May 16, 2022

The Heretic And The Iconoclast – Sylvia Wynter’s Engagement With Derrida, Part 3 (Brendan John Brown)

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

A New Science of the Word? Or, Grammatology, Again?

Emerging out of the failure of the ceremony-finding, the necessity of a “new science of the word” becomes an imperative for overturning the onto-theology in the history of Western metaphysics. The development of this “science of human systems” is integral to Wynter’s assertion of a “counter-Hersey” to the foundation of secular Humanism. As it has been set down, the “language of metaphysics” has historically been structured as an oppositional and zero-sum system. Furthermore, this language is not mere abstraction, the stuff of academics and high-minded-but-impractical-snobbery. Instead, the language constitutes our very understanding of who we are as both individuals and subjects. The extent of the saturation of the discursive logics amongst human peoples is one of the universally binding “topos” of our species.

Wynter writes, “it is our putting into play the classifying principles that bonds us as such a Group-Subject that we define ourselves as such a normative mode of the Subject, about which each system-ensemble auto-institutes itself reciprocally, bring that specific normative template of identity into living being”. The very principles of language thatwe use to describe ourselves which structure our identities and our communalities. Over the course of her work, Wynter charts a history of human belong and self-knowledge. The purpose of this endeavor is not so much as to lay down a narrative of human progress, but to demonstrate the ubiquity of our methods and modes of auto-instituting. It is because our “principles” of language, the metaphysical structures of our discursive epistemes, that we come to define ourselves through the process of autopoesis. Therefore, we cannot enact any tangible change in re-writing the knowledge of our time if we do not also address the methods of how we represent ourselves to ourselves. The “new science of the word” is aimed at deconstructing these normative principles so as to engender an autopoetic act of self-defining.

We may conclude our reading of “The Ceremony Must Be Found” by laying out a brief overview of the methodology of this “new science of the word”. It is my contention that this “new science” is explicitly aimed at deconstruction the onto-theological presuppositions of traditional Wester metaphysics. The evidence for this derives, in part, from the operating assumption in Wynter’s work is based on a reading of the history of Western thought as if it were a “metaphysics of presence”. This much I have already argued. It is because of this assumption that we can make the claim that Wynter, therefore, targets these structures through a deconstructive approach based on the integral appearance of Derrida at the various key steps in her outline of “autopoesis”, “principle of Sameness and Difference”, and the importance of “language” to her work. In particular, as I have already laid out, the structuring principles of our cognitive faculties and our acts of “defining rather than definition” are heavily informed by Derrida’s work.

Wynter says, of the way we interact with the discursive structures of thought, “the ordering epistemes themselves are reciprocally ‘verified’ by those collective systems of behaviors which Derrida defines as ‘writing’ in the broader sense”[1]. Therefore, without addressing the very conditions of possibility of the “principle of Sameness and Difference”, we would be incapable of effectively engaging with what it is that defines our world. Our interaction with the world and each other is always already mediated by the structuring principles of our episteme. We need to address and critique the forms of representation and “the role that theses representations play in the legitimation of multiple forms of coercion, of social and psychic dominion”[2]. It is this “autonomous frame of reference” that needs to be the framework of our New Studia.

The “autonomous frame of reference” is situated by the “external observer” and their “outer view”. This relationship, however, is not neatly defined as an inside/outside dichotomy. The external observer, which for Wynter are liminal groups and categories as defined by the dominate normative order, is “at once inside/outside the figural domain of our order”[3]. They are so capable of this topological displacement due to their lived experiences of the structural contradictions enacted by the system they are a part of. The normative group, those who are “in vogue as it were, is incapable of observing the regularities and principles of this system because their lived experiences are isomorphic with the system itself[4]. That is, they cannot experience the contradiction of the oppositions, without great difficulty, because they are under the effect of the “consciousness as self-presence”[5].

The model of the external observer “envisages the bringing together of that which is observed from many different observer positions, enabling each to extend and to cancel out elements of the other”. The result of this model is its capacity to help each group to “escape its own form of solipsism and to observer regularities and common features pointing to the functioning of the rules of discourse beyond the conscious awareness of the discursive Subject, rules which were ‘built in’ and therefore normally invisible”[6]. These “regularities” and “functioning of the rules of discourse” are the very metaphysical logics determined by Derrida as the metaphysics of presence. Their regularities define the history of Western philosophy and were hereto for invisible to the discursive Subject due to their quixotic pronouncements of “self-presence”.

What the proposed plan for a new science of the word entails, then, following the move toward marginality and liminal disruptive categories/figures, is to “decenter the systemic subject”. This decentering takes “as the object of its inquiry the modes of symbolic self-representation about which each human system auto-institutes itself”[7]. The new object of inquiry, from the autonomous frame of reference, is “the human rather than any one of its variations as Subject”. Which is to say, the focus becomes on interrogating the method of representation, autopoesis, of the human as such, instead of the overrepresentation of Man as the European subject-qua-Rational, for example. This moment toward the Human, instead of Man, is to decenter the hegemony of European metaphysics and its role in universalizing the transcendental subject as the subject par excellence.

Wynter, by analyzing the neurological and cognitive functions as mapped on to our discursive patterns of language, knowledge, and metaphysics, reveals the necessity of deconstructing a metaphysics of presence because it structures the very way in which we understand ourselves, the world, and each other. The “new system of human systems” is a deconstructive intervention upon the textual mappings of our brains neurological wirings. It is by deconstructing the hierarchical binaries/oppositions which define our lives that we may overturn the violence of the previous epistemic field. Wynter writes, citing John Peale Bishop’s “Speaking of Poetry” from which the title of her essay derives, “it is only … through the counter-exertion of such a new science that Bishop’s ceremonies will be findable”[8].

Many Paths Home     

I would like to conclude this essay by indicating several possible points of future research. The collaborative effort by which Wynter calls on all of us to engage with is a call that is often met deafness by the ears of the others. We would do well to re-read the history of Western philosophy with the call for finding new old words, paleonyms. This “unsilencing” of meaning becomes a process of undoing the violence by regular brutality of a system of Manichean mind control. It is a necessary process of healing and renewal. A process that others are far more qualified than me to lead. Instead, I will note a few important roads forward.The importance of Derrida’s essay “The Ends of Man” and its bearing on Wynter’s work is a critical commentary for a future work of mine. This essay “The Ends of Man” and its question “but who, we?” inform most of the essay and acts as a slogan for the “manifesto” as a whole. As Wynter explains in an interview with Katherine McKittrick, “to me Derrida’s most radical essay was … his talk called ‘Ends of Man’”. The significance of this essay – beyond the political importance she gives in the context of the 1960s and turbulent political era it was given in – is that “we have to replace the ends of the referent-we of liberal monohumanist Man2 with the ecumenically human ends of the referent-we in the horizon of humanity. We have no choice”[9]. “The Ceremony Found” could be read as a Wynterian critique of the Heideggerian question of being as also critiqued by Derrida in said essay. The differences between the two approaches – Wynter and Derrida – would center, in my opinion, on the possibility of the aufhebung of the coloniality of Being in Derrida’s work. The heavy usage of neurocognitive mechanisms and consciousness-based argumentation for instituting a hybrid definition of the Human indicates the next possible path.

A comparative analysis of Wynter and Catherine Malabou’s work on neuroplasticity is a potential site for a fruitful understanding of the importance of Derrida’s work as it manipulated in the synapses of our brain. In an essay entitled “The End of Writing? Grammatology and Plasticity” she indicates a possible point of convergence between the never-existed science of “grammatology” and the possibility of a science of the supplement. She writes, “plasticity, like writing, is only a supplement”[10]. Is writing, in the work of Wynter, a supplement to the re-writing of the Studia? That is, the re-writing is a process of supplementing what is already written. The process of autopoesis is a re-writing, or a re-wiring of our neuropathways. This confluence of neuroscience, deconstruction, and autopoesis indicates a possible new way of understanding the Ceremony, as well.

Lastly, a comparison between the “new science of the word” of Aimé Césaire and the project of grammatology would provide a deeper understanding of the brief sketches I laid above. Moreover, such a project would identify weaknesses and potential lacuna in Derrida’s analysis of the trace of writing in Western thought. Such a reading would also engage with Wynter’s extension of Fanon’s “what it means to be human” and highlight elements of play between Derrida’s work on colonialism, the archive, and arche-writing.

I hope this essay has contributed a novel understanding of Wynter’s work in relationship to Derrida and deconstruction. Moreover, I would argue that my interpretation of the Ceremony, in some ways, subtends all other interpretations since: (1) its informed by Derrida’s work on the metaphysics of presence, and therefore (2) all subsequent semiotic and symbolic ameliorations of the Ceremony must also conform to a certain strategy of deconstruction, and (3) it has explained the conditions of (im)possibility for the Ceremony, which all other definitions of the Ceremony must conform or be set against. I have treated the work of Derrida as a smoking gun. His work does not merely appear without leaving a trace through the rest of the work. Therefore, further research is required to examine and exhume, to breathe life into this new avenue of thought.

Wynter once spoke of the “Derridean Fool”[11] in her essay, “Culture as Actuality”. Instead of a Derridean Fool, I would choose to become a Wynterian Heretic[12].

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


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

[2] Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond Liberal and Marxist Leninist Feminisms: Towards and Autonomous Frame of Reference”, pg. 39

[3] Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must Be Found”, pg. 56

[4] Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Found”, pg. 39

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

[6] “The Ceremony Must Be Found”, pg. 48

[7] Ibid., pg. 44

[8] Ibid, pg. 57

[9] Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick, Human Being as Praxis, “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species?”, pg. 24

[10] Catherine Malabou, “The End of Writing? Grammatology and Plasticity”, pg. 441

[11] Sylvia Wynter, “Culture as Actuality”, pg. 21

[12] One last point of resonance, the Greek root of the term “heretic” is hairetikos which means “able to choose”. It is no small wonder that Wynter chose this word. We can all choose to be Heretics. Our agency is our heresy.

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