"deconstruction, in French, would be nothing without puns"
November 14, 2012 9:57 AM   Subscribe

What was Of Grammatology about? When Madeleine, the heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides's campus novel The Marriage Plot, asks a young theory-head this question, she is immediately set straight: 'If it was "about" anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.' That's not so far off. In all three books, Derrida's argument was that Western thought from Plato to Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss had been hopelessly entangled in the illusion that language might provide us with access to a reality beyond language, beyond metaphor: an unmediated experience of truth and being which he called 'presence'.
Not in the Mood by Adam Shatz is an essay in The London Review of Books about a new biography of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The review does a good job of explaining Derrida's theories in simple language and putting it in the context of his life, from his childhood as French Jew in Vichy-controlled Algeria to his later years as a globetrotting academic star. For a complimentary perspective on Derrida, you can do worse than starting with these thoughts on his relevance for historians and progressives.
posted by Kattullus (36 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
As the first link points out, Derrida's real name is Jackie Derrida, which he later converted to Jacques Derrida. While this is hilarious in itself, I also learnt recently from Twitter that he was actually named after the American actor Jackie Coogan, best known for playing Uncle Fester from The Addams Family.

Deconstruct that.
posted by rahulrg at 10:13 AM on November 14, 2012 [15 favorites]


Should contain a trigger warning for anyone with a philosophy degree.
posted by digitalprimate at 10:38 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


The 2002 documentary on Derrida is on youtube. Trivia: Mark Z. Danielewski of House of Leaves etc. worked on it.
posted by juv3nal at 10:47 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


The review does a good job of explaining Derrida's theories in simple language

I'm holding out for a series of animated gifs.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:57 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm in love with a Jacques Derrida
Read a page and know what I need to
Take apart my baby's heart
I'm in love
posted by Grangousier at 10:58 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, I ♥ The Post Card which is wacky and great.
posted by juv3nal at 11:04 AM on November 14, 2012


Also apropos: Il Barone Rampante.
posted by digitalprimate at 11:11 AM on November 14, 2012


this is an aside. Why is it that we first get a guy's name. Then we are told that person is a Jews, and is also a Frenchman? Do we say he is a Catholic and a Frenchman? An atheist and also a Frenchman?
No ...he is a Russian Jew. Not simply a Russian.
Why? Help me to understand this, which seems so prevalent all over the net and in writing.
posted by Postroad at 11:30 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Postroad: Why is it that we first get a guy's name. Then we are told that person is a Jews, and is also a Frenchman? Do we say he is a Catholic and a Frenchman? An atheist and also a Frenchman?

That is a good point. In my particular case it was because I wanted to explain in the fewest words why living under Vichy rule as a child would be bad for Derrida. I wanted to include that because Shatz uses Derrida's Algerian childhood to explain a lot about his later life and thought.
posted by Kattullus at 11:37 AM on November 14, 2012


Structuralism's Samson
With “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Derrida impishly but effectively identified flaws in the organizational thrust of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ work in kinship and mythologies, work that formed a critical base for structuralist theory. It struck at the heart of the work of some of the assembled guests, and Derrida’s responses to interventions were deft deflections. For example, his former teacher Hyppolite introduced algebraic examples to discuss Derrida’s arguments, and then asked him if that was what he was going for. Derrida responded, “I was wondering myself where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point so that I do not know any longer where I am going.”
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:55 AM on November 14, 2012


That Bad Subjects piece is excellent — thanks for including it. I am already, preemptively weary of the coming wave of attempts to biographize Derrida's ideas, and the Shatz piece certainly does nothing half as interesting with the biography-philosophy connection as Derrida himself did in places like Monolingualism of the Other. It's really too bad that people treat philosophers' biographies as a cheap way off the hook of grappling with their ideas (rather than, say, as Nietzsche sometimes did, as a way of dragging the ideas into a more interesting relation to human life).
posted by RogerB at 12:01 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


this is an aside. Why is it that we first get a guy's name. Then we are told that person is a Jews, and is also a Frenchman? Do we say he is a Catholic and a Frenchman? An atheist and also a Frenchman?
No ...he is a Russian Jew. Not simply a Russian.


Are you being deliberately obtuse? To be Jewish in the West is to be a member of a tribe, an ethnicity, an international diasporic culture, not just (and not necessarily at all) to practice a religion interchangeable with any Christian sect.

And in Derrida's case specifically, the kind of compromise between belonging and non-belonging implicit in being both a Jew and a "Frenchman" (and also, equally, in being a pied-noir Algerian kind of Frenchman rather than a French, born-in-France Frenchman) is something that very, very clearly informed how he came to think about political subjectivity. You could look at Monolingualism of the Other, the book he wrote on the subject, if you're interested.
posted by RogerB at 12:39 PM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Biography can be illuminating in understanding the process of philosophical invention, though. I agree that biography sometimes (the majority of times, really) excuses real engagement with the work, but it doesn't have to be that way.
posted by hank_14 at 2:55 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Those of us with a philosophy degree are likely to have an even harder time with it. We're trained to sniff out bullshit, and no one created more of it than Derrida.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 3:04 PM on November 14, 2012


Yawn. And what bullshit was that professor plum? Or does having a "philosophy degree" substitute for actually providing warrants or data?
posted by hank_14 at 3:17 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I completely forgot to credit the author of the Bad Subjects essay. It was by Jonathan Sterne.

I paired these two pieces together because I felt like they mirrored each other, in a way. The Shatz essay traces where Derrida's ideas came from, and Sterne's obituary gives an idea of what happened to those ideas in the wider world (though this opposition is a crude reflection of the two texts).

Derrida is an interesting writer, like Joyce he never met a pun he didn't like, and like Joyce he built a marvelous edifice out of them. I sometimes suspect that some parts of his theories originated from pondering the question: What does the existence of puns tell us about language?
posted by Kattullus at 8:18 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


This essay is rambling and verbose: long on facts, short on insight. I barely understand Derrida's ideas any better now for having read 6,000 words about his life.

It's almost like the facts of that life were spewed like ink to conceal the indecipherability of his thinking, even to the author of this piece. Although I do look at a paragraph like this and wonder if it does not sound like the plot of some postmodern Cold War spy novel:

Sollers was also worried that Derrida’s reputation might eclipse his own, suspecting that Derrida’s essay in praise of his novel, Numbers, was a covert ‘attempt at appropriation’. In 1967 Sollers had secretly married the Bulgarian literary theorist Julia Kristeva, whose career he was also keen to promote over Derrida’s. Rebuffed in their efforts to capture the cultural apparatus of the PCF, in the early 1970s Sollers and Kristeva converted to Maoism. This led to a deepening estrangement from Derrida, whose friend Lucien Bianco, a distinguished Sinologist, had disabused him of any illusions about revolutionary China. When Derrida gave an interview to La Nouvelle Critique, a PCF literary journal, Sollers and Kristeva protested by ‘boycotting’ a dinner in his honour. Derrida’s Tel Quel years were over. Years later, in her novel The Samurai, Kristeva would mockingly depict Derrida as Saïda, founder of ‘condestruction theory’, a man who was so attractive to American feminists that they ‘all became “condestructivists”’.
posted by shivohum at 7:04 AM on November 15, 2012


shivohum: indecipherability of his thinking

There are a lot of very poor translations of Derrida out there, but better ones aren't that indecipherable. There are quite a few Derrida for Beginners books (this isn't meant as a slight, merely to point out that simple explanations of his thinking are available) and there's even a deconstruction explained in five steps page set in comic sans =)

I agree with you and RogerB that biography isn't necessarily the ideal way to approach Derrida, , but it is one tool and since most readers are trained in reading the genre of biography, it is a fairly universal tool.

Earlier today I was listening to the latest episode of BBC's In Our Time which was about Simone Weil. It ends with the question of whether Weil was anorexic and whether that affected her philosophy, and Prof. Béatrice Han-Pile makes the point that in the end, biographical explanations don't really tell us that much. She draws the analogy that even if Jesus had suffered from mental delusions, it has very little to do with his effect on the world.

I think there's truth in that. For the purposes of getting a grasp on Derrida's theories, it can help to know about his experiences as a discriminated-against Jew in Vichy-ruled Algeria, but in the end it tells us very little about the effect of his thinking on the world, and why his theories are important. Which is why I wanted to include the Sterne essay.
posted by Kattullus at 9:57 AM on November 15, 2012


Thanks for the extra links. The deconstruction-explained-in-five-steps had me until the last couple of steps.

I'm not sure I understand its explanation of how writing, apparently the inferior term in the usual speech-writing dichotomy, is actually prior to speech. The link says "Writing turns out to be more prior than speech (see Norris , DC: T&P, pp. 28-9), turns out to be the precondition of all language, including speech. (Remember the specialized definitions of speech and writing. Speech is not oral language but all unitary, direct language which is assumed to be a transparent expression of the thoughts present in the speaker's mind. Writing is not just marks on paper, but all language which functions by means of its interconnections with the previous forms of language, all language which is conscious of itself as text."

I don't get it.

And I really don't get how pointing out hidden hierarchies of value -- I get that part -- suddenly destroys the meaning of texts and "THERE IS THAT WITHIN THE TEXT WHICH UNDERMINES IT FROM WITHIN AND THUS FREE THE TEXT FROM DETERMINATE MEANING AND OPEN IT UP TO MULTIPLICITY"

Any idea how those work?
posted by shivohum at 9:37 PM on November 15, 2012


Sorry if that sounded snarky, btw, but those are genuine questions. I really don't get it.
posted by shivohum at 12:38 PM on November 16, 2012


Any idea how those work?

I'll take a stab at it.

I'm not sure I understand its explanation of how writing, apparently the inferior term in the usual speech-writing dichotomy, is actually prior to speech. [. . .] I don't get it.

When Derrida writes about "speech" and "writing," he's referring not just to the physical phenomena of speech and writing but to the way speech and writing have been thought about in the philosophical tradition. The classic example of the philosophical elevation of speech over writing is in Plato's Phaedrus:
Socrates. I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches [i.e. the prepared, pre-written speeches of a professional rhetorician or lawyer]. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.
Basically, Plato's Socrates is saying that writing is inferior to speech because it's cut off from its origin in the consciousness of the speaker. When you're talking to someone face-to-face and you don't understand what they're saying, you can ask them for clarification--you're right at the source of the statement's meaning (or so you think)--whereas when you read something and you don't understand what it means, the author usually isn't right there to help you out, so you have to engage in a more-or-less elaborate process of interpretation to figure out what the text means. And because the source of the text's meaning is absent, there's no guarantee that your interpretation will be right--you might be "maltreat[ing] and abus[ing]" the text, and there's "no parent" there to stop you, no author to tell you that your interpretation is wrong. So speech > writing, according to Plato's Socrates, because speech is closer to meaning and thus more capable of conveying truth. Writing is a mere imitation of speech, like a painting that looks like a person but is really just a lifeless image.

Derrida's critique of this view begins with the observation that this is actually a pretty misleading way to characterize the difference between speech and writing. In what sense is speech "closer to meaning" than writing? After all, speech can only happen on the basis of a preexisting language with no "author"--there's no authority you can go to to prove that you're using words correctly (even the dictionary is just another text). Similarly, speech can only happen in a particular situation that likewise has no "author," at least not a present one--no authority can tell you if your understanding of the situation is accurate, and since what you say must be based in one way or another on that understanding (an understanding that includes everything from fundamental philosophical beliefs about the nature of reality to your beliefs about the concrete circumstances of your own life), there's no guarantee that anything you say is true. There are only degrees of certainty and uncertainty--but that's also the case for writing. A typical encounter with written language might be further along the scale of uncertainty than a typical encounter with spoken language, but the fact that they're both on the same scale suggests that there's no philosophically fundamental distinction to be made between speech and writing. And not only that--because it turns out that when you really look at speech, it has all the characteristics that Plato's Socrates wants to use to characterize writing as something distinct from speech, we can say that, in the terms laid out by the Phaedrus, speech is a special case of writing. And not only that--the idea of speech that Plato's Socrates presents, speech as language that is right there next to its origin and that can deliver an indubitable truth, is an impossible fantasy, a utopian ideal designed to compensate for the inescapable uncertainty and precariousness of all human experiences of language. Writing--language that is cut off from its origin, that can only be understood on the basis of an interpretation that can never guarantee its own truth--is "prior" to speech. (This is roughly similar to Feuerbach's notion of God as a projection--we experience injustice on earth, we crave justice, so we project the idea of a God who is perfectly just. We could say that earthly injustice is prior to divine justice.)

This might help answer your second question:

And I really don't get how pointing out hidden hierarchies of value -- I get that part -- suddenly destroys the meaning of texts and "THERE IS THAT WITHIN THE TEXT WHICH UNDERMINES IT FROM WITHIN AND THUS FREE THE TEXT FROM DETERMINATE MEANING AND OPEN IT UP TO MULTIPLICITY"

What "undermines" the text, in this case the argument of the Phaedrus, is the fact that the "higher" term in its hierarchy (the ideal of speech as language that can deliver a guaranteed truth) is a fantasy, while the reality corresponds more closely to the "lower" term (the notion of writing as language that is cut off from truth). This "opens up the text to multiplicity" because the secure point that was supposed to guarantee the argument's unity and coherence has been revealed as an illusory fantasy. (I should point out that Derrida doesn't claim that deconstruction "destroys" meaning in the sense of rendering everything meaningless--rather, his arguments are meant to show that meaning is less stable, less guaranteed, less primary, than we might have assumed. It's not that there is no meaning, it's that we need a less "theological" sense of what meaning is.)

Two last points:

1. I think it's kind of unfortunate that deconstruction gets presented as an abstractable "method" or a tool that you can use to take apart any text whatsoever (the way it's used by the less interesting practitioners of Anglo-American "theoretical" humanities), because this obscures the broader implications of what Derrida is up to. One of the things that Derrida inherits from the philosophical tradition he's working in (and against) is the notion that philosophical concepts form a connected system, so that you can't really talk about any of them without at least implicitly talking about all of them. So when Derrida analyzes the way Plato's Socrates talks about speech and writing, he's not just performing a stand-alone "reading" of a particular text, he's trying to show how a whole series of philosophical notions (not just language but meaning, truth, and so on) are much more fantastical, much less securely anchored in "the nature of things," than philosophers have tended to think. In his many writings, Derrida focuses on a number of specific concepts--for example, in some of his last texts he looks at the distinction between "human" and "animal"--but the larger project is pretty consistent throughout his work.

2. One thing that annoys and/or confuses some readers of Derrida is the way he continues to use the terms that are being "deconstructed" instead of looking for some other, more neutral terminology. So people sometimes get tripped up by, for example, the fact that Derrida uses "writing" in a rather non-intuitive way, on the basis of his reading of (among other things) Plato's Phaedrus. Derrida's argument is that there is no other way to proceed--our entire language is pervaded by philosophical fantasies, so that there are no neutral terms to retreat to. (Sometimes people express this by saying "There is no meta-language.") In particular, the putatively value-neutral, "scientific" language favored by some Anglo-American philosophers is, Derrida argues, totally invested in "theological" fantasies about reason, logic, etc. (Again, Derrida is not saying that there is no such thing as reason or that one argument cannot be more reasonable than another--he's saying that we need a less fantasy-ridden, more "rational" notion of what reason is.) Derrida is also very willing to play stylistic games (most famously, endless punning) that "perform" the paradoxes and uncertainties that his arguments are meant to bring out. Needless to say, this drives many readers up the wall.

So that's a lot of writing and I'm not sure it's entirely clear or totally accurate, but maybe it will render a few things less indecipherable. Does that help?
posted by DaDaDaDave at 2:27 PM on November 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Brilliant comment, DaDaDaDave!

The only thing I would add is that while I agree with you that looking at deconstruction outside of the context Derrida develops it in often does it injustice, I do think that the basic method is transferable, as long as it's used skillfully.

I'm sometimes of the opinion that the method of deconstruction should be taught, but no one should be allowed to publish an essay based on deconstruction until they've written at least a hundred, at which point these hundred essays should be sifted through to find the single good one among them.

But the value of deconstructing lies in being made to reconsider the standard assumptions that our societies make. To give a simple example, it would be good if people were made to examine the dichotomy of male and female, and put it through the deconstructive wringer. Yes, it's been done approximately a bajillion times, but the effort of thinking it through is valuable in and of itself.

The go-to metaphor is to say that it's like a screwdriver you can use to unscrew the objects of society. Like a screwdriver allows you to see how a radio looks like underneath the case, deconstruction allows you to look at how the assumptions that drive our society work.

But I agree completely with DaDaDaDave in that when Derrida takes his project of deconstruction to philosophy, he is operating at a different level than your run-of-the-mill deconstructive essay.
posted by Kattullus at 2:47 PM on November 16, 2012


DaDaDaDave, thank you so much for the extensive response. That does clarify some things, but--I guess it should be no surprise--it also generates some questions.

After all, speech can only happen on the basis of a preexisting language with no "author"--there's no authority you can go to to prove that you're using words correctly (even the dictionary is just another text). Similarly, speech can only happen in a particular situation that likewise has no "author," at least not a present one--no authority can tell you if your understanding of the situation is accurate, and since what you say must be based in one way or another on that understanding...there's no guarantee that anything you say is true. There are only degrees of certainty and uncertainty--but that's also the case for writing.

All right, but Socrates in the excerpt of Phaedrus does not claim that speech has any lock on absolute truth. Rather, he claims that writing has certain other disadvantages relative to it:

1. Writing cannot be questioned for clarification.
2. Writing is more easily distributed to those who may not understand it.
3. Writing presents no natural audience to whom people can direct their responses.
4. Writing, if attacked, carries with it no natural defender.

These points do not seem to me to bear on the question of absolute truth, but rather the question of whether someone is likely to be understood correctly: whether their intention as they understand it is likely to be communicated. And isn't that more likely if a qualified audience is able to engage in a clarifying and responsive dialogue with them? It seems to me that it is.

And this is so completely separate and apart from whether what they say is true in any other sense, or even whether the precise meaning of words can be established. Even assuming unavoidable ambiguity in language, the above points still make it more likely that the maximum possible clarity will be attained. Even if the speaker uses words in some non-standard way, you'd be far more likely to detect that if you could talk extensively and deliberately hone in on the unusual usage.

So in these senses, speech seems to have qualitative differences from writing. Socrates knew that speech as much as writing could distort truth, viz the Sophists, but it did have the advantage of being subject to cross-examination. No doubt in the online world, some of these differences between speech and writing are softened. But the basic distinction still seems correct.

Am I missing something? I don't see how Derrida has made his case.
posted by shivohum at 1:59 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I know I'm coming to this very late, but I had bookmarked it (I know, quaint) and kept meaning to come back when I had time, which, umm, I have now.

Anyway, shivohum, you're asking a good set of questions, and it's always really difficult to answer these sorts of questions in a couple of paragraphs when it's a topic like this, a topic Derrida spends 30+ pages on discussing. So the easiest, but maybe least productive answer is just to suggest that you go read the second essay in Derrida's Dissemination, which is where his most sustained engagement with the Phaedrus takes place. It should be noted that the opening essay is a sustained meditation on the idea of the preface, and the idea of the preface in Hegel in particular, and what it means for the structure of the book (which is also the structure of thought in that instance) and for writing in general. Point being, there's some setup work that happens before the big Plato discussion that might be illuminating or stage-setting.

That being said, here's how I'd answer your question. First, Plato does indeed give an extremely privileged position to speech when it comes to truth, and not just in the Phaedrus, though the Phaedrus is the most extreme and obvious example. He might not claim that it has a "lock on absolute truth," but that's because that's not something Plato would say. Plato's truth is always implicitly absolute truth (just look at his denigration of rhetoric, in Gorgias especially, but also in the Phaedrus), and he always opposes true knowledge to mere opinion, which is necessarily capable of being false. Plato is more nuanced than he's sometimes given credit for, but he's pretty strict on the true-false dichotomy, for reasons that make sense given his project, his politics, his economic position, and so on. So there are plenty of passages in the Phaedrus in which Plato basically asserts that writing is incapable of being a tool for truth.

Second, and more than that, we should also point out that writing serves an odd dual purpose in the dialog. On the one hand, writing is the foil to speech in the form of dialectic (dialectic and philosophy also serve as the foil to rhetoric in the dialog), and on the other hand writing is regularly used in the Phaedrus as the metaphor through which to explain memory, one of the most important of the philosopher's gifts. In the Phaedrus, and in several other dialogs, memory is regularly described in terms of writing, even as the more literal act of writing is regularly derided as being limited, or even poisonous to memory.

This dual purpose seems somewhat contradictory, especially for Plato, a philosopher known for being one of the first literate philosophers in Western history; and while Derrida isn't too interested in biography or the cultural processes that produce Platonic thought, he is fascinated by the dual purpose of writing within that thought, a dual purpose that has a mirror in the myth of Theuth/Thamus, where writing is both a tool of salvation and a tool of destruction for memory (anamnesis and hypomnesis, respectively). This is where the whole discussion of the pharmakon comes in, which in Plato's Greek could be translated as either poison or cure. And Plato clearly states that writing is a ghost or shadow (eidelon) of real knowledge, and that it isn't real knowledge, even if a person who "really knows" is the one writing it down.

So I don't think there's much doubt that Plato ties speech, and speech alone, to real knowledge or truth. But we've also seen that writing serves a dual purpose in Plato's thought: it helps to explain, figurally, how philosophers learn truth and imprint it in their minds; it helps to supply a fake, simulacral memory even as it atrophies real memory, the kind philosophers need and that speech engenders; and it allows for the dissemination of ideas (including, obviously, Plato's ideas) so long as we don't take those ideas seriously because of their democratic indiscretions, i.e. their indiscriminate openness to their audience and their related inability to respond to questions. Writing, then, for Plato, is a supplement of speech, but not equal to speech itself.

But for Derrida, there's a certain structural law to this supplementarity, which is that the supplement isn't merely an addition, something tacked on. Rather, the supplement always reconfigures the thing it supplements, and becomes, to use a different terminology, ontologically prior to it. Plato routinely turns to writing or to letters, as figures to explain thinking/philosophy/memory/dialectic precisely when no other resource seems to be available to help explain those related concepts. There's an odd repetition to it (not unlike the repetition Plato critiques in writing, obviously), and for Derrida the whole structure of exposition ultimately unbinds the thing being explained, since the formal structure of the explanation relies upon the very thing (reading/writing) that the explanation explicitly devalues. In other words, speech is made sensible by recourse to its supplement, writing, which, understood in Derrida's thinking, implies that writing structures speech in Plato. It seems impossible, for example, to think of writing as a destructive bearer of hypomnesis at the same time writing is the preferred metaphor for understanding the philosophical character of anamnesis.

And of course, we know from work that others have done that changes in writing produce, not surprisingly, radical changes in speech. And even in the case of the senses, while speech does have qualitative differences from writing, we have learned to speak with rhythms that are lexical in nature: we have internalized how to speak an ellipses, a comma, a period. We use our fingers to designate scare quotes. There's all sorts of obvious ways in which speaking is predicated on our familiarity with writing. I'm not trying to claim that writing is necessarily and always prior to speech, but nor is Derrida; he's really just highlighting and objecting to the odd fact that philosophers, from Plato to Hegel to Rousseau to Heidegger (and on and on and on), all privilege oral speech over writing, as if speech is somehow the thing closest to the mind, the soul, the internal bit of awesome at the core of human being, or whatever, and should be revered because of it. It shouldn't be.

Deconstruction, as a mood or attitude, offers some ways of re-thinking this assumption.

I hope that helps.
posted by hank_14 at 7:14 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thanks hank_14. I still can't say that I buy the argument, but your explanation does help me understand it better.

Is it really true, though, that just because writing is used in metaphors to represent memory -- that that bears on the argument that writing in normal life has key disadvantages relative to speech? I'm not sure there's any real contradiction there, only the semblance of one.

he's really just highlighting and objecting to the odd fact that philosophers, from Plato to Hegel to Rousseau to Heidegger (and on and on and on), all privilege oral speech over writing, as if speech is somehow the thing closest to the mind, the soul, the internal bit of awesome at the core of human being, or whatever, and should be revered because of it.

It's quite possible, it seems to me, that the simple act of being able to engage in long clarifying questions and debates with a teacher may produce a much more profound understanding than a written document would. Why wouldn't that in itself sufficiently account for the philosophers' traditional reverence for speech over writing, the sense that it is "closest to the mind"? Even if all the other things Derrida points out were true, that difference still seems to stand untouched.
posted by shivohum at 9:15 PM on November 18, 2012


The problem is that the spoken is never entirely discrete from the written. That's the argument - the separation is never as clean as the privilege presupposes. The character of speech already gets reconfigured by the nature of writing, so speech and conversation can be great, but they aren't great in isolation. And, of course, speech can be detrimental and full of misunderstanding - there's plenty examples of that, more than are worth mentioning - so to act as if speech, in and of itself, has some distinct, essential superiority over writing - well, that "act" has more to do with an ontological supposition based on the legacy of the soul (the psyche in Plato) as an internalized structure than it does with any real, essential character of speech. Writing, as an externalization, always seems like a bastardization, a shadow of the real thing. It's not.
posted by hank_14 at 9:27 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


shivohum, I'm glad my comment was helpful. Since hank_14 has already done an excellent job of fleshing out Derrida's argument about writing and speech in the Phaedrus, I'll just address this one point:

These points do not seem to me to bear on the question of absolute truth, but rather the question of whether someone is likely to be understood correctly: whether their intention as they understand it is likely to be communicated. And isn't that more likely if a qualified audience is able to engage in a clarifying and responsive dialogue with them? It seems to me that it is.

And this is so completely separate and apart from whether what they say is true in any other sense, or even whether the precise meaning of words can be established. [...] So in these senses, speech seems to have qualitative differences from writing.


I would say that these differences are not so much qualitative as quantitative, or maybe probabilistic. Is it more likely, on average, that the speaker's intention ("as they understand it"--this is crucial, see * below) will be adequately communicated through speech or through writing? It seems at least plausible that it's easier to communicate one's meaning through face-to-face conversation, especially the kind of extremely articulate conversation between extremely self-aware and self-critical individuals that is the ideal of the Socratic dialogue, than through a written text. But this is a matter of degree, of position on a sliding scale, and also a matter of an average or even "ideal" case to which there are endless exceptions, not a matter of some fundamental, qualitative distinction between speech as such and writing as such.

The "quantitative" distinction between speech and writing doesn't really touch Derrida's argument, I think; in fact, it assumes something like his point that there is no fundamental distinction to be made between writing and speech. Derrida's argument is that this sensible, plausible quantitative argument gets mixed up, in the actual arguments that philosophers make in their texts, with more grandiose, fantastical qualitative claims about the higher ontological status of speech. In the passage from the Phaedrus that I quoted earlier, note that Socrates's argument is phrased not in terms of a quantitative, probabilistic distinction between writing and speech, but in terms of two highly charged metaphorical distinctions (on metaphor, see ** below), people vs. portraits and parents vs. children. According to the first metaphor, writing is deprived of some essential quality that speech has (analogous to the life that a person has and a portrait merely imitates); according to the second, writing is like a child without a parent, cut off from the origin that should guide and protect it.

These metaphors connect Socrates's discussion of writing to the great underlying themes of Plato's ontology, the notions of imitation and separation/return. For Plato, the relation between the eternal forms and the temporal beings of our world is one of imitation, and in a famous discussion in the Republic, Socrates argues that there are two "steps" of imitation that take you progressively further away from the source of being--when, in Socrates's example, a carpenter makes an actual bed, that's one step away from the eternal idea of a bed, and when a painter paints a picture of a bed, that's a further step away, since it's merely an imitation of an imitation. For Plato, language works in a similar way--there's truth in the soul, spoken words imitate that truth, and written words imitate the spoken word. (Of course this is assuming that the speaker and the writer are not lying or deluded--see *** below). Each level of imitation is separated from the reality of the level above (the picture is separated from the real object, the real object is separated from the idea); to attain truth, for Plato, you have to reverse that separation and return to the origin, to the ideal world of eternal forms that is the soul's true home.

Derrida argues that these notions of imitation and separation/return, these philosophical fantasies, as the master concepts of the system of Plato's philosophy, have a determining effect even on Plato's discussions of seemingly mundane things like speech and writing. The weirdly overstated metaphorical nature of the discussion of speech and writing, Derrida proposes, is a symptom or clue that we can follow to demonstrate the shaky, fantastical construction of the whole system.

It's quite possible, it seems to me, that the simple act of being able to engage in long clarifying questions and debates with a teacher may produce a much more profound understanding than a written document would. Why wouldn't that in itself sufficiently account for the philosophers' traditional reverence for speech over writing, the sense that it is "closest to the mind"?

Well, in order to find out whether that distinction accounts for philosophers' reverence for speech over writing, you'd have to look carefully at the actual arguments philosophers make about speech and writing. This is exactly what Derrida does--he doesn't say "Hmm, I wonder why all these philosophers are privileging speech over writing?" and then come up with his own explanation, he engages in very painstaking readings (his critics would say over-readings) of the philosophical texts where writing and speech are discussed, precisely in order to figure out why speech gets privileged over writing. His conclusion, of course, is that these philosophers privilege speech not (or not only) for sensible, practical reasons, but in ways that are related to the fantasies that structure their philosophical thinking. It seems to me that if you really want to controvert Derrida's arguments, you'll have to do it the hard way, through an explication of philosophical texts. (As you did in your reply to my first comment, where you provided an alternative reading of the passage from the Phaedrus. Now I respond by saying "okay, but what about these metaphors?" and if you are so inclined you can respond to my response and so on--it's like some kind of productive dialogue! Crazy.)

* On the speaker's intention "as they understand it." When Derrida analyzes the way philosophers have thought about the communication of truth, he also discusses the way philosophers have thought about the knowledge of truth. One reason why language and speech have been such central topics of Western philosophy, Derrida argues, is that philosophers have posited an intimation connect between truth, knowledge and language. For the philosophical tradition, Derrida argues, knowing and recognizing truth is like "hearing oneself speak," getting a message from some innermost or highest part of your own soul. This comes in many forms--Plato's notion of a return to the eternal ideas, where the part of the soul that "remembers" the ideas communicates that memory to the part that has forgotten; Descartes' notion of truth as the clear and distinct idea (I interrogate my own internal representations and find out ones are clear and distinct) and the emergence of knowledge from doubt (I ask myself "Can I doubt this?" and find out that, for at least one "this," I can't); Heidegger's notion of the "call of conscience" whereby Dasein recalls itself to an authentic relation to being; etc. For the philosophical tradition, ordinary speech is related to this internal "hearing oneself speak" roughly as real objects are related to eternal forms in Plato, and writing is related to speech as pictures are related to objects--as Aristotle says, "Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. Just as all men have not the same writing, so all men have not the same speech sounds, but the mental experiences, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as also are those things of which our experiences are the images." This connection between language, knowledge and truth explains why a philosophical discussion of language is never just about language.

** Derrida is interested not just in the abstractable propositions that philosophers put forth, but in the often metaphorical language in which those propositions are couched. Derrida is above all a critical reader of philosophy; as far as I know, all of his writings are based on an analysis of some particular philosophical text or set of texts. Derrida is like a literary critic in that he believes that you can't separate what a text says from how it says it--two ways of saying the same thing never say exactly the same thing. (Derrida's focus on the details of language comes from many sources, among them Heidegger, who said "Only in metaphysics is there metaphor"--the absolute distinction between "literal" and "metaphorical" meanings is itself a metaphysical fiction.)

*** Of course it is always possible to lie, in speech or in writing, but Plato (like most other philosophers) assumes that the "proper" use of language is to tell the truth, and that lies and fictions are parasitic on the primary, truth-telling function of language. Derrida questions this assumption in a number of texts, but that's another story--suffice it to say here that, for Plato and other traditional philosophers, speech is superior to writing because it is more capable of conveying truth (thanks to its proximity to the source of meaning), not because it always does convey truth, which of course it doesn't.

(Sorry this is so long--I really was trying to keep it succinct. Guess I got carried away!)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 8:19 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dammit, "intimation connect" = intimate connection. "Find out ones" = "find out which ones." I was going in to make these corrections when I saw the edit window literally fade away before my very eyes! A new argument against monster comments, I guess.

(I was also going to throw in a ";)" after "Crazy!" to emphasize that I was trying to be pleasantly jokey rather than snarky.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 8:30 AM on November 19, 2012


Writing, as an externalization,

In the interview linked in a post yesterday, Chomsky points out that speech itself is an externalization; that is, spoken language and sign language, e.g., are both language, and the physical act of speech is merely an externalization of whatever language is. He argues that language preceded speech, and the externalization mechanism developed later.

Also, this thread is one of the best discussions of Derrida I've seen on the internet; kudos to DaDaDaDave and hank_14.
posted by junco at 3:32 PM on November 19, 2012


junco, I agree with the idea that speech is already an externalization. The thinker I really like for this is Bernard Stiegler, whose work on originary technics supplies a really powerful argument that all technologies of communication, speech or written or cinematic or what have you, are externalizations or exteriorizations that, like prosthetics, reshape and constitute human experience, function, and being. The interesting deconstructive question is why, contrary to this, so many philosophers presuppose a primacy to speech, but again, answering that question - as DaDaDaDave has pointed out - requires quite a bit of specificity.
posted by hank_14 at 4:36 PM on November 19, 2012


The thinker I really like for this is Bernard Stiegler

Thanks! I'd not heard of him.
posted by junco at 7:22 PM on November 19, 2012


so to act as if speech, in and of itself, has some distinct, essential superiority over writing

For Plato, language works in a similar way--there's truth in the soul, spoken words imitate that truth, and written words imitate the spoken word.

Hrm. Speech, unlike writing, gets you intonation, gesture, facial expression, and the context of a physical and social environment in which the words were spoken. And as a student of a teacher, you were commonly embedded in an milieu (say, Plato's Academy, or a university), where you could learn habits and absorb ways of living life through observation. You learn Socratic dialogue not just from the content of Socrates' words, but from the way those words are embedded in Socrates' actions, which you observe by following him around and listening to his speech.

All that, perhaps, is implied in the superiority of speech. That actually makes perfect sense of the Platonic claim that the written word is an method that can at best asymptotically recapture the more contextualized meaning implicit in the spoken word.

And that the spoken word is also only an attempt to recapture the even more subtle and manifold world of thought and emotion and imagination also makes sense. Even with all the advantages of the body and milieu added to words, we still know that the "human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars."
posted by shivohum at 7:13 AM on November 20, 2012


junco: Also, this thread is one of the best discussions of Derrida I've seen on the internet; kudos to DaDaDaDave and hank_14.

Let me second those kudos. I was slightly worried this thread would turn into the usual Derrida-bashing, but happily enough my worries did not pan out. The reflexive hatred for French 20th Century philosophy endemic in the Anglophone philosophical world is one of those things where the more I learn about it and its roots, the less sense it makes. Which, I suppose, is eminently deconstructive =)
posted by Kattullus at 7:40 AM on November 25, 2012


Oh, and let me extend those kudos to shivohum, for not dismissing Derrida out of hand and seeking answers to his questions.
posted by Kattullus at 7:42 AM on November 25, 2012


Thanks, and same to you and hank_14 for an excellent discussion.
posted by shivohum at 7:27 AM on November 27, 2012


Terry Eagleton reviews Derrida: A Biography for The Guardian.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:23 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


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