May 20, 2022

The Heretic And The Iconoclast – Sylvia Wynter’s Engagement With Derrida, Part 1 (Brendan John Brown)

The following article consists in a three-part-series. The full article can be found in The New Polis Journal.

“The density of History determines none of my acts”-Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks[1]

“unheard-of thoughts are required, thoughts that are sought across the memory of old signs” -Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon[2]

“Human beings are magical”- Sylvia Wynter, “Culture as Actuality[3]


In an interview between Jacques Derrida, Jean-Louis Houdebine, and Guy Scarpetta entitled “Positions”, Derrida speaks of the “general strategy of deconstruction”, wherein the focus is to “avoid both simply neutralizing the binary oppositions of metaphysics and simply residing within the closed field of these oppositions, thereby confirming it”[4]. He is speaking against a common misunderstanding of the project of deconstruction as mere “reversal” – the substitution of the prime (privileged term) for the subprime term (the underprivileged term).

Instead, Derrida insists upon the need for a subsequent phase, “we must traverse a phase of overturning”. “The necessity of the phase is structural”[5] and is one that recognizes the violence of the history of Western metaphysics. Derrida says, “to do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in classical philosophical oppositions we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy”. Therefore, reversal would only result in a violence the same as before since the very structure of violence has not been displaced. Derrida speaks explicitly of the danger of “a neutralization in practice that would leave the previous field untouched, leaving one no hold on previous oppositions, thereby preventing any means of intervening in the field effectively”[6]. What is assumed in such philosophical movements is that reversal alone is enough. And therefore, a reversal would undo the violence of the hegemony of the prime term.

The presupposition of this argument is that the privileging of the prime term did not contaminate the epistemo-ontological formulations of the subprime term. Such argument would replicate the violence of the binary oppositions since it accepts the conceptual determination of the subprime term by the prime term. Instead, what is needed is to disrupt the field through a movement of the “interval”[7], which are “certain marks … that by analogy can no longer by included within the philosophical (binary) opposition … resisting and disorganizing it”[8]. The disorganization by the philosophical oppositions, these third terms are never re-appropriated and evade a speculative dialectics that might synthesize a solution.

A dialectical thesis/antithesis/synthesis would aufhebung the marked violence of the philosophical oppositions into “an anamnesic interiority (Errinnerung), while interning difference in a self-presence”[9], according to Derrida. Which is to say, in the philosophical opposition between binary terms – Presence/Absence, West/Rest, White/Black – the violence emanates from the subjugation of the prime term’s overrepresentation of as being the totality of the field itself. Therefore, by demonstrating the elided “third term”, Derrida argues that deconstruction differs and delays the hierarchical violence.  Finding the third term constitutes the strategy, the ceremony, the intervention of deconstruction.

What happens when the I/We of the West/the Rest overdetermines its marking such that the “we” of West becomes the “We” of the World? The implication of the overdetermination implies that the “referent-We” has become metonymy for the universal class of the human. In responding to Derrida’s question at the end of his essay, “The Ends of Man”, Sylvia Wynter’s answer to the question of “but who, we?”[10] is a method for rethinking the binary oppositions of the “Two-Culture Divide”: Black/White, Global North/South, Man/Woman, etc. It is the radicalization and the racialization of Derrida’s peon which Wynter expands beyond his provincialism that will be the focus of this essay.

A point that has been generally overlooked within the secondary literature for both authors. The aim of my reading of the relationship between Wynter and Derrida is centered upon drawing out Wynter’s use and extension of Derrida’s concepts and strategies as it informs crucial moments in her essay. While sustained and important work has drawn out the relationship between Sylvia Wynter and Michel Foucault[11], or Deleuze and Guattari[12], or, even, Edmund Husserl[13], there is little commentary in the secondary literature on her relationship to Jacques Derrida. This is despite the appearance of his work at crucial junctures in her work. I will argue that we cannot fully grasp Wynter’s critique of Western Humanism and the operating morphogenic strategies which produced the ontological, epistemological, and metaphysical divides which structure of the Modern episteme of our present worldview without understanding the influence of deconstruction and Derrida on Wynter.

Wynter’s essay “The Ceremony Must be Found” and its relationship to what Jacques Derrida has termed “the history of Western metaphysics as presence” will constitute the majority of my analysis. Wynter identifies and focuses a significant portion of her essay on elucidating the occult presence of what Martin Heidegger has called “onto-theology” and its historical manifestations in the transition from the Renaissance to, following Foucault, the “Classical Age of Reason”. As I will demonstrate, Derrida’s contention that the history of Western philosophy is a history of philosophical binaries which operate on the implicit assumption of mutually exclusive categories plays a significant role in Wynter’s identifying and analyzing the epistemic and discursive logics that have resulted in the historical subjugation of black and brown subjects.

What will become evident, then, is how Wynter’s project of autopoesis and ceremony-finding integrates post/decolonial historiographical praxis with Derrida’s deconstructive readings of Western philosophy. The welding of these two projects demonstrates not only the importance of Derrida to Wynter’s overall project, but, in a more understated manner, indicates a possible new frontier of deconstruction as a practice. The Ceremony, on my reading, becomes the site of intervention which corporealizes and radicalizes deconstruction beyond…

The term “ceremony” is highly specific to Wynter and could be defined as that which “yoke[s] the antithetical signifiers and breach[es] the dynamics of order/Chaos, through which the order brings itself into living being”[14]. These oppositions are necessarily founded on the metaphysical exclusion of the Other “which determines the meaning of their meaning on the basis of these oppositions”, writes Wynter citing Derrida[15]. It is only by yoking together these metaphysical oppositions that the Ceremony may be found.

The imperative of the ceremony derives from the need to rethink the referent-we based on the human, not “Man”. We could summarize the methodology of Wynter by demonstrating and identifying how (1) the structural oppositions of binary terms (Black/White, Man/Woman, Presence/Absence) are oriented around the overrepresentation of Man (as the Western, white, bourgeoise, male subject) as the stand in for the horizon of humanity, (2) widen and unsettle the overrepresentation by deconstructing the antithetical terms through the finding of the ceremony, and (3) autopoetically institute a new construction of the Human: “Human beings are magical: Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by home and desire”[16]. Taken together, this is a call “which re-enacted … a parallel counter-exertion, a parallel Jester’s heresy to that of the Studia”[17]. Wynter writes:

“a counter-exertion is called for parallel to that of the Studia’s original heresy. The Studia must be reinvented as a higher order of human knowledge, able to provide an ‘outer view’ which takes the human rather than any one of its variations as Subject; must be re-formulated as a science of human systems, which make use of multiple frames of reference … to attain the position of an external observer, at once inside/outside the figural domain of our order. As such a new cognitive mechanism it must … take as its proper sphere…the hominid-into-human self-making/modelling/figuring, as this is documented and enacted in narrative representations, in art and ways of life, and in laws of the functioning of human behaviors which enable the autopoesis of each mode of the human. It is only … through the counter-exertion of such a new science that ceremonies will be findable”[18]

For Wynter, it is “autopoesis” – or the act of self-troping and describing – which constructs our subjectivities. It is the continual act of “defining, rather than definition, because the latter does not exist as a reality except by and through our collective systems of behaviors, systems which are themselves oriented by the ordering modes of knowing or epistemes of each human system”. For Wynter, it is writing which is the ordering mechanism of verification of these systems. She writes, “and the ordering epistemes are themselves reciprocally verified by those collective systems of behaviors which Derrida calls ‘writing’ in the broader sense, that is, by putting into play the classificatory principle of Sameness and Difference … effects autopoesis through which all that lives realizes its mode of being”[19].

The manner to which we re-present ourselves to ourselves is always mediated by language. The importance of Derrida to Wynter is specifically predicated upon the use of language within the system of defining “who we are”. By becoming aware of the centrality of our self-describing behaviors, we can induce a new form of causality wherein our capacities are isomorphic with our “multiple self-inscripting, auto-instituting modalities”. This “new mode of causation” is done so “outside the terms of our present ‘Two Culture’ order of knowledge and its adaptive ‘regimes of ‘truth’ based on the biocentric disciplinary paradigms”[20]. That is, by becoming aware of how we describe ourselves based on our epistemic formulations, we can overturn these definitions – Man as the metonym for humankind – in favor of non-Eurocentric definitions of the human. The ceremony is the enacting of a New Studia that requires “change of ‘style’; and … it must be plural”.

The “radical trembling” that Derrida speaks of in the context of the “Ends of Man” is the same sort of unsettling that Wynter institutes by finding the Ceremony. For Derrida, the subterranean necessity which links the “We” of Europe to its Other can only be effected by either “repeating what is implicit in the found concepts and the original problematic, by using against the edifice the instruments or stones available”, or “to change terrain in a discontinuous and irruptive fashion, by brutally placing oneself outside (emphasis mine) [21]. The “outside”, however, as Wynter notes, is both the alterity and absolute interiority of the episteme[22]. The Ceremony, as informed by Derrida’s deconstructive strategies, teaches the “discursive techniques for reaching and engaging the governing templates that provide the classificatory systems of sameness and difference around which epistemes are auto-instituted”[23].

The Ceremony is the site of intervention within the aporia. This aporia is the “inevitable and endemic contradiction … specific to the West’s post-medieval transformative mutation effected by the discourse of Humanism”, which is a “humanly emancipatory process [for the lay Humanist intelligentsia] on the one hand, and humanly subjugating processes on the other, [and] are each nevertheless the lawlike contradiction of enacting of the other”[24]. On my reading, this nexus – aporia, ceremony, and autopoesis – is deeply engaged with the work of Jacques Derrida.

In what follows, I will proceed through the essay in a largely uniform manner in order to outline the relationship between Sylvia Wynter and Jacques Derrida. The protocol of this reading will be to (1) mark the intervals of Derrida’s appearance within Wynter’s work and its importance within her framework and (2) to demonstrate a “strategy” of Ceremony-finding (overrepresentation, unsettle, widen, and then turn/overturn). By beginning with “The Ceremony Must Be Found”, I will locate the importance of the metaphysics of presence – or onto-theology – for Wynter’s historiographic analysis of the foundations of lay-Humanism and the emergence of the categories of race.

In this essay, Wynter lays down the overrepresentation of Man with the referent of Humanity. This is produced beginning with the colonization of the New World and the emergence of the secular West, which took its figure of the bourgeoise, white male subject as being the “General Equivalent of Identity”[25] of the Classical Episteme. Therefore, Wynter establishes the failure to find the Ceremony specifically at this transvaluation from one figure – the scholastic theocentric conception of Man as Redeemed/Fallen Flesh – to the next – the secular, lay-Humanist Ratiocentric genre of Man(1) – because of the lawlike enactment of both the emancipation of one group of humans (the lay, secular Middle Class) and the subjugation of the Other.

This reading of the emergence of the Classical Age of Reason, by Wynter, locates an epistemic rupture which reveals both the contradictions of the discursive logics of previous episteme, and the inevitable aporia for the subsequent one. The location of the rupture in the brisure, or joint, is important for undoing the exclusionary violence of the creation of a subjectivity on the basis of self-presence. By outlining Wynter’s arguments surrounding autopoesis, ceremony, and the genres of Man, we will see the deconstructive strategy of determining the hierarchical violence based on metaphysically exclusionary terms is necessary for ceremony-finding. On my reading, “The Ceremony Must Be Found” operates like a methodological manifesto for Wynter’s call for enacting the heretical New Studia.

There is often an anxiety of overstating one’s own goals. Or, to be misconstrued on the basis of a claim which one did not intend to make. I would like to declare that I am not arguing for Wynter’s project of Ceremony-finding as being a derivation of Derrida’s project. Moreover, I am not indicating on the part of Wynter a hidden desire or intention to follow in his footsteps. Instead, I am indicating that Wynter has engaged with Derrida’s work in novel and overlooked ways. In particular, the integration of Derrida’s analysis of the deconstructive logics of Western philosophy with cognitive research is a novel interpretation of both Wynter, on my reading, and Derrida, by Wynter.

As such, this essay is aimed at making a very small claim: Derrida shows up at an important moment in Wynter’s work. I am trying to ask the question, “why?” Why is it that Wynter constructs her autopoetic institution of “who we are” on the basis of the “Principle of Sameness and Difference”? To answer this question, I believe, one must read seriously the appearance of Derrida’s work as informing her analysis and critique of the discursive structures of Western thought. The consequence of this influence, in my opinion, indicates a re-interpretation of the Ceremony as both a geographical and cartographical intervention, but also as a sustained practice which informs our practices of philosophy as a discipline. This essay aims to think critically about the limitations of Derrida’s work in the 21st century, and the possibilities of Wynter’s imperative to find the Ceremony.

Brendan John Brown is a graduate student at The New School for Social Research.


[1] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, pg. 205

[2] Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, pg. 88

[3] Sylvia Wynter, “Culture as Actuality”, pg. 35

[4] Jacques Derrida, Positions, pg. 41

[5] Ibid, pg. 42

[6] Ibid, pg. 41

[7] Derrida lists several examples of the interval in his work, at the time, such as “pharmakon”, “the supplement”, “the hymen”, “the gram”. All these terms constitute the disrupting interval which can neither by assimilated by the system, nor some tertiary third term which would provide as “solution in the form of a speculative dialectics”. Jacques Derrida, , “Positions”, Positions, pg. 43

[8] Ibid, , pg. 42-43

[9] Ibid. pg.43

[10] Jacques Derrida, “The Ends of Man”, Margins of Philosophy, pg. 136

[11] Denise Ferreira da Silva, “Before Man: Sylvia Wynter’s Re Writing of the Modern Episteme”, Human Being as Praxis

[12] Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus

[13] Paget Henry, “The Transcendental Space of Carribean Philosophy”, Caribbean Reasonings:After Man, Towards the Human

[14] Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must Be Found”, pg. 27

[15] Ibid, pg. 28

[16] Sylvia Wynter, “Culture as Actuality”, pg. 35

[17] Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must be Found”, pg. 37

[18] Ibid, pg. 56-57

[19] Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must Be Found”, pg. 22

[20] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom”, pg. 330

[21] Jacques Derrida, “The Ends of Man”, Margins of Philosophy, pg. 135

[22] See quote from footnote 13

[23] Paget Henry, “Wynter and Caribbean Thought”, After Man Towards the Human”. Pg. 286

[24] Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Found”, pg. 189

[25] Wynter writes, “providing the organization principle of the cultural order since the construct functions as the General Equivalent of Identiy of that order. The structure of role allocations and related patterns of interaction then constitute themselves in relation to this construct as the major referent”. Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond Liberal and Marxist Leninist Feminism: Towards an Autonomous Frame of Reference”, pg. 32

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