Davis on Derrida; What Levinas Offers Latour

Via Blogora, a video lecture by D. Diane Davis on Derrida, deconstruction, gratitude, and debt:

Derrida and gratitude: thinking always has a debt. "The image of the trail blazing subject, self sufficient and completely independent is, of course, a metaphysical figure. But it is always a figure or for some traditions ideal" […] "But what Derrida marks constantly is that he does not stand on his own. He stands on a mountain of debt and conditions of possibility."

Davis resists labeling deconstruction as a simple textual methodology--but I think her discussion of close reading and the encounter with an aporia comes close to framing deconstruction as a method, albeit a "choratic" one (to use Hawk and Rickert's term). In other words, Davis' framing of deconstruction marks it as a fluid form of approach that cannot--and does not aim to--guarantee a certain result. Davis stresses: "Thinking is not knowing."

I tend to think of deconstruction in more spiritual terms--that it becomes a spirit for navigating the world (and not just reading texts). Like Davis, I am drawn to the notion of undecidability. In my grad class this week, I contrasted Augustine and Plato against Lanham's notion of "strong" rhetoric, McComiskey relativist, Consigny's anti-foundational, and Jarratt's materialist explications of sophistry. On the one side, Truth is derived through a certain methodology (biblical hermeneutics, dialectic) and then transformed by rhetoric (audience analysis, arrangement, style, delivery). On the other side, truth is something produced through what Lanham calls social dramas, it cannot be decided in advance and cannot be considered "certain" (although, Lanham stresses, this does not mean it is either arbitrary or trivial--human dramas set the bounds of existence).

To get to the second, "strong" rhetoric, one must operate within an uncertain, undecidable metaphysic. This is why I am particularly drawn to Levinas, since his metaphysic incorporates a relation to transcendence that neither eliminates the possibility of transcendence (as people like Lanham and, more recently, Latour have done) nor insists upon its certainty. God as enigma, perpetual, perpetuating question--Levinas's phenomenological ethics do not seek to produce a knowledge (or a method of knowledge) as much as what Aristotle might call a disposition (what Aristotle marks as the first part of a rhetorical performance that sets the mood): how does one act in the shadow of a perpetual, unanswerable question? Tentatively.

Of course, to those of an absolute foundationalist position, Levinas's appreciation for uncertainty might seem heretical. I do not think, in other words, that Levinas presents us with a solution to the problem of transcendence, faith and politics. But I do think, by acknowledging the transcendental as a question, he contributes to our understanding of the intellectual and political, philosophical/scientific and humanit(ies)(arian), right and might divides that Latour argues plagues our contemporary moment.

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