Wednesday, 24 October 2012

On Touching - Jean-Luc Nancy

In 1992 Derrida wore a first version of what was later to become the book On Touching and it was subsequently translated the following year in a special issue of the journal Paragraph devoted to the work of Jean-Luc Nancy. In 2000 what had been only an article was published in a very much expanded form as a book and it was translated into English in 2005. This book is one of the very last published works of Derrida and it is one of the most significant of his career. Peggy Kamuf, in the puff she has placed on the back of the English translation, already stated this declaring its translation to be a "momentous event" as the book is "one of the greatest, most important works" in Derrida's whole oeuvre. The reason she gives for this claim concerns the relationship of the work to phenomenology pointing out that this work "undertakes nothing less than a deconstruction of the phenomenological principle of principles", in terms of the intuitionism of Husserl.

It is not without a certain trepidation that I approach the task of blogging about this book given the claims that Kamuf makes for it. In some respects it might be thought that the works on Husserl Derrida published in the 1960s, culminating in Speech and Phenomena, would have already undertaken the task she argues that On Touching has completed. The "return" to reading Husserl in On Touching would be, in any case, noteworthy given that, since the publication of Speech and Phenomena, Derrida had rarely explicitly addressed Husserl's thought despite devoting considerable time to it up and including in the writing of Speech and Phenomena. So one of the initial questions concerning the book might well be thought to be why it is that Derrida here decides to return to this questioning and what is added here to the earlier responses to Husserl.

However it might also be thought of some interest that a work which explicitly is devoted to an examination of, and response to, the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, should be as engaged as Kamuf suggests in undertaking once again the "deconstruction" of phenomenology. What would it be about the task of investigating Nancy that would produce, amongst other things, such a revisiting of the "deconstruction" of phenomenology? 

In the "Foreword" to On Touching Derrida ventures a few remarks that are themselves intriguing both in what they intimate and in what they avoid. Derrida opens the brief "Foreword" by remarking again on the genesis of the work from the early essay of 1992. Peggy Kamuf translated it into English in the journal Paragraph, the same Kamuf whose remarks concerning phenomenology we have already noted. The publication of the "germ-cell" of the book in an English language journal prompts from Derrida the response that it is often the case that the "measure" of an idea is taken in countries that are "foreign" to its origination. 

After making this initial remark Derrida suggests further that he would have wished to "develop or pursue" the thought that he began stating in 1992 and that he had not, at the time of writing this "Foreword", given up on this. However, rather than  "develop" this thought he has instead stayed with the "motifs" of his first attempt. So the "development" from 1992 is not marked here in 2000 as, instead, it is the same set of concerns that are dominant here.

The "guiding thread" and the "title" are the same even though, as Derrida puts it, they "never ceased to worry me". One of the reasons why there appears to be this "worry" is due to the way that the French title Le toucher marks a kind of indecision between a noun and a verb. But this linguistic point is connected, by Derrida, to "two indissociable gestures" concerning the handling of touch (something apparently superficial) and the need to singularly address the author of such handling (thus to touch him in some way). 

In highlighting the motif of "touch" it will also seem that it is a form of "sense" that is being privileged above others, a different one perhaps to that engaged in such a work as Speech and Phenomena. Doesn't highlighting this one sense risk leaving much untouched? This would perhaps be one of the "worries" Derrida had about the way that the focus of this work had remained apparently constant.

Not only is this the case but, furthermore, Nancy's own work did not cease developing as Derrida was at work expanding the original essay from 1992 to 2000. Nancy produced more works in this period and the scope and nature of his thought appeared more and more evidently to require analyses that would have quite a few different types of range. Not only is this so but the way in which Nancy himself continued to mobilise talk about "touch" has itself developed a kind of "risk" warns Derrida in this "Foreword". The risk would be that of "venturing with this toward the unpredictable, or losing it there". Such a "risk" would itself be one that would perhaps have to be measured in some way?

Not only is there this possible problem of the "risk" of Nancy's thought but there is further the "risk" Derrida himself is taking of pursuing this thought in the way he is, a risk not just of appearing "dated" as Nancy's thought continues its own path but also of being "increasingly deficient" with regard to Nancy. A formidable "risk" indeed.

Finally, Derrida admits that the text that he is presenting a "Foreword" to is itself one that has manifold ages as it sometimes "skips several years from one sentence to the next". So it would be a text that would be particularly tricky to read since this form of "skipping" would require attention to different strata within the text, strata that would point to some of the questions here being very old, some only new born. In spite of the "shortcomings" that the text appears to have Derrida ventures to conclude by hoping that the work will not have been one he was unjustified in publishing at least if it "persuades others to read one of the immense philosophic works of our time".

This final statement appears to point readers beyond the work itself and back to the texts of Nancy to which it would be a response and, not unusually for Derrida, it will doubtless be necessary to constantly break off reading On Touching in order to relate this text back to the ones it apparently analyses. The precautions that Derrida multiplied in this "Foreword" mark the reading of it as unusually intricate, especially for such a brief text. 

In future postings on this blog I intend to work through On Touching piece by piece, breaking off as and when it appears needed in order to refer to the other texts it analyses and the other works that Derrida implicitly refers to both of his own and by others. The reading of On Touching will thus be a somewhat scattered affair but it is one that I hope the readers of this blog - whoever and wherever they may be found - will come to "enjoy".

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