I'm currently taking a class in Anthropological Theory, for which I'm supposed to write a paper with a theoretical focus, but applicable to my research. I talked today with my professor to explain what I want to write about and elicit some suggestions and comments. I realized in meeting with her that I have a very hard time describing my theoretical framework. I don't know if it's a problem with the way I describe things, a flaw in my language, or just that where I'm coming from is so different from the way most of my professors think and how they were taught. Whatever the issue is, whenever I try to explain it all I get is blank stares and attempts to steer me in other directions.
So today I met with the professor and explained that I'm interested in theorizing methods as techniques for creating realities - like what John Law argues for in After Method. I mentioned material semiotics (since Law uses that terminology in his book) and a bit about Latour, since he is probably my strongest theoretical influence right now. She questioned me about how Latour's materialism differs from other materialisms - I explained that for Latour material plays a significant role in societies but that Latour doesn't reduce societies to material processes. Somehow we got into talking about texts, and I said that texts are material...
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, texts exist as physical things."
"What if you send it through email?"
"It's still electrical signals sent over wires."
"Does the materiality of the text matter?"
Here I fumbled and gave in saying that in my case (writing a text for the BLM) it probably doesn't. But I should have given an emphatic "Yes!" It's one thing to write something by hand on the back of a bar napkin (which I'm sure the BLM wouldn't appreciate if I did with their report) and another to type up a nice paper, putting it in a clear plastic cover (thank you Calvin & Hobbes) and turn it in. It's also one thing to present the text as a physical document and another to send it as an electronic document. The whole set of material-semiotic associations that went into creating personal computers comes into play, the relationships that are fostered by those associations, the ecological impact of paper versus electronics - these are all parts of this picture which may be emphasized or ignored given the circumstances, but they never disappear. All of this has implications for how my text will be received by others (i.e. the BLM and the Shoshone tribes), how it will propagate, and how it will last. The bar napkins might get discarded after last call. The typed text may get filed in a draw and never seen again - or discovered 50 years from now and treated as the great masterpiece that it is! The electronic text may become completely irrelevant if the code is not available in the future to access it, if the thumb drive it's on gets put through the wash, or if the oil economy collapses making computers useless pieces of plastic. All of that matters on some level, and to varying degrees depending on the conditions. And none of that can be reduced to the semiotic nature of the text (nor, I would argue, could the semiotic nature of the text be reduced to these material qualities).
Anyway, the gist of this is that I'm supposed to read more Derrida. If anyone can suggest a cgood introduction or summary of Derrida's work - whether by Derrida himself or otherwise - please let me know.
PS - I should say, I don't have anything against Derrida, and I didn't follow the recent Derrida debates on the blogosphere. It's just that dealing with Derrida in the context of what I want to write about seems like an unnecessary aside.