Heavy Materialists

Half century after the publication of Jacques Derrida’s On Grammatology, Speech and Difference, and Writing and Difference (1967), three founding texts of deconstructionism, it is time for an obituary.

When I attended the Literary Theory classes on the last year of my graduation, I read its main popes, from Paul de Man to Geoffrey Hartman, and Algeria-born Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida. I believed I was a deconstructionist too. I ranked first among the course, which had nothing to do with my brilliance: the thing was I got to write in the manner of Derrida, therefore concealing my own style, my own voice, my own difference.

This was double nonsense: on one hand, I embodied the belief that writing was not representative of speaking, but instead it had a semiotic value of its own – but I was giving up my written voice; on the other hand, I was fascinated by the critical flavor of the whole thing and I read Limited Inc. (a nefarious paradigm of intellectual dishonesty against John Searle) with about the same sadistic delight someone might found in watching their team humbling a rival. Not the most critical attitude, I suppose.

Things eventually went wilder as I kept writing in the manner of Derrida, or so was I persuaded, until an outstanding teacher and co-director of my MA told me I should not write as if I was Derrida because I was not Derrida. This conversation took place only a few months before the philosopher was diagnosed with pancreas cancer, so everyone including myself still had the opportunity to hate him without feeling guilty or ashamed. I took my chances and decided to read the indigestible Glas. When I saw the Galilée edition, whose square shape made it stood out from the other books of the same publisher, so that the double column might fit in the page, I remember thinking quite naively that everyone who writes a book should have the right to choose the format of the object. However, my naiveté had to do with the actual possibilities of providing for such diversity; it did not have to do with the importance of the work’s materiality – which is another way of saying presence, although they are not synonymous.

So now, fifty years after On Grammatology was published, it is worth noting that it was, in the first place, an unsuccessful doctoral thesis. The director was certainly not to blame: Maurice de Gandillac, a brilliant scholar and professor at the Sorbonne for more than thirty years, directed the first monographs or theses by Lyotard, Althusser, Foucault, among others. Guess what happened to Gandillac? In 2005, the year after the Derrida’s death, he published Bestiaire latéral, a poetry book, with textique founder Jean Ricardou (who died in 2016). Textique, according to Daniel Bilous, is a “heavy materialism” – not to be mistaken by a moral judgment of consumerism; it is a rigorous call to what is present and a consequential refusal of all things metaphysical or assigning equivalent status to representation and presence. Representation and presence are not equivalent. Metaphysics is always about representation. Presence is the experience of matter and volume.

Performance art is much closer to the materialist regime of textique than to the embarrassing religiosity of the deconstructionists. The performance artist lives in the world, is part of the world, and can only deal with matter, its properties and its incompleteness. Doing is unbelieving.