Reading Derrida part 2: grammar got run over

Last time I mentioned that the difficulties of writing are eased by writing the way one talks. Derrida’s opening critique of structuralist doctrine is that it treats writing as a simple representation of speech. In the second chapter of his book OF GRAMMATOLOGY he quotes Aristotle and Saussure:

“Spoken words are the symbol of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.” Saussure: “Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first (italics added).

Written language is made of secondary signifiers. It operates from the “already constituted units of signification”in our speech, and has no role to play in how those are formed.

The fundamental issue is that the sign’s formation seems so arbitrary that it’s mystifying. Remember that Saussure and Derrida are writing in a language where the oi in qoi sounds like wa. By what magic did these graphemes, these squiggles on the screen, come to evoke specific sounds? Onomatopoeia words are more comforting in how their sounds motivate their meaning, although that doesn’t stop meow meaning the same as nyan. But the majority of the time, there is no obvious reason for a sound’s correspondence to a letter. This situation is known in Derrida’s jargon as becoming-unmotivatedness.

Derrida’s judgement: structuralism is operating on themes of Nature/Culture, Inside/Outside, Reality/Representation: concepts which all trip the Metaphysics alarm. The heading of the subsection we’re in is called “The Outside and the Inside.” In the French it literally translates to The Outside Is the Inside, but the French est (is) and et (and) are homophones. The pun bundles all of the concepts in this reading together and also prefigures what Derrida’s about to do: collapse and reverse the inside outside dualism.

He takes the reader on a fast and loose intertextual history of theory. Plato is well known for condemning writing: “the evil of writing comes from without.” Writing is actually a contamination, an imitation of an imitation, separated from the truth by two degrees. It is the violence of “artful technique” from the outside to the inside of the human soul’s “self-presence.” Keep those creepy writers away from the Republic.

If Saussure isn’t so moralizing, he also falls into a trap in Derrida’s view. Writing can also be seen as “a clothing.” Speech clothes thought; writing clothes speech. And just like poor Adam and Eve, the necessity of clothing only came after Sin.The birth of writing is language’s own original sin, which structuralism repressed and Derrida recovered.

See, the Original Sin is the splitting of the “natural bond” between the the signified and the signifier. I portrayed Derrida last time as attacking this bond single-handedly, but he’s actually merely confirming something that any experimental literature will hint towards. There is always a split between the meaning and the materiality of the word to some extent. Take William H. Gass, that last champion of belletristic literature. In his amazing essay on Freud, he opens the second sections with:

From the first, Freud hoped to place his psychology on a firm scientific footing.

Its sense is clear: Freud wanted to investigate neurology to avoid seeming metaphysical — a tight exposition. But look at the alliteration, the triplet of F’s gets balanced by “firm scientific footing,” psychology and scientific with their unwieldy syllables are pacified by their placement and s-sounds. The way I set it up, there seem to be two ways to read any sentence, one way for its sense, another way for its sound. The “artful technique” of writing does seem to be an imposition; a stylistic surplus on meaning. Does baroque prose get in the way of meaning? Not necessarily. They can be reconciled, or sometimes the sound is the sense.

But for Saussure, the unity of sound and sense, of signified and signifier, was in Eden. What’s devastating about Derrida’s analogy is that it shows show structuralism fundamentally resembles a narrative of Christian humanism — pretty humiliating for a theoretical project trying to pass itself off as a science for the brave new technocratic capitalist word of the 20th century. It’s also only in the garden where writing would be properly subordinate to speech.

The basic point of Derrida’s thinking is that language was never innocent. Still characterizing Saussure’s (and Rousseau’s) thought, he goes on: “Writing is the dissimulation of the natural, primary, and immediate presence of sense to the soul within the logos.” Logos is, mistakenly in Derrida’s view, privileged by these thinkers as the transcendental power of knowledge, the signifier of Being, and having its presence in speech, writing then being an attack on the mother tongue. The misstep happened because of the “unmotivatedness” of writing. In a situation like this, origins are lost, which is sort of traumatizing, and writing just seems like this thing that engenders itself.

But with typical postmodern excessiveness, Derrida wants to go even more hardcore: Writing is not merely a removed form of speech — it is speech that is a form of writing. This is bonkers, and he never specifies in what way speech can be a form of writing. It seems obvious that speech and writing are very distinct linguistic practices — just compare the narration and the dialog in GRAPES OF WRATH. Derrida’s reversal is there not because it makes sense, but because it aesthetically pleases him.

Another thing I’m struck by is how all the most useful insights in Derrida’s work come at the very beginning as solid ingots of reasoning. After such strong claims, his papers fizzle out in overlong intertextual close reading which probably refine and revise his openers in subtle ways, but I always start skimming. We don’t get a clear view of how Derrida developed his ideas or what his methods were. If I can be so unkind, Derrida’s theorizing is sloppy, like action painting with words. But he seems to know what he’s doing with it.

To take the painting notion further, it may be that the aesthetic dimensions of Derrida’s work are more valuable than the traditional rigors of philosophy. I’ve always liked thinking about painting as an index of how the artist actually “sees” the world, in her mind’s eye, at least. Well, Derrida, as well as Baudrillard and Camus (who’s book THE REBEL is a beautiful essay with swiss-cheese reasoning), are not so much building an argument as showing us how they see things, and inviting us to see how we line up with them.

Speech may have been privileged as the site of logos. But it is writing that makes “the idea of ideal objects” possible, as the Adams and Searle put it in their crit theory anthology. This ideal is instrumental in scientific laws and the legal system. Indeed, with social media, our existences are “lettered” in a way that makes seem like language is ubiquitous, which it always is, but in different ways.

How many diatribes have you heard about the modern intellect and attention span degraded by 140-character limits? Twitter and tumblr, despicable corporate machines they are, at least resist the totality of the book, which may encourage us to re-think language not as a sacred practice of presence reserved for the elite. In fact, writing is no presence at all, but the constant re inscription of difference.

We need a word to denote difference as a process, a word about difference that makes no difference in how it’s read or said, but signifies a different way think of difference and deference that is still not a fundamentally different concept. We have to talk, then, about DIFFERANCE.




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