“Untimely Matter” and Deconstructing Différance

I was probably much too excited about Jonathan Gill Harris’ Introduction to Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare when we read it for my performance theory class last week. The readings for this class have generally been very interesting and engaging, but this one was an unexpected surprise. I felt a bit like his arguments finally connected a lot of loose threads that have been floating around my head in recent weeks. There they all were – spun together in a rich and interesting tapestry for me to appreciate and understand. I hope, reader, that you’ll indulge me a bit because I may talk about Harris for a while. And I ordered the entire book, so there may be even more to come once I start reading it.

One thread I’ve been mulling over in recent weeks is Derrida’s notion of différance, ever since I decided to finally actually read Of Grammatology (which, in retrospect, should probably have been a holiday break project). Harris’ introduction lays out his argument about time and temporality with regard to material culture – an argument that helpfully calls upon similar questions and thoughts about time as Derrida’s concept (he actually even references différance at one point). Harris makes the argument that time needs to be considered as both polychronic and multitemporal (3). When I first read this, it sounded a bit like he was directly following Derrida’s argument in Of Grammatology. Diverging from Saussure, Derrida argues that, rather than thinking about writing as a linear, fixed moment in time (synchronic), it’s important to see it as an amalgamation of changes and divergences over time (diachronic, but also something more because it seems to be not quite linear?). Derrida’s term différance invokes a process, through time, and allows us to speak more accurately about language as a constantly shifting system. Harris actually does introduce this term into his argument – “Materiality thus articulates temporal difference. But in collating the traces of past, present, and future, it also pluralizes and hence problematizes the time of the object. In this respect, materiality is not simply some kind of raw physicality prior to language and culture. It is rather a site of inscription and of différance” (8). This statement directly follows Harris’ reference to Aristotle and his concept of matter as “both past material that has been reworked as well as present, reworkable potential that presumes a future” (7-8). This, then, is why Harris can call on Derrida’s différance. For him, matter, like Derrida’s understanding of language and writing, is contingent on all past articulations and on all future potentials. This is a temporal rather than a historical (time-based) approach to materiality.

However, after further reading, I wonder whether or not Harris’ terms (well, Serres’s terms that he appropriates) “polychronic” and “multitemporal” go beyond Derrida’s concepts. If we are to understand “polychronic” as “marked by the traces of multiple times” and “multitemporal” as “the ways in which we physically and imaginatively rework matter to produce diverse organizations of time,” then does Harris’ argument go beyond, or subsume, Derrida’s notion of différance, or is it essentially the same (12-3)? Harris dismisses Derrida shortly after he references différance because, states, Derrida’s notion of “hauntology” works well for “obsolete ideas” but not objects (12). But this doesn’t account for his use of différance and whether or not we can consider this term as invoking both polychronicity and multitemporality. I wonder if the difference between these terms rests on the same problem Harris has with “hauntology” – différance in some way suggests an abstractness that can’t be applied to temporal theories of material culture?

I wonder if the answer to this question lies in Harris’ nod to Stallybrass’ and Jones’ work on early modern textiles. He nods to their book, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (which I thought was really great and has significantly informed my research on “spinning with the braine” that I introduced in my first post) but then argues that it falls a bit short in producing the kind of temporal engagement he is arguing for. He writes that Stallybrass “does not consider how such polychronic traces might be an intrinsic rather than contingent dimension of matter” (10, emphasis my own). Therefore, what Harris calls for is “a comprehensive theorization of how matter tends to be out of time with itself, and how its properties lend themselves less to synchronic or diachronic than to polychronic analysis” (10, emphasis my own). Is it this element of his argument – that matter has properties within itself that must be addressed temporally, not just the contexts (and amalgamation of past contexts) within which that matter is situated within and references at any given moment – that works against différance? Does Derrida’s différance imply that the language system has, within itself, these shifting, temporally relevant, properties? Or does his argument have more to do with the temporal context the language system is situated within? Just in writing that, I’m already not sure if we can ever consider the temporal context surrounding language removed from, or somehow external to, language itself. So maybe différance does account for Harris’ argument about matter. The nuance between these terms deserved much more consideration than I can give it here but, suffice it to say, Harris’ introduction gave me much to ponder over.


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