May 20, 2022

The Heretic And The Iconoclast – Sylvia Wynter’s Engagement With Derrida, Part 2 (Brendan John Brown)

The following article is the second of a three-part-series. The first installment can be found here. The full article can be found in The New Polis Journal.

Wynter’s Engagement with Derrida: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

In “The Ceremony Must Be Found”, Wynter’s use of the imperative – “must”- compels us to think deeply about the relationship between “the Ceremony” – our attempt at self-description, and hence “who we are” – and the ongoing failures of secular Humanism to coherently answer this. For Wynter, the discursive structures of Western thought entail a movement to occlude this answer to the fundamental question, “who are we?” This occlusion is explicitly taken up Derrida with his sustained engagement with the Heideggerian question of the origin of Being. Wynter, on the other hand, is engaging with the Fanonian question of “what is it to be?”.

For Fanon, the replacement of “phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny” with “sociogeny” allows for, according to Wynter, “the calling into question of our present culture’s purely biological definition of what it is to be”. Modifying Fanon, it becomes the “sociogenetic principle”, since it engages with both the bio-genetic understanding of the Human, and the epiphenomenal modes of consciousness[1]. This sustained engagement with three different iterations of the question of being indicates Wynter’s onto-metaphysical engagements, and, moreover, situates Wynter’s reading of the history of Western thought within the purview of onto-theology. That is, Wynter’s engagement with Derrida, for instance, implies a reading of the history of Western philosophy as an onto-theology, or a metaphysics of presence. It, therefore, becomes how do we overcome the metaphysics of presence which structures the history of Western thought?

Early in “The Ceremony Must Be Found”, Wynter outlines her hypothesis on the beginning of the Classical Age: “the argument is that it was such a rewriting of knowledge that constituted the founding heresy of the original Studia Humanitatis, seen in their broader sense as human knowledge of its sociohuman world, the heresy that laid the foundations of our modern rational world, whose ordering discourses were no longer to be interwoven with the mythos and the theologos”[2]. The transition out of the Scholastic, theocentric understanding of the world and Man to a lay-Humanist ordered episteme marked a specific event of upmost importance for Wynter: “its release of rhetorical man from the margins, orienting his behaviors by a new ordering secular Logos, the Natural Logos of Humanism which took the place of the Christian Theologos[3].

This entailed a cognitive emancipation which allowed the lay-Humanists to re-write “the normative order of knowledge” of the Renaissance, which was “the opposition between the category of the ‘Spirit’ … and the ‘Flesh’”. This structural opposition was predicated upon “spiritual Sameness and fleshy/Difference” which was mapped on the cosmogeny of the Renaissance[4]. What is important for Wynter is establishing the structural opposition of the ordering of the episteme and how this ordering was produced: “the classificatory principle of Sameness and Difference, or systemic code about which each human system-ensemble … call … ‘autopoesis’”. This principle is verified by that “which Derrida defines as ‘writing’”[5]. The content of the Classical episteme was to be re-written, but its guiding metaphysical presuppositions remained the same.

If in the Scholastic, Christian ordering of knowledge was predicated upon a theocentric model of the cosmos, then its onto-theological structure is predicated upon a metaphysics of presence/absence. The Sameness/Difference dichotomy was derived from the onto-theological dichotomy of Presence/Absence. For, in asking the question about the very question of “who are we?”, both the Scholastic and lay-Humanist tradition are posing a fundamentally ontological question. Onto-theology, as first formulated from Kant, but commonly attributed to Heidegger, is:

If we recollect the history of Western-European thinking once more, then we will encounter the following: The question of Being, as the question of the Being of beings, is double in form. On the one hand, it asks: What is a being in general as a being? In the history of philosophy, reflections which fall within the domain of this question acquire the title ontology. The question ‘What is a being?’ [or ‘What is that which is?’] simultaneously asks: Which being is the highest [or supreme] being, and in what sense is it the highest being? This is the question of God and of the divine. We call the domain of this question theology. This duality in the question of the Being of beings can be united under the title ontotheology.[6]

Thus, when the lay-Humanist tradition sublated the Scholastic episteme – with their Spirit/Flesh, Supralunar/Earth, Clergy/Laity – they reversed the hierarchy. Wynter writes, “it was here that a mutation occurred in that a reversal had taken place”. Instead of laity being sublated by clergy, “theology was now being submitted to the authority of the lay activity of textual and philological scrutiny [;] … the category of the celestial was being submitted to the activity of the humanista”[7]. What remained stable in the transition, though, was the form of the metaphysical delineation. In the aufhebung of Laity over Clergy, the ratio-centric definition of Man was still founded on Presence/Absence, Sameness/Difference.

The new identity of Man was mapped onto the Presence/Absence of Natural Reason. The question of its Being was, as Heidegger noted, a doubled gesture: “What of the Being of beings?”, and “What Being is the highest being?” On the first question, the “physico-ontological principle of Sameness/Difference” was breached by “homo-ontological principle of Sameness/Difference”. For, the Celestial/Earthly binary was sublated such that it became Earthly-Man-of-Reason/ Subhuman-Lack-of-Reason. The secular Man, which was once condemned as Fallen Flesh, now became the prime term in the discursive opposition structuring the newly anointed Classical Age of Reason.

Those who possessed reason and rationality were of the Same homo-ontologically. This engenders the second question. There was a “by/nature difference of superiority/inferiority between groups …naturally caused by a principle based on a differential endowment of Reason”[8]. The most high beings, as closest to God, were those endowed with Reason by the Grace of God. An endowment, however, which was “no longer guaranteed by religious, but by theoretical systems”. It was the exploration of Nature based on Man’s cognitive faculties which determined his superiority. Despite the displacement of the theocentric model of the Universe, secular Humanism viewed the newly formed Natural Sciences as a way to get “closer to God”.

Therefore, those Other cultures which did not possess letters or sciences were viewed as the nadir of humanity, the furthest from God, and lacked rationality. Even though there was a decisive epistemic rupture between the Renaissance and the Classical Order, its onto-theological metaphysical presuppositions, through the aufhebung, remained the same. And therefore, thwarted any attempt to breach the “interdiction of ceremonies between the … categories of the celestial and the terrestrial” [9].

But why did the ceremony fail? Or, first, what is the ceremony?

For Wynter, the “Ceremony” was the opportunity to, “wed the structural oppositions” (White vs. Black; Rational vs. Irrational; Presence vs. Absence; Redeemed vs. Fallen; bios/mythos).. We can see in “The Ceremony Must be Found” Wynter attempts to demonstrate the failures of secular Humanism, because, as a project, it is fundamentally constructed upon the basis of an onto-theology. Onto-theology necessitates a law-like enaction of subjugation and emancipation predicated on presence and proximity of being. These “structural oppositions” – the Classical Age’s, for example, hierarchy of Reason/Unreason – “function to orient the parameters of” exclusion and subjugation. “The basic law of their functioning must be therefore the interdiction of any ceremony which might yoke the antithetical signifiers and breach the dynamics of order/Chaos”[10].

The use of “interdiction” is two-fold. On the one hand, it is a military tactic to “divert, disrupt, delay, or destroy the enemy’s”[11] (italics mine) resources and capacities. On the other hand, an “interdict” is an ecclesiastical censure which prevented either the individual or a community from receiving/performing the “celebration of the Sacrifice of the Eucharist or in any other ceremonies of public worship”[12]. A ceremony’s movement is to overcome this interdiction. It is an act of subterfuge which subverts and displaces the interdiction through an enactment of rituals despite the fiat. However, the ceremony itself is an interdiction. It is an act of deferral and delay, in the militaristic sense, as well as it is a dissension.

For Wynter, the need for Ceremony-finding is a heretical re-writing of the episteme; it a rupture or a break from the episteme. The heretic, as a dissident, is censured by the law-like interdiction, which they subvert through a counter-interdiction. This dissension, following Derrida and Wynter, is an “original act of an order, a fiat, a decree, and as a schism, a caesura, a separation, a dissection”[13].

The ceremony is set in opposition to a formulation of the Natural logos of Humanism, the onto-theology of Being-qua-presence. A consideration of logos as self-presence, wherein “consciousness, before distributing its signs in space and the word, can gather itself into its presence”, writes Derrida. If the construction of the subject in the Renaissance, Scholastic interpretation of Man and the Classical Order of Man-as-Rational is predicated on the ontological principle of Sameness/Difference, as Wynter explicitly argues, then Derrida is correct when he writes, “What does consciousness mean? Most often …consciousness offers itself to thought only as self-presence, as the perception of self in presence”.

Continuing, “the privilege granted to consciousness therefore signifies the privilege granted to the present”. Finally, “this privilege is the ether of metaphysics, the element of our thought that is caught in the language of metaphysics”[14]. Wynter recognizes that the cognitive faculties of our consciousness are shaped by the “language of metaphysics” and therefore the ceremony must be found to overcome the privilege of presence afforded to consciousness-qua-being-qua-logos. On my reading, the breaching of the interdiction against bringing together the philosophical oppositions is informed by différance, as formulated by Derrida. In order to breach the opposition, which I have been at pains to demonstrate is situated in a metaphysics of presence, the Ceremony-finding must be the recovering of the différance which has been heretofore excluded from the philosophical oppositions that determine Western metaphysics.

For Derrida, the term “différance” is “unnameable”. But, because of its very unnameability, it “is the play which makes possible nominal effects, the relatively unitary and atomic structures that are called names, the chains of substitutions of names in which, for example, the nominal effect différance itself enmeshed, carried off, reinscribed, … [the] function of the system”[15]. Which is to say, différance makes possible the “classificatory principle of Sameness and Difference, or systemic code about which each human system-ensemble … effects …autopoesis”[16].

However, whereas the suppression of the trace is at work in onto-theology, the philosophical opposition that the Ceremony exerts a counter-interdiction could be what Derrida writes when he says the following: “the order which resists this opposition, and resists it because it transports it, is announced in a movement of différance”[17]. At once, we have both a counterforce which resists the order of oppositions and simultaneously makes them possible. The Ceremony-in-différance, then, becomes “irreducible to any ontological or theological – ontotheological – reappropriation”[18]. For Wynter, because the philosophical oppositions are always and already issuing an interdiction, the “de-structuring of the principle of Sameness and Difference which ontologizes us as specific modes of the I/We … naturally entails the de-structuring also of the ratiomorphic apparatus or rational world view”[19]. The call for a “de-structuring”, a destruction deconstruction of the structures of oppositions, is the call for “re-writing knowledge” in the heresy of the New Studia.

The Ceremony – and I run the risk of being too reductive with both Wynter’s “Ceremony-finding” and Derrida’s “différance” – is the very “theme of strategy or the stratagem”[20] that Derrida writes of. The strategy, the interdiction – which, by way of a long digression, could be thought of as the “inter”-“diction”; that is, it a dissension which is between (inter) speech (diction), which, following Derrida, would entail a continuous movement of temporalization (the movement between) and spatialization (the distance between speech); “différance as temporization, différance as spacing”[21] and also, “différance would be not only the play of differences within language but also the relation of speech to language”[22] – is the very possibility of autopoesis itself. The Ceremony, on my reading, is how we are able to interrupt the violence of a metaphysics of presence.

A violence which Wynter, in “The Ceremony Found”, demonstrates through the continual subjugation of all those below the Color-Line, who are defined as beings-without. In order to find the Ceremony, according to Paget Henry, “we will need a new or post-dialectical model of synthesis”. Henry calls the new dialectic “a tidalectical synthesis” which “will not be epistemically grounded in a single fixed centre, but in multiple centres that are mutually displacing and re-incorporating of each other”[23]. I would contend, however, that this “tidalectical synthesis” would be better understood through différance. For, as we recall in the beginning of the essay, by locating the inside/outside term of the philosophical opposition, the Hegelian dialectic is “displaced and re-inscribed”. The Ceremony is a “certain mark … that can no longer be included within a philosophical (binary) opposition, but which, inhabit[s the] philosophical opposition, resisting and disorganizing it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in a form of speculative dialectics”[24].

I contend that this interpretation and extension of the Ceremony is not as radical as it seems. In addition, by understanding différance in conjunction with the Ceremony, we can come to understand the “beyond” of “beyond Man” that is so often ascribed to Wynter. Drucilla Cornell and Stephen D. Seely write, “[about the ceremony] the undertaking of Man demands new ceremonies able to give symbolic expression, to figuratively instate, our new ways of being together … an unleashing which might finally allow us to create a shared common world beyond Man”[25]. The very necessity of new ceremonies, which will allow for an unblocking of the psychic order of things which has been trapped in a “language of metaphysics”, is opened by différance. The call, by Cornell and others, for new ceremonies is a call for new ways of thinking about definitions of the human.

These definitions, on my account, are also new “paleonyms”, or “old names inherited from these oppositions and hierarches”. That is, these old new names are “concepts (which are also new ways of thinking and living) [that] aim to move beyond and exit the terrain of the philosophical opposition”[26], writes Leonard Lawlor. The finding of paleonyms is the finding of Ceremonies. And, furthermore, these paleonyms are the new ways of conceiving of going beyond Man. This concept of “beyond” has had important resonance for all of Wynter’s interlocutors, but few have sought to investigate the metaphysical implications of this “beyond”. I will turn to Derrida’s interpretation of beyond in a limited context, Voice and Phenomenon, in order to think tidalectically Wynter and Derrida.

“As for what ‘begins’ then ‘beyond’ absolute knowledge [onto-theology], unheard-of thoughts are required, thoughts that are sought across the memory of old signs”[27], writes Derrida. The work of Sylvia Wynter could not be better summed up by another quote. In looking to go beyond Man, we must first search for “unheard-of thoughts”. Or, in another register, we must look for silenced voices in the cracks of the annals of history. The importance of “demonic grounds” bears mentioning on this point. As McKittrick writes, “the place black of black women is deemed unrecognizable …[;] their grounds are silent and their place uninhabitable within the frameworks of Man’s geographies”.

However, this marked silence of black womanhood, “as demonic grounds, put forth a geographic grammar that locates the complex position and potentiality of black women’s sense of place”[28]. The demonic grounds are the possibility of disruption of a dogmatic grammar in a language of “metaphysics”. It is from these silenced grounds that Wynter writes of the possibility of a Beyond. By “hearing” the “unheard-of” voices of from the demonic grounds, the Ceremony can locate a “beyond of this world”, as compared to a beyond of “another world, not something transcendent”[29]. But, instead, Ceremony finding can move past the violence of colonialism, sexism, heteronormativity, racism, capitalism, not merely sublating into some third dialectical term. It is in the sense of an internal beyond, the silence that speaks, that the Ceremony is the finding of paleonyms. We must build a lexicon of paleonyms informed by the syntax of a new science of the word if we are to find ourselves anywhere at all.

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


[1] Sylvia Wynter, “Towards the Sociogenic Principle”, pg. 31

[2] Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must Be Found”, pg. 21

[3] Ibid, pg. 25

[4] Ibid, pg. 26

[5] Ibid. pg. 22

[6] Martin Heidegger, “Kant’s Thesis about Being”, pg. 10-11; trans. Ted E. Klein, Jr. and William E. Pohl

[7] Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must Be Found”, pg. 28

[8] Ibid, pg. 34

[9] Ibid. pg. 31

[10] Ibid, pg. 27

[11] Joint Force Development, “Joint Interdiction”, pg I-1;

[12] Code of Canon Law 1331-1340

[13] Jacques Derrida, “Cogito and the History of Madness”, Writing and Difference, pg. 38

[14] Jacques Derrida, “Différance”, Margins of Philosophy, pg. 16

[15] Ibid., pg. 27

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

[17] Différance, pg. 5

[18] Ibid., pg. 6

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

[20] Difference, pg. 7

[21] Ibid., pg. 9

[22 Ibid., pg. 15

[23] Paget Henry, “Wynter and Caribbean Thought”, pg. 284

[24] Jacques Derrida, “Positions”, pg. 43

[25] Cornell and Seely, “Undertaking Man, Making the Human”, pg. 143

[26] Leonard Lawlor, Voice and Phenomenon, pg. xii-xiii

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

[28] Katherine McKittrick, “Demonic Grounds: Sylvia Wynter”, pg. 133

[29] Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon (trans. Leonard Lawlor), pg. 94, fn. 22

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