Conversation with Geoffrey Bennington

Mirrored from in Florida,
© Seulemonde Online Journal.


I wonder if we might start off our exchange with your response to a general question about your recent work (your "biography" of Derrida and the recent collection of your papers called "Legislations"). How do you see your recent work in deconstruction relating to recent developments in hypertextual theory. Some theorists of hypertext seem to think that it is a kind of fulfillment of deconstruction's "aims," and therefore supersedes deconstruction. Do you think anything that you or Derrida have discussed is especially relevant to developing concerns about electronic communication?

Geoffrey Bennington:

You will have to excuse my ignorance of hypertext theory. But any theory that claimed that hypertextuality somehow realised the supposed aims of deconstruction must be mistaken. Deconstruction does not have aims in any standard sense, and even on a construal that thought it did have aims (to bring about something called 'textuality', or some such thing), hypertext could not be said to realise those aims. Hypertext exploits some features of textuality that traditional forms of writing tend to conceal (to state it quickly, a degree of non-linearity, but I don't think any hypertext is *simply* non-linear) or even repress (the order of the Book), but these features do not automatically make it the deconstructionist's dream come true. Indeed, hypertexts can just as well be presented as a fulfilment of a metaphysical view of writing (remember Derrida's early comment in 'Force and Signification' on the 'theological simultaneity of the Book', and a quote from Leibniz describing what can only be a hypertext), driven by the Idea of an absolutely accessible Encyclopedia of all knowledge. There's nothing to be rude about in that: there's a perfectly respectable and welcome use of hypertexts to make scholarship less like hard work, for example, and so to free up time for thought (I hope and trust there'll one day be a CD hypertext version of Derrida's work, for example).

On the other hand, hypertexts also allow possibilities for writing which can be germane to deconstruction: my own very limited experiments would stress their *interruptive* rather than their *encyclopedic' possibilities (though I suspect the two go closely together; maybe no accident that Derrida's arguably most hypertextual text, *Glas* is provoked by Hegel...): I like the traditionally pedagogical possibilities of hypertext, but I like more the possibility of a sort of programmed unpredictability which would go beyond the user-friendliness that hypertexts are also good at. In principle, the network-structure of hypertexts should make possible (or more tangible, perhaps, because I don't think one needs real hypertexts for this) a sort of dispersive reading which I think I've always in fact practised more or less shamefully.

The (virtual) hypertext version of 'Derridabase' is different from the printed version only in that it dramatises more clearly the exasperation of pedagogical generosity that the printed text also practises, to the extent that the book is also a parody of supposedly 'introductory' books about philosophers. It tries both to be (genuinely) pedagogical while pointing up the aporia of any such pedagogy (i.e. that there is, in philosophy, an irreducible precipitation that precedes understanding, even though philosophy doesn't much like it). Reading as such happens before (and in part independently of) understanding, and the 'hypertext' aspect of 'Derridabase', which is constantly sending the reader forward to further forward references, many of which go nowhere, tries to dramatise that fact, alongside the Absolute Knowledge aspect that Derrida jokes about in 'Circumfession'. I tried to do the same thing, perhaps more explicitly, in the text on Derrida and Moses in *Legislations*.

In 'Two words for Joyce', Derrida suggests that Joyce's text is already more powerful in its hypertextual capacities (he doesn't use the term, but that's what it's about) than any super-computer. I guess he means that there's what he elsewhere calls (if I remember rightly) a 'super-compossibility of meaning'. In that sense, a (real) hypertext is a sort of image of textuality rather than a realisation of it.

What might be more interesting in relation to Derrida's work would be other features of electronic communication: its instantaneity, for example, but also the question of publicity, encryption, viruses and so on. Something about e-mail, for example, makes me write more freely and incautiously than I would in other circumstances (something very noticeable in discussion groups like the Derrida list - it came as a shock to me to learn that everything posted to the list is printed out and archived at UC Irvine): obviously this is double edged. And maybe you could tell me some things in this context about what it means to publish an electronic journal (presumably more than that it isn't printed on paper). There's a double logic here we might want to explore, whereby the (in principle democratic) increase in 'communicability' made possible by electronic communication leads to a commensurate increase in 'contaminability' of all sorts, so that advances in communication seem not to lead in any straightforward way to transparency or clarity, still less to equality, but quite possibly to the opposite. Perhaps something about information technology made it possible for Derrida to formulate things about communication and contamination that turn out to have been around since Plato, and that in a sense philosophy exists to control. These are topics it would be interesting to explore.


You suggest "topics [in electronic communication] it would be interesting to relation to Derrida's work," for example, the"instantaneity" of electronic communication, but also the question of publicity, encryption, viruses, and so on." Could you explain these topics in some detail and "explore" them briefly. Also, please explain your point that "perhaps somethng about information technology made it possible for Derrida to formulate things about communication and contamination that turn out to have been around since Plato, and that in a sense philosophy exists to control."

It is possible that the new technologies have actualized, accelerated and ramified the whole scriptual economy and all its relations of force, its programmings, regulations, calculations. What is at stake with the internet, for example, is what has always been at stake, the complexities of "writing" of "social relations." And as with all systems of writing before it, this one is unable to enforce a regime of meanings; yet it has achieved the capacity to circulate texts faster and farther than ever. The acceleration and expansion of the system does not, however, "unify" it; instead, inversely, it makes possible a greater distanciation, what Sartre called the "serial absence" of each point to all the others, or what in Derrida becomes the radical and volatile indeterminacy of context.

To think the internet as a "post card," for exmp, means to acknowledge that transmission is the only law of production, that culture itself is sent through circuits, and that all this may demand a shift in our textual ontology, toward a conception of the textual system as an illimitable matrix crossing at various speeds thru all cultural, political, and social dimensions.

Electronic communication is a place where positions of "calcuable subjectivity" are combined into a single differential circuit of representation. Electronic communication's "calculation" does not consist in the perfectibility of its transmission, but in the thoroughness with which it translates all values into representational terms, so that all traffic (politics, aesthetics, desire) passes through the electronic post. Addresses, or what used to be called subject positions, in fact function as the transfer points of this network, where the representational forces of selves, others and objects negotiate.

Moreover, as Derrida points out, the frame is also part of the picture (despite Kant's best efforts to the contrary). At the gigantic, uncanny scale of the internet, electronic communication initiates countless points and movements, sliding over the representational scenery without being reduced to the sequence of its particularity. Still, electronic communication still has to sweep along all the bad old functions of metaphysical thinking for local uses. The pervasive proximity of electronic communication races beyond any phenomenology of things or texts. It is not even a matter of forms and contents - that fine old Platonic division - since internet-as-Enframing remains indifferent to what it transmits or represents, operating only according to what it could transmit or represent, which is everything and nothing. The most potent device of Enframing is literally the frame: the gesture of bracketing which makes something seen at the expense of everything else.

At this stage, publishing an electronic journal means rethinking what we mean by both "publishing" and a "journal." The technology is constantly changing (new versions of net browsers appear that change dramatically what we can do with text, audio, video, and graphics). But most importantly, we have to experiment with ways to write and present writing that do not just transfer print onto the Web (though there is a lot of this - kind of a anthropological approach, where there seems to be a mad rush to archive everything online before it disappears). *Seulemonde*, for example, has a number of projects: space for articles and interviews, art work, reviews (all the traditional stuff) but the way we connect the various "parts," I think, makes a user's experience of *Seulemonde* different than if it were a print journal. And, I think, it is possible for users to have different experiences of the work in the journal, depending on the choices they make in regard to links.

Geoffrey Bennington:

My apologies for the long silence (long especially in the time-scale of the Net!): I'd no sooner mentioned viruses than I went down with one for the last three weeks...

Thankyou for you comments about *Seulemonde* (and about the Net more generally), which have clarified some things for me (though I am not sure I can follow you in the stress you place in the value of representation, which the Net makes more obscure for me even than it was before).

I suggested a number of topics: publicity referred to the uncertain value of 'publishing' material in electronic form. Publishing has had such a long history of *print* that it is hard to make the adjustment to the electronic form. Word-processors were easy, because they were really a way of getting better, more reliable hard copy. But electronic publication is different, and will (or should) bring with it many changes in thinking about, say, copyright (from which publication is inseparable) and its various associated legal problems. I remember discussion on the Derrida list last year about 'publishing' some exchange (about Derrida and Wittgenstein, as I remember). This all seemed very complicated (not least because all the material in question was already published by the very fact of having been sent to the list), and nobody seemed quite to know how to do it, even though (again as I remember) all the participants were quite happy at the idea. But it's also clear that the list itself was *not* publication in the traditional sense (most of the material sent to the list is not 'publishable' at all), whence the idea of a different publication of part of its content. The saturation of the public space of discussion (it's not really possible to keep up properly with even a handful of active discussion groups), the *exasperation* of publication is not a simple matter, however much we might hope it changes the publishing practices of the established presses in a direction that is obviously - but a bit simplistically - democratic. In principle, it must be better to publish one's work on the Net: it's quicker, avoids the usually ridiculous interference of editors of all sorts: in practice, it seems complicated (not just for reasons of professional validation, though that comes into it). It could also mean that work simply didn't reach the artificially definitive state imposed on it by the printed form, but that it could be ongoing, collective and infinitely revisable. I'm sure the sort of reading of Kant I'm struggling with at the moment could in certain circumstances lend itself to this form of 'open' publication. But how would anyone know what read if publishers didn't operate their (often quite unjustified) pre-selection? Publishing on the Net would run the risk of generating a star-system worse still than the one that already operates. Unless, that is, and this is the challenge we need to respond to, we find ways of working that do not rely on simple electronic transpositions of the traditional forms (book and article, or even, in the model I was just invoking, seminar transcript). The extension of the availability of books in electronic form, while we still do work with 'primary texts', that is, ought already to be cutting out a lot of the 'erudition' that was always a good excuse to avoid thinking. I guess that's what the discussion groups already reflect up to a point, though we all have a lot of progress to make.

As copyright comes into it, let me abuse this format by sending an ad. lib. and quite unauthorised translation of a passage from the book Derrida has just published, Mal d'archive (Galilee, 1995): Derrida has just referred to his remarks about electronic machines at the end of 'Freud and the Scene of Writing', and goes on as follows:

'One can dream or speculate about the geo-techo-logical shocks that would have rendered unrecognizable the scenery of psychoanalysis over a century if, to remain content with a word about these signs, Freud, his contemporaries, collaborators and immediate disciples, instead of writing thousands of letters by hand, had had at their disposal MCI or ATT telephone credit cards, portable tape recorders, computers, printers, faxes, television, teleconferencing and above all electronic mail.

I would have liked to devote my whole lecture to this retrospective fiction. I would have liked to imagine with you the scene of this other archive after the seism and after the after-effects of its aftershocks. For that's where we are. As I cannot do it, given the still archaic organisation of our conferences, the time and space at my disposal, I'll stick to a remark about the principle: this archival seism would not have limited its effects to the *secondary recording*, the impression and the conservation of the history of psychoanalysis. It would have transformed this history from top to bottom and in the most intimate inside of its production, in its very *events*. This is another way of saying that the archive, as impression, writing, prosthesis or hypomnesiac technique in general is not only the place for storing a *past* archivable content which would in any case exist, such as one still thinks it was or will have been without it. No, the technical structure of the *archiving* archive also determines the structure of the *archivable* content in its very emergence and in its relation to the future. Archivation produces as much as it records the event. This is also our political experience of the so-called news media.

This means that *in the past* psychoanalysis (like so many other things) would not have been what it was if e-mail, for example, had existed. And *in the future* it will not be what Freud and so many analysts anticipated, given that e-mail, for example, has become possible. One could take many signs other than e-mail...

... I also privilege e-mail for a more important and obvious reason: because electronic mail, more still than the fax, is in the process of transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, starting with the limit between the private, the secret (private or public) and the public or the phenomenal. It is not only a technique, in the common and limited sense of the term: at a brand new rate, almost instantaneously, this instrumental possiblity of production, printing, conservation and destruction of the archive cannot fail to have go along with it juridical and therefore political transformations...'

Sorry for the long quote - not long enough, of course - and the sketchy translation, but that too is part of the problem (as is the fact that I imagine that the English translation of the book will be out soon, or maybe is already out...).

It's not hard in principle to see how to graft onto this problematic the issues I mentioned about viruses and encryption, I think (the importance of the issue of encryption is obviously directly linked to the issue of publicity, and viruses (though I know it's hard to get one through the e-mail) too seem to flow analytically from the possibility of 'perfect' (digital) communication we're talking about: the more 'transparent' the communication, the more vulnerable it is to infection by viruses - this is something poor old Habermas will never understand). I can imagine quite easily the extension of all these points about privacy, publication, archivation, contamination and so on into what I imagine will be the increasingly 'virtual' world, one of the obvious features of which would seem to be that in it everything will in principle be archived, which will give it some immediate advantages over the 'real' world, and presumably necessitate some quite important shifts in, say, ethics and politics.


In your introduction to LEGISLATIONS, you say that "'deconstruction' provides an access to [political thinking] which is not provided elsewhere." I know that your whole book addresses that issue. But could you give us a brief, specific explanation of what you mean? As a "deconstructive" approach to any category would show, the category "postmodern" cannot be defined in any absolute sense, and you critique a number of attempts to do so. Yet, is there any value in attempting to define it? How does one tell whether an attempt is fruitful or wrongheaded?

As an extension of the previous question, is there any value in attempting to define the distinction between "modern" and "postmodern?" You have written books on both Lyotard and Derrida. Could you give us a summary of some of their main differences as deconstructors? What does the biography you did of Derrida, with his participation, show about the nature of biography itself? About how to write it in a way that takes account of contemporary critiques of the self? About the value of writing a biography in the face of the impossibility of ever doing anything "definitive?"

Geoffrey Bennington:

The point you quote from the Introduction to Legislations is just that politics, as I define it there, is opened (and kept open) by the (pre-ontological, pre-ethical and pre-political) opening to the other I attempt to characterise as always bringing the possibility of legislation with it. I just don't know of any other thinking that makes of this relation to alterity the 'first' thing to think about, and that tries to keep it open. Political philosophy, at any rate, sees the end of politics as the end of politics (the closing of that opening): Habermas is a good example here, whatever the good intentions.

My objections to many (not Lyotard's) use of 'Postmodern' is simply that it's a historicist category attempting to deal with a problem that is not essentially or primarily historical (or at least not in the historicist sense). So I'm sure I'd have to say that any attempt to define 'postmodern' historically in that sense was misguided (this is part of my general suspicion of a general, and widely accepted, historicism in discussions of almost everything). [I'm aware that there's a specific use of 'historicism' around postmodernism in architecture, but that's not the use I'm after here.] But when Lyotard starts complicating his use of the term so that it does not have a historicist relationship with the term 'modern', then that seems more interesting and promising, in part because of the performative aspect involved in using the term 'postmodern' postmodernly, rather than just modernly (historically). But this does of course lead the term to a sort of self-destruction, which I think Lyotard accepts rather ruefully, and then drops it. That's how I feel about it too, but that's probably because I'm not really interested in 'cultural' problems, and I don't think the modern/postmodern distinction has any real purchase other than a cultural one.

I'm not sure I can say anything interesting about the Lyotard/Derrida question (maybe I'm too close to it), except that I don't think Lyotard can really be called a 'deconstructor' (he certainly wouldn't like it). I guess my Lyotard book tends to make him about as Derridean as he can be made, and I'm not now sure that's the best strategy with his work (and it probably wouldn't wash with the work he has done since that book was written).

I didn't think of the Curriculum Vitae bit of the Derrida book as a biography, and certainly not as a biography-taking-account-of-the-critique-of-the subject. We put it together very much for the context provided by the other texts in the volume: it was supposed to be as dry as possible, with obvious incisions from JD around some of the more important 'public' events. It's true that it's probably time to move in on biography (I believe Lyotard is doing just that with Malraux, incidentally), which is a peculiarly recalcitrant genre (much more so than autobiography, it seems to me), but I must admit that when a publisher asked me to write a biography of Derrida I refused out of hand.

Geoffrey Bennington

Cf. also his Derridabase

Hydra Design: Peter Krapp
All rights reserved © 1995-2000.