Blog Post

There Is Nothing Outside of the What?

This post over at the prolific philosopher Levi Bryant's blog talks about something close to my heart.

I’m writing about this very passage—the famous part of Of Grammatology in which Derrida asserts "il n'y a pas d'hors-texte"—right now. As a lit crit guy you would expect me to have a militancy about the supposed universality of Derrida’s claim. But actually, as a lit crit guy I always read this passage as much LESS than that.

Remember how Derrida loves to cleave close to the text he’s analyzing–why he appeals to lit crit close readers in the first place. In this case Derrida is attending to Rousseau's writing on nature. I (and apparently Spivak, who in a parenthesis offers a striking alternative translation of the sentence in question) always thought (ie BEFORE converting to OOO) that Derrida was ONLY saying, “Given the kind of closed system textuality that Rousseau prescribes, there is NO OUTSIDE-TEXT.”

That is, Rousseau can’t go around making claims about nature, not because there is nothing out there, but because the way he models thinking, he sets textuality up as a black hole. Bad, bad textuality! Bad, bad onanistic introversion vs. the manly outside world!

It’s PRECISELY the kind of generalization about reality that D’s fans (and critics) think he’s making that is at issue. This kind of sweeping statement is what becomes a black hole. When I’m feeling charitable towards Derrida I imagine he thinks that by imploding this sort of generalization he is leaving non-textual objects intact. In fact then, Derrida is claiming that texts are OBJECTS (the kind of objects studied in object-oriented ontology). They can only have vicarious relations with non-texts.

Which is why I argue in Ecology without Nature that there are coral reefs and bunnies, but NO NATURE. (Then I am accused of being a nihilist by the eco beautiful souls, and receive threats of having rancid butter poured over my head, literally. Wash rinse repeat.)

When I formulated this interpretation
1) 9.9 out of 10 Derrideans thought exactly what Levi is arguing they thought.
2) I was writing a Deleuzian diss. on food and for sure held that food was REAL.

Notice the rather rigorous difference between my argument and what some have claimed on Levi's blog, that Derrida is OOO avant la lettre. Nothing could be further from the truth. Derrida ABSTAINED from ontology for the simple reason that he thought it tainted by the generalization-disease I note above. Unfortunately this defaults to various forms of antirealism, as noted by Levi.

For me, Derrida's is a sin of OMISSION. As William Blake wrote, "I must create a system or be enslav'd by another man's."

Timothy Morton's picture
Timothy Morton is Professor of English (Literature and Environment) at the University of California, Davis. Professor Morton's interests include literature and the environment, ecotheory, philosophy, biology, physical sciences, literary theory, food studies, sound and music, materialism, poetics, Romanticism, Buddhism, and the eighteenth century. He teaches literature and ecology, Romantic-period literature, and literary theory. He has published nine books and sixty essays, including The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010) and Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007).