Conventional & Historical (was Re: Polo wars)

christian a. gregory chrisgregory11 at
Mon Jan 31 18:19:30 PST 2000

> >All constructions of meaning (not just lies,
> >deception, and taking someone's words out of context) are conventional,
> >historical, and depend on the agreement, the AGENCY of people ("speaking
> >subjects," in the lingo) involved
> Your interpretation of Derrida sounds fine, but to say "X is conventional"
> and to say "X is historical" do not mean the same thing; I should like to
> discuss the difference in some detail, because the last sentence quoted
> above ends up implying the identity between "conventional" and
> "historical."

Really? Does that mean that when I say that the dog is red, hungry, and running, I'm saying that red and hungry mean the same thing?

> Now, what of Derrida and other late modern philosophers? Do they regard
> meanings as "conventional" or "historical"? In so far as they do not
> consider the necessary relation between language and social relations
> (however "relatively autonomous" the former may be from the latter), they
> end up implying that language is "conventional," as opposed to
> "historical." Derrida's philosophical bent, in particular, seems to me to
> be transcendental, in that his primary interest lies in finding the _same_
> conditions of linguistic (im)possibility _throughout_ the history of what
> he thinks of as "Western metaphysics." Despite its name and multiple
> avatars, _differance_ is "itself a powerful principle of unity," as Peter
> Dews puts it in _Logics of Disintegration_. Further, since Derrida
> on the logical priority of _differance_, he ends up returning, again and
> again, to the "idea of the first." As Adorno says, "The first of the
> philosophy of origins must become more and more abstract; the abstracter
> becomes, the less it explains..." (qtd. in _Logics..._). Dews notes:
> Derrida speaks of the 'historico-transcendental scene of writing', he
> continues -- like Husserl and Heidegger before him -- to erase the
> contingency of the historical process, a contingency which can only be
> approached through empirical investigation...". So, if Derrida does
> "constructions of meaning" as "conventional," for him "conventions" must
> at once purely contingent (= with no necessary relation to social
> relations) _and_ eternal (which is the meaning of "always already"). In
> other words, eternalized, abstract contingency (which can only exist in
> transcendental speculation) negates _both_ historical necessity and
> contingency. In this sense, _differance_ is a Platonic idea.

While I agree that Derrida doesn't seem to be interested enough in the social-historical scenes of writing (or meaning production, what have you), he doesn't treat "conventions" as "purely contingent." It's the opposition between pure contingency and pure determination that the whole business about _differance_ puts into question--at least from a phenomenological point of view. There is no pure contingency or determination for Derrida--"history," if you will, is the setting-to-work of different orders of contingency and/or determination. The problem, as you rightly point out, is that, among the determinations that *do* seem to matter to him, the social-historical, economic, etc. don't seem very prominent. Agreed. But the claim that _differance_ is a Platonic idea begs the question that differance is meant to begin to address (though not answer)--namely, what is the condition of possibility of an idea? Plato? etc. etc. In that way, I think that Derrida's work, quite despite his intentions opens up historical materialist questions--even if he himself doesn't seem particularly interested in pursuing them in his writing.

All best Christian

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