Derrida, Proximity to Presence, and the Joy of Vertigo (with reference to Deleuze)

Arkady Plotnitsky who taught me Derrida in Philadelphia in 1989.
When I was in college, I took a class on Derrida taught by the impeccably named, Arkady Plotnitsky (I couldn't make that up; his whole shtick was pitch perfect for teaching Derrida in 1989, a parody without an original). It seems that Platonism, as well as the rest of "Western Metaphysics," is premised on a proximity to presence (one of those great phrases that has remained with me lo these many years), a primal or final place which we are closer to or farther from. Plato posits an ideal Form of, say, woman. There are then different concepts of women derived from this Form; this is followed by actual women; then sculptures and pictures of women; then the word, woman. Each thing is another step removed from that Form of Woman that is eternal, that predates any instantiation of any particular woman, a Form that is and has been forever outside the fray of time, unmarred and pristine.

My silly illustration of a parody of Platonism.
As we move to the right — from concept to person to image to word — we move farther away from the Form.

Derrida finds this proximity to presence everywhere he looks, notably, in Claude Lévi-Strauss' distinction between the raw and the cooked. Raw is natural, we imagine. It's literally primal. The cooked, meanwhile, is the stuff of man, of time, of culture, putting us at a remove from the natural order of things. This "raw man" didn't yet have language; then words came along, cooking us, as it were, moving us closer or farther from that raw state.

If you think about it for a moment, you'll see the many ways in which we like to imagine Man as a creature who was pure (for better or worse) and has become removed from the natural way of things. All this cooking, all these words, all these gadgets! Of course, we might see it a progress. We can cure diseases now! And have food that is super yummy! But whether we see it as progress or regress, we still  think of the movement from ape-man to whatever we are now as a movement towards or away from some kind of there — a fixed point, a presence.

Derrida argues that the distinction between the raw and cooked breaks down as does the distinction between man without language and man with language (for those of you who care, breaking down this distinction is what Derrida calls deconstruction, a word that is widely used in a variety of forms, all and none of which are right. I offer Derrida's definition here not as the definitive one but as a point of interest. Which is all there ever are: points of interest without a fixed original or true). All food is somehow prepared, somehow cooked. What is more contrived — what is less natural — than today's obsession with raw food? Just as  there is no such thing as raw per se, there was no time without language, no time without writing. As Derrida argues, a road is a writing on the land. We are always already writing, always already in language, always already cooking.

And yet we cling to this notion of a proximity to presence. It even creeps into our mindful practice: I am getting closer to being mindful, I tell myself, as if there were a final state of mindfulness. Even when meditating, I'll tell myself: Oh, I was there for a moment but then it slipped away. Damn! As if there was a spatial difference between meditating like this or meditating like that. As if there were somewhere to be going! As if it could be measured!

Proximity to presence is fundamentally spatial thinking. In order for us to be closer or farther from something, we need to measure the distance. And if that there there — the origin, the goal, the ideal state is moving then our distance from it becomes unclear and we are unable to assess. So we fix it in place and make ourselves move while the universe remains still. In this scenario, we are actors on the stage of the universe rather than us actually being part of the universe and rather than the universe being an actor alongside us.

But it seems to me the Big Bang was not a primal event. There was not stillness and then, Bang!, everything started moving. Rather, the universe was always already big banging, everything going this way and that, ricocheting, colliding, colluding, melding, passing in the night. All these rocks and gasses and emotions and glances: they are hurtling through space at different rhythms and rates. There's nowhere to go and nowhere we're coming from; it's all just going, relentless change, movement from the get go. Isn't this what yoga and meditation teach us — that we're already there? That there is no path, nothing to search for?

Matthew Ritchie paints what I see when I picture the universe.

Every time I realize this — that there is neither an origin nor a destination, that it's all just movement this way and that, not quite a free fall as gravity is only one force among many — every time I realize in my cells that all is flux (are my cells a kind of presence I can be closer to? What about DNA? I see DNA as just another form of tea leaf reading; what do you think? What do you picture? Is my DNA closer to being me? Are my cells? Or my laugh, my smile, my douchebaggery?) — every time I let go of all my there theres, I experience a resonant rush, a vertigo of delight, and I love it.

When I was a kid, I used to lie in bed at night and picture the infinity of space. My mind would hurtle out of the house, through the sky, past the clouds and atmosphere, past the moon, the stars, and the sun and keep going and going until I reached an orgasmic state of release, my skinny little body shuddering as I sensed the infinitude of it all. I loved this feeling, craved this feeling, sought it out.

Presence functions as kind of internal — as well as external — fascist. We hold ourselves up to an internal standard, some true self, and then assess, judge, berate ourselves for not being there, not being that, for not being mindful. Think about how hilarious that is! To berate yourself for not being mindful!!! To be mindful is to be present to whatever is happening. The moment you're assessing whether you're being mindful or not, you're not being mindful. Which is ok, too! It's all ok because there is nothing else! There's just all this! (This is it, says Alan Watts, and I believe him.)

Imagine all the yous without any one being real. They're all just you. It's not that each is discontinuous; it's that each you is what Deleuze would call a repetition — a repetition without an original.  Everything is a version without an original — a cover of a cover of a cover of a cover. There's no closer to or fatrher from; you are where you are, always and necessarily. You are versions all the way down (and up and sideways and along every possible axis). And it's beautiful.

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