Derrida and Literarity

by Daniel Hartley

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.