Monday, November 15, 2010

Marder, Michael. Review of Simon Skempton, ALIENATION AFTER DERRIDA. NDPR (November 2010).

Skempton, Simon.  Alienation after Derrida.  London: Continuum, 2010.

It is no secret that contemporary philosophy is under the spell of the Other. A host of rather automatic, ethico-political associations follows the invocations of "otherness" like a comet-tail: hospitality, respect, tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism, etc. We are urged to come to terms with that which is alien, to learn to live with foreignness, to recognize the uncanny -- in Freud's vernacular, the "strangely familiar" -- within us, to derive our very sense of identity from alterity. The approaches to alterity, in turn, may be broadly classified into those that are purely formal in their refusal to endow the Other with determinate features or objective characteristics and those that fill it with concrete, infinitely variable content, depending on the Other's race, sex, gender, economic status, and so on. Still, regardless of the elected framework and of the qualifier "radical" often attached to it, "otherness" is domesticated not only as a hegemonic concept that, rather than awakening, brings critical thinking to a halt, but also as a bearer of intransigent humanism, willing to confer this title on no being other than human. Although the current theoretical interest in animal alterities goes a long way toward undoing such domestication, it is ultimately insufficient for the purpose of questioning the hegemonic status of the Other.

What is required, in addition to a thorough de-humanization of the concept, is its historicization thanks to a sound philosophical genealogy, extending all the way back to the ancient Greek heteron and, more recently, to Hegel's dialectics. To understand the current emphasis on alterity, we ought to situate it within the current "trans-valuation of values," as Nietzsche puts it, where the highest -- from the metaphysical standpoint -- values are debased and the lowest elevated, that is to say, where the same, the proper, and the identical cede their privileged place to the other, the alien, and the non-identical. This lopsided dialectic indicates, however, that the Nietzschean trans-valuation is far from being complete: in its second stage, at the threshold of which we find ourselves today, it will necessitate a de-hierarchization of the already inverted values, so that alterity, too, would lose its newly acquired transcendental status, just as sameness and identity did in twentieth-century thought. The promise of deconstruction lies, precisely, in its ability to inspire this post-metaphysical thrust "beyond the same and the other."

Simon Skempton glimpses the promise of deconstruction in the fifth (and final) chapter of his book, dedicated to "Deconstructive De-alienation." Despite a token tribute to alterity, the other and the same trade places so vertiginously in his text that the metaphysical distinction is wholly transformed, if not leveled. For example:
Alienation is the effacement of this instituting activity, of différance, through the latter's objectification . . . This is an alienation of subjectivity insofar as subjectivity is the opening to the other. Thus alienation is a suppression of otherness, and de-alienation is then an opening to and welcoming of the other. This may seem paradoxical, as it means that alienation suppresses alienness and de-alienation welcomes the alien. (170) 
The core argument of Alienation after Derrida hinges on aligning différance -- the difference from and the deferral of identity -- with "inalienable alienation" (4), which has been, traditionally, covered over and disavowed by the metaphysical yearning for originary wholeness and purity. This disavowal is the reason why classical critiques of alienation, relying upon the myth of an undisturbed, paradisiacal, originary unity, are read as "the effacement . . . of différance," while deconstructive de-alienation is invested with the positive function of affirming that which has been effaced. But it is also the reason why theories of alienation have become outmoded in the second half of the twentieth century, after the metaphysics of presence and of the proper had been relentlessly debunked, first and foremost by deconstruction itself. The anachronism of a return to alienation in the aftermath of its discrediting as a philosophical fiction is at the heart of this study, which wishes to carve out a niche for the concept already processed by the deconstructive machinery and, thus, purged of metaphysical overtones. . . .

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