Archive for February 17th, 2007

Standards in American Education:
The Element of Surprise

If by the neologism, diffrance, Derrida (1978) is representing the idea that existence is framed by the past and the future, presented only as a trace of the present formed between past and future, and that the moment represented in the trace of present is neither fixed nor fluid, rather it is movement attached to all of the periods of past laid out prior to the phenomenon of the trace, while adapting out of necessity for survival to the alterity, or otherness, of the future, then, it seems to us that diffrance forms a frame from which to address the out-of-control movement toward standardizing American education through an appeal to the absolute nature of culture and the need to transmit the fixed nature of the values obtained by that culture to the young. For our purposes, we assume that diffrance includes, at the barest minimum, the idea we summarize above and, while this may not be the only useful definition of diffrance, for the purposes of inquiring about standards it forms a workable frame from which to investigate how standards may or may not do justice to American Democracy.

As we use the word trace it is only reasonable to make clear what we mean by the term. At once trace references the now and beyond the now bi-directionally. Derrida (1993) refers to the idea of trace indirectly as he writes autobiographically about writing in Circumfession:

“Without what I wrote in the past, or even what I seem to be writing here, but do without, foreseeing or predicating what I could well write in the future, so that here I am deprived of a future, no more event to come from me, at least insofar as I speak or write, unless I write there, for every man for himself, no longer under his law, improbable things which destabilize, disconcert, surprise in their term” (p. 30)

Here Derrida is responding to Bennington’s (1993) critique and categorization of Derrida’s work. Bennington focuses on both categorizing the schema of thought but offers predictions on what Derrida might have to say in the future. Derrida’s response is to explore the underlying nature of the trace as found in writing as writing focuses on the future while becoming an artifact of the historical past the moment it is abandoned by the author. Once inscribed to the past, writing provides no surprise or rich interpretative approaches to thought, rather, it simply is. The act of writing, on the other hand, is, at once, rooted in the future as it becomes embedded in the historical. Once written writing exists without change or changeability. The act of writing, because of its proximity to the future remains fluid, surprising, and potentially destabilizing as the writer struggles with alternatives presented. The idea of trace is extended to and lies within the period of time that is instantaneously formed, and then immediately unformed, between the static past and the fluid future.

Trace can also have a strong proximity to the historical past. The trace obtained in this writing to this point is anchored in the text of Derrida’s (1993) reflection Circumfession. As we write we are tied to the text of Circumfession seeking to construct meaning from the words of another as that other was writing with a proximity to the future. In either case, however, the proximities turn around on top of each other for while we are tied to the text, we also write with a proximity to the future as Derrida, writing with a proximity to the future, was tied directly (or not) to Bennington’s text. Furthermore, Derrida chose to tie his writing to additional texts including St. Augustine’s Confessions, borrowing both form and language to record his own trace representing diffrance. This is not simply to say that the bi-directionality of the writer is tied to a singular historical past or a multiplicity of possible futures only one of which will play out, rather, it is to say that the reciprocal interplay of past and future play themselves out within the idea of trace which is, in turn, represented by diffrance.

Diffrance itself accounts for trace by insisting that the writer strive to investigate all that is different from, in opposition to, and perplexing about a given proposition while differing a permanent solution to the problems posed by the given inquiry. In this sense diffrance accounts for the ability of the writer to alter his or her position upon subsequent readings of the same text. In short, diffrance suggests that problems investigated never are subject to ultimate solutions, rather, they remain open questions allowing one to not categorize thought but account for the “improbable tidings, which destabilize, disconcert, surprise in their turn.”

Diffrance suggests that to know something is, at best, diaphanous, a shadowy figure on the cave wall, subject to a trace suspension of disbelief, if only for an instant, as the present encroaches on both past and future. “One writes,” states Derrida (1993), “only at the moment of giving the contemporary the slip.” (p. 63). Because the trace exists only in the moment and then vanishes without a trace only to give way to a trace in its placead infinitum, or at least until the moment of one’s death, and because each subsequent trace opens the door to surprise, the notion of knowing and diffrance is contained within linguistic boundaries.

“I am the last of the eschatologists, I have to this day above all lived, enjoyed, wept, prayed, suffered as though at the last second, in the imminence of the flashback end, and like no one else I have made the eschaton into a coat of arms of my genealogy, the lips’ edge of my truth but there is no meta-language will mean that a confession does not make the truth, it must affect me, touch me, gather me, re-member me, constitute me, without that meaning, as always, putting an end to, and speaking before you, confiding in you at present what in another period I called my synchrony, telling you the story of my stories” (p. 75)

Knowing, for Derrida, is storied. It represents the intricacies of story telling and the momentary intersection of diffrance as represented in the ever present trace. It is the notion that as one moves forward in time toward the future while remaining shackled to the past, the writer is never subject to categorization or systematization. Quite the contrary, while categories and systems may arise from the relationships to past and future, the word that is penned is always open to a surprise to both the self as writer and the other as reader.

The Relationship to Standards

What does diffrance and trace have to do with standards in education. Let’s see if we can not make this clear. In a nutshell, what Derrida focuses on is that standardization, categorization, and systematization rests on a faulty foundation, one that fails to recognize a reciprocal relationship of the learner, inquiry, and content. Furthermore, standardization is a form of totalization, something that must be avoided at any cost. This is not to deny rigor nor is it to deny serious academic inquiry rather, to deny standardization, in the final analysis, supports both.

Bennington, G. (1993). Jacques Derrida. In J. Derrida (Ed.), Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1978). Writing and difference (A. Bass, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1993). Circumfession. In J. Derrida (Ed.), Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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