Category Archives: Jacques Derrida

IKEA: The Wonderful Everyday…


… or bearing ‘no relation to any reality whatsoever […] its own pure simulacrum’??? Simulacra and Simulation (1994) Jean Baudrillard

The ‘simulations’ are more interesting than the market place because they offer a narrative-of-possibility, within which you, yes YOU, are the hero: Anything would prove to be possible if you lived in a room like this – an unreal space, with no dust, no dirt, no humanity, no humanness, and therefore, no mess – a hyperreality, a fishbowl, a vacuum. There are no drains, no bins, no wires, no junk – or rather, there IS junk, but it is ‘IKEA junk’, manufactured junk with clean, clear lines – so not ‘real’ junk. There is – in the world of IKEA (not dissimilar to the army) – an IKEA version of everything, including IKEA toys, IKEA fairy tales (just look at the warnings against climbing up bunk bed ladders) as well as the mandatory IKEA ‘fast food’.

Yet it feels real, like you are a flaneur of the interior, a voyeur, peeping into a private space with everything present, accept the one key, notable, necessary and bizarre absence – The Occupants. Real Fake Reality. So much so that the toilets boast explanations that ‘non-display’ toilets are available in the restaurant. Why not ‘real’ toilets? Or would that become too post-structurally confusing altogether…?

A Dying ‘Tradition’

Finding myself pushed, I realise that I must ‘out’ myself… I am… a critical theorist. In fact, more than that, I am a poststructuralist.

The current fashion in critique of postmodernism is, in my view, not only lazy and at times quite obviously self-serving – the need to say-something-new, anything at all, being utmost – but also oddly elides poststucturalism, its frightening, yet charismatic, non-identical twin.

In the words of Margaret Drabble, completely reapplied: ‘I’d rather be at the end of a dying tradition, which I admire, than be at the beginning of a tradition which I deplore’.

The Anarchic Hand: Falling and Diving

Margaret Atwood wrote of writing that you – ‘you’, I, she, he, they, someone, anyone – plan what they wish to write, they start writing, and then ‘the writing hand’ takes over…

The Anarchic Hand, also known as Alien Hand Syndrome, is a ‘real life’ medical condition caused by a lesion on either the left or right side of a person’s brain that produces uncontrolled, unpredictable and often violent movement in the oppositely corresponding hand. It is a richly appropriate metaphor; Atwood is gesturing towards writing as anarchic, as alien, as nothing-to-do-with-me, with the hand as both agent and site of dubious agency. To confuse matters further, Atwood is fabled to have a robotic arm, not one actually attached to her body, but entirely autonomous, which is programmed to produce an exact ‘copy’ of her signature, for the signing of thousands of her books, without the need to exhaust the ‘real’ and very wayward Atwood writing hand. Both Atwood’s writing hand and her robotic arm rather uncannily recall W.B. Yeats’ notion of ‘Automatic Writing’, in entirely different ways.

All these ‘hands’, link to notions of control, writing and health. James Joyce, despite having received a bad review for Ulysses from Carl Jung, ultimately took his very ill daughter, Lucia, to see the psychiatrist for a diagnosis. Jung assessed both Lucia and Joyce, together, and he disclosed that Lucia was suffering from hebephrenic schizophrenia and that Joyce himself, although falling short of a diagnosis, exhibited many of the characteristics of the disorder. Typically, the psychiatrist used a metaphor to clarify: ‘Jung concluded that father and daughter were like two people going to the bottom of the sea, “one falling, one diving”’ (A Very Short Introduction to Schizophrenia, Chris Frith and Eve Johnstone). When I told my friend this story, I think he had it right with his reply that, aside from notions of control, the key difference was between experiencing ‘thought disorder’, clinically, and Joyce’s deliberate disordering of his own thoughts, and furthermore, the privilege and good fortune inherent within (the ability to make) such a decision. This is the difference, but the connection remains the link to language, or the complexity of intention, purpose and control within writing – as demonstrated by the (metaphor of the) Anarchic Hand.

I have also recently become fascinated by ‘mouthpieces’, especially on old-fashioned telephones and speaking-tubes, and I have been reading Avital Ronnell’s bizarre and marvellous The Telephone Book. Speaking-tubes were nineteenth-century communication devices installed in houses, so that the wealthier middle and upper classes could relay messages to the servants below stairs, without having to actually go-below-stairs; the technology behind these tubes formed a rather crude prototype for the telephone, and, in fact, according to Ronnell, in some languages the word for speaking-tube and telephone was one-in-the-same. The name ‘speaking-tube’ has made me consider other odds phrases used to described inanimate modern conveniences to save labour, that are often, spookily, personified – such as the dumb-waiter, for example. Speaking-tubes also bring to mind ‘invisible’ friends, or perhaps more specifically, ‘invisible’ interlocutors (and, of course, the terrifying mind-of-its-own speaking-tube in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger) – and this connects with Jacques Derrida’s notion of the virus as encoded, yet interrupted communication, as well as neither living nor dead. The speaking-tube is a technology of Otherness, and its auditory emphasis (or fetish) is both a powerful and interesting contrast with the contemporary obsession with ‘touch’ and the touch-screen – speaking-tube/touch-screen, sense plus technology, equals technology of Otherness.Speaking-tube1 Speaking-tube2

On the submission of my thesis…

Amended thesis‘Writing is the double, writing is a double writing, from the beginning’ (The Uncanny)

Writing as the (still living) dead

In the chapter on ‘The Double’ in Nicholas Royle’s The Uncanny, the writing confronts a selfish, impossible paradox – that your name, that ‘thing’ following you through life, so distinctly ‘you’ – whether loved or hated – belongs to another (the Other) in The Same way. But it is my name! ‘But it is also about an engagement with the fact that death, machine-like repetition and otherness are always inscribed in the workings of the name and signature’. Both the name and the signature are always already a repetition – with the signature its repeatability is its very ‘essence’, it must be repeatable, so that the legitimacy of its repetition can be dutifully counter-signed.

The text of Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida’s Ghost Writing by Carla Jodey Castricano suggests that ‘in the case of the proper name, which is “not to be confused with the bearer,” one writes as the (still living) dead’.

I am ‘the bearer’ of the forenames of both my grandmothers, and I bear the ‘full’ married name of my father’s mother. When I write, specifically when I act as signatory to a text, any text, is she writing as the (still living) dead? This is a haunting question, partly because I never met her, but also because of all the insurmountable ‘distance’ between us, which this ‘never-having-met-her’ is an effect of… I not only did not meet her – Eileen Pollard did not meet Eileen Pollard – I did not know her either, and what I do ‘know’ is necessarily refracted and partial – meeting her myself would have produced a different ‘partial’ narrative, but it would have been ‘my’ partiality.

And yet despite all this – no meeting, no ‘knowledge’ – she is ‘there’ every time I sign my name – and she is particularly there as I push against the academic edifice with papers and articles etc. Her ‘presence’ during these signatures is two-fold; it is because this world forces philosophical reflection about your name, and ‘making’ your name, and also because it was not her world. Eileen Pollard did not attend university. She did not have that privilege. This ‘I’ – one of the few awkward shortenings for the name Eileen (Ei, Eye) – that I wish to lay claim to wholly, mastering it finally with the name Eileen Pollard – did go to university, enough times for both of us! ‘I’ is privileged.

‘Knowing’ that the desire for this mastery is impossible and also is to miss the point – makes the whole ‘making your name’ tedium more bearable, more funny and it definitely makes Eileen Pollard laugh!

The Importance of Being Imperfect

It is very necessary to be wrong. If we remain afraid of being wrong no one will ever say, write or otherwise express something ‘new’. Anyway nothing is perfect… according to Derrida meaning operates as imperfection, or difference. If signs returned as ‘the same’, we would not be able to differentiate between them, and therefore draw a meaning.

This is what Derrida describes as an affirmation that is not positive


‘There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in’

‘Anthem’, Leonard Cohen.

Pen, mightier than keyboard…?

I was talking to my friend the other day about pens and we found that we not only share strong views on ‘what pen it is best to use’ but also the importance of the relationship the writer has with said pen. In brief, it was all about the biro – of various types, including the Papermate and of course the trusty Bic – while squeaky nibbed pens and gel filled ones were to be avoided. I think the biro triumphed for both of us (at early ages) because it was good for lots of writing, and this allowed an apparently strong connection to develop between the ink curling out of the nib, the sense of the words and the person writing them.

The first pen I can remember being so attached to that it became part of the writing process was a very cheap biro that was impersonating an expensive pen. Myself and my friend discovered that neither of us like costly pens, not merely because they are expensive, but because they are heavy with a tapered barrel making them harder to hold and even more difficult to write with – and, as already stated, it is the writing that is the point of the pen. However, at the young age of eleven I was the proud owner of an inexpensive plastic pen (that was pretending to be a Parker ballpoint) and I loved this pen, I loved writing with this pen, and I had an almost paralysing fear that its ink would run out. It was paralysing because I had tried on numerous occasions to discover how to refill the pen, but like everything else concerning it, the suggestion that it could be refilled (it had several sections that partially unscrewed) was also fraudulent. I think this indicates something important about the duplicity of writing, i.e. that the first pen I relied upon to write was indeed a fake. Yet despite this knowledge, my reliance was total and my fear of the ink running dry was really a fear that without this pen my writing would cease to flow.

This memory – shared so powerfully with my friend – has made me think again about writing. At the risk of sounding ignorant, I want to know how children relate to writing now, is it through the medium of a pen, or is it the keyboard? The latter, it has to be admitted (particularly on a blog post) is also good for lots of writing. Yet they are not the same, although I will not go so far as to claim the superiority of one over the other, the pen stroke and the keystroke obviously mediate between the writer and the writing in different ways. There is no doubt, for example, that the keyboard as pen has produced widely published writing (through the ‘pages’ of social media) that helps mobilise political movements. Yet the kind of writing I am evoking, of the emotive, singular, ‘I can only write with this…’ variety, is still replicated in ‘youth’ culture in terms of graffiti – through which the choice of paint (ink) and the tag (signifier) are crucial to understanding what the writing means.

A long time ago, Derrida deconstructed the privileging of speech over writing, in particular the ‘common sense’ view that speech precedes writing – i.e. it is a more immediate, or present, form of expression. He argued instead that speech is writing. Yet there is even more to be written about writing now…

Take, for example, the sense in this blog post that handwriting comes before keyboard writing, or rather the privileging of hand over key. If we take Derrida’s model of speech as writing – or rather that what we perceive as second, probably comes first – then the handwritten is mostly likely written through the keyboard of the pen. It is only my nostalgia that makes the handwritten more ‘present’, more real in my memory, when in fact the advent of the keyboard illustrates that whatever the means of writing there is to hand – it is only ever a cipher for language.

Blog posts I want to write, when I have the time…

1. ‘in the case of the proper name, which is “not to be confused with the bearer,” one writes as the (still living) dead’ – Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida’s Ghost Writing, Carla Jodey Castricano. I bear the forenames of both my grandmothers. Are they writing as the (still living) dead?

2. Poststructuralism and schizophrenia… Schizophrenia is understood as an experience of an excess of meaning, similar in many respects to poststructural theories of language. The connection is explicit in texts like Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Another key critical theorist, Louis Althusser, suffered periods of intense mental illness, during one of which he murdered his wife. Perhaps the key text here is Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Michel Foucault.

3. Is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple a ‘just’ serial killer? She painstakingly tracks down the killer just as the killer does their victim.

4. Does ‘terrorism’ equate to ‘treason’? Does it serve the same social function?

5. Consider the slug trail of a finger print on your mobile phone touch screen. Is ‘our’ touch always a site of celebration?

6. ‘I guess all that worrying finally paid off’: Is worry elliptical?

Given the choice, which full post would you most like to read?

Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Auto-icon’ and the return of the always yet to come

I recently visited University College London in the course of my studies and I encountered Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Auto-icon’ at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building. It is fascinating…

Bentham is remembered now primarily for his advocacy of utilitarianism, he lived between 1748 and 1832, and in his will he requested that his body be dissected as part of a public lecture. The Auto-icon is what followed. It is a glass-fronted wooden cabinet (either a very compact room or a generously ample coffin) which contains Bentham’s skeleton stuffed out with hay and wearing his Quaker regalia. Although Bentham had anticipated the Auto-icon incorporating his actual head, unfortunately the experimental attempts at mummification by his disciple, Thomas Southwood Smith (unlucky fellow)  left it looking ‘distastefully macabre’. According to Wikipedia, it did not, as intended, ‘resemble its appearance in life’.

However, all this remained unknown to me at the time I first saw the Auto-icon. Consequently, the plaque informing the viewer that it is not, in fact, Bentham’s head they see but a wax model adorned with some of his hair, and that the real head is located in a nearby safe, seemed to me an unnecessary, not to say rather bizarre, detail. Yet it is, after all, significant, since despite defying Bentham’s exact wishes, the head (‘origin’ of such wishes) was displayed separately within the Auto-icon case for many years. However, it became the repeated target of student pranks – better than a traffic cone, I assume… ‘It is now locked away securely’, Wikipedia assures.

What I did know about Jeremy Bentham was second-hand from my school-friend’s housemate, who had studied at UCL. She told me the morning I left for the College to watch out for its founder, kept stuffed in a display case for posterity. I immediately imagined a man (naturally) standing upright in relatively modern dress – corduroys, tweed jacket, leathered elbows – with a pipe in his mouth, who had been embalmed – possibly against his will. What I actually saw was not only, quite literally, willed, but also both unexpected and much stranger.

I had been struggling the previous evening with trying to explain to my school-friend the premise of my thesis, and had become preoccupied with unraveling Jacques Derrida’s notion of the return of the always yet to come… I said: ‘Take, for example, my filter tips, they do not achieve full presence – ruptured, segmented, corrupting site that they are! So the appearance of the filter tips on the table is a return – a recognisable one, in my case, yet different every time – of an imperfection signifying a ‘to come’, a flawless arrival, which cannot be anticipated. Consequently, later when I texted my friend a photograph of the ‘stuffed dude’, I entitled it the return of the always yet to come, as a potentially clearer example than my box of filter tips.

A genius, an agitator, anachronistically, a sufferer from Asperger’s syndrome – in life Jeremy Bentham bore the hallmarks of fragmentation and contradiction that defy full presence – riven with nonpresence, Derrida suggests of Van Gogh’s artistic body. Bentham’s skeleton returns, recognisable, yet different, a re-presentation, explicitly in terms of the head, which is wax. This facial replica is a copy without original, since the mummified physiognomy held securely in a nearby safe was always already a deconstructed ‘origin’. Detached, decayed and dissembling, it is merely another simulation of resemblance – it is not a privileged site, however ‘secure’. The Auto-icon highlights Bentham as no more or less present alive than ‘dead’. For example, although stationary, for the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the College, the Auto-icon actually attended the Council meeting and was listed as ‘present but not voting’. Perhaps Derrida might describe such abstinence as ‘already talkative’. And notice the Auto-icon is not Bentham, it is his figure, or outline, within the space of the enclosing cabinet. The Auto-icon is not a ‘he’, but an ‘it’, it does not vote – ‘it becomes the very place of a word that is all the more powerful because it is silent’ – ‘The Spatial Arts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’.

Although my text to my friend was technically wrong, in that Bentham is not stuffed – the hay, contrarily, is without his bones not within his flesh – he is, and was, a dude – proponent for the abolition of slavery, capital and corporal punishment, equal rights for women and the decriminalisation of homosexuality – he was always already ahead of his time, and remains so within the Auto-icon. And the name, Auto-icon, a signifier, with a bite of Apple about it, that emphasises the always yet to come of both Bentham’s body and his work. As Derrida argues of such a paradox, with the paradox ‘Long live ghosts!’ – I say instead, long live the Auto-icon, present but not voting…