Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Philosophy Weekend: Derrida and the Essence of Orange

By Levi Asher on Saturday, February 23, 2013 06:50 pm

I'm still on my Jacques Derrida kick! I've spent a week surfing his works and reading the exciting biography Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters (as recommended to me by a commenter to last weekend's Derrida post).

I now realize how ridiculous it is that I've never studied Derrida or the other deconstructionists and poststructuralists before, since they cover many of the same themes I've been long obsessed with: ethics, language, personal identity, political activism. I now find Derrida deftly reaching the same kinds of conclusions I have been groping towards (but, I'm sure, with much less finesse and skill) in these pages. In short, I feel like I've been a deconstructionist/post-structuralist all my life, but I didn't know it until now.

Years ago, I used to think about oranges, and wonder what I could do about the fact that sometimes an orange just doesn't taste as good as an orange should taste. What is the essence of an orange? How is it possible that something could be an orange but not contain or present the essence of an orange? The more I explored this question, the more new questions it raised. Is an orange called an orange because its color is orange, or is the color orange named after the fruit? If the former, then what would we possibly call the color if the fruit didn't exist? If the latter, then what is the meaning of the blood orange, which has a tart ultra-orange-y taste, but is a lurid red?

The taste of an orange is just as distinct as the color, but as every orange-eater knows, you sometimes pop a slice from a newly peeled orb into your mouth and feel instantly disappointed. All too often an orange tastes like nothing -- flat, fibrous, chewy, watery nothing. Well, way back when I was a kid, I sometimes used to lick a spoon (disgusting, I know, but I was just a kid) and stick it into the jar of Tang orange drink powder that my Mom kept around the house for me. Now that was the essence of orange.

(Interestingly, I never really cared much to drink Tang, which tasted like Kool-Aid and didn't have much tang at all, but I liked to lick the spoon. I would ostentatiously guzzle a glass of Tang in front of my family every now and then to make sure we kept the kitchen well-stocked, but a glass of Tang really never tasted very good, although it was cool that the Apollo astronauts drank it).

Now, many decades later, I realize that I was exploring Derrida's concepts when I pondered all these problems. The fact that something could possibly be more orange than an orange -- in the sense that a delicious layer of Tang powder clinging to a wet spoon is bright orange, and makes your mouth explode with orange flavor -- points to the same indeterminacy of essence that Derrida was apparently writing about when he introduced the concept differance.

I tried to briefly describe the meaning of differance briefly in last weekend's blog post. I didn't do a very good job, but here's what I wrote:

"Differance" signifies a person or thing's difference with itself. Since we do not have intrinsic natures, we are always changing from ourselves, turning into ourselves, turning away from ourselves. (I'm not completely sure what this "differance" thing is all about, but I like it, and I think Lao Tze, Heraclitus and Nietzsche would like it too.)

Everyday life, I think, is simply teeming with differance. For instance, there are even more examples to be found in the banal childhood story above. Not only does a jar of Tang powder infringe upon the identity of orange by being perceptibly more orange than orange ... it also fails to maintain its own identity!. As I mentioned above, I used to eat Tang with a spoon, because that's how it tasted best. I'm sure I wasn't the only person eating Tang with a spoon, either. Yet Tang is a drink powder. It manages to be something it's not, but it doesn't always manage to contain the essence of itself.

As I read the various works of Derrida, I find certain of his concepts very familiar from the work of other philosophers. Despite Jacques Derrida's controversial reputation, his work seems to me to be more of a synthesis and an explication than a revolution. There seems to be a whole lot of Ludwig Wittgenstein's language theory here, as well as William James's Pragmatism, Husserl and Heidegger's phenomenology, Jean-Paul Sartre's urgency towards real-world engagement.

More than anything else, Derrida's philosophy seems to me very compatible with Existentialism. As I read his words, I find myself continually intoning the Existentialist mantra in sympathetic response: "Yes, of course. Existence precedes essence".

Since Derrida got his college education in Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it's hardly surprising that he would be strongly influenced by Existentialism, which was fashionable in these years. It's a bit surprising, though, that in my own fairly thorough reading of Existentialist philosophy I have seen so few references to Derrida, or to deconstruction or to post-structuralism. I'm not sure why this is.

I also find it strange that Derrida is still considered such a firebrand (or, to his detractors, such a fraud) within the contemporary philosophy establishment. The same academics who still dismiss or ridicule Derrida tend to embrace the great Existentialists who preceded and obviously informed him: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre.

The realization that Derrida's essential messages are those that primarily characterize a different philosophy from his own is also, I suppose, an irony entirely in keeping with deconstructionism. There is is again: le differance.


This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Military Spending and the Camouflage Curtain. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Finding Derrida.


9 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Derrida and the Essence of Orange"

by Tim H on

If you enjoy Derrida, I think you'd also like another Jacques as well when it comes to language: Lacan. He's more a psychoanalyst than a 'philosopher' strictly speaking, but there's always cross over there.

I think that's maybe one of the reasons why some people don't like Derrida, he professes to be a philosopher but talks more about literature and social function more than just 'thought' a lot of the time. He crosses boundaries too often for the institution. Of couse that's a bogus thing to say when detracting from his ideas - many great philosophers have been cross-disciplinary.

When talking about essence and language I'm always reminded of the classic joke:

Q.When is a door not a door?
A. When it's ajar.

Thanks for the good read.

by TKG on

As far as "who still dismiss or ridicule Derrida", the proper term is

"derides Derrida"

I was surprised at how many folks chimed in to deride Derrida over the past week. 

I wrote the below last week to explain it all, but didn't post it. Perhaps now is the time. 

Vivre le differuntz  

Keep close and close the door. 

We're going to watch baseball.  

There's a meeting on the mound. 

The closer is closer to first base than third. 

We will make cookies after I extract from the box this bottle of vanilla extract. 

They shared special places.  These places -- they're their theres. 

Is it Li Bo or Li  Bai or Li Po or Li Pai. A piece of Pi.   No.  It's 李白。

Bi-postal. Are you buying this, Beau?

It's all a case d'Afferant conditioning

Deriding on the germs choice, it was clear as shooting fish in a barrel. 

by mtmynd1 on

An orange grown without pesticides, herbicides, insecticides.. grown with natural, from the earth-enhanced fertilizers in the same way orange trees have grown for hundreds of years without giant agri-business literally turning the orange tree into slave-forced production to make more and more money versus an edible and enjoyable orange that benefits the eater with not only a sensuous experience by opening the orange skin... peeling it back until the the luscious ripe fruit is fully exposed and the essence of the fruit escapes and finds it's way to the nostril to be inhaled deeply teasing the taste buds into salivating for that first bite of that wondrous fruit that Nature itself has coddled and taken the best of care of for this singular moment to gift the eagerly awaiting eater to bite into that fist section gently peeled away and with the thumb and forefinger, raised up to the open mouth and the teeth ever-so-gently bites into the fruit and it literally explodes in the mouth and it is that one moment when the lucky eater becomes one with that orange and the mouth turns into a smile of incredible satisfaction that satisfies not only the taste buds but the soul of the eater thankful for this experience to eat an orange grown, not for agri-business but for that individual to praise life itself and all it's beauty... a laughter sweeps over the person lifting the spirit that has lain so dormant for so long like a long incarcerated prisoner finally released into the open air of freedom... life is good, beneficial and worthy of song!

by TKG on

Hi Levi, always love your posts, even if I am not particularly interested in the topic, eg Jacques Derrida.

But I always learn something by doing some reading on your subjects. When I read your first Derrida post it seemed to me that there was some James Joyce influence there and indeed the Wikipedia entry mentioned he studied joyce (or maybe it was something else I read on him).

This post lead to the very cool discovery of the hugely influential but unknown William A. Mitchell. He invented Tang.

Not only did he invent Tang, he invented Cool-whip, pop-rocks and instant jell-O.

Truly a person who had a huge impact on American life.

I find things like this fascinating.

As far as Mitchell vs Derrida. You write about forms -- an orange vs Tang. Mitchell was a man who created forms.

What's more interesting or meaningful? Writing about forms or actually being a creator of forms?

by Levi Asher on

This William Mitchell does seem like quite a character. In terms of fast food inventors, I'm more impressed by Glenn Bell, who invented the modern hard-shell taco and founded Taco Bell. But Mitchell is impressive as well.

As far as Derrida's inventions -- well, I have heard that he helped to shape the field of cultural studies. I know that would impress you, TKG!

by Brian on

I realize you're on a Derrida bender (awesome--me too!) but I think the heart, or "essence" of your post this week really gets back to Heidegger most of all. If you think of the problem of 'being' (as in the consideration of the sentient lifeform, fairly static) vs. "being" as a dynamic, dialectic act of "becoming"... you can then think of Tang as one of many examples of being-orange.

How does language apprehend objects or deal with ideal Platonic forms? Well, however it works, language never has a concrete *final* say, and this is a problem with all identities. (Hegel, Lacan, Butler)... And this is what postructuralists problematized viz-a-viz structuralists like Levi-Strauss who were gaining a lot of traction outlining the interplay of various sociocultural schema, language included, the essentially produced (or is "constituted" more accurate?) the human subject.

P.S. Asher do you live in Washington or New York?

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the feedback, Brian. I do know that there is a lot of common ground between Derrida and Heidegger. Maybe you'll be glad to know that a Philosophy Weekend contributor (Tim Hawken) has sent me a piece on Heidegger that I'll be running in the next couple of weekends.

As for whether I live in Washington DC or New York -- that's a tough enough question to require some deconstruction before I can answer it. I currently live and work in the DC area (Northern Virginia), but my kids and family and many friends are in NY City, so I go back quite often on weekends, and I like to consider myself bi-urban. Being a New Yorker is so deeply ingrained into my self-identity that I will list New York City as my home no matter how far away I am. And I'm really never very far.

by Brian on

I am glad to know that! Heidegger's basically a Shakespeare when it comes to secondary source analysis... increasing marginal returns.

What a strange coincidence that I came to LitKicks via my San Diego friends, but currently live in Washington, work in NoVa (Tysons Corner... ugh) and swear by New York City.

Thanks for posting, I'll keep reading.

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