You know, I never really liked Jacques Derrida’s stuff for the longest time. I still have a lot of issues with his presumptions, his starting points, and definitely his writing style. But I think my biggest issue with him was the way people talked about him and his ideas.
Imagine you’re a writer whose job it is to come up with new ideas and explain them relatively sensibly. That's writing philosophy. It’s a style of writing that requires you to push a little bit at the limits of what your language can do. That's why philosophy is sometimes written in such weird, inaccessible ways.
I hope what I do in my books, my philosophy essays, and on this blog is explain some very strange ideas in increasingly accessible ways. I’m not sure that I always succeed.
But the best part about having a writing blog like this is that you can be experimental, try new things, some folks will enjoy it or not, and there’ll be another set of ideas in a day or two. The lead time on trying out new things is shorter than it's ever been before.
So as long as you get the proper style of a blog down (casual, if slightly nerdy conversation), you can spin around as many trippy ideas as you want. It ends up making your language more accessible, less needlessly technical, a little more seductive, and more clear.
I tried to do this in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. And I aim for Utopias to be even better at this style of philosophy. I’d like to write philosophy in a style about as accessible as a nerdy listicle, but with the conceptual rigour of the classics of the tradition.
Sometimes, like this weekend on an inter-city train, I’m reading a book by Derrida. And I think about this eventual goal of mine for writing philosophy. It gets frustrating.
When I was a student, I knew a few professors who studied the books Derrida wrote in his Spectres of Marx period, from the 1980s until his death. One of the ideas he explored was a conception of the messianic – thinking about the world as though it were leading up to a profound transformation into a new framework that would be paradise compared to the way things are now.
The idea’s pretty common. Derrida took the term from the theologies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, religions where profound transformations of reality are central to the belief system. The appearances of God to humans in Judaism, the incarnation of God as human in Christianity, and the revelation of God’s final word in Islam.
And from a secular perspective, you can hear it from transhumanist discussion and any cyberpunkish talk of The Singularity, following Ray Kurzweil.
Derrida talks about experiencing time in your life as if existence were moving toward a time-to-come. And I heard a lot of people use this phrase without really being able to explain it to me. They’d just say that it wasn’t the future, but a time-to-come.
I remember being 22 years old and completely turned off Derrida because people would talk about his ideas this way, unable to explain even in a simple sense what was actually going on.
Now that I’ve started reading some of the books where he uses this term, I can say that I actually found it pretty simple to understand. Maybe I'm deluding myself, thinking that I can easily understand a writer famous for being difficult and obscure out of a bizarre fit of egomania.
Maybe, because I haven’t had access to university library paywalls in years, I haven’t had my reading confidence broken by contending with a deluge of poorly written academic journal articles on the same subject. But it seems pretty clear to me.
Time to come. It means you don’t really think of a clear distinction between present and future as such. Ironic for a perspective that expects a radical transformation of reality in the future.
But not really. Because you live your life in constant anticipation of the messianic moment when the world is transformed. So the present becomes this rush toward a magic point. Call it a singularity if you want. The real distinction in time isn't between then, now, and later. It’s between the time leading up to the transformation, and after it.
When you live and understand your life in terms of anticipating that transformation, that's time-to-come. I don’t think anyone ever explained this to me, but that's what I read in the book this afternoon.