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Jacques Derrida 1930–
Algerian-born French philosopher, critic, and educator.
The following entry presents an overview of Derrida's career through 1994. See also Jacques Derrida Criticism (Volume 24).
Since 1967, when he simultaneously published three of his most important works, Derrida has been an extraordinarily influential and controversial voice in contemporary...
(The entire section contains 46161 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Jacques Derrida 1930–
Algerian-born French philosopher, critic, and educator.
The following entry presents an overview of Derrida's career through 1994. See also Jacques Derrida Criticism (Volume 24).
Since 1967, when he simultaneously published three of his most important works, Derrida has been an extraordinarily influential and controversial voice in contemporary philosophy and critical theory. While his theories deal primarily with philosophical issues, his critique of traditional Western philosophy as a "metaphysics of presence" has had an equally profound impact on contemporary literary theory, where critics have appropriated his theories on language into the movement known as "deconstructionism."
Derrida was born to middle-class Jewish parents in El Biar, Algeria. During his childhood, he was traumatized by the anti-Semitism of Algeria's Christian majority. In 1940, Jewish children were expelled from Algeria's schools, and violence against Jews became officially sanctioned. Derrida remarked later that these experiences left him feeling profoundly alienated and hinted that they were formative influences on the central themes of his philosophy. When he was eighteen years old, Derrida moved to France, having earned his baccalaureate degree in Algeria. After hearing a radio broadcast about the French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus, Derrida decided to enroll in philosophy classes at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. While a university student, Derrida was influenced by the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, although he later repudiated Sartrean existentialism. By 1957 Derrida was planning his doctoral dissertation, to be titled "The Ideality of the Literary Object." However, at this time he became immersed in the phenomenological writings of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and shifted his attention to formulating a critique of metaphysics, the central branch of traditional philosophy, which consists of the search for the ultimate foundations of reality. Since 1960 Derrida has been a professor of philosophy at universities in Paris and the director of the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, also in Paris.
Derrida first introduced his ideas about language and philosophy in his Traduction et introduction à l'origine de la géométrie d'Edmund Husserl (1962; Edmund Husserl's "Origin of Geometry: An Introduction"), which contains a lengthy introduction and a translation of Husserl's 1939 essay "Die Frage nach dem Ursprung der Geometrie." However, Derrida did not attract widespread notice until 1967, when he published La voix et le phénomène (Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs), De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology), and L'écriture et la différence (Writing and Difference). Of Grammatology is Derrida's most extensive and conventionally argued presentation of his central theme, that Western philosophy systematically portrays writing as the debased "supplement" of the voice, which is assumed to have a more privileged access to philosophical truth because of its supposedly more intimate correspondence with thought itself. Utilizing the method known as "deconstruction," a form of close textual interpretation which analyzes the internal contradictions of philosophical discourse, Derrida demonstrates that Western philosophy's arguments against writing consist of metaphors and figures of speech—the very elements of rhetoric which philosophers since Plato have denigrated as unphilosophical. For Derrida, the metaphysical philosopher's inherently rhetorical argumentation betrays his desire for a transcendental truth beyond the imperfections of language—a perception which Derrida expresses very succinctly in his famous statement, "There is nothing outside the text." Applying these insights in Speech and Phenomena, Derrida contends that Husserl's phenomenology—a branch of philosophy which seeks to establish the absolute foundations of human perception—relies on metaphors or allegories of the metaphysical belief that language (in particular, written language) is too contradictory and concrete a medium to embody absolute truth. Writing and Difference is a collection of essays on various seminal figures in the history of philosophy which further illustrates Derrida's method of deconstruction. In 1972, Derrida again published three books nearly simultaneously. The most important of these, La dissémination (Dissemination), signalled a new direction in Derrida's work. While a large section of the book presents a critique of Plato's doctrine of truth, it begins and ends with a practical demonstration of Derrida's ideas on writing. Focusing on the concept of "dissemination," which refers to the inherent indeterminacy of meaning in language (due to the arbitrary relationship between words and the objects they signify), Derrida invents unusual words and sentence structures to demonstrate the fundamental instability and contradictoriness of philosophical discourse. The complexity of this "playful" mode of deconstruction reached its zenith in Derrida's following work, Glas (1974; Glas), which presents his discussion of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the French dramatist, novelist, and poet, Jean Genet. The commentary is arranged in parallel columns—Hegel on the left, Genet on the right, with an occasional third in the middle—which modify and reflect upon one another. The typographical and etymological wordplay of Glas has led to comparisons with James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939), which was written in a blend of different languages. Critics generally have not regarded Glas as a work of philosophical significance, beyond the fact that its format puts into practice Derrida's thesis that literary and philosophical texts are distinguished only by the structure of their metaphors and rhetoric. Derrida's subsequent works, while not as extreme in their experimentation as Glas, continue to display his concern with conflating literary and philosophical modes of discourse. In La carte postale (1980; The Post Card) Derrida utilizes metaphors of postal communication to interpret psychoanalysis as a series of transmissions between a sender and a receiver in which meaning is mediated, detoured, and deferred by language. Moreover, Derrida composes the first section of The Post Card as a series of fictitious letters which parody epistolary literature and flout the conventions of "serious" philosophy. Two of Derrida's works, Éperons (1976; Spurs) and De l'esprit (1987; Of Spirit) are considered important because they present Derrida's commentary on the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, whom Derrida and many of his interpreters have cited as his primary philosophical influences. He derived the word and the concept of deconstruction from Heidegger's use of the German word destruktion; and Heidegger's definitive four-volume study of Nietzsche, in which he argues that his philosophy is both the culmination and "overturning" of traditional metaphysics, provided a model for Derrida's deconstructive readings of philosophers.
Derrida's works have tended to incite passionately divergent reactions from critics. Philosophers oriented toward the analytical and logical positivist schools, such as John Searle, refute Derrida by arguing that his championing of "indeterminacy" and linguistic freeplay leads to extreme forms of skepticism and nihilism. However, critic Christopher Norris defends Derrida by pointing out that deconstruction is actually an exceedingly rigorous form of analysis, and that Derrida's understanding of philosophy as a rhetorically structured form of writing indistinguishable in its essence from literature has been espoused by numerous other philosophers, notably Nietzsche. Derrida's reception among literary critics has been no less contentious. Part of the controversy may be attributed to the casual linkage of Derrida's name to the literary deconstructionists. As Rodolphe Gasché has pointed out, Derrida's philosophy does not concern itself directly with literary texts, and literary deconstruction is actually an independent movement which has for the most part only loosely applied Derrida's theories. Given that ideological and intellectual differences of opinion have made Derrida an extremely controversial figure, there can be no critical consensus as to the value of his work. However, his prominence in the history of philosophy seems assured. Philosopher Richard Rorty argues that the lasting value of Derrida's work is in its critical analysis of traditional Western philosophy. Rorty concludes: "Having done to Heidegger what Heidegger did to Nietzsche is the negative achievement which, after all the chatter about 'deconstruction' is over, will give Derrida a place in the history of philosophy."
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∗Traduction et introduction à l'origine de la géométrie d'Edmund Husserl [translator] [Edmund Husserl's "Origin of Geometry: An Introduction"] (philosophy) 1962
De la grammatologie [Of Grammatology] (philosophy) 1967
L'écriture et la différence [Writing and Difference] (philosophy) 1967
Le voix et le phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans le phénoménologie de Husserl [Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs] (philosophy) 1967
La dissémination [Dissemination] (philosophy) 1972
Marges de la philosophie [Margins of Philosophy] (philosophy) 1972
Positions (interviews) 1972
Glas [Glas] (criticism) 1974
L'archéologie du frivole: Lire Condillac [The Archeology of the Frivolous: Reading Condillac] (criticism) 1976
Éperons: Les styles de Nietzsche [Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles] (philosophy) 1976
La vérité en peinture [The Truth in Painting] (criticism) 1978
La carte postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà [The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond] (philosophy) 1980
Signéponge [Signsponge] (criticism) 1984
Parages (criticism) 1986
De l'esprit: Heidegger et la question [Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question] (philosophy) 1987
Psyché: Inventions de l'autre [Psyche: Inventions of the Other] (philosophy) 1987
†Limited Inc (philosophy) 1988
Du droit à la philosophie (philosophy) 1990
Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl (philosophy) 1990
∗Derrida translated this work from the original German to French and wrote a lengthy introduction. The English translation is by John P. Leavey, Jr.
†This volume contains three essays, including "Limited Inc abc …" which originally appeared in the journal Glyph, No. 2, 1977.
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SOURCE: A review of Of Grammatology, in The New Republic, Vol. 176, No. 16, April 16, 1977, pp. 32-4.
[Donoghue is an Irish critic and educator. In the following review, he asserts that Of Grammatology, in spite of its "excruciating" difficulties, is a work of great importance for students of philosophy and literature.]
In April 1970 a colloquium of French philosophers and critics was held at Cluny on certain major themes in contemporary thought. By all accounts the most voluble presence at the proceedings was a man who was not present at all: the Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Most of the discussions turned, twisted and swirled upon his work, especially the three books he had published in 1967, La voix et le phénomène, a critique of Husserl's theory of signs, L'écriture et la différence and De la grammatologie. For all I know, there may have been some philosophers at Cluny who claimed to have felt the first tremor of recognition several years before Derrida became famous; perhaps when he published his first book, a translation of Husserl's The Origin of Geometry (1962) which included a long introductory analysis of the work. But I doubt it. Derrida's reputation in France in the years before 1967 was provoked mainly by the essays brought together in L'écriture et la différence. The books published in 1967 have now been extended in several directions by Derrida's La dissémination (1972), Marges de la philosophie (1972), Positions (1972) and the bizarre production, Glas (1974). It is clear that Derrida and Jacques Lacan largely define the spirit of the age, or at least the spirit of the present moment, in French philosophy and criticism.
The position in the United States is different. David B. Allison's translation of La voix et la phénomène was published by Northwestern University Press in 1973 as Speech and Phenomena, but it did not cause a stir, so far as I recall. But gradually, over the last few years, some of Derrida's most important essays have been translated and published in such periodicals as Diacritics and New Literary History. The result is that where two or three avant-grade critics are gathered together at any university from Yale to Irvine, Derrida is in the midst of them, as present and absent as he was at Cluny. Students who are satisfied that they have taken the gist of Lévi-Strauss, Barthes and Foucault are now doing their homework on Derrida. I assume they are finding the experience extraordinarily difficult. So [Gayatri Chakrovorty] Spivak's translation of De la grammatologie has arrived at the precise moment of its necessity. Her long introductory essay is nearly as difficult as the text it precedes, but it is extremely perceptive and helpful.
Derrida has described his philosophic project 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." This description, if it could be embodied in anything but its desire, would put Derrida beyond metaphysics and Structuralism alike. The main force of his critique has always been directed against nostalgia; particularly against those cries of nostalgia which constitute, in his view, the metaphysics of presence and origin. Those lost paradises are places of yearning for origin and end. Derrida opposes in Husserl the metaphysics of self-consciousness which accords privileged status to speech and voice: nostalgia is logocentric, phonocentric, it speaks of being and experience, universal logic, alphabetic writing, and its only theme is loss. Derrida wants to turn us away from that predicament. He is concerned with everything that escapes or refutes the metaphysics of presence and refuses to return to a paternal source. Deconstruction is an effort to dismantle the axioms upon which a metaphysical argument is based: it requires a critical parsing of a terminology, so that even when the philosopher uses the given terms his use of them is heretical. Much of Derrida's work is a series of arguments with his predecessors, especially Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger and Husserl; in recent work he is arguing with Hegel, Foucault, Lacan, Sollers. Of Grammatology is a meditation provoked by Derrida's reading of Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Languages, supplemented by critical glosses upon Saussure and Lévi-Strauss. Grammatology itself arises from Derrida's dissatisfaction with these predecessors and especially with tinges of nostalgia which he finds in their writings. As for the word: it is available already to mean "a treatise upon letters, upon the alphabet, syllabation, reading, and writing," but in Derrida's use the word points only toward a possibility which he is the first to declare at the same time an impossibility. Grammatology, were it to exist, would be beyond semiology, it would dismantle logocentrism and use conventional signs only while erasing them, "sous rature." Spivak's introductory essay is splendid on this aspect of Derrida, and especially on the bearing of his technical vocabulary, such words as l'écriture, différance, alterité, errance, jeu, trace, and déconstruction. A philosopher, like a poet, is revealed in his diction: by his choice of words he is known. Just as Derrida discloses in Rousseau a writer who distrusts writing and longs for the proximity of the self to its voice, so Spivak approaches Derrida through the structure of his diction; no ideas but in the words themselves.
It would be misleading to say that Derrida is trying to bring metaphysics to an end. Either metaphysics has already come to an end or the question of its end is beside the point. Besides, it would be lonelier without the loneliness. Like any honest heretic, he wants to retain religion if only to pervert it; retaining its terms while erasing them, deleting the words while keeping their trace still legible. He does not claim to have stepped beyond philosophy, but rather to have read the philosophers in a certain spirit. I do not think much would be lost or abused if we called that spirit Irony and referred to Derrida as an ironist. Irony smiles upon contradiction and speaks blithely of catastrophe: it dislikes residence and offers itself, like Derrida's work, as a philosophy for nomads. Derrida circumvents residence by resorting to the concept of jeu as an act logically prior to the possibility of presence or absence. The final intention of De la grammatologie, according to Derrida, is "to make enigmatic what one thinks one understands by the words 'proximity,' 'immediacy,' and 'presence.'" Could any stated aim express the spirit of Irony more precisely? Not to clarify, but to retain the enigmatic state; and to put every crucial noun within the scrutiny of those inverted commas. No philosopher is more inclined than Derrida to the inverted commas: every abstract noun is forced to reveal its speciousness. Derrida takes pleasure in showing that when we have ostensibly demonstrated the coherence of a structure we have merely revealed the force of a desire. He loves to ascribe to objects only a virtual status; their existence is less reliably substantial than the shadow they cast. If someone points to a center, Derrida does not deny that there is or may be a center, but he asserts that the center is a function, not a being. It would be no pleasure to Derrida to have his mind praised for its creative force; it has no creative ambition. Criticism as he practices it is a contraceptive act, appropriate in his view to an age of mass populations and mass cliches. Indeed he is willing to use his mind only as a double agent: never what it seems or says, always an accomplice, its promises at best provisional, its language an honest lie; its vocality a form of equivocation. Such a mind could not have been a native Structuralist, because Structuralists believe in the structures of opposed terms they employ. Derrida employs such terms only on the understanding that belief is not required of him: his mind is willing to be stained, contaminated or provoked by nouns, but it admits no obligation to them. Derrida tends to explain things on the ground of their impossibility; and then to admit possibility by admitting desire. Faced with something that is thought to be an attribute, he rejects the appellation, drives it away from ontology, and locates it in a space of need, desire, or play. He loves to be able to say of something that it may always not have taken place, "il peut toujours n'avoir pas lieu," or that its operation cannot be ontologically sustained. The long meditation on Rousseau which accounts for most of De la grammatologie is mainly concerned with supplementarity (supplémentarité), a mode of replacement and substitution, and Derrida concedes that supplementarity "makes possible all that constitutes the property of man: speech, society, passion etc." But lest we think anything has been achieved or money lodged in the human bank, he asks: "But what is this property of man?" Answer:—
On the one hand, it is that of which the possibility must be thought before man, and outside of him. Man allows himself to be announced to himself after the fact of supplementarity, which is thus not an attribute—accidental or essential—of man. For on the other hand, supplementarity, which is nothing, neither a presence nor an absence, is neither a substance nor an essence of man. It is precisely the play of presence and absence, the opening of this play that no metaphysical or ontological concept can comprehend.
Presence is already absence: 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 demonstrably fugitive forms of immediacy.
I have mentioned that Spivak seeks Derrida in his technical vocabulary and that it is the right place to start looking. But there is a simple sentence in De la grammatologie which I offer as especially revealing: it does not contain any technical terms, but rather a gesture which is pure Derrida. The sentence reads: "Penser, c'est ce que nous savons déjà n'avoir pas encore commencé à faire"; 'thinking is what we already know that we have not yet begun.' Pure Derrida; because it enacts nothing but the gap between belatedness and futurity, placing a void where traditional metaphysics would place a presence. There are many philosophers who love to use both hands to achieve precision: on the one hand, and yet on the other. Derrida uses both hands to say the same thing: no, the situation is neither this nor that but the play between them.
How can we account, then, for Derrida's bearing upon contemporary thought in philosophy and criticism? There are a few obvious considerations. His work is clearly congenial to a situation in which Europe has been displaced from the center of the metaphysical circle: metaphysics is no longer permitted to proceed along white Caucasian assumptions, history is no longer understood merely as the history of meaning. No orchids are currently offered to ethnocentrism, eschatology, teleology, or idealism: the notion of play is deemed to make up for the lack of a stable center. Structuralism is on the decline: only the most ardent believers would wish to have the decline arrested. Derrida finds in the very notion of structure a longing for presence, origin, and center. It may be that De la grammatologie is one of those books which not only create the audience by which they are appreciated, but are willing to wait until an even more sluggish audience is in the mood to receive them: they wait for readers to catch up with them.
I have implied my own view of Derrida, that his work is important chiefly because it extends the possibilities of irony: it brings post-Nietzschean joy and gaiety to bear upon circumstances which, left to their own attributes, would make for demoralization and ennui. If you read Derrida for the plot, you would shoot yourself. Paul de Man has described the main theme of Derrida's work as "the recurrent repression, in Western thought, of all written forms of language, their degradation to a mere adjunct or supplement to the live presence of the spoken word." Hence the reading and misreading of Rousseau in De la grammatologie. Students of philosophy are likely to find Derrida's meaning chiefly in the idea of différance; students of literature will probably come upon it more congenially through the idea of jeu, relating it to other and more readily available terminologies of literature as play. In either case there is cause for rejoicing in the translation of De la grammatologie, an excruciatingly difficult work in any language. Spivak's translation is deliberately literal, and she knows that there is bound to be a pedantic air in the English which the French accommodates more cheerfully. "Nous sommes donc d'entrée de jeu dans le devenirimmotivé du symbole" sounds more at home to itself than the English version, "From the very opening of the game, then, we are within the becoming-unmotivated of the symbol." I suppose it would be easier to say, "… we are taken up in the unmotivated play of the symbol," but that would make Derrida sound more agreeable and less 'Germanic' than his French. The same would apply if we tried to translate Derrida's "d'exhiber son être-inacceptable dans un miroir contre-ethnocentrique" as something more gracious than Ms. Spivak's version, "of exhibiting its being-unacceptable in an anti-ethnocentric mirror." Spivak's understanding of Derrida's work is extremely acute: she is determined that if we encounter him at all we will earn the right to do so by coping with his recalcitrance. An easy translation would be a bad translation.
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SOURCE: "Jacques Derrida: Language against Itself," in Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, 1982. Reprint by Routledge, 1988, pp. 18-41.
[Norris is an English critic and educator who has authored numerous studies on Derrida and deconstruction. In the following excerpt, he offers a detailed summary of Derrida's theories on language, philosophy, and writing.]
The texts of Jacques Derrida defy classification according to any of the clear-cut boundaries that define modern academic discourse. They belong to 'philosophy' in so far as they raise certain familiar questions about thought, language, identity and other longstanding themes of philosophical debate. Moreover, they raise those questions through a form of critical dialogue with previous texts, many of which (from Plato to Husserl and Heidegger) are normally assigned to the history of philosophic thought. Derrida's professional training was as a student of philosophy (at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he now teaches), and his writings demand of the reader a considerable knowledge of the subject. Yet Derrida's texts are like nothing else in modern philosophy, and indeed represent a challenge to the whole tradition and self-understanding of that discipline.
One way of describing this challenge is to say that Derrida refuses to grant philosophy the kind of privileged status it has always claimed as the sovereign dispenser of reason. Derrida confronts this claim to power on its own chosen ground. He argues that philosophers have been able to impose their various systems of thought only by ignoring, or suppressing, the disruptive effects of language. His aim is always to draw out these effects by a critical reading which fastens on, and skilfully unpicks, the elements of metaphor and other figurative devices at work in the texts of philosophy. Deconstruction in this, its most rigorous form acts as a constant reminder of the ways in which language deflects or complicates the philosopher's project. Above all, deconstruction works to undo the idea—according to Derrida, the ruling illusion of Western metaphysics—that reason can somehow dispense with language and arrive at a pure, self-authenticating truth or method. Though philosophy strives to efface its textual or 'written' character, the signs of that struggle are there to be read in its blind-spots of metaphor and other rhetorical strategies.
In this sense Derrida's writings seem more akin to literary criticism than philosophy. They rest on the assumption that modes of rhetorical analysis, hitherto applied mainly to literary texts, are in fact indispensable for reading any kind of discourse, philosophy included. Literature is no longer seen as a kind of poor relation to philosophy contenting itself with mere 'imaginary' themes and forgoing any claim to philosophic dignity and truth. This attitude has, of course, a long prehistory in Western tradition. It was Plato who expelled the poets from his ideal republic, who set up reason as a guard against the false beguilements of rhetoric, and who called forth a series of critical 'defences' and 'apologies' which runs right through from Sir Philip Sidney to I. A. Richards and the American New Critics. The lines of defence have been variously drawn up, according to whether the critic sees himself as contesting philosophy on its own argumentative ground, or as operating outside its reach on a different—though equally privileged—ground.
In the latter camp it is F. R. Leavis who has most forcefully asserted the critic's right to dissociate his habits of thought from the logical checks and procedures demanded of philosophic discourse. Criticism on Leavis's term is a matter of communicating deep-laid intuitive responses, which analysis can point to and persuasively enact, but which it can by no means explain or theorize about. Philosophy is kept at arm's length by treating literary language as a medium of 'lived' or 'felt' experience, a region where the critic's 'mature' responses are his only reliable guide and where there is no support to be had from abstract methodology. Hence Leavis's insistence on the virtues of 'practical' criticism (or close reading), allied to such moral imperatives as 'relevance', 'maturity' and an 'open reverence before life'. The effect of this programme is to draw a firm line of demarcation between literary language and the problems of philosophy. Leavis rejects the idea that criticism need concern itself with epistemological problems, or rhetorical modes of working, implicit in literary texts. His ideal critic works within a discipline defined by qualities of responsiveness and intuitive tact, rather than subtlety of philosophic grasp.
Such was the tenor of Leavis's famous 'reply' to Rene Wellek [in 'Literary Criticism and Philosophy,' Scrutiny VI], who had asked (in an otherwise appreciative essay) why Leavis should not provide a more coherent or worked-out rationale for his critical judgements. To do so would amount to a betrayal, it seemed, of the different but equally disciplined activity required of the literary critic. That activity was justified in so far as it preserved the life-giving wholeness of critical response from the deadening weight of abstract theory.
Leavis represents the most rooted and uncompromising form of resistance to philosophy on the part of literary criticism. The American New Critics, with their penchant for rhetorical system and method, tended to strike a somewhat more ambiguous stance…. [Allen Tate has written] despairingly of criticism as a middle-ground activity torn between the warring poles of imagination and philosophic reason. Typically, the New Critics managed to contain these tensions by devising a rhetoric of figure and paradox which closed the poem off within its own formal limits. Poetry (and fiction, so far as they dealt with it) took on a kind of self-authenticating status, confirmed by the various dogmas of critical method. Conceptual problems—like that of relating poetic 'form' to communicable 'meaning'—were neatly side-stepped by being treated as if they were somehow constitutive of poetry's uniquely complex mode of existence. Paradox and irony, which Tate saw as bearing (to some extent at least) on the critic's own predicament, were generally regarded by the New Criticism as objectively 'there' in the poem's structure of meaning.
Hence the circularity and self-sufficient character of New Critical rhetoric. It kept philosophy at bay, not, like Leavis, by flatly denying its relevance, but by translating its questions into a language of irreducibly aesthetic paradox and tension. As critics came to interrogate this rhetoric of closure, so it became more evident that the problems had merely been repressed or displaced, and that criticism had yet to discover its relation to the modes and exigencies of 'philosophic' discourse. It was at this point in the history of American criticism and its discontents that Derrida's influence came as such a liberating force. His work provided a whole new set of powerful strategies which placed the literary critic, not simply on a footing with the philosopher, but in a complex relationship (or rivalry) with him, whereby philosophic claims were open to rhetorical questioning or deconstruction. Paul de Man has described this process of thought in which 'literature turns out to be the main topic of philosophy and the model of the kind of truth to which it aspires' [Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust, 1979]. Once alerted to the rhetorical nature of philosophic arguments, the critic is in a strong position to reverse the age-old prejudice against literature as a debased or merely deceptive form of language. It now becomes possible to argue—indeed, impossible to deny—that literary texts are less deluded than the discourse of philosophy, precisely because they implicitly acknowledge and exploit their own rhetorical status. Philosophy comes to seem, in de Man's work, 'an endless reflection on its own destruction at the hands of literature'.
Derrida's attentions are therefore divided between 'literary' and 'philosophical' texts, a distinction which in practice he constantly breaks down and shows to be based on a deep but untenable prejudice. His readings of Mallarmé, Valéry, Genet and Sollers are every bit as rigorous as his essays on philosophers like Hegel and Husserl. Literary texts are not fenced off inside some specialized realm of figurative licence where rational commentary fears to tread. Unlike the New Critics, Derrida has no desire to establish a rigid demarcation of zones between literary language and critical discourse. On the contrary, he sets out to show that certain kinds of paradox are produced across all the varieties of discourse by a motivating impulse which runs so deep in Western thought that it respects none of the conventional boundaries. Criticism, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, the whole modern gamut of 'human sciences'—all are at some point subjected to Derrida's relentless critique. This is the most important point to grasp about deconstruction. There is no language so vigilant or self-aware that it can effectively escape the conditions placed upon thought by its own prehistory and ruling metaphysic.
The passage 'beyond formalism' was broached in various ways. Some critics (like Geoffrey Hartman) have adopted a wayward and teasingly indirect style, while others—notably Paul de Man—have attempted to think through the paradoxes of New Critical method. De Man's essays in Blindness and Insight (1971) were a powerful application of Derridean ideas to the rhetoric of modern poetics. To read the New Critics with an eye to their founding metaphors is to discover, in de Man's terminology, a 'blindness' inseparable from their moments of greatest 'insight'. Their formalist notion of the poem as 'verbal icon'—a timeless, self-possessed structure of meaning—is shown to deconstruct its own claim through unrecognized twists of implication. Their obsession with 'organic' form was undermined by those very 'ambiguities' and 'tensions' which they sought out in order to praise, and so contain, them. 'This unitarian criticism', as de Man puts it, 'finally becomes a criticism of ambiguity, an ironic reflection on the absence of the unity it had postulated'. 'Form' itself turns out to be more an operative fiction, a product of the interpreter's rage for order, than anything vested in the literary work itself. The organicist metaphors of New Critical parlance result from what de Man calls the 'dialectical interplay' set up between text and interpreter. 'Because such patient and delicate attention was paid to the reading of forms, the critic pragmatically entered into the hermeneutic circle of interpretation, mistaking it for the organic circularity of natural processes'.
Deconstruction draws no line between the kind of close reading appropriate to a 'literary' text and the strategies required to draw out the subtler implications of critical language. Since all forms of writing run up against perplexities of meaning and intent, there is no longer any question of a privileged status for literature and a secondary, self-effacing role for the language of criticism. De Man fully accepts the Derridean principle that 'writing', with its own dialectic of blindness and insight, precedes all the categories that conventional wisdom has tried to impose on it.
This amounts to a downright refusal of the system of priorities which has traditionally governed the relation between 'critical' and 'creative' language. That distinction rested on the idea that literary texts embodied an authentic or self-possessed plenitude of meaning which criticism could only hint at by its roundabout strategies of reading. For Derrida, this is yet another sign of the rooted Western prejudice which tries to reduce writing—or the 'free play' of language—to a stable meaning equated with the character of speech. In spoken language (so the implication runs), meaning is 'present' to the speaker through an act of inward self-surveillance which ensures a perfect, intuitive 'fit' between intention and utterance. Literary texts have been accorded the status of a self-authenticated meaning and truth, a privilege deriving (in Derrida's view) from the deep mistrust of textuality which pervades Western attitudes to language. This mystique of origins and presence can best be challenged by annulling the imaginary boundaries of discourse, the various territorial imperatives which mark off 'literature' from 'criticism', or 'philosophy' from everything that stands outside its traditional domain.
This redistribution of discourse implies some very drastic shifts in our habits of reading. For one thing, it means that critical texts must be read in a radically different way, not so much for their interpretative 'insights' as for the symptoms of 'blindness' which mark their conceptual limits. De Man puts the case most succinctly:
Since they are not scientific, critical texts have to be read with the same awareness of ambivalence that is brought to the study of non-critical literary texts, and since the rhetoric of their discourse depends on categorical statements, the discrepancy between meaning and assertion is a constitutive part of their logic.
This argument cuts both ways when it comes to defining the critic's position vis-à-vis the literary text. Clearly it denies him the kind of methodical or disciplined approach which has been the recurrent dream of a certain critical tradition. On the other hand it offers a way beyond the rigid separation of roles which would cast him as a mere attendant upon the sovereign word of the text. What it loses in methodical self-assurance, criticism stands to regain in rhetorical interest on its own account. A similar reversal of priorities occurs in the deconstructive reading of 'literary' texts. There is no longer the sense of a primal authority attaching to the literary work and requiring that criticism keep its respectful distance. The autonomy of the text is actively invaded by a new and insubordinate style of commentary which puts in question all the traditional attributes of literary meaning. But at the same time this questioning raises literature to a point of rhetorical complexity and interest where its moments of 'blindness' are often more acutely revealing than anything in the discourse of philosophy.
Such has been the effect of Derrida's writing on a deeply entrenched conservative tradition—that of American New Criticism—which had already started to question its own ideology. What might have carried on as a series of skirmishing tactics (or virtuoso exercises in Hartman's manner) was galvanized by Derrida into something far more radical and deeply unsettling. We can now look more closely at the major texts in which Derrida sets forth the terms and implications of deconstructive reading. Rather than take his books one by one, I shall fasten upon certain crucial themes and argumentative strategies, acting as far as possible on Derrida's reiterated warning that his texts are not a store of ready-made 'concepts' but an activity resistant to any such reductive ploy.
If there is a single theme which draws together the otherwise disparate field of 'structuralist' thought, it is the principle—first enounced by Saussure—that language is a differential network of meaning. There is no self-evident or one-to-one link between 'signifier' and 'signified', the word as (spoken or written) vehicle and the concept it serves to evoke. Both are caught up in a play of distinctive features where differences of sound and sense are the only markers of meaning. Thus, at the simplest phonetic level, bat and cat are distinguished (and meaning is generated) by the switching of initial consonants. The same is true of bag and big, with their inter-substitution of vowels. Language is in this sense diacritical, or dependent on a structured economy of differences which allows a relatively small range of linguistic elements to signify a vast repertoire of negotiable meanings.
Saussure went on from this cardinal insight to construct what has become a dominant working programme for modern linguistics. His proposals broke with traditional thinking in two main respects. He argued, first, that linguistics could be placed on a scientific basis only by adopting a 'synchronic' approach, one that treated language as a network of structural relations existing at a given point in time. Such a discipline would have to renounce—or provisionally suspend—the 'diachronic' methods of historical research and speculation which had dominated nineteenth-century linguistics. Second, Saussure found it necessary to make a firm distinction between the isolated speech-act or utterance (parole) and the general system of articulate relationships from which it derived (la langue). This system, he reasoned, had to underlie and pre-exist any possible sequence of speech, since meaning could be produced only in accordance with the organizing ground-rules of language.
Structuralism, in all its manifold forms and applications, developed in the wake of Saussure's founding programme for modern linguistics. This is not the place for a detailed account of that development, which the reader will find expounded in Terence Hawkes's Structuralism and Semiotics (1977). Briefly, structuralism took over from Saussure the idea that all cultural systems—not only language—could be studied from a 'synchronic' viewpoint which would bring out their various related levels of signifying activity.
The precise status of linguistics in regard to this newfound enterprise was a topic of considerable debate. Saussure had argued that language was but one of many codes, and that linguistics should therefore not expect to retain its methodological pre-eminence. With the advent of a fully fledged semiotics, or science of signs, language would assume its proper, participant place in the social life of signs in general. Paradoxically, it was Roland Barthes—the most versatile of structuralist thinkers—who originally wanted to reverse this perspective and reinstate linguistics as the master-science of semiology. Barthes was quick to exploit the possibilities of structuralist method across a diverse field of cultural codes, from literary texts to cookery, fashion and photography. Yet in his Elements of Semiology (1967) Barthes is to be found expressing the conviction that 'the moment we go on to systems where the sociological significance is more than superficial, we are once more confronted with language'. And this, he explains, because 'we are, much more than in former times … a civilization of the written word'.
Of course, this text belongs to an early stage of Barthes's development, a phase he was later to criticize precisely for its overdependence on concepts of metalinguistic or 'scientific' knowledge…. [He] eventually travelled toward deconstructing such concepts through a textual activity aware of its own shifting and provisional status. But the kind of linguistic analogy that Barthes once deployed is representative of structuralism at a certain definite point in its development. It was at this point that Derrida intervened, with the object of wrenching structuralism away from what he saw as its residual attachment to a Western metaphysics of meaning and presence. In particular, he questioned the role of linguistics in dictating the methodological priorities of structuralist thought. Derrida's critique of Saussure, in his essay 'Linguistics and Grammatology' [in Of Grammatology], is therefore a crucial point of encounter for the deconstructive enterprise.
The argument turns on Saussure's attitude to the relative priority of spoken as opposed to written language, a dualism Derrida locates at the heart of Western philosophic tradition. He cites a number of passages from Saussure in which writing is treated as a merely derivative or secondary form of linguistic notation, always dependent on the primary reality of speech and the sense of a speaker's 'presence' behind his words. Derrida finds a dislocating tension here, a problem that other structuralists (Barthes included) had been content to regard as a puzzling but unavoidable paradox. What are we to make of this privileged status for speech (parole) in a theory which is otherwise so heavily committed to the prior significance of language-as-system (langue)? Barthes presents the question most succinctly:
A language does not exist properly except in 'the speaking mass'; one cannot handle speech except by drawing on the language. But conversely, a language is possible only starting from speech; historically, speech phenomena always precede language phenomena (it is speech which makes language evolve), and genetically, a language is constituted in the individual through his learning from the environmental speech. [Elements of Semiology]
The relation of language and speech is thus 'dialectical'; it sets in train a process of thought which shuttles productively from one standpoint to the other.
Where Derrida differs with Barthes is in his refusal simply to accept this paradox as part of a larger, encompassing project (that of semiology) which would overcome such apparent contradictions. For Derrida, there is a fundamental blindness involved in the Saussurian text, a failure to think through the problems engendered by its own mode of discourse. What is repressed there, along with 'writing' in its common or restricted sense, is the idea of language as a signifying system which exceeds all the bounds of individual 'presence' and speech. Looking back over the passage from Barthes quoted above, one can see how 'speech' terminology prevails, even where the argument is ostensibly stating the rival claims of language-as-system. Thus Barthes (drawing on Saussure) refers metaphorically to 'the speaking mass' in a context which purportedly invokes the totality of language, but which appeals even so to actual speakers and their speech as the source of that totality. Barthes may state, as a matter of principle, that language is at once the 'product and the instrument' of speech, that their relationship is always 'dialectical' and not to be reduced to any clear-cut priority. In practice, however, his theorizing leans upon metaphors which implicitly privilege individual speech above the system of meaning that sustains it.
Derrida's line of attack is to pick out such loaded metaphors and show how they work to support a whole powerful structure of presuppositions. If Saussure was impelled, like others before him, to relegate writing to a suspect or secondary status, then the mechanisms of that repression are there in his text and open to a deconstructive reading. Thus Derrida sets out to demonstrate
- that writing is systematically degraded in Saussurian linguistics;
- that this strategy runs up against suppressed but visible contradictions;
- that by following these contradictions through one is led beyond linguistics to a 'grammatology', or science of writing and textuality in general.
Derrida sees a whole metaphysics at work behind the privilege granted to speech in Saussure's methodology. Voice becomes a metaphor of truth and authenticity, a source of self-present 'living' speech as opposed to the secondary lifeless emanations of writing. In speaking one is able to experience (supposedly) an intimate link between sound and sense, an inward and immediate realization of meaning which yields itself up without reserve to perfect, transparent understanding. Writing, on the contrary, destroys this ideal of pure self-presence. It obtrudes an alien, depersonalized medium, a deceiving shadow which falls between intent and meaning, between utterance and understanding. It occupies a promiscuous public realm where authority is sacrificed to the vagaries and whims of textual 'dissemination'. Writing, in short, is a threat to the deeply traditional view that associates truth with self-presence and the 'natural' language wherein it finds expression.
Against this tradition Derrida argues what at first must seem an extraordinary case: that writing is in fact the precondition of language and must be conceived as prior to speech. This involves showing, to begin with, that the concept of writing cannot be reduced to its normal (i.e. graphic or inscriptional) sense. As Derrida deploys it, the term is closely related to that element of signifying difference which Saussure thought essential to the workings of language. Writing, for Derrida, is the 'free play' or element of undecidability within every system of communication. Its operations are precisely those which escape the self-consciousness of speech and its deluded sense of the mastery of concept over language. Writing is the endless displacement of meaning which both governs language and places it for ever beyond the reach of a stable, self-authenticating knowledge. In this sense, oral language already belongs to a 'generalized writing', the effects of which are everywhere disguised by the illusory 'metaphysics of presence'. Language is always inscribed in a network of relays and differential 'traces' which can never be grasped by the individual speaker. What Saussure calls the 'natural bond' between sound and sense—the guaranteed self-knowledge of speech—is in fact a delusion engendered by the age-old repression of a 'feared and subversive' writing. To question that bond is to venture into regions as yet uncharted, and requires a rigorous effort of conceptual desublimation or 'waking up'. Writing is that which exceeds—and has the power to dismantle—the whole traditional edifice of Western attitudes to thought and language.
The repression of writing lies deep in Saussure's proposed methodology. It shows in his refusal to consider any form of linguistic notation outside the phonetic-alphabetical script of Western culture. As opposed, that is, to the non-phonetic varieties which Derrida often discusses: hieroglyphs, algebraic notions, formalized languages of different kinds. This 'phonocentric' bias is closely allied, in Derrida's view, to the underlying structure of assumptions which links Saussure's project to Western metaphysics. So long as writing is treated as a more or less faithful transcription of the elements of speech, its effects can be safely contained within that massive tradition. As Derrida puts it:
The system of language associated with phonetic-alphabetic writing is that within which logocentric metaphysics, determining the sense of being as presence, has been produced. This logocentrism, this epoch of the full speech, has always placed in parenthesis, suspended, and suppressed for essential reasons, all free reflection on the origin and status of writing. [Of Grammatology]
There is a deep connection between the craving for selfpresence, as it affects the philosophy of language, and the 'phonocentrism' which prevents linguistic method from effectively broaching the question of writing. Both are components of a powerful metaphysic which works to confirm the 'natural' priority of speech.
Derrida shows that these assumptions, though consistent and mutually reinforcing at a certain level, lie open to disruption as soon as one substitutes 'writing' for 'speech' in the conceptual order that governs them. The effect is unsettling not only for linguistics but for every field of enquiry based on the idea of an immediate, intuitive access to meaning. Derrida traces the exclusion or degradation of writing as a gesture perpetually re-enacted in the texts of Western philosophy. It occurs wherever reason looks for a ground or authenticating method immune to the snares of textuality. If meaning could only attain to a state of self-sufficient intelligibility, language would no longer present any problem but serve as an obedient vehicle of thought. To pose the question of writing in its radical, Derridean form is thus to transgress—or 'violently' oppose—the conventional relation of language and thought.
Such is the deconstructive violence to which Derrida subjects the texts of Saussure and his structuralist successors. It is not a question, he repeats, of rejecting the entire Saussurian project or denying its historical significance. Rather it is a matter of driving that project to its ultimate conclusions and seeing where those conclusions work to challenge the project's conventional premisses. In Derrida's words,
It is when he is not expressly dealing with writing, when he feels he has closed the parentheses on that subject, that Saussure opens the field of a general grammatology … then one realizes that what was chased off limits, the wandering outcast of linguistics, has indeed never ceased to haunt language as its primary and most intimate possibility. Then something which was never spoken and which is nothing other than writing itself as the origin of language writes itself in Saussure's discourse. [Of Grammatology]
Saussure is thus not merely held up as one more exemplar of a blind and self-deceiving tradition. Derrida makes it clear that structuralism, whatever its conceptual limits, was a necessary stage on the way to deconstruction. Saussure set the terms for a development which passed beyond the grasp of his explicit programme but which could hardly have been formulated otherwise. By repressing the problem which his own theory of language all but brought into view, Saussure transcended the express limitations of that theory. The very concept of 'writing' was enlarged through this encounter into something primordial and far removed from its place in traditional usage.
The point will bear repeating: deconstruction is not simply a strategic reversal of categories which otherwise remain distinct and unaffected. It seeks to undo both a given order of priorities and the very system of conceptual opposition that makes that order possible. Thus Derrida is emphatically not trying to prove that 'writing' in its normal, restricted sense is somehow more basic than speech. On the contrary, he agrees with Saussure that linguistics had better not yield uncritically to the 'prestige' that written texts have traditionally enjoyed in Western culture. If the opposition speech/writing is not subjected to a full critique, it remains 'a blind prejudice', one which (in Derrida's phrase) 'is no doubt common to the accused and the prosecutor'. Deconstruction is better provided with texts, like Saussure's, which foreground the problematic status of writing precisely by adopting a traditional perspective. A repressed writing then reasserts itself most forcibly through the detours and twists of implication discovered in Saussure. It is the 'tension between gesture and statement' in such critical texts which 'liberates the future of a general grammatology'.
Deconstruction is therefore an activity of reading which remains closely tied to the texts it interrogates, and which can never set up independently as a self-enclosed system of operative concepts. Derrida maintains an extreme and exemplary scepticism when it comes to defining his own methodology. The deconstructive leverage supplied by a term like writing depends on its resistance to any kind of settled or definitive meaning. To call it a 'concept' is to fall straight away into the trap of imagining some worked-out scheme of hierarchical ideas in which 'writing' would occupy its own, privileged place. We have seen how structuralism proved itself amenable to such uses. The concept of structure is easily kidnapped by a tame methodology which treats it as a handy organizing theme and ignores its unsettling implications. Derrida perceives the same process at work in the structured economy of differential features which Saussure described as the precondition of language. Once the term is fixed within a given explanatory system, it becomes (like 'structure') usable in ways that deny or suppress its radical insights.
Hence Derrida's tactical recourse to a shifting battery of terms which cannot be reduced to any single, self-identical meaning. Differance is perhaps the most effective of these, since it sets up a disturbance at the level of the signifier (created by the anomalous spelling) which graphically resists such reduction. Its sense remains suspended between the two French verbs 'to differ' and 'to defer', both of which contribute to its textual force but neither of which can fully capture its meaning. Language depends on 'difference' since, as Saussure showed once and for all, it consists in the structure of distinctive oppositions which make up its basic economy. Where Derrida breaks new ground, and where the science of grammatology takes its cue, is in the extent to which 'differ' shades into 'defer'. This involves the idea that meaning is always deferred, perhaps to the point of an endless supplementarity, by the play of signification. Differance not only designates this theme but offers in its own unstable meaning a graphic example of the process at work.
Derrida deploys a whole rhetoric of similar terms as a means of preventing the conceptual closure—or reduction to an ultimate meaning—which might otherwise threaten his texts. Among them is the notion of 'supplement', itself bound up in a supplementary play of meaning which defies semantic reduction. To see how it is put to work we can turn to Derrida's essays on Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss [in Of Grammatology], where the theme is that of writing in the context of anthropology and the cultural 'sciences of man'.
For Derrida, writing (in its extended sense) is at once the source of all cultural activity and the dangerous knowledge of its own constitution which culture must always repress. Writing takes on the subversive character of a 'debased, lateralized, displaced theme', yet one that exercises 'a permanent and obsessive pressure … a feared writing must be cancelled because it erases the presence of the selfsame (propre) within speech'. This passage occurs in the course of a chapter on Rousseau, whose Essay on the Origin of Languages is the starting point for one of Derrida's most brilliant meditations.
Rousseau thought of speech as the originary form and the healthiest, most 'natural' condition of language. Writing he regarded with curious distrust as a merely derivative and somehow debilitating mode of expression. This attitude of course falls square with Rousseau's philosophy of human nature, his conviction that mankind had degenerated from a state of natural grace into the bondage of politics and civilized existence. Language becomes an index of the degree to which nature is corrupted and divided against itself by the false sophistications of culture. What Derrida does, in a remarkable tour of argument, is to show that Rousseau contradicts himself at various points in his text, so that far from proving speech to be the origin of language, and writing a merely parasitic growth, his essay confirms the priority of writing and the illusory character of all such myths of origin.
Rousseau, for instance, treats of writing as the 'supplement' of spoken language, existing in a secondary relation to speech just as speech itself—by the same token—is at one remove from whatever it depicts. Such arguments have a long prehistory in Western thought. Like Plato's mystical doctrine of forms, the effect is to devalue the activities of art and writing by constant appeal to a pure metaphysics of presence, their distance from which condemns them to an endless play of deceitful imitation. For Derrida, the 'supplementarity' of writing is indeed the root of the matter, but not in the derogatory sense that Rousseau intended. Writing is the example par excellence of a supplement which enters into the heart of all intelligible discourse and comes to define its very nature and condition. Derrida shows that Rousseau's essay submits to this reversal even in the process of condemning the subversive influence he attributes to writing and its 'supplementary' character. A whole strange thematics of the supplement runs through the detail of Rousseau's argument like a guilty obsession and twists his implications against their avowed intent. That Rousseau cannot possibly mean what he says (or say what he means) at certain crucial junctures is the outcome of Derrida's perverse but utterly literal reading. Rousseau's text, like Saussure's, is subject to a violent wrenching from within, which prevents it from carrying through the logic of its own professed intention.
Music was one of the manifold interests which went toward the Rousseauist philosophy of culture, and Derrida has some fascinating pages relating Rousseau's ideas on the subject to the general theme of speech versus writing. The argument turns on Rousseau's preference for the vocal or melodic style, which he identified with the Italian music of his time, as against the harmonic or contrapuntal, which typified the supposed weakness and decadence of French tradition. As a matter of musical history this view is open to all kinds of scholarly question. Derrida, however, is not concerned so much with musicological fact as with the textual symptoms of doubt and duplicity which mark Rousseau's argument. The primacy of melody in music is held to follow from its closeness to song, which in turn represents the nearest approach to the passionate origins of speech itself. Harmony enters music by the same 'degenerate' process of supplementarity which marks off writing from speech. As music developed, melody (as Rousseau explains it) 'imperceptibly lost its former energy, and the calculus of intervals was substituted for nicety of inflection'.
Derrida fastens upon this and similar passages in Rousseau's text, and shows that what Rousseau is really describing is the condition, not of music in a phase of historical decline, but of any music which aspires beyond the stage of a primitive, inarticulate cry. Forgetfulness of origin may be the ruse by which harmony and writing manage to efface the primordial 'warmth' of a pure communion with nature. Yet Rousseau is forced obliquely to acknowledge (through the blind-spots and contradictions of his text) that music is strictly unthinkable without the supplement of harmony, or swerve from origin, which marks the possibility of its progress. Rousseau's 'embarrassment' is plainest when he attempts to define the originary nature of melody and song. If song is already, as Rousseau suggests in his Dictionary of Music, 'a kind of modification of the human voice', then how can he assign to it (Derrida asks) 'an absolutely characteristic (propre) modality'? The text unconsciously confesses what Rousseau is at such pains to deny: that thought is incapable of positing a pure, unadulterated origin for speech or song. Rousseau's argument, as Derrida describes it,
twists about in a sort of oblique effort to act as if degeneration were not prescribed in the genesis and as if evil supervened upon a good origin. As if song and speech, which have the same act and the same birth pangs, had not always already begun to separate themselves.
Rousseau's text cannot mean what it says, or literally say what it means. His intentions are skewed and distorted by the 'dangerous supplement' of writing as it approaches the theme of origin.
Derrida perceives such discrepancies at every turn of Rousseau's argument. Wherever the primacy of 'nature' (or speech) is opposed to the debasements of 'culture' (or writing), there comes into play an aberrant logic which inverts the opposition and cuts away the ground of its very meaning. Thus Rousseau's quest for the 'origin' of language turns out to presuppose an already articulate movement of production which must be cut off at source from any such originating presence. The supplement has to be inserted, Derrida writes, 'at the point where language begins to be articulated, is born, that is, from falling short of itself, when its accent or intonation, marking origin and passion within it, is effaced under that other mark of origin which is articulation'.
'Accent', 'intonation' and 'passion' are bound up together as positive terms in Rousseau's philosophy of man and nature. They all belong to that ruling ideology of voice-aspresence which equates the primacy of speech with the virtues of an innocent, unclouded self-knowledge. Rousseau constructs an elaborate mythology based on the contrast between 'natural' languages which remain close to their sources in passionate utterance, and 'artificial' language where passion is overlaid by the rules and devices of convention. The former he associates with 'the South', with a culture largely indifferent to progress and reflecting in its language the gracefulness and innocence of origins. The latter is identified with those 'Northern' characteristics which, for Rousseau, signalize the decadence of progress in culture. Passion is overcome by reason, community life invaded by the forces of large-scale economic order. In language the polarity (according to Rousseau) is equally marked. In the passionate, mellifluous, vowel-based language of the South one encounters speech near the well-spring of its origin. The tongues of the North, by contrast, are marked by a harsh and heavily consonantal structure which makes them more efficient as communicative instruments but widens the rift between feeling and meaning, between instinct and expression.
For Derrida, this Rousseauist mythology is a classic instance of the reasoning that always comes up against its limits in trying to locate any origin (or 'natural' condition) for language. He shows how Rousseau associates the threat of writing with that process of 'articulation' by which language extends its communicative grasp and power. 'Progress' involves a displacement from origin and a virtual supersession of all those elements in speech—accent, melody, the marks of passion—which bound language to the speaking individual and community at large. To deconstruct this mythology of presence, Derrida has only to pursue that 'strange graphic of supplementarity' which weaves its way through Rousseau's text. What emerges is the fact that language, once it passes beyond the stage of a primitive cry, is 'always already' inhabited by writing, or by all those signs of an 'articulate' structure which Rousseau considered decadent. As with Saussure's linguistic methodology, so with Rousseau's historical speculation: speech in its imaginary plenitude of meaning is disrupted at source by the supplement of writing.
This is why Rousseau occupies such a central place in Of Grammatology and Derrida's writing generally. He represents a whole constellation of themes which, in one form or another, have dominated subsequent discourse on language and the 'sciences of man'. His texts are a constant, obsessive repetition of gestures which miss their rhetorical mark and display the insufficiency of language when it strives for an origin beyond all reach. The deadlocked prolixity of Rousseau's text is also a lesson to the modern philosopher or linguist:
Our language, even if we are pleased to speak it, has already substituted too many articulations for too many accents, it has lost life and warmth, it is already eaten by writing. Its accentuated features have been gnawed through by the consonants.
Speech itself is always shot through with the differences and traces of non-present meaning which constitute articulate language. To attempt to 'think the origin' in Rousseau's fashion is therefore to arrive at a paradox which cannot be resolved or surpassed: 'The question is of an originary supplement, if this absurd expression may be risked, totally unacceptable as it is within classical logic.' The supplement is that which both signifies the lack of a 'presence', or state of plenitude for ever beyond recall, and compensates for that lack by setting in motion its own economy of difference. It is nowhere present in language but everywhere presupposed by the existence of language as a pre-articulated system. Philosophies that take no account of its activity are thereby condemned (Derrida argues) to a ceaseless repetition of the paradoxes brought to light in his reading of Rousseau.
This critique is extended to the structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, where Derrida finds the same issues raised in terms of nature versus culture. Lévi-Strauss was among the first to perceive that the insights of structural linguistics could be applied to other 'languages' or signifying systems in the effort to elucidate their underlying codes. This gave rise to what is perhaps the most impressive single achievement of structuralism in its broad-based interpretative mode. Lévi-Strauss rests his analyses of myth and ritual on the conviction that, behind all the surface varieties thrown up by the world's different cultures, there exist certain deep regularities and patterns which reveal themselves to structural investigation. It is a matter of looking beyond their manifest content to the structures of symbolic opposition and sequence that organize these various narratives. At a certain level of abstraction, he argues, it is possible to make out patterns of development and formal relations which cut right across all distinctions of culture and nationality. Myths can then be seen as a problem-solving exercise, adapted to context in various ways but always leading back to the great abiding issues of human existence—mainly the structures of law and taboo surrounding such institutions as marriage, the family, tribal identity, and so forth. The end point of such analysis may well be to discover, as Lévi-Strauss frequently does, a formula of algebraic power and simplicity to express the logic underlying a dispersed corpus of myths.
Derrida reads Lévi-Strauss as an heir to both Saussure's 'phonocentric' bias and Rousseau's nostalgic craving for origins and presence. The two lines of thought converge in what Derrida shows to be a subtle but weighted dialectic between 'nature' and 'culture'. The phonocentric basis of Lévi-Strauss's method derives, quite explicitly, from the structural linguistics of Saussure and Roman Jakobson. But along with this methodological commitment there is also, according to Derrida, a 'linguistic and metaphysical phonologism which raises speech above writing'. In effect, Lévi-Strauss is seen as performing for modern (structuralist) anthropology the same ambiguous service that Rousseau performed for the speculative science of his day. The nature/culture opposition can be shown to deconstruct itself even as Lévi-Strauss yields to the Rousseauistic dream of an innocent language and a tribal community untouched by the evils of civilization.
Derrida's arguments are largely based on a single brief excerpt—'The Writing Lesson'—from Lévi-Strauss's book Tristes Tropiques (1961). Here the anthropologist sets out to analyse the emergence of writing and its consequences among a tribe (the Nambikwara) whose transition to 'civilization' he describes with undisguised feelings of sadness and guilt. He records how the motives of political power ('hierarchization, the economic function … participation in a quasi-religious secret') manifested themselves in the earliest responses to written language. Lévi-Strauss gives expression, like Rousseau, to an eloquent longing for the lost primordial unity of speech-before-writing. He takes upon himself the burden of guilt produced by this encounter between civilization and the 'innocent' culture it ceaselessly exploits. For Lévi-Strauss, the themes of exploitation and writing go naturally together, as do those of writing and violence.
Derrida's answer is not to deny the inherent 'violence' of writing, nor yet to argue that it marks a stage of irreversible advance beyond the 'primitive' mentality. On the one hand he points out that the Nambikwara, on Lévi-Strauss's own evidence, were already subject to a tribal order marked 'with a spectacular violence'. Their social intrigues and rituals of power are in manifest contrast to the retrospective feelings of the anthropologist, who elsewhere presents an idealized picture of their playful and uncorrupted nature. Moreover, as Derrida argues, this suggests that writing is always already a part of social existence, and cannot be dated from the moment when the anthropologist, that guilty spectator, introduced its merely graphic conventions. In truth, there is no such pure 'authenticity' as Lévi-Strauss (like Rousseau) imagines to have been destroyed by the advent of writing in this narrow sense. 'Self-presence, transparent proximity in the face-to-face of countenances … this determination of authenticity is therefore classic … Rousseauistic but already the inheritor of Platonism'. From this point it is possible for Derrida to argue that the violence of writing is there at the outset of all social discourse; that in fact it marks 'the origin of morality as of immorality', the 'nonethical opening of ethics'.
Thus Derrida's critique of Lévi-Strauss follows much the same path as his deconstructive readings of Rousseau and Saussure. Once again it is a matter of taking a repressed or subjugated theme (that of writing), pursuing its various textual ramifications and showing how these subvert the very order that strives to hold them in check. Writing, for Lévi-Strauss, is an instrument of oppression, a means of colonizing the primitive mind by allowing it to exercise (within due limits) the powers of the oppressor. In Derrida's reading this theme of lost innocence is seen as a romantic illusion and a last, belated showing of the Rousseauist mystique of origins. 'Writing' in Lévi-Strauss's sense is a merely derivative activity which always supervenes upon a culture already 'written' through the forms of social existence. These include the codes of naming, rank, kinship and other such systematized constraints. Thus the violence described by Lévi-Strauss presupposes, 'as the space of its possibility, the violence of the arche-writing, the violence of difference, of classification, and of the system of appellations'.
This latter has to do with the function of names in Nambikwara society, their significance and mode of designation. Lévi-Strauss offers a casual anecdote about some children who took out their private animosities by each revealing the other's name in a round of mutual revenge. Since the Nambikwara, according to Lévi-Strauss, place strict prohibitions on the use of proper names, this episode becomes symbolic of the violence that intrudes upon preliterate cultures when their language gives way to promiscuous exchange (or writing). Derrida counters with evidence—again from Lévi-Strauss's own text—that these were not, in fact, 'proper names' in the sense the anecdote requires, but were already part of a 'system of appellation'—a social arrangement—which precludes the idea of personal possession. The term 'proper name' is itself improper, so the argument runs, because it carries an appeal to authentic, individuated selfhood. What is really involved is a system of classification, a designated name which belongs to the economy of socialized 'difference' and not to the private individual. In this instance, what is prohibited by the Nambikwara is not the breach of any personal rights but rather the utterance of 'what functions as the proper name':
The lifting of the interdict, the great game of the denunciation … does not consist in revealing proper names, but in tearing the veil hiding a classification … the inscription within a system of linguistico-social differences.
Derrida's strategies are most clearly on view in these pages devoted to Lévi-Strauss. The 'nature' which Rousseau identifies with a pure, unmediated speech, and Lévi-Strauss with the dawn of tribal awareness, betrays a nostalgic mystique of presence which ignores the self-alienating character of all social existence. Writing again becomes the pivotal term in an argument that extends its implications to the whole prehistory and founding institutions of society.
Moreover, the evidence pointing to this conclusion is there in the texts of Lévi-Strauss, as it was in the writings of Rousseau and Saussure. It is not some novel and ultrasophisticated 'method' of reading devised to keep criticism one jump ahead. Nor does it impinge from outside and above, like certain forms of Marxist criticism which treat 'the text' as a handy support for their own superior knowledge of its meaning or mode of production…. Indeed, one of the myths or metaphysical ruses Derrida often attacks is the notion that writing is somehow external to language, a threat from outside which must always be countered by the stabilizing presence of speech. Carried down through a long tradition, from Plato to Saussure, this idea is most visibly (and paradoxically) inscribed in the Rousseauistic leanings of Lévi-Strauss. Writing becomes an exteriorized agency of violence and corruption, constantly menacing the communal values so closely identified with speech. Derrida's aim to is to show that, on the contrary, writing emerges both within the very theme of speech and within the text which strives to realize and authenticate that theme. Deconstruction is in this sense the active accomplice of a repressed but already articulate writing. In Derrida's much-quoted phrase, 'Il n'y a pas de hors-texte' ('There is nothing outside the text').
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SOURCE: "Signposts along the Way That Reason Went," in London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 3, February 16, 1984, pp. 5-6.
[An American philosopher, critic, and educator, Rorty is the most prominent contemporary advocate for the discipline known as pragmatism. In the following review of Margins of Philosophy, he examines the philosophical contexts relevant to Derrida's theories on language. While he argues that Derrida's position vis-à-vis the Western philosophical tendency to privilege reason over rhetoric is not original, he predicts that Derrida will be considered an important philosopher by future generations of scholars.]
If you want to know what the common sense of the bookish will be like fifty years from now, read the philosophers currently being attacked as 'irrationalist'. Then discount the constructive part of what they are saying. Concentrate on the negative things, the criticisms they make of the tradition. That dismissal of the common sense of the past will be the enduring achievement of the long-dead 'irrationalist'. His or her suggestions about what to do next will look merely quaint, but the criticisms of his or her predecessors will seem obvious.
For example, everybody has doubts about the superman and the Oedipus complex, but nobody wants to revive the moral psychology which Nietzsche and Freud found in place. Everybody has doubts that truth is just 'what works', but nobody (well, almost nobody) wants to revive the 'copy theory of ideas' which James and Dewey criticised. Fifty years from now, nobody will want to listen to the Voice of Being, or to deconstruct texts, but nobody will take seriously the ways of distinguishing between science, philosophy and art which Heidegger and Derrida criticise. Nowadays both men look like eccentrics, an impression they do their best to encourage. Their writings are filled with explanations of how very marginal, how very different and unlike all other philosophers they are. But in time they will be seen as central to the philosophical tradition, as having overcome certain ways of thinking which were 'mythic' or 'self-deceptive' or 'culture-bound' (or whatever near-synonym of 'irrational' is then in fashion). 'Reason' is always being redefined in order to accommodate the irrationalists of the preceding generation.
Heidegger and Derrida get called 'irrationalist' because they want us to stop looking for a final resting-place for thought—the sort of thing which Being or Mind or Reason were once thought to be. Capitalised words of this sort were thought to name things such that, if one knew enough about them, one would be in a better (perhaps the best possible) position to know about everything else. If one knew about Being as such, maybe everything else would seem merely a special case. If one knew what Mind or Reason was, maybe one could tell when one's mind had done its job, or gauge one's own rationality better. If one knew the nature of Language, perhaps one would have a standpoint from which to choose among all those competing languages—the Christian, the liberal, the Marxist, the Freudian, the sociobiological etc—which claim to 'place' all other jargons, to supply the meta-instruments which will test out every new-fangled conceptual instrument.
The suggestion that Language might be the Archimedean point sought by the philosophical tradition was explored by analytic philosophy—a movement which was fascinated by the idea that 'logic' or 'conceptual analysis' named instruments by which all the rest of culture could be held at arm's length, seen in a clear cold light. From Heidegger's and Derrida's point of view, that movement was just one more effort at 'metaphysics' or 'totalisation'—one more attempt to give the perturbed spirit rest. It was also bound to be short-lived, for Language is simply not as plausible a candidate for a resting-place as its predecessors. What Heidegger called 'the onto-theological tradition' made it possible to think of 'Being' or 'Mind' as names for a causal force, a power with which it would be desirable to stand well, something big and strong enough to put everything else in its place. But 'Language' doesn't sound like the name of a thing, a locus of causal power. It is not a suitable sobriquet for Omniscience. 'Language' suggests something sprawling, something which dissipates its forces by rambling on. That is why, in the philosophical tradition, language has usually been something to be avoided—sometimes by replacing lots of little words with one big Word, sometimes by concentrating on 'logic', envisaged as a sort of concentrated essence of language, all the language the philosopher really needs to know.
Derrida's principal theme in these essays [collected in Margins of Philosophy] is the attempt of the tradition to make language look less sprawling by trimming off unwanted growth. This is done by making invidious distinctions between true (e.g. 'literal' or 'cognitively meaningful') language and false (e.g. 'metaphorical' or 'meaningless') language. He is arguing that this attempt cannot succeed, because it is just the latest version of the onto-theological attempt to contrast the Great Good Resting-Place with the sprawling world of time and chance. He wants to convince us that there is no natural hierarchy of discourses or jargons, no structure topped off by the super-language which gives us a grip on all the others, the words which classify all the other words. There is no privileged language in which to state invidious distinctions between true and false language. There is no linguistic material out of which we can forge clippers with which to snip off unfruitful linguistic suckers. He thinks Heidegger betrayed his own project by trying to separate 'real' language (the Call of Being, the kind of language which 'is what it says') from 'inauthentic' language (words used as means to technocratic ends, chatter, the jargon of this or that disciplinary matrix).
Derrida is one of the very few philosophers, perhaps the only one so far, to go along enthusiastically and whole-heartedly with Heidegger's criticism of 'onto-theology' while still resisting the old wizard's spell. After learning all that Heidegger had to teach, he still manages to look Heidegger in the eye and stare him down. Heidegger's own writing combined enormous respect for such predecessors as Plato and Nietzsche with a fierce will to be free of them. Derrida has the same filial relation to Heidegger himself. Having done to Heidegger what Heidegger did to Nietzsche is the negative achievement which, after all the chatter about 'deconstruction' is over, will give Derrida a place in the history of philosophy. By the year 2034, after a new generation of 'irrationalists' has made Heidegger and Derrida look like pussycats, the genealogical charts for the philosophers of our century are likely to show Derrida as standing to Heidegger as Wittgenstein stands to Russell. What Russell did to Mill, Wittgenstein did to Russell by finding something right in Mill after all—the empirical character of the a priori. What Heidegger did to Nietzsche, Derrida has done to Heidegger by recovering Nietzsche's slaphappy je-m'en-foutisme, his refusal to be 'serious' and concentrated and Thoughtful.
Nobody on our side of the Channel has as yet managed to face down the later Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein has as yet had no brave, strong, parricidal sons. But even though we have not struggled with him properly, we Anglo-Saxon philosophers know Wittgenstein better than Heidegger: so, because much of what Derrida says about language sounds pretty much like what the Philosophical Investigations said, we may conclude that in France they are just now catching up with what we learned as students. We were raised to sneer at Hegelian absolute knowledge, Marxist certainty about the direction of history, Husserlian apodicticity, Russellian logical form, positivist 'meaning-analysis', and the rest of the bag of onto-theological tricks. We learned while still young that logic was not something sublime, that philosophy consisted in 'assembling reminders for a particular purpose' rather than constructing 'theories of meaning', and that our aim was to show ourselves the way out of the fly-bottle. We were taught to be suspicious of the kinds of cuts between good and bad language suggested by Russell and Ayer, and to be equally suspicious of the Tractatus's concluding injunction to sacred silence. To a philosophical generation raised on Wittgenstein's advice to think of language as a tool rather than a medium, and urged by Quine to be as holistic and behaviouristic as possible in our account of how language works, a climb to the top of a hierarchy of language-games has little appeal. Such philosophers find Derrida more fervid than necessary. His advice not to capitalise Language, to let it sprawl, seems unneeded.
This is one reason for resistance to Derrida. There are at least two others. One is that he has become a fad among students of literature, who have mastered a gimmick called 'deconstructive reading', one which rivals 'psychoanalytic reading' as a formula for producing lots of seemingly original articles very quickly. This gimmick should not be confused with anything Derrida himself does (nor with 'Yale'—the diverse things which a remarkable constellation of original critics, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller and the late Paul de Man, were already doing before Derrida came along to join them). Derrida did write some things which encouraged the belief that he had discovered a brand-new whiz-bang method of finding out what texts 'were really about'. But, mercifully, he did not write many of them. He should not get more blame for his blithe and brutal young followers than Freud gets for his.
Another, less accidental reason Derrida is distrusted is that he occasionally assumes an analytic, argumentative stance which is entirely inappropriate to what he is doing. There are passages (especially in his earlier, more 'academic' work, some of which is translated in the volume under review) in which he seems to be saying that other philosophers' views of Language can be shown to be wrong by appealing to some commonly recognised criteria. But, in the first place, it betrays Derrida's own project to suggest that there is something out there—Language—to get right or wrong. In the second place, there are no criteria of the sort which he seems to invoke.
Consider, as a sample of Derridean argument, the last essay in this volume—'Signature Event Context'. This begins with the question: 'Is it certain that there corresponds to the word communication a unique, univocal concept, a concept that can be rigorously grasped and transmitted, a communicable concept?' It proceeds to show that this is not certain, for there is no 'rigorous and scientific conception of context' which one can invoke to 'reduce the field of equivocity covered by the word communication'. Derrida writes as if we could all tell a 'rigorous scientific conception' or a 'univocal concept' when we see one, and as if he were going to show us that our criteria for univocity or rigour have, alas, not been fulfilled.
We have to have swallowed this suggestion that we want, and thought we had, a 'univocal concept' of communication if we are going to be impressed by Derrida's (perfectly correct) claim that 'every sign … can be cited, put between quotation-marks; thereby it can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely non-saturatable fashion.' That fact does indeed show that 'there are only contexts, without any centre of absolute anchoring,' but few readers would have thought that communication required absolute anchors if Derrida hadn't been so skilful at insinuating that this was a presupposition of 'the entire history of philosophy', that throughout this history it had been believed that 'meaning, the content of the semantic message, is … communicated … within an homogenous element across which the unity and integrity of meaning is not affected in an essential way.' The reader is supposed to say to himself or herself: 'Gee, I guess I had believed that; how credulous I have been.' He or she then becomes a prospective customer for the 'new logic, a graphematics of iterability' which Derrida suggests we are going to have to develop. Why would anybody think that the fact that you can always create a new context (and thus a new meaning) for any given sign entails that you can't communicate univocally, that you can't get your message across without 'the unity and integrity of meaning being affected in an essential way'? Does anyone really think of the meaning of a sign as being like the shape of a coin, rather than like its value (something which is different from year to year, and different for currency exchanges, scrap-metal dealers, numismatists etc)? There are certainly people who have to pretend to think in this way. 'Would a reasonable man have taken the meaning of this letter to be …?' is a proper question to pose to a jury. But even people who invoke such professional pretences are quite aware that you can give any sign a new meaning by putting it in quotation-marks. They don't think that they need 'a rigorous scientific notion of context', a way of drawing a neat line between sign and context, in order to say that quoting something provides a new context for it. They would regard this demand for rigorous demarcation as being like the demand for a distinction between a thing and its properties, or an artichoke and its leaves. Only a philosopher would want such a thing.
But maybe this is enough for Derrida? His essay was, after all, 'a communication to the Congrès International des Sociétés de Philosophie de Langue Française' (which was staging a colloquium on 'Communication'). Maybe it is only 'the entire history of philosophy' which has believed all these silly things, while the laity have always been too sensible to do so? Actually, this is pretty close to what Derrida thinks. He does not think that all those French-speaking philosophers in his original audience were that dumb, but he does think that there is a useful definition of 'philosophy' according to which it names just that sort of belief—beliefs in clear and distinct ideas, in concepts so shiny that contexts roll right off them, in signs so sharp-edged that they cut right through attempts to use them equivocally, in thinking and writing whose clarity is intrinsic, not just a matter of familiarity to a readership.
Philosophy, so defined, is the subject—the only subject—of Margins of Philosophy. If read as essays on that subject, rather than on communication or meaning or metaphor or Language, this book makes admirable sense. But if one gets stuck on questions like 'Has Derrida really demonstrated that our concept of communication is equivocal, our conception of metaphor internally inconsistent, our notion of sign in need of revision through the development of a graphematics of iterability?' one will soon get disgusted with the book. Not only does he not demonstrate anything like this, he is not really trying to. He is continually pretending to play the professional game of searching for clear and distinct ideas, eliminating equivocity, being rigorous in some absolute way (not simply a way which is relative to a given readership). He is also continually giving you sly hints that he would not be caught dead doing anything of the sort. He plays this game of mirrors brilliantly, but it palls quickly. The way to avoid getting caught up in it is to not take questions like 'What is Language?' seriously enough to think that Derrida is going to give you some nice new answers to them. Do not read this book in search of contributions to an understanding of the nature of signs, or metaphors, or anything else. Avoid letting Derrida use you as a straight person. Do not let the weak and question-begging character of his arguments lead you to think that he has not made his case. When you hit something that looks like an argument, remember that an argument requires speaker and hearer to share a vocabulary and a set of beliefs, and that Derrida has no intention of sharing yours. If he seems to do so, he only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases. Distrust of Derridean argumentation is perfectly justified, but it is distrust of an unfortunate mannerism, one which Derrida dropped in his later work.
Do not, on the other hand, think that, since you have never (or at least not since reading Wittgenstein) taken clear and distinct ideas seriously, you need not read one more book debunking them. The onto-theological tradition is not shrugged off so easily. Anybody who thinks of himself as having some non-philosophical arguments with which to expose the silliness of the philosophers, or some position outside philosophy from which to view it, is already a philosopher within the meaning of Derrida's redefinition. Derrida is aiming at the very idea of argument which is more than invocation of the implicit assumptions of a current vocabulary, of a position which is more than a bit of logical space carved out by such a vocabulary. He wants to make trouble for the very ideas of an 'intellectual position', of 'a clear view of a subject', or 'a clear non-metaphorical presentation of the substantive issues'. Let him who can keep thinking without falling back on such ideas, without hoping for a resting-place which will bring his thinking to an end, cast the first blackball.
But what, since he does not argue, does Derrida do to make (or help) us give up our hopes of eternal rest? Roughly, he writes about the self-destructive character of the philosophical tradition and about the difficulty of finding a way out of that tradition: the difficulty of avoiding the self-referential absurdity of adopting a philosophical position which is opposed to the idea of philosophical positions. This could be a very boring subject, and in many philosophers' hands it is. Derrida is saved by being a magnificent writer (and saved for us Anglo Saxons by having found translators—notably Alan Bass—who are able to carry off a nearly impossible task). To see Derrida at his best, try the essay 'White Mythology'. This is the most convincing piece in this volume (except perhaps for a remarkable essay on Heidegger, 'Ousia and Grammé', which is, however, impenetrable for those unfamiliar with Heidegger).
Derrida starts off this essay by quoting Anatole France: 'the very metaphysicians who think to escape the world of appearances are constrained to live perpetually in allegory. A sorry lot of poets, they dim the colours of the ancient fables, and are themselves but gatherers of fables. They produce white mythology.' He comments: 'Metaphysics—the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is to say the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason.' In the Heideggerean sense in which Derrida is using 'metaphysics', it includes physical science—not physical science as an instrument for prediction and control, as a set of devices for synthesising antibiotics and bombs, but physical science as Archimedean point for thought, as the way the world really and truly is, as offering a language which gives us 'matter of fact' rather than one more jargon. Metaphysics, in this sense, is the belief that one has found a vocabulary that is not merely a metaphorics, a kind of language which is really and truly Language because somehow isomorphic with what it represents, literal language as opposed to one more 'way of speaking'.
One could say that Derrida's point in this essay is that we are never going to have a standpoint outside of language from which to judge that a given language is literal, from which to draw the metaphorical-literal distinction. Any language which pats itself on the back by declaring itself to be literal is just developing one more metaphor (that of 'matter of fact'). Such a summary would be accurate enough, but would be like saying that Nabokov's point in Lolita is that life never quite lives up to art. What counts is the detail in which the point is made. Derrida makes his by an unparaphrasable series of exhibitions of the fact that 'philosophy is incapable of dominating its general tropology and metaphorics. It could perceive its metaphorics only around a blind spot or central deafness.' The central image of the essay is that of the heliotrope—the mind as plant which follows the motion of the sun (Plato's supersensible sun, that quasi-deity whose rays cut through all confusion, all obscurity, all metaphor). Derrida concludes the essay by saying that the heliotropic vision, the 'dream at the heart of philosophy', is to 'reduce the play of metaphors to one "central" metaphor'. Then 'there would be no more true metaphor, but only, through the one true metaphor, the assured legibility of the proper.' As he says:
Metaphor, then, always carries its death within itself. And this death, surely, is also the death of philosophy. But the genitive is double. It is sometimes the death of philosophy, death of a genre belonging to philosophy, which is thought and summarised within it, recognising and fulfilling itself as philosophy; and sometimes the death of a philosophy which does not see itself die and is no longer to be found within philosophy.
The dream at the heart of Derrida's writing is to achieve the second sort of death, to escape the self-referential predicament that anything you say against metaphysics is going to look like more metaphysics, that any metaphor you use for writing about metaphor will look like one more attempt to give the plain, literal facts about what metaphor is. In a sort of foreword to the volume called Tympan, he asks: 'Can one violently penetrate philosophy's field of listening without its immediately … making the penetration resonate within itself, appropriating the emission for itself, familiarly communicating it to itself between the inner and middle ear …? In other words, can one puncture the tympanum of a philosopher and still be heard and understood by him?'
The answer, so far, has been 'no'. Only the first sort of death, the death of a particular genre of metaphysics (e.g. theological, idealistic) which is immediately succeeded by another (e.g. scientistic, positivistic, phenomenological), has been achieved. Derrida would like to find a kind of writing which is not one more such genre. The presence of such writing in the world would serve as a black hole, into which all future metaphysics which pretends to be scientific would disappear. Such a writing would be a new sort of philosopher's stone, not one which locks within itself the whole light of the sun, but a sort of anti-heliotrope. Derrida ends 'White Mythology' by saying: 'Heliotrope also names a stone, a precious stone, greenish and streaked with red veins, a kind of oriental jasper.'
Such a concluding gesture towards the East, away from the white man's effort to characterise the dissemination of 'the Greek miracle' as the march of Reason through the world, is common to Derrida and Heidegger. I suggested at the outset that the gesture would fail, that when the bearers of the white man's philosophical burden tire of denouncing these two as slackers they will proceed to marmorealise them, gestures and all—to set them up as signposts along the way that Reason went. But the more writers of this sort we have had (and Heidegger and Derrida are by no means the first), the less Greek, perhaps even the less white, we have become. Perhaps we are already closer than Derrida thinks to a point at which we can afford to fudge the distinctions between rationality and irrationality, and between philosophy, art and science—a point where all thinking and writing will become grist for a single mill. If this is so, then Derrida may be writing about metaphors which few people take seriously. Maybe it is only the philosophers ex professo who still dream of a non-metaphorical statement of the substantive issues, of 'rigorous and scientific concepts', unequivocal meanings. If so, the philosophers of the future may no longer be charting the march of Reason. They may find some other medium in which to freeze Derrida's gesture. A cameo of curiously streaked bloodstone, suitable for wear as a protective amulet, would be more appropriate than the usual colossus of white marble.
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SOURCE: "Deconstructive Methodology," in The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection, Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 121-76.
[Gasché is a Luxembourgian-born American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he defines the methodology of deconstruction, examining it implications for the analysis of philosophical discourse in relation to Hegel's speculative metaphysics.]
If deconstruction reaches out for "ultimate foundations," it may be said to represent a methodical principle of philosophical foundation and grounding. Such a statement, however, must be rendered more precise and secured against a number of misunderstandings. All the concepts implied in this statement will have to be put in quotation marks.
Methods are generally understood as roads (from hodos: "way," "road") to knowledge. In the sciences, as well as in the philosophies that scientific thinking patronizes, method is an instrument for representing a given field, and it is applied to that field from the outside. That is, it is on the side of the subject and is an external reflection of the object. It is an instrumental approach to knowledge from an entirely subjective position. Yet such a relation of scientific representation as a form exterior to a given content is in principle extraneous to any thinking philosophy. This, however, is not to say that methodical thought should be replaced "by the non-method of presentiment and inspiration, or by the arbitrariness of prophetic utterance, both of which despise not only scientific pomposity, but scientific procedure of all kinds," as Hegel puts it [in his Phenomenology of Spirit]. For genuine philosophical thought, methods are always determined methods, which have their source in the region to which they apply and which are dependent on the nature and specificity of that region. For this reason the ultimate method—that is, the method that represents the philosophical itinerary to truth—must be one that describes the intrinsic and spontaneous movement of truth itself. The philosophical method, as the road toward truth in a domain that is itself determined in terms of truth, implies philosophy's self-implication, and the necessity to reflect itself into self-consciousness. Since Plato such a method has been called dialektike, the science of dividing (diairesis) and reunification (synagoge). Such a method is nothing other than the patient pursuit of the conceptual activity of truth as it develops its own coherence. It is thus not a formal procedure or rule separate from the content of truth. Method, then, is no longer simply the way to truth; it is truth itself. This is what Hegel means when, in the last chapter of the greater Logic, entitled "The Absolute Idea," he finally thematizes the concept of method: "From this course the method has emerged as the self-knowing Notion that has itself, as the absolute, both subjective and objective, for its subject matter, consequently as the pure correspondence of the Notion and its reality, as a concrete existence that is the Notion itself" [Hegel, The Science of Logic]. What is called "method" in Hegel is thus the totalizing dynamic description of the intellectual activity that, as "the soul of being," attains its most complex and complete fulfillment in the Notion or Concept wherein that activity achieves full self-determination. In other words, method for Hegel is identical to the structure of thought, insofar as thought is also the systematic and genetic exposition of the successive moments that constitute it as a whole. In Hegel it coincides with the self-experience of thought.
To the extent that Derrida's work is a genuinely philosophical inquiry that takes the standard rules of philosophy very seriously, its "method" is certainly not characterized by any exteriority to its object. But is this to say that, in the last resort, it would tend to coincide with the movement of the self-exposition of truth as Concept? Undoubtedly not, since deconstruction also manifestly includes the deconstruction of dialectics, in both a Platonic and a Hegelian sense. As a method, deconstruction is very much determined by the region and the regions of philosophy to which it applies. Yet Derrida has argued that deconstruction is exorbitant to the totality of philosophical knowledge, in particular as that knowledge culminates in the Hegelian Concept. It proceeds from a certain point of exteriority to the whole of the region of all regions of philosophy so as to reinscribe or reground that totality in or with regard to what is exorbitant to it. Obviously, such a procedure not only makes it impossible to give the usual methodological or logical intraorbitary assurances for an operation such as deconstruction, but it also raises the question whether deconstruction can be thought of in terms of method.
Taking off from a certain point outside the totality of the age of logocentrism,—that is, the totality constitutive of philosophy, and in particular speculative philosophy, which claims to have achieved that totality—deconstruction seems to flirt with the scientific idea of method that is characterized precisely by its exteriority to its object. But as we shall see, this point of exteriority to the totality is not that of the subject. Deconstruction is never the effect of a subjective act of desire or will or wishing. What provokes a deconstruction is rather of an "objective" nature. It is a "must," so to speak. "The incision [l'entame; also 'opening,' 'beginning,' 'broaching'] of deconstruction, which is not a voluntary decision or an absolute beginning, does not take place just anywhere, or in an absolute elsewhere. An incision, precisely, it can be made only according to lines of force and forces of rupture that are localizable in the discourse to be deconstructed" [Derrida, Positions].
Deconstruction, as a methodical principle, cannot be mistaken for anything resembling scientific procedural rules, in spite of its departure from a certain point outside philosophy, nor does it yield to philosophy's classical definition of method, according to which the method must not be irreducibly alien to the field through which it leads. Although deconstruction is an eminently philosophical operation, an operation of extreme sensibility toward the immanence or inherence of the ways of thought to that which is thought—the subject matter (the identity of method and concept, as Hegel would say)—it is not strictu sensu methodical, since it does take place from a certain point outside such an identity. Therefore, deconstruction is also the deconstruction of the concept of method (both scientific and philosophical) and has to be determined accordingly.
As in Heidegger, the scientific and philosophical concepts of method are reductive concepts for Derrida. According to Heidegger, the concept of method, by inaugurating the technologization of thought, has radically disfigured the essence of the road (hodos) as the proper mode of philosophical thought. In his debate with method, however, Derrida does not attempt to oppose a more fundamental notion of method to scientific or philosophical method. If method for Derrida is a reductive concept, it is so in a different sense than for Heidegger. For Derrida, method is by nature reductive, whether it is fundamental or only derived. Yet it would be a great mistake to conclude that because deconstruction is critical of the discourse of metaphysics and its concept of method (scientific or philosophical), it would, in total disrespect of all levels, indulge in uncontrollable free play. Although a deconstruction of method, deconstruction is not a nonmethod, an invitation to wild and private lucubrations. The rigor of deconstruction is exemplified, for example, by the discrete steps it takes to deconstruct method. Like those of dissemination, the steps of deconstruction, says Derrida, "allow for (no) method [pas de méthode]: no path leads around in a circle toward a first step, nor proceeds from the simple to the complex, nor leads from a beginning to an end … We here note a point/lack of method [point de méthode]: this [however] does not rule out a certain marching order" [Dissemination].
It is therefore important to emphasize the systematism of deconstruction. It represents a procedure all of whose movements intertwine to form a coherent theoretical configuration. Thus deconstructive "methodology" as a whole cannot be characterized by any impressionistic or empiricist appropriation of one or two of its "moments." A mere evocation of some of these moments, or of some of the themes with which deconstruction is concerned, will never lead to any true insight into what deconstruction purports to achieve.
Derrida makes varied use of the term deconstruction. In the early writings especially, deconstruction sometimes merely translates Abbau or Destruktion; at other times it metonymically names its own different movements or steps as well; and finally by appositional qualifications it now and again appears to differentiate between a multiplicity of operations. Yet for the most part, the term has a very definite meaning. Even if the operation of deconstruction also affects the concept of method, nothing prevents our formalizing to some extent the different theoretical movements that make up one rigorous notion of deconstruction. Before we can discuss the methodical aspect of deconstruction, however, we must clarify its theoretical presuppositions, determining the specific point at which it becomes compelling and operational, the different steps that lead up to that point, and finally the aims of deconstruction. Only against such a background can the formal characteristics of deconstruction be fully understood.
Let us recall Gadamer's contention that absolute reflection as it is articulated by Hegel anticipates all logically possible reflective stands on the speculative totality of philosophy by turning them into particular moments of that totality. More generally speaking, Hegel's discourse is thought to have taken account of all possible Otherness to that totality, including the concept of Otherness and exteriority, of a remainder or a beyond to the system, by making them simple elements in the process of the self-elaboration of truth. With this, of course, philosophy reaches its completion and its end. Derrida recognizes this completion of philosophy in speculative thought as well when he writes that "in completing itself, [philosophy] could both include within itself and anticipate all the figures of its beyond, all the forms and resources of its exterior; and could do so in order to keep these forms and resources close to itself by simply taking hold of their enunciation" [Writing and Difference]. The compelling problem at that moment is how to break the silence without falling back behind the logical achievements of Hegel's position when in the end there is nothing left to be said. Like all other philosophies, starting with the Hegelian left, which in the wake of Hegel's completion of the metaphysical project of philosophy became aware of the dilemma posed by Hegel's thought, Derrida acknowledges that Hegel's superior solution of the traditional problems of philosophy is a terrible challenge to philosophical thought. Obviously that challenge cannot be met either through a deliberate decision to overcome Hegel's completion of metaphysics or by simple indifference. That brief segment of the history of the tradition of contesting metaphysics in the aftermath of Hegel, which,… began with Nietzsche, clearly shows what is at stake. Instead of ignoring the task, such a tradition, on the contrary, testifies to the increasing urgency of meeting that challenge, as well as to an equally increasing vigilance concerning all the methodological tools and themes that purport to unhinge the discourse of absolute knowing. After Heidegger's destruction, Derrida's deconstruction is the latest and most complex development of that tradition.
How, then, are we to characterize, in as succinct a manner as possible, Derrida's approach to the problem? Hegel's philosophy must be described as an attempt to overcome the aporias of traditional philosophical positions, which arise from a naive adoption of a set of inherited conceptual oppositions, by constructively destroying them in a purely conceptual genesis. Derrida's concern is with a naivety unthought by philosophy in general, a blindness constitutive of philosophical thought, Hegel's speculative system included. This naivety is an essential one and is a function of the logical (dialectical or not) consistency sought and achieved by the philosophical discourse. It is not a naivety that would hamper the solution of traditional philosophical problems; on the contrary, it is a blindness without which there may be no hope of ever solving them. This naivety is that of the philosophical discourse, of its practice of arguing toward and exposing its concepts. Derrida, who is particularly concerned with the discursive strategies constitutive of the speculative solution (in all its forms) of the aporias to which the traditional formation of concepts leads, has described the approach of singling out this discursive naivety as follows:
A task is then prescribed: to study the philosophical text in its formal structure, in its rhetorical organization, in the specificity and diversity of its textual types, in its models of exposition and production—beyond what previously were called genres—and also in the space of its mises en scène, in a syntax which would be not only the articulation of its signifieds, its references to Being or to truth, but also the handling of its proceedings, and of everything invested in them. [Margins of Philosophy]
The naiveties brought to light by such a study—a study that is not yet the deconstruction of the philosophical text but only its negative and prior moment—are not, properly speaking, logical deficiencies. Thus, after pointing out in "The Double Session" [in Dissemination] that, for organizational reasons concerning the text of Philebos, Plato's contention of a priority of the imitated over imitation is problematic in the text itself, Derrida warns us "not to be too quick to call [it] contradictory." Contradictions are in principle susceptible to a (dialectical) solution. What Derrida is pointing out here is an inconsistency on the level of philosophical argumentation that cannot be mended, but that nevertheless makes it possible to obtain the desired authoritative results. The very success of Plato's dialogue hinges on such inconsistencies.
These naiveties are contradictions owing neither to an inconsistency in logical argumentation nor to the rhetorical force of the discourse of philosophy. To call these naiveties logical deficiencies or to make them dependent on the inevitable rhetorical use of language in philosophy is to describe only very approximately the sorts of problems exhibited in what may be called the propaedeutics of deconstruction. It is even misleading, because the logical and the rhetorical are, precisely, corresponding intraphilosophical norms of the coherence and cohesion of the philosophical discourse, whose unthought is being focused upon here. In its apparent contradiction to the logical exigencies of philosophical discourse, the rhetorical, figural, and improper use of language combines with the logical use of language to achieve the desired conceptual transparency.
In order to understand the full impact of the shift from one sort of criticism of naivety to another—from the philosophical criticism of the unscientific and unphilosophical consciousness and its "natural attitude" (from Parmenides to Husserl) to the critique of the naiveties implied by the discursive pragmatics of the first type of criticism (speculative or not)—it is necessary to recall that at least since Plato, all major philosophical concepts have represented desiderata, values not of what is but of what ought to be. As Derrida has shown, since its inception philosophy has been conceived of as an antidote to the Other of philosophy, either in the form of the masters of illusion, the charlatans and thaumaturges (in the Republic for instance), or in the form of the unrepresentable and unnameable, which in Kant's Third Critique is thematized under the name of the disgusting, against which it is said that we strive with all our might. Moreover, all of philosophy's concepts and values are dreams of plenitude. It would be simplistic to retort that such would be true only of idealist philosophy, since even the most empirical description in philosophy of what is is normative, even were it only for the inevitably axiological dimension of the concepts used in description. As desiderata, all philosophical concepts are in a way utopian and atopic; they represent what Derrida calls ethico-teleological or ethico-ontological values. Hence the history of philosophy is the expression of the need to think these concepts, again and again, in a satisfactory and desirable manner—satisfactory, that is, according to the principle of noncontradiction. All these desiderata of philosophy are thus concepts of unity, totality, identity, cohesion, plenitude, states of noncontradiction, in which the negative has been absorbed by the positive, states that lack, and by all rights precede, all dissension, difference, and separation, states of peace and reconciliation. Yet Derrida's contention is not simply that it would be impossible to think noncontradiction in a noncontradictory way. By focusing on the formal, organizational, and textual production of noncontradiction in the philosophical discourse, he shows that, on the contrary, what makes noncontradiction possible and successful within the limits of philosophy's expectations is precisely the evasion of insight that results from the failure to question the discrepancies and inconsistencies of philosophy's mise en scène. This is the naivety that is thematized in Derrida's writings.
This inquiry into the process of philosophical conceptualization, as well as into the practice of discursive exposition and the structures of philosophical argumentation, brings to light a whole new field of "contradictions" and "aporias," which, instead of simply belying the philosophical enterprise, are rather constitutive of its successful completion. If one could venture to say that Heidegger reveals a theme unthought by metaphysics—the question of the ontico-ontological difference—one could certainly say that Derrida discloses the unthought syntax (a word that I shall have to render more precise) of philosophical conceptualization and argumentation. Since the "contradictions" and "aporias" that spring from this unthought dimension of philosophical practice have never been thematized by philosophy itself and are thus in a certain way exterior to the traditional and coded problems of philosophy, they cannot be construed as contradictions or aporias proper. Therefore, rigorously speaking, it is misleading to define deconstruction as an operation that, as [Paul] Ricoeur puts it [in The Rule of Metaphor, 1977], "always consists in destroying metaphysical discourse by reduction to aporias," without further clarification. Derrida's own occasional use of the words aporia and contradiction does not render such an effort toward clarification dispensable, since understanding deconstruction depends on it. As we shall see, Derrida does not limit the notions of aporia and contradiction to fallacies of philosophical description and predication. Neither are these concepts borrowed from the conceptual arsenal of the skeptical tradition in philosophy, a tradition that throws doubt upon philosophical knowledge only from the perspective of a higher mode of truth. Aporia and contradiction must be understood in Derrida as referring to the general dissimilarity between the various ingredients, elements, or constituents of the discourse of philosophy as such. Indeed, Derrida's parallel inquiry into the formation of philosophical concepts and the argumentative, discursive, and textual structures of philosophy leads to the recognition of an essential nonhomogeneity between the concepts and philosophical texts or works themselves. All major philosophical concepts, he contends, are ethico-teleological values of unbroached plenitude and presence. But, as respectable as they may be, they "live on a delusion and nonrespect for … [their] own condition of origin" [Of Grammatology]. They exist precisely on a disregard for their own bipolar opposite, to which they deny a value similar to their own. Philosophical concepts would be entirely homogeneous if they possessed a nucleus of meaning that they owed exclusively to themselves—if they were, in other words, conceptual atoms. Yet since concepts are produced within a discursive network of differences, they not only are what they are by virtue of other concepts, but they also, in a fundamental way, inscribe that Otherness within themselves.
Let us outline several ways in which the teleological value of the homogeneity of concepts is disproved by the very process of the formation of concepts. First, since a concept is not a simple point but a structure of predicates clustered around one central predicate, the determining predicate is itself conditioned by the backdrop of the others. Second, each concept is part of a conceptual binary opposition in which each term is believed to be simply exterior to the other. Yet the interval that separates each from its opposite and from what it is not also makes each concept what it is. A concept is thus constituted by an interval, by its difference from another concept. But this interval brings the concept into its own by simultaneously dividing it. The property of a concept depends entirely on its difference from the excluded concept. No concept, including the concept of ethics ("There is no ethics without the presence of the other but also, and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, differance, writing," [Of Grammatology]), can be thought rigorously without including the trace of its difference from its Other within itself. Yet that is as much as to say that the concept—of ethics, for example, but all other concepts as well—includes within itself the trace of that to which it strives (teleologically) to oppose itself in simple and pure exteriority. As a result of this law constitutive of concepts, all concepts are in a sense paradoxical. Take, for instance, the concept of the center:
It has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it. The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure—although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the episteme as philosophy or science—is contradictorily coherent. And as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire. [Writing and Difference]
Third, concepts are always (by right and in fact) inscribed within systems or conceptual chains in which they constantly relate to a plurality of other concepts and conceptual oppositions from which they receive their meaning by virtue of the differential play of sense constitution, and which thus affect them in their very core. And fourth, one single concept may be subject to different functions within a text or a corpus of texts. It may function as a citation of itself as well as of another meaning that this same concept may have in a different place or stratum or on another occasion. This citational play, far from being innocent, also affects the ideal closure of the concepts. True, the different meanings to which any one concept may be subjected within the same context are not a problem for philosophy. If philosophy does not simply ignore the question, it solves it hermeneutically, as an index of a more profound and hidden meaning, or it solves the question of relating the two kinds of meaning of one concept by elevating one of these meanings into the more true, complete meaning, of which the other is but a derivation. As an example, let us refer to Kant's distinction between pulchritudo vaga and pulchritudo adhaerens. Although these two determinations of beauty are of a predicating nature, the question of beauty in general—that is, of the common root that would precomprehend the two concepts and make them communicate—is denied consideration. The essence of beauty is understood in terms of one of the determinations only. For Kant there is no single common source of the two forms of beauty: "We do not pre-understand the essence of beauty in the commonality of the two types, but rather from the perspective of the free beauty that gives rise to a pure aesthetic judgement. It is the pure that gives us the meaning of beauty in general, the pure telos of beauty (as a non-telos). It is the most beautiful that allows us to think essential beauty and not the less beautiful, which remains a groping approximation en vue de l'errance" [Derrida, The Truth in Painting].
In short, then, philosophical concepts are not homogeneous. Their nonhomogeneity is manifold, caused by the very process of concept formation and concept use. Yet the variety of dissimilarities that turn concepts into paradoxical structures must not concern us further, since at this point I am interested only in accentuating the generality of their contradictory and aporetic nature. We must note, however, that these different incoherences constituting concepts, which are either absolutely fundamental insofar as concepts are formed within a differential play, or seemingly contingent if they stem from a varied, if not contradictory, usage within a single context, are overshadowed by philosophy's desire for coherence. What Derrida calls the "regulated incoherence within conceptuality" cannot, therefore, be thematized in philosophy. But the motive of homogeneity—a teleological motive par excellence—not only blurs the incoherence within concepts but also organizes the philosophical conception of texts. Let us first consider how philosophy regulates differences in homogeneity relative to philosophical description and the construction of an argument. Derrida's investigation of philosophical works (and of literary texts as well) brings into view a variety of discrepancies between the various strata that make up a work's argumentation and description, and that make it thoroughly illusionary simply to maintain the metaphysical desire for the pure coherence of their volume.
Let us dwell for a moment on the specific nature of what, in the light of Althusser's concept of uneven development, I have chosen to call discursive inequalities or dissimilarities, which are due to these conflicting strata within the coherence of texts or works. Their nature is manifold too. One example of such a disparity between levels of argumentation is Derrida's demonstration of a contradiction within Saussure's scientific project. This contradiction stems from the fact that Saussure, in determining the object of structural linguistics according to the principle of differentiality as a system of marks comparable to writing, belies his strong condemnation in Cours of writing as harmful to speech. Both a logo and a phonocentric valorization of speech cohabit in this discourse, as well as another scientific stratum that is a radical questioning of the former orientation. Another example is the tension between gesture and statement in Rousseau's discussion of the origin of language. In Of Grammatology, Derrida distinguishes between Rousseau's explicit declarations as to how he wishes to think the origin of language and his matter-of-fact description of it. Rousseau's declared intention is to think the origin as a simple one unbroached by any difference. "But in spite of that declared intention, Rousseau's discourse lets itself be constrained by a complexity which always has the form of the supplement of or from the origin." Yet instead of concluding, based on what follows from his own description of the origin, that from the outset difference has corrupted the origin, Rousseau prefers to believe that the supplement "must (should) have" been enclosed in, in the sense of being confused with, the origin. "There must (should) have been plenitude and not lack, presence without difference." As a result of this ethico-theoretical decision, which valorizes originarity as a desideratum, everything that had emerged in the description of the origin as already broaching it—that is, as being more originary than the origin—is turned into secondariness, into something that "adds itself from the outside as evil and lack to happy and innocent plenitude." The dangerous supplement, then, "would come from an outside which would be simply the outside." Consequently, the tension between gesture and statement, description and declaration, far from resulting in mutual annihilation contributes to the coherence of the text by means of the grid of the "ought to be," or the conditional mood. "Should [devrait]: it is the mode and tense of a teleological and eschatological anticipation that superintends Rousseau's entire discourse," writes Derrida. Through this mood the contradiction is made to be no more than apparent, and Rousseau can think the two incompatible possibilities, the origin and the supplement, simultaneously. As the conditional mood reveals, it is itself the unity of a desire. Derrida writes, "As in the dream, as Freud analyzes it, incompatibles are simultaneously admitted as soon as it is a matter of satisfying a desire, in spite of the principle of identity, or of the excluded third party—the logical time of consciousness" [Of Grammatology]. These discursive contradictions are united by desire into a contradictory coherence regulated by what Freud calls the sophistry of the borrowed kettle. Derrida sums up this kind of reasoning, which according to Freud is supposed to illustrate dream logic, in the following passage: "In his attempt to arrange everything in his favor, the defendant piles up contradictory arguments: (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" [Dissemination].
The various arguments concerning the origin and the supplement, speech and writing, are organized by Saussure and Rousseau in a similar manner: (1) The supplement and writing are totally exterior and inferior to the origin and to speech, which are thus not affected by them and remain intact; (2) they are harmful because they are separate from the origin and thereby corrupt living speech, which otherwise would be intact; and (3) if one needs to fall back on the supplement or on writing, it is not because of their intrinsic value but because the origin was already deficient, and because living speech was already finite before it became supplemented by writing. Hence, supplement and writing do not harm origin or speech at all. On the contrary, they mend the deficiencies of origin and speech.
Because of this logic within discursive contradiction, or contradictory arguments held together by the desire for unity, it is insufficient simply to say "that Rousseau thinks the supplement without thinking it, that he does not match his saying and his meaning, his descriptions and his declarations." Rather, the contradiction is regulated, which gives these texts their very coherence and totality. Instead of permitting these contradictions to cancel each other out, Rousseau, like Saussure "accumulates contradictory arguments to bring about a satisfactory decision: the exclusion of writing," difference, or the supplement. But this organization of incompatibles into a unity dominated by ethico-teleological values, which maintains and contains the adverse arguments and strata in the very act of decision by which philosophy institutes itself, is possible only through the evasion of a number of questions and implications that follow from the fact that "Rousseau, caught, like the logic of identity, within the graphic of supplementarity, says what he does not wish to say, describes what he does not wish to conclude" [Of Grammatology].
A last example of such contradictions concerning the gap between declaration and, this time, factual practice concerns the often perceived contradiction in the Platonic condemnation of writing in writing. How could Plato, Rousseau, and others subordinate writing to speech while writing themselves? Derrida asks:
What law governs this "contradiction," this opposition to itself of what is said against writing, of a dictum that pronounces itself against itself as soon as it finds its way into writing, as soon as it writes down its self-identity and carries away what is proper to it against this ground of writing? This "contradiction," which is nothing other than the relation-to-self of diction as it opposes itself to scription, as it chases itself (away) in hunting down what is properly its trap—this contradiction is not contingent. [Dissemination]
The sort of discursive inequalities that I have pointed out concern contradictory strata of description within the argumentation of a single work, discrepancies between explicit statements and the desiderata of thought, between declaration and factual practice. But the analysis preceding deconstruction—the propaedeutics of deconstruction—is not limited to bringing into prominence conceptual aporias on the one hand and, on the other, discursive inequalities of all sorts. There is a third type of discursive heterogeneity which in fact defies categorization properly speaking. In each instance it comprises a multiplicity of very different and radically incommensurable layers, agencies, or sediments that invariably make up discursive wholes. Through thematizing this kind of contradiction or aporia in the philosophical text, it becomes evident that the philosophical concept of contradiction or aporia is incapable of covering and comprehending these types of inconsistencies, not only in isolation but especially when taken together. Indeed, these discrepancies stem from differences in the importance, scope, and status of parts or elements of philosophical discourses, as well as from the irreducibly disproportionate and dissimilar nature of various constituents of these parts or elements. Let us, then, look at some paradigmatic types of this sort of discursive inequality, which, contrary to appearances, have not been problematized in the perspective outlined above.
The analysis of philosophical discourses reveals that they are composed not only of pure concepts and philosophemes but also of metaphors and mythemes. As discursive elements, the last two are of an entirely different status from that of concepts, yet they necessarily combine with concepts, whose purity as to mythical and figural residues should be beyond all question. Certainly the relation between myth and logos is a philosophical problem of long standing; the same must be said of the relation between concept and figure. But what Derrida is concerned with—in "Plato's Pharmacy" [in Dissemination], for instance—is not so much the way in which philosophy tries to master its relation to myth or to figures as the manner in which this intimate combination, within a whole of such dissimilar elements as concepts and nonconcepts, philosophemes and mythemes, instead of simply resisting absorption into the homogeneity of the concept contributes to the creation of an effect of such purity. In other words, Derrida's concern is with the irreducibility and inevitability of the combination of opposite genres in the philosophical discourse.
Such an analysis may also accentuate a lexicological inconsistency arising from the different and repeated use of one particular so-called key word or key signification in a text. The emphasis of such an analysis is on the singularity and inextricability of the juxtaposition of these significations in one ensemble. The different citations of one and the same word within one text or context can be opposed to one another, but they can also be simply dissimilar and irreducible to one another, in which case they resist all hermeneutical solution. "There cannot be any such thing as key words," writes Derrida [in Dissemination]. These multiple different usages of the same term in one work or textual unity must thus be analyzed as the background against which the hermeneutical search for an ultimate signified takes place.
The analysis may also focus on a chain of words similar to one another, which may have the same etymological root but are nonetheless not supposed to communicate within the text. Pharmakeia-pharmakon-pharmakeus in Plato's Phaedros, which Derrida analyzes in "Plato's Pharmacy," is an instance of such a chain.
This sort of analysis may also throw into relief unsublated and unmediated statements or propositions about one particular theme within a text or a corpus of texts, for instance the theme of the "woman" in Nietzsche, analyzed by Derrida in Spurs. It may also point out the cohabitation in one text or corpus of two or more irreducible types of one general thing (such as pulchritudo adhaerens and pulchritudo vaga in the Third Critique, analyzed by Derrida in "Parergon" [in The Truth in Painting]); of a variety of information in a text and a context; or simply of the repeated and dissimilar functions within one text or context of mere signifiers, such as the letters i and r in Mallarmé. [Gasché is referring to the repetition of letters in Mallarmé's poetry, not his actual name; Derrida's discussion of this appears in Dissemination.]
Other such discursive inequalities can be found between parts of a text, for example a preface and the main body of a text, as discussed by Derrida in "Outwork, Prefacing" [in Dissemination]; between the title and the main part of the text, as thematized in "Titre à préciser" [in Parages]; or between two segments of a text divided by an intermediary space which is marked either by a blank, as in Blanchot's L'Arrêt de mort, analyzed in "Living On: Border Lines" [Parages], or marked by an interpolated text as in Nietzsche's Ecce Homo, treated in "L'Otobiographie de Nietzsche" [in The Ear of the Other]. For present purposes, it is not necessary to accumulate further evidence of such discursive discrepancies arising from a grafting of thoroughly heterogeneous elements upon one another. Let us recall for the moment that they are multiple, different in status, and different in essence. The analysis presupposed by all deconstruction, properly speaking, consists of such an assessment of the various heterogeneous levels of philosophical discourse, as well as of the heterogeneous elements or agencies that combine on these levels. It is not a question of reducing these variegated discursive and conceptual disparities to one model of divergency, especially not to that of contradiction as the major criterion of the necessary falsehood of statements. Nor is the question one of how to reduce these disparities, inconsistencies, and dissimilarities through any of the traditional procedures. What is at stake is the assessment of the generality and irreducibility of these various inequalities. Under this condition only can the second step of deconstruction take place. Deconstruction is thus the attempt to account for the heterogeneity constitutive of the philosophical discourse, not by trying to overcome its inner differences but by maintaining them.
To sum up: deconstruction starts with a systematic elucidation of contradictions, paradoxes, inconsistencies, and aporias constitutive of conceptuality, argumentation, and the discursiveness of philosophy. Yet these discrepancies are not logical contradictions, the only discrepancies for which the philosophical discourse can account. Eluded by the logic of identity, they are consequently not contradictions properly speaking. Nor are these necessary inconsistencies the result of inequality between form and content. Their exclusion from the canon of philosophical themes is precisely what makes it possible to distinguish between form and content, a distinction that takes place solely against the horizon of the possibility of their homogeneous reunification.
As its first step, deconstruction thus presupposes a concretely developed demonstration of the fact that concepts and discursive totalities are already cracked and fissured by necessary contradictions and heterogeneities that the discourse of philosophy fails to take into account, either because they are not, rigorously speaking, logical contradictions, or because a regulated (conceptual) economy must avoid them in order to safeguard the ethico-theoretical decisions that orient its discourse. These fissures become apparent when we follow to its logical end that which in the process of conceptualization or argumentation is only in a certain manner said. Deconstruction thus begins by taking up broached but discontinued implications—discontinued because they would have contradicted the intentions of philosophy. In the case of Rousseau's text, Derrida formulates this procedure as follows:
Rousseau's text must constantly be considered as a complex and many-leveled structure; in it, certain propositions may be read as interpretations of other propositions that we are, up to a certain point and with certain precautions, free to read otherwise. Rousseau says A, then for reasons that we must determine, he interprets A into B. A, which was already an interpretation, is reinterpreted into B. After taking cognizance of it, we may, without leaving Rousseau's text, isolate A from its interpretation into B, and discover possibilities and resources there that indeed belong to Rousseau's text, but were not produced or exploited by him, which, for equally legible motives, he preferred to cut short by a gesture neither witting nor unwitting. [Of Grammatology]
The demonstration of these unexploited possibilities and resources, which contradict the ethico-theoretical decisions characteristic of conceptualization and philosophical argumentation and haunt the concepts and the texts of philosophy, corresponds to the thematization of a naivety unthought by discursive philosophical practice. Such naivety complies with and is a function of the ethical orientation of theorizing and is in no way a naivety or deficiency owing to the finitude of the philosophizing subject, Rousseau or Saussure, for instance. On the contrary, such naivety is the very possibility of theory.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4904
SOURCE: "Truth and Consequences," in The New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 14, October 5, 1987, pp. 31-6.
[Nehamas is a Greek-born American educator and critic whose philosophical study, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (1986), was widely praised as one of the most important book-length interpretations of Nietzsche. In the following essay, he outlines and critiques the main themes of Derrida's philosophy.]
Jacques Derrida has been the focus of furious controversy ever since he startled his audience, at a conference in 1966 intended to mark the coming of age of structuralism in America, by arguing that it was already too late, that structuralism was already effectively dead. In the years that followed, Derrida became an institution in his own right. His lectures attract huge crowds. At least 13 of his books have been published in English, including these newly translated, though not so recently written, works [Glas, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, and The Truth in Painting]; and books about him are appearing wherever you look. Many of Derrida's terms—"grammatology," "logocentrism," "margin," "différance," and, of course, "deconstruction," after which a whole approach to literary criticism has been named—are now commonplace in many academic disciplines, and they are entering wider, even journalistic, usage as well.
The passions surrounding Derrida have been extraordinary, uniting in their intensity his partisans and his detractors. Some consider him to be one of the truly great writers of the second half of the century. Others dismiss him as a charlatan. Many see his work as a profound, innovative, and perhaps constructive critique of many of our most basic ideas and institutions. Others suspect it of fostering relativism, irrationalism, and nihilism, all alluringly clothed in the haute couture of French irony, polymathy, and sophistication.
Both camps agree that Derrida is radically subversive. They are united in finding in the content of his work, as well as in its form, a general attack on the notions of truth, clarity, reason, definiteness, and understanding. The two camps disagree only over the value of these notions, not over Derrida's attitude toward them. Those who want to defend the values of truth and reason, and the institutions that serve them, despise him; those who think that Derrida's writings are the unmaking of these values, and the institutions connected with them, adore him. In fact, a careful reading of Derrida's work shows that he is less relativist and nihilist than his opponents fear, and less innovative and original than his proponents wish.
Many literary critics, and a few philosophers, have hailed Derrida for having liberated us from "the logocentric tradition of Western metaphysics"—a sweeping generalization that, not without some justification, goes against every instinct and value of analytical philosophers. "Logo-centrism" is derived from the Greek logos, which means "word" or "definition," the true account that states correctly what each thing really is. In the Gospel of St. John, logos is identified with God, who is taken as the ultimate source of all truth. And since the logos, as John writes, was "in the beginning," error arises from the Fall from God. The logos has ceased being "present" to us; the truth, which was there first, has now been hidden.
Logocentrism, accordingly, is the view, held to be dominant in philosophy and in most "serious" activities, that there is such a thing as the objective truth about the world. Moreover, whether or not this truth can ever actually be recaptured, logocentrism is supposed to include the desire to return to it, and to confront it directly, without distortion, once and for all. Derrida's advocates claim that he has shown conclusively that such a conception represents an impossible, self-undermining dream.
This is where deconstruction enters the picture. Consider, for example, "phonocentrism," one of logocentrism's specific manifestations. (Derrida is an inveterate purveyor of technical terms, which always seem to provide his supporters with something to say and his opponents with something to be suspicious of.) Phonocentrism begins from the fact that thought cannot be communicated directly. Among the indirect expression of thought, phonocentrism considers speech or voice (phoné in Greek) the best, because it seems that spoken sounds, which coincide temporally with our thoughts, do not obscure them and do not therefore mask the meaning we want to express. Thought is "present," or as "present" as it can possibly be, when it is being expressed in speech. Moreover, we can always avoid unclarity by answering questions, until our meaning is finally clear to our listeners.
But writing, according to phonocentrism, is different. In contrast to speech, writing is essentially opaque. It interposes an additional layer of signs between us and the meaning we need to understand. Written marks have a solidity of their own, masking the meaning that originally animated them. Thus writing functions, and is intended to function, in the "absence" of the person with whom it originated. It necessarily requires interpretation; and, especially in the author's absence, it can always be misinterpreted and misappropriated.
A "deconstruction" of the dichotomy between speech and writing aims to undermine the primacy of the preferred, or "valorized," term. The strategy is to show that the very features that have been supposed to make writing unreliable are in fact present in speech as well, and that this fact is always suppressed by logocentrism.
According to deconstruction, speech too consists of signs with their own material nature, signs that can be iterated in isolation from the context of their original use. Derrida argues that many authors who have devalued writing as a mere "supplement" to speech, like Rousseau or Saussure, have also demonstrated a fear that writing somehow is able to pervert the living voice. Their fear is justified, Derrida continues, only on the supposition that writing can affect speech because the two share the same nature.
Does this, then, make writing better than speech? Many have taken Derrida to make just this claim; but his answer is that it does not. Deconstruction refuses to reverse the hierarchy implicit in logocentrism. This, after all, would be to perpetuate logocentrism in a new guise, since logocentrism is essentially the view that some method for reaching the truth is better than others. Instead, deconstruction reveals that, despite their superficial differences, speech and writing are both special cases of a general set of conditions for communication, rather pompously called "archi-writing," to which the possibility of misunderstanding is endemic.
In sum, there simply is no such thing as communication or knowledge that is guaranteed to be successful, there is no undistorted perception of the truth, there is no identification, as Hegel would have put it, between subject and object. Truth is not prior to error, capable of being grasped by itself; the two go hand in hand. Neither can exist without the other. On its own terms, therefore, the privileging of speech over writing, since it ultimately attributes to both the same features, shows that the opposition it sets up is untenable or, as Derrida often puts it, "undecidable."
Derrida has been concerned to display the undecidability of a whole host of distinctions, notably the pairs presence/absence, concept/sign, intelligible/sensible, center/margin, and others. In close and detailed readings of philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Husserl, he has argued that in each case the first member of each pair is considered more valuable, and a better guide to the truth, only because the features it shares with the second, which make both equally fallible, have been ignored or repressed.
Husserl, for example, privileges what is present to consciousness, and considers it as the basis from which all our knowledge and our understanding proceed. But he is able to do this, according to Derrida, only because he suppresses the fact that what is present is thought of as such by being implicitly contrasted with something that is no longer present (the past) as well as with something that is not yet present (the future). Both past and future are cases of "absence." And the only way the present can be at all conceived is by contrast to what is absent; what is present, Derrida would characteristically say, is a special case of what is absent. It has no special claim to priority of any sort. Moreover, Derrida argues, these philosophical works deconstruct themselves: read closely, they themselves provide the evidence that undermines the hierarchical distinctions that it is their official purpose to set up.
Since the two terms of each pair are always implicated in this way, Derrida claims that it is not possible to say definitely what the works that employ them ultimately mean. Saussure, for example, finally equated speech with writing. Does his text "really" mean that speech is better than writing? That writing is better than speech? Both? Neither? The answer is not clear; such works cannot be univocally interpreted. The very effort to use some definite standard—for example, the author's explicit intention—in order to determine their real meaning is itself a special case of logocentrism, since it is an attempt to state definitely the truth about them.
This controversial cluster of ideas is to be found mainly in the works Derrida composed in the '60s and '70s (they include the books under review). These writings established deconstruction as the vanguard approach to literary criticism, which now saw philosophy, supposedly still trapped in the snares of logocentrism, at its mercy. But many philosophers remained either ignorant or disdainful of this new act of aggression. Nor did many literary critics join the new group, which they accused of being simply a mechanical application of a few tired principles. They saw deconstruction as an empty celebration of "the interminable play of différance," an obscure if ubiquitous principle that allegedly prevents any literary work from communicating a clear and single meaning. Taking interpretation as the effort to determine precisely such a clear and single meaning, and deconstruction as the desire to show that precisely such an interpretation is impossible, the opponents of deconstruction saw it as nothing short of an attempt to undermine the very idea of literary criticism.
Against certain Derrideans, if not against Derrida himself, this objection is often justified. But a look at the reception of the New Criticism in American universities in the '40s and '50s shows that such objections, such fears, are inevitable in criticism, as they are in many of the disciplines of the human sciences, where the difference between fact and fashion is not always easy to tell. More serious and more disturbing, however, is the charge that Derrida's views are relativist and nihilist. If written texts (or any acts of communication) cannot be definitively interpreted, if meaning is undecidable, is it not the case (as some deconstructive critics, in moments of intoxication, have claimed) that any text can be made to mean anything at all? How can even the view that meaning is undecidable itself be definitively communicated? The very statement of this view, if it can be understood at all, seems to undermine itself: to succeed in communicating the view that meaning cannot be communicated is to show that the thesis is wrong.
Equally important, Derrida's suspicion of the idea of objective truth that can be captured without distortion raises a further question: If truth does not exist, isn't every view as valid as every other? If truth is no longer available as a standard, we simply cannot any longer distinguish between better and worse ideas. Reason, and reasons, are discarded: this leads to irrationalism. Truth is abandoned: nihilism follows. Standards are lacking: relativism remains the only alternative. How can anyone, especially a professor who is sustained by the institutions these very views call into question, hold these views? The moral charge of bad faith is added to the philosophical objection.
In fact, however, in the light of much of what he has written, Derrida is not an advocate of irrationalism, relativism, or nihilism. The undecidability of meaning does not make of every text a blank slate on which any interpretation can be imposed. Undecidability is specific. Derrida does not, as many fear, "make the author nothing and the reader everything." It is not meaning in general that is undecidable: Derrida does not hold that nothing means anything in particular, that every text is at its readers' mercy. What is undecidable is only whether a text "really" means that speech communicates the truth better than writing—or, for that matter, the opposite, since the distinction between the two is being questioned.
The second issue, the matter of Derrida's rejection of truth, is very complicated. As Rodolphe Gasché definitively (if turgidly) shows in his study, Derrida attacks Hegel's idea that absolute, total, and non-distorting knowledge is achieved through Reason's reflecting on itself, through the identification of subject and object. Hegel's view is as obscure as anything ever written by a philosopher. The question whether it even makes sense has never been answered, Gasché's equanimity notwithstanding. But the main point, in Gasché's lovely metaphor, is that even the most perfect mirror requires a tain, the lusterless and invisible backing without which reflection would not be possible, and which is left out of the picture in Hegelian speculation on reflection. Once again, a purely positive result—perfect and transparent reflection—is made possible only by suppressing the opposing term—non-reflecting and invisible—that allows it to occur in the first place.
Derrida's position on truth is not in fact very shocking at all. It belongs within a distinguished family of views that, deriving directly or indirectly from the writings of Nietzsche and William James, constitute the modern attack on essentialism. Essentialism is the idea that some features of the world are absolutely indispensable to it, that they are possessed by the world in itself, independently of any point of view. Further, essentialism is the idea that some methods of acquiring knowledge are better guides to the truth than others, because they are better suited to mirror these essential features of the world in a faithful manner.
Varieties of anti-essentialist arguments can be found in the writings of a number of recent American philosophers (notably W. V. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, Nelson Goódman, Richard Rorty, and Hilary Putnam). In one way or another, these philosophers have claimed that knowledge has no "foundations," that there are no indubitable experiences of basic undistorted truths or facts on which the rest of our knowledge can securely be based. They deny that knowledge can ever be certain, that there are any absolute facts that everyone must always acknowledge.
What counts as a fact, according to the anti-essentialists, is always relative to a theory, to a particular system of representation. The facts of one theory may always appear, from another point of view, as a theory concerned with some further facts, themselves capable, in further contexts, of playing a theoretical role. We are very close to Derrida here. In his idiom, the notion is that the reality represented or described by any text can itself be, on analysis (or deconstruction), a text representing a further reality, itself subject to the same predicament. Hence his notorious slogan, "There is nothing outside the text."
It is important to realize that this view, in Derrida's case or more generally in the case of anti-essentialism, is not relativism or nihilism. Anti-essentialism does not deny that there are standards by which two competing approaches to the same subject matter can be evaluated. It only denies that there is a single standard by which all approaches, whatever their subject matter, can be judged. It is like denying that there is a single God for all people, and leaving people to order their lives according to their faiths in various deities. It is not like claiming that there are no gods at all.
These views are sometimes unclear, and often controversial. But they are neither absolutely new nor absolutely wild. Derrida is not subverting the values of truth and objectivity, at least any more than many respectable philosophers do. By the standards of modern philosophy, his views on truth and objectivity can even be called traditional. What, then, is all the fuss about? What is it about Derrida that stirs such passions?
Part of the problem is that Derrida has been ill-served by many of his literary followers. He has read carefully many of the texts that he has "deconstructed." But generalizations similar to his own are constantly being made by people with no understanding of philosophy, who, having read a few of Derrida's essays, declare on the basis of the deconstruction of some minor text that "logic is a self-enclosed system" whose time has come and gone, or that "Western metaphysics" has finally been overcome—at which point what was merely suspicious becomes positively ludicrous.
Then there is the problem of Derrida's form. I have in mind not his difficulty, his dense, allusive, and indirect style, or his strange, idiosyncratic vocabulary. There is a certain philistine criticism of Derrida, a kind of anti-intellectualism really, that harps upon these features of his work; but these are features that characterize the writings of many respectable philosophers, indeed of some great ones. I am concerned, rather, with the fact that Derrida's works are often designed not to look like books or essays at all. And the obscurity of Derrida's form is designed to make a philosophical point.
Recall Derrida's view that logocentrism, the search for truth and for determinate meaning, undermines itself. This is not to say that logocentrism is something we can simply abandon. Of course we cannot turn our back on the search for truth. There is a profound paradox here, first articulated by Nietzsche. To try to show that the search for truth is, for whatever reason, misguided is to try to show, whether we like it or not, that it is true that the search for truth is, for whatever reason, misguided. In other words, an attack on truth is here being waged, inevitably, in the name of truth. And if the attack is successful, and the search for truth is somehow discredited, then the truth has won out again.
This is the point Derrida makes in a well-known passage:
There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to attack metaphysics. We have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is alien to this history; we cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.
Derrida's effort to come to terms with this predicament accounts for some of the most characteristic, most brilliant, and most objectionable features of his work. For it is this problem that led him to conclude that straightforward discursive prose, argument, proof, all the traditional forms of scholarly communication—essays, monographs, books—are suspect. They are the very tools of logocentrism. Any effort to attack logocentrism directly, by these means and in these forms, will inevitably perpetuate it, and become itself the object of a deconstruction.
Thus Derrida has been experimenting with alternative forms of writing and composition. In addition, he has consistently maintained an ironic stance toward his own writings, inevitably prompting his readers to ask whether he can really mean what he says. But, as with all questions regarding "real" meaning, his reply, too, is undecidable: a shrug of the shoulders, in person or in prose. This question, he responds, is itself logocentric. But how can a scholar, one still wants to know, and a professor of philosophy at that, not be serious about his own ideas? And if he isn't, why should we be? But Derrida's response has a point. Though not self-consciously, we frequently take ideas seriously without any notion of their authors' attitude toward them; sometimes we don't even know whose ideas they were in the first place. Derrida's ironic attitude toward his views aims to bring this fact explicitly to our attention.
Readers of Glas (originally published in 1974), The Truth in Painting (1978), or The Post Card (1980) are bound to be disturbed both by the form of these works and by Derrida's ambiguous attitude toward his own views. Since Derrida constantly employs multilingual puns, wordplay, and intentional ambiguity (all in order not to produce univocal meaning), his works are also a translator's nightmare. This explains why these remarkably successful English versions took so long to appear. Only very determined readers will master these forbidding works. Yet it is likely that much of what they find there will strike them as a set of esoteric jokes.
It's almost as if these texts were composed by a professor gone mad in Borges's Library of Babel. In the Library, every possible bit of writing means something; it is not even possible accidentally "to combine some characters, dhcmrlchtdj, which the divine Library has not foreseen … and which in one of its secret tongues do not contain a terrible meaning." But the principle governing The Post Card in particular seems to be the exact contrary of Borges's fantasy. Not only does the work contain a nonsensical character-sequence, EGEK HUM XSR STR, but its central claim is that error and nonsense, the impossibility of determinate meaning, are built into the essence of every code of communication.
The Post Card is an immense meditation on this idea, particularly in connection with psychoanalysis. (The Truth in Painting pursues similar themes in art, its criticism, and its philosophy.) It includes brilliant readings of Freud and Lacan. But Derrida's method is perhaps best illustrated by Envois, the first and by far the longest part of the work, and a parody of the epistolary novel in which Derrida aims to expose what he calls "the Postal Principle." The Postal Principle is Derrida's metaphor for what he considers to be one of the founding ideas of our culture. This is the idea that acts of communication proceed from an undisputed sender to an equally undisputed recipient. Therefore they always occur in a definite context which fixes their meaning, and which it is the task of interpretation to determine and express without remainder. The Postal Principle is the assumption that every message hits its mark, that every letter is delivered to its addressee.
But there always is a remainder, Derrida believes, that is forever beyond our grasp. The message does not always hit its mark. The postcards of which Envois consists are sent by someone named "Derrida" (whose name is woven throughout the book's prose) to someone who could be his wife, his reader, or himself. The postcards all carry a reproduction of the cover of a book of prophecy depicting, contrary to everything we know, Socrates writing at Plato's dictation. This prompts Derrida to engage in a long questioning of our usual understanding of priority, order, and communication. Open to inspection, postcards often carry elliptical, indeterminate messages, especially when both their source and destination remain unclear. And right in the center of "the Postal System," showing that its failure is as inherent as its success, is the deadletter office, containing those messages that have completely missed their mark.
Yet a careful reading of Envois shows that Derrida holds two views. The first is that any statement can function in many contexts, none of which is indisputably the proper one, and that in each context the statement in question will have a different meaning. The question of what the statement "really" means, therefore, cannot receive an answer, though the statement can still communicate something definite in each specific context. It is not, Derrida reasonably writes, "that the letter never arrives at its destination, but it belongs to the structure of the letter to be capable, always, of not arriving."
Derrida's second view is more radical, and much less defensible. The possibility of different contexts sometimes seems to suggest to Derrida that no statement ever has a determinate meaning: "a letter can always not arrive at its destination, and … therefore it never arrives…. The condition for it to arrive is that it ends up and even that it begins by not arriving." This position assumes that a statement would have a determinate meaning only if it communicated that very meaning in all possible contexts; or, to put it another way, only if that statement were meaningful in one and only one context.
But this is a remarkably strong criterion of what it is to have a determinate meaning. In fact, it is nothing other than the old "logocentric" ideal, according to which communication can be successful only through a perfect coincidence between a sign and its meaning. Amazingly, Derrida seems to confess to just this dream in Envois:
I would like to write to you so simply, so simply, so simply. Without having anything ever catch the eye, excepting yours alone, and what is more while erasing all the traits, even the most inapparent ones, the ones that mark the tone, or the belonging to a genre (the letter, for example, or the post card), so that above all the language remains self-evidently secret, as if it were being invented at every step, and as if it were burning immediately, as soon as any third party would set eyes on it.
The contradiction in Derrida's thinking here is striking: the deconstructionist appears as a logocentrist. It is in this surprising, second, immoderate view of Derrida's that he parts company with the tradition of Nietzsche and James, and at which his critics should properly take aim.
Glas, whose every page contains two columns, is surely the most remarkable-looking of Derrida's works. The left column discusses Hegel, particularly his notion of Absolute Knowledge. This logocentric ideal, savoir absolu in French, is abbreviated as SA, a homonym of ça, the French neuter pronoun, and is thereby connected with Freud's id, which is the Latinization of the corresponding German pronoun es. There is also a discussion of Hegel's views on the family (connected with the Immaculate Conception, or IC), of his own family situation, of the relations between the two, and of his name, which in France is pronounced like aigle, the word for eagle. The right column is concerned with Genet, whose name is a homonym of genêt, broomflower, and traces floral motifs in his works, including his Notre-Dame-Des-Fleurs, which, naturally, is connected with IC. Each column contains numerous inserts. The space between the columns also sometimes contains writing. There are innumerable puns, variations on the sound "gl," meditations on Derrida's own name, and an examination of the connections between authors' names ("signatures") and the themes and words in their works—this last having become one of Derrida's central preoccupations in recent years.
A number of people have written about this book. Nobody knows what it is about. Is Glas, after all, a "book"? Is it "about" anything? As Gregory Ulmer writes in Glassary (which traces every term and every reference in Glas—a most scholarly enterprise), Glas "is not composed in the conventional manner of the academic book because it is explicitly an anti-book…. The Book as such reflects a certain model of thought based on the platonic, and ultimately on the logocentric paradigm of thought." So then how are we to read this text? First one column all the way through and then the other? First one column on each page and then the other? Should we interrupt our reading of the columns to read the inserts? Should Glas and Glassary (large, square volumes) be displayed on coffee tables, to be read a little at a time over long periods?
Certainly Derrida's experiments with the printed form have produced some remarkable works. But his assumption that words, sentences, paragraphs, and books can, by themselves, reflect a commitment to logocentrism, that to write a book is already to accept "the logocentric paradigm of thought," is a grave mistake. All logocentric works have been composed in traditional forms, but not all works composed in traditional forms have been logocentric. A commitment to a philosophical theory is not reflected simply in the form in which ideas are presented, in words and books taken in themselves, independently of what they are used to say. It is, rather, reflected by the combination of form and content, by what we do with our words and our books, by what we say and what we believe.
Derrida writes seductively, playfully, hauntingly. He offers philosophical readings of literary authors and literary analyses of the heroes of philosophy. He seems to have convinced many people that he believes that philosophy is simply a species of literature, fiction mistaking itself for the pursuit of truth. Many (but not all) literary critics have been delighted, and many (but not all) philosophers have been infuriated, by this idea. But it is a wrong interpretation of his work. Derrida's writing resists such obvious classifications. It poses, once again, the question of the relation between philosophy and literature; but it gives no consistent answer.
In recent years Derrida has been writing about the place of philosophy within the university and within the general culture, about the function of universities, about political issues such as nuclear war and racism. Though always written in his characteristic style, these essays betray a new seriousness, as readers of the collection For Nelson Mandela, which Derrida edited and to which he contributed a long essay, are bound to notice. Could it be, then, that 21 years after his scandalous entry into the American academy, the enfant terrible may be growing up after all?
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4808
SOURCE: "Is Derrida a Transcendental Philosopher?" in Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 207-17.
[In the following essay, Rorty disputes the interpretations of Derrida's work put forth by such critics as Christopher Norris and Rodolphe Gasché, who argue that Derrida is a rigorous logician and a transcendental philosopher in the tradition of Hegel and Kant.]
For years a quarrel has been simmering among Derrida's American admirers. On the one side there are the people who admire Derrida for having invented a new, splendidly ironic way of writing about the philosophical tradition. On the other side are those who admire him for having given us rigorous arguments for surprising philosophical conclusions. The former emphasizes the playful, distancing, oblique way in which Derrida handles traditional philosophical figures and topics. The second emphasize what they take to be his results, his philosophical discoveries. Roughly speaking, the first are content to admire his manner, whereas the second want to say that the important thing is his matter—the truths that he has set forth.
Geoffrey Hartman's Saving the Text set the tone for the first way of appropriating Derrida. At the same time that I was picking up this tone from Hartman, and imitating it, Jonathan Culler was criticizing Hartman for light-mindedness. The term "Derridadaism," Culler said [in On Deconstruction], was "a witty gesture by which Geoffrey Hartman blots out Derridean argument." I weighed in on Hartman's side, claiming that Culler was too heavy-handed in his treatment of Derrida, too anxious to treat him as having demonstrated theorems which literary critics might now proceed to apply. I thought it too much to ask of "deconstruction" that it be, in Culler's words, both "rigorous argument within philosophy and displacement of philosophical categories and philosophical attempts at mastery." Something, I claimed, had to go. I suggested we jettison the "rigorous argument" part.
This suggestion was contested by Christopher Norris. [In a footnote, Rorty cites articles in which he and Norris debated this question. These include: Norris's "Philosophy as not just a 'kind of writing': Derrida and the claim of reason" and Rorty's "Two senses of 'logocentrism': a reply to Norris," both in Redrawing the Lines: Analytic Philosophy, Deconstruction and Literary Theory, edited by Reed Way Dasenbrock.] Norris was concerned to show that Derrida has arguments, good solid arguments, and is not just playing around. Like Culler, he was also concerned to block my attempt to analogize deconstruction to pragmatism. Whereas a pragmatist view of truth, Culler said, treats conventionally accepted norms as foundations, deconstruction goes on to point out that "norms are produced by acts of exclusion." "Objectivity," Culler quite justly pointed out, "is constituted by excluding the views of those who do not count as sane and rational men: women, children, poets, prophets, madmen." Culler was the first to make the suggestion, later taken up and developed in considerable detail by others, that pragmatism (or at least my version of it) and deconstruction differ in that the one tends toward political conservatism and the other toward political radicalism.
In his recent book on Derrida [Derrida, 1987], Norris repeats this suggestion, and reaffirms that to read Derrida in Hartman's and my way is
to ignore the awkward fact that Derrida has devoted the bulk of his writings to a patient working-through (albeit on his own, very different terms) of precisely those problems that have occupied philosophers in the "mainstream" tradition, from Kant to Husserl and Frege. And this because those problems are indubitably there, installed within philosophy and reaching beyond it into every department of modern institutionalized knowledge.
The quarrel about whether Derrida has arguments thus gets linked to a quarrel about whether he is a private writer—writing for the delight of us insiders who share his background, who find the same rather esoteric things as funny or beautiful or moving as he does—or rather a writer with a public mission, someone who gives us weapons with which to subvert "institutionalized knowledge" and thus social institutions. I have urged [in "From Ironist Theory to Private Allusions: Derrida," in his Contingency, Irony and Solidarity] that Derrida be treated as the first sort of writer, whereas most of his American admirers have treated him as, at least in part, the second. Lumping both quarrels together, one can say that there is a quarrel between those of us who read Derrida on Plato, Hegel and Heidegger in the same way as we read Bloom or Cavell on Emerson or Freud—in order to see these authors transfigured, beaten into fascinating new shapes—and those who read Derrida to get ammunition, and a strategy, for the struggle to bring about social change.
Norris thinks that Derrida should be read as a transcendental philosopher in the Kantian tradition—somebody who digs out hitherto unsuspected presuppositions. "Derrida," he says, "is broaching something like a Kantian transcendental deduction, an argument to demonstrate ('perversely' enough) that a priori notions of logical truth are a priori ruled out of court by rigorous reflection on the powers and limits of textual critique" [Derrida]. By contrast, my view of Derrida is that he nudges us into a world in which "rigorous reflection on the powers and limits …" has as little place as do "a priori notions of logical truth." This world has as little room for transcendental deductions, or for rigor, as for self-authenticating moments of immediate presence to consciousness.
On my view, the only thing that can displace an intellectual world is another intellectual world—a new alternative, rather than an argument against an old alternative. The idea that there is some neutral ground on which to mount an argument against something as big as "logocentrism" strikes me as one more logocentric hallucination. I do not think that demonstrations of "internal incoherence" or of "presuppositional relationships" ever do much to disabuse us of bad old ideas or institutions. Disabusing gets done, instead, by offering us sparkling new ideas, or utopian visions of glorious new institutions. The result of genuinely original thought, on my view, is not so much to refute or subvert our previous beliefs as to help us forget them by giving us a substitute for them. I take refutation to be a mark of unoriginality, and I value Derrida's originality too much to praise him in those terms. So I find little use, in reading or discussing him, for the notion of "rigorous argumentation."
Culler and Norris have now been joined, on their side of the quarrel I have been describing, by Rodolphe Gasché. Gasché's The Tain of the Mirror is by far the most ambitious and detailed attempt to treat Derrida as a rigorous transcendental philosopher. Gasché says that
[i]n this book I hope that I have found a middle ground between the structural plurality of Derrida's philosophy—a plurality that makes it impossible to elevate any final essence of his book into its true meaning—and the strict criteria to which any interpretation of his work must yield, if it is to be about that work and not merely a private fantasy. These criteria, at center stage in this book, are, as I shall show, philosophical and not literary in nature.
Just as in the case of Culler I doubted that one could displace philosophical concepts while still having rigorous philosophical arguments, so in Gasché's case I doubt that one can eschew the project of stating Derrida's "true meaning" while still judging him by "strict criteria." I do not think that one should try to pay good old logocentric compliments to enemies of logocentrism.
In what follows, I shall try to spell out why the compliments Gasché offers Derrida seem to me misapplied. To my mind, "private fantasy" is, if not entirely adequate, at least a somewhat better compliment. Many responsibilities begin in dreams, and many transfigurations of the tradition begin in private fantasies. Think, for example, of Plato's or St. Paul's private fantasies—fantasies so original and utopian that they became the common sense of later times. Someday, for all I know, there may be some social changes (perhaps even changes for the better) which retrospection will see as having originated in Derrida's fantasies. But the arguments which Derrida can be read as offering on behalf of his fantasies seem to me no better than the ones Plato offered for his. Anybody who reads through Plato in search of rigorous arguments is in for a disappointment. I think that the same goes for Derrida.
I can begin quarreling with Gasché by taking up his distinction between philosophy and literature. On my view, "philosophy" is either a term defined by choosing a list of writers (e.g., Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger) and then specifying what they all have in common, or else just the name of an academic department. The first sense of the term is hard to apply to a writer who, like Derrida, is trying to extricate himself from the tradition defined by such a list. But the second sense of the term is not much help either, for in this sense "philosophy" is just an omnium gatherum of disparate activities united by nothing more than a complicated tangle of genealogical connections—connections so tenuous that one can no longer detect even a family resemblance between the activities. [In a footnote Rorty adds: "There is no interesting least common denominator of, for example, Rawls, Croce, Frege, Nietzsche and Gödel—no feature which makes them all representative of the same natural kind. One can only explain why all six are studied within a single academic department by developing a complicated historicosociological story."] Only if one buys in on the logocentric idea that there just must be an autonomous discipline which adjudicates ultimate questions would "philosophy" have a third sense, one appropriate for Gasché's purposes. It is only by reference to some such idea that it makes sense to worry, as he does, about the lines between philosophy and literature.
For my purposes, the important place to draw a line is not between philosophy and non-philosophy but rather between topics which we know how to argue about and those we do not. It is the line between the attempt to be objective—to get a consensus on what we should believe—and a willingness to abandon consensus in the hope of transfiguration. Gasché, by contrast, thinks that we can separate the philosophical books (or, at least, the important philosophical books of recent centuries) from other books by a fairly straightforward test. The former are the books in which we find a specifically transcendental project—a project of answering some question of the form "what are the conditions of the possibility of …?"—of, for example, experience, self-consciousness, language or philosophy itself.
I have to admit that asking and answering that question is, indeed, the mark of a distinct genre. But unlike Gasché I think that it is a thoroughly self-deceptive question. The habit of posing it—asking for non-causal, nonempirical, nonhistorical conditions—is the distinctive feature of a tradition which stretches from the Critique of Pure Reason through Hegel's Science of Logic to Being and Time (and, if Gasché is right about the early Derrida's intentions, through Of Grammatology). The trouble with the question is that it looks like a "scientific" one, as if we knew how to debate the relative merits of alternative answers, just as we know how to debate alternative answers to questions about the conditions for the actuality of various things (e.g., political changes, quasars, psychoses). But it is not. Since that for which the conditions of possibility are sought is always everything that any previous philosopher has envisaged—the whole range of what has been discussed up to now—anybody is at liberty to identify any ingenious gimmick that he dreams up as a "condition of possibility."
The sort of gimmick in question is exemplified by Kantian "transcendental synthesis," Hegelian "self-direction of the concept," Heideggerian Sorge, and (on Gasché's interpretation) Derridean différance. These suggestions about transcendental conditions are so many leaps into the darkness which surrounds the totality of everything previously illuminated. In the nature of the case, there can be no pre-existent logical space, no "strict criteria" for choosing among these alternatives. If there were, the question about "conditions of possibility" would automatically become merely "positive" and not properly "transcendental" or "reflective." [In a footnote Rorty remarks: "Another way of putting this point is to note that each successive figure in the tradition in question has had to invent his own 'central problem of philosophy' rather than work on some issue previously agreed to be problematic. Consider, in this light, Gasché's claim that 'Arche-writing is a construct aimed at resolving the philosophical problem of the very possibility (not primarily the empirical fact, which always suffers exceptions) of the usurpation, parasitism and contamination of an ideality, a generality, a universal by what is considered its other, its exterior, its incarnation, its appearance, and so on.' Nobody knew that was a 'philosophical problem' before Derrida came along, any more than we knew that 'the conditions of the possibility of synthetic a priori judgments' was a problem before Kant came along."] Once again, I would want to insist that you cannot have it both ways. You cannot see these leaps in the dark as the magnificent poetic acts they are and still talk about "philosophical rigor." Rigor just does not come into it.
This insusceptibility to argument is what makes "the philosophy of reflection"—the tradition of transcendental inquiry within which Gasché wishes to embed Derrida—the bête noir of philosophers who take public discussability as the essence of rationality. Habermas's polemic against the late Heidegger and against Derrida has the same motives as Carnap's attack on the early Heidegger. Like Carnap, Habermas thinks that philosophy ought to be argumentative. He thinks that Heidegger and Derrida are merely oracular. My own view is that we should avoid slogans like "philosophy ought to be argumentative" (or any other slogan that begins "philosophy ought to be …") and recognize that the writers usually identified as "philosophers" include both argumentative problem-solvers like Aristotle and Russell and oracular world-disclosers like Plato and Hegel—both people good at rendering public accounts and people good at leaping in the dark.
But this conciliatory ecumenicism still leaves me hostile to those who, like Gasché, think that one can synthesize world-disclosing and problem-solving into a single activity called "reflection." In particular, I object to the idea that one can be "rigorous" if one's procedure consists in inventing new words for what one is pleased to call "conditions of possibility" rather than playing sentences using old words off against each other. The latter activity is what I take to constitute argumentation. Poetic world-disclosers like Hegel, Heidegger and Derrida have to pay a price, and part of that price is the inappropriateness to their work of notions like "argumentation" and "rigor." [In a footnote Rorty continues: "Consider Gasché's claim that Derrida has 'demonstrated' that 'the source of all being beyond being is generalized, or rather general, writing.' This is just the sort of claim which inspired the logical positivists to say that metaphysics lacked 'cognitive status.' Their point was that such a claim cannot be 'demonstrated,' unless 'demonstration' means something very different from 'can be argued for on the basis of generally shared beliefs.'"]
Habermas differs with me and agrees with Gasché in thinking that philosophy ought to be argumentative, but he agrees with me and differs from Gasché in refusing to see the transitions in Hegel's Logic, or the successive "discoveries" of new "conditions of possibility" which fill the pages of [Heidegger's] Being and Time, as arguments. Habermas and I are both in sympathy with Ernst Tugendhat's nominalist, Wittgensteinian rejection of the idea that one can be nonpropositional and still be argumentative. Tugendhat sees the attempt of a German tradition stemming from Hegel to work at a subpropositional level, while nevertheless claiming the "cognitive status" which people like Carnap want to deny them, as doomed to failure. By contrast, Gasché explicitly rejects Tugendhat's "theoretical ascetism," his self-confinement to "linguistic and propositional truth." [In a footnote, Rorty elaborates, quoting Gasché in The Tain: "'For Tugendhat, and the analytic tradition he represents, knowledge and truth can only be propositional…. [But] by eliminating altogether the ontological dimension of self-identity in self-consciousness (and, for that matter, in absolute reflection), one deprives oneself of the possibility of thinking the very foundations of propositional knowledge and truth, as well as of the very idea of epistemic self-consciousness…. Without the presupposition of ontological or formal-ontological identity of being and thought, of subject and object, of the knower and what is known, there is no ground for any propositional attribution whatsoever.' On the 'analytic' view I share with Tugendhat and Habermas, the very idea of a 'ground' for 'propositional attribution' is a mistake. The practice of playing sentences off against one another in order to decide what to believe—the practice of argumentation—no more requires a 'ground' than the practice of using one stone to chip pieces off another stone in order to make a spear-point."] Gasché thinks that such confinement will forbid one to do something which needs to be done, and which Derrida may in fact have accomplished.
Whereas Gasché thinks that words like "différance" and "iterability" signify "infrastructures"—structures which it is Derrida's great achievement to have unearthed—I see these notions as merely abbreviations for the familiar Peircean-Wittgensteinian anti-Cartesian thesis that meaning is a function of context, and that there is no theoretical barrier to an endless sequence of recontextualizations. I think the problems with taking this Derridean jargon as seriously as Gasché does are the same as those which arise if one takes the jargon of Being and Time as a serious answer to questions of the form "How is the ontic possible? What are its ontological conditions?" If one thinks of writers like Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida as digging down to successively deeper levels of noncausal conditions—as scientists dig down to ever deeper levels of causal conditions (molecules behind tables, atoms behind molecules, quarks behind atoms …)—then the hapless and tedious metaphilosophical question "How can we tell when we have hit bottom?" is bound to arise. More important, so will the question "Within what language are we to lay out arguments demonstrating (or even just making plausible) that we have correctly identified these conditions?"
The latter question causes no great embarrassment for physicists, since they can say in advance what they want to get out of their theorizing. But it should embarrass people concerned with the question of what philosophical vocabulary to use, rather than with the question of what vocabulary will help us accomplish some specific purpose (e.g., splitting the atom, curing cancer, persuading the populace). For either the language in which the arguments are given is itself an antecedently given one or it is a disposable ladder-language, one which can be forgotten once it has been aufgehoben. The former alternative is impossible if one's aim is to cast doubt on all final vocabularies previously available—an ambition common to Hegel, Heidegger and Derrida. Seizing the latter horn of the dilemma, however, requires admitting that the arguments which one uses must themselves be thrown away once they have achieved their purpose. But that would mean, on the normal understanding of the term, that these were not arguments, but rather suggestions about how to speak differently. Argumentation requires that the same vocabulary be used in premises and conclusions—that both be part of the same language-game. Hegelian Aufhebung is something quite different. [According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a "concept or view that is aufgehoben (is one that has been) transcended without being wholly discarded."] It is what happens when we play elements of an old vocabulary off against each other in order to make us impatient for a new vocabulary. But that activity is quite different from playing old beliefs against other old beliefs in an attempt to see which survives. An existing language-game will provide "standard rules" for the latter activity, but nothing could provide such rules for the former. Yet Gasché tells us that "Derrida's work is a genuinely philosophical inquiry that takes the standard rules of philosophy very seriously."
On my view, it is precisely Aufhebung that Derrida is so good at. But one could only think of this practice as argumentative if one had a conception of argument as sub-propositional—one which allowed the unit of argumentation to be the word rather than the sentence. That is, indeed, a conception of argumentation which, notoriously, we find in Hegel's Logic—the text to which Gasché traces back "the philosophy of reflection." Hegel tried to give a sense to the idea that there are inferential relations among individual concepts which are not reducible to inferential relations among sentences which use the words signifying those concepts—that there is a "movement of the concept" for the philosopher to follow, not reducible to the reweaving of a web of belief by playing beliefs off against each other. Hegel thought that he followed this movement as he went from "Being" at the beginning of the Logic to "the Absolute Idea" at its end.
Nominalists like myself—those for whom language is a tool rather than a medium, and for whom a concept is just the regular use of a mark or noise—cannot make sense of Hegel's claim that a concept like "Being" breaks apart, sunders itself, turns into its opposite, etc., nor of Gasché's Derridean claim that "concepts and discursive totalities are already cracked and fissured by necessary contradictions and heterogeneities." The best we nominalists can do with such claims is to construe them as saying that one can always make an old language-game look bad by thinking up a better one—replace an old tool with a new one by using an old word in a new way (e.g., as the "privileged" rather than the "derivative" term of a contrast), or by replacing it with a new word. But this need for replacement is ours, not the concept's. It does not go to pieces; rather, we set it aside and replace it with something else.
Gasché is quite right in saying that to follow Wittgenstein and Tugendhat in this nominalism will reduce what he wants to call "philosophical reflection" to "a fluidization or liquefaction (Verflüssigung) of all oppositions and particularities by means of objective irony." Such liquefaction is what I am calling Aufhebung and praising Derrida for having done spectacularly well. We nominalists think that all that philosophers of the world-disclosing (as opposed to the problem-solving) sort can do is to fluidize old vocabularies. We cannot make sense of the notion of discovering a "condition of the possibility of language"—nor, indeed, of the notion of "language" as something homogeneous enough to have "conditions." If, with Wittgenstein, Tugendhat, Quine and Davidson, one ceases to see language as a medium, one will reject a fortiori Gasché's claim that "[language] must, in philosophical terms, be thought of as a totalizing medium." That is only how a certain antinominalistic philosophical tradition—"the philosophy of reflection"—must think of it.
If one does think of it that way, to be sure, then one will have to worry about whether one has got hold of a true or a false totality. One will worry about whether one has burrowed deeply enough (whether, for example, Derridean infrastructures, though doubtless deeper than mere Heideggerian Existentiale, may not conceal still deeper and more mysterious entities which underlie them.) But if, with Wittgenstein, one starts to think of vocabularies as tools, then totality is no longer a problem. One will be content to use lots of different vocabularies for one's different purposes, without worrying much about their relation to one another. (In particular, one will be more willing to accept a private-public split: using one set of words in one's dealings with others, and another when engaged in self-creation.) The idea of an overview of the entire realm of possibility (one made possible by having penetrated to the conditionless conditions of that realm) seems, from this Wittgensteinian angle, crazy. For we nominalists think that the realm of possibility expands whenever somebody thinks up a new vocabulary, and thereby discloses (or invents—the difference is beside any relevant point) a new set of possible worlds.
Nominalists see language as just human beings using marks and noises to get what they want. One of the things we want to do with language is to get food, another is to get sex, another is to understand the origin of the universe. Another is to enhance our sense of human solidarity, and still another may be to create oneself by developing one's own private, autonomous, philosophical language. It is possible that a single vocabulary might serve two or more of these aims, but there is no reason to think that there is any great big meta-vocabulary which will somehow get at the least common denominator of all the various uses of all the various marks and noises which we use for all these various purposes. So there is no reason to lump these uses together into something big called "Language," and then to look for its "condition of possibility," any more than to lump all our beliefs about the spatio-temporal world together into something called "experience" and then look, as Kant did, for its "condition of possibility." Nor is there any reason to lump all attempts to formulate great big new vocabularies, made by people with many different purposes (e.g., Plato, St. Paul, Newton, Marx, Freud, Heidegger), into something called "the discourse of philosophy" and then to look for conditions of the possibility of that discourse.
How does one go about deciding whether to read Derrida my way or Gasché's way? How does one decide whether he is really a much-misunderstood transcendental "philosopher of reflection," a latter-day Hegel, or really a much-misunderstood nominalist, a sort of French Wittgenstein? Not easily. Derrida makes noises of both sorts. Sometimes he warns us against the attempt to hypostatize something called "language." Thus early in Of Grammatology he says "This inflation of the sign 'language' is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself." But, alas, he immediately goes on to talk in a grandiloquent, Hegel-Heidegger, "destiny of Europe" tone about how "a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon." [In a footnote, Rorty continues: "I have criticized Derrida's tendency to adopt this tone in 'Deconstruction and Circumvention.' For a more general criticism of the Heideggerian, un-'playful' side of Derrida, see Barbara Herrnstein Smith, 'Changing Places: Truth, Error and Deconstruction' in her Contingencies of Value. Smith argues that '"the metaphysics of Western thought" is thought, all of it, root and branch, everywhere and always' and that 'as figure and ground change places, the unravelling of Western metaphysics weaves another Western metaphysics.' I agree, and take the point to be that each generation's irony is likely to become the next generation's metaphysics. Metaphysics is, so to speak, irony gone public and flat—liquefaction congealed, providing a new ground on which to inscribe new figures. From my angle, the attempt to make Derrida into somebody who has discovered some 'philosophical truths' is a premature flattening-out of Derrida's irony. I think that he ought to be kept fluid a while longer before being congealed (as eventually he must be) into one more set of philosophical views, suitable for doxographic summary."]
Derrida himself, I have to admit, used to use words like "rigorous" a lot. There is a lot in his early work which chimes with Gasché's interpretation. But as he moves along from the early criticisms of Husserl through Glas to texts like the "Envois" section of The Post Card, the tone has changed. I should like to think of Derrida as moving away from the academic, "standard rules of philosophy" manner of his early work to a manner more like the later Wittgenstein's. Indeed, I should like to see his early work as something of a false start, in the same way that Being and Time seems to me, in the light of Heidegger's later work, to have been a false start, and as Wittgenstein thought his Tractatus had been a false start.
But perhaps it is just too soon for a judgment to be rendered on whether Gasché or I am looking at Derrida from the right angle, or whether we both may not be somewhat squinty-eyed. For Derrida is, to put it mildly, still going strong. Still, it may be a service to those coming to Derrida for the first time to have a choice between opposed readings at their disposal.
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SOURCE: A review of Glas and Glassary, in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. LXXV, No. 3, August, 1989, pp. 355-57.
[In the following review of Glas, Aune remarks that its barriers to comprehension are even greater than in Derrida's earlier books, yet he praises it for its erudition and scholarly rigor.]
My first reaction upon receiving Glas in the mail was that it may have inaugurated a new literary genre: the coffeetable book for academics. Elegantly printed (in several different typefaces, which correspond to the multiple "voices" of the text) and 10 1/4 inches square, Glas looks like the sort of book one would display or read in, but never read.
And, alas, Glas probably will remain unread by most readers…. Conversation between American-style rhetoricians and deconstructionists seems impossible, and the recent de Man case may well serve as a convenient excuse for evading such a conversation indefinitely. Thus far, David Cratis Williams, Dilip Gaonkar, and Martha Solomon are the only rhetoricians who have expressed sympathy with deconstruction, and I suspect Glas will send even them screaming into the night.
Derrida, of course, never was terribly accessible—with the possible exception of his early work on Husserl, Speech and Phenomena, and the essay, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," in Writing and Difference. Dissemination began what most might perceive as a descent into a Babel of parody, word-plays, and typographical tomfoolery. Glas is even more difficult than the later sections of Dissemination.
"Glas" means "knell" in French, and the title remains untranslated because throughout the book Derrida will search for the uncanny recurrence of the phoneme "gl" in the works of his two chief subjects: Hegel and Jean Genet, the French homosexual playwright/novelist and thief. The book consists of two seemingly unrelated columns of text, with an occasional third column, the first of which is excerpts from and commentary on Hegel's writings on primitive religion, Judaism, Christianity, and the family, and the second of which does the same for Genet. It is possible that the two columns also represent the two sides of a bell, with the third representing the bell's "clapper," which makes "communication" between the two sides of the bell possible. The book enacts stylistically Derrida's familiar preoccupations with the relationships among philosophy, rhetoric, and literature; the impossibility of absolute knowledge; the priority of writing over speech; and the semantic status of proper names. There is a relatively new focus on deconstructing sexuality, which should make the book of interest to American followers of the new French feminism. There is also a brief stab at a deconstructive reading of Marx. Any attempt, however, at isolating Derrida's "argument" is pointless, because Glas is finally "about" the experience of reading and about the peculiarities of academic prose, which Derrida continues ruthlessly to parody.
Gregory L. Ulmer, in an essay included in the companion volume, Glassary, makes an elegant defense of Derrida's style. Glas is "an essay in postcriticism in which style is assigned an epistemic or cognitive function." Derrida himself puts it this way: "Let us space. The art of this text is the air it causes to circulate between its screens. The chainings are invisible, everything seems improvised or juxtaposed. This text induces by agglutinating rather than demonstrating, by coupling or decoupling, gluing and ungluing rather than by exhibiting the continuous, and analogical, instructive, suffocating necessity of a discursive rhetoric."
Perhaps a better way of illustrating Derrida's point is to cite a quotation from Genet in Glas: "When one is cunning … one can pretend to believe that words do not budge, that their sense is fixed or has budged thanks to us who become, voluntarily, one feigns to believe, if our appearance is modified just a bit, gods. As for me, when confronted with the enraged, engaged herd in the dictionary, I know that I have said nothing and will ever say nothing. And the words don't give a fuck." Glas enacts the difference between these two views of language, the first characteristic of Hegel (or philosophy in general) and the second characteristic of Genet. It is not a question of choosing between the two (Derrida, it seems to me, is continually misread on this point), but of miming that moment in history and conceptual space where the seeming necessity of such a choice becomes possible. Glas provides, to the patient reader, an insight into the vexing problem of the ontology of rhetoric. Rhetorical theory, since the 1960s, has tried to cope with the Western binary opposition between philosophy and rhetoric by collapsing philosophy into rhetoric or, at least, by exalting rhetoric into the Great White Hope of Western ethics and politics. Glas projects the reader into a state in which even the hitherto most grandiose conception of rhetoric's epistemic status seems too tame. For traditional notions of rhetoric, like philosophy, are premised on the assumption that language is somehow controllable by human beings. Derrida, like Genet, helps us posit (a more realistic?) conception of language as "not giving a fuck."
An attentive reading of Glas will pay off for contemporary scholars of rhetoric. In a way, Glas is the most joyous and interesting of Derrida's writings. His painstaking and loving attention to his sources should once and for all acquit him of charges of nihilism. Such charges are also persuasively refuted by the companion volume, Glassary, which includes a preface by Derrida, an essay by the chief translator, and an essay by Gregory L. Ulmer on the relationship between Derrida and Lacanian psychoanalysis. It also includes a useful index and an explanation of choices made by Leavey in translating a work whose untranslatability must compare only to Finnegans Wake. Ulmer's essay is the most lucid introduction to Derrida's theory of communication I have read.
Glassary, however, is probably not the best introduction to Glas. Geoffrey Hartman's Saving the Text is a better overview of Glas, and pays special attention to the continuity between deconstruction and rabbinical biblical interpretation. Although it is possible to overestimate Derrida's Jewishness (Leavey's essay points out that Derrida, somewhat surprisingly, does not know Hebrew), Glas is the most explicitly theological of his writings. His most intriguing observation on Hegel is that Hegel's arguments about the history of Christian theology are really "about" rhetoric. By that, I think Derrida means that the status of the relationship between Jesus and the Father is similar to that of a rhetorical figure and "reality."
Glas will probably make few new disciples of Derrida. My own experience of reading the book refuted my earlier perception that he is a destructive nihilist. For what Glas reveals—despite its narcissism, preciosity, and irritatingly French naughtiness—is a thoroughgoing commitment by Derrida and his friends to (dare I say it?) the central virtues of scholarship in the humanities: close reading, mastery of languages, loving attention to the central texts of Western culture, and—above all—a commitment to what Ezra Pound described as the main function of art: "MAKE IT NEW," the renewal of perception.
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SOURCE: "Derrida and the Study of Religion," in Religious Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 19-21.
[In the following review of Glas, The Truth in Painting, and The Post Card, Winquist summarizes Derrida's philosophy and considers its relation to theology.]
Deconstruction is always deeply concerned with the "other" of language. I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the "other" and the "other of language." [Derrida, in an interview with Richard Kearney in Kearney's Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers, 1984]
Western theology and the study of religion are both deeply implicated in the logocentric framework of the Western philosophical tradition that has become the object of a radical deconstructionist critique. In particular, it has been the work of Jacques Derrida that has most recently "problematized" any easy alliance of theology and the study of religion with unquestioned logocentric assumptions and trajectories in their discursive practices. Derrida has made conscious the often unthought syntax of philosophical thinking that is itself the often unthought context for the study of religion. Whether we agree or disagree with Derrida's analyses and readings of the tradition, studies in religion are subject to the interrogative force of his inquiry and can choose to be naive only by casting a shadow on their credibility.
Derrida's impact on English language studies in religion follows three waves of publication and subsequent English translations. Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, and Writing and Difference were published in 1967; Disseminations, Positions, and Margins in Philosophy were published in 1972; and, Glas, The Truth in Painting, and The Post Card were published in 1974, 1978 and 1980. All of these works are difficult and require philosophically sophisticated readings; and it is the lack of philosophical knowledge that has led to so many misreadings and clichéd understandings that are at best a caricature of Derrida's thought and more often a falsification of his positions in the growing secondary literature on deconstruction. The publications that are under the explicit focus of this review [the last three just mentioned], sometimes thought of as his more "playful" or "literary" works, are particularly subject to misreading because of their nonconventional organization. I, however, do agree with Rodolphe Gasché in his excellent book, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection, that "all the motifs of the earlier texts continue to inform and direct Derrida's more 'playful' texts." There are philosophical arguments in these texts even when they manifest themselves in nonsystematic differential play.
What we must first account for in our reading of any of Derrida's major texts is that Derrida is a careful reader and that reading Derrida is also reading Plato, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Husserl, and Heidegger and sometimes reading them in juxtaposition with Bataille, Mallarmé, Blanchot, Genet, Sollers, or other literary and visual artists. Derrida teaches us to read in extremis and to read carefully. It is in this reading that we discover the "other" and the "other of language." That is, Derrida reads philosophy and literature without denying their internal tensions, inconsistencies, and constitutive complexities. He is thereby able to locate and follow lines of force within the differential play of signifiers of the text to ruptures and gaps that witness to the originary trauma and undecidability of bringing force to textual experience. His readings resemble a transcendental interrogation of the conditions for the possibilities of discursive practices and textual productions. This is why Gasché properly refers to Derrida's undecidables, archetrace, différance, supplementarity, iterability, and re-mark, as quasitranscendental and as infrastructures of discourse. These undecidables are conditions, infrastructural syntheses, that constitute philosophy's mise en scène. They are themselves not concepts but mark the inscription of concepts within differential chains of signifiers that constitute their sense. Identity is in difference and it is the conditions that make possible this coming into difference that are interrogated in a deconstructive reading.
What Derrida fundamentally disturbs is the philosophy of reflection with its notion of the self-grounded thinking subject. The signature of the self is decentered in the heterogeneity of conditions that constitute its possibility. Inscription is more than and other than intention. "The alterity that splits reflection from itself and thus makes it able to fold itself into itself—to reflect itself—is also what makes it, for structural reasons, incapable of closing upon itself. The very possibility of reflexivity is the subversion of its own source" (Gasché). There will be traces of the "other" than the text even when they are repressed or under erasure that makes possible the "double gesture" of deconstruction, a phase of reversal and appropriation of formative concepts and a phase of reinscription and displacement into the context of their infrastructural possibilities.
Contrary to some criticisms of Derrida, the indeterminacy of undecidable traces in the text does not justify irresponsible interpretive play or gratuitous readings; nor is deconstruction a reconstructed "new criticism." The locus of deconstruction is the given text; and its reading maintains a fidelity with the text since "the interpretive efficiency of the infrastructures or signifying structures depends on their insistence within a given text or discourse" (Gasché). In Positions, Derrida very clearly states that: "The incision of deconstruction, which is not a voluntary decision or an absolute beginning, does not take place just anywhere, or in an absolute elsewhere. An incision, precisely, it can be made only according to lines of force and forces of rupture that are localizable in the discourse to be deconstructed." However, the articulation of this incision is not predetermined by the formal constraints of the text under examination. Derrida's "more playful" texts carefully read the tradition but acknowledge the heterogeneity of context and text production by experimenting with syntax and organization. Fidelity to the text is also fidelity to its supplementarity.
Glas, the first of the major experimental works to be published, confronts the reader with a strategic decision as to how it is to be read. Composed of two columns with parenthetical and grafted subtexts, one might suspect (for which there is some evidence), a complex orchestration that needs to be deciphered. There, however, is a warning inserted into the text to caution the reader against organizational unity: "one column here [ici]—let one think [to compensate] then the other one over there. The one shows when the other descends, but isn't the level almost constant, almost only because you count for nothing in the time [mesure] of the two heterogeneous columns. No common measure at the very moment you think you are clutching/declutching, manipulating, orchestrating, making the liquid music rise or fall by playing the pedals, by making use of fags [en jouant des pédales]. The columns deceive and play with you, threaten to beat on each other without leaving you any issue."
The reader reads within a tension of readings of Hegel and Genet chiasmatically crossing between the Sa, an acronym for the savoir absolu of Hegel, and the ça, it, this and that, of Genet's incorrigible heterogeneity of immediate experience. Glas, a death knell, is a study of Hegel's Aufhebung. It is explicitly theological and christological by holding one of its columns close to the Hegelian achievement and profoundly secular by holding the other column close to Genet's dark witness to the body of particularity. The reading of Hegel is uncompromising with revisionist accommodations that make the Hegelian project more easily assimilable in contemporary theology. "The deconstructive undoing of the greatest totality, the totality of ontotheology, faithfully repeats this totality in its totality while simultaneously making it tremble, making it insecure in its most assured evidences" (Gasché).
Sublation and subversion are the warp and woof of Derrida's textual fabric in Glas, making it difficult to determine when to read the text ironically and parodically and when to read it straightforwardly. The one hand of his writing has as its object the morsel and the other hand writes the implications of the Hegelian Aufhebung in the ascent toward absolute knowledge, Sa. He follows the Hegelian trajectory into the heart of Christianity while in the adjacent column he works in and under Genet's gluey textual veil of drool, spit, and milk. Glas is not a text of moderation. To read Hegel seriously is to think "God's infinite revelation revealing itself in its infinity." "To claim to think absolute, true and revealed religion, and maintain, as Kant does, the limits of a finite subjectivity is to prohibit oneself from thinking what thinking is said to be, is not to think what one already thinks, is to chitchat—in the infidelity, idolatry, formalist abstraction of the understanding." Derrida does not claim that Hegelianism is true Christianity or that Hegel can think "infinity" without fissuring his text, but he does claim that "… one must be certain that, for Hegel at least, no ontology is possible before the Gospel or outside it."
The preaching of love and its subjective interiorization is the paradigmatic expression of the Aufhebung. "If Sein cannot be what it is, cannot posit itself, become and unfold itself without traversing Christianity's destiny, that is first because Sein must first determine itself as subjectivity. Being perhaps lets itself be re-covered and dissembled, bound or determined by subjectivity (Heidegger), but that is, for Hegel, in order to think itself. First in Christ." Absolute religion precedes the Sa. "The immortality of the one who is God's anointed, who is a being [Wesen] only as the son of God, this immortality, the glorious resurrection of his body, consists in letting itself be thought."
Hegel's analysis of the family, particularly the holy family, is the conceptual matrix for absolute knowledge. "[T]he Christian holy mother is named Aufhebung … Aufhebung is the productive imagination." The textual juxtaposition of this analysis with Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers does not mean that we can dismiss the overtly theological entailments of the reading of Hegel and attend only to the nonconventional format of Derrida's text. The text has a context and a content. Language is "filled, fulfilled, filled in, accomplished, inflated, curved (galber), rounded by the sense that penetrates it."
Derrida's readings of Hegel and Genet in Glas are lessons in the specificity of reading. These, however, are not lessons in constraint. Derrida's readings are errant readings. They stray within texts and between texts and in this way reveal texts in their richness and complexity, incompleteness and otherness, including their religious and theological sensibilities.
The Truth in Painting and The Post Card are not unlike Glas in their being serious readings of the philosophical tradition in a nonconventional style. The recurrent theme of The Truth in Painting is framing; and Derrida's stated strategy is to make a disturbance in the philosophy that dominates discourse on painting, to decrypt the linkage between the phonic and graphic traits, to analyze systems of duction (production, reproduction, reduction, etc.) and the desire for restitution of the truth in painting. An important question for this discourse on art and also an important question for the study of religion is: "What happens when a surplus value places itself en abyme?" This question will insist upon itself in the interrogation of parergon, all that is neither in the work [ergon] nor outside of it.
Derrida's disturbance to philosophy is primarily through a reading of Kant's third Critique and secondarily through the construction of a polylogue discussing a debate between Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro of a Van Gogh painting of unlaced shoes. The questions of the trait, the idiom of the trait [signature] and systems of duction are woven into discussions of Adami's The Journey of the Drawing and Titus-Carmel's The Pocket Size Tlingit Coffin. All of the essays investigate the parerga of the discourse on art. They are discourses on art and also discourses on thinking.
Derrida's reading of the third Critique [in The Truth in Painting] is a radical exercise in the purity of thinking that follows and seduces the text and the problematics of the whole of the Kantian project to lines of fissure and expressions of absurdity. It is in an interlacing of the first two Critiques that "an abyss is established between the domain of the concept of nature, that is, the sensible, and the domain of the concept of freedom, that is the supersensible, such that no passage is possible from one to the other" (Kant quoted in The Truth in Painting). The identification of art as a middle term to resolve the separation between mind and nature becomes in Derrida's reading the deconstruction of a system of pure philosophy. The parergonal function of the analytic of concepts in the analytic of the beautiful mixes discourses; and its framing effect of subjectivity can be effaced only by naturalizing the frame to infinity, placing it in the hands of God. Only then could we have "the pureness which gives us the sense of beauty in general, the pure telos of beauty (non-telos)."
This and other paradigmatic but parabolic formulations of pure beauty and the refusal of the pure sublime to adequate presentation confound resolution of the opposition of mind and nature. We have frames without works; and it is the frames that are determined in their undecidability. It would appear that the truth in painting eludes the philosophical gesture that reduplicates itself.
This comment applies to Derrida's reading of Heidegger as well as Kant. Heidegger has paired "Van Gogh's" unlaced shoes, "he has loaded these shoes, invested them, arraigned them, compulsively laced them around peasant ankles, when nothing in the picture expressly authorized this." Then, it is this pair of shoes "in this painting which opens to the truth of the being-product. But which opens to it in its unveiled-unveiling presence, letting itself be traversed—toward truth." In this parodic reading of Heidegger the movement toward truth does not bring us to the truth in painting. The desire for restitution is an ontotheological desire. Perhaps there is something "other" in the truth in painting.
The Post Card is constructed of "envois," essays and an interview. It is, among other movements, a reading of Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition. "You might read these envois as the preface to a book I have not written. It would have treated that which proceeds from the postes of every genre, to psychoanalysis." This "unwritten book" is about delivery systems and the delivery of truth. "To post is to send by 'counting' with a halt, a relay, or a suspensive delay, the place of a mailman, the possibility of going astray and of forgetting." It is the "post" that brings us to an awareness of the materiality of the text to be delivered and the possibility of its loss without return.
Derrida, however, does not write a history of the post, he writes of a postcard inverting the historical images of Socrates and Plato, or mixing up the names, while he, Derrida, mixes a personal correspondence with philosophical speculation. "A correspondence: this is still to say too much, or too little. Perhaps it was not one (but more or less) nor very correspondent. This still remains to be decided." The question of too much or too little, undecidable excess, is a focus of interrogation throughout this text.
In a reading of Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, "How to gain access to the resistance of Beyond …?" is the dominant motif. The difficulty and necessity of translating an observation into a description, "… these trajectories—transitional, transcriptive, transpositional and transgressive, transferential trajectories—open the very field of speculation." In the prefixes of speculation, the trans or the Über, we confront the return of the problematic of the Aufhebung and the displacement of subjectivity in the accession into the symbolic, the logic of the signifier.
The Post Card, The Truth in Painting, and Glas keep bringing us back to the "other" and the "beyond" of the multiple manifestations of the desire for the savior absolu. Derrida writes that "what makes me write … would represent in this respect only one offer. An offer on the scene in which attempts to occupy the place of the Sa … are multiplying, that is, simultaneously all the places, those of the seller, the buyer, and the auctioneer."
"Who is writing? To whom? And to send, to destine, to dispatch what? To what address?" Is this a scene of writing that demands and allows for a theological response? Even if Derrida's writings have been misdirected into the study of religion, their arrival and presence poses questions of the delivery of the truth that is religious and theological.
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SOURCE: "Derrida and the Study of Religion," in Religious Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 21-5.
[In the following review of The Post Card, The Truth in Painting, and Glas, Caputo discusses Derrida's use of psychoanalytic and theological ideas in his critique of traditional philosophy.]
On the cover of The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond there is a reproduction of a drawing taken from a thirteenth-century fortune telling book by Matthew of Paris that portrays Socrates seated at a writing desk, diligently at work on a manuscript, while behind him stands a rather more diminutive Plato who appears to be dictating to him. Upon this "catastrophic" reversal of roles Derrida comments:
Be aware that everything in our bildopedic culture,… in our telecommunications of all genres, in our telematicometaphysical archives,… everything is constructed on the protocolary charter of an axiom, that could be demonstrated, displayed on a large carte,… [that] Socrates comes before Plato, there is between them—and in general—an order of generations, an irreversible sequence of inheritance.
Our tradition has always assumed that Socrates did not write and that Plato, who did, regarded his writings as a written copy, a mimesis, of the living dialogue of Socrates; in other words we have always imagined Plato seated and Socrates whispering in his ear. And just as Socrates breathed on Plato, Plato got Aristotle going (and Aristotle Aquinas, etc.), thus setting up the irreversible line(age) called the Western tradition.
Derrida is clearly charmed by the outrageous reversal perpetrated by the drawing, as if Matthew of Paris were a thirteenth-century deconstructionist. But as always there is a point to the joke, a fine tip on the Derridean stylus. The point is not to announce the "end of the tradition," even if that is what Allan Bloom and former Education Secretary Bennett think he is up to. For careful readers of Derrida know that he regards declamations about the "end" of the tradition, or of metaphysics, or of literature (or of whatever you want) as just more metaphysics, more tele-communication, more apocalyptic pronouncements from on high. Derrida's idea is that the telecomunicatory life of the tradition, the "postal" process of sending out messages over the lines of Western philosophy, theology, and literature is a lot more complicated than defenders of the tradition have been wont to allow. It is not, by a long shot, a process whereby original messages, ipsissima verba, are passed on to a legacy of faithful followers whose job is then to return them faithfully to their author, which is the classical hermeneutic circuit(ry). On the contrary, messages have been scrambled, garbled, even lost; and filial lines have come out backwards. So many voices, so many writers: who is saying what to whom? Who is the sender and who is the receiver? This is not just bad luck but a structural necessity inscribed in the very nature of the postal process. Communication necessarily depends upon writing, not just in the narrow sense of written documents, but in the general sense of écriture, of the tangled chain of signifiers which is the condition of possibility—and of impossibility—of any attempt to communicate in any kind of medium at all.
Consider a theological analogy. Instead of an image of an evangelist with pen in hand and ear cocked heavenwards waiting for his next line—a theological "postal principle"—imagine the Derridean counterpart: a large Jesus seated at a writing desk, while diminutive evangelists whisper in his ear; and not just the evangelists, but whole communities, churches, clusters of even more diminutive figures whose names and faces we cannot make out, feeding Jesus lines that grew out of oral traditions and liturgical practices, passed on and altered, altered and passed on, and put into his mouth. The sayings of Jesus are dictated by those who followed him; the Teacher is the effect produced by those who are supposed to be receiving the teaching. You see the Derridean, deconstructionist reversal here: Jesus as effect, i.e., not an original content which is preserved and communicated—according to the classical postal principle—but a content which is produced by the followers; the founder is founded.
Derrida tries to get all this across—i.e., tries to make the idea of getting things across problematic—by writing a book or, better, patching together a text, about transmissions, correspondences, communications called The Post Card that has been very ably translated by Alan Bass. Indeed Derrida has been very fortunate with his English translators; and they have made available in the cluster of books here under discussion [The Post Card, The Truth in Painting, and Glas] an exceedingly important dimension of his work. The (a)thesis (like Kierkegaard, Derrida has to write a book in such a way as not to write a book) of The Post Card is that a letter is always able not to arrive at its destination. The tip of that point is directed at Lacan, who in the concluding line of his 1956 seminar on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter" claims that a letter always arrives at its destination…. Freud had said in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that the unconscious desire for forbidden pleasure is constantly being rerouted, directed along alternate paths, postponed and deferred, or "purloined" (which is why Freud is one of Derrida's sources for his notion of différance.) Lacan's innovation was to treat this process of rerouting as a linguistic operation, according to which the "transactions" between the unconscious and experience are governed by linguistic laws. The life of the subject is a function of "the symbolic order," a metonomic and metaphoric transformation of unconscious desire. The subject passes along a fated path marked out by the symbolic chain and is entirely traversed by the symbolic order. Lacan sees in Poe's story a literary illustration of this theoretical point (which for Derrida betokens a whole metaphysics of "literature"): the fate of each of the characters in the story is governed by the place of the stolen letter. They do not have the letter but the letter has them. Eventually the detective Dupin, who recovers the stolen letter, is himself drawn into the cycle, sent skidding down the route to which the letter destines everyone and so misses his chance to occupy the place of the doctor/detective/psychoanalyst, the place of Poe and Lacan themselves. The duped Dupin is a bad psychoanalyst (and the dissident Lacan, excommunicated by official Freudianism, is the good one).
The Post Card is very much an attempt to upset Lacan's cart(e). Derrida objects that Lacan harbors a theory of a master hermeneut, a master of the truth who, by listening to the inverted letters sent out by the unconscious, claims to return them to their sender in decoded form. The doctor/hermeneut knows the "truth" of the unconscious, the law of its letter, which he has gained in virtue of his transcendental, doctoral advantage. Derrida in turn is defending a poststructuralist Freudianism, one that must proceed without the help of a master key. Derrida does not reject the very idea of the unconscious—for it is central to his attempt to disrupt the Husserlian, Cartesian, Platonic notion of intentional consciousness—but only that the unconscious operates according to laws that can be deciphered. Derrida thinks the unconscious is constantly "disseminating" its effects all over conscious life in such a way that the letter may always not reach its destination. The letter does not mean anything determinate, but it is constantly lost and going astray. Indeed it does not "mean" at all, but it is a much more "grammatological" operation than Lacan allows. We ought not to say that Derrida's "point" is "illustrated"—for that is to subordinate literature (fiction) to philosophy (truth)—but that this athesis is enacted in The Post Card by the exchange of lost and torn love letters which constitute the opening "Envois" ("Sendings," "Epistles"?), which includes not incidentally an important critique of Heidegger's postal principle, his letters from Being (Seinsschickungen).
Readers of The Purloined Poe will discover that Derrida and Lacan may not be as far apart as Derrida contends, that Derrida like Dupin is too tough on Lacan, that Derrida is being drawn into the cycle! (Cf. Barbara Johnson's study A World of Difference, 1987.) For one thing, Derrida's whole idea of Freudianism as a transcription system, a system of writing, which he defended in Writing and Difference, is originally Lacan's. Furthermore, it may be that the contested sentence, that a letter always arrives at its destination, means only that the rule of the symbolic order is unbroken, that no one escapes the symbolic order. What the analyst sees is not a master plan, as Derrida contends, but the necessity of the symbolic order, the inescapability of the chain of signifiers—that there is nothing outside the text (= the symbolic order), which is precisely Derrida's own view. The position of the analyst is not a transcendental one but one of Socratic vigilance, alertness to what Derrida calls the play of signifiers and to what Lacan calls the insistence of the letter. On that reading, "the letter always arrives at its destination" means about the same as "there is nothing outside the text." It is obvious—it hanging from the fireplace for everyone to see—that Derrida and Lacan are saying the same thing, but Derrida/Dupin does not see it.
In The Truth in Painting Derrida is again out to deflate the pretensions of the masters of truth, not this time the master of the truth of the unconscious, but the Kunstwissenschaftler, the learned art historian, master of the work of art. This whole discussion applies as well to the art historian in The Post Card who intends to straighten Derrida out about the true meaning of the illustration in Matthew of Paris's book. This time detective Meyer Schapiro, the Columbia University art historian, is stalking a stolen work of art that he intends to restore to its proper owner. A painting of Van Gogh has been lifted by Heidegger, who has pilfered it right from under the nose of Van Gogh experts by cloaking it with his sentimental, unscientific, Schwarzwaldian mythology of the "peasant woman" that makes it speak of "earth and world." Schapiro (Dupin) sets Heidegger up, asking him, innocent as a lamb—did I say Columbia or Columbo?—just what painting Heidegger was describing. Then Schapiro moves in for the kill, explaining with scientific deftness that in the painting that Heidegger must have had in mind the shoes were not peasant shoes, but city shoes, indeed the shoes of Van Gogh himself, at that time a man of the town.
Derrida is not out to defend Heidegger—he is also worried by the peasant ideology, a point that is directly related to Heidegger's involvement with National Socialism (see Derrida's De L'esprit, 1987)—but to deflate Schapiro. He casts a series of doubts over Schapiro's arguments: Couldn't a city dweller paint peasant shoes? Are we sure these are men's shoes? Are we sure they even make a pair? Isn't Schapiro's urbane Jewishness just an opposite ideology? In short, Derrida rejects not only Heidegger's onto-hermeneutics of the Being of the work of art that is supposed to open up a Greco-Germanic world of earth and sky, mortals and gods, but also Schapiro's scientific hermeneutics which brings the work under scientific control. He wants to unlace the shoes, to free them up, to extricate them from the art-historical police as well as from those who fantasize about standing in peasant fields receiving messages from the gods (Heidegger's Hölderlinian hermeneutics). In the end, Derrida thinks, "there is" only the painting:
Nobody's being accused, or above all condemned, or even suspected. There is painting, writing, restitutions, that's all…. The shoes are there for (figure, representing, remarking, depicting) painting at work. Not in order to be reattached to the feet of somebody or other, in the painting or outside it, but there for-painting (and vice versa).
The painting cannot be reduced one way or the other, restored definitively to any proprietor. It is marked with an irreducible residuum or remnance. It cannot be assimilated, appropriated, thematically determined. The painting is stuck to its canvass, imbedded in its textuality, pasted down in and by the rough strokes of Van Gogh's brush. The painting is glued down to the canvas. And with that remark we come to the glue of Glas, to Derrida's most outrageous moment, his academic skandalon which has rent more than one academic robe.
Glas not only resists thematic summary; it is like many of Derrida's writings a disruption of the very idea of thematic summary. The book is printed in two columns, each of which is cut into by numerous insert paragraphs called Judas peep holes and which look like little windows on a computer display terminal peering into other texts. On the left is a commentary on Hegel, on the right a commentary on Jean Genet, the well known French novelist and dramatist, convicted thief, and homosexual who was celebrated in Sartre's Saint Genet, a study of Genet which Derrida very much dislikes. Glas deals with Hegel and Genet. With Hegel, which in French sounds like aigle, eagle, which embodies the cold, soaring conceptuality of absolute knowledge, savoir absolue (Sa). With Genet, that is, with genêt, a mountain flower, with the flowers that fill the pages of The Miracle of the Rose, Our Lady of the Flowers, and The thief's Journal. Glas: on Hegel and Genet, that is, on aigle and genêt.
One can imagine the difficulty of translating a book like this but Leavey and Rand have done a remarkable job. And Leavey and Ulmer have added to their contribution with a completely indispensable companion book—called, what else? Glassary (1986)—which supplies an exhaustive index to Glas, tracks down all of its references, and adds two excellent introductory essays.
Now we who have long ago succumbed to onto-theologic, who are Greek down to our toes (shoes?), want to dismiss this aigle/genêt with a wave of our academic gowns and cut through to Derrida's idea; we want to know what the logos is here and to cut the wordplay. But it is Derrida's claim that whatever logos is to be found here sticks like glue to the glossa and the glotta—and that is its glas. In short, we have run up against Derrida's quasi-psychoanalytic theory of the signature, that an author is constantly signing his name both in the text as well as on the title page outside the text. The signature is both inside and outside, unable to be contained by the "classical" (glas is derived etymologically from classicus) distinction between author and text, unable to be circumscribed by the frame which literary theory puts around the text. Such signing is not a conscious, intentional act, of course. On the contrary, an author's signature seems to act for Derrida like an opaque medium or even a scrambling machine through which the exchanges between the unconscious and conscious life are transacted. Like a classical trope called antonomasia, which treats a proper name as a common name, Genet keeps turning his name into flowers, into a thing, making it a kind of rebus; Genet's antonomasia is an anthonomasia. In the same way, Derrida himself is fascinated with his own name: the -da reminds him of Heidegger's Da-sein and also of Freud's famous fort-da game, both frequent subjects of Derrida's writing. And then there is the Reb Derissa; the derisoriness of "rida" (ridere); and finally derriere, e.g., Plato behind Socrates, which among others things is a homosexual behind.
"Thematically" (a bell should go off at this word, for Glas tolls the death knell of thematics) Glas is about religion. The Hegel column is interested in the transition from religion to absolute knowledge, to a conception which has purified itself of contamination by Vorstellung, to a pure Begriff, an immaculate conception. Glas is specifically interested in jamming the gears of this transition, putting a glitch in its works (and so can be read as rejection of the claim that religion and art can be transcended). Derrida knows that you can not "oppose" Sa with anything because Sa will just eat it, that is, Sa assimilates any opposition as its "negative moment." So you have to jam Sa with writing, gum up its works, show how writing sticks to its operations like glue. The result will be to have shown that there is always something left out by Sa, always a remnant that the absolute system failed to digest, an excess that exceeded the grasp of the system, a transcendental excess or ex-position, i.e., a transcendental that is out-of-place.
For Derrida, that transcendental is Hegel's sister—both with and without citation marks. Without the scare quotes, because Derrida inserts numerous "cuts" from Hegel's letters about his real life sister whom, on Derrida's quasi-psychoanalytic theory of the signature, Hegel is always writing. With the scare quotes, because Derrida treats the "theme" of the "sister" in Hegel's works as just this transcendental excess. The reasoning behind this is as follows. For Derrida Hegel's "system" is a kind of "holy family," and the transition from religion to philosophy is a transition from a "holy family" to the "speculative family." A family is a process of division and reappropriation, a life process by which the separate (husband/wife) unite to bring forth the individual that is their own, that itself separates and unites, and so on. It is a circular system by which the proper ap-propriates, keeps returning to home and hearth, until the process culminates in absolute home-coming, Sa.
So the family is in the system but it also is the system; the family is inside/outside the system. Now within the family the sister occupies a unique role because her relationship with her brother is according to Hegel the most "spiritual" of all relations. That is because, while she and her brother are a couple made up of members of the opposite sex, their relationship is without sexual desire and hence without the battle of recognition. Yet the system would seem to exclude the possibility that a relationship could ever be formed without that battle. Hence the most perfectly spiritual and beautiful relationship that Sa knows is excluded by Sa. Sa turns on the possibility of what it excludes, depends upon what it renders impossible. The sister is in a position of transcendental excess. You see what Derrida's idea of the transcendental is: that which is excluded from a certain place in order to open up that place; that which makes something possible and in making it possible, breaches it.
Derrida develops all of this by means of an insightful account of: (1) Hegel's early Life of Jesus—which accentuates Hegel's invidious distinction between the alienated, divided, ugly, soulless, slavishishness of Judaism and the living, breathing unity of the spiritual life of love that Jesus initiated; (2) the conflict between the divine and the human law in Sophocles' Antigone; (3) the culminating analysis of the next to last chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit in which Hegel includes the "religion of flowers." Enter Genet (genêt).
In column (b) we meet the most bizarre counterparts to the holy family and the immaculate conception: Genet's underworld of convicts and "fags" (pédale, tante). "Convicts garb is striped rose and white," The Thief's Journal opens; "there is a close relationship between flowers and convicts." Cut off from bourgeois society, Genet's figures occupy a space parallel to that of the family in Hegel's, a sphere of love prior to that of law. Still, they are not a moment in the growth of society that contributes its sons to the public sphere, but outlaws whose illicit love is mocked by bourgeois society. Genet signifies their other-worldly status by an act of nomination, giving them names like First Communion, Divine, and Our Lady of the Roses—like members of religious communities who have also "left the world." There is a smell of incense and burning candles and of altars decked with beautiful flowers throughout these novels that deal with the most sordid characters. When the Judge calls Divine by her(his) civil name at his trial for murder, Divine is already lost. You can betray persons just by giving the authorities their name. Genet does not hesitate to compare his homosexual convict lovers who face the guillotine to Jesus (mocked, spat upon, betrayed). Or to compare himself: abandoned by his father at birth, taking his mother's name, lacking what Hegel called a wirklich father, his is a kind of virgin birth.
There is an explosion of Derridean motifs in Genet, the likes of which are to be found perhaps only in Joyce and Mallarmé. For one thing, so much turns on naming and nomination: Genet has written his name all over these books, has signed his Jean (the Gospel of John) and his genêt wherever he could. Furthermore, Derrida reads Genet in strongly anti-Lacanian terms. (See Ulmer's essay in Glassary.) For Genet's virgin birth means the displacement of the father and of the rule of phallocentrism. Genet (his mother's name) takes the feminine side (Sa has become sa, her), makes himself into a flower, adorns his fags like the lillies of the field and compares them to the Blessed Mother. Thus Genet refuses Lacan's identification of logos with the name of the father and accentuates the cultural element in gender over natural sexual difference. (Derrida is always testing the limits of the physis/nomos distinction.)
But, as I have repeatedly insisted here, it is not the thematic issues that interest Derrida. He is not opposed to Sartre's Saint Genet, which distills from Genet an ontology of freedom, because Sartre got the thematics wrong. He is contesting thematic interpretation (hermeneutics) itself. What interests Derrida above all about Genet is the operation of writing, the grammatological play, the glas. He finds in Genet's writings an omnipresent discussion of cutting: of whores with roses embroidered strategically to their dresses, of cut flowers, of guillotined convicts, of the photos of notorious criminals cut from the newspapers and pasted on cell walls ("head cuts"!), of multiple castrations of the "antherection" (the flower/convict). Now it is not Derrida's intention to submit all this "coupture" to psychoanalytic hermeneutics, to reduce it to the fear of castration, which would just be to oppose Sartrean hermeneutics with Lacanian. He wants not to op-pose one position with another, but to jam the pos-tional-thetic-phallic mode altogether. He writes in double columns and not linearly, but not because Glas constitutes a phallic war, a battle for recognition between opposing columns. We have already seen that Derrida favors Hegel's sister from whom this battle is missing. Derrida writes this way so that we cannot castrate him, not because he has gained an unconquerable phallic advantage, but because we are always already castrated, i.e., divided by writing, subject to the incisions of the law. We have always already lacked the phallus. Our veil has always already been ripped down the middle; our columns are always already circumscribed (-cised) with writing.
Now once again this is not a third thematic, an anti-Oedipal one, to be opposed to the Sartrean and Lacanian, but a description of writing, of écriture itself, which is the condition of the (im)possibility of thematics. In other words, when Genet writes genêt he/it is writing about writing, about cutting and pasting together, about the spider's web of textuality. And the wild vines that grow this way and that on the right side of Glas cross the line cut down the middle of the page and wrap around the Hegel column on the left, eating at its surface, hollowing out and invaginating its doric, let us say its Greco-Germanic eminence. This cut and paste job, this gluing together of fragments and torn pieces, this agglutination is the glas that gums up the glide of the Hegelian transitions, the glitch in its machine, the glottal stop in its logos. It pushes Sa's head back into the text, causing its fragments and globules to stick in its throat, leaving it sticky with glue and glucose. I could go on (and Derrida does).
If I am asked what significance Derrida holds for theology I would say that he represents in part at least the latest installment in the debate between Athens and Jerusalem, the latest and most subtle version of de-Hellenization. Deconstruction in my view is not the latest version of death of God theology, a more ruthlessly atheistic theology, an atheism with a Saussurean twist, as Mark Taylor holds. It is more feasibly put to work, I suggest, in a low christology, to take but one example, a very low christology which is ruthless about the limiting, textualizing conditions from which the logos of christology tries to ascend. Derrida stalks the claims of logo-centrism with a maddening patience. He does not let anything get by; he picks up everything, every slip, every chance, every loose thread. Every time we think we are breathing the air of the living logos and are filled with the spirit, Derrida clogs our throat with the thick mucous of textuality, chokes us with the glue of glas. Now theo-logy is no more immune from logo-centrism than any of the other-ologies, no more free from the illusion that it deals with gifts which have dropped from the sky than the rest of us. Indeed its critics would say that it is particularly vulnerable to such illusions, that anyone who speaks of divine revelation has made his whole enterprise turn on such an illusion.
I do not think that Derrida undoes the very idea of religious revelation but that he undoes a lot of the ideas of revelation that religious writers have proffered for some time now. He thinks that all immaculate conceptions are always already contaminated with writing. He would insist—patiently, ruthlessly, indefatigably—that textuality sticks like glue to what religious traditions hold dear, that textuality insinuates itself into religious "positions." (Are religious beliefs in the positional-thetic mode? Are confessions of faith "claims"? Are doxa in the phallic-thetic mode? Or is doxa just praise?) Deconstruction wants to cut off the illusion of immediacy—of immediate experience, immediate revelation. Derrida thinks that immediacy is both philosophically unjustifiable and politically dangerous.
I do not think that Derrida is an antagonist of religion but rather a powerful and novel critic of the illusions and tom foolery to which mortals are prone; and that includes religious mortals. But why end on such a critical note? After all, cutting is to be followed by gluing. Glas glues. So maybe Derrida does not just stick it to theology; maybe he can teach theologians a thing or two about how to make things gel.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3872
SOURCE: "Beginning with Belonging and Nonbelonging in Derrida's Thought: A Therapeutic Reflection," in Soundings, Vol. LXXIV, Nos. 3-4, Fall-Winter, 1991, pp. 399-409.
[In the following essay, Scott links Derrida's notion of différance with Freud's theories of the unconscious, and speculates on the possible therapeutic uses of deconstruction.]
I do not know how to speak of Derrida's writing. That much, at least, I can say about his writing. My difficulty is two fold: to speak properly about his writing I need to put in question the words and concepts that I use as I use them so that a sense of simple, continuing presence and meaning is not communicated. Otherwise I mislead by the seeming clarity with which I place and define his thought. And second, if I speak that way I will not be understood by those who are not careful readers of Derrida.
Why do I face such a difficulty when I speak about Derrida's writing? Primarily because of the way in which he responds to the following descriptive claims about language. First, vocalized speech dominates the western experience of communication and provides a deep illusion of unbroken meaning. Second, vocalized speech is quite different to writing which belongs to something unspeakable. And third, language in all of its parts is constructed by strife among multiple lineages of expression and meaning, and by both meaning and no meaning at all. I can state initially and oversimply the problem before us by saying that our patterns of certainty and truth, our manners of being clear and unambiguous with each other, and our communal proprieties are constructed by many different and often contradictory elements. These constitutive differences are often forced or blurred into simplified habitual structures of value and thought that seem to be clear in their consistency with each other. When I speak about Derrida's writing, I am of course, implicated in the very questions that he addresses, and if I make his writing manageable and usable in conventional terms I mislead you. If, on the other hand, I put in question our conventional ways of understanding others and texts as I give you an account of Derrida's writing, and if you hear the presentation conventionally, you will find what I am doing perverse because your way of understanding will be resisted by what you want to understand.
To what, indeed, do we belong if not to our language, institutions, values, and customs? Are we not together in our broad communal traditions and above all in our common language? The thought I want to pursue is that in belonging together as we do are also in a situation that I shall call nonbelonging. I mean that there is something about language and tradition to which we cannot belong and that whatever this "something" might be (or not be), Derrida's writing provides us with a remarkable entrée into its question. This is not entirely unlike encountering unconsciousness which obliterates consciousness and makes us look again and again until the limits of consciousness give us pause and drive us to reconsider the seeming totality of consciousness and the completeness of our belonging to it.
So my difficulty in speaking about Derrida's writing is like the difficulty in speaking about what escapes consciousness and cannot belong to consciousness. Derrida's writing writes something that is not articulable. His writing attempts to follow "something" that is like a thoroughly repressed dimension in our language and thought, the trace of something erased, he says. And the danger that I face is like the danger of speaking as though I have mastered unconsciousness. You would know in that case that my confidence reveals an anxious ignorance about something that is misconstrued when it is addressed directly and held by concepts. Although we can address Derrida directly and diagram his sentences and follow the lineage of his thought, we confront in his writing "something" that does not belong to our heritage of direct address and meaningfulness, "something" that is heard, as he says, beyond all reckoning. [All quotes in this essay come from Derrida and Différance, edited by David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, 1988.] Hence, as I address you directly and reckon with Derrida's writing within this circumscription of meaning, I face the question of how to speak appropriately before an unspeakable dimension of language that is traced indirectly in Derrida's writing.
First, a note on Derrida's experience of nonbelonging as we approach the question of how to speak before "something" to which we cannot belong and which we cannot appropriate, "something," he says, that "somehow marks you without belonging to you." "As a child" Derrida said in an interview, "I had the instinctive feeling that the end of the world is at hand, a feeling which at the same time was most natural, and, in any case, the only one I ever knew. Even for a child incapable of analyzing things, it was clear that all this would end in fire and blood. No one could escape that violence and fear…." This feeling accompanying his life as a Jew in Algeria who "knew from experience that knives could be drawn at any moment, on leaving school, in the stadium, in the middle of those racist screams which spared no one, Arabs, Jews, Spanish, Maltese, Italians, Corsicans." In 1940 he with all other Jews was expelled from school. He found that friends no longer knew him, public insults to Jews became socially proper for the majority, and social order appeared to depend on such persecution. "It's an experience that leaves nothing intact," he said, "something you can never again cease to feel."
He felt "displaced" both in the Jewish community, which closed in on itself, and in the Christian culture in which he had been assimilated. The antisemitism that characterized France, where he moved when he was eighteen, was not directed toward him, but he found that it was there for many others. His acceptance in the non-Jewish culture and his acceptance of that culture further displaced him. He felt a desire to be integrated into the non-Jewish community, but he distrusted the desire, found it painful, and felt a "nervous vigilance, a painstaking attitude to discern signs of racism." "From all of this comes a feeling of non-belonging that I have doubtless transposed … everywhere."
This feeling of nonbelonging includes, I believe, a sense of difference that pervades each instance of identity. This is not a question of conflict between more than one identity or of conflicting values. Rather the limits of identity as such are before us in this sense of nonbelonging: "something" that identity and belonging do not encompass seems to resonate in the margins and spaces of identity, "something" that we might over-hear as though it were a barely audible, retreating sound or like silence in the woods that falls after a gun fires. Derrida's sense of nonbelonging means that things in their continuities stand out in a resonance of no continuity, it means that not anything breaks the seeming promise of unbroken time and life. He found himself neither properly Jew nor properly non-Jew, neither a proper Algerian nor a proper Frenchman, neither secure in his family nor insecured by his family. He was and was not his name. Before the frequently drawn knives he was alive and threatened at once. Everything was in question and undecidable, and normally so in his experience. In his world the limited Algerian persecution fell against the backdrop of the fires of Holocaust, and Derrida felt his own blood in the ashes of incinerators.
"The final word," he said, "is never fully master … the vibrant desire to write binds you to a terror that you try to control, to handle, all the while trying to keep it intact, audible, in 'this' place where you must find yourself, hear yourself out, yourself and your reader, beyond all reckoning, thus at once saved and lost." In this combination of vibrant desire to write, terror, sense of determinate place, and incalculable danger and pleasure, I hear the inscription of nonbelonging, of undecidability, investing being and nonbeing, of a strangeness in our lives that threatens destruction precisely where our satisfactions are strongest. Two distinct directions arise for Derrida in this absence of a final word. On the one hand he asks, what kind of culture do we have in which our culture's own radical violence seems to stand at such a distance from it? With this question he faces institutions and practices whose exchanges of power are structured by values and words that have lost touch with their own depression, scapegoating, and anxiety over primal differences. By this question concerning the seeming distance of our violence everything that is normal and the processes of normalization appear not only optional, but fragmented by the disorder and lack of identity that they cover over with a veneer of stability that is raised to the order of fundamental truth and right. Efforts in his thought to destabilize our cultural orders constitute one form of response that Derrida makes to those forms of stabilization that are diffused by the fragmentation and nonbelonging that seems to belong to them.
He finds this type of subversion in the lineage of psychoanalysis: "psychoanalysis," he says,
should make us rethink a great many convictions, for example to reconstruct the whole axiomatics of law, morality, "human rights," the entire discourse constructed upon the demands of the "me," the concept of torture, the whole system of legal psychiatry, etc. Not to renounce ethical affirmations or politics, but on the contrary, to insure their very future. This would not be done within the psychoanalytic community nor within society as such, in any case, not extensively enough, nor soon enough. Such, perhaps, is a task for thought.
"… Not to renounce ethical affirmations or politics, but on the contrary to insure their very future." Just as in consequence to psychoanalysis complications, mixed desires, and cross purposes emerge to unsettle the pathogenic normalcies of ordinary life, and just as this analysis allows for noninnocent affirmation of what seems valuable in the midst of uncertainty—affirmation even to the point of endangering one's self in struggling for communal benefits—so Derrida wants to uncover the destinies of violence that are invested in our normal structures of thought and life for the sake of ethical affirmation and politics, both of which—ethical affirmation and politics—he will also put in question. And this process for him is found in thought, in taking apart the concepts and values that provide the grid of meaning for knowledge and truth. Thought can allow a movement in advance of institutional and communal change: his work belongs securely neither to relevance nor irrelevance, but to continuous questioning of the shared structures of our lives.
One direction that comes out of Derrida's experience of nonbelonging is thus that of unsettling in his own thought the cultural structures that suppress their own fragility and thereby produce violently a dream-like reality that promises unbroken identity and certainty. When we lose our perception of violence within our normal systems, do we have any way of avoiding that very violence?
The second direction that comes out of the absence of a final word, and one closely related to the first, addresses "the unconscious conspiracy" in our heritage to establish unity, continuing presence, and univocity of meaning as the structure of true discourse. The first direction puts emphasis on violence, institutions, and responsibility. The second is directed to the texts and language that have formed our capacities for thought, judgment, and communication. Each direction involves the other, but there is a difference of shading and tone. We should bear in mind that Derrida was first a teacher of the history of philosophy at the Ecole Normal Superieur and that a major part of his work has addressed the canonical texts of western thought. Regarding traditional thought, he said,
… I feel that I am also a beneficiary: faithful as much as possible, a lover, avid for the rereadings and for the philosophical delights which are not merely ascetic games. I like repetition: it is as if the future trusted in us, as if it waited for us, encoded in an ancient work—which hasn't yet been given voice. All of this makes for a strange mixture, I realize, of responsibility and disrespect. The attention given all this on the present scene is at once intense, hopeless, and a bit vacant—rather anachronistic, that. But without this bizarreness, nothing seems desirable to me. We have received more than we think we know from the "tradition," but the gift scenario also necessitates a kind of filial impiety, both serious and not, with regard to those thoughts to which we owe most.
"But without this bizarreness, nothing seems desirable to me." Desire: a movement out of need, energy toward the missing, a movement from absence, a seeking movement in distance, energy that dies in its fulfillment, energy that continues in its dissatisfaction. Derrida feels in debt to our tradition, indebted like a lover is indebted to the beloved, like one who receives more than he can give, desiring to return again and again to the texts—the bodies—that inspire and that seem to offer something that is missing. But he is also in the tradition like an impious son, one who owes much to father and mother heritage, not the least of the gifts being impiety. Is he a lover or a son? Both and neither in the metaphors' ambiguity, which holds him at a distance from the tradition to which the metaphors connect him. The bizarreness of being traditional now—and Derrida is in many ways a traditionalist—the bizarreness of expecting within the tradition something unspeakable and unthinkable that is encoded in proper language, expecting something not proper, and something to which the future belongs, something that has been sealed off or erased but has left the trace of its disappearance in the dominating language, the bizarreness of waiting for a voice to emerge as though from the grave of what is lost to sound and sense and expecting this voice—doubtless a hollow, unintelligible voice in the context of present sounds and values—to give a future that has been lost in the structures and forces of our best efforts: this bizarreness that produces intensity, hopelessness, and scholarship on foreign and old texts makes things desirable for Derrida. I believe he means that everything becomes desirable because of the senselessness that our good sense embodies, and I believe that the metaphor behind his words is the beloved's body that inspires love not in mute materiality, but in an animation that stands outside of reason and common sense, an animation that speaks of lack and unfulfillment as well as of an ambivalent promise, not of the loss of desire, but of desire's continued life in its hunger for the missing. The missing and not a full and sufficient presence animates Derrida, who finds his animation in a heritage of undecidable valences, a heritage that is like the beloved who, in his or her closeness, is all the more beyond reckoning, is all the more unpossessible than he or she is in the distance of first attraction.
In this context we are prepared to see that the term deconstruction does not suggest destructiveness, nihilism, or skepticism. The word, which he took from Heidegger, comes early in Derrida's work and, true to his statements about reading and speaking, has been disseminated in many other texts with meanings quite other to his sense. It is a careful, highly specific word in Derrida's thought. By it he names a process of taking apart the signifying structures in a text, finding what signs substitute and replace other signs, finding the ambiguities invested in relations of meaning, following chains of references in which signs differ from each other, space out each other, and defer their sense to other references. What is always in question is the systematic totality of our conceptuality and the rule-governed polarities that control our sense of difference and identity. By undoing these connections, unraveling them, if you will, out of the patterns that they weave, Derrida finds not only economies of exchange in a text whereby much that constitutes them is elided or suppressed. He also finds that our language in its systematic use establishes senses of identity which elide the continuous processes of substitution, dissemination, annulment, fictionalizing, supplementation, and displacement of absence that characterize language.
We can see Derrida's kinship to Freud in this thought of deconstruction. The question concerns the manner in which something unpresentable—in Freud's case, the unconscious—is carried over into signs and images. Freud's deconstruction of the authority of consciousness is carried out in part by showing that the unconscious is always deferred by the conscious processes that refer to it. In Derrida's language the unconscious is traced in its total alterity vis-a-vis consciousness. Consciousness and unconsciousness are in a relation of continuous differing, and consciousness in its difference postpones unconsciousness—puts it off—by giving expression to unconsciousness and by making reference to it. Unconscious traces are produced and detoured in the difference of conscious activity. And an indirect access to unconsciousness is also opened as consciousness is breached by unconscious traces that both relay the unconscious and defer conscious appropriation in their difference. Consciousness has no authority over the traces that fracture its identity and limit the range of its mastery. Consciousness cannot even think the simultaneity of its occurrence with unconsciousness; it cannot grasp the reserve of energy that moves it and withdraws from it anymore than it can think the expenditure of energy that accompanies its retention of energy. In the Freudian context we can say that the presence of the unconscious never happens, that the unconscious is not like a past present that is now recalled in its absence. Rather, the unconscious has no conscious presence except as a disappearing trace that opens consciousness through a radical alterity.
In the trace of unconsciousness consciousness belongs neither to unconsciousness nor to itself. This thought contradicts our intuitive good sense: surely consciousness belongs together with whatever occurs with it. Surely the trace of unconsciousness is present in consciousness and consciousness is present with it. But that good sense is what Freud's account of unconsciousness puts in question. Like Derrida's boyhood world, consciousness is always before its own loss in unconscious traces that have neither ownership nor belonging. Freudian thought is deconstructive as it follows the traces of what it cannot think and struggles for words and concepts that hold in question the authority that it would give to itself.
In a similar way Derrida deconstructs the language whereby our culture has privileged singular identity, wholeness, and continuing presence. He finds unspeakable and unthinkable traces that seam our good sense, and he develops a language, a manner of writing and thinking, that maintains the fragility of meaning in its element of no meaning at all. In the space remaining I shall note a therapeutic implication of deconstruction. I make this move on the assumption that our ability to recognize pathological and therapeutic processes can be produced by a language in which we expect ourselves to belong to something that has the promise of full presence such as human dignity and identity.
The question that I wish to raise regarding therapy is one that I cannot answer: how do we work therapeutically with people when we do not make belonging an organizing value in our perceptions regarding psychological help? If Derrida is accurate in his descriptive claim that the language and thought of our culture, by giving overwhelming privilege to presence, identity, and wholeness, have thoroughly repressed primordial and "originary" difference, alterity, non-meaning, and non-presence, repressed them to such a degree that like the unconscious they are without the possibility for communicative speech, then our values regarding health will be structured by an anxiety that systematically directs us away from the conditions of our lives. One of the implications of his work is that the language by which we care for ourselves and understand ourselves is itself under the impact of anxiety over nonpresence, an anxiety that silently traverses our individual and communal lives. The deconstructive strategy is to reread the major documents of our tradition in order to show the repression that occurs within them. Although that is a kind of therapeutic project—one that unsettles us and gives no satisfaction to the values that bond us and establish our destinies—it is not a psychotherapeutic venture oriented toward individuals seeking release from emotional pain. We do wish to deconstruct the pathogenic patterns. But we do not engage in deconstructing the normalizing values regarding identity and presence to self in order to establish a new normalcy. The direction of Derrida's work includes a dismantling of our normative thought that intends to tell us how we are to be when we are at our best.
How would a therapist relate to patients and clients if he or she were thoroughly aware of the repressive aspect of the ideal of wholeness of identity? If the therapist suspected, as I believe that Derrida suspects, that the holocaust was made possible by the dominance of presence and meaning over non-presence and non-meaning in our history? If the therapist were in touch with the traces of nonbelonging that give fissure to our presumed selves? If the therapist, without pessimism or depression, knew the darkness that makes possible the light of our minds?
A final word in this first step into Derrida's thought. I have made belonging and nonbelonging the organizing words for my remarks, and I have linked them to Derrida's personal experiences as a strategy for approaching a conception of connection in the midst of no connection at all. This conception suggests the possibility that the ideal language of wholeness and unity regarding both identity and community is misleading and may well put us at odds with the occurrences of knowledge and of our lives. Were we able to let opposites be together as opposites, if we were able to understand the therapeutic in a language in which difference, and not identity, gave us our perceptions—if, that is, we experienced ourselves and our world as belonging only to their own occurrences—then, not expecting our belonging together to override all that cannot belong at all, we might experience a freedom for the affirmation of the opposites, differences, and nonbelonging without a drive to normalize and appropriate the radically other. Would this constitute a therapy that addresses a traditional desire to make unity and to produce wholeness in a broken world of difference, a world in which identity can expand itself only by ignoring its not belonging to anything but the differences that resist it? Would this be a freedom from that peculiar brutality that comes from making the other one's own? Would we learn to speak differently enough so that we did not expect to overcome everything that puts in question our highest values and most spiritual experiences? Would we learn to affirm ourselves without belonging to anything final or whole, to affirm our difference from everything that shows us to be incomplete and arbitrary in our finest moments?
Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 914
Schultz, William R., and Fried, Lewis L. B. Jacques Derrida: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992, 882 p.
Comprehensive primary and secondary bibliography, including sources in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and other languages.
Behler, Ernst. Confrontations: Derrida/Heidegger/Nietzsche. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991, 180 p.
Analyzes the complex interrelations between the works of Derrida, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Brunette, Peter, and Wills, David. Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, 210 p.
Applies Derridean concepts to such aspects of film theory as frame-analysis and genre classifications.
Coward, Harold. Derrida and Indian Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, 200 p.
Comparative study of Derrida and various classical Indian philosophers which asserts that Derrida's work "provides a challenging and creative bridge between traditional Indian and modern Western philosophy."
―――――――, and Foshay, Toby, eds. Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992, 337 p.
Considers Derrida's relation to "negative theology," a discipline in which traditional theological conceptions are deconstructed. The collection includes three essays by Derrida.
Evans, Claude J. Strategies of Deconstruction: Derrida and the Myth of the Voice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, 205 p.
Assesses the validity of Derrida's critique of "phonocentric" and "logocentric" assumptions in Western philosophy, focusing on two of his earliest publications, Speech and Phenomena and Of Grammatology.
Gasché, Rodolphe. The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986, 348 p.
Highly acclaimed study of Derrida's philosophy that situates him in the tradition of transcendental speculation which began with René Descartes and includes Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Hirsch, E. D., Jr. "Derrida's Axioms." London Review of Books 5, No. 13 (21 July-3 August 1983): 17-18.
Sharply critical essay in which Hirsch argues that many of Derrida's basic ideas unwittingly contradict themselves.
Hoy, David. "Deciding Derrida: David Hoy on the Work (and Play) of the French Philosopher." London Review of Books 4, No. 3 (18 February 1982): 3-5.
Review of Dissemination which argues against some of Derrida's major themes, such as the concept of semantic "undecidability."
Leavey, John P. Glassary. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, 320 p.
A companion guide to Glas by one of the translators of the work into English. It includes a glossary of Derrida's puns and neologisms, a preface by Derrida, and an essay by Gregory L. Ulmer which reviewer James Arnt Aune calls "the most lucid introduction to Derrida's theory of communication I have read."
Madison, Gary B., ed. Working Through Derrida. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1993, 284 p.
Collection of essays which explore the ethical dimensions of Derrida's thought and its contrasts with the ideas of such philosophers as Richard Rorty, John R. Searle, and Jurgen Habermas.
Megill, Allan. Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, 399 p.
Highly theoretical study which views Derrida's work as the culmination of a trend in philosophy toward a radical critique of traditional metaphysical values.
Michelfelder, Diane P., and Palmer, Richard E., eds. Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989, 352 p.
Collection that includes the transcript of a 1981 debate between Derrida and Hans-Georg Gadamer, a leading interpreter of Martin Heidegger and the main exponent of philosophical hermeneutics, a philosophy of interpretation which contrasts sharply with deconstruction. The other essays examine various aspects of deconstruction and hermeneutics.
Neel, Jasper. Plato, Derrida, and Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988, 252 p.
Examines the radically diverse functions and theories of writing in Derrida and Plato's works. Neel, a theoretician of rhetoric and composition, attempts to "deconstruct" both Plato and Derrida, and thereby "argue for a new sort of writing, a rhetorical writing that quite self-consciously admits its own rhetoricity and carefully delineates the ethical ramifications of its operation at all times."
Norris, Christopher. Derrida. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, 271 p.
Study of Derrida's philosophy that examines his relations with various seminal thinkers including Plato, Kant, Hegel, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Nietzsche.
―――――――. "Limited Think: How Not to Read Derrida." Diacritics No. 1 (Spring 1990): 17-36.
Critiques John Searle's rejection of deconstruction, and reviews John M. Ellis's book Against Deconstruction (1989).
Rorty, Richard. "Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida." New Literary History X (1978–79): 141-60.
Interprets Derrida in the context of Rorty's own pragmatist philosophy, contending that, for Derrida, philosophy is merely another "genre" of writing indistinguishable in its essence from literature and other rhetorical modes of discourse.
Ryan, Michael. Marxism and Deconstruction: A Critical Articulation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, 232 p.
Examines the theoretical interrelations between Marxism and deconstruction, arguing that "deconstructive philosophy has positive implications for Marxism and that these implications are not only philosophical, but political."
Sallis, John, ed. Deconstruction and Philosophy: The Texts of Jacques Derrida. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987, 207 p.
Collection of essays which examine the transcendental and metaphysical aspects of Derrida's thought. The volume closes with an essay by Derrida entitled "Geschlecht II: Heidegger's Hand."
Smith, Joseph H., and Kerrigan, William, eds. Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis, and Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, 185 p.
Essay collection which discusses the impact of Derrida's philosophy on psychoanalysis and literary criticism. The book begins with an essay by Derrida entitled "My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with Some Epicurean Stereophonies."
Wood, Michael. "Deconstructing Derrida," New York Review of Books XXIV, No. 3 (3 March 1977): 27-30.
Reviews Of Grammatology and Glas, and critiques the main themes of Derrida's philosophy.