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Jacques Derrida 1930–
French critic and philosopher.
Derrida is one of France's most innovative philosophers. He is considered a revolutionary literary critic because his method involves a radical critique of Western metaphysics and a revision of the traditional concept of language.
The fact that there is distance between writer, text,...
(The entire section contains 27224 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Jacques Derrida 1930–
French critic and philosopher.
Derrida is one of France's most innovative philosophers. He is considered a revolutionary literary critic because his method involves a radical critique of Western metaphysics and a revision of the traditional concept of language.
The fact that there is distance between writer, text, and reader and that different interpretations of texts evolve over time causes metaphysicians to have less faith in writing as a reliable form of discourse. Derrida rejects the Western metaphysical insistence on the preeminence of the spoken word over the written word. Calling this "logocentrism," Derrida dismisses the belief that written language is less natural or direct than speech. He finds naive the assumption that the lack of spatial and temporal distance between speaker and listener in some way guarantees moments of perfect understanding between the two.
Derrida calls himself a "deconstructionist"; as a reader, he feels that he must reduce a text to its most self-referential point because language in itself conveys no true meaning. Derrida's famous expression "il n'y a pas de hors-texte" ("there is nothing outside the text") sums up his approach. He studies literature by concentrating solely on the language of a text, dismissing the influence of outside factors. For Derrida, words do not need to represent. This opposes the traditional critical view that the study of literature is the search for meaning, ideas, and truths in the text, based on preconceptions of authorial intention. Instead, Derrida advocates a study of the associations of words in their purely linguistic, rather than representational, function. Through this investigation Derrida reduces language by pointing out its uncertainty.
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However diverse have been the styles of philosophizing of the past half century, their practitioners have agreed on one thing: we need a new beginning. Even if, like Heidegger, they tell us to try to relive the first beginning of Western thought, that very repetition would be a renewal, and so new. In a number of these adjurations to a fresh start, moreover, reflection on the traditional interpretation of language has had a central place. I want here to compare two such language-focused enterprises, which look—and are—very different, yet feel—and are—somehow related, if only in the glaring diversity of their ways of dealing with one problem. What I am trying to do, I suppose, is take Wittgenstein (Investigations period) as more familiar to most of my readers …, consider some characteristics of his method for letting the fly out of the fly bottle, and compare these with Derrida's techniques for showing that, in fact, the fly can never get in. (p. 142)
[Wittgenstein and Derrida both believe that the traditional conception of language immobilizes thought]. Somehow this rigidity, this one-track thinking, must be overcome. But they differ both in their diagnosis of the pathology and in their prescription for treatment. (Neither, I should say at once, expects a quick cure!)
First, the diagnosis. Let's start from the Augustinian account with which the Investigations opens. Strangely for the author of the De Magistro (where it is Christ the teacher who teaches within), this is an almost physicalist description of language learning. There are things and there are sounds emitted by grown-ups, and the child learns to imitate the sounds and to correlate them in the same way with the things. What we begin with, in other words, is a good Tractatus-like mirroring of words and items in the world. But what the child learns, St. Augustine tells us, is ultimately to use the sounds, not just in order to refer, but to implement "his own desires." So there is something in him, something "inner" or "mental," that is served by those convenient correlations. The traditional conception of language includes all three: signs, things, and the inner life; the soul, the subject, whatever it is that wants something from speaking, wants to "express itself" in speech. So Wittgenstein remarks in Zettel that philosophy always seeks either a symbol system or a secret inner process. Philosophy wants language to be either monolithically objective, or subjective—or perhaps, as in Baby Augustine's case, one for the sake of the other: name-giving for the sake of my desires.
The same three ingredients—words, things, and mental life, or signs, substances, and souls if one wants an alliterative, and Aristotelian, tag—are universal in the traditional view of language. But in Derrida's version they come in a rather different mix. His paradigms in De La Grammatologie [Of Grammatology] are Plato, Rousseau, and Saussure, but also Husserl (the last especially in La Voix et le Phénomène [Speech and Phenomena], a critique of one chapter of the Logical Investigations). What have all these, and, for Derrida, the whole tradition, in common? They all share an ideal of what the living voice can accomplish. The sound (the significant, those sounds the grown-ups make and that the child learns to make too), designates, points to, a concept, or thought—or thinking—in the mind (that thought, or thinking, is the signifié). But that thought in turn reflects or expresses a reality, an object of thinking, which is luminously and evidently present to the mind in its thinking and as (so to speak) it speaks. The correlation of significant and signifié is of course conventional, as is the correlation of words and things in the Augustinian story. But what is conventionally correlated in this account are sounds and "inner" processes, and the relation to reality—to "things"—makes its appearance (or is said to do so) only in that presence of Being to the mind which is expressed (or is said to be expressed) by the speaker in living speech…. [Traditional] philosophers, Wittgenstein and Derrida agree, insist on the interaction of three ingredients, signs, thoughts, and reality (or realities) of some kind, in their account of language. For Wittgenstein, signs have been too singlemindedly, and simple-mindedly, correlated with things, and/or the process has been stubbornly misdirected to some "inner" goings-on that somehow philosophers have thought it must be for. In Derrida's view, the single-×-simplemindedness of the tradition has resided in its belief that the outer (sound) refers univocally to an inner (thought), which in its turn is intuitively united with the Being present to it in that thought. True speech has been conceived as the speech of the lover who has climbed the ladder, of the philosopher who has escaped the cave to live in the light of the sun.
Now given these two very different diagnoses of the same disease, we shall not be surprised to find both the problems raised and the methods used to deal with them very different too. Wittgenstein has a seemingly workable model to start from, but one that turns out to be partly too simple and partly rather silly. On the one hand, philosophy seeks symbol systems, correlations of words and things, but they don't come out just right (this against himself in the Tractatus). And on the other hand, philosophy seeks to go from this outer, working—or not quite working—word-thing relation to some inner life—the desires of the child Augustine—on which the process somehow hangs. Here Wittgenstein is opposing not so much his own early view as almost everyone else; for this kind of inner something that philosophers are always chasing never gets caught at all. Given this simple, partly operative but limited, model, then, he asks: Why tie ourselves to this one very simple pattern of linguistic activity with its will-o'-the-wisp accompaniment? Doesn't language work in all sorts of other ways? Is language always like that? Derrida, in contrast, is looking not at a working machine too simply understood, but at a dream of language, an alleged machine that has never existed and never worked at all. True, it is a dream we cannot escape. The hope of presence is incurable. But it is "incurable" precisely because it is a dream, not reality: Being never is present as the myth of presence claims it is. And yet the dream also has a reality insofar as dream itself is an aspect of our reality, of the kind of beings we are. Now Wittgenstein, too, admittedly, takes account of what is unreal or misguided in the traditional view of language—not only of what is too limited or abstract. The thrust to an "inner" life, the beetle-in-the-box syndrome, represents, perhaps, half of the ideal of presence. But, in his version, the routine working of language, in the ordinary world of human interests and activities, overmasters the persistent dream. The ghost of inwardness can be shoved into the lumber room of superstitutions where all ghosts belong. For Derrida, in contrast, it's a very live haunt indeed. He has to ask, not how we are to supplement a one-sided and partly foolish view of language, but how we are to dismantle a deeply mistaken yet inevitable conception. He has to ask, head on: Is language ever like that? To find what's happening when we speak, we must take the ghost apart—a tricky job, for ghosts are notoriously hard to catch, let alone to disarticulate. (pp. 143-45)
Both Derrida and Wittgenstein find philosophical thinking about language perversely inflexible, both seek to shake up somehow our thinking about it; but since they conceive the traditional triad so differently, the questions they ask of language are correspondingly different. Yet here too there is something shared in their two enterprises. Neither seeks to substitute for a wonted rigidity some new philosophical system that will replace it. On the contrary, they both cultivate techniques for questioning language, for catching it at work, techniques to free it from the illusions of philosophy, not to enslave it afresh….
[Wittgenstein's technique] is to reconstuct language at work. Derrida's, in contrast, is to deconstruct its alleged working. Wittgenstein complexifies the traditional account by setting the real machinery to work in a whole range of ways, over and over, till philosophical simplemindedness withers away (or seems to) and the silly ghost of inwardness flutters harmlessly off (or so one hopes). His method, though deep and difficult, goodness knows, is meant to make things easy, as too many of his presumed disciples have too readily supposed. He wants to oil the machinery and declare our philosophical holiday over. Derrida, on the other hand, decidedly wants to make things difficult. He too complexifies the traditional account, but so that we feel both its power over us and its impotence to find its own, and our, fulfillment. Wittgenstein adjures us: treat the philosophic illness with constant exercise; make language games work! The ice of logic is slippery: back to the rough ground! Derrida plays with language. He takes it apart ("deconstruction" is his own name for his own enterprise), and finds it, not working better, more wholesomely, than philosophy dreamed, but much less well. We are ensnared in language, trapped at once by the philosophic vision and its impossibility of fulfillment. Speaking is not playing games in the world, as Wittgenstein wants us to discover; it is the game of the world (le jeu du monde), it plays with us. As flies are to wanton boys, we could almost say, are we to our words—. Yet Derrida's path, too, I think, is meant in a way to be one of liberation. (p. 145)
[Of the contrast of inner and outer] Wittgenstein says, forget it!… Forget the rigid reference of the Augustinian model, forget the foolish flickering of the "inner" happening. When does the "inner" happening of knowing how to play chess take place? What a silly question! I play chess. When do I know English? I speak it. The contrast of inner event and outer doing is simply an impediment to understanding what in fact goes on. From this position Derrida is just as different as possible. For him, indeed, différance is what it's all about, différance with an a, mind you, to show that the difference between inner and outer—or rather, the whole nest of differences inherent in speech—is not an ordinary difference. It is the conflict of meaning with what it is meant to mean (difference is what we fight about), the gap between meaning and what it is meant to mean, the spatialization, the spreading out into representation of what should have been a pure presentation of intuitive clarity; and by the same token the deferring (one word in French: différer, to differ: différer, to defer), the deferring of the moment of truth, the temporalizing of experience, which is also always temporizing: we never make it home. It is not the inner that is strange, seltsam, as Wittgenstein keeps calling it. The inner, if we could really reach it, would be presence, the vision of the Forms, the mind at home. But we never do. We are caught in externality, not happily, but as our inalienable alienation from what we have always sought. Thus in La Voix et le Phénomène Derrida shows how Husserl tries vainly to reduce language to the purely expressive, to the expression of what is evident, but without ever being able to eliminate its indicative role…. For Wittgenstein the working of language permit us—or should permit us—to abandon the vain search for univocal correlation, whether of signs and things or of signs and mental events. Neither the inner nor the outer aim of language matters: they are fused, or canceled; there is no problem left. For Derrida, however, there is no such cancellation, or fusion, ever. Presence haunts us, inevitably, but there is no presence, only absence…. [Derrida insists that language], which is said to lead to presentation, always falls into representation. Every form of speech is quotable; and quotability entails absence. It is the very gap between inner and outer, which is also a gap between now and then, or then and now, that makes language what it is. Could we close it, we would be silent, with the silence of beasts or gods perhaps, but not of men.
The contrast of inner and outer, as Derrida elaborates it, is identified, further, with the contrast between speech and writing. This contrast, everywhere reiterated, constitutes in fact his chief innovative theme. His major work is entitled "On Grammatology." Différance, neither a word nor a concept, he insists—so I don't know what to call it—is developed out of reflection on écriture. What does Wittgenstein make of this contrast? He ignores it totally. If you look at the language games of the Investigations, some are written, some spoken; it doesn't seem to matter a bit. For Derrida, in contrast, nothing matters more. Nothing else even matters at all. There was the philosophers' ideal of the perfect moment of speech: for Plato the living soul could learn through recollection to see the Forms; Rousseau recounted the mythical occasion when living souls met one another in the perfect moment of the first words spoken at some rustic spring. But there never was such a moment. Language is always the trace of a trace. Even spoken words must linger in the air, a kind of skywriting. Sounds become words only when repeatable. The unique, perfect expression of perfect presence has never been, could never be. Language is already text, never present, always the différance: spatialization, conflict, temporalization, temporizing; gaps, gaps, gaps.
Wittgenstein argued: no private language, because only language in public works. Language must be public because that is where it succeeds. Derrida argues, on the contrary, yes, language must indeed be public—texts to be repeated, texts to be read, and misread—language must be public, because it always fails. Language is our hamartia, our missing of the mark. The moment we speak we introduce not a well-oiled machinery, but a species-specific neurosis. We invoke, like Oedipus, a self-referential curse. Our very riddle-solving ingenuity triggers—has triggered, when the show begins—the coming of the plague, which only our self-blinding can remove. (pp. 146-48)
[For Derrida], the Platonic or Saussurian or especially Husserlian ideal of truly precise meaning, the coalescence of thought with presence, still appears as the telos of language, and what we have in its failure is the failure of the totally explicit, of language as pure expression. But in this situation the explicit, which should have been the inner, turns round and assumes the place of the outer, the writing, which remains always at some remove from the inner, which should have been explicit, but never is. The play between the trace, the writing, absent from meaning, and the implicit, the thought that is meant, but never unequivocally achieved: this to-and-from between signifiant and signifié, in one direction or another, in every direction, never comes finally to a halt. We are always saying never quite what we mean; we always mean never quite what we say. It is, I should think, the coalescence of rule and operation as Wittgenstein adjures us to practice it that is, for Derrida, a philosophical will-o'-the-wisp. All we have, in the end, is traces of traces, inscriptions separable and indeed separated from their import. Even spoken language is a kind of primordial script, an archi-écriture. Moreover, though language does indeed work only in context, contexts themselves are never self-contained. Relative to the expression intended, they are fragments only, the place of adumbrations, echoes of what one meant to say.
This is odd, come to think of it. Wittgenstein wrote in fragments, Zettel are his style, while Derrida fashions essays of polished, Mallarméan elegance. But Wittgenstein's fragments direct us to language in its whole, and wholesome, operations in the world, while Derrida's beautifully turned phrases lure us into an unending maze of subtleties from which there seems no rescue into ordinary talk. (pp. 148-49)
The language [Wittgenstein] is concerned to free from philosophic cramp is chiefly everday talk about toothaches, pieces of cheese, and such. Derrida, on the other hand, not only cares little for the speech of the man in the street and prefers to delve straight into philosophic, or literary, theories of language, but when he does talk about "ordinary" words or "ordinary" usage, his aim is to show … that even here things are not as simple as they appear…. Univocal meaning, like the moment of pure, living speech, is a conceptual ideal rather than the reality we live with—or in. Not that this is just another theory of "open texture" or of vagueness in language. It is a question of the interplay of meanings which may in themselves be more or less literal, as well as more or less "metaphorical": the former, for instance, in Derrida's own use of the several meanings of différer, the latter, for example, in the "metaphorical" carry-over of one meaning into another in such traditional philosophical concepts as "theory" or in the phrase "natural light." In the rhetorical tradition it was held, following Aristotle, that metaphor should be restricted to the sphere of the mimetic; outside the arts, where one wants to state propositional truth, metaphorical use is taboo. But, Derrida insists, there is never the last, and therefore the literal, word for anything, not even, as Heidegger seems to hope, for "Being." Language is always loose enough to retain some transfer—some meiapherein—between senses, some poetical resonance. We are caught up, whether we will or no, in the play of words which is the play of the world. (p. 149)
Wittgenstein wants to displace "life" from inner, not to outer, but to ordinary—which is neither "in" nor "out," neither hidden "subject" nor lifeless "object," but just the way things naturally do work. Thus the alleged inner "life," held fast to, is a kind of death; to come to life is to ignore it, to ignore beetles in boxes and their like, and go on talking, in the appropriate way for appropriate contexts, as real live human beings indeed do.
Derrida, however, is taking that ideal, never existent, inner life as an inescapable if unfulfillable, telos of language, and of our "lives" as language users. If we could realize that goal, he admits, this would be both absolute life and total death. Yet, in contrast to Wittgenstein's "forms of life" message, I think it is fair to say that what Derrida chiefly wants to show us is, as against the life we seek but never find, the hand of death in speech. He wants to protect us from the ideal of life which in fulfillment would be death by showing us the role of death in the only life we have. Thus the thesis constant, in his view, from the Phaedrus to Saussure, of the unique superiority of living speech, can only be corrected by the counterthesis: the possibility of language depends upon the possibility of death. Hence his insistence on writing, on the grammatic as essential to speech itself. He does not mean, of course, that people wrote before they spoke. His is not an historical thesis in that sense—though it is a thesis about the possibility of history…. (p. 152)
Marjorie Grene, "Life, Death, and Language: Some Thoughts on Wittgenstein and Derrida" (originally published in Partisan Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, 1976), in her Philosophy In and Out of Europe (copyright © 1976 by Partisan Review, Inc. and The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of Partisan Review, the University of California Press, and the author), University of California Press, 1976, pp. 142-154.
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Derrida's name for his method of reading, when it tackles the long conspiracy which Derrida sees in Western thought, is deconstruction. He doesn't deconstruct his texts, he asks them to help him in the deconstruction of the philosophy in which they are implicated.
Deconstruction has one or two rather lurid strategies … but its principal feature, as Derrida practices it, is a patient and intelligent suspicion, which falls less on the meanings and definitions of words than on their associations and affiliations, notably their complicity in the vast metaphysical plot running from Plato to Hegel, or, taking an even wider arc, from the pre-Socratics to Heidegger. The plot is a doctrine of presence, a faith holding that immediacy is value and indirection is evil, and Derrida uncovers it not only in all the predictable places (notions of an immanent God, self-consciousness as the guarantee of identity) but even in the unlikely region of linguistic philosophy, whose ideas of "context" and "ordinary language" conceal "behind a certain amount of confusion, very specific philosophical presuppositions." There are obvious virtues in a plot you can find everywhere, especially if you enjoy your suspicions, but Derrida's thinking does at times remind me of those Hollywood movies which insisted on confronting nothing less than the whole human condition.
Derrida attacks the great metaphysical conspiracy through what he calls logocentrism: the belief in the primacy of speech over writing, the claim that speech is in some way a "natural" or direct form of language. The doctrine of presence regularly resorts to a praise of speech or a vocabulary of the voice, and to a scorn, often quite virulent, of writing. In the beginning was the word, and the word was a logos, and logos for the Greeks was a spoken word. Even a science of writing, Derrida discreetly notes, has to call itself a grammatology. Writing in the West has been "debased, lateralized, repressed, displaced," but like all repressed material, Derrida argues, continues to exercise "a permanent and obsessive pressure from the place where it remains held in check." Even writers against writing know that writing is what they are doing, and this seems only to foment their fury. This is the situation which Of Grammatology sets out to explore. The bulk of the book consists of a detailed interpretation of Rousseau's Essai sur l'origine des langues, with prior glances at Saussure and Lévi-Strauss, and a certain amount of general theory of writing.
In the Phaedrus Plato has Socrates (who didn't write) call writing a drug, a means of ruining memory by offering to help it out, and Lévi-Strauss, in Tristes Tropiques, says "writing and perfidy" enter the unlettered jungles of Brazil hand in hand. Rousseau thinks that politically the only free people are those who can talk to each other directly … and sees our "northern" (that is, French, German, and English) dependence on writing as a sure sign of our decline, our falling away from nature…. Saussure, who himself says that language is a system of signs "comparable to a system of writing," insists that writing exists "for the sole purpose" of representing spoken language, and gets very angry at what he sees as writing's "usurpation" of the role of speech…. (p. 27)
These are Derrida's prime instances of logocentrism, and several things need to be said. First, Plato was not simply attacking writing through Socrates, as Derrida himself demonstrates in a brilliant essay in another book. He was playing off speech against writing in a very complicated way. Socrates himself, after his onslaught on written texts, which don't answer when you talk to them … and always need their "father" when they're in trouble, speaks of the highest truths as "inscribed in the soul," and Plato was not likely to be making a slip here—or even, as Derrida suggests in Of Grammatology, moving over to another sense of writing. Second, one might wish to argue, as Paul de Man does in Blindness and Insight, that Rousseau is not taken in by the fictions he so enthusiastically throws up, and that he is not therefore, even partially, a victim of the logocentrism he seems to proclaim.
More important, it seems possible that Derrida has got the whole argument upside down. Writing is not repressed in the West, but on the contrary incessantly celebrated, not least in the work of Derrida himself, and the examples of logocentrism he uses—Plato, Rousseau, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss—make clear, by their sparseness and dispersion, that they don't represent the main stream of metaphysics, but are rather sporadic protests against a clearly felt supremacy of writing. Where Derrida sees repression, Saussure saw an alarming prestige, and there is no reason for us to think Saussure simply wrong.
None of this really damages Derrida's case, though, at least in its more insidious form, because even upside down the ingredients of the question remain the same. I leave the larger metaphysical plot to the judgment of philosophers, but it is clear that in the quarrel between speech and writing, the irony of Plato and Rousseau, however complicated or undeceived, surrounds, but in no way cancels, the passion of their preference for speech; and that this passion is the same in Saussure and Lévi-Strauss; and the same, I will add, in most of us. I trust I am not alone in still feeling a sort of rage at the mere suggestion that speech is not more natural or more direct than writing. Even Joyce's Ulysses, that monument of written words, implies in its very splendor that there is an even more splendid, verbal, Irish life beyond the book.
It is true that literature, in practice, is as de Man says "free from the fallacy of unmediated expression"; that it can't be, as literature, the unmediated expression of anything. But this, as Derrida would be quick to say, is because there is no such thing as unmediated expression, because the phrase is a contradiction in terms, and literature, in this as in other respects, constantly dreams of what it can't have. Literature is crowded with yearnings for unmediated expression and Tristram Shandy is the only literary text I can think of that is entirely comfortable with its condition as book, as not-speech, that thoroughly enjoys the chain of indirection which consists of writing a work which is taken to a printer who delivers it to a bookshop whence it goes to readers whose separation from you is a large part of the fun.
And of course our rage, if that is what it is, is precisely Derrida's point. I would even suggest that if we happen to feel that writing is superior to speech, then Of Grammatology is not really for us, it will only flatter our prejudices. For that is not what Derrida wishes to argue. He wishes to argue, not that writing is not secondary, but that speech is not primary, that we are fooling ourselves if we think that speech is not, already and always, hopelessly indirect, enmeshed in a language which is much older and heavier and more intricate than we care to believe. Derrida wishes to show, not that writing is innocent while speech is guilty, but that writing is not something which "befalls" an innocent language…. The point, Derrida suggests, is to stop thinking about speech and writing ethically, and to see writing, as he rather too eagerly puts it, as "beyond good and evil."
The more lurid strategies of deconstruction I mentioned earlier are what Derrida calls inversion and displacement. He wants to be exorbitant, he says in Of Grammatology, making play with ex and orbis and orbita, but he also wants to attack the orb from within: to throw bombs at philosophy's building, but also to mine the foundation. And he does this by an elegant double maneuver. Since a structural opposition—life/death, speech/writing, or whatever—is never perfectly balanced but always values one of its elements over the other, an inversion of the values will not simply turn things round but will displace the whole system. And this is what Derrida is trying to do in Of Grammatology. If the argument looks upside down, that is because it is upside down, although not in the sense I first identified.
We think writing is a means of representing speech, but Derrida is telling us that speech is a form of unrecorded script, because it has all the essential characteristics of writing. It consists of signs which are repeatable, quotable, and above all, repeatable and quotable in the absence of an original speaker, and even in the absence of an original listener. Speech, like writing, leaves traces, it writes in the memory, and if it didn't, not only would it not be speech, it would not be language at all. Writing, despised and rejected by passionate linguistics, is not the enemy of the spoken word but a picture of everything which makes the spoken word possible. (pp. 27-8)
[Derrida's] exorbitant readings, in Of Grammatology and elsewhere, are frequently brilliant, full of local insights. But his flight into generality is so persistent, his yearning to stand aside from philosophy while still doing it is so strong, that his whole enterprise becomes marked with a touch of dilettantism. Derrida's interminable and sometimes complacent deconstructions of a metaphysical edifice that will never, quite, fall down begin to look a little like shadow-boxing. (p. 28)
[Derrida can] stand aside from philosophy only by enclosing himself in a text, in a special state of language. A text is a piece of writing perceived as writing, and it always has a certain obliquity for Derrida. The rules of its game, as he says, are not secret but they are not immediately perceptible either. The text is language lifted out of the illusion of immediacy. It becomes a form of utopia, an escape from the rawness of history and biography, a zone where contradictions can be seen to be cancelled, where opposites are united in what Derrida calls the coherence of desire. Very like a dream, and this is the comparison Derrida uses toward the end of Of Grammatology. The text, for example, is the place where Rousseau can be both for and against writing, where the spoken word can become not what it usually is in reality but what it might be in another dispensation. There is truth as well as polemic in Michel Foucault's harsh comment that Derrida's method is a recipe for reducing discursive practices to textual traces, and for eliding events so that only material for reading remains. Foucault claims that Derrida has invented a "neat little pedagogy," une petite pédagogie historiquement bien déterminée, which allows the teacher simultaneously to tell his students that there is nothing outside the text and to keep repeating the text itself indefinitely.
Yet even here Derrida can be rescued from Derrida. Certainly he says there is nothing outside the text: il n'y a pas de horstexte. And again: il n'y a rien hors du texte. Indeed he says this is the "axial proposition" of Of Grammatology, and it is this Derrida whom Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller seem to be following when they speak of "the fallacy of reference" (de Man) and of deconstruction as an activity which "undermines the referential status of the language being deconstructed" (Hillis Miller).
But all this, to borrow a distinction which Derrida himself uses for Rousseau, is what Derrida declares, while what he describes is something else. What he describes, what a good deal of his work seems to rest on, is not a situation in which the text refers to nothing, but a situation in which there is nothing but "texts," tissues of meaning awaiting interpretation. The text of Rousseau's essay, for example, belongs to the "text" of Rousseau's life, which reflects Rousseau's nationality and language, which are marked by the eighteenth century, and so on: a chain of "texts." (pp. 28-9)
Of course there is something mischievous about calling "the age of Rousseau" a text; mischievous and modish, even if Derrida did more or less start the mode. But the word does insist on proliferating relations and doesn't necessarily enclose us in a world of books or even, in the narrow sense, of texts. What Derrida is suggesting is not that language (or literature) doesn't refer to reality, but that reality is so unstable a category that nothing can simply "refer" to it; that reality itself is a fabric of references, a web of signs which point to each other and not to a God or to a "real" reality behind the appearances. This view is obviously sound enough in its way, but it will seem disturbing, I think, only if you hanker for a theological certainty, however subtle or secular; if you long for an end to the play of signifiers, for a meaning which will finally and simply be the meaning.
I must add that in his writing Derrida doesn't give the impression of being enormously anxious to confront texts in anything other than the perfectly ordinary sense of the word, and that even the larger view, inherited from Peirce and Saussure, the notion that life is literally infiltrated by signs, is a thin and rather mean perspective, once its therapeutic values have been recognized. It will cure us of simplicity about language and reality, but it will not nourish us beyond the cure; and even simplicity may be better than a complication we can't escape from. We have all had experiences we would hate to see pictured as a text, as a cluster of signs; for which such a picture would not seem merely an option, but an insult, a horrible impoverishment. So that if Derrida's work is, as Paul de Man says, "one of the places where the future possibility of literary criticism is being decided"—and I hope it is, since criticism cannot afford to ignore a reader as vigilant as Derrida—I should like to think that that possibility is also being decided in one or two other, rather different places; places where the pressures of life on literature are more acutely felt, and where the immersion of literature in the world is celebrated rather than half-denied.
In any case,… it's not always easy to see what deconstruction means when applied to particular works of literature…. Clearly we can track down the metaphysical conspiracy in plays, poems, novels, and elsewhere, and this is being done very ably—Paul Bové has shown, for example, how much metaphysics there was in the New Criticism. But when Derrida, in Of Grammatology, demonstrates that Lévi-Strauss's praise of the Brazilian Indian is marked by precisely the ethnocentrism it sets out to deplore, this seems to be more of a demystification than a deconstruction, and the emulation of Derrida could also lead this way: toward the unmasking of hidden contradictions wherever they are found….
Derrida's main appeal, perhaps, even more than his glorification of the text and his practice of reading as a form of mistrust, is his authoritative invitation to a dismantling of old gods and a deposing of old fathers. He says himself that his work resembles a negative theology, parfois à s'y méprendre. Deconstruction: the very word has an austere sound to it which makes it some sort of sign of our timid and disabused times. (p. 29)
Michael Wood, "Deconstructing Derrida," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIV, No. 3, March 3, 1977, pp. 27-30.
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Derrida's entire procedure is to show, either in the pretended rapport between critical and original texts or in the representation of a problem by a text, that far from criticism being able to account for everything by a doubling or duplicating representation, there is always something that escapes. Because writing itself is a form of escape from every scheme designed either to shut it down, hold it in, frame it, or parallel it prefectly, any attempt to show writing as capable in some way or the other of being secondary is also an attempt to prove that writing is not original. The military operation involved in deconstruction therefore is in one respect an attack on a party of colonialists who have tried to make the land and its inhabitants over into a realization of their plans, an attack in turn partly to release prisoners and partly to free land held forcibly. What Derrida shows over and over is that writing (écriture)—and here we must note that whether he admits it openly or not, Derrida does introduce oppositions, themes, definitions, and hierarchies between different sorts of writing, for there are, after all is said and done, various sorts of writing, some better than others—what Derrida shows is that écriture is not so much only a process of production and effacement, tracing and retracing, but essentially a process of excess, overflowing, of bursting through, just as his own work itself attempts to burst through various conceptual barriers, enclosures, repressions.
In the Grammatology Derrida speaks of a "redoublement effacé et respectueux du commentaire," the idea being that when reading a given text traditionally a critic will respect its supposed stability and securely reproduce that stability in a critical commentary that—figuratively speaking—stands alongside the original text. Similarly, a formalist reading of a poetic text will posit the form as being principally there to receive—hence, formally, to double—the text's meaning. The visual equivalent of such a procedure is described quite brilliantly by Derrida as geometrical, one text ("square," "circular," or having an irregular contour) reproduced in another text whose shape corresponds exactly to that of the first. Between them the pair of texts presumably allows the critic to have "la tranquille assurance qui saute par-dessus le texte vers son contenu présumé du côté du pur signifié" ["the tranquil assurance that jumps over the text toward its presumed content, toward its pure signified"]. The teleology of the whole business is what Derrida legitimately questions, as when he describes Jean Rousset's "teleological structuralism."… (p. 683)
[For Derrida, such] neatness as Rousset's can do nothing with the irreducible primordial shock delivered by all writing, an initial violence common to all écriture. So whether a critic doubles a text or says about a text that its form coincides perfectly with its content, the neatness is a repressing one, and it has been Derrida's remarkable project everywhere to open language to its own richness, thereby to free it from the impositions of helpful schemata.
But Derrida has been no less perspicacious in lifting off the covers of a great many assertions which, more recently in his work, he has called thèmes, or catégorèmes—words that claim to refer to something definite and unshakable outside themselves for which they are supposed to be exact duplicates. These words involve a great deal of purely linguistic maneuvering hidden behind their calm Apollonian façade. Not for nothing was Derrida's first extended work [Speech and Phenomena] a study of Husserl's Logische Untersuchungen of 1900–1901 (a date with almost vulgar significance for phenomenology as a science of "pure principle" or primordiality), a set of investigations whose stated effort was to understand meaning and its implements more radically than ever before. Into every one of Husserl's important and not so important definitions Derrida insinuates his technique of trouble; he shows generally that Husserl's denigration of the sign, his subordination of the sign to a meaning it existed economically to express, was an unsuccessful attempt to "eliminate signs by making them derivative"; and still more important Husserl's attitude to signs (and to language) pretended that signs were mere modifications of "a simple presence," as if in using language, presence could ever be present except as represence (or representation), reproduction, repetition—to all of which signs were not only inevitable but, paradoxically, the only presence, a represence proclaiming the absence of what the sign presented. Derrida's role is that of an investigative reporter "attentive to the instability [and the messy quality] of all these [philosophers'] moves, for they pass quickly and surreptitiously into one another." Far from being a set of neat radical distinctions between one thing and another, Husserl's whole science of origins thus turns out instead to be "a purely teleological structure" designed mainly to eliminate signs, and other trivia, and restore "presence." And what is presence, but "an absolute will-to-hear-oneself-speak"? The self-confirmation not only of philosophy but also of a kind of lumpish, pure, and undifferentiate presence to oneself (ontological egoism) simply ignores language which while being used to bring about "presence" is being denied simultaneously. For despite Husserl's desperate scramble to keep it secondary and a serviceable double for presence, language manufactures the very meanings that philosophy desires to produce, plus of course more meanings that philosophy desires to suppress as embarrassing, marginal, accessory. Thus for every big word like "god" or "reality," there are small words like "and" or "between" or even "is," and Derrida's philosophic position is that the big words don't mean anything outside themselves: they are significations attached for their entire sense to all the small words (the chevilles syntaxiques, as he calls them) which in turn signify more than they can adequately be understood to be expressing. (pp. 683-85)
Every one of Derrida's extraordinarily brilliant readings since and including De la grammatologie … builds from and around that point in a text around which its own heterodox textuality, distinct from its message or meanings, is organized, the point also toward which the text's textuality moves in the shattering dissemination of its unorganizable energy. These points are words that are anticoncepts, bits of the text in which Derrida believes, and where he shows, the text's irreducible textuality to lie. These anticoncepts, antinames, counterideas escape definite or decidable classification. That is why they are only textual and why also they are heterodox. Derrida's method of deconstruction functions then to release them, just as the climactic moment in each of his texts is a performance by these anticoncepts, these mere words…. Only words that are syncatégorèmes—words having, like the copula, a syntactic function but capable of serving semantic ones too—can reveal textuality in its element. These words are of an infinite, hence disseminative, pliability: they mean one thing and another (rather like Freud's antithetical primal words), but Derrida's interest in them is that it is they, and not the big ideas, that make a text the uniquely written phenomenon that it is, a form of supplementarity to (or something necessarily in excess of) formulable meaning. And this supplementarity is that property of the text capable of repeating itself (a) without exhausting itself and (b) without keeping anything (for instance, a secret hoard of meaning) in reserve. Thus Derrida's reading of the Phaedrus [in La dissémination (Dissemination)] is an explication of the word "pharmakos," whose use for Plato is to make him able to write in such a way as to produce a text where truth and nontruth coexist as instances not of ideas but of textual repetition. (p. 694)
Derrida has inaugurated a style of philosophic criticism and analysis that quite literally and self-consciously wanders (Derrida's word is errance, with its cognates in erreur, for instance) into corners neglected by supposedly serious criticism and philosophy. The form of his work, which like Lukács' is cast in essays purposely vulnerable to the charge that they are only essays, is disseminative; and the intention of his work is to multiply sense, not to hold it down. The habitual amenities of exposition are cast aside, and the skidding from allusion to pun to neologism is sometimes impossible to follow. But in a strict sense, Derrida's deconstructive technique is a form of discovery … whose material is not merely the textuality of texts, nor the text's peculiar verbal eccentricities that do not fall into categories, nor even the unresolvable uncertainties that do not fall into categories, nor even the unresolvable uncertainties in structure between the writing and the asserted meaning of some texts, but the opposition between diction and scription, between the absent/present word and its limitless repetition in writing…. What each of Derrida's works tries to do is to reveal the entame—the tear, or perhaps the incision—in every one of the solid structures put up by philosophy, an entame already inscribed in written language itself by its persistent desire to point outside itself, to declare itself incomplete and unfit without presence and voice. Voice thus appears secondary to writing since writing's facility is precisely the facility of all fiction to authorize, even create, its opposite and then act subordinate to and become invisible for it.
The range of texts chosen by Derrida for analysis and discovery—unlike the much more restricted range of texts chosen by Derrida's disciples and imitators for their analyses—is relatively wide, from Plato to Heidegger, Philippe Sollers, Maurice Blanchot, and Georges Bataille. Insofar as his readings seek to unsettle prevalent ideas in Western culture, his texts seem to have been chosen because they embody the ideas influentially: thus Rousseau, Plato, and Hegel are revealed to be unavoidable examples of logocentric thought enmeshed in and exemplifying its noncontradictory contradictions. More recent authors—Lévi-Strauss and Foucault, for example—are chosen with what seems to be a fairly straightforward polemical goal in mind. However, even a superficial reading of all Derrida's work will reveal an implicit hierarchy, the more conventional for its not being stated than for Derrida's brilliant uncoverings of new significance in his texts. Therefore, for Derrida, Plato, Hegel, and Rousseau either inaugurate epochs, inhabit them, or solidify them; Mallarmé initiates a revolutionary poetic praxis; Heidegger and Bataille wrestle openly with problems they both canonize and restate. The way these figures are characterized historically would support any list compiled by a teacher of "humanities" or masterpieces of Western thought. Yet there is no explanation why what Derrida calls the age of Rousseau should not also be known as the age of Condillac, nor why Rousseau's theory of language should receive precedence over Vico's, or Jones', or even Coleridge's. But Derrida doesn't go into these issues, although I think that they are not problems of historical interpretation marginal to what Derrida does; on the contrary, they seem to me to lead to the major questions raised by Derrida's work. (pp. 696-97)
To the extent that Derrida has been most careful to say that even his affirmative deconstructive technique is not a program to replace the old style philosophic system, he has also gone to extraordinary lengths to provide his readers … with a set of what I would call counterconcepts. The main thing claimed by the Derrideans for those words, and indeed about his deconstructive method, is that they are not reducible to a limited semantic lexicon. Neither are they supposed to be mirror opposites of the oppositions, dogmas, ideas endemic to Western metaphysics that they challenge. "Différance," for example, is first "defined" in 1968 as having two and perhaps three root meanings, all of them different from différence. In 1972 he said of "différance," however, that it resembled "une configuration de concepts que je tiens pour systématique et irréductible et dont chacun intervient, s'accentue plutôt, à un moment décisif du travail" ["a configuration of concepts that I consider to be systematic and irreducible; thereafter each intervenes, and is more marked at decisive moments in the work (of a day)"]. I think I understand him to be saying that "différance," some aspect of it, depends for its exact meaning on its use at a given moment in reading a text. Yet we are left wondering how something can be practical, contextual, systematic, recognizable, irreducible and, at the same time, not really a fixed doctrine, nor a concept, nor an idea in the old sense of those words. Can we remain poised indefinitely between an old and a new sense? Or will not this median undecidable word begin to corral more and more meanings for itself, just like the old words? Similarly if the texts he has read and organized around key words do not necessarily elevate those words into universal key words … they are not simply neutral words. "Supplément" is a perfect example since out of the word he finds in Rousseau, Derrida has built a small repertory of words, including "supplémentarité," and the "supplément" of one thing and the other, all of which have had evident uses in the reading of other texts. More and more, a word like "supplément" gathers status and history; to leave it without some attention to its vital positional use in his work is, for Derrida, I think, a strange negligence.
My point is that Derrida's work has had and continues perforce to have a cumulative effect on him, to say nothing of the obvious effect on his disciples and any of his readers. I rather doubt that, in wisely attempting to avoid the wholly compromising fall into systematic method to which as a powerful philosophic teacher he is more than likely to succumb, he has been successful in avoiding the natural consequence of accumulating a good deal that resembles a method, a message, a whole range of special words and concepts. Since it is incorrect (and even an insult) to say that Derrida's accumulation of knowledge in the course of his published work is no more than a mood, or an atmosphere, we shall have to accept it then as constituting a position, which is a word that he himself has used comfortably. As a position it is of course specifiable but Derrida's programmatic hesitation toward his historical situation, toward his work's affiliation with certain types of work and not with others, both (again) programmatically deny it its own considerable position and influence. Likewise, the texts to which this position has been applied by Derrida have also been denied their historical density, specificity, weight. Derrida's Plato, Rousseau, Mallarmé, and Saussure: are all these just texts, or are they a loose order of knowledge from the point of view of a liberal believer in Western culture; how have they a professional significance for a philosopher, linguist, and literary critic; how are they events for an intellectual historian? The refinements are greatly extendable, just as the complex apparatus diffusing Plato, Rousseau, and the others, in the universities, in the technical language of various professions, in the Western and non-Western worlds, in the rhetoric of possessing minorities, in the application of power, in the creation or rupture of traditions, disciplines, and bureaucracies is an apparatus with power and a lasting historical, actual imprint on human life. But all this needs some greater degree of specification than Derrida has given it.
I will not go so far as to say that Derrida's own position amounts to a new orthodoxy. But I can say that it has not, from its unique vantage point, illuminated in sufficient detail the thing he refers to in his account of le corps enseignant, that is, le contrat entre ces corps (bodies of knowledge, institutions, power), a contract hidden because jamais exhibé sur le devant de la scène. All of Derrida's work has magnificently demonstrated that such a contract exists, that texts demonstrating logocentric biases are indications that the contract exists and keeps existing from period to period in Western history and culture. But it is a legitimate question, I think, to ask what keeps that contract together, what makes it possible for a certain system of metaphysical ideas, as well as a whole structure of concepts, praxes, ideologies derived from it, to maintain itself from Greek antiquity up through the present. What forces keep all these ideas glued together? What forces get them into texts? How does one's thinking become infected, then get taken over, by those ideas? Are all these things matters of fortuitous coincidence, or is there in fact some relevant connection to be made, and seen, between the instances of logocentrism and the agencies perpetuating it in time?… [In] reading Derrida's work, we marvel at what keeps the ideas of Western metaphysics there in all the texts at night and during the day, for so long a period of time. What makes this system Western? Above all, what keeps the contract hidden and, more important, lets its effects appear in a highly controlled, systematized way?
The answers to these questions cannot be found by reading the texts of Western thought seriatim, no matter how complex the reading method and no matter how faithfully followed the series of texts. Certainly any reading method like Derrida's—whose main ambition is both to reveal undecidable elements in a text in lieu of some simple reductive message the text is supposed to contain and to shy away from making each reading of a text part of some cumulatively built explicit thesis about the historical persistence of and the agencies for Western metaphysical thought—certainly any method like that will finally be unable to get hold of the local material density and power of ideas as historical actuality. For not only will those ideas be left unmentioned, they cannot even be named—and this, any reader of Derrida will know, is highly consonant with the entire drift of Derrida's antinominalism, his dedefinitional philosophy, his desemanticizing of language. In other words, the search within a text for the conditions of textuality will falter and fail at that very point where the text's historical presentation to the reader is put into question and made an issue for the critic.
The significance of Derrida's position is that in his work he has raised those questions uniquely pertinent to writing and to textuality that tend to be ignored or sublimated in metacommentary on texts. The very elusiveness of texts, and the tendency to see them homogeneously either as functions of, or as parasitic on, some schematic philosophy or system on which they are dependent (as illustrations, exemplifications, expressions): these are the things at which Derrida's considerable dedefinitional energies are directed. In addition he has developed a particularly alert and influential reading method. Yet his work embodies an extremely pronounced self-limitation, an ascesis of a very inhibiting and crippling sort. In it Derrida has chosen the lucidity of the undecidable in a text, so to speak, over the identifiable power of a text; as he once said, to opt for the sterile lucidity of the performative double scène in texts is perhaps to neglect the implemented, effective power of textual statement. Derrida's work thus has not always been in a position to accommodate descriptive information of the kind giving Western metaphysics and Western culture a more than repetitively allusive meaning; neither has it been interested systematically and directly in dissolving the ethnocentrism of which on occasion it has spoken with noble clarity; neither has it demanded from its disciples any binding engagement on matters pertaining to discovery and knowledge, freedom, oppression, or injustice. For if everything in a text is always open equally to suspicion and to affirmation, then the differences between one class interest and another, or between oppressor and oppressed, one discourse and another, one ideology and another are virtual in—but never crucial to making decisions about—the finally reconciling element of textuality. (pp. 699-703)
Edward W. Said, "The Problem of Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions," in Critical Inquiry (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; copyright © 1978 by The University of Chicago), Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer, 1978, pp. 673-714.∗
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To understand Derrida, one must see his work as the latest development in [the] non-Kantian, dialectical tradition—the latest attempt of the dialecticians to shatter the Kantians' ingenuous image of themselves as accurately representing how things really are. Derrida talks a lot about language, and it is tempting to view him as a "philosopher of language" whose work one might usefully compare with other inquiries concerning the relations between words and the world. But it would be less misleading to say that his writing about language is an attempt to show why there should be no philosophy of language. On his view, language is the last refuge of the Kantian tradition, of the notion that there is something eternally present to man's gaze (the structure of the universe, the moral law, the nature of language) which philosophy can let us see more clearly. The reason why the notion of "philosophy of language" is an illusion is the same reason why philosophy—Kantian philosophy, philosophy as more than a kind of writing—is an illusion. The twentieth-century attempt to purify Kant's general theory about the relation between representations and their objects by turning it into philosophy of language is, for Derrida, to be countered by making philosophy even more impure—more unprofessional, funnier, more allusive, sexier, and above all, more "written." Thus, insofar as he has an attitude towards, for example, the mini-tradition which stretches from Frege to Davidson, it is the same as his attitude towards Husserl's discussion of language. The attitude, roughly, is that most twentieth-century concern with language is Kantian philosophy in extremis, a last desperate attempt to do on a pathetically small scale what Kant (and before him Plato) attempted to do on a large scale—show how the atemporally true can be contained in a spatio-temporal vehicle, regularize the relation between man and what man seeks by exhibiting its "structure," freezing the historical process of successive reinterpretations by exhibiting the structure of all possible interpretation.
Derrida, then, has little to tell us about language, but a great deal to tell us about philosophy. To get a handle on his work, one might take him as answering the question, "Given that philosophy is a kind of writing, why does this suggestion meet with such resistance?" This becomes, in his work, the slightly more particular question, "What must philosophers who object to this characterization think writing is, that they should find the notion that that is what they are doing so offensive?" Whereas Heidegger, Derrida's great father-figure, was the first to "place" (or if you prefer, "transcend" or "castrate") Hegel by giving a historical characterization of Hegel's historicism Derrida wishes to "place" (or whatever) Heidegger by explaining Heidegger's distrust of writing…. Derrida is suspicious of Heidegger's preference for the simplicity and splendor of the word spoken on the hill, and also of his contempt for the footnote scribbled in the ergastulum, down in the valley. The preference, he thinks, betrays a fatal taint of Kantianism, of the Platonic "metaphysics of presence." For it is characteristic of the Kantian tradition that, no matter how much writing it does, it does not think that philosophy should be "written," any more than science should be. Writing is an unfortunate necessity; what is really wanted is to show, to demonstrate, to point out, to exhibit, to make one's interlocutor stand at gaze before the world. The copy theory of ideas, the spectator theory of knowledge, the notion that "understanding representation" is the heart of philosophy, are expressions of this need to substitute an epiphany for a text, to "see through" representation. In a mature science, the words in which the investigator "writes up" his results should be as few and as transparent as possible. Heidegger, though struggling manfully against this cluster of notions, and especially against the notion of the "research project" as model for philosophical thinking, in the end succumbed to the same nostalgia for the innocence and brevity of the spoken word. His substitution of auditory for visual metaphors—of listening to the voice of Being for being a spectator of time and eternity—was, Derrida thinks, only a dodge. The Kantian urge to bring philosophy to an end by solving all its problems, having everything fall into place, and the Heideggerian urge towards Gelassenheit and Unverborgenheit, are the same urge. Philosophical writing, for Heidegger as for the Kantians, is really aimed at putting an end to writing. For Derrida, writing always leads to more writing, and more, and still more—just as history does not lead to Absolute Knowledge or the Final Struggle, but to more history, and more, and still more. The Phenomenology's vision of truth as what you get by reinterpreting all the previous reinterpretations of reinterpretations still embodies the Platonic ideal of the Last Reinterpretation, the right interpretation at last. Derrida wants to keep the horizontal character of Hegel's notion of philosophy without its teleology, its sense of direction, its seriousness. (pp. 144-45)
Derrida regards the need to overcome "the book"—the notion of a piece of writing as aimed at accurate treatment of a subject, conveying a message which (in more fortunate circumstances) might have been conveyed by ostensive definition or by injecting knowledge straight into the brain—as justifying his use of any text to interpret any other text. The most shocking thing about his work—even more shocking than, though not so funny as, his sexual interpretations of the history of philosophy—is his use of multilingual puns, joke etymologies, allusions from anywhere to anywhere, and phonic and typographical gimmicks. It is as if he really thought that the fact that, for example, the French pronunciation of "Hegel" sounds like the French word for "eagle" was supposed to be relevant for comprehending Hegel. But Derrida does not want to comprehend Hegel's books; he wants to play with Hegel. He doesn't want to write a book about the nature of language; he wants to play with the texts which other people have thought they were writing about language. (pp. 146-47)
[Derrida] has no interest in bringing "his philosophy" into accord with common sense. He is not writing a philosophy. He is not giving an account of anything; he is not offering a comprehensive view of anything. He is not protesting against the errors of a philosophical school. He is, however, protesting against the notion that the philosophy of language, pursued "realistically" as the study of how language hooks on to the world, is something more than one more quaint little genre, that it is first philosophy. But the protest is not because he has a different candidate for the position of "first philosophy," it is against the notion of "first philosophy." He could, if he liked, say that he, too, can pass judgments within this genre—that he recognizes better and worse "realistic" philosophy of language, that he agrees with all up-to-date philosophers of language that Strawson and Searle were terribly wrong about the referents of proper names, and so on. But what he really wants to do is to say, "You used to think that it was terribly important to get meaning and reference, and all that, right. But it isn't. You only thought that because…." He might be compared with the secularist who says not "There is no God" but rather "All this talk about our relation to God is getting in our way." James, when he said that "the true is what is good in the way of belief" was simply trying to debunk epistemology: he was not offering a "theory of truth." So Derrida, when he says "il n'y a pas de hors-texte," is not putting forward an ontological view; he is trying to debunk Kantian philosophy generally. (pp. 147-48)
[Derrida] admits that all this stuff about there not being any such thing as accuracy of representation is metaphorical, just a way of speaking. But why doesn't he say what he means? Why doesn't he come right out and tell his views about language and about reality? To this one can only reiterate that Derrida is in the same situation in regard to language that many of us secularists are in regard to God. It isn't that we believe in God, or don't believe in God, or have suspended judgment about God, or consider that the God of theism is an inadequate symbol of our ultimate concern; it is just that we wish we didn't have to have a view about God. It isn't that we know that "God" is a cognitively meaningless expression, or that it has its role in a language-game other than the fact-stating, or whatever. We just regret the fact that the word is used so much. So it is for Derrida with the vocabulary of Kantian philosophy. His attitude towards centuries of worry about the relation between subject and object, representations and the real, is like the Enlightenment attitude toward centuries of worry about the relation between God and man, faith and reason. Indeed, for Derrida as for Heidegger, these worries are still the same worry: the worry that we may lose touch with certain exigencies, conformity with which is the whole duty of man. For Derrida as for Freud, these are all forms of the worry about what our fathers require of us. For Derrida as for Sartre, these are all forms of the attempt to know oneself by transforming oneself into a knowable object—an être-en-soi which obeys the laws of its kind. (pp. 148-49)
Derrida is trying to do for our highbrow culture what secularist intellectuals in the nineteenth century tried to do for theirs. He is suggesting how things might look if we did not have Kantian philosophy built into the fabric of our intellectual life, as his predecessors suggested how things might look if we did not have religion built into the fabric of our moral life. The secularists I speak of were continually assailed by the question, "What argument do you have for not believing in God?" Derrida is continually assailed by the question, "What argument do you have for saying that we should not refer the text to something which is not a text?" Neither has any interesting arguments, because both are not working by the same rules as their opponents. They are trying to make up some new rules. Lack of seriousness, in the sense in which I just attributed it to Derrida, is simply this refusal to take the standard rules seriously, conjoined with the refusal to give a clear answer to the question, "Is it the old game played differently, or rather a new game?"
There is another sense, however, in which Derrida is very serious indeed—as serious as the prophets of secularization. He is serious about the need to change ourselves, serious about what he calls "deconstruction." Thus he warns us against taking "grammatology" as the name of a new research program, as an attempt at doing something constructive and progressive…. Derrida conceives of his work as purely negative—deconstructing the metaphysics of presence in order to leave the texts bare, unburdened by the need to represent…. [There is a side of Derrida, however,] which looks unfortunately constructive, a side which makes it look as if he in the end succumbs to nostalgia, to the lure of philosophical system-building, and specifically that of constructing yet another transcendental idealism. (pp. 149-50)
One can see Derrida's attempt to "deconstruct the greatest totality" as an attempt to get rid of the notion that language is an attempt to represent something nonlinguistic. He is taking the Wittgensteinian doctrine which Sellars calls "psychological nominalism"—the doctrine that "all awareness is a linguistic affair"—to its extreme. But he sees the recent attention to language (as a general subject matter of inquiry, comparable in scope to God, nature, history, or man) as a kind of pseudonominalism. It is as if the Kantians had been forced, by attacks on the notions of "thought" and "the mind," to see that there is no way to cut beneath language to the thought which language expresses, no way, as Wittgenstein said, to "get between language and its object." But instead of concluding that we should stop viewing language as representing something, the Kantian response has been to say something like, "Now that we see that language is not the expression of thought, but since we know that language does represent the world, we can now be properly serious about language, can pay language the attention it deserves, by exploring direct word-world connections." What looks to modern philosophers of language like a new-found respect for language is, for Derrida, simply a disguised attempt to put language in its place, to insist that language has responsibilities to something outside itself, that it must be "adequate" to do its representative job. Derrida thinks that the proper moral to draw is that language is not a tool, but that in which we live and move. So to ask "how does language manage to do its job?" betrays psychological nominalism. If all awareness is a linguistic affair, then we are never going to be aware of a word on the one hand and a thing-denuded-of-words on the other and see that the first is adequate to the second. But the very notions of "sign" and "representation" and "language" convey the notion that we can do something like that. The notion of philosophy of language as the successor-subject to epistemology suggests that we have now found out how to study representation properly, and thus to do properly the job which Kant saw needed to be done.
Given this situation, Derrida looks about for a way to say something about language which will not convey the idea of "sign" or "representation" or "supplement." His solution consists in such notions as trace; which have, recently, become something very much like a new "subject matter" for his followers. But in developing this alternative, Derrida comes perilously close to giving us a philosophy of language, and thereby perilously close to slipping back into what he and Heidegger call "the tradition of onto-theology." That tradition is kept going by the following dialectical movement: first one notices that something all-encompassing and unconditioned is being treated as if it were just one more limited and conditioned thing. Then one explains that this thing is so distinctive that it requires an entirely different vocabulary for its description, and proceeds to create one. Finally, one's disciples become so bemused by one's new vocabulary that they think one has invented a new field of inquiry, and the whole sequence starts up once again. This happened to "God" when the Platonism of the Church Fathers lifted the divine out of space and time and insisted on His consequent ineffability. God thus became a pigeon for Doctors of the Church who had read Aristotle; they explained how the ineffable could be effed after all, but only analogically. It happened to "Mind" when Kant explained (in the Paralogisms) that the subject was not a substance, thus permitting Fichte and the nineteenth century to explain that really there was a lot to say about the Subject, but only transcendentally. In both cases, somebody (Augustine, Kant) warns against us trying to describe the unconditioned, and somebody else (Aquinas, Fichte) dreams up a special technique designed especially for the purpose. If I am right in my suspicions about Derrida, we are in some danger of seeing this same pattern repeated by Heidegger and Derrida. We may find ourselves thinking that what Heidegger thought could not be effed really can be, if only grammatologically.
Heidegger spent his life explaining that all his predecessors had ignored the "ontological difference" between beings and Being, and finally wound up suggesting that one had better write the word being only X-ed out. Heidegger kept trying to fend off disciples who said, "Now that we have the ontological difference clearly in mind, tell us something about Being." Finally he said that the attempt to say that the tradition of metaphysics, of onto-theology, had confused beings with Being was itself a misleadingly metaphysical attempt. (pp. 150-52)
Derrida thinks, or at least thought when he began De la Grammatologie, that the only way to solve Heidegger's problem was to get away from terminology borrowed from the visual and aural imagery of earlier authors and invent a new way which had to do only with writing…. [In some passages of his writing it seems] as if Derrida thought he had done the one thing Heidegger failed to do—find the one word which cannot be the subject of a commentary, a Ph.D. thesis on "Derrida's doctrine of the sign," the one expression of the unconditioned which nobody will ever be able to treat as if it were the name of one more conditioned. In the following passage also one can see such a notion: "The movement of the effacement of the trace has been, from Plato to Rousseau to Hegel, imposed upon writing in the narrow sense; the necessity of such a displacement may now be apparent. Writing is one of the representatives of the trace in general, it is not the trace itself. The trace itself does not exist. (To exist is to be, to be an entity, a being-present, to on.) One can comment cynically on this passage that, if you want to know what notion takes the place of God for a writer in the onto-theological tradition, always look for the one which he says does not exist. That will be the name of the Ineffable, of what can be shown but not said, believed but not known, presupposed but not mentioned, that in which we live and move and have our being. It is the need to express the unconditioned while realizing that it is inexpressible which brings us to the point described by Wittgenstein: "Sometimes, in doing philosophy, one just wants to utter an inarticulate sound." But that will not prevent somebody writing a thesis on whatever sound one makes.
Fortunately, however, Derrida was the first to warn us against the temptation I have just described—the temptation to divinize the trace, and to treat writing as "one of the representatives of the trace in general, but not the trace itself."… In "Differance," published just after On Grammatology, he identifies the difference he hoped to find between "the sign" as the only thing that escapes the instituting question of philosophy and all the other failed candidates for this role with Heidegger's "ontological difference." He turns himself, in this essay, from something dangerously like a philosopher of language, into a philosopher of philosophy, where philosophy is just the self-consciousness of the play of a certain kind of writing. Différance, unlike trace, has no more to do with signs than it does with things or gods or minds or any of the other things for which Kantian philosophy has sought the unconditioned conditions. Différance is a name of the situation which the dialectical philosopher starts from—the wish to revolt against the eternalization and cosmologization of the present vocabulary by creating a new vocabulary which will not permit the old questions to be asked; it is the "make it new" which Pound thought expressed "modernism." (pp. 152-53)
[Granted] that Derrida is the latest and largest flower on the dialectical kudzu vine of which the Phenomenology of Spirit was the first tendril, does that not merely show the need to uproot this creeping menace? Can we not now see all the better the need to strip the suckers of this parasitic climber from the still unfinished walls and roofs of the great Kantian edifice which it covers and conceals? Granted that if all this nonsense about language not being a system of representations were true, Derrida would have drawn some interesting consequences from it, cannot we now return to sanity and say that it is false, and that philosophy would do well to return to the slow and patient work of understanding how representation is accomplished?
The dialectical response to this should, I think, be twofold. First, one can reply that the question of whether language is a system of representations is not the sort of question anybody (Kantian or non-Kantian) knows how to answer, and so whatever is at issue, that cannot be it. The question is not whether "language is a system of representations" is a correct representation of how things are. Second, one can reply that of course language can usefully, for many purposes, be viewed as a system of representations, just as physical theory can usefully be seen as an approximation to what we would see if we could get down there among the quanta, moral philosophy as an approximation to the Moral Law, and philosophy as a quest for a purer and better way to answer traditional questions. All that one has to do to make any of these approaches useful and productive is to take the vocabulary of the present historical period (or class or society or academy) for granted and to work within it. Once one is safely ensconced within this language-game, questions about what correctly represents what, how we know that it does, and how it manages to do so will make admirable sense and will get useful answers. There is nothing done within the Kantian tradition which the dialectical tradition cannot treat as the description of the practices of a certain historical moment—the sort of description one gets when one blinkers one's historical consciousness temporarily for the sake of getting a clear view of what is currently going on. The traditions come into real conflict only when the Kantian tradition cosmologizes and eternalizes its current view of physics, or right or wrong, or philosophy, or language. Thus, for example, if we freeze physics at a period of what Kuhn calls "normal science," we can describe the practice of justifying theories in terms of a determinate observation-language, meaning-rules, and canons of theory-choice. If we try to bring this heuristic apparatus to bear on all the things that might count as explaining nature in various periods and cultures, however, we either become viciously anachronistic or fall into pointless puzzlement about, e.g., "criteria for change of reference of theoretical terms." Analogously, if we take as data a range of assertions running the gamut from "the cat is on the mat" to "the particle went through the left-hand slit," we may be able to construct an account of the contribution of the parts of the expressions to the wholes, and of the conditions under which a language-user would be justified in employing them. We go wrong only when we invoke this account to be condescending about, or be baffled by, such assertions as "caloric fluid is just a lot of moving molecules," "language speaks man," or God's essence is his existence." If we then try to be systematically invidious or reductive by talking about "literal vs. metaphorical" or "non-statement-making uses of declarative sentences," or the like, then philosophy of language will begin to seem relevant to epistemology, controversial, and essential to our self-understanding. It will also seem to come into conflict with the sort of thing that Heidegger and Derrida are telling us. Worse yet, the sort of thing Heidegger and Derrida are saying may come to look like competing attempts to do what, e.g., Frege and Carnap and Putnam do.
No such competition exists. There is no topic—and in particular not that of the relation between sign and signified, language and the world—on which Derrida holds a different view than that of any of the philosophers of language I have mentioned. Nor does he have any insights which complement theirs. He is not, to repeat, a philosopher of language. The closest Derrida comes to the philosophy of language is his interest in the historical question of why a view about the relation between sign and signified, the nature of representation, could ever have been thought to have been essential to our self-understanding, the starting point of the love of wisdom, first philosophy. He is interested in the connection between the "Kantian" view of philosophy and the "Kantian" view of language—in why the latest Kantian effort to cosmologize or eternalize the present should have centered on language. Here he does have something to say—but it is something about philosophy, not about language.
Kantian philosophy, on Derrida's view, is a kind of writing which would like not to be a kind of writing. It is a genre which would like to be a gesture, a clap of thunder, an epiphany. That is where God and man, thought and its object, words and the world meet, we want speechlessly to say; let no further words come between the happy pair. Kantian philosophers would like not to write, but just to show. They would like the words they use to be so simple as to be presuppositionless. Some of them like to think that physics, too, is not a kind of writing. So they cherish the thought that, at least in some countries, philosophy has no literary pretensions because it has attained the secure path of a science. Just as, on the Kantian view of physics, physics has no need of a historical self-understanding to enable it to point straight to the heart of matter, so, on the Kantian view of philosophy, philosophers need not be concerned with their own Kantian motives in order to point straight to the heart of spirit—the relation of representation itself. Derrida's reply is that anybody can get along without literary pretensions—without writing—if he is content simply to demonstrate how something falls into place in a previously established context. In normal physics, normal philosophy, normal moralizing or preaching, one hopes for the normal thrill of just the right piece fitting into just the right slot, with a shuddering resonance which makes verbal commentary superfluous and inappropriate. Writing, as Derrida says in commenting on Rousseau, is to this kind of simple "getting it right" as masturbation is to standard, solid, reassuring sex. This is why writers are thought effete in comparison with scientists—the "men of action" of our latter days. The important thing to notice is that the difference between the two forms of activity is not subject matter—… but rather is determined by normality or abnormality. Normality, in this sense, is accepting without question the stage-setting in the language which gives demonstration (scientific or ostensive) its legitimacy. Revolutionary scientists need to write, as normal scientists do not. Revolutionary politicians need to write, as parliamentary politicians do not. Dialectical philosophers like Derrida need to write, as Kantian philosophers do not. (pp. 154-57)
The Kantian versus non-Kantian contrast now appears as that between the man who wants to take (and see) things as they are, and thus make sure that the right pieces go in the right holes, and the man who wants to change the vocabulary presently used for isolating pieces and holes. (pp. 157-58)
Kantian and non-Kantian metaphilosophers … like to explain that their opponents really want to do what they themselves are doing. The Kantian thinks of the non-Kantian as somebody who would like to have a proper, disciplined, philosophical view about, e.g., words and the world, but can't quite manage to get it together into a coherent, rigorous form. The Hegelian likes to think that there is not really a contrast between the vine and the edifice it covers—rather, the so-called edifice is just accumulated dead wood, parts of the Great Vine itself, which once were fresh and flower-laden but now have come to lie in positions which suggest the outlines of a building. So the normal man sees the abnormal as not quite up to it—more to be pitied than censured. The abnormal sees the normal as someone who never had the courage to come out, and so died inside while his body lived on—more to be helped than despised.
This kind of crosstalk can continue indefinitely. Derrida's point, I take it, is that that crosstalk is all that we are going to get, and that no gimmick like "the new science of grammatology" is going to end or aufheben it. Once one thinks of philosophy as a kind of writing, one should not be surprised at this result. For to think this is to stop trying to have a philosophy of language which is "first philosophy," a view of all possible views, an epistēmē epistēmēs, a bootstrap self-elevation to a point from which all past and future writing can be seen as contained within a permanent framework. Only one who had levitated to such a point would have the right to look down on writing, to view it as a second-best (like Plato) or as an abnormal activity to which sin has condemned him (like Rousseau), or as something which a discipline can dispense with on reaching the secure path of a science. Derrida's polemic against the notion that speech is prior to writing should be seen as a polemic against what Sartre calls "bad faith"—the attempt to divinize oneself by seeing in advance the terms in which all possible problems are to be set, and the criteria for their resolution. If the "logocentric," Platonic notion of speech as prior to writing were right, there might be a last Word. Derrida's point is that no one can make sense of the notion of a last commentary, a last discussion note, a good piece of writing which is not an occasion for a better piece. (pp. 158-59)
Richard Rorty, "Philosophy As a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida," in New Literary History (copyright © 1978 by New Literary History), Vol. X, No. 1, Autumn, 1978, pp. 141-60.
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Foucault and Derrida have been disseminated and transcribed in this country for several years now, most often as the common discourse of an analytic addressed against humanism, against the subject, and therefore against the very privilege of "literature" and "humanism." We are still averse to a criticism that opens up literature to other discourses, that entangles it in quasi-scientific methods alien to its self-referential, holistic, or "emotive" space, that "reduces" it, as it were, to philosophy, history, politics, economics (or as Derrida might say, simply to écriture), to the discursive. Yet Foucault and, especially, Derrida signify more than a threat of literature's other, the threat of the discursive to the imaginary. They question the hierarchical division itself, the division on which the very ground of literature's privilege has been erected and maintained. What is called "deconstruction," a term identified with Derrida if not with Foucault, challenges the "whole shebang" (Stevens' metaphor) of hermeneutics, and not simply literary criticism, by not only inverting the priority of literature to analysis, or performative to cognitive language, but by radically shuffling the whole house of cards, by refusing the ontological margin between the two, or, better, by situating both in the same abysmal margin. By reducing their difference to différance. (p. 238)
Foucault's contribution to literary criticism consists largely of rewriting the place of a marginal, disruptive discourse in the history of discourses, or marking and re-marking its significant madness. He would appropriate literature as the excluded or repressed voice, that which cannot be accounted for by history. It is little wonder that so much energy these days is being spent on defenses (or reaction-formations) against French nihilism, though Foucault is the very antithesis of a nihilist; and Derrida is misread as a nihilist if one considers his thought as a via negativa or a negative theology. But neither can be considered within the frame of that orderly and humble discourse we define as literary criticism. (p. 241)
Derrida's strategies have been usefully graftable onto a discourse addressed exclusively to "literature" … [but] they have been vulnerable to angry distortion, hortatory dismissal, and, especially, savage reductionism because they have not been able to offer an alternative method, a recentering.
If Foucault has (for largely personal reasons) attacked Derrida for the sterile pedagogy of a criticism which reduces the world to a text and reading to a series of classroom exercises, he has addressed a problem that is taken up by Anglo-American critics of Derrida in a somewhat less theoretical manner. For Derrida does textualize the world, or sees it reduced everywhere to a text (in the sense that language is the inescapable reduction and that the concept "world," like "life," "experience," "perception," etc., is originarily metaphorical, or metaphysical, and hence textual). He therefore poses a question that is intolerable to humanism. That question concerns the "proper" relationship of literary "representation" to "reality," to "truth" or "being" or "presence," and calls into question the way a humanist culture sees literature as at once the revealer and the regulator of "truth." Derrida questions the priority of the author more radically than does Foucault, for whom discourse rules without the singularity of a subject. Derrida, then, alternately destroys the privilege of literature and gives it back the status of a "reality" as the irreducible simulacrum of being. Literature for him is the "scene" where we may find rehearsed the fabrications of centering and decentering that we call by various names, most often dialectics. But as Derrida reads it, the dialectical play, this self-reflexivity of literature, exposes its own fractiveness, unstrings dialectic, reveals its own artifices, just as it exposes the artifices of a metaphysics of being, that metaphysics itself is the "supreme fiction." (pp. 242-43)
Derrida prompts us to a new strategy of reading as "re-reading," to a reading that is always implicated with writing, by which he means either deconstruction or desedimentation. Literature, for him, has always been engaged in this reading/writing or writing/reading, an alogical strategy made egregiously necessary by the turn of modern literature, from Mallarmé and Nietzsche to Ezra Pound's theory of ideogrammic poetry … because of its revolt against representation and the renewal of emphasis on graphic strategies which "decenter" phonetic writing and put in question the "founding categories" of philosophy and science, in particular the "dominant category of the epistémè: being."… On the other hand, as Derrida recognizes, it has been literature or, better, literature as defined by a certain blind reading, that has been employed throughout the history of the West to authenticate and protect this category of "being," to represent it or mythologize it—a literature which philosophy and science (or their hermeneutical strategies) have in turn protected against radical analysis or deconstruction. Thus history interfaces with epic, the notion of the subject with the notion of the hero—but a Poundian re-writing of the "epic," which dislocates the hero and the authorial voice, which submits the text to a graphic marking of the voice, dissolves the narrative glue that held together the epic and the notion of historical repetition as continuity or a repetition of the same, and makes the epistémè of the epic tremble if not collapse. What Derrida insinuates into the idealistic discourses of the human sciences is a (question) mark that exposes the desire for a totalized reading or a totalizing writing, with its closures and unity, its proper representation, and its ideal of an adequate interpretation.
Of Grammatology offers no prescription for literary criticism. In a most un-Eliotic sense, it may teach us to care and not to care, to approach literature not as the valorized text of the humanist tradition but as the ground-breaking texts that put that tradition and its tyrannous grammars in question. Derrida's inaugural chapter is tantalizingly called "The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing," and while it provides a resume and critique of modern linguistics and grammatology (particularly since the early eighteenth century), its strategy is to undermine the very notion of this history. If we are situated in a time in which the "book" or the possibility of global systematic thought is precluded, we are not necessarily in the time of some new, immaculate, originary beginning for which writing is an honorific metaphor. If Hegel is Derrida's name for the last author of the book, he is no less the name of the thinker who opens philosophy to deconstruction: "the last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing."… Nietzsche and Husserl, Heidegger and Freud signify the diacritical unfolding of Hegel's extraordinary text, which in Derrida's reading is represented by something like Hegel's "pyramid." But it is perhaps modern literature, by which one might mean Flaubert, but more likely Mallarmé, and in particular a certain nonphenomenological reading of Mallarmé, that signifies for Derrida the dis-closure of the "book." And this "event," which is never to be located in a single text or a single philosophical argument, inaugurates itself in a "writing" that is, like literary criticism, an attempt at some totalization or recuperation of meaning but which doubles back upon itself in every gesture, undoing its own metaphors as it reworks the metaphors of the text it is addressing. The margin between literature as the "book" and criticism as "writing" is erased, and with it our habitual way of thinking of criticism as always posed before the blank face of the always literary revelation.
Derrida's text, then, is an exemplary questioning of the very notion of the exemplary. It cannot be a model for criticism because it poses itself against the notion of the model and of systematic methodology. The most abusive appropriation of Derrida is to cite him as the prescription of a method, since in his texts the movement of self-reflection, or the generalizations which he intermittantly makes on the progress of his own analytic discourse, are in themselves interventions in or questionings of the practice. The practice is always breaking itself up into several styles. And this might well serve as a lesson about the so-called self-reflexivity of modern literature, its tendency to comment on itself. This self-mirroring is never a proper mirroring, but like a "reading," it breaks up the "line," the development or unfolding, of the poem without completing or clarifying the "line." It refuses the poem's closure, and signifies the very thing most hostile to modernist poetics: that the literary text, like the critical text, can never be present to itself, but always plays between at least two dissonant texts, the one irreducible to the other. The model of criticism addressing literature has, according to Derrida, already been rehearsed in what we call literature, or the single literary text, just as it has been in the venerable books of philosophy. All texts are intertextual layerings, and to desediment a text, to grope down to its lower layers, is only to arrive at another text, a representation at the bottom of representation, as both Melville and Nietzsche revealed of literature and philosophy.
So if I conclude this "re-view" by citing a general argument for the reading Derrida proposes, a way of reading that may very well inaugurate new critical discourses, I must do so by denying that his proposals can ever direct or restrain the criticisms they initiate. In the midst of his reading of Rousseau, Derrida interposes a subsection that is a discourse on his method. In keeping with the tendency of his argument, it is an alternation of direction, a deviation, an asymptotic reprise. He calls the section "The Exorbitant. / Question of Method," and every term is a double, since exorbitance or excess is always that which cannot be accessible to method, and method is never accountable for the fragmentation of argument. Hence exorbitance marks the curious economy of method, even as it does Rousseau's notion of Nature. What is at issue in this section is Rousseau's "reading" of Nature, which Derrida construes to be the very anomaly of his system, since in Rousseau Nature is nothing if not a text (écriture) and therefore marked everywhere by the exorbitance of the notion of the supplément. This directs Derrida to the question not only of how to read Rousseau, but of Rousseau's reading, and therefore to the order that provisionally governs a text that presumes to represent something beyond or outside of language, and in turn grounds the language that the text employs. Moreover, there is the question of a certain author's deployment of metaphors or substitutions, his own freedom to use the received language, and the constraints of a language he can never totally dominate, that escapes his emphases, that means beyond his means…. (pp. 245-48)
Derrida refuses us the ideal of the "autotelic" text and, therefore, the ontological distinction between a creative and a critical discourse so formidably advocated by those like T. S. Eliot who, while recognizing the interplay of the creative and the critical in poetry, subordinated the critical to the creative and denied the critical text anything but a supportive function. It is precisely this attack on the autotelic text and the possibility of a recuperative criticism, however, that provokes some rather vulgar misreadings of "deconstruction"—those which appeal to a "post-modern" privilege, celebrating any new art that appears to break up the page or new criticism which would similarly imitate graphic anarchy. If Mallarmé and Pound represent a certain kind of experiment that for Derrida signifies the return of writing, and if his own involuted style (or styles) and his own occasional experiment in radical textuality (as in the bi-columnar Glas) seem to suggest that "deconstruction" is only a kind of gimmickry, that is the result of reading the "gesture" for the abyss it imitates. Postmodern playing with the page becomes another kind of imitative style and another form of closed, cognitive "reading." Derrida no more justifies a criticism written in any (subjective?) way than he permits a critical reading that can say everything. The critic must always contend with the metaphorical play of the text he re-writes, and over which he has no control.
It is a certain strategy of deferral, a spurring or fraying of rhetoric (and Derrida's terms here, borrowed from Freud, do not translate well), a certain kind of self-interfering structure (Hugh Kenner's term) or an elliptical interplay between the "imaginative" and "discursive" (imaginary differences) elements of the text, between its spatiality and its temporality, if you will, that identifies Derrida's murder of hermeneutics—so like Freud's notion of the murder of a text in Moses and Monotheism. If he can offer us a theory of "deconstruction," then, it is with pen and not tongue in cheek, with a stylus in his mouth, which must always produce (what Freud calls) Moses' stutter. Criticism can never imitate a literary text, and the literary text can never itself imitate anything but its own departure from itself. What Derrida calls the ideal of criticism, "doubling the commentary," has always been an uninterrogated and unrealizable desire, so that when he talks of its opposite, of going beyond this doubling or transparent "reading," he already marks this "doubling" as impossible. If literature has never been anything but a "deconstructive" reading, a reading of itself, whether one follows the theory of Paul de Man or of Harold Bloom, neither has criticism. This is all the more evident when criticism tries to "double" the text, to imitate it or represent it, and yet to feign its own humility, to efface itself so that the literature can speak directly. Derridean "deconstruction," which advocates another "reading," an opening of the text, therefore only describes what the illusory doubling or imitation does when it forgets. But when he recommends to us a method of "opening," of a radical re-reading, he can only remind us to remember what is always already forgotten. One cannot, as he says, "produce" a theory or task of "reading" except by a negative…. (pp. 248-49)
Criticism has never done what is has claimed: it has neither doubled the text nor left it uncontaminated. But it has never departed from the text, become its own creative moment. For the "creative," like "life," "experience," and "truth," is a metaphysical notion, which appeals to a "referent" beyond the text for which the text stands as substitute. Derrida, who poses as the an-archist against the tradition, has persisted in showing us the limited future of an illusion, of the ideal of a scientific criticism which might extract this referent beyond from that which in the text represents it, the text's privileged signs. But he has repeatedly warned against thinking of the careless freedom of its opposite, saying "almost anything," citing a meaning where literature offers only silence. He remains within "deconstruction," and thus within the language of metaphysics, a conservator of criticism in the best sense. (p. 250)
Joseph N. Riddel, "Re-Doubling the Commentary," in Contemporary Literature (© 1979 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 237-50.∗
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No one has demonstrated more effectively than Derrida the degree to which the "symbolic systems" of structuralism are dependent on traditional metaphysical assumptions; and no one has argued more forcefully against the narrow, deterministic closures and the rigid, a priori laws such systems would impose on a reading of literary texts. The advantages of Derrida's own critical method, moreover, are enormous. Rarely, in our tradition, has there been a more logically rigorous method of reading so admirably suited to the complexities and the contradictions of literary texts.
Derrida offers the possibility of a criticism that would depend neither on the immanent transcendental "Geist" of the Hegelian tradition, nor, equally important, on the kind of negative theology that characterizes the Heideggerean-existentialist-structuralist tradition (represented today, in France, by Lacanian psychoanalysis). And it is, for that reason, one of the rare modes of criticism able to cope with the radically ambiguous, undecidable meanings and with the open-ended, decentered structures that our tradition—in its contemporary, as well as ancient guises—has always attempted to ignore, deny, reduce, center, limit, subsume or transcend.
Traditional modes of literary criticism—including structuralism—have been based, almost without exception, on the assumptions of classical logic: the law of the excluded middle, the law against contradiction, the laws against infinite regress and petitio principi. And as such, they have always been incapable of adequately accounting for a mode of discourse, like literature, that has traditionally been defined precisely by its license to break those very laws. The traditional solution to the problem (from Plato's Ion to the contemporary "prophetcritic"), has always been some form of mysticism: a theory of interpretation based on an "intuition," an inexplicable "force" or "will" which—divinely inspired by God, Nature, Being or Universal Truth—would step in to fill the gaps left by Reason's failure to comprehend.
Derrida, at the very least, offers the possibility of a non-mystical literary criticism, capable nonetheless of dealing with the logical anomalies so characteristic of literature. The logic of "deconstruction," or "dissemination," is, I would argue, a relatively sane, workable logical paradigm, roughly analogous (and all analogies are "rough" in terms of such a logic) to the indeterminate logic that underlies the development of modern science. (Furthermore, if physicists could accept the notion of "uncertainty" and if mathematicians could accept the notion of "undecidability"—despite dire warnings that such theories destroyed the very basis of their disciplines—there is no reason why literary critics will not eventually accept a similar change of paradigm, based on very much the same logical grounds. We simply have too much to profit.)
But in order to profit from the Derridean text, one must go beyond it. For if Derrida clearly sees the illusory nature of the "power" claimed by the symbolic systems of structuralism, nowhere does he attempt to give a view of power—the power of a philosophy or of a literary criticism—in other terms. If the laws of the symbolic order fail to guarantee the "legitimacy" of the critic's "reproduction" (since the critic's text can, in fact, never grasp, and repeat, the structure or the essence of the literary text), then, for Derrida, criticism necessarily loses its authority, its legitimacy: and in the end, it becomes "impotent."
The power of criticism remains, for Derrida—as it does for the structuralists—the power to reproduce the Same, to give an accurate representation of what the text "really is"; for if he calls into question the hierarchical order of the opposition (between literature and criticism) upon which the symbolic's claim to power rests, he does not call into question the terms of the opposition itself. The question is not, however, as it remains in the Derridean text, simply one of denying that power—by demonstrating the inherent contradictions, the "undecidability" of the claims upon which it rests; it is a question of changing the terms in which that "power" is conceived. It is a question of refusing to accept the oppositional structure in terms of which notions like "literature" and "criticism" continue—however "undecidably"—to be defined; and it is a question of re-articulating (not merely dis-articulating, not merely de-constructing) the terms in which the question has been posed. It is a question, finally, of picking and choosing; of selecting and rejecting: of judging, evaluating, deciding: it is, in other words, a question—the question—of criticism.
The notion that it is impossible to "escape" the Western system of representation is one of the most common themes of "deconstructive" criticism. And insofar as that notion has been used to demystify the "revolutionary" claims of epistemological systems which are, in fact, quite traditional (structuralism, for example), it has been quite effective; yet, at the same time, it has served to justify a general disavowal of change, leading at once to a denial of history and a refusal to attempt any rearticulation of critical problems. The assumption that systems of representation do not change—and in ways that profoundly alter the structuring principles which underlie them—is in itself astonishingly naive; yet it is on the basis of that assumption that many critics have been misled into supposing that a "crisis of representation" implies the end of representation, or that criticism's failure to give an exact reproduction of the literary text is a sign of its inadequacy and impotence—or that a text can "disseminate" without "reproducing" (and without being itself a "reproduction"). If there is a crisis in criticism today, it is precisely because we—like Derrida—are unable to conceive the consequences of such a radical theoretical change in terms other than those of sterility, or in Derrida's words, of a "terrifying monstrosity."
If Derrida—despite what is, in many ways, his revolutionary logic—remains … a "conservative thinker" in the end, it is because he is unwilling to suffer the consequences of his own dissemination. It is because his text (and particularly Glas, one of his most recent) ends up insisting—in the tragic mode of romantic narcissism—upon its own impotence, its own non-productivity, its own "non-reproducibility."
But if Derrida's text ends in impotence and sterility, it is because—in contradiction to his own logic—Derrida articulates what are the differences between "literature" and "philosophy" (or criticism), between "dissemination" and "reproduction," and between "fiction" and "reality," in terms of very traditional (and often very hackneyed) oppositions. And as Derrida himself has shown, two opposites "oppose" each other as much, that is to say as little, as two sides of the same coin.
Whatever privilege one might grant to "heads" or to "tails" (and clearly, in our tradition, the preference is for "heads"), the value of the coin remains the same, symbolically speaking, on the marketplace of ideas. The opposition literally "makes no difference" in the reproduction and in the exchange of signification (that is, of course, precisely its function—to make nothing of differences, to make difference the same).
But if deconstruction ultimately winds up serving the very logic of opposition it challenges, it is because, in the end, it makes no difference whether one presents one side of the argument or the other, or whether, recognizing that such a decision inevitably involves contradiction, one suspends judgment and presents the case as an undecidable toss-up: the value of the terms—their place and their function within the economy of meaning—is not affected. That is to say affirmed, since not to question its value, the value of the place it occupies in a given discourse, is to accept the value and the significance of the place claimed by its terms. To reproduce uncritically the structure of a given opposition (whether by inversion or by suspension) is to reinforce and to perpetuate the system of values within which it functions.
In the concordia of a discors, or in the discordia of a concors, what remains—however deconstructed—is the same "cor": a core that cannot be questioned, moreover, in terms of the opposition, since to put the value of the "cor" into question is to destroy the opposition. And that is why even those who today recognize (like Derrida, following Freud and Nietzsche) the fundamental collusion of the opposition's poles—the inherently contradictory, undecidable play between the two—avoid, in general the most interesting question: the question of the interest and the value of the terms in which the opposition is articulated. (The interest, for example, today, in articulating the difference between the sexes in terms of an opposition between castration and anti-castration—which is a phallocentric gesture not because it asserts the priority of the former, but because it defines the latter in terms of the former. Or, the interest, today, of articulating the differences between philosophico-critical discourse and literary discourse in terms of a series of classical oppositions between rational/irrational decidable/undecidable, clear/ambiguous, masculine/feminine, true/false, reality/fiction, science/art, description/creation, imitation/invention.) For if the wise critic knows today, that such oppositions offer only the illusion of a choice, the question of the choice of terms remains decided, in the frozen suspension of his undecidable textual web.
It is the necessity of those terms, and the necessity of the oppositional structure in terms of which they are articulated, that it is necessary, today, to call into question. If we no longer ask how many angels fit on the head of a pin, it is not because the question has been satisfactorily answered; nor is it because we have stoically reconciled ourselves to the impossibility of finding an answer; nor is it even, for that matter, because we have joyfully affirmed an infinity of contradictory possibilities. It is because, quite simply, the question is no longer of interest; it no longer concerns us; it is a question that, for us, today, has little if any value.
If the Derridean text is unable to account for such a question, it is because the Derridean text remains locked, undecidably, in the logic of opposition/identity it calls into question. And because it remains locked in that logic, it is incapable, on a theoretical level at least, of admitting the category of choice, or decision: for where it is a question of opposition, it cannot be a question of choice—since the two poles of an opposition, however irreconcilable, are always mutually implicit and mutually dependent.
Or perhaps, rather, it is the desire to avoid making choices—in particular, a choice that would involve rejecting certain traditional interests and values—that leds Derrida to the impotence of undecidability. For here, as elsewhere (and one can see the same notion at work in the concepts of "deconstruction" and "differance," for example), the contradictions of Derrida so consistently and coherently articulates, express, as always (in Derrida's own words) the "force of a desire." And in Derrida's case, that desire to radically challenge the Western Tradition without doing it any harm; to preserve that tradition—in its entirety—while destroying all the reasons to preserve it. (pp. 203-09)
However much Derrida may speak, in theory, of "deconstructing" the opposition between literature and philosophy, literature enjoys a privileged status in the practice of the Derridean text. In Glas, what remains, after the deconstruction of philosophy …, is literature: a literature defined, to be sure, not in traditional terms, but as "écriture" (which, taken generally, in Derrida's sense, includes all forms of writing, but, more narrowly, it refers to those forms of writing which manifestly subvert, or at least resist, the laws of traditional logic—primarily literary texts, but also certain "philosophical" texts, like those of Nietzsche, Bataille, and Derrida himself). But it is a literature—like Aristotle's, like Freud's, like Nietzsche's—radically divorced from "reality." The world of literature is an uncanny world of fictions and fantasies, of imaginary pleasures and terrors, of ephemeral beauties and of impossible monstrosities, a world in which hymens are never "really" broken, in which seeds are disseminated without anyone ever getting pregnant, in which people die of laughter—or live to declare their own deaths.
For Derrida, as for Lacan, literature serves the function of a fetish…. As such, it serves, in a non-traditional, undecidable way, the very traditional function of catharsis: which in this case is to give the assurance, by definition false (and hence only "undecidably" reassuring), that the "castration" or the "impotence" of the Western Tradition (the castration of which literature, as fetish, is a sign), is somehow not "real." Which leads one to the comforting conclusion that if deconstruction is the privilege of the literary text, then deconstruction never "really" threatens anything at all.
In spite of the privileged position he grants literature, however, Derrida remains a philosopher; and just as one has good reasons to be suspicious of the "privilege" accorded a woman who is placed on a pedestal, one has good reason to be suspicious of the privilege Derrida grants literature. For the privilege can only be granted by philosophy, and on philosophy's terms: and those terms, from the time Plato banished the poets, have always been precisely the same—that literature above all make no claim to "reproduce reality." Derrida's notion of literature—like Plato's, like Aristotle's and again like Freud's and like Nietzsche's—is conceived in traditional philosophical terms (or, and it is the same thing, the terms of psychoanalysis); that is to say, it is conceived by philosophy and for philosophy as philosophy's Other: as that which eludes philosophy's grasp, that which precedes philosophy and survives its deconstruction, that which both threatens and attracts it, castrates and consoles it.
Literature, for Derrida, is at once the Medusa who petrifies the philosopher and renders him impotent, the whore who has unjustly suffered the indignities of philosophical exploitation, and the Virgin Mother (the image is taken from Glas) who lives to mourn the crucifixion of her immaculately conceived, only-begotten son. Literature is all that philosophy is not: origin of origins, itself without origin, it is non-deconstructable, its style is unique and inimitable, disseminating and non-reproducible. The philosopher's dream and/or nightmare, his consolation and/or anguish.
It is Derrida's definition of literature in traditional (romantic) terms—in opposition to philosophy—that leads, in Glas, to a "crisis of criticism." For in Glas, the deconstruction of Hegel (centered, appropriately enough, on Hegel's theory of the family—that is, his theory of "reproduction") can lead only to the self-conscious failure of the critic's (philosopher's) attempt to "reproduce" Genet, ending in the impotence and sterility of a criticism that is always already read by, comprehended by the literary text it seeks to comprehend.
But what makes Derrida such an extraordinarily powerful critic of both literary and philosophical texts, is precisely the fact that he does reproduce them: not the Genet, not the Mallarmé, to be sure, but a Genet, a Mallarmé, a Nietzsche, a Plato (as Hartman and de Man reproduce a Derrida, although the offspring can hardly be said to resemble each other). And like all good critics, he does so by selecting certain texts, certain passages, and excluding certain others; by drawing certain implications, emphasizing certain values, and by ignoring certain others; by deciding what is of interest in the text (its "undecidability," for example) and what is not (its reactionary political implications, for example): in brief, by making certain judgments about the text in terms of a certain set of values. And since the critic's values and interests are never identical to those of the "author" and since, in any case, the values and the interests of a writer, including those of Derrida, are caught up in a complex, infinitely regressive, contradictory, fluctuating web—then there can be no question, for the critic, of remaining "faithful" to the text, and of somehow reproducing an offspring that would be the true image and likeness of its parent. (pp. 212-15)
Maria Ruegg, "The End(s) of French Style: Structuralism and Post-Structuralism in the American Context," in Criticism (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright, 1979, Wayne State University Press), Vol. XXI, No. 3 (Summer, 1979), pp. 189-216.∗
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After inconclusive battles over structuralism, academic critics are now fighting about "deconstruction."… A Nietzschean edition of ancient skepticism, [deconstruction] holds that language does not convey meaning, but complicates and ultimately cancels it. Words lead only to other words, not to a speaking "self" nor a world or ideas spoken about. What then is language like? Derrida recalls a graffito, "Don't read this." The sentence performs the act of commanding, and so does not refer to anything. In order to grasp the order and obey it, you must already have disobeyed it. Deconstructors have shown considerable ingenuity in inventing an analytic rhetoric that can reduce every text to just such a self-canceling, self-referential paradox. In [Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles], Derrida muses for a dozen pages over a scrap found among Nietzsche's papers, on which was written, "I have forgotten my umbrella," in quotation marks. Was this a quotation from a book? A report of an overheard conversation? An example to be used in some argument? Perhaps Nietzsche really had forgotten his umbrella. The scrap is undated and unsigned, so we cannot be absolutely sure where or when it was written nor even whether Nietzsche wrote it. Perhaps, Derrida ponders, Nietzsche's whole works are just like this: you can question them endlessly, but never decide anything.
Deconstruction's conception of language and literature are, I think, wrong. De Man and Derrida do not account—they don't even try—for our ordinary, successful use of language to communicate about a shared world, nor do they account for the self-reference which is essential to their reading of texts. But even literature has two faces—the network of connections from word to word and the usage by which words bind users and the world. Deconstruction seems plausible because it carries into critical theory an extreme version of some familiar themes from Romantic and post-Romantic literature. In Deconstruction and Criticism de Man proves at length what everybody knew, that Shelley despaired of conveying his meaning or "vision" through the imperfect medium of language. By implication, deconstruction courageously faces what poets have always known, as though Shelley's romantic cliché were a universal truth. In a long-winded and archly written commentary on some narratives by Maurice Blanchot, Derrida usefully makes explicit Blanchot's themes and techniques, though he recognizes that some of his interpretations have no support in the text. But again nothing justifies leaping from Blanchot's narrative theories or practice to the universal claim that "all organized narration is 'a matter for the police,'" that is, an "authoritarian demand" imposed by coercive social institutions.
De Man and Derrida exploit a confusion between a tendentious thematic commentary and the assertion of general doctrines which could only be established by quite different arguments. If a text delivers no single doctrine, as de Man and Derrida think, then their readings have no special authority over other, more traditional interpretations, and cannot be cited as proof of any general theory. What stands in place of argument is a specious "logical diction." We are repeatedly told that the deconstructor is laying bare what "all writing" has "always" done, what "every utterance" must be, what "no word" can do. We are assured that terms are being taken "in a rigorous sense," that "necessary" consequences are being drawn, that the deconstructor merely spells out "the law" which is manifest in a text or that he shows us "the truth that is announced" there. But these are forms of self-congratulation, not arguments. Deconstruction willfully ignores the variety both of language and literature…. What is wrong with deconstructive reading may be suggested by an analogy I borrow from Stanislaw Lem's novel The Chain of Chance. A half-tone photograph is printed by varying the density of black dots. If you enlarge the photograph to examine a detail, the "picture" disappears, leaving only dots. Deconstructors pride themselves on their close scrutiny of texts, which "takes seriously" their language and rhetoric. But in fact they simply isolate fragments and embed them in an alien discourse, whose presuppositions and dogmas are hidden behind a smoke screen of word play.
Derrida's Spurs, badly translated [by Barbara Harlo] and disastrously proofread, is a sixty-page commentary on various remarks by Nietzsche on "woman."… The essay wends its mind-numbing way to the conclusion that those who believe in truth, science, and objectivity are castrated old dogmatists, whereas deconstructors make better lovers, because they understand that women are incomprehensible.
Why all this is taken seriously by American academics is hard to see…. Certainly de Man's and Derrida's chatter about death, violence, sex, and the void might give a transitory thrill to a numbed academic, long cloistered among adolescents. But it is depressing that anyone would cheer an attack on truth, objectivity, facts, seriousness, and common sense. This is an old game of European intellectuals, who vent their resentment against "bourgeois hypocrisy" by purveying a subversive rhetoric and driving politics to a stark opposition between absolutism and anarchy. At the same time these bold thinkers have somehow not gotten around to deconstructing the text of Marx or Engels or Lenin or even the marxist aesthetics of Lukacs, Adorno, or Marcuse or the faceless formulators of Soviet "cultural policy." The issue here is not evenhandedness, but political naivety. (pp. 294-96)
Donald G. Marshall, "The Inflation of Theory" in Partisan Review (reprinted by permission of the author), Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, 1981, pp. 294-98.∗
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Derrida has described his work as "a general strategy of deconstruction which would avoid both simply neutralizing the binary oppositions of metaphysics and simply residing, while upholding it, in the closed sphere of these oppositions." But it would be misleading to say that he is trying to bring metaphysics to an end. He would certainly prefer if it had never begun, but, having happened, it is not open to the question of beginning, middle, or end. Besides, it would be lonelier without the loneliness. Like any honest heretic, Derrida has to retain what he attacks if only to pervert it. He does not claim to have stepped beyond metaphysics but to have read the metaphysicians in a spirit of suspicion. If we were speaking naively within the philosophic terms, we would say that he is a skeptic, but that term has meaning only within a naive relation between mind and concept. Derrida's spirit is more properly called ironic. Irony smiles upon contradiction and speaks blithely of catastrophe: it dislikes residence and offers itself as a philosophy for nomads. Derrida tries to circumvent residence by resorting to the idiom of play, of le jeu as an act logically prior to the possibility of presence or absence. The intention of De la grammatologie is "to make enigmatic what one thinks or understands by the words 'proximity,' 'immediacy,' and 'presence.'" Could any stated aim express the spirit of irony more precisely? Not to clarify, to divide, to discriminate, but to enlarge the enigmatic state; to put every crucial or ambitious noun within the skepticism of inverted commas. No philosopher is more lavish than Derrida in the use of inverted commas, a gesture made possible by writing and impossible in speech: every abstract noun is forced to declare not only its meaning but the speciousness of that meaning. Derrida takes pleasure in showing that when we think we have demonstrated the coherence of a structure we have merely revealed the force of a desire. He loves to ascribe to objects merely virtual status. If someone points to a center, Derrida insists that it is a function, not a being. Philosophy as he practices it is a contraceptive act; it is free of creative ambition. He tends to explain things on the ground of their impossibility, and to admit possibility in the form of desire. His happiest discovery is that something may never have taken place…. (pp. 156-58)
Presence, according to Derrida, is always already absence; it is always nothing more than repetition. What seems an origin is already belated. Derrida endorses only that presence which goes out of itself and returns to itself in the forms of substitution. He is patient only with fugitive forms of immediacy, never with anything that offers itself as ground. If there is one sentence more typical of Derrida than any other, it is this in De la grammatologie: "Penser, c'est ce que nous savons déjà n'avoir pas encore commencé: thinking is what we already know we have not yet started." Pure Derrida; because it enacts nothing but the gap between belatedness and futurity, placing a void where metaphysics would assume a presence. There are other philosophers who like using both hands: on the one hand, and yet on the other. Derrida uses both to say the same thing: no the situation is neither this nor that but the play between them. And he says this in a spirit of post-Nietzschean tragic joy, pitting the mind against itself for the energy the pitting engenders.
In practice, this means that Derrida emphasizes that the concept of a sign, in Saussure's linguistics, is itself nostalgic: nostalgia is not confined to the posited priority of speech over writing. Metaphysics has to assume that the order of the signified is never contemporary, is at best the subtly discrepant inverse or parallel—discrepant by the time of a breath—from the order of the signifier: "the formal essence of the signified is presence, and the privilege of its proximity to the logos as phonē is the privilege of presence." Instead of presence and origin, Derrida inserts the idea of the trace, which means the disappearance of origin. Or rather, it could be allowed to mean such a disappearance if that were not to play into the hands of the metaphysicians: they would only have to move the origin back still farther to a legendary time in which the origin had not disappeared. If I follow Derrida's argument at all, it proposes not the replacement of one legendary moment by another but the voiding of one idiom by another of an entirely different class. That class is derived from writing rather than from voice.
Against Rousseau, Lévi-Strauss, and in this context Lacan, Derrida insists that the relation between speech and writing is not a relation between innocence and guilt. The violence of writing does not befall an innocent speech; nor is it a case of Nature violated by Culture. Language is first writing, writing as the disappearance of natural presence. I take this from De la grammatologie, where it turns upon the question of writing and reading. Derrida insists that there is nothing outside the text…. The text in question is understood as a written text, and it posits the absence of the referent or the transcendental signified. It follows that Derrida is totally opposed to the kind of reading that goes through the signifiers only in the hope of reaching the supposedly pure signified. He thinks it impossible to separate the signified from the signifier, although he concedes that literature, till Mallarmé, lent itself to a transcendent reading…. Transcendent reading is predicated upon the repression of writing. What Derrida proposes is a form of reading that acknowledges writing as a primary act rather than a mere accessory after the fact of speech. (pp. 158-61)
A reading conducted under the auspices of speech would try to go through the linguistic structure in the hope of reaching at last that simplicity of intuitive evidence. Derrida finds the hope naive. Everything he writes about such interpretation insists that it is as naive as the realism it resembles. Instead, he comes back to le jeu. Pure presence or self-proximity is impossible, and therefore we desire it. Giving up this desire, we should engage in the play of presence and absence, play that cannot be comprehended within a metaphysics or an ontology. For Derrida, play is what we do in the absence of the transcendental signified. Writing is the play of language, on the understanding that the metaphysics of presence has already been destroyed.
If writing and speech differ as much as Derrida's account suggests, would it not be reasonable to expect that each would favor a different set of themes, perhaps a different sense of life? Writing could presumably advert to presence, self-presence, and being only in a spirit of irony or "demystification." Derrida says in De la grammatologie that "writing is that forgetting of the self, that exteriorization, the contrary of the interiorizing memory, of the Erinnerung that opens the history of the spirit." What is forgotten in writing is the self as it is understood in the midst of speech. (p. 161)
So far as reading and interpretation are in question, Derrida's position may be seen most clearly in "La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines," a chapter in L'Ecriture et la différence…. He argues that the concept of structure, in Western thought, has always been neutralized by referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin. The function of this reference is "to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure." By enforcing the coherence of the system, the center permits the play of its elements within the limits of its form, but it closes off the play, too, because it is itself the point at which play, in the sense of the substitution of elements or terms, is no longer possible. Play stops at the center, because the center marks unquestioned ground, a reassuring certitude which is beyond the reach of play. At that moment in his argument, Derrida posited a disruption in the metaphysical scheme of things; after that disruption, it became necessary to start thinking that there is no center, or that the center marks not a fixed site but merely a function, the possibility of an infinite number of substitutions of signs. Again, at that moment, it became necessary to think that everything has become discourse, a system in which the transcendental signified is never absolutely present outside a system of differences: the signified does not escape from the signifier. Derrida declines to say when the disruption took place, except that he associates it with Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger; with Nietzsche's critique of metaphysics, of the concepts of being and truth, for which the concepts of play, interpretation, and sign (sign without present truth) were substituted; with Freud's critique of self-presence, consciousness, self-possession, self-proximity; and with Heidegger's destruction of metaphysics, ontotheology, and the determination of being as presence. Derrida accepts, however, that these men are trapped in the very concepts of the metaphysics they tried to subvert. For instance: you can't use the word sign without allowing into the scene of its use the notion that a sign must be a sign-of-something; the signifier must be separate from the signified that escapes it. The classic way of erasing the differences between signifier and signified consists of submitting the sign to thought, reducing or deriving the signifier. Derrida's answer is to "put in question the system in which the reduction functioned; that is, the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible."
It is clear that Derrida wants to fold metaphysics inside out. Instead of thinking of play as a possibility provided, within strict limits, by the coherence of structure, he proposes that "being must be conceived of as presence of absence on the basis of the possibility of play." If play is the term-of-terms, Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss are on one side of it, Nietzsche on the other. (pp. 163-64)
Derrida then distinguishes between two kinds of interpretation. The first "seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile." The second, "which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism; the name of man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology—in other words, throughout his entire history—has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play."… Interpretation A is epireading, it is turned toward speech, voice, a personal presence. Interpretation B is graphireading: it takes the text as a written thing, disowns the dream of presence, puts under erasure every term that offers itself as positive, and regards reading as an act by which we release ourselves from the oppression of an official significance beyond the reach of our play. In Derrida, the idea of play and the idea of force are closely related. In L'Écriture et la différence he says that Structuralism may someday be interpreted "as a relaxation, if not a lapse, of the attention given to force, which is the tension of force itself." Form fascinates, he goes on, "when one no longer has the force to understand force from within force itself." Criticism henceforth knows itself "separated from force, occasionally avenging itself on force by gravely and profoundly proving that separation is the condition of the work, and not only of the discourse on the work." It is this knowledge, according to Derrida, that accounts for the note of melancholy and diminished ardor beneath the most ingenious essays in the Structuralist analysis of texts. The reason is that the relief and design of structures appear most clearly when their living energy is neutralized; like a city no longer inhabited, "not simply left behind, but haunted by meaning and culture." Play and force are not explicitly linked in Derrida's books: the link is mine. But what else can force be if not that endless play of the world which Derrida's later books exalt?… [If] play is taken as the urbane, ironic face of force, and if Derrida tells us that we are fascinated by form when we can't live up to the demands of force, then the notion is redeemed and we can think of it as energy which provokes form and haunts system. It is crucial for graphireading, since it must develop a purpose commensurate with the interpretation fostered by epireading. If graphireading means the exertion of force upon a text—and it does, as well shall see—then we know where we stand or fall. (pp. 165-67)
Denis Donoghue, "Graphireading," in his Ferocious Alphabets (copyright © 1981 by Denis Donoghue; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company; in Canada by Denis Donoghue), Little, Brown, 1981, pp. 149-202.∗
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1954
The house that Jack has built, while not a pack of cards, will infuriate those who think books should be solidly constructed, unified, and with an intellectual space defined by clear and resolute boundaries. Perhaps Glas has all these qualities of real estate. But like art of a certain caliber, it begins by confusing and even estranging us, and the difficult question is how long this estrangement should last, how genuine it is. Not since Finnegans Wake has there been such a deliberate and curious work: less original (but what does "original" mean to Derrida?) and mosaic than the Wake, even flushed and overreaching, but as intriguingly, wearyingly allusive. It is hard, at the same time, to shake off a feeling that high seriousness is mixed here with high frivolity, and that we may wake up from the beautiful strangeness of Glas into a handful of provocative epigrams and strongly contextual ruminations. What form does this book have? It is a book at all?
Derrida has said that traditionally the idea of a book sends us back to a totality that claims to be founded in nature … and that this claim is a theological and bookish defense against the "aphoristic energy" of writing itself. It is precisely this energy which makes me want to call Glas an epigrammatology…. And because of the way things are "glued" together by the "aleatory" method, we find ourselves in a maze of texts or fragments of texts that at once fascinate and bewilder. The disorderly philosophical conduct of this work is so magnificent that it defies linear exposition. (p. 2)
Derrida's style is not unique, though its extravagance (to use Thoreau's word) confronts the reader from an English text-milieu with as much of a problem as the heavier Heidegger. The problem does not lie primarily in the difficult mingling or montage of all kinds of subject matter, which a purer criticism might reject as aleatory and overburdening. Nor does it lie primarily in the habit of inner or esoteric, as distinct from exoteric quotation, which one expects in art but not to this degree in philosophical and critical writing. The problem, on the surface at least, is the persistence, the seriousness, with which an intelligence of this order employs devices that may seem to be at best witty and at worst trivial.
We have all been to school with Empson, yet to transfer to one's prose these puns, equivocations, catachreses, and abusive etymologies, these double entendres and double takes, these ellipses and purely speculative chains of words and associations, has a desacralizing and leveling effect that the generic neutrality of the word ecriture reenforces. Many readers are left fascinated yet cold, seduced and angry. All the more so as the tone is so even or absent that despite all its paronomasia Glas seems as elegantly humorless as Sade's Philosophie dans le boudoir. Herein, of course, one difference with Joyce, who shocks and delights, rather than teaches. Every pun, in Derrida, is philosophically accountable, every sottie or sortie must contribute further to the déniaisement of the European Mind, still so virginal after all the attempts on it: by Sade, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Sartre, Genet, Bataille.
Glas, with a style that the French Classical tradition has nurtured and made ductile, is philosophy's Fleurs du mal rather than its death knell. Yet, to insist, how do we take all those verbal tricks, so productive yet so easy to parody? So functional in foregrounding language, in making us aware of it as the only subject, compared to which ego and author are episodic notions discarded by an interminable demonstration?
Indeed, it is not the devices themselves but the interminable character of the analysis they impose that may tire us into antagonism. The dialectophage or boa-deconstructor aspects of Derrida's systematic play, his serio ludere, is the real issue. To call it "freeplay" seems understated even if we remember that the term is adapted from the world of machines. For a machine with this much play in it is either a surrealist, erotic, morphological fantasy, like Marcel Duchamp's Grand verre, or a language game with so many trick-possibilities that to say there are seven types of ambiguity is suddenly of the same order of truth as to say there are four humors or seven cardinal sins. The point is not that they are without number … but that the reentry into consciousness of contradiction or equivocation through such "freeplay" appears to be unbounded. For there is endless material at hand, and the possibility of working it through in this interminable way cannot be foreclosed.
Yet has this not always been the case? If Derrida brings us to the brink of a new vertigo, it is the old one produced by looking at the whelming tide of interpretation. That consciousness makes cowards of us all. Or leads into anti-intellectualism. Science, however, has somehow not recoiled from discoveries of this kind, not in the long run. The concept of infinity in mathematics, or what each of us can see looking through a microscope (and which confirms another kind of infinity); the discoveries, similarly, of linguistics and semiotics, which have the same infinitizing taint about them—these have fascinated rather than repelled, and led to an openness of thought and inquiry even protected by a society which knows that ideological inferences from such openness could subvert it.
We may not be able to use the instrument properly, though its best use is as a critical rather than positive or ideological philosophy. Derrida deconstructs not only others but also himself: the activity, that is, of philosophizing in general. He shows how much metaphor remains and must remain, how much equivocation and palimpsest-residue. He does not advocate a more literary philosophy, but he doubts that philosophy can get beyond being a form of language. The very desire of philosophy to be itself only, in and for itself, absolute knowledge is the ultimate pathos. Literature too can suffer from this "metaphysical" pathos, when it seeks to be itself by paradoxically aspiring to be like something else: philosophy, for instance. The term ecriture is handy because it reminds us of the verbal condition that all these disciplines share and perpetuate.
Derrida tells literary people only what they have always known and repressed. Repressed too much, perhaps. The fullness of equivocation in literary structures should now be thought about to the point where Joyce's wordplay seems normal and Empson's Seven Types archaic. A thousand and one nights of literary analysis lie before, a Scheherazade to keep an emperor awake beyond his intentions. Until a new concept of reserve, not merely panic or defensive, is developed, one that could result in as fine a sense of decorum as literature itself often displays.
Blake in "Night the Ninth" of the Zoas goes on and on with his fireworks because there is so much "mystery" to fuel the flames. Potentially, all Western philosophy and literature lie before Derrida as before Hegel, and now they include Hegel. Yet nothing is really destroyed in the curiously memorial conflagration staged by Hegel or Derrida. The flames of intellect reveal a structure, that is all. (pp. 22-3)
It may seem ingenious to characterize Derrida as a conservative thinker. Yet the "Monuments of unageing intellect" are not pulled down. They are, in any case, so strong, or our desire is so engaged with them, that the deconstructive activity becomes part of their structure. No cargo cult is in view. The subversive devices used in Glas trap us into rethinking a great many texts. It is true they are not there as direct objects of study, not presented as such—no more than the Bible is in Blake. But one might say that Hegel, Genet, Freud, and others are elated (a term I prefer to sublated), and if there is little humor and mother wit in Derrida, there is nevertheless what the German Romantics, who founded a certain notion of ironic transcendence, called Heiterkeit: "hilarity," perhaps, or Nietzsche's "gaiety." Even though texts often become pretexts here, even a kind of libretto, it is not always so. Hegel and Genet are given the most sustained analysis and yet the effect remains musical. A deconstructive machine that sings: Glas.
It is easy to slip from metaphor to metaphor in describing this book. What we are still puzzling about, though, is the high nonseriousness of it. The gravamen of its renewed attempt to jest in earnest. One can sense a certain fatigue: nothing of the freshness here of Homeric lying or Socratic irony. The attempted elation is rather grim and involves demands on self and reader that cannot be stated as an indefinitely ironized "Know thyself." There is, it seems, no knowledge except in the form of a text—of ecriture—and that is devious and dissolving, very unabsolute, as it leads always to other texts and further writing. Both the "knowing" and the "thyself" are constantly deferred by the very act of writing that might define them in black and white.
Indeed, even the black and white or typographic effect is in Glas a haunting and essential aspect of this deferment, this calcul of ecriture. The disjunct or aleatory form, which includes variable spacing of paragraphs within columns as well as the insert of new columns or columnar boxes …, is soon perceived to be less an experiment than a deliberate technique underwritten by concepts developed previously. It inscribes the theory of ecriture, differance, dissemination, deconstruction, freeplay. Intertextuality founds its space, as in Mallarmé. For the impression of equivalence is always broken, always reasserted. There is a paravisual effect, emblematic rather than pictorial, which plays on the idea of columns as (1) independent structures like the early phallic statues that could also be funerary monuments, and through Aushöhlung, sounding pits rather than pyramids; (2) dependent structures, like columns of a Greek temple, self-supporting as well as supportive, and associated with the achievement of equilibrium or an Apollonian "Gleichgewicht" …; (3) broken columns, or those whose monumental quality is put in question, because being variably elided by the spacing of the paragraph-blocks they are decapitalized, to suggest tensiles of cohesion that must now come from writing itself.
Writing, that is, is not a capitalization. It spaces out rather than dots the columnar i. Ecriture, in fact, might almost be defined as the deconstruction of those columns: of the Greek "support" of French culture (an aspect really of the tyranny of Rome over France, of a Latinity very different from Nietzsche's view of either Classic style or Greek joyousness), and of capital-istic thinking generally.
In Glas, then, and not for the first time, Derrida engages Marx. It is a mediated engagement that proceeds via Hegel, Feuerbach, and contemporary thinkers like Sartre and Bataille. That may be inevitable here, where texts are so consciously intertextual. The Marxist contribution is, like all others, "dépensé" according to a principle of freeplay that for the serious thinker may seem to be an aestheticizing maneuver. The decapitalized columns may allude to Marx's own struggle with Greco-Roman antiquity, as alienation becomes a form of alineation. Marx too is "emblémi." Was Marx meant to end as a visual joke, however sustained, in a fine book?
The ingenious engineering of Glas cannot but become an issue. What sustains these extraordinary three hundred pages, and what sustaining power do they exert in turn? A game that lasts so long must be more than a game. Even if Glas were a "self-consuming artifact," we would be left to admire its stylish sense of the vanity of all things. (pp. 24-5)
Geoffrey H. Hartman, "Monsieur Texte," in his Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy (copyright © 1981 by The Johns Hopkins University Press), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, pp. 1-32.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2597
Of the essays collected and excellently translated in Dissemination, the best example of Derrida's own practice of the deconstructive criticism he fathered is 'Plato's Pharmacy'. Here he pursues his question why the metaphysical tradition from Plato to the present subordinates writing to speech. Derrida is not claiming to reverse Plato and to subordinate speech acts to écriture, intentions to texts. His suggestion is rather that the attempt throughout the history of philosophy to think about the relations of language, truth and reality is continually biased by the misguided oppositions between writing and speech, signifier and signified, the metaphorical and the literal, presence and absence, sense and intellect, nature and culture, or even male and female. For Derrida these dichotomies are set up not rationally, but with an implicit preference for one side or the other. His procedure for showing the prior exclusion of the other side is to study not the logic but the rhetoric used in such cases as Plato's attack on writing, especially the metaphors and myths in the Phaedrus.
In particular, Derrida draws our attention to Plato's frequent presentation of writing as a drug, a pharmakon. Words can be drugs, and like a drug the one word pharmakon can be taken to mean either cure or poison. Hemlock, for instance, poisons Socrates, but Socrates employs both rhetoric and metaphysics to argue that he is actually being cured. Similarly, in the Phaedrus's mythical account of the origins of writing, the god Theuth invents writing and wants to give it to humanity as a gift. Theuth presents it as a pharmakon, meaning a beneficial 'recipe' for both memory and wisdom. However, the king who has the authority to accept the pharmakon hears the word differently and is suspicious of the addictive drug with its more probable narcotic effects.
The inventor of écriture is thus accused of smuggling drugs. The Czechoslovak authorities who arrested Derrida this January on the same charge may have been repeating the classic mistake of metaphysics by taking language as reality. Although having risked imprisonment in the name of the free discussion of philosophy certainly makes Derrida a political hero, it still will not make him a philosophical hero like Socrates. In fact, his play with puns and multiple meanings strikes his critics as the opposite of truth-seeking, and more like the eristics satirised in Plato's Euthydemus. The attacks in the Academy on Derrida and deconstruction run from the disdainful to the vehement, often implying the need to arrest such illicit activity. Are the charges against his writing legitimate, even if those against his person and political action in Prague were not? (p. 3)
Derrida's intention [in Dissemination] is often more straightforward than his language makes it seem. He wants to show that the very idea of authorial intention is less useful as an interpretive guide than the associated meanings with which the words in a text are vested. Since pharmakon is caught up in a chain of significations, it may connote more than the author may have or even could have intended (although in this case Plato seems to have been quite in control of the word). When dealing with linguistic relations, interpreters are to avoid all recourse to 'crude tools' like the conscious/unconscious, voluntary/involuntary distinction. Derrida himself seems to slip back into metaphysics or at least mystification, however, when he claims that by concentrating on the language of the text alone he can uncover the 'deeply buried necessity' and 'powerful constraints' that organise the internal structure of Plato's text quite independently of Plato's intention, and even undercutting that intention.
Deconstruction is thus the investigation not of authorial intention but of textual dissemination. 'Textuality being constituted by differences and by differences from differences,' writes Derrida characteristically, 'it is by nature absolutely heterogeneous and is constantly composing with the forces that tend to annihilate it.' The crux of disseminative interpretation is the notion of undecidability, which the Tel Quel group culls from Gödel's proof. Unlike Julia Kristeva, though, Derrida at least admits that there is only some analogy—a rather forced one—between the undecidability of propositions in a formalised axiomatic system and the indefiniteness of rhetorical ambiguities and textual allusions in an author like Mallarmé (or Derrida himself). Derrida's own propensity to take as undecidables single words that have opposed meanings seems much closer to Freud than to Gödel. Although Derrida does not refer to Freud's essay on primal words in this connection, Freud was also interested in examples from ancient languages of single words with antithetical meanings (e.g. strong and weak, or inside and outside).
If undecidability is to be a technical term in interpretive practice, it is not to be confused with either indecisiveness or indeterminacy. Examples like pharmakon in Plato, 'supplement' in Rousseau, and 'hymen' in Mallarmé are not to be simply vague. The inability to decide is not to be the result of the interpreter's indecisiveness, but of the necessity of seeing both senses in the text, even if the text blinds itself to one of them. Derrida claims these words 'have a double, contradictory, undecidable value that always derives from their syntax'. Deconstruction is limited to exploring the supposedly infinite interplay of syntactical connections and freed from determining their reference and truth-value.
Like Nietzsche, Derrida tends to overstate the case and imply that the nature of textuality is such that there is in texts no reference and truth-value at all. The slogan in Grammatology is that 'il n'y a pas de hors-texte' ('there is nothing outside the text'), and in Dissemination that there is no 'extratext', nothing before the text, no 'pretext' that is not already a text. To be consistent Derrida therefore writes a preface ('Hors Livre') that disclaims being a preface, and is in fact an entertaining discussion of famous prefaces in literature and philosophy. Here he modifies his earlier claim by saying that if there is no outside to a text, there is no inside either, the consequence being that there is no text-in-itself, and no purely intrinsic interpretation. The text will always affirm and refer to an outside, Derrida now admits, but that outside is nothing else than just another text. Textuality implies reference, not to an external reality, but rather to other texts, to intertextuality…. Or, as Barbara Johnson puts it in her resourceful introduction, 'nothing, indeed, can be said to be not a text.'
At that an earlier Dr Johnson might again have kicked a stone, and G. E. Moore would perhaps have challenged Derrida to hold up his own hand and say: 'Here's a text!' Derrida, however, rightly wants to avoid the idealism-realism controversy. His point may be rather that philosophers like Plato converted statements in ordinary usage into what Derrida dubs 'philosophemes', philosophical terms of art formed into beliefs that only seem to be determinably true or false. The lack of translatability in Plato's text is attributed further to the transformation of a non-philosopheme into a philosopheme, to 'the problem of the very passage into philosophy'.
Derrida thus fits into a philosophical tradition as old, perhaps, as philosophy itself. Overcoming metaphysics and bringing philosophy to an end is a recognisable genre now practised by showing how past philosophemes deconstruct themselves. The philosophical text is found to 'double' itself: not simply bipartite but actually duplicitous, the text contains, even if only by excluding, an 'other message' that undercuts its cognitive claims. While Wittgenstein describes his similar aims as straightforwardly therapeutic, Derrida's double-edged intents are more ambiguously pharmaceutic. Heidegger also practised a form of Abbau on Plato's (and Carnap's) Aufbau, but Derrida thinks Heidegger's term Sein is yet another philosopheme that succumbs once again to the illusory belief in an ultimate ground, in a 'transcendental signified'. So Derrida tries a move he attributes to Mallarmé. On Derrida's account of mimesis in Plato and Mallarmé, Plato gives mimesis a metaphysical interpretation 'which implies that somewhere the being of something that is, is being imitated!' Mallarmé, in contrast, adopts the surprising tactic of rejecting the metaphysical interpretation, but not mimesis. His art is to arrange words and sentences syntactically, apparently without regard for, but relying parasitically on, their semantic intelligibility, since the reader will inevitably construe meanings. Derrida describes Mallarmé's poetry as this 'mimicry imitating nothing', 'this speculum with no reality', 'this mirror of a mirror', 'a reference without a referent'. The same is probably to be said of Derrida's own 'philosophical' remarks, such as 'there is no simple reference.'
Given Derrida's attempt to be for philosophy what Mallarmé is for poetry, he could not object to the judgment either that he was not a philosopher or that he had not shown there could be no philosophers. Furthermore, no one should look to him for a philosophical grounding of the practice of textual interpretation, since that would miss his point that there can be no philosophical grounding of anything. Barbara Johnson suggests that Derrida is creating a new, 'non-binary logic', and is generating 'nothing less than a revolution in the very logic of meaning' from his discovery of undecidables, terms that say 'Neither/nor, that is, simultaneously either/or'.
Since a paraphrase can explain unparadoxically why and how such a term can be used unambiguously, it is stretching the point to imply that we need a new logic. His project is better construed as the less serious and more amusing one of discovering in classic places like Plato's attack on writing the same sort of 'kettle-logic' Freud noticed in dreams: '1. The kettle I am returning to you is brand new. 2. The holes were already in it when you lent it to me. 3. You never lent me a kettle, anyway.' Derrida formulates Plato's various attitudes toward writing analogously: '1. Writing is rigorously exterior and inferior to living memory and speech, which are therefore undamaged by it. 2. Writing is harmful to them because it puts them to sleep and infects their very life which would otherwise remain intact. 3. Anyway,… because living memory is finite, it already has holes in it before writing ever comes to leave its traces.' (pp. 4-5)
It is not hard to imagine schematising Derrida's own cheerful thinking in turn. Indeed, he should welcome the following playful sketch as long as it is offered with curative and not poisonous intent. 1. There is nothing outside the text, and the text is impervious to attempts to get out. 2. All attempts to stay within the text fail (since there is no inside, no unity to a text), and those thematic readings that look for a didactic message distort the text. 3. Since reference to reality is impossible, there aren't really any texts anyway.
Dissemination could thus be a form of dreaming in which the existence of genuine practitioners of deconstruction could be doubted. Whereas literary critics like Hartman may be concerned with Derrida's solecisms, philosophers will suspect him of solipsism….
[Derrida's] texts deliberately frustrate the hermeneutic reader, as if to underwrite the point that the choice between the playful, disseminative strategy and the integrative, interpretive one is an either/or. To break the grip of the vestigial metaphysical desire to comprehend totally and absolutely, Derrida turns into paradigms texts that seem unreadable to the interpreter searching for certainty. Through elaborate and myopic analyses of obscure, marginal material he delights in discomposing us and our normal contexts for understanding texts. He sometimes suggests that dissemination works by treating sentences, whole works, and even an author's corpus, as if they were in quotation-marks, mentioned but not used, and thereby removed from any determinate context. Generalised to all texts, including Derrida's own, dissemination is intended, not to complement trustful readings, but to show the failure of hermeneutics to comprehend the text and close the circle.
Those like myself who think there must be more to interpretation than pure dissemination can insist that deconstruction presupposes a prior construction of the text's unity or sense. Even if the disseminative reading then succeeds in disrupting this understanding, the fact that there are difficult interpretive decisions in practice does not entail undecidability or the impossibility of understanding in principle. Although any particular context for making a text intelligible can be called into question, it does not follow that no context is justifiable. Giving up the ideal of determining the one and only appropriate context by appeal to a decisive criterion like the author's intention should not result in making undecidability the new ideal of all writing.
Dissemination and hermeneutics need not be contrasted so extremely. They are more plausibly seen not as irreconcilable theories of meaning, but as practical interpretive strategies, as facets of any good reading. So regarded, disseminative practice ensures that the text's complexity is not underestimated, while the hermeneutical sense-making activity keeps the dissemination from wandering off infinitely. The search for sense in the text will not bring the reading to a premature halt, for complexity and sense are rarely in equipoise. The reflective equilibrium aimed at in one reading is likely to become unbalanced in the next, and re-established only by other means. What would stop the will to read, especially in the case of philosophy, is the discovery of the text's final undecidability or unintelligibility.
Over and above this context of reading strategies, however, there is another issue that should not be conceded to Derrida without argument. His attempt to be the Mallarmé of philosophy is not the only way to avoid falling back into Platonism. Relinquishing a notion of knowledge as direct contact of mind with reality does not entail either giving up on knowledge or being left merely with a doctrine of linguistic immanence. Literature, philosophy and literary criticism itself are legitimate forms, among others, of knowledge and understanding. There is no reason to think that with plausible evidence their central statements could not be understood and decided.
Although a hermeneutical, sense-making reading of Derrida's essays is indeed difficult, deciding where he stands is not impossible: he is an anti-realist and post-empiricist who is less interested in advancing a positive doctrine than in debunking the metaphysical strains he finds not only in Plato but also in moderns like de Saussure and Lévi-Strauss. He identifies more with figures like Mallarmé and Nietzsche who are like him in two respects: they break with traditional ways of writing, and they are often misinterpreted as idealists. Derrida's critics in the Academy may grow impatient with his style, but they should see that his indirectness results from the difficulty of deconstructing without also constructing.
Without the possibility of understanding Derrida and deciding the merits of his statements, readers would in fact quickly lose interest in his persistent will to write, not poetry, but something approaching philosophy. He introduces terms like 'differance', 'trace' and 'undecidability', yet then with tongue-in-cheek consistency implies that what these quasi-philosophemes mean may in turn be undecidable. Should we look forward to an era where undecidability is the norm in philosophy? Derrida may think undecidability has always been the norm, but deliberately constructing a really undecidable philosophy is incoherent. The irony of his position is that if the genre and sense of his writing could not be understood and decided, we should have another alternative than to infer that he had created a genre-breaking art-form or a new style of reason. We could decide his texts were neither literature nor philosophy, nor anything else. (p. 5)
David Hoy, "Deciding Derrida—David Hoy on the Work (and Play) of the French Philosopher" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, February 18 to March 3, 1982, pp. 3-5.∗