyday, seems to have made a ghostly reappearance in the disjointed time of global pandemic.

In her reading of an untitled poem by John Ashbery, Berlant describes what could be seen as the fundamental disconnect between the possibility of an originary presence and the neoliberal norm to which the open-the-economy protesters wish to return. While the presence of the public festival implies a proximity of presence, a lack of social distance, and consequently a certain intimate intersubjectivity, Berlant points out that “existentially and psychoanalytically speaking, intersubjectivity is impossible.  It is a wish, a desire, and a demand for an enduring sense of being with and in x and is related to that big knot that marks the indeterminate relation between a feeling of recognition and misrecognition.”25

We see from Ashbery’s poem (“We drove downtown to see our / neighbors. None of them were home. / We nestled in yards the municipality had / created”) that:

If anything, the explicit rhetoric of the neighbor shows it to be aware, after all, that the American dream does not allow a lot of time for curiosity about people it is not convenient or productive to have curiosity about. It is a space where the pleasure that one’s neighbors give is in their proximity, their light availability to contact: in the American dream we see neighbors when we want to, when we’re puttering outside or perhaps in a restaurant, and in any case the pleasure they provide is in their relative distance, their being parallel to, without being inside of, the narrator’s “municipally”zoned property, where he hoards and enjoys his leisured pleasure, as though in a vineyard in the country, and where intrusions by the nosy neighbor, or superego, would interrupt his projections of happiness from the empire of the backyard.26

Thus, Berlant shows that the American dream, the proposed model of originary presence, itself consists of a divided presence that masquerades as presence. As such, we are “willing to have our memories rezoned by the constant tinkering required to maintain the machinery and appearance of dependable life.”27

In conjunction with Berlant’s approach via affect theory, which focuses more on the impasse of an attachment to a system that does not serve the purposes and needs that it is supposed to serve, in The Age of Disruption, Bernard Stiegler has shown, in a far more Derridean approach, that the above mentioned norm, which is positioned within what Stiegler refers to as “the epoch of the absence of epoch,” far from being the site of originary presence, consist of such profound disruption that many of the younger generation believe that theirs “will be the last generation, or one of the last, before the end.”28 

More specifically, the disruption that is “the barbarism specific to the absence of epoch consists in always outstripping and overtaking” the “retentional and protentional systems [which] amounted to epochs,” “so that they seem always already futile.”29   There is a through line of continuity here, which supports the knowledge that there is a supplement at the source,” in that Stiegler’s analysis is little altered by the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Stiegler’s discussion of primary, secondary, and tertiary retentions are key to understanding this. While “primary and secondary retentions are psychic realities … Tertiary retentions are artificial retentions, not psychic but technical, such as archives, recordingsand technical reproductions in general.”30 

It was the advent of broadcast forms of analogue tertiary retentions, i.e., radio and television, that inaugurated the absence of epoch by way of the fact that “it became possible to massify behaviour and to short-circuit the collective protentions constitutive of an epoch.”31 Furthermore, going beyond analogue tertiary retentions, Stiegler says of digital tertiary retentions, of which the Zoom meeting as a form of writing is a part, “hence it is that the data economy comes to replace the industry of cultural goods. This replacement … is a disruption of what was already disruptive.”32 This disruption is the lack of presence at the heart of the presence that the open-the-economy protesters and face-mask- resisters desire to return to.

Drawing upon Derrida’s discussion of Hamlet in his Specters of Marx, it is a time out of joint, but one which the open-the-economy protesters refuse to acknowledge. In this way, we can understand the true crisis as preceding the physical spread of the virus in much the way Derrida describes when he says that “there is tragedy, there is essence of the tragic only on the condition of this originarity, more precisely of this preoriginary and properly spectral anteriority of the crime.”33 

We can understand, then, a fundamental disconnect between these shelter-in-place protesters and the crisis by which the time is disjointed. As such, despite the fact that “it is in this desperate context that the absence of epoch seems condemned to rush headlong to its end, not as the beginning of a new epoch but as the ‘last generation’,” it is this disjointure of time that allows for the possibility of any outcome, in the still to come, beyond “this ‘worst’ currently underway.”34 

For, “to be ‘out of joint’ … can do harm and do evil, it is no doubt the very possibility of evil. But without the opening of this possibility, there remains, perhaps, beyond good and evil, only the necessity of the worst.”35 As Stiegler says of tertiary retentions, which (consisting of such categories as “archives, recordings and technical reproductions”) can also be understood as degrees of writing in general, “any tertiary retention … is a pharmakon.”36 

In his essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy” Derrida says that“Socrates compares the written texts Phaedrus has brought along to a drug (pharmakon). This pharmakon, this ‘medicine,’ this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence.”37   The writing inaugurated by the age of Coronavirus, then, in every way, acts with the ambiguity thus described. First, it is a medicinal response to a global pandemic which attempts to reduce the body count of said pandemic. In relation to shelter-in-place protesters, it acts “through seduction, the pharmakon makes one stray from one’s general, natural, habitual paths and laws.”38 

In much the same way that the written text had brought Socrates out of his proper place in the city, so Coronavirus response measures have induced behaviors in many middle class conservative Americans which they would normally abhor. As such, the harm/benefit of writing in the age of COVID-19, i.e., Zoom meetings, social distancing protocols, and masks cannot so simply or finally be determined. As Stiegler says, despite the disruption of digital tertiary retentions, “the new pharmakon that arose with digital tertiary retention brought with it new opportunities.”39 Instead, it is “the prior medium in which differentiation in general is produced … it is the differance of difference.”40 

Thus, while the desire to reopen the economy, to resist the mask, or prematurely return to face-to-face learning despite the threat of the ongoing pandemic seems to represent a resistance to the disjointure of time that seeks only to embrace the worst abuses of a neoliberal order in decay, and the writing/ pharmakon/supplement which “the disappearance of that face is the movement of differance which violently opens writing or … which opens itself to writing and which writing opens for itself” contains all the ambiguity of the harmful with the beneficent, it is deconstructive thinking that opens a path beyond the worst through the crisis of which the pandemic is only a part.41

Thus, the potential pitfalls and benefits of these forms of socially distant communication correspond to Derrida’s question regarding justice: “is this day before us, to come, or more ancient than memory itself? If it is difficult, in truth impossible, today, to decide it is precisely because ‘the time is out of joint.’”42 

Ultimately, however, this urge to reopen the economy and resume face-to-face learning, much like Rousseau’s dream “of the simple exteriority of death to life, evil to good, representation to presence, signifier to signified, representer to represented, mask to face, writing to speech,” points to an originary presence that never really was, to a source that was always already a supplement.43 Thus, by longing for an impossible past, for a freedom in the proximity of speech in a neoliberal Eden that never truly obtained, over and against these new norms of writing, and instead of engaging with and “thinking writing beyond good and evil,” we foreclose the possibility for a best-case-scenario still to come.44

Jared Lacy is a graduate student in Religious Studies at the University of Denver.


16  Derrida, Of Grammatology, 334

17  Derrida, Of Grammatology, 330

18  Derrida, Of Grammatology, 337

19 Derrida, Of Grammatology, 337, 338

20  Derrida, Of Grammatology, 338

21  Derrida, Of Grammatology, 330

22 Derrida, Of Grammatology, 339

23 Berlant, Lauren Gail. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press, 2012. 1

24 Berlant, 1

25 Berlant, 26

26 Berlant, 29, 30

27 Berlant, 31

28 Stiegler, Bernard. Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism. Polity Press, 2019. 5, 9

29 Stiegler, 21

30  Stiegler, 22

31  Stiegler, 23

32  Stiegler, 25

33 Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York: Routledge, 2011. 24

34 Stiegler, 25

35 Derrida, Specters of Marx, 34

36 Stiegler, 24

37 Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” In Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, and Post- Modernism, 429–50, n.d. 429

38 Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” 429

39 Stiegler, 24

40 Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” 443

41 Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” 446

42 Derrida, Specters of Marx, 25

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