Second Approach: The Metaphysics of Presence and the Deconstruction of Logocentrism
I cannot explain what deconstruction is to me without putting matters in context. At the time that, under this title, I undertook my task, structuralism was predominant. Deconstruction staked out a position against structuralism. On the other hand, it was a time when scientific theories of language governed everything, references to linguistics, “all things are a language.” At the time—I’m speaking of the 1960s—deconstruction began to take shape as . . . I wouldn’t say as “anti-structuralism,” but, all the same, by taking a certain distance from structuralism and casting the authority of language into doubt.
Therefore, it astonishes and irritates me in equal measure every time that deconstruction (as commonly occurs) is equated with—how should I put it?—“omnilingualism,” “panlingualism,” or “pantextualism.” Deconstruction starts with just the opposite. I began by contesting the authority of linguistics, language, and logocentrism.1
2.1 Speech and Writing (Grammatology
In 1967, three books appeared simultaneously which established the philosophical program of deconstruction. The first is Speech and Phenomena: An Essay on the Problem of the Sign in Husserl’s Philosophy
. The second is Of Grammatology
, which remains—still today—Derrida’s best-known and possibly most important work. The third is Writing and Difference
, a collection of essays in which Derrida engages critically with structuralism. Derrida followed these works with Margins of Philosophy
, also a collection
of essays, and Dissemination
, a series of interrelated texts about Plato, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Philippe Sollers. These two books, which were published in France in 1972, elaborate the critique of logocentrism set forth in Grammatology
Before we turn to the terms that are important for Derrida—phonocentrism, Eurocentrism, writing, trace, différance, and play—a few general observations are in order.
When one looks at the indexes of the aforementioned books, two things are immediately apparent. First, the program of deconstruction unfolds almost entirely in the form of readings. Deconstruction is both a philosophical project and a practice of reading. Second, these readings are not restricted to the canon of philosophy and related fields; just as often, they involve literary texts. Alongside essays on Plato, Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Freud, Saussure, J. L. Austin, Levinas, and others, Derrida analyzes the writings of Edmond Jabès, Antonin Artaud, Mallarmé, Maurice Blanchot, Paul Valéry, and Philippe Sollers. The latter half of Grammatology explores Rousseau, who wrote both theoretical and literary texts; for Derrida, the Confessions and Émile are just as important and rich in theoretical implications as is Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, the main object of analysis in Grammatology. This methodological combination—the significance of reading across lines of genre in deconstructive praxis—is, without a doubt, a key reason why Derrida’s works met with favorable reception among European and American scholars of literature before they were embraced by academic philosophers (a situation that still holds true in part). The institutional history of deconstruction illustrates how reading, in a sense requiring more detailed explication, is an altogether philosophical activity for Derrida—indeed, it may be said to represent the exemplary mode of philosophical engagement, period.
For Derrida—as for Nietzsche, and Heidegger before him—reading (which also means writing
the reading one performs) entails the responsibility of engaging critically with metaphysical inheritance; just as it cannot be viewed as a fixed acquisition, metaphysics cannot be rejected out of hand. No one, with a similar degree of penetration or with greater frequency, has emphasized that we are inheritors
of the past—that the
foundation of our Being
, here and today, does not rest secure in nature, but instead belongs to a tradition that we can as little deny as simply capitalize upon. This inheritance remains bequeathed to us, and we must draw on it, whether we want to or not (and whether we do so knowingly or not). In contrast to Foucault and Deleuze—and in contradistinction, also, to the unbridled individualism of so-called “postmodernism”—Derrida always insisted that it is not enough to come up with new names, to assign new values to old concepts, or to declare the “end” of this or that (be it history, metaphysics, patriarchy, or anything else) in order to escape the structure of the inheritance
. Derrida’s caveat from Writing and Difference
cannot be repeated often enough: “We have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.”2
This oppositional pairing of having to resign oneself (to the philosophical idiom that has been passed down—its syntax, lexicon, and the history of its operative distinctions) and wanting to put into question this same inheritance determines deconstructive reading (and writing) as an operation that is equally genealogical and strategic. It is genealogical, because—after Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Freud—it means uncovering the forgotten pre-history of a grand philosophical tradition and exposing its assumptions, the places where its blind spots lie. It is strategic because this is only possible by means of a double rhetorical gesture, which on the one hand reverses prevailing distinctions, and on the other (for a mere upending of received ideas is not enough) tries to displace key concepts in order to bring the text of tradition into motion in a specific way—opening it up and pushing it beyond itself. A look at Grammatology will illustrate this practice of reading.
is still wholly classical in design: the first part, “Writing before the Letter,” outlines a theoretical position that is “put to the test”3
in the second part, “Nature, Culture, Writing” (even if Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages
no longer counts, strictly speaking, as a “case study,” and the “Age of Rousseau”—that is, the eighteenth century—turns out to be a threshold-moment for the modern crisis of writing). In the twentieth century, Derrida claims, the crisis
of writing assumes the form of a return of the repressed: the return of writing which begins to abandon its inherited position as a “signifier of the second order” (i.e., its status as a derivative and inferior representation of spoken words) and, increasingly, comes to encompass the whole of linguistic activity. In this light, the so-called linguistic turn
, in the wake of which the humanities finally came to determine as language the totality of their problematic horizon,4
itself represents nothing but a symptom of this return.
But what does it mean, when discussing the history of metaphysics and the determination of Being as presence, to speak of the “repression” of writing and its “return”? Despite the Freudian vocabulary he employs, Derrida makes it clear that it does not involve performing a psychoanalytic interpretation of philosophy.5
Indeed, psychoanalysis itself still belongs to the epoch of “logocentric oppression,” even though, at the same time, it opens a way out.
We already have seen (cf. above, 1.4
) that, for the metaphysical tradition since Aristotle, spoken words—which are proximate to meaning and to the intention of the speaker—count as primary signifiers, whereas writing has received the secondary and subordinate function of representing spoken words (that is, of being the signifier of other signifiers). It is this devaluation of writing with respect to speech and the voice that Derrida calls “repression.” Why, however, does he employ this “strong” word for a classification that seems purely technical—a pragmatic matter of classifying and ordering different forms of linguistic signs? In fact, repression does not simply mean pushing something aside or declaring it less important than other matters. On the contrary, it means defending against the offending matter and excluding it from consciousness because it poses a danger and threatens the integrity of the psyche. What is so menacing about writing that it must be repressed—shut out from what is thought to constitute the essence of language and locked into the cultural unconscious? Or, put somewhat differently: what consciousness, what claims, what cultural illusions does this exclusion defend?
One answer may be found in Plato’s Phaedrus:
SOCRATES: You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks
them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.6
Writing, one can see, represents “fatherless” speech. In contrast to the spoken word, it can be separated from the body and the consciousness of its originator; without a master, it wanders alone in the world. It is impossible to foresee into whose hands it will fall and what effects it will produce without the assistance of its author. Since writing arrives without commentary or context, it is exposed to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. One can do what one wants with written words: their meaning dissolves into multiple, competing interpretations. What’s more, writing—like painting—is suffused with false vitality. Its deceptive nature misleads the reader, who thinks he understands it as well as the spoken words it imitates. In fact, without the possibility of checking with the author himself, one can miss his intention by miles and not even notice. In fine, writing is afflicted with absence: absence of intentional consciousness, absence of objects, and absence of meaning.7
Of course, the perils inherent in writing are familiar to every literary scholar as the problem of “hermeneutic difference,” or, alternately, “hermeneutic distance.” Until approximately the middle of the twentieth century, philological methods of interpretation sought only to bridge this gap and, by reconstructing what the author originally intended, to reestablish the complete presence of meaning in the text by sublating the “false” vitality of the letters into the “true” life of the mind. However, behind this hierarchical order that sets the voice above writing, the presence of meaning above its absence, and the spirit above the letter, lies the unquestioned assumption that the spoken word really stands beyond all the deficiencies of writing—that phone (voice) and logos (reason, meaning) comprise a unity in which the absences and “defects” of writing are collected and transformed into so many presences.
What would it mean if it were revealed that the Western conception of language, based as it is on phono- and logocentrism, is an illusion? What if spoken words, like written ones, were not animated by the intention of speakers and, instead, lacked fullness and presence? What if spoken words were not signifiers of the signified but also signifiers of other signifiers and thus themselves a kind of “writing”? This is the claim set forward in Grammatology
, which Derrida details in the book’s first part. Writing (as what the Western understanding of language has “repressed”) turns out not to be what it has conventionally been taken for—a system of notation of secondary importance—but rather, in a sense that requires further explication, a feature of spoken language itself. Writing is “repressed” to uphold the illusions of logocentrism. Derrida first identified this structure in Speech and Phenomena: An Essay on the Problem of the Sign in Husserl’s Philosophy
. In the most basic terms, it involves a physiological state of affairs: when I speak, I hear myself speaking. I can hear my own voice, which issues from my mouth and, at the same time, passes back inside through the ears. Irrespective of the fact that others may be present and listening, my body always finds itself in a circuit closed upon itself. According to Husserl—who, on this point, stands in for a long philosophical tradition—speaking invariably consists of the intentional expression of meaning. This meaning (Saussure’s signified) lies ready within consciousness and is then performed or realized in the act of speech; it exteriorizes itself by passing into the voice (articulate sounds, or signifiers). Inasmuch as I can hear myself speak, I always (seem to) revoke this exteriorization even as I perform it: I take the meaning back into the interiority of my consciousness, which is revealed, by virtue of this same process, as self-consciousness. Logos
sounds forth in phonè
; at the same time, phonè
is constituted by logos
listening to itself. Therefore, self-consciousness, the state of being present-to-oneself, implies the self-sufficiency of ideal interiority coupled in a feedback loop with the signified. According to Derrida, the metaphysics of presence has its foundation (“absolute proximity of voice and being, of voice and the meaning of being, of voice and the ideality of meaning”8
) in this narcissistic illusion—a kind of “acoustic mirror stage”—of self-consciousness that is present to itself and its intentions. Enclosed within the circle of pure self-reference, the subject deems itself its own master, the master of meaning, and master of the objects, since,
as we have seen, meanings or “symbols of affections in the soul” count for the Aristotelian tradition as natural images of the things themselves (that is, as a kind of pre-linguistic universal language). In this perspective, the self-assurance of the subject, the self-presentation of its representations, and, through them, the power to grasp and to manipulate the objects of the world are one and the same thing.
In Grammatology, Derrida contests this philosophical position and the hierarchically arranged values that follow from it: the privileging of interiority above exteriority, of ideality above materiality, of the intelligible above the sensible, of time above space, of presence above absence, and so on. Writing, however, instantiates all these “problems”: the medium of self-forgetting and distraction, it is at once something exterior, material, and spatial—the opposite of interiority and the opposite of memory (Erinnerung) upon which the spirit (Geist) and its history rely. Without interruption, the philosophical tradition from Plato to Hegel has distrusted writing and praised the “living spirit” (as the first chapter of Grammatology richly documents). The same value judgment is found in Saussure. “Language and writing are two distinct systems of sig...