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Category Archives: Derrida

Some Doubt about Skeptics

A conversation over Doubt

Duck, over at Duckrabbit, has been voicing some kind of difficulty in understanding just what the Skeptics of communication are after (he seems to mostly have Derrida in mind). Clearly communication works, and it happens all the time. So when someone like Davidson (or Gadamer) comes along with a rather neat theory that helps explain just how this happens, the groudwork of this capacity, Skeptics appear to be in kind of denial of some of the most obvious and beneficial of things.

These are some of my thoughts on the issue, important enough to write aboutr since I share with duck a love for Davidson:

From duck’s post “Davidson and Gadamer”:

But as Clark was describing it, Derrida’s charge seems not to be one of relativism, but instead of dogmatism. Where we assume that communication is successful (such that our task is to explain how such a thing is possible), it may yet be that there is instead a “radical rupture” of some (necessarily) mysterious kind. This claim sounds to me like the ontological cum semantic equivalent of Cartesian radical epistemological doubt: offended by our seeming complacency concerning the apparent smoothness of typical conversation, the skeptical soixante-huitard imp hops in with dire warnings of ruptures and fissures and cracks, oh my!

My thoughts were as follows, and his response:

One wonders why “ruptures and fissures and cracks” have to be necessarily of the disastrous kind. (Do errors in replication prove necessarily foul in DNA?) Are not, and is not, Derrida’s point that fissures are irruptive of creative force? That mistakes and mis-mappings can be productive? Yes, along with Davidson we can theorize that my predictions are governed by a ballast of successful prediction, but too, there is a counter-weight of the play of a successful mis-understanding, the way that possibilities of discovering “what one meant” (even what you yourself meant), are what is endemic to rupturing meanings.

To offer an example from the aforementioned. When Descartes spoke of the centrality of Hyperbolic Doubt, did he in any way have in mind (mean?) the Hyperbolic lenses he was attempting to devise? (Is this conflation a malapropism of sorts, an accidental blurring of argumentative clarity, which should have chosen another word?) This is a rupture in meaning, one that brings down, and at the same time fortifies from another perspective, what the Cartesian project was.

Indeed, not only are successes, but I believe Derrida’s point is, so are failures, in their very failure nature (an inclusion of what seems should be marginal).

“Lions, and Tigers and Bears” have purposes too.

When he had responded in an affirming fashion, I thought we had come to an agreement. Gotten was the play of language, and its creative possibilites, come from the borders of sense:

duck wrote: Maybe that is his point (let’s be charitable). And maybe that’s even true (I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t be, in some sense). But it would take a serious misreading of Davidson to think that that posed any serious threat to his project (on my not entirely faithful reading). (Gadamer too, I bet, but I’m less sure there.) Thus my comparison to skeptical alarms.

But maybe such a misreading is itself irruptive of creative force! If so, create away.

But it seems that he still harbors doubts about the Doubters, as he protests against the seemingly nonsensical aims (ambiguity intended) of these overturners of “communication”. He makes a very good point, in that one has to get a grip on what Skeptics think communication is, if one it understand why they are so resistant to it. But the extent of “charity” seems strained for him:

duck: I’m not sure what skeptics about communication think communication is, that we may so easily doubt that it occurs (that is, that it is the default case). It’s not the magically total and transparent availability to one of another’s mind. It’s when you have some idea what (i.e. in the world) they’re talking about, such that you have some idea whether or not you agree with them (or can do what they ask, or whatever). Set the conceptual bar too high, and voilà, “breakdowns and aporia.” Just like epistemological skepticism.

And these are my thoughts on the matter. I am not a Derridist, but I think it is important to understand the nature of that project, the over-riding metaphor or trope that it is operant there, that sense-making is power distribution in the service of “clear appearance”, so to see the possible consequences of “transparency of mind”:

I agree with Musicalcolin, when she/he says,

I understand Derrida’s critique to be something about the totalizing power of interpretation. That is, interpretations may succeed, but in that very success may also be an imposition.”

“Those Skeptics” are not perverse deniers of the capacity to communicate, rather they are the critics of reified communication (the capacity itself) as it comes to be dogmatically passed down in social forms. Wittgenstein’s playful Language Gamees can become a bit more Kafkaesque in courtrooms.

What is at stake here though, in the transparency of minds question, is that if indeed the process can be anchored in some particular, fixed discriminating way, one may be able to “see into” someone else’s mind, and categorically determine that they are not “making sense”, or, in a more Davidsonian way, that the sense that they make is based on having “bad beliefs” (apparent to everyone). The Skeptics want to say, there is no vantage point from which “sense” can be divorced from structures of power. Such structures, and their discourses, rest upon an essential capacity to make minds transparent. All the good stuff, the transparency that helps us connect, plays right into the mechanisms of defining what is sense and what is not. And any definitive way that “transparency” is achieved, becomes a mechanism of control. (It is for this reason, of course, that Descartes’ invented his radical doubt, to unhinge himself from social forms of power, in project of attempting to look straight into the ration divine.) Skeptics, like Derrida, are not interested in simply throwing wrench-doubt for doubt’s sake into a supposedly well-oiled and beneficent machine (communication): Hey, can’t you see how well this stuff works! Rather, they are bent on undercutting the bonds of meaning, at a radical level, so as to open up a space for counter discourse, speaking ever out from the shadow of meaning, from the periphery.

For Derridists and their sort, the issue of miscommuniation it is not just as duck says, a product of setting the “conceptual bar too high”, a kind of “we are just asking too much from communication in the first place”. It is more gaining a space for critiquing occasions where the bar doesn’t seem high at all, where we seem to see unproblematically (but thoroughly culturally invested) into the minds of others, and come to know “just what they are thinking”.

It is absolutely essential, and combinatory, that we understand what other people are thinking, but but something more than just “communicating” has happened when we do so. Keeping track of this more, is what I believe Derrida (and others) are after. When the world coheres, it is “our” world.

I thought this topic is worth posting, as it actually shows a kind of Davidsonian truth, one that undercuts Derrida’s point to some degree (all “knowing” is not simply a “presencing”, but also is a bodily “doing”). When describers of communicablity have difficulty accepting what a skeptic about communication has to say, it very well may be that they mean different things when talking about what “communication” is. What communication is, is both a homogenizing process (“if you become enough like me, you would agree with me”) and a self-transformative process (“if I become enough like you, I would agree with you”). It touches on the very boundaries of, and experience of “the self”, our perimeters of coherence and perception. I think that duck was very right in his intuition to refer to the “lions and tigers and bears” of rupture in communication. For such creatures can very well be the playthings of adult-child fantasy; Derrida, at his worst, can be seen as playing a tedious and impish game of “gotcha” and pin-the-phallus-on-the-argument-donkey. But ruptures in communication also can be, and do in history become, the very real terrors which help construct our Emerald City of “transparent minds”, for better or worse.


So is it wrong to ask, What is in the basement of the Emerald City of communication?