Category: Derrida, Jacques

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.



Reading Derrida part 1: rage against the machine


Jacques Derrida is too eagerly portrayed as a gleeful anarchist. While post-structuralism does resemble the act of ruining a game of Jenga and running away snickering, Derrida’s ethos in his own writing is that of a sage who thinks slowly and carefully.The postwar philosophy I’ve read is experienced more as a leisurely stroll through a Japanese garden than a sprint through flawless logic. Deconstruction doesn’t need any dynamite to plant; it simply re-focalizes any given dualism in human thought so that it undermines itself before our eyes — modest work in practice.

Derrida is pretty hard to read. It’s partly the time and place. He tacitly admits that he’s using the rhetoric of a “Last Philosopher,” except this time he really is the last of an incredible vein of Last Philosophers, from Nietzsche onward, “Last” because they’ve read more widely and deeply than us, and because they are out to destroy metaphysics. His writing is a blow-by-blow grapple with structuralism and semiotics, which get more obscure with each passing day as they fade into memory, so some familiarity with early 20th century theory is needed.

But if he had written out his thought in plain, lucid prose, he would have been a hypocrite. He’s out to prove, after all, that language is slippery, constantly pulling out the ground for its own interpretation.

So, the picture above is a diagram inspired by a model Derrida offers at the beginning of “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” He’s basically outlining the common conception of Structure or structural thought, but teases us with a certain “Event” which will rupture this model. (It should be “metaphorical displacement,” it’s not the only kind.)

It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the epistémé—that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy—and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the epistémé plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement.

The structure is the collection of rules and traditions legislating how we speak and write all day every day. What’s scary is that they existed before we did — how else could we utter anything in the first place? “Free speech” controversies are such liberal sideshows that would be sobered by any serious thinking about how language works: nobody really believes in free speech.

The structure sits on a foundation of our collective knowledge, which Derrida identifies with the greek word epistémé to emphasize its longetivity.

But then we have this image of an infernal machine, or an eldritch cyborg, digging and drilling and penetrating into the “soil of ordinary language,” strip-mining it of its words and concepts, digesting them and assimilating them into its own composition. My inadequate drawing went for limp tree roots because I couldn’t decide on infernal machine drill bits or eldritch cyborg tentacles.

Writing is hard; the easiest course to take is write the way you talk. As a friend once said, America’s southern writers are the best because they talk the best. The written word is just the spoken word in code. And this is the framework of de Saussure’s linguistics.

Derrida is about to argue that this is wrong. The metaphorical displacement machine is an incorrect model. More precisely, it is a dream sign.

What he emphasizes about this model of structuralism is that it is centered, or has a center. It has always been “neutralized or reduced” because we force a center onto the model, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to talk about it in the first place. The machine in my doodle looks stationary and stable enough on its epistemic columns, but the real thing is constantly roaming the landscape of everyday speech (or parole). Like in quantum physics, theorists have an observer effect to worry about: they can only look at a distorted image of their object of study, like the astronomers who find exo planets by looking at the gravitational mirages made by their suns.

The center is what allows for “play” within the system’s totality. The “play” doesn’t become radical — it doesn’t fundamentally transform its structure — because such a move is “interdicted,” and Derrida really wants us to pay attention to his word choice. An interdict is a forbidding of something, but it is also “between diction,” which leaves open another meaning. It’s not that the system is a rulebook-thumping despot, but that it sometimes confounds itself into silence as part of its operation. Theory gently nudges us toward the more interesting ideas, and that’s why it usually deserves our patience and tolerance of its jargon and density — these are counter-intuitive and non-obvious ideas about how things work around here that need to be developed carefully; they could potentially be instrumental in our liberation. Turn on Fox News to see what “straight talk” does for you.

But anyway, this incorrect model is a dream sign. This is because the premise that the discourse’s structure has a center, and that a center-less structure is unthinkable, is “contradictorily coherent.” A coherent contradiction is an oxymoron, but it’s a common thing. We are all pretty comfortable with coherent contradictions in late capitalism: look how much despotism is necessary to protect our freedoms in this century. Derrida writes:

Coherence in contradiction expresses the forces of a desire.

We’re in psychoanalytical territory now. The unconscious is the experimental movie of your life: the power of the id manifests itself in enigmatic signs which we experience in our dreams. Indeed, our recollection of our dreams is another filtered reproduction, as our cerebral ego tries to normalize them. To see the horrible true natures of our desires would be like the film EVENT HORIZON, or something, and we need shuteye.

These dream signs are also contradictorily coherent. They are the synthesis of a given desire (a lack which must be filled) and the counter-desire to repress that desire.

So this machine is a big embarrassing dream sign of Western thinking. What does it repress? That the machine has no center.

Derrida makes his task as difficult as possible, which I suppose is why having done it he ushered in post-structuralism. You cannot claim that the center of the sign system doesn’t exist without rejecting the sign itself.

The sign cannot in itself surpass this opposition between the sensible and intelligible.

But that didn’t stop structuralists from trying. They bracketed off the sensible, the actual existing world and the flesh-and-blood readers living in it, while their Formalist comrades bracketed off the author’s intentions.

The sign is an intense fusion of the signifier and the signified, or the word and the concept the word evokes in context. If the signifier “Open” is in neon red and blue, its signified is that the restaurant is open.

Derrida is outing the signifier as a metaphysical concept. This is the Jenga block that gets plucked out. But that metaphor is too easy. Derrida isn’t so irresponsible as to weed out any metaphysics in the cultivated Western garden on sight. That would have us naively reducing the sign to the signified, which is only half of what a sign is. We are then metaphysically complicit — well, I’ve done worse things.

There are more important insights here. One is that semantic dualisms pave their own way to their deconstruction, because they repress the key thing that sustains them. Take the classic doublet of Nature/Culture. The split represses the problem of incest, which humans have a harder time avoiding than animals do — is human incest nature or culture? Incest is banished to the unthinkable, but it’s also perversely what the opposition depends on by its absence. And indeed, structuralism banishes post-structuralism to the unthinkable. Nothing is safe from deconstruction because ideological doublets can always be questioned. Masculinity depends on a degraded and devalued Woman to define itself against, and it can be a stressful thing, not just because men have to measure up against a negative definition, but because the repressed can always return — Woman is a banished part of men, and men with the behaviors they’re encourage to have, may not take the news so well. Creating a solid core of an identity means you now have borders to patrol.

Which leads to the other insight. These semantic doublets can always be questioned because there isn’t really a foundation to our thought. That’s what people mean when they say “It’s turtles all the way down.” Every foundation is dependent on another foundation. The machine is digging through ordinary speech because structuralism desired (and then repressed said desire) for a natural foundation of language, from whence all other rules came, that was in there somewhere. Ironically, Derrida has the “transcendental signifier” not Out There but sequestered in the earth, like the dead dinosaurs we dig up and burn. The clue was there all along that this framework is not sustainable.

While this whole lecture of his was an intervention on a model, I find myself overwhelmed by the model and the way it was expressed. It’s not every day a work of theory moves me to draw something up. This blog is about literature loosely called modernist, and my biggest take-away point here is that throughout literary history moves a certain bundle of contradictions that bring forth texts we call Modern. They can have different outlets in different times and places: novels in the Anglo-American world, theatre in the Weimar Republic. I see no reason why these outlets wouldn’t include post-war theory.

I didn’t cover everything, but I think that’s pretty much post-structuralism’s opening move. But Derrida’s implicit argument is that writing is way more problematic than we thought, which is, funny enough, not at all a novel claim in philosophy. If writing is a code with a missing cypher, we are then left with the problems of GRAMMATOLOGY.