2 min read

Différance and the middle distance

One thing I'd like to experiment with on here is trying to make connections between pairs of ideas that I've been thinking about - I've added a new 'pairwise' tag for this.

I'm currently in the middle of talking about Derrida's Voice and Phenomenon and différance is one of the big ideas there. I'm not going to get into details this time, and it's not like I understand it too well anyway, but it has shades of the meanings of both 'differ' (distance in space) and 'defer' (distance in time). In both cases it's introducing a sort of distancing, a movement away from pure unmediated presence.

The other idea I want to think about in relation to this is Brian Cantwell Smith's idea of 'the middle distance' - I talked about this one here. This has a similar-ish theme of representation introducing distancing. Is it useful to compare the two things? I don't know, but let's at least start to find out.

One of Smith's examples is the 'super-sunflower':

… imagine that a species of “super-sunflower” develops in California to grow in the presence of large redwoods. Suppose that ordinary sunflowers move heliotropically, as the myth would have it, but that they stop or even droop when the sun goes behind a tree. Once the sun re-emerges, they can once again be effectively driven by the direction of the incident rays, lifting up their faces, and reorienting to the new position. But this takes time. Super-sunflowers perform the following trick: even when the sun disappears, they continue to rotate at approximately the requisite ¼° per minute, so that the super-sunflowers are more nearly oriented to the light when the sun appears.

While the sun is out the super-sunflower is directly causally locked to the sun - this is something like the idea of 'pure presence'. Then the sun goes behind a cloud and the super-sunflower attempts to account for the sun's position locally, while out of causal connection. Smith would argue that it's only at this point that you get something like a 'representation' of the sun's position rather than pure causal 'bumping and shoving', and that representation involves the potential to be wrong. This moving out of causal connection is a kind of distancing.

A fancier super-sunflower (ultra-sunflower?) might try to account for both the observed movement of the sun and its own inertial reckoning at the same time by doing some more sophisticated type of weighting, something like a Kalman filter. At this point the 'present' part and the 'distanced' part would be combined in something like Derrida's 'différance' relation.

That's all I've got for now. Is this interesting? Maybe. I need to think about it more.