Dubbing With Derrida:
An underview of a Unique and Great French Philosopher
[Je regrette que ce ne soit pas écrit en Français.]
The following is an attempt to provide an overview of one of my favourite philosophers and even with his renowned status as a university professor and the creation of his own way of doing philosophy Jacques Derrida and ‘Deconstructionism’ remain under-appreciated. Admittedly this may be the possibility of an impossibility: we may not be able to appreciate him enough; that is it may be humanely impossible to give Derrida enough appreciation. It is absurd to even raise the question, but why is it important to appreciate the achievements of this man? To answer this is simple. Jacques Derrida belongs to a group of thinkers gathered together under the tag of post-structuralism but for me he remains the most successful thinker at gaining acceptance in the highest level of a major public institution yet undermining its stability and in doing so democratised an industry and business that often excludes paths and practices of thought, reading, writing, and communication that are considered incomplete but still hide a logic just as certain as those that are streamlined into mainstream education as a commodity form.
The following is a humble attempt to be a good reader of Derrida and re-read some of his texts so as to deepen my understanding of the viral meaning his Deconstruction harnesses and hones.
Speech and Phenomena” (1973) La Voix et le Phinomene
There are interesting perspective on language involving a medieval notion of language; a trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The thoughts of a man named Ibn Khaldûn characterising language as a technical habit related to an art or craft malaka sintfiyya. The theories of language arising from German distinctions such as Frege’s Sinn (sense), and Husserl’s Bedeutung (meaning) lead to a Charles Morris’s idea of another trivium: syntax, semantics, and pragmatics; which is in need of a separate consideration. Then Wittgenstein is chosen of Austin because he sits closer to a continental tradition and how in the Tractatus Wittgenstein runs up against the hegemony of knowledge; the hegemony that me and Derrida constantly complain against because of it’s crippling conditionalities (knowledge produces a reality bound purely by conditions that it alone generates). Phenomenology sits in a certain narrative of thinking that stems all the way back to Plato and then through Descartes and Kant arrived at its father Edmund Husserl. This philosophy then is one which is comfortable striving for the production of knowledge. Against this are different ways of thinking that reveal the truth of understanding. Derrida shows clearly how phenomenology may be read as successful in its aims of suspending the ‘natural attitude’ so as to assist in a truer understanding of our experience of a given phenomena.
‘Husserl will radicalise the necessary privilege of the phoné which is implied by the whole history of metaphysics, and exploit all its resources with the greatest critical refinement. For it is not in the sonorous substance or in the physical voice, in the body of speech in the world, that he will recognise an original affinity with the logos in general, but in the voice phenomenologically taken, speech in its transcendental flesh, in the breath, the intentional animation that transforms the body of the word into flesh, makes of the Korper a Leib, a geistige Leiblichkeit. The phenomenological voice would be this spiritual flesh that continues to speak and be present to itself—to hear itself—in the absence of the world. Of course, what one accords to the voice is accorded to the language of words, a language constituted of unities—which one might have believed irreducible, which cannot be broken down—joining the signified concept to the signifying “phonic complex.” Despite the vigilance of the description, a perhaps naive treatment of the concept of “word” has doubtless left unresolved the tension of the two major motifs in phenomenology: the purity of formalism and the radicality of intuitionism.’(D. 16)
Here we have a lot of things to unpack and offer a small explanation (I apologise to those who are acquainted with both Derrida and Husserl) so as to re-inforce my own small understanding of these European thoughts. I ponder, is it enough to say that the purity of formalism and a radical intuition can be connected and associated with Kant and Plato’s theories of ideas (the distinction between synthetic and analytical judgements are found uniform in our intuition, and ideas are mathematical forms). The spiritual flesh is seen as dependent on the unity of words and this indeed presents a linguistic continuum. Husserl’s theory of language as it is found in the second part of his Logical Investigations states that an ‘“empty thought” needs a sign as an “Intuitive Support”’ and ‘all thought is carried on by way of certain “acts” which occur in a context of expressive discourse’(Husserl, LI, II. 667… in Petr Urban’s The Relationship Between Thought and Language in Husserl’s Philosophy, Czech Institute of Philosophy). But, we also discover Derrida’s point of contention with Husserl when we observe that this German master saw both the sign and meaning as unified however the use of the word sign Zeichen can either be expressive Ausdruck or indicative Anzeichen. This seems like a small difference but from two different perspectives there is much to discuss and take from the position of Husserl ‘there is the possibility of a sign that signifies nothing; that has no meaning Beudeutung. Contrasting with Derrida where there is no sign without the signified. I will have to take a step back from the assumption that I know my everyday usage of language and also suspend judgement on various phenomena. I will read this book properly because one suspects this text along with On the Origins of Geometry to be essential in understanding the wider situation of the birth of Deconstruction and what questions this philosophy was born amongst. This leaves me to share two of the more important statements or benchmarks ever marked into the long history of thinking; and especially thinking about language.
“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, dariiber muss man schweigen” (“What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence”).
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Philosophicus
“II reste alors a parler, a faire resonner la voix dans les couloirs pour suppliéer l’éclat de la presence” (‘It remains, then, for us to speak, to make our voices resonate throughout the corridors in order to make up for the breakup of presence”)
– Jacques Derrida,
Of Grammatology (1976) De la grammatologie
I am reading from the text translated by the awesome Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak an Indian philosopher of great Great GREAT inspiration. For her never ending belief in education and the necessity of using language to fight for more equality and openness in our systemic structures of education and learning. Let’s begin with one of the great descriptions of Derrida’s philosophy, ‘Deconstruction seems to offer a way
out of the closure of knowledge. By inaugurating the open-ended indefiniteness of textuality—by thus “placing in the abyss” (mettre en abîme), as the French expression would literally have it—it shows us the lure of the abyss as freedom. The fall into the abyss of deconstruction inspires us with as much pleasure as fear. We are intoxicated with the prospect of never hitting bottom.’((Derrida, lxxvii)).
“If the nonphonetic moment menaces the history and the life of the spirit as self-presence in the breath, it is because it menaces substantiality, that other metaphysical name of presence and of ousia. First in the form of the substantive. Nonphonetic writing breaks the noun apart. It describes relations and not appellations. The noun and the word, those unities of breath and concept, are effaced within pure writing. In that regard, Leibniz is as disturbing as the Chinese in Europe: “This situation, the analytic notation of representations in hieroglyphic script, which seduced Leibniz to the point of wrongly preferring this script to the alphabetic, rather contradicts the fundamental exigency of language in general, namely the noun. . . . All difference [Abweichung] in analysis would produce another formation of the written substantive.”((Derrida, 27))
This re-production is interesting and I wonder how close it is to Delueze’s metaphysical understanding of the necessity of production. Although, like every text authored by Derrida this book is complex and explores many separate writers and thoughts it is useful in a summary to simplify; and so in this spirit I will take my lead from Wikipedia and split this text into two components parts, yet also add a third: the famous ‘Exergue’. The first two parts are comprised of Derrida’s study of the linguistic thoughts of two fellow French giants Ferdinand de Saussure and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Analysing Saussure’s idea of the ‘sign’ stating the claim that written symbols are not inferior to the phonetic sounds and matter of factly the privileging of speech that has been a constant since the beginning of philosophy is a fallacy according to Derrida; as he shows this opposition is an opposition held within language itself and therefore can not be overcome only embraced, only deconstructed.
The analysis of Rosseau’s thoughts on language is interesting. Pursuing a logic of supplementation Derrida analyses a chain of such events in Rosseau’s literary body. This analysis of the chain of supplementations has a psychoanalytic flavour beginning with the absence of a mother and moving through a presence and absence and then the priority of an absent presence written by Rosseau. One which is deeply haunting not just in how Derrida describes it but also in what interpretive difficulties it traces and marks for us today; and indeed the process is one which a person may readily identify with.
‘In his eyes it will remain the model of vice and perversion. Affecting oneself by another presence, one corrupts oneself [makes oneself other] by oneself [on s’altère soi-même]. Rousseau neither wishes to think nor can think that this alteration does not simply happen to the self, that it is the self’s very origin. He must consider it a contingent evil coming from without to affect the integrity of the subject. But he cannot give up what immediately restores to him the other desired presence; no more than one can give up language. This is why, in this respect as well, as he says in the Dialogues [Pléiade, vol. 1] , “to the end of his life he will remain an aged child.”(154)
As I am writing I am also reading the pdf copy of this text and it is not a preference the presence of an abundance of digital texts may indeed be turning me into an aged child. I would much prefer the actual book yet Rosseau is shown to be one of those that privilege speech. Remember Derrida supposedly does not mean to critique these thinkers and so I think he has more than a little respect and admiration for Rosseau; and I follow suite, Rosseau’s source for his study on language, a Duclos, provides a startling account of the liberty and therein the collective properties of “spoken” language and the political attacks that take place against language by way of alterations and shortenings. Duclos or Rosseau state, ‘The language is the property of the people. Each derives its unity from the other. For if language has a body and a system, they inhere in the people assembled and “bodily” united: “It is a people in a body that makes a language…. A people is thus the absolute master of the spoken language, and it is an empire they possess unawares.’(170) But, what of the written does it remain un-mastered, free, and unpossessable?
These difficulties are re-stated by Rosseau in terms of the voice and words pre-forming music, ‘If music awakens in song, if it is initially uttered, vociferated, it is because, like all speech, it is born in passion.That is to say in the transgression of need by desire and the awakening of pity by imagination.’(196) Pity interests me here; in Eastern culture, in Japan the Buddhists have a unique reading of the noun. Pity is read as mercy: Jihi 慈悲 has the radicals for happiness and sadness residing above the kanji for mind/spirit/heart. This Japanese noun would be well suited to Derrida’s method of working through the inner logic and contradictions of textual reality. What Japanese texts would enable a working through these signs of pity and mercy?
It is very clear, that many more readings of this book will have to be done for me to fully understand Derrida’s reading of Rosseau’s supplement and interval and this distinctly French exploration of language. Rosseau’s text are shown to contain much interesting reasoning on the state of linguistic change in his day and a discussion of a necessary relation of the child to the sign by way of non-relation; the sign is but it isn’t because unlike adults children do not immediately have a self relation from which to relate to a given meaningful phenomena such as a sign. Before I part ways with this book let’s look at this famous Exergue. Our looking at this description of ‘logocentrism’ benefits from the assistance of Gabriel Rezende’s work on this section of the Book. Rezende nicely describes this centrism and does so in an ambitious project of writing that emphasises the political aspect of Derrida’s work. Correctly stating the three problems that Derrida is dealing with: 1) our thoughts on writing are geared towards an ahistorical concept of phonetic writing, 2) Metaphysics is always bound to a logos, and 3)because of the later it can be stated that humans are nothing more than a teleology of sciences.
Rezende expresses why this part of Derrida’s book is so important and perhaps summarises why Derrida remains widely loved and deeply relevant to today and the future yet to come. It is Derrida’s respectful readings of the three big German H’s (Husserl, Hegel, and Heidegger) that culminates in the very real idea that a cultural teleology is present in the works of these major philosophers and results in logocentrism or the voice that speaks closest to the truth. In Deconstructing this Derrida helps us understand an absent cultural teleology one in which hidden truths are made manifest by the very grammars of writing.
Writing and Difference,(1978) L’écriture et la différence
A preface is a beautiful thing and in this book it is a translator’s. I am always taken a back at how a written object of respect and repute often comes with an introductory mask one that I often find just as rewarding. This preface does not disappoint I encounter: Epekeina tes ousias the Platonic term for the beyond of being, the shared interest in the difference between Sinn/sense and the senses; between Sein/être and Seindes/étant; the “ontological double genitive,” i.e., the necessary fluctuation of the subjective and objective cases in order to speak of Being, which always means the Being of beings and the beings of Being. Nietzsche gifts us voluntarism (the doctrine of the will) passed down to us from Latin voluntas our volition and funnelled through French vouloir implying even more of a wanting; and Edmund Hussserl’s distinction/opposition between hylé and morphé (matter and form). All of this and more is contained in Alan Bass’s short introduction.
Derrida begins his work on a note of anxiety one that is about language and in language itself. Discussing a kind of somnambulism (sleepwalking) situated between a structuralist ideal and the history of ideas; a schism within a force, ‘Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create’(Derrida, 1978, 3). Here we find ourselves on the outside if we wish to be a creator? Thus soliciting a solicitation (check the Latin etymology), how writing and difference are intertwined. In Derrida’s intro we learn that there is an Art for Immanuel Kant and a Rousseau that is a hidden thing that does its work in secret, yet we can still understand that our imagination is what initiates such a process. We read of drastic yet true procedures, ‘One must be separated from oneself in order to be reunited with the blind origin of the work in its darkness’(D,7) and again this outside also applies to the purity of the literary morphé.
‘The pure book naturally turns towards this Eastern edge of this absence which, beyond or within prodigiousness of all wealth, is its first and proper content. The pure book, the book itself, by virtue of what is most irreplaceable within it, must be the book “about nothing” that Flaubert dreamed of－a grey, negative dream, the origin of the total Book that haunted other imaginations.’(D. 9)
Derrida could be giving a description of many of his own books and I can not help with my own personal connections to Asia; also long to return to the Eastern edge. This haunting of other imaginations is important it has a connection and relation to the production of truth and Husserl’s innessential (Unwesen). This we are told is dictated by an essence and happens under the rubric of sedimentation. Then a tussle between Flaubert and Nietzsche comes after Derrida’s own stylish eidetic translation, ‘the things for which we do not have enough forms are already phantoms of energy, “ideas” larger then the plasticity of style’(D.34) relishing in the natural lack of language; how it can never quite incomprehensibly structure and has to remain somewhat other to itself. A discussion on Foucault’s reading of Descartes’s nisi me forte comparem nescio quibus insanis…‘Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to a madman’(Descartes. First Meditation) associates this inoculation performed on behalf of philosophy by Descartes against madness is also a question of the sign. Derrida likens the Cartesian split to the presence of an obvious and then a latent language; intimately embroiled in questions surrounding knowledge as a historical construct and the attribution of meaning inherited from master Foucault.
Derrida’s own special Hegelianism rises when he starts discussing the juxtaposition of the Silent (the mad) and reason (the ordered mad) and how escaping reason is impossible unless you embrace its abstractions and its power to disturb. This Entzweiung, a dissociation that Foucault enacts; apparently ancient Greek logos did not have a contrary in comparison to classical reason (D.64). I am not certain what this implies the time of the ancient Greeks was so long ago yet perhaps this comment is a comparison between the pursuit of an Arche by the pre-socratics and the ideas against contradiction formulated by Aristotle and then developed by the Rationalists. Either way Writing and Difference offers questions that for me question writing over difference; that is the book offers an opportunity an invitation to write about writing. Which Derrida was overtly interested in privileging: the inscription over the act of speaking. The relationship between the younger French master and the older German master is fascinating and a relationship which I will be heavily invested in exploring in the coming years. This relation comes to the foreground when Derrida describes a Violence hidden in the history of Metaphysics. The need to determine one’s being in relation to Being.
Writing then is a very unique thing and deeply mysterious, the power of the pen endures in an age of instability. The power of our writing tools (I am eager to explore the power of the brush) remains because they are essential we need them to cut into reality and engineer new lines and sequences. Before, one finishes this the first brief reading and before this text ends with a commentary on the historical and the economical. One last reference to the great German master Husserl is necessary; Derrida cites some giddy German starting with the word Urtatsache (nonempirical factuality) and then moving onto two of Husserl’s sentences, ‘der intentionale Urgrund für meine Welt’, and ‘die Urtatsache, der ich standhalten muss’. After this, some beautiful reflections of what distinguishes a child or beginner philosophical baby from an authentic lover of wisdom. Derrida writes that the child will when first encountering a ghostly corner with an absence of light haunted by solipsism, relativism, and psychologism be naturally daunted; but we are told that, ‘The true philosopher will prefer, instead of fleeing from these ghosts, to illuminate the dark corner. Derrida, don’t pretend that you weren’t an infantile thinker once upon a Parisian dawn.
‘This vigilance is a violence chosen as the least violence by a philosophy which takes history, that is, finitude, seriously; a philosophy aware of itself as historical in each of its aspects (in a sense which tolerates neither finite totality, nor positive infinity), and aware of itself, as Levinas says in another sense, as economy. But again, an economy which in being history, can be at home neither in the finite totality which Levinas calls the Same nor in the positive presence of the Infinite.’(D.146)
[There are so many books written by Derrida that are worth reviewing and so I will post a ‘Dubbing with Derrida: Part II’ at some point – Merci pour la lecture, mais j’ai maintenant besoin de revenir à l’étude japonaise]