Derrida and Literarity

I’m currently reading an interview with Derrida conducted by Derek Attridge in April 1989, since translated into English in Acts of Literature (1992). (If someone could let me know where to get hold of the original French interview, I’d be grateful). Of all philosophers, Derrida is the most dangerous to quote out of context, but I couldn’t resist his definition of ‘literarity’:

…there is no text which is literary in itself. Literarity is not a natural essence, an intrinsic property of the text. It is the correlative of an intentional relation to the text, an intentional relation which integrates in itself, as a component or an intentional layer, the more or less implicit consciousness of rules which are conventional or institutional – social, in any case. Of course, this does not mean that literarity is merely projective or subjective – in the sense of the empirical subjectivity or caprice of the reader. The literary character of the text is inscribed on the side of the intentional object, in its noematic structure, one could say, and not on the subjective side of the noetic act. There are “in” the text features which call for the literary reading and recall the convention, institution, or history of literature. This noematic structure is included (as “nonreal,” in Husserl’s terms) in subjectivity, but a subjectivity which is non-empirical and linked to an intersubjective and transcendental community. (p. 44)

It takes a few read-throughs to appreciate the sheer brilliance of this passage. The tightrope Derrida is walking here is terrifyingly thin. On the one side, there is the gulf of full-blown literary essentialism, whereby certain texts are deemed Literary simply because they are Literature. (This is the conservative conception of Literature that goes along with the canon and a whole host of reactionary paraphernalia). On the other side, there is the abyss of pragmatism, whereby a certain text is only literary because a specific conjunction of material practices and institutions have deemed it to be so. (This is usually the radical conception of Literature, one to which Terry Eagleton subscribes more or less readily, and to which I have myself been warily partial up to now). If you fall into the essentialist gulf, you end up some sort of authoritarian typologist, guarding the boundaries of Literature against the riff-raff of pop culture and the surly brows of philosophy. But if you tumble into the abyss of pragmatism, you risk missing the subtleties of the subjective and objective constitutions of literature.

Derrida, obviously, avoids the essentialist trap: ‘Literarity is not a natural essence’. Instead, literarity is an ‘intentional relation’. Thus far, then, he seems to be opting for pragmatism: no text is in itself literary, but has – in the famous phrase of Eagleton – ‘literariness thrust upon it’. A text is literary if I intend it to be literary, if I treat it as literature. But at this point Derrida turns to the language of phenomenology. Literarity can’t be found in the text (object), and nor can it be located in the reader (subject), so where is it? It is, he tells us, in the ‘side of the intentional object, the noematic structure’. Now, I’m no great phenomenologist, but if we simplify we could say that in his analysis of intentionality Husserl distinguished between ‘noesis’ and ‘noema’. Noesis (adj. ‘noetic’) is the act of consciousness, the act of perceiving. ‘Noema’ (adj. ‘noematic’), on the other hand, is the intentional object, the object as perceived. (Remember the mantra of phenomenology: all consciousness is consciousness of something). So both the noetic and the noematic are internal to the structure of intention – in other words, they are both aspects of subjectivity. The noematic is the objective aspect of subjectivity (intentionality): it is the object-within-subjectivity, the object-of-intentionality (which must not be confused with the real object in the real world; indeed, for Husserl, the noema is not reell).

In other words, literarity is a no-thing, a sort of ghostly passiveness immanent to intentionality. And the phantom imagery is not coincidental, since the ‘spectral logic’ that Derrida would later develop arguably began with the essays included in Speech and Phenomena, in which Husserl’s being haunted by the real irreality of the ‘noema’ becomes the self-differing origin of différance. The noematic structure is the undecidable, phantasmatic objectivity through which the (dead?) voices of the ‘intersubjective and transcendental community’ ‘call for the literary reading’: literarity is an essentially ambiguous realm on the border between singular intention and communal constitution.


12 thoughts on “Derrida and Literarity

  1. Claudia says:

    Derrida d’ici, Derrida de là
    Format : 17 x 24,5 cm
    Nombre de pages : 304
    Prix : 38 €
    Date de parution : 2009
    ISBN : 9782718607948
    Editions Galilee
    witch include the french interview JACQUES DERRIDA et DEREK ATTRIDGE : “Cette étrange institution qu’on appelle la littérature”

  2. Markku Nivalainen says:

    Interesting! To me it seems that there are two main ways of approaching the question of the literary – and they are more or less determined by what the thinkers are majoring in. At least this is the case in Finland.

    The philosophers tend to have an analytical background whereas the students of literature Heideggerian (or) phenomenological leanings. The philosophers are more or less pragmatic and the lit. students promote some kind of bizarre mysticism in which literature, or art, is somekind of a universal key to all the important questions regarding culture and humanity. The Derridean solution seems to be about accepting both – and retaining the mysticism.

    My own interest is in dialectics (mainly Adorno) and I seriously hope that there is a more convincing way to bridge the extremes. Unfortunately I have no idea what it might be.

    Thanks for the excellent post and the great blog!

    1. Daniel Hartley says:

      Hi Markku,

      Many thanks for the comment, I’m glad you found the post interesting. I agree more or less with what you say about the two approaches, and it’s something I’m thinking a great deal about at the moment. I also find that different national traditions determine the issue in different ways. I find it interesting, for example, that the division in Finland is between analytic philosophers and the Heideggerian/ phen. ‘mystics’, as you call them! In Britain I’d suggest that the split is slightly different. It tends to be between the literary Marxists/ cultural materialists (Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, etc.) and the literary deconstructionists (by ‘literary’ here I mean simply those who are employed by literature departments). The former stress that literature is a material symbolic practice like any other and should be duly historicised as such, whereas the latter can tend (as you note yourself) to ‘mystify’ literature by speaking as if it were some kind of absolute.

      Hence my surprise on reading this interview with Derrida, because what he’s doing here is historicising the ‘mysticism’ to the extent that he’s broaching a new realm. One can’t accuse him of ahistorical, mystificatory talk about some eternal ‘literature’ because he’s quite explicit about the modernity of the institution of literature. But nor can one say that he adopts a historical materialist line, since there remains something which eludes historical reduction. As someone who sees himself as undergoing an ‘apprenticeship’ in the historical materialist tradition myself, I find this passage stimulatingly troubling.

      1. Markku Nivalainen says:

        Hi there!

        Obviously distinctions like these are always difficult to make, but a few days after my original rant I’m starting to feel the case of Finland is even trickier than I originally thought. I studied philosophy and the one and only other philosophy major in my university I am aware of who was interested in questions regarding the philosophy of literature was a full blown Heideggerian. Since my days as an undergraduate I have met a dozen literature majors who are all Heideggerians. The few philosophy majors I know had an analytical background and seem to be mainly interested in logic, possible worlds and speech acts.

        This whole field of literary theory or critical theory does not have the kind of academic status than it has in the English speaking world. Studying Finnish is nothing like studying English. It is basically just linguistics. And the comparative literature, or however they translate it, is a bit more formalistic than the cultural studies oriented historical materialism you mentioned. As far as I know there is only one department of cultural studies in Finland and what they offer is quite close to the Birmingham type of cultural criticism, mainly due to the interests of the staff.

        But I think there actually is no Marxist tradition as such. (And then again everything is Marxist to a certain degree, at least the social sciences of which philosophy was a part of in my university.) The humanities pretty much realigned themselves after the fall of the wall and even the French theory never really made it that big here. The curriculum offers lots of freedom and the students of humanities (including the philosophy students in certain universities) tend to minor in art history, aesthetics and such – which are fertile ground for phenomenology.

        As I said, my background is in German thought and I have always found phenonomenology and phenomenological thought somehow alien. “Adornoian disgust” is what my professor called it. But still I have always found Derrida interesting. He is a lot more sensible than most of the others who are often grouped together as “postmodernists”. I haven’t read that much by, or about, him mainly due to the lack of Finnish translations. I don’t read French and the English translations are just way too difficult for me.

        So to get back to topic, I think that your reading of Derrida is truly interesting. Derrida’s formulation is indeed stimulating and despite having theoretical presuppositions I am not willing to share, it addresses important issues and seems to take into account a lot of important questions.

        I ought to think about this. I am trying to outline a research proposal for my thesis and this question of literarity is in a way related. I am interested in experience, how it has to be transformed into a narrative for communication and how it then becomes part of the ideological play of power. I believe that the experience itself is critical yet some of the critical potential is lost since language is ideological. And what I would like to do is study contemporary literature and seek for traces of the experiences and reveal the ideological powers at work. And for this it would be necessary to formulate some kind of a theory of literature.

        Now that sounds a bit silly, but it is quite difficult to squeeze the whole shebang into few sentences. Or maybe because I haven’t thought it out and when I do, it turns out to be nonsensical. 🙂

        Nonetheless, keep on posting your thoughts on the matter!

      2. Daniel Hartley says:

        Thanks for the clarifications, Markku. Your ideas for the research proposal sound interesting. I don’t think the theory of literature will be the problem, it will be your attempting to justify experience as in itself critical and language as ideological – also the neat separation between language and experience. Best of luck with that in any case!

  3. jason says:

    Hey, this was a super helpful breakdown of that passage. Doing some work on Derrida for an MA course, and your entry really helped me understand the distinction that Derrida is trying to make — at least in this particular excerpt anyway.

  4. John McNassor says:

    Thanks for this post and the very thoughtful replies. Derrida never ceases to amaze, as the passage you quote bears witness. New vistas always open up in surprising ways and right when one thinks Derrida has laid the phenomenological tradition to rest he again shows his indebtedness to it. Our friend from Finland may find the essay on ‘faith and knowledge’ in ACTS OF RELIGION of interest

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