Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Singularities: On a Motif in Derrida and Romantic Thought (Kant's Aesthetics, Rousseau's Autobiography)

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Singularities: On a Motif in Derrida and Romantic Thought (Kant's Aesthetics, Rousseau's Autobiography)

Article excerpt

let thy tongue tang with arguments of state; put thyself into the trick of singularity ...--Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

CAN ONE WRITE OR THINK WHAT IS ONE AND ONLY ONE, WHAT IS MERELY single or singular. One might say that Derrida s thinking has tirelessly engaged the idea and the actualities of difference and would not the most different of differences, as it were, be that which is only one? Not nothing, not two or three, and not anything else. Only one.

In Derrida's writing on thinkers and writers of the Romantic era--broadly conceived, that is, as an historical period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries rather than as a movement typified by the most "Romantic" of thinkers, poets, and artists--the matter of what is singular is particularly resonant, notably in his readings of Kant and Rousseau. (1) In what follows I try to tease out what is at stake in the problematic of singularity, principally by considering certain aspects of Rousseau, in the Confessions, and Kant, in The Critique of Judgment, with attention to how Derrida addresses Rousseau in Of Grammatology as well as in the long essay "Typewriter Ribbon" and how he analyzes Kant in the "Parergon" essay, all of them works on the subject of the subject. (I follow a tangent or two not so explicitly treated by Derrida or addressed in detailed fashion, though I would like to think that even those remarks are in the spirit of Derrida and indeed my own thinking in these matters is likely more massively indebted to him than I know.)

The singular is in some sense a decidedly unphilosophical topic. Does not philosophy move in the realm of the general and the universal, the domain of logic and what is susceptible to logic, the universe of thought that is by definition or in principle able to be formulated in language and made available to all in that medium? To be sure, philosophy has to come to terms with particulars but does it not tend to operate in a mode that resolves those particulars, as in the natural sciences, into some higher or more inclusive category or class? The sheer particular or the sheer singular, if there is such a thing, could be said to be that which most successfully resists philosophical discourse--and it resists philosophy in part because it is resistant to language, period.

The fate of the singular in the history of Western philosophy surely took a significant turn when, almost all of a sudden, in Descartes, a certain philosophy turned things on their head or turned things "to" the head, one might say, shifting from the object to the subject as its starting point and its ground, in the formulation of the cogito ergo sum. (2) Descartes' path of thought, his meth-odos, led back to and then out again from the thinking subject, an itinerary recounted, not incidentally, in the strikingly autobiographical account that is The Discourse on Method. (3) And when Locke subsequently undertook to investigate the workings of the human understanding, he advocated nothing other than turning into oneself, examining in painstaking fashion what went on in one's "own breast." Empiricism, then, began at home in the solitude of the single self, the new source, in Locke and his progeny, of property and the proper. (4) Thus the so-called Copernican revolution of Kant's critical philosophy--dedicated not just to knowing but to examining the conditions of knowing and their very possibility in the human subject--had actually begun to "revolve" before him, even if Kant's protocols were more radical than his great predecessors and with him the "revolution" would be complete. So the challenge for this phase of philosophy--and we have not simply left this "phase" behind in the past--was to construct, beginning with "the subject," consequential frameworks of knowledge and thought that would have a purchase on the objective, the truth, and what could be shared, in principle, by everyone, by every one.

Let us begin by considering how singularity figures in Derrida's most general characterization of the project of the Critique of Judgment and its mechanisms:

   The third Critique is not just one critique among others. … 
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