PLATO’S PHARMAKON: BETWEEN TWO REPETITIONS
Yes, there is much of the ancients in what I have said. Everything perhaps.1
In the first part of Dissemination, Derrida offers a deconstructive reading of Plato. His discussion reveals a complex network of significations associated with the word pharmakon in and surrounding Plato’s texts. The unraveling of this hardly noticed and variously translated word, which does service for Plato in some of his most striking passages, reveals it to have an operational force that both sustains Plato’s discourse within the closure of metaphysical oppositions and hierarchical valuations and, in instituting these dichotomies, differs from the systematic structures that it produces. The word pharmakon has for Plato, as ‘supplement,’ ‘hama,’ ‘hymen,’ and other such ‘words’ have for other writers, a supplementary power and indecidable meaning that disrupts, in an ‘originary’ manner, the pristine purity and unadulterated presence that Plato ostensibly aspires to as the aim and final guarantee of philosophical discourse.
In this paper I follow three strands of Derrida’s intricate and often oscillating investigation of Plato’s texts: (1) One reading of Plato that Derrida gives follows Plato’s suppression of writing and traces the effects of this decision which produces the Platonic system of metaphysical oppositions and the effacement of an ‘originary’ or arche-writing in Plato’s texts. (2) In another reading, Derrida strategically pursues the various meanings of the Greek word pharmakon in and surrounding Plato’s texts. Here some of the facets of Derrida’s deconstructive reading of Plato are exposed. This reading discovers another text in Plato,one that has been read out to some extent in the history of Platonic interpretations, in part because of a proliferation of translations of the term pharmakon that cover over the contradictory force of this term in Plato and in part due to a certain necessity rooted in the metaphysical assumptions about language with which philosophy has operated. (3) But Derrida also recognizes within Plato’s own writings deconstructive strategies that themselves demand a ‘double reading’ and disrupt the univocity of Platonism. I follow Derrida in allowing these three strands to play on each other and do not attempt to deal with each of them in isolation.
I Writing on Derrida
Before entering these phases I would like to make some prefatory remarks about the difficulty of offering a reading of Derrida’s discussion of Plato’s pharmakon. The word pharmakon in Greek has multiple and contradictory meanings. Among these are included: a drug, a healing remedy or medicine, an enchanted potion or philter, a charm or spell, a poison, a means of producing something, a dye or paint. Although, as Derrida points out, Plato never uses the word, pharmakon is related to the word pharmakos which means a scapegoat sacrificed for atonement and purification. It is also related to the word pharmakeia which means pharmacy or sorcery and is also the name of the maiden with whom Orithyia was playing in the myth of Boreas that Plato relates in the Phaedrus.
Derrida insists that even when Plato contextualizes this word in such a way as to lead its meaning in one of these directions rather than another, the multivalence of the word remains in effect in the Greek text. A persistent element of Derrida’s discussion in the ‘Pharmakon’ essay involves the often legitimate and even necessary neutralization, as a result of translation decisions, of the playful force of the different functions of the same word, the neutralization of what Derrida calls Plato’s ‘anagrammatic writing’.2 Every translation is a reading which runs the risk of closing off as much as it opens up. For Derrida this is not so much an indication of the difficulty or impossibility of translating as a symptom of a more general problematic with regard to writing. The effect of the necessary substitution of various words to translate pharmakon in various contexts is to obliterate and make almost unreadable the ‘malleable unity’ that allows this word to function.
All translations into languages that are the heirs and depositories of Western metaphysics thus produce on the pharmakon an effect of analysis that violently destroys it, reduces it to one of its simple elements by interpreting it, paradoxically enough, in the light of the ulterior developments it itself has made possible. Such an interpretative translation is thus as violent as it is impotent: it destroys the pharmakon but at the same time forbids itself access to it, leaving it untouched in its reserve. (D, p. 99)
The logic of Western philosophy requires the dismemberment and separation of the contradictory force of the word pharmakon into two opposing terms in order that the contradiction be exposed. The problems of translation and interpretation are bound up, therefore, with the metaphysical character of the language to which a text is being transferred and the language from which it is transformed. A remedy is the opposite of a poison and therefore not a poison. The one excludes the other. The resolution of this contradiction in the framework of speculative dialectics, for example, requires a decision that one term be valued over the other and the contradiction be sublated in yet a third term. In contrast, deconstruction attempts to subvert this dialectical logic that would reincorporate whatever operated outside its system by virtue of its being in charge of the opposition between the inside and outside. To do so, it employs the logic of neither/nor and both/and against that of binary opposition.3
Yet another difficulty in writing a commentary on Derrida’s commentary on Plato’s pharmakon involves the nature of commentary. What Derrida is after in his reading of Plato is not available to the traditional commentator:
To come to an understanding with Plato, as it is sketched out in this text, is already to slip away from the recognized models of commentary, from the genealogical or structural reconstitution of a system, whether this reconstitution tries to corroborate or refute, confirm or ‘overturn,’ mark areturn-to-Plato or give him a ‘send-off’ in the quite Platonic manner of the khairein. What is going on here is something altogether different. That too, of course, but still completely other. (D, p. 104)
What Derrida, one might say, is after is that excess, that fold, which cannot be comprehended and identified within the system that a traditional commentary would pretend to comment on. The kind of repetition such a commentary proffers belongs already within the Platonic system that Plato effected. The commentator subjects the value of his or her writing to the authentic meaning of the text that is being commented on. As a substitute, such a commentary defers to the original in its attempt to uncover it. In contrast, Derrida seeks to displace the assumption of authorial privilege. As we will see, this is also characteristic of Plato’s style of writing and the kind of repetition at work here implicates the very issue of writing in general for both Plato and Derrida.
Derrida offers his ‘commentary’ on Plato as a kind of postscript addended to an already stated position. He begins by saying: ‘To a considerable degree, we have already said all we meant to say’ (D, p. 65). This indicates that the text which follows is not governed by intentional structures that unfold a preplanned point of view about the meaning of the writings under examination in Dissemination. But if Derrida has already said all he meant to say, then we might expect to find laid out beforehand, in a pre-text to this lengthy epilogue, what he means to say. Instead, we find only another hors d’oeuvre, an ‘outwork,’ that begins: This (therefore) will not have been a book…. These texts are assembled otherwise; it is not my intention here to present them (D, p. 3).
So we are faced in this ‘book’ with a preface and appendix, a preface that postpones its task of prefacing and an epigraph that extends ‘by force of play’ this circling of the question of what is taking place in his work. Dissemination deconstructs the difference between the inside and the outside and is itself written around the edges of this opposition— neither inside nor outside, both interior and exterior, to the kind of writing that tries to contain itself within the defined contours of a book:
There is nothing but text, there is nothing but extratext, in sum an ‘unceasing preface’ that undoes the philosophical representation of the text, the received opposition between the text and what exceeds it. The space of dissemination does not merely place the plural in effervescence, it shakes up an endless contradiction, marked out by the undecidable syntax of ‘more. ’ (D, p. 43)
Derrida’s non-book is not written in the traditional style of a commentary. It does not flow from preface to main body to conclusion in the manner to which we have become accustomed. It does not accept Plato’s insistence that ‘good’ writing, like a living body, is properly organized with head and feet. Dissemination, although containing a lengthy essay on Plato and constant allusions to him, disrupts by its literary style Plato’s apparent thesis about writing. Moreover, it does not pretend to make present a ‘thesis’ about Plato. Derrida, like Socrates, risks the accusation that he turns everything upside down and makes the lower appear to be the higher. Like Socrates, he risks the charge that he never says anything and refuses to be pinned down.
Derrida’s style of writing in his Pharmakon essay is performative rather than informative. It doesn’t so much inform us about what Plato says as actively repeat the activity of writing the text by incisively cutting into the Platonic text at a point where the text is open to a moment of alterity and from which divergent paths through the texts can be pursued. In the case of Plato, it is the pharmakon that functions in this manner. The pharmakon is that double-edged word in Plato’s text that causes the meta-physical oppositions to waver and oscillate. But in wavering and oscillating, these oppositions are neither disbanded nor overcome. Rather their formative power is once again surfaced; they begin again to play out their games, they are enabled again to trace their own origins. Derrida tries to attend to this movement of the text. It is a movement that cannot be experienced if one understands the structure of a text to be emanating from a fixed center or origin. Every origin is always already displaced in the activity of writing. Writing poses signs as substitutes for the intrinsically absent and nonlocatable origin, an origin, therefore, that is always other and different—an origin that is perpetually deferred by writing. But this origin is itself writing, a ‘protowriting’ that produces difference, and within this productive, doubling repetition opens up an interval in which a dialogue can take place.
According to Derrida, no text is fixed, stable, and completely circumscribed by its predetermined standpoint. Derrida’s deconstructive writing actively disrupts the insistence that a text be read in a pre- scribed manner. But his writing is not for this reason a willful countertext that forces its interpretation onto the text. Rather, deconstruction is an approach to reading a text that grows out of a contemporary ‘epoch’ of post-metaphysical thinking that aligns itself in various ways with the work of Nietzsche, Bataille, Freud, Saussure, Levinas, Heidegger, and others who attempt to think the absence of a center out of the closure of metaphysics: ‘It is a question of explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself. A problem of economy and strategy’ (WD, p. 282). Derrida is concerned to radicalize a discourse and movement which already has a certain heritage and necessity in our age. This radicalization involves the recognition that being post-metaphysical or writing after Platonism is always already caught up in relationships between the inside and the outside, the within and the beyond, etc., relationships that, if taken for granted, only reaffirm the metaphysical bonds that one is attempting to overcome. The ‘strategy’ of deconstruction seeks to break up and disseminate the economy of the text by drawing out the excess and subtracting the remainder that is both inside and outside the text and refuses to yield its power to slide between these categories. The pharmakon is one of Plato’s words that resists confinement and lends itself to dissemination.
One of Derrida’s favorite ‘metaphors’ for deconstruction is weaving, a metaphor that is also prominent in Plato’s dialogues.4 The web of writing is not constructed along the lines of simple hierarchies that interrelate fixed points that we call concepts and words. The woven text has a texture that stretches and shrinks, can expand, can be grafted onto, can fold, warp, and unravel. To follow the patterns and interlacing of the composition requires the weaver’s art of looping and knotting. The surface of the woven cloth dissimulates its complex and intricate networking:
There is always a surprise in store for the anatomy or physiology of any criticism that might think it had mastered the game, surveyed all the threads at once, deluding itself, too, in wanting to look at the text without touching it, without laying a hand on the ‘object,’ without risking—which is the only chance of entering into the game, by getting a few fingers the addition of some new thread. Adding, here, is nothing other than giving to read. (D, p. 63)
II The derivative status of writing
The dialogue that thematizes Plato’s ambivalent relationship to the written word is of course the Phaedrus. In the Phaedrus, Socrates makes the point that the written speech of Lysias, like the epitaph on the tomb of Midas, has interchangeable parts that have no organizational or compositional integrity. The speech seemed to Socrates to say ‘the same thing several times over.’5 Like the epitaph, it is infinitely repeatable. It has no beginning or end, is not organized like a living being with head and tail. It is a dead discourse—mere repetition. Phaedrus, in contrast, considers the speech to have ‘not overlooked any important aspect of the subject’ (Phaedrus, 235b). Having a complete grasp of the subject, nothing more can be added to it. Thus the only task that remains is to memorize it so that one will always have it available to repeat randomly and at will. The two positions with regard to Lysias’s speech are ironically not far apart.6
What Socrates does in his first speech, his repetition of Lysias’s position, is to control the speech, arrange it on the basis of definition, subject it to the laws of dialectic. This decision about the style of writing that befits philosophical discourse sets the stage for the confrontation between sophistry and philosophy. The philosopher places his discourse at the service of a definition of the matter to be investigated.His discourse manifests the truth that this definition reveals and unfolds this truth in distinction from its opposite. In contrast, the sophists’ speech is capricious and without foundation. It does not hold itself responsible to the truth: ‘There is, they maintain, absolutely no need for the budding orator to concern himself with the truth’ (Phaedrus, 272d). Philosophical writing has something beyond itself to report. It can only repeat this message which has been inscribed elsewhere. Thus Derrida concludes: ‘The philosophical text, although it is in fact alwa...