Jeff mentions my hesitation as to whether Derrida’s work could be formalized. Is there a method of deconstruction so that you can identify a three step procedure of diagnose, overturn, re-inscribe? My hesitation was in how to formalize the third step, which I characterized as the move to a general economy, or to a quasi-transcendental. So I hedged my bets by saying the identification of the three-step procedure was only possible for “pedagogical purposes.”
Now partially this was just to head off the polemical trap EM Edwards was laying, well laid out by John Drabinski at 89 on the Gutting thread. I’ve dealt with the EM Edwards of the world long enough to know when it’s no longer a pedagogical situation but a polemical one, and I wasn’t about to get into that. And partially my hesitation was because it had been so long since I had worked on Derrida that I was unsure of what to say. So I mentioned that a cautious way of dealing with deconstruction is to deny it is a method and to say it produces "singular effects."
After some time with Paul Livingston’s work, and a refresher course on Derrida – and a refresher course on my own work on Derrida, such is the effect of time – I would say that my hesitation in calling deconstruction a “method” or calling it a “textual practice producing singular effects” is precisely one of the undecidables Livingston talks about, a meta-undecidable if you will.
That is, each text produces its own undecidable term (just as a Gödel sentence is different for every system) but there's no formula or method or procedure for predicting that term; you have to grapple with each text to find it. However, each deconstruction does produce an undecidable that for each system is the point where it names the condition of meaning and hence opens onto a general economy. The undecidable point of a text is the point of opposition of its opposing terms where inverting the opposition allows us to see how the system is inscribed in a general economy allowing for and undermining the opposition -- différance for presence / absence; parergon for frame / work; supplement for origin / decadence; spacing (in Husserl) or hama (in Aristotle) for time / space, etc.
So Jeff has a very nice phrase: Derrida is after “a logic of singular effects.”
So much for the recap. I would just like to make a few points here, in a conceptual idiom rather than the formalization of formalism idiom of Livingston. If Paul is correct, we should be able to translate from this discussion to his terms.
In addition to the move to a general economy, we can also describe this logic of singular effects – the structure of deconstruction if you will – as “quasi-transcendentality,” so that any naming of the transcendental condition of possibility of meaning has to borrow a name from the empirical field. But this leaves that name meaningless in terms of the condition of meaning it names.
I develop the logic of undecidability with regard to the gift in an essay from Political Physics, “Given Time and the Gift of Life,” (72-91). The logic of undecidability for the gift -- or the logic of aporia, another Derridean "logic" -- is the following. A gift cannot be recognized, or it’s just the opening gambit in an economic exchange, an investment to be capitalized upon in thanks or a counter-gift or even just self-congratulations. On the other hand, something has to exchange hands for a gift to happen.
But there’s something special about the gift of life: the gift of life can never be repaid in kind. The taking of life can be repaid by giving death, but all the symbolic equivalents that might be paid to parents do not match the initial gift of life; despite all the gifts given on Mother's or Father's Day, a child can never give life to the parent. In the gift of life we thus find an irreducible excess of gift over exchange. You can give more life to your parents – an organ transplant for instance, or just money to buy food – but you can’t give them life. Nor can your parents give you life a second time, though they can give you more time, more life – again, consider an organ transplant or blood transfusion, or just ordinary love and care.
This is not to say there are no real or symbolic returns, simply that there are never returns in kind. Parents or children, in knowing themselves to be givers of life, the first or ‘second’ time, can certainly constitute themselves as generous subjects in a circle of symbolic self- congratulation. Real returns are also possible in that parents or children can calculate in the restricted sense of ‘economy’ on the return in terms of the child's labor or parent's gratitude over the initial outlay in suffering and care. Fundamentally, though, these returns can never be in kind--no kidney gives life, only more life. The gift of life never returns.
Thus, even with the structure of symbolic recognition and debt, the gift of life, precisely in this excess of gift over symbolic exchange, is, if not quite the paradoxically self-effacing “pure gift,” perhaps the closest to the gift of all of our idioms. If there were to be a gift, it would be the gift of life.
Okay, let's move from the gift to debt, and from the logic of the undecidable to that of quasi-transcendentality. What about the quasi-transcendental structure of debt? Reading David Graeber has got me thinking along these lines. When we figure our relation to God or the ancestors or the nation or the tradition … in terms of debt, we have an ontic metaphor that seeks to name the transcendental – empirical relation, that seeks to name the ontological difference of Being and beings. But when we do that, when we elevate debt from empirical human relation to the name of the empirical – transcendental relation, we can’t understand empirical debt, which gets illegitimately moralized and sanctified, and we can’t understand our relation to the transcendental, which we keep trying to pay off with empirical sacrifices, but as they are structurally insufficient, we keep upping the ante, getting into the self-sacrifice of unhappy consciousness, eternal sin and guilt, the whole Nietzschean diagnosis.
Now here’s a turn of screw. I’m paying my debt to Graeber by mentioning him, by crediting him with having prompted by thought – the whole economy of scholarly practice is lit up here, plagiarism as what haunts us and what we exorcise with our footnotes and acknowledgement, what the struggles around intellectual property and the commons, “work-for-hire” contracts and open-access publishing, are trying to get at: who owes what to whom in writing? What are the “ethics of the undecidable” in deciding what gets a footnote, who gets a citation?
Let me end these scattered remarks by pursuing this question of hyper-reflectivity, or second-order reflectivity. Can we articulate the chain of substitutions by which all these singular undecidable terms all "mean the same thing"? Granted that they all semantically name the syntactical condition of meaning for their singular system. Now one question: does this collection of undecidables form a “system” such that any one term can name the relation of all the terms to the others? In other words, are all the terms the “supplement” of the others when we look to the original term of the system of undecidables? Which is the “first” undecidable? You’ll only ever find a supplement, never a “first term.” Similarly with presence: there’s never a fully self-present undecidable: supplement is the différance of parergon, etc.
One last meta-move: what is the relation of the various logics here? Not just the terms, but the “logics” of deconstruction: undecidability, quasi-transcendentality, and aporia? Are they equivalent or singular? I suspect that’s exactly the sort of badly formed question you can’t answer but can only deconstruct, but let me leave this question of the systematicity of the undecidables and the systematicity of the “logics” as a question.