The event, the singularity of the event, that is what différance is all about. . . It is another name for experience itself, which is always experience of the other. (Derrida, 2002: 10)
Where We Are Today
Where does deconstruction stand in relation to everyday life? How does it connect with and what does it have to say about real events and experiences? In an everyday sort of way, such questions, directed as they are here to ‘deconstruction’, belie a broader concern with the relationship between theory and practice as an historical debate, as ongoing issue, as ‘a question’, and as a matter of urgency for any form of ‘engaged’ critical inquiry.
In this article I shall examine the nature of deconstruction’s engagement with everyday life, articulating that conjunction around the theory/practice distinction and to some extent performing a substitution and a mapping of one pair of terms onto the other. This stratagem is not aimed at claiming an equivalence between the two on the basis of deconstruction being a ‘theory’ and ‘everyday life’ being a ‘practice’. It is rather a means of addressing the issue theme, ‘deconstruction is/in cultural studies’, by entering into a discussion of ‘what différance is all about’ in terms of ‘everyday life’.
The question of the relationship between theory and practice will repeatedly return to ‘haunt’, as Derrida would say, any form of cultural studies which aspires to not only account for the everyday world of events and experiences, but to engage and intervene in it. Whenever or wherever this question of the theory/ practice dichotomy returns, it should perhaps be viewed as an expression of concern over the commitment of theory to the actuality of what happens. It is significant, therefore, that the ‘whenever and wherever’ of this issue are already an invocation of the ‘everyday’ senses of time and space as the parameters of an explicit here and now, or the ‘where we are today’. No sooner do we embark upon thinking theoretically than we experience the first precipitative ‘return’ to the everyday.
A word on my subtitle: rather optimistically, it points in the direction of what could be described as an ‘outcome’, an example of a possible concrete result to the process of working through the relationship of theory to the practice of everyday life. It symbolically illustrates, perhaps reports (this depends on how one reads it), an actual transformation of some aspect of real life. Can theory be used to bring about practical effects? And, if so, are there limits to its field of applicability? Smoking is, after all, an ‘everyday practice’ of the smoker. If one wanted to effect a ‘life change’ of this order one might, more likely, turn to the genre of ‘self-help’ literature directed at everyday life than to high theory. Alternatively, a cultural studies investigation of the political economy of the tobacco trade or of tobacco advertising, conceivably for some smokers might change their understanding of their habit and the source of their compulsion by revealing its imbrications in broader cultural contexts and issues. Anti-smoking propaganda, too, might, with the intention of intervention, address populations of smokers and smoking as a cultural habit. Turning to deconstruction: is there any sense in which, or any ‘scale’ on which, its relation to the everyday could produce results? Can such theory be used to intervene concretely, to make an alteration to a particular instance of the everyday life – of an individual or a population, for example? Is deconstruction relevant to any particular domain of lived culture such that interventions, even on the smallest scale, are possible to anticipate? Could it, for instance, help me quit smoking? In other words, is deconstruction translatable into the events and experiences of everyday life and, if so, in what senses? Writing this article, I volunteer myself for the experiment.
Just in case this subsidiary line of thought or approach to the question might be taken as a joke or a waste of time, for being so rooted in the ‘ordinary’, let me just remind you that both jokes and time wasting (or ‘doing nothing’, being bored, hanging about on street corners, in arcades or coffee bars) are themselves examples of forms of everyday life that have been deemed worthy of critical reflection in several forms of cultural study (by the writers as diverse as Freud, Kracauer, Benjamin, Hoggart and Williams) and arguably shown to reveal deeper structures and hidden forces shaping the world we think of as the ‘everyday social reality’ of which they are a part. I also note at the outset that, just because in the title above ‘Deconstruction’ is followed by ‘Everyday Life’, this does not signify an assumed priority in the relation between the two (if indeed they are two) because, first of all, there is a diverse and very real ‘everyday life of deconstruction’ itself. One can assume, therefore, that everyday life is at least not alien to deconstruction. This is significant, given where we are today: I’m thinking of the familiar aspects of academic life which ‘deconstruction’ includes: everything which takes place in its name, and in this sense belongs to it – including conferences, journals or even ‘the activity of writing this article’ itself, or, indeed, the act of the reader is currently engaged in. These are some of the many examples one might give of its everyday life. And, when it comes to the production of texts, for instance, cigarettes as much as full stops and commas have no doubt punctuated much of modern literature and philosophy, alongside all the opening and closing of books, citation, paraphrasing, cross-referencing and thought; namely, all those more familiar adjuncts to deconstruction. Such details alone indicate the complexity and peculiarity of the boundary between them: where does everyday life end and deconstruction begin, and vice versa?
David Bowie sings in the background: ‘Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth. . .’ and his line slips intertextually in here as time slips the next cigarette into the mouth. The everyday invades in this way not just this particular text because it seeks to recall and question it, but all writing, visibly or invisibly, whether you give it a few words to speak or many. Its interruptions and inter-weavings are persistent, serial and unavoidable. Bowie’s pop lyric personifies time and reminds me, here and now, of how time and action are inherent to one another in everyday life. In the everyday, we ‘do time’ through action; for interstellar space travellers, sci-fi writers tell us, time stops because animation is suspended. Prisoners are time purists: the everyday idiom says they ‘do time’, because there’s almost nothing else to do and only little space for movement. Time and motion are the parameters of ‘real life’ action: give one a zero value and the other comes to the fore. ‘Time and motion’ studies, for instance, are an attempt to measure the efficiency of everyday actions performed in everyday spatio-temporal reality, in relation to desired productive outcomes and results. Mass-observation ethnographies should perhaps be seen as the earliest attempt to study the everyday life of modern times in ‘real time’. However one approaches everyday life, one must also attempt to think time.
Some of Derrida’s most ‘abstract’ and theoretical writing is on time and temporalisation and the ‘deconstruction of time’ (the philosophical project developed, for instance, around his thinking of différance and gramme). This deconstruction accounts for how a particular concept of time has come to dominate the way we think about time ‘ordinarily’, and hence it bears on the everyday appropriation of time as something which dictates and organises action in the world from industrial shift systems to waiting for buses, to rushing or idling along, being early, late or punctual, etc. Without going into detail here on how Derrida’ s readings of Heidegger and Nietzsche on time might figure in the connection between deconstruction and everyday life, it won’t really be possible to justify the following comparison (but I’ll make it nonetheless): isn’t an ostensibly philosophical undertaking of that order, namely, the deconstruction which rethinks time as deferral or interruption, in some way ‘connected’ with any number of simple everyday experiences of interruptions of one species or another – for instance, the ‘cigarette break’? Isn’t the everyday practice of ‘taking time out’ from time what eventually makes the thinking of time as interruption or deferral ‘in theory’ possible?
For instance, in order to think of time, following Lévinas, as ‘time out’ from Time thought on the basis of the existential analytic of Dasein (as in Heidegger); to think time otherwise, and with Lévinas, as ethical time and openness to alterity: doesn’t one really arrive at such philosophical reflection and disputation, in theory, on the basis of a kind of (conscious or unconscious) synthesis of all the everyday experiences of ‘interruptions’, ‘postponements’ and ‘waiting ons’? Doesn’t this (and indeed all) ‘abstract’ or ‘speculative’ thinking begin from all the concrete, commonplace experiences of the everyday? Referring to Lévinas’ notion of time coming to me from the Other: isn’t this, precisely, a theoretical response to the ethical demands which come to me from the others who interrupt me as I am engaged in some everyday project or other of my own? Much more mundanely, isn’t the factory worker’s illicit ‘cigarette break’ an ever so minor, perhaps, but nonetheless significant, triumph over the clock-time his economic master imposes upon his day and uses to control the ‘working day’ in general? I’m not suggesting that a critique of the metaphysical thinking of Time, such as that which comes out of deconstruction, is a lengthy meditation on the ‘deeper meaning’ of such ‘bits’ of everyday life as the ‘cigarette break’, especially – I am rather ‘just using’ this as an example of how any theoretical discourse works with, and on the basis of, what it can think as a consequence of its withdrawal from the everyday. Theorising, even the most abstract conceptualising, thus bears the mark of the everyday within it.
Of course the question of the conjunction (and/or disjunction) of deconstruction and everyday life (or of theory/practice) begs the issue of the definition of cultural studies itself. To the extent to which an interest in and concern with everyday life as a referent in many diverse examples of cultural theory and cultural studies writing is foregrounded for instance in the cultural critique of authors such as Simmel, Benjamin, Kracauer, Freud, DeBord, DeCerteau, Lefebvre, Barthes, Bordieu, Foucault, as well as many others in the anglophone tradition of cultural studies, including Hoggart, Williams, Hall, Hebdige, McRobbie, Gilroy, Grossberg then there would be some justification for subsuming under the name ‘everyday life studies’ a diversity of styles of cultural ‘inquiry’, ‘critique’ or ‘study’. One could easily make an argument for defining ‘cultural studies’ broadly and cross-traditionally as ‘everyday life studies’, the distinction of this field being evident in its directedness toward the everyday world of events. All of the above writers, for example, have made contributions to cultural theory or cultural studies, which are articulated more or less explicitly in relation to a range of practices of everyday life. In apparent contrast to such oeuvres of cultural studies and cultural theory, deconstruction’s most obvious field of reference is, more often than not, that of texts and textual interactions. It is on the basis of a weak understanding of the notion of the Text in deconstruction, that deconstruction has often been thought to operate at least ‘once removed’ from the scenes of everyday life and to be even more remote from the more conventional anthropological, ethnographic and sociological frames of reference applied within much cultural studies writing’.1
In two recent books by Ben Highmore, one a monograph entitled Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, the other an edited collection, The Everyday Life Reader, deconstruction is barely mentioned. I draw attention to this ‘absence’ here, not with a view to challenging this ‘omission’, but rather to draw out and exploit a distinction Highmore makes between two kinds of approach to the everyday, in order to use it for my own purposes. In his Preface to the monograph, Highmore says: ‘there is a whole variety of theorists who deal with ‘problematics’ and the everyday . . . but they don’t deal with the everyday as problematic. As such the everyday often becomes the occasion, the territory for puzzling that is often directed elsewhere’ (2002a: xvii-xviii). It is the latter criterion of selection that Highmore uses to identify and reflect on the everyday within cultural studies; he directs his readers to writings which bring ‘the everyday into an awkward focus’. Consequently, his construction of a sort of canon of ‘everyday life studies’, for the most part (though not entirely) in his Reader too, revolves around a focus on the actuality of everyday life in its familiarity, either through the experience of daily life itself or through representations of daily life in the culture of the twentieth century. The distinction he draws is between the kind of cultural analysis which focuses on the ‘literal day-to-day’ such things as ‘work, washing and cooking. . .’ themselves (to which list, smoking could be added!) and the kind of analysis which uses the everyday ‘out-there’ as a point of departure, as he says, ‘directed elsewhere’.
Now it is clearly the case that in the texts of Derrida everyday life in the first sense is pretty marginal, even largely absent, but the very distinction between the ‘literal day-to-day’ and what Highmore portrays as more theoretical departures which take off from it, is, I believe, one which itself is already very casual (i.e. ‘everyday’) in character. And I want to blatantly use this ‘everyday’ distinction as my own point of departure toward questioning the relationship between deconstruction and everyday life. I do this not to confirm or disconfirm which of these categories of reflection on the everyday deconstruction belongs to, but to consider where and in what senses deconstruction ‘departs’ from the everyday and in what senses it ‘returns’ to everyday life. The aim here is to articulate deconstruction’s movement between the theoretical/practical or the conceptual /concrete and, in doing so, to investigate its relevance to any form of cultural study (especially that which remains yet to come) whose desire, hope and aim, would be to harness the transformative energy of intellectual work for change at the level of everyday life.
Departures and Returns
The issue of the relationship of theory to practice is posed and reposed at the point at which intellectual life comes to concern itself with its use-value and its place in the world at large. A concern for the bearing of theory on ‘everyday life’ is a sign of the bad conscience of any intellectual project which would like to see ‘results’; results which would take the form of visible transformations, for instance, in social and political structures and in the daily lives of subjects who understand themselves as social and political actors and members of communities, etc. Even worse than failure in this ‘practical’ respect to return theory to everyday life (failure to show how it makes a difference, how it has a greater than zero result; failure to show how it makes a difference right here and now where things happen) seems, from an everyday point of view, to be a turning away from the goal of intervention (or, as Highmore says, when he gets close to saying a word at all on this, ‘transformative reclamation’) in the everyday (2002b: 225). Engaging in ‘theory for theory’s sake’ would be to do the very opposite: it would help cement the system of domination, which operates at the level of everyday life through its neglect of the everyday (as actuality).
The question of the everyday is important for theory, then, not least because it reminds us of the dangers inherent in the institutionalisation of both cultural studies and deconstruction and, potentially, the alliances which may be made between them. On the one hand, critical thinking and research aims to counteract the processes of cultural totalisation, on the other, it is drawn into forms of everyday ‘institutional complicity’ with ‘the system’; for instance, under pressure to comply with the requirements of professionalisation, such as the provision of degree courses and certifications; by operating within disciplinary divisions and publication agendas, research audits, and so on, all of which threaten the recuperation of its most radical gestures. Whatever the relation of critical thinking to the everyday, it is at least in part complicated by the fact that it is threatened by everyday life, even its own. (In The Right to Philosophy Derrida speaks of the consequences of such ‘imperatives’ which impose requirements on research to be ‘useful, profitable, urgent . . . end-oriented’.) So the use-value of theory vis-Ã-vis practice, or the demand that it be relevant, is cast as a charge that comes from within the space of the institution. (In this text and elsewhere, Derrida’s defence of the ‘right to philosophy’ is a defence of the right to a highly-qualified ‘uselessness’, or open-ended intellectual activity). Such institutionalisation of intellectual practice could be the result of policies flowing from within government ministries or from within cultural studies, wherever and whenever it, wittingly or unwittingly, has become institutionalised through, and as a result of, having established a proper place for itself, in an everyday sort of way. In other words, the demand of measuring up to ‘use-criteria’ in general can be made on the basis of both what deconstruction supposedly does do and on the basis of what it supposedly does not do. Against these various demands to adopt ‘positions’, deconstruction occupies the middle ground between these two accusations. And, says Derrida, ‘what a victory for dogmatisms everywhere if anyone who tries to ask new questions, to upset good consciences . . . stands immediately accused of complicity with the adversary’ (Derrida, 2002: 16). Because the everyday is ‘marginalized’ in deconstruction, something allegedly exemplified and reflected in its being ‘overly textual’, this is supposedly reflected further in a neglect of actual ‘real life’ situations as they are encountered at the level of the everyday. (For instance, Derrida actually says at one point, that ‘real life may always be absent’ (1978: 32) – I quote ‘out of context’ to illustrate how easy it is to bring evidence for this reading!)
Of course, one could argue against this reading of the critical gesture of deconstruction very succinctly by simply drawing attention to the fact that wherever the everyday is ostensibly ‘absent’ from theoretical discourse then its silent, hidden effects are in any case shaping its every formulation and concern. This is, moreover, precisely a manifest teaching of deconstruction: the teaching that can be summarised in terms of how every ‘said’ contains the trace of the ‘unsaid’. Derrida’s readings, for instance, of the likes of Freud, Nietzsche, Saussure, Heidegger and Lévinas (for brevity just to mention the grouping of thinkers he draws together in the seminal essay Différance (1973: 130)) grow out of an investigation of this juncture between the said/unsaid as it is at work and textually discernible and diversely manifested as, say, the unconscious in Freud, or the ontological difference in Heidegger, or the trace of the Other in Lévinas, etc.
But rather than go down that line, away from the everyday, so to speak, I interrupt myself at this point with another cigarette, and ponder whether this is the last one or the next one, or just this one. Is it to be just another in an abstract series the series of repeated ignitions constituting the custom or habit of my smoking, or is this one to be a singular event? If it is to be the last one, then it will surely have to be smoked to become that ‘last one’ within my project of quitting. If only one could retrace one’s steps, if only the return to origin were possible, perhaps then the habit and entrapment in the compulsion to repeat would be magically broken. I’m using this last cigarette break to begin again, by reflecting now on the connection between beginnings and endings of smoking and philosophy; on where the everyday ends and theory begins, or where one crosses over the other.
Heidegger at the Hearth of Heracleitus
At this point I want to begin again: beginning again is always a sort of habitual return to the everyday constituted that is through repetitions and compulsions. I do so now with an anecdote – the ‘anecdotal’ being one popular discourse of the everyday. In short, for the anecdotal is by its nature a shortening or stand-in for something else, it stands in for the relationship between philosophy/theory or ‘thinking’ and everyday life. This anecdote was told first by Aristotle (De part.anim. AS, 645a17) and then again by Heidegger in the ‘Letter on Humanism’, a text reflecting on the question of the relationship of philosophical thought to action; to ethics and political practice. It concerns a moment in the everyday life of Heracleitus and it goes like this:
Some ‘strangers’ who had heard of Heracleitus and of his ideas decided to track him down and pay him a visit in his home. Heidegger citing Aristotle: ‘Having arrived they saw him warming himself at a stove. Surprised they stood in consternation – above all because he encouraged them, the astounded ones, and called for them to come in with the words “here too the gods are present” (1976: 233)’. The visitors were surprised and disappointed to find ‘the great thinker’ in the very ordinary pose of an ordinary man. Heidegger then embellishes, emphasising that he was found ‘not even baking bread at the stove’; not doing anything in effect, simply warming himself; engaged, that is dis-engaged from thought, in ‘such an everyday and unexciting occurrence: doing almost nothing’ (1976: 234).
Heidegger retells the anecdote in a text concerned centrally with the relationship between theory and practice, and it serves his discussion about human action (praxis) in a world in which the actor must act ‘without guarantees’; in which there is, according to Sartre, ‘reality only in action’ (cited by Krell, 1976: 55). ‘Letter on Humanism’ is Heidegger’s response to the thinking which implicitly or explicitly poses the theory/practice relation as a problem (or which resolves it, as in existentialism, with the privileging of ‘action’). It draws attention to what such thinking fails to think and upon which the theory/practice distinction is based, or becomes ontologically grounded in, the common sense, everyday, understanding of the difference between them. In Heideggerian terms, this represents the failure to think the Being of language. At the same time, it outlines how bringing Being (for instance in the form of the truth about the theory/practice relation) into language as such, will always be impossible, and the thinking which must be undertaken NOW is aimed at overcoming the theory/practice relation in a thinking ‘yet to come’; a thinking ‘which is neither theoretical nor practical‘. Heidegger calls such a thinking to come the ‘advent of Being’; a thinking which ‘has no result. It has no effect’ (1976: 236).
The Marxist philosopher of everyday life, Henri Lefebvre, suspects Heidegger of ‘pushing human reality to one side’ when he writes the following:
Like the poets, the philosophers are wavering between the familiar, the trivial and the mystical, between bourgeois reality and mystical unreality . . . Average life is repudiated . . . so that the secret of existence may be revealed . . . . Metaphysical mystery [is] reduced to the level of everyday life. (Lefebvre, 1991: 124)
But, at the very least, the Heideggerian meditation on Being is in general a ‘pushing off’ from everyday life, and an account of how spatialisation and temporalisation of ‘the world of action’ arise through the ontological structures of Dasein‘ s everydayness. So everyday life as much as Being is recovered for thought, even in Heidegger (and even if, for many of his critical readers, the later Heidegger pushes off in the direction of the Gods and mysticism). That Heidegger reiterates in ‘Letter on Humanism’ the limits of philosophical anthropology, first articulated in Being and Time in relation to ‘anti-humanism’, is useful to recall here too. It reiterates that the thought of Being is not the subjective undertaking of ‘the human’; it is not an intellectual act of will at all. The story about Heracleitus illustrates this in anecdotal, everyday form: it recalls just how unknown the simplest, most immediate and banal of ‘actions’ are, when seen only from within an everyday perspective. Heracleitus’ remark to the visitors is a noting of what emerges out of the difference inherent in the everyday act, between itself and what is other within it. It records in effect, albeit in fictional illustration, an instance of the disjuncture of the everyday with itself; how the everyday act is never merely what it knows itself to be. It says ‘do not too easily presume to know even what hand-warming is’.
One ought not to think of Heidegger’s/Heracleitus’ result-free, apparently ineffectual meditation at the hearth as being literally of no consequence: it introduces a general disturbance into the total phenomenon of our being-in-the-world. The ‘turning’ it marks completes a circle of ‘feedback’; a turning back of thought, back into the concrete everydayness of everyday life. ‘Letter on Humanism’ re-iterates what had already been thought through in Being and Time concerning the necessity of going through a de-struction of the ‘everydayness’ of Dasein‘s being. The entire project of thought in Being and Time proceeds, it should be recalled, on the basis of a reflexive phenomenological critique of (and these are Heidegger’s terms) the ‘downward plunge’, the ‘fallenness’ of ‘temptation’, ‘tranquilization’, ‘alienation’ and ‘self-entangling’ of Dasein as it is sucked into the turbulence of the inauthenticity and the ‘idle chatter’ of ‘the they’ and they-saying: in a word, the ‘everyday’. Everydayness and everyday temporality in the Heideggerian analytic of Dasein is the horizon of the enquiry as a whole, and therefore (even in Heidegger, let alone before we get to Derrida’s deconstruction of time in Heidegger) everydayness is nothing less than that out of which the entire existential analysis itself emerges and gathers itself for thinking. The everyday is for Heidegger, in other words, indispensable to theoretical thinking rather than an obstacle; not because it provides thought with an object, but because the everyday for Heidegger is the actuality of the lived human relation to Being, experienced in a range of modes, all of which, without exception, are identified on the basis of the phenomenological analysis of everydayness. I recall this Heideggerian text here because it is one root (perhaps it can be called the theoretical or philosophical root) of the everyday in deconstruction. In the same textual place we find Heidegger’s articulation of the futural, the advenient (‘L’avenant‘) future of thinking as the always ‘yet to come’: the sense of the futural so central to the political and ethical dimensions of many texts of Derrida and ultimately to the question of the ‘use-value’ and interventional possibilities of deconstruction.2 So central too, I believe, to understanding how deconstruction rethinks the relation of the Text and the World on the basis of différance, namely as two different ‘stratifications’ (1978: 19) of the same opening of spatialisation and temporalisation. Without the opening of space or ‘spatialisation’ as ‘exteriority in general’, then, as Gasché has noted, ‘the outside, ‘spatial’ and ‘objective’ exteriority which we believe we know as the most familiar thing in the world, as familiarity itself would not appear as such’ (Gasché, 1986: 199; Derrida, 1982: 70-1). The familiar everyday, and the theory which takes the concrete form of textuality, both begin from an ‘initial state of abstract indifferentiation’ (the initial ‘point’ is discussed by Derrida in ‘Ousia and Gramme ‘(1982: 41)). Each ‘realm’ (as the Text and the World each come to be thought of after the initial event of ‘opening’) will always bear within it the trace of the other realm, as will every other determination of spatiality. For instance, the discourse of physics thinks this opening as the Big Bang of ‘creation’ out of ‘nothing’.
In ‘Ousia and Gramme’ deconstruction is as close to physics as it is to politics. Cultural studies, though, has always been very explicitly, and in an everyday sort of way, closer to politics than physics. How close is it though to the politics of deconstruction?
In the same essay (1982) Derrida provides a brief but interesting comment on the politics of textuality as the politics of reading. In a footnote in ‘Ousia and Gramme’ – itself a footnote to a footnote in Being and Time – he comments on politics in relation to a very specific textual location. He refers to the political character of the antithesis between ‘devotion’ to Heidegger and anti-Heideggerianism in France around the time of writing, and charges that, for all its supposedly political overtones, the antithesis belies a ‘refusal to read‘; understood as a refusal of ‘the question of text’: ‘Here political resistance often serves as a highly moral alibi for a “resistance” of another order: philosophical resistance for example, but there are other resistances whose political implications, although more distant, are no less determined’ (Derrida, 1982: 62, fn.37).
It is determined by the ‘consequences’ of the refusal of ‘the question of the text’ as such. In other words, the refusal to engage with Heidegger’s texts, at that time, effectively on the grounds of the everyday actuality of Heidegger’s biographical Nazism, which, despite being political in a certain obvious or ordinary sense, also closes down the question of ‘the political’ as such – something that is evident only on the reading of Heidegger’s text. The politics of this thing called ‘the world’ and the politics of this thing called ‘textuality, i.e. of reading or critical practice, cannot be distinguished from one another, for the Text and the World are not, never were nor could be, two distinct realms (as Derrida’s essay ‘Différance’ endeavours to explain). The Text/World difference is dynamic, in the sense of repeatedly being worked out and worked on; it cannot be grounded on any form of the distinction between what is inside/outside (either of the Text, or in terms of what is of or what is not of the World). Wherever, whenever such a distinction is made then an oppressive political decisionism is at work.
Derrida warns that the refusal to think textuality deconstructively (which involves the passage through the Heideggerian ontological difference) will lead to the repetition of traditional determinations of the political as having a proper (i.e. delimitable) ‘realm’ (c.f. 1973: 153). Consequently, it will lead to a repetition of ‘the political’ in terms of the political management of subjects as ‘objects of calculation’ in one form or another. This would be its predictable result. ‘Calculation’ of subjects refers, for example, to all those categorical ‘identifications’ of them as something – categories, for instance, which identify and classify subjects as belonging to social classes and institutions; to genders, ethnicities, sexualities, professions, nationalities, the masses, the exploited, etc., determined as such through systems of representation. Such denominations discursively lock subjects into systems of domination whilst allowing theoretical discourse to identify them as objects of theoretical representation.
It is important to recall the rootedness of the Heideggerian ‘de-struction of ontology’ in the ‘everyday’ and in the analytic of Dasein‘ s temporality, when attempting to evaluate Derridean deconstruction as a critical practice. Emancipation from various forms of dominance requires a ‘passage’ through the ontological difference. Everyday life constitutes the world in which Dasein is ‘dominated through and through for life’, according to Heidegger (1962: 370). In Derrida’s ‘Différance’ we read: ‘Everywhere the dominance of beings (in the ontology of being as presence) is solicited by difference‘ – but ‘solicited’ here, Derrida stresses, means ‘made to tremble’. Hence, I want to suggest that the ‘dominance’ which is exercised over life in every aspect of everyday life, is precisely what the thought of différance, when given instrumental form through what could be called the actual critical practice of deconstruction, namely the kind of engaged textuality Derridean texts exemplify, comes to shake. What I refer to as the ‘actual critical practice’ of deconstruction, also referred to as ‘arche-writing’, is perhaps best understood as a form ‘linguistic situationism’: a performative détournement. In ‘Différance’ Derrida refers to the ‘detours’ in phrase and syntax (1973: 134), to which he will ‘resort’ and which will, at least in part and in the first instance, be ‘practically indiscernible’ from ‘thematics’ (representation for instance of structures of dominance – in themes). Lest this appear as some purely linguistic, philosophical game, let’s at least remember the insistence in that text that this ‘practice’ of différance as ‘arche-writing’ must ‘one day’ ‘be sublated’, i.e. ‘lend itself’ to involvement in ‘events’, events which it – the ‘practice of difference’, or deconstruction (itself) – ‘never commanded’ (1973: 135). Saying that the critical practice of deconstruction, never ‘commanded’ events, indicates also that deconstructive theory acknowledges that deconstruction (itself) originates as much with events themselves as with what, in a pre-deconstructive idiom we ordinarily call, in an everyday sort of way, textual analysis or critical reading. Theory is therefore ‘read off’ the surfaces of the world, it is of ‘worldiness’, or arises as a ‘folding’ (to use a term from Deleuze) of the world upon itself. It is borne of the same difference within sameness of the world, which gives rise to the opening of the world itself.
However, whenever and wherever critical thinking supposes itself to be in line, to be on track, aiming toward the telos of emancipation, be this from an everyday addiction (which is in fact tautological) as from any of the many forms of modern alienation, it commits not only the ‘error’ of utopianism but, in so far as it anticipates the future contemporaneity of the subject with its destiny (e.g. as a ‘free being’ or ‘being free of. . .’ something or other), it anticipates a future ‘identification’ from which alterity is eliminated, as its end point and ‘result’. Such a result would amount to the substitution of one system of domination for another. (Let’s be trivial: I might want to quit smoking, but not as a result of being terrorised by health facism, or for a culturally determined fear of death I simply do not share!) Against this, deconstruction is aimed at maintaining ‘the struggle’ through tactical and insurrectionary forestallings of the ‘contemporaneity’ of a thing with itself. I suggest this should be thought of as a form of philosophical dissidence: a dissidence which dissents even from the institutionalisation of its own principle (or ‘law’, as Derrida frequently expresses this idea). As Nicholas Royle puts this in his recent book, The Uncanny, in reference to Spectres of Marx, Derrida is concerned with ‘the political’ as the ‘non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present’ (Royle, 2003: 123).
The Singularity of the Everyday
The ‘living present’ is another name for ‘everyday life’, but as soon as it is approached in ‘textual space’; as soon as it is given to thought through incorporation into the Text, then its inescapable ‘non-contemporaneity’ with itself is evident. In being thus foregrounded, it paradoxically slips, as many critical thinkers of everyday life have noted, out of focus. Everyday life is the contextual background of all thinking and theorising. It is in this sense the marginal par excellence, the limit within which all theoretical considerations are played out. In a discussion of Derrida’s reflections on the proper name, Royle says: ‘One’s (own) name is familiarity itself, but it is also perhaps the strangest “thing” in the world . . . It is the very night of the everyday. From the point of view of the night, it is the day which is “uncanny”‘ (2003: 123).
He cannily proposes the term ‘Nightwriting’ as yet another name for deconstruction. Any theory and the practice of everyday life are thus doubles of each other, but they are also different, non-contemporaneous imprimaturs of each other. The concept of the ‘everyday’, which is thinkable on the basis of repetition, as the mundane, modern, routinised life, and which variously is taken up as an object of socio-anthropological scrutiny in ‘everyday life studies’, is only thinkable on the basis also of the ‘repression’ of the (fact that) every day is different. Deconstruction reclaims the singularity of the everyday. Derrida calls the singularity of the everyday, or the ‘what is happening now’, the event. But the event, he says ‘cannot be reduced to the fact that something happens’ (2002: 13): it is not merely what we already know as everyday life. The event referred to is extensively, in many forms and contexts, discussed by Derrida in terms of the ‘arrival’ (arrivant) of the unanticipatable Other. Another way of expressing the relationship between deconstruction and everyday life would be to see it in terms of deconstruction’s (re)discovery of the messianic in the everyday.
Coming full circle now and in conclusion: This thinking and discourse of the arrivant developed across several of Derrida’s texts is no more ‘high theory’ or abstract philosophy than it is the recollection of everyday life; of the event as the experience of obligation, the ethical demand placed upon me by others; of the arrivant who comes to me from the future. Just as much as it is theory, it is also a discussion of everyday life in its most familiar aspects; it is at the same time the discovery therewithin, one could even call it a simple ‘pointing out’, of what disturbs my everyday life ‘today’. For instance, in Artifactualities, in a way deeply reminiscent of Lévinas’ discourse, Derrida says the arrivant can be thought of as ‘the birth of the child’. This both singular and everyday event is, to use a phrase of Lévinas, ‘without metaphor’ even if I use it ‘metaphorically’ here to express the absolute contiguity of theory and everyday life and to mark the point at which theory comes into contact with everyday life. To use an everyday expression: one cannot get a cigarette paper between them at this point. This is deconstruction returning theory back into the world of everyday life, to the point where the one touches upon the other at every point.
Deconstruction is, in the sense I have sought to indicate here, through and through a thinking of the everyday and everyday life. Derrida more or less insists on his when he says ‘The task of the philosopher, and thus of anyone – of the citizen for example is to try by taking the analysis as far as possible to make the event intelligible up until the moment we touch the arrivant‘ (2002: 20-21). This reference to ‘touch’ should be read as much in the everyday ‘literal’ sense of touching the other. It is, emphatically, not a departure, which leaves the familiar contact with others behind, for some other ‘realm’. Deconstruction is a detour from the everyday which returns to it; it returns theory to everyday life in forms of vigilance for the everyday itself.
Post Script: the Last Cigarette
Vigilance for the everyday can be considered on microcosmic and macrocosmic scales. For instance it might direct one to global environmentalism and a rethinking of nature. Alternatively, it may direct one equally to the banalities of everyday life, including such things as personal, individualised forms and experiences of the compulsion to repeat; addictions, habits, and other things that one does everyday e.g. smoking. I began by wondering about the ‘interventionist’ ethos of cultural studies and how deconstruction sits in relation to this. Having closed now, I want to refer back to the ‘experiment’ or test announced of deconstruction’s field of applicability. What has happened here, as I have worked through these ideas, which might indicate a transformative change in some order, or register of everyday life? For the thinking which thinks the messianic within the everyday, ‘intervention’ is not a question of a decisive action to be viewed as part of teleological sequence or series of events. The event, in the context of the notion of ‘messianic everyday’, a term I have coined to express the distinction of deconstruction’s engagement with everyday life, is what ‘comes from the future’. Only openness to the future can change anything. (This is not alien to historical struggle, though. For instance, in his reading of Marx, Derrida identifies this sign of the messianic in The Communist Manifesto: ‘there is a spectre haunting Europe’ etc., namely that of a communism yet to come. ) I’ll illustrate the idea here, finally, by relating such an openness to the future to the hypothetical and quotidian matter of ‘quitting smoking.’ The smoker, me for instance, might well be swayed to quit smoking for many ‘reasons’ many of these are familiarly and propagandistically disseminated by the state in its many anti-smoking campaigns. The smoker may, as a result of exposure to these, even come to fear for his own life and think his life might be shorter for his smoking. If this doesn’t terrorise him into quitting, it is because the truth or falsity of this lies in the future. He rationalises and this is wholly rational saying to himself such things as ‘I am going to die anyway’, or ‘not smoking doesn’t change the facts of mortality’. Deconstructive thinking can intervene here, can help the smoker quit smoking, to the extent to which it enables him to grasp the futural injunction as one entailing responsibility for Another, for example as referred to above, in the case of ‘the birth of the child’. Whose child? My child perhaps. But ‘whose’ child is not the point except in the case of my own everyday life and my personal habits. The example may touch you, too, personally. But that is also not the point either: despite appearances this is not an appeal to pathos. The point here is about the structure of futurity which deconstruction articulates and which highlights the ethical within the everyday. The ‘example’ (quitting smoking/ the last cigarette, etc.) becomes the instantiation of a futural responsibility; it ‘crosses over’ into everyday life. It has been ‘translated’ into the responsibility of someone to survive and provide for a life which is not his own. Of course it is a ‘banal’ example, and what could be less consequential than the smoking of a single cigarette and the meanings individuals attach to their actions? However, I am inclined to ask myself what Heracleitus would have made of it. And here I have attempted to ‘use’ this ‘last cigarette’ to examine the crossing over of everyday life and deconstruction; and to reveal deconstruction as a form of thinking which is also an ‘actioning’ of the ethical, of responsibility: smoking a last cigarette is always a lot more than meets the eye.
1 There is of course a long, in some respects complex, but ultimately tedious history to this ‘accusation’ of the ‘overly textual’ nature of deconstruction. It is complex in the sense that this, now long, history of the reception of deconstruction has many threads to it. For instance there is the reception it received in literature departments in the USA, which tended to reinforce the perception that it was first and foremost a new form of ‘literary theory’, but preserving a traditional form of ‘textuality’ or ‘text-centeredness’. Its supposed irrelevance to sociology originates perhaps even more through the influence of Foucault in that sphere of intellectual inquiry, and his infamous condemnation that declared deconstruction guilty of reducing ‘discursive practices to textual traces’ (1979) effectively of being disinterested in the actualities of society and history. In the UK deconstruction was most sympathetically received in a small number of philosophy departments (though in some departments it was most virulently opposed), mostly for its contribution to the philosophy of language. It also registered significantly in cultural studies: Stuart Hall especially, as well as other cultural studies writers, clearly read deconstruction and extracted from it resources for ‘deconstructing’ essentialisms and hierarchies at work within culture and society of one kind or another. This is not the place to go into the nuances of these different receptions and appropriations of deconstruction, or of their limits, but on the basis of them, I think one may confidently predict a rich and diverse future for ‘deconstruction’ which will entail the further re-thinking and appreciation of the political character of the Text/World distinction and its deployments in every sphere especially within the academy itself.
2 This is Heidegger’s French. ‘Letter on Humanism’ (1947) was Heidegger’s response to an original letter from Jean Beaufret concerning some themes in Sartre’s then recently published essay ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ (Paris: Nagel, 1946). I give the reader benefit of Krell’s footnote on this word:
L’Avenant (c.f. English advenient) is most often used as an adverbial phrase, à l’avenant, to be in accord, conformity, or relation to something. It is related to l’aventure, the arrival of some unforeseen challenge, and l’avenir, the future, literally what is to come. Thinking is in relation to Being insofar as Being advenes or arrives. Being as arrival or presence is the ‘adventure’ toward which Heidegger’s thought is on the way. (Krell, 1976: 241)
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