ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 10

 - Deconstruction I


In this lecture on Derrida and the origins of deconstruction, Professor Paul Fry explores two central Derridian works: “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences” and “Différance.” Derrida’s critique of structuralism and semiotics, particularly the work of Levi-Strauss and Saussure, is articulated. Deconstruction’s central assertions that language is by nature arbitrary and that meaning is indeterminate are examined. Key concepts, such as the nature of the text, discourse, différance, and supplementarity are explored.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 10 - Deconstruction I

Chapter 1. Origins and Influence of Jacques Derrida [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: So anyway, to get launched on today’s topic, obviously we confront one of the more formidable figures on our syllabus, a person who recently passed away and who in his last years and into the present has had a kind of second life as a person who in his later work didn’t at all repudiate his earlier thoughts or indeed his earlier style, but nevertheless did begin to apply central aspects of his thinking to ethical and political issues. He and a number of other writers like, for example, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, are the figures whom we identify with what’s called “the ethical turn” in thinking about texts, literature and other matters that is very much of the current moment. Hence Derrida’s reputation and the tendency of people interested in theory to read him is alive and well today, but the materials that we are reading for this sequence of lectures date back much earlier.

The essay that you read in its entirety for today, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Language of the Human Sciences,” was delivered on the occasion of a conference about “the sciences of man” at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. It was an event that was really meant to be a kind of coronation of Claude Levi-Strauss, whose work had burst upon the American scene only a few years earlier. Levi-Strauss was there. He gave a talk, he was in the audience, and Derrida’s essay was widely taken–far from being a coronation of Levi-Strauss–as a kind of dethroning of Levi-Strauss. I have to tell you that Levi-Strauss, who is still alive, a very old man, expresses great bitterness in his old age about what he takes to be the displacement of the importance of his own work by what happened subsequently. What happened subsequently can, I think, be traced to Derrida’s lecture.

One of the million complications of thinking about this lecture and about Derrida’s work in general–and, for that matter, about deconstruction–is indeed to what extent it really is a significant departure from the work of structuralism. There is a self-consciousness in the thinking about structure that we find in many places in Levi-Strauss that Derrida freely acknowledges in his essay. Again and again and again he quotes Levi-Strauss in confirmation of his own arguments, only then in a way to turn on him by pointing out that there is something even in what he’s saying there that he hasn’t quite thought through. So it is not anything like, even as one reads it in retrospect, a wholesale repudiation or even really a very devastating critique of Levi-Strauss. Derrida, I think, freely acknowledges in this essay the degree to which he is standing on Levi-Strauss’s shoulders.

In any case, this extraordinary event in the imaginations of people thinking about theory in the West did, however, tend to bring about a sense of almost overnight revolution from the preoccupation we had in the mid-sixties with structuralism to the subsequent preoccupation we had throughout the seventies and into the early eighties with deconstruction. Derrida was, of course, a central figure in this. He was here at Yale as a visitor in the spring for many years. He influenced a great many people whose work is still current throughout the United States and elsewhere. He–after that–had a comparable arrangement with the University of California at Irvine and his influence there continued, a key figure whom many of us remember from his period at Yale as a galvanizing presence. The idea that there was what was called by one critic a “hermeneutical mafia” at Yale arose largely from the presence of Derrida together with our own Paul de Man and, more loosely connected with them, Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom–and also a scholar named J. Hillis Miller, whose departure for the University of California, Irvine resulted also in Derrida’s decision to go there and be with Miller rather than to continue to stay here.

That was the so-called Yale school. It generated extraordinary influence in some circles but, well beyond its influence, an atmosphere of hostility which had in many ways to do, I think, with what might still be called “the crisis in the humanities” as it is widely understood by state legislators and boards of trustees as somehow or another something needing to be overcome, backed away from, and forgotten [laughs] in the development of the humanities in academia. The reasons for this we can only imply, I think, probably, in the context of a course of this nature, but are nevertheless fascinating and will recur as we think not just about deconstruction itself but about the sorts of thinking that it has influenced.

Chapter 2. Derrida’s Style [00:06:33]

Now you have now read some Derrida. You’ve read all of one essay and you’ve read part of another, “Différance,” and you’ve found him very difficult. Indeed, in addition to finding him very difficult you’ve probably said, “Why does he have to write like that?” In other words, “Yeah, okay. He’s difficult, but isn’t he making it more difficult than it needs to be?” you say to yourself. “I’ve never seen prose like this,” you say. “This is ridiculous. Why doesn’t he just say one thing at a time?” you might also want to say. Well, of course it’s all deliberate on his part, and the idea is that deconstruction is, as a thought process, precisely a kind of evasive dance whereby one doesn’t settle for distinct positions, for any sort of idea that can be understood as governed–this is what “Structure, Sign and Play” is all about–as governed by a blanket term, what Derrida often calls a “transcendental signified.” We’ll have much more to say about this.

Derrida’s prose style–its kind of a crab-like, sideways movement around an argument–is meant as rigorously as it can to avoid seeming to derive itself from some definite concept, because, of course, deconstruction is precisely the deconstruction of the grounds whereby we suppose our thinking can be derived from one or another definite concept. Also–this is to be kept in mind, and this is of course one of the key distinctions between Derrida and de Man–we’ll have more to say about distinctions between them on Tuesday: Derrida is not a literary theorist. Though he sometimes does talk about texts that we call “literary,” indeed he very often does, nevertheless Derrida’s position and the logic of that position suggest that we can’t really reliably discriminate among genres. In other words, we can’t use genre either as a blanket term; and therefore he is one of the people–one of the most influential people in persuading us that there’s no such thing as literature, legal texts, theological texts, philosophical texts, or scientific texts. There is discourse, and to think about the field of texts is to think about something which is full of difference. [laughs] Needless to say, it’s the central word in Derrida, which is nevertheless not classifiable or categorizable, and so for that reason we can’t really say Derrida is specifically a literary theorist.

Chapter 3. The Eiffel Tower and Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” [00:09:25]

Now I’ve been talking so far about difficulty and confusion, but in view of the fact that we’re all in a state of tension about this–I’m in a state of tension about it too–let me remind us that we’ve already been doing deconstruction and that much of what’s problematic in reading Derrida really has already been explained. Let’s begin with a kind of warm-up sheet which we can anchor in these little drawings I’ve made [gestures towards chalkboard]. Obviously, you look at these drawings and you say, “Ah ha. That’s the vertical axis,” right? Of course, once we get to feminism, feminism will have certain ideas of its own about the vertical axis. We will be getting into that when the time comes.

In the meantime the Eiffel Tower [gestures towards chalkboard] is a wonderful way of showing the degree to which the vertical axis is virtual. That is to say, if you ever saw a dotted line standing upright, it’s the Eiffel Tower. There’s nothing in it. It’s empty. It’s transparent. Yet somehow or another, if you’re at the top of it–if you’re in the viewing station at the top of the Eiffel Tower–suddenly all of Paris is organized at your feet. That is to say, it’s a wonderful axis of combination that you’re looking at. It is just there with its landmarks, not having the same kind of status as that which you are standing on, but rather just in a kind of row as the key signs, as it were, of the skyline of Paris: so you get the Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe and so on, all sort of lined up in a row, and there it is. Guy de Maupassant in a famous anecdote complained rather bitterly about this, according to Roland Barthes in an essay called “The Eiffel Tower”:

Maupassant often ate at the restaurant in the tower [up here someplace] [gestures towards the chalkboard] even though he didn’t particularly like the food. “It’s the only place,” he said, “where I don’t have to see it.”

In other words, if–as Saussure says, once again–we “put both feet squarely on the ground” of the Eiffel Tower, we’re liberated from the idea that somehow or another it’s a governing presence. If we’re actually there, we no longer have to worry about the way it organizes everything around it into a kind of rigorous unfolding pattern. After all, there’s a very real sense in which we infer the Eiffel Tower from its surroundings. It’s built in the nineteenth century. It’s by no means causative of the skyline of Paris. It’s something that comes in belatedly just as langue comes in belatedly with relation to speech. The Eiffel Tower is a virtuality that organizes things, as one might say, arbitrarily.

Sort of as a reflection on these same ideas, you get the famous poem of Wallace Stevens. I am sure you recognize this as Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” but I will quickly quote to you the poem.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild. [As Derrida would say, the center limits free play, right?]
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

In other words, it is arbitrarily placed in the middle of the free play of the natural world, a free play which is full of reproductive exuberance, full of a kind of joyous excess which is part of what Derrida’s talking about when he talks about what’s “left over”: the surplusage of the sign, the supplementarity of the sign. There’s an orgasmic element in what Derrida has in mind, so that when he speaks of “the seminal adventure of the trace,” toward the end of your essay, you want to put some pressure on that word “seminal.” Well, in any case the jar is just arbitrarily in the middle of that, organizing everything without participating in the nature of anything. It is, in other words, a center which is outside the structure: “a center which is not a center,” and we’ll come back to that in a minute.

Now the Twin Towers–and I first started using this example decades before 2001–the Twin Towers have a kind of poignancy and pathos today that they would not have had then; but what they suggest is in a way today–which overwhelms us with grief–the ephemerality of the vertical axis. The Twin Towers had the same function in New York that the Eiffel Tower has in Paris. It was a wonderful place from which to see the city, a wonderful place from which to feel that everything was organized at its feet. There’s a very fine essay about the Twin Towers–again, long before 2001–by Michel de Certeau, which makes this argument in sustained form. I recommend it to you.

In any case, it’s another example that we can take from our experience of the uneasy sense we may have that to infer a spatial moment from which the irreducibly temporal nature of experience is derived–to infer a moment from the fact of this experience as a necessary cause of it–is always problematic. It always necessarily must, as Derrida would say, put this sense of a spatial full presence of everything there at once in systematic order–as Derrida would say, must put that “under erasure.” In other words, in a certain sense you can’t do without it. Derrida never really claims that you can do without it. If you want to get a sense of structure, you’ve got to have some sort of inference of this nature, but at the same time it had better be in quotes because it is always tenuous, ephemeral, dubious even as to its existence, and necessarily needs to be understood in that way.

Chapter 4. Levi-Strauss and the Oedipus Myth [00:17:00]

All right. Now other ways in which we’ve already been involved in the subject matter of what you’ve been reading today: take a look at page 921, a couple of passages in which Derrida is quoting Levi-Strauss on the nature of myth. Once having quoted you these two passages from Levi-Strauss, here’s where I’ll return just for a moment to Levi-Strauss’s analysis of the Oedipus myth and show you how it is that Derrida is both benefiting from what Levi-Strauss has said and ultimately able to criticize Levi-Strauss’s position. Bottom of the left-hand column, page 921:

“In opposition to epistemic discourse [that is to say, the kind of discourse which has some principle or transcendental signified or blanket term as its basis–in other words, something which in a given moment makes it possible for all knowledge to flow from it], structural discourse on myths–mythological discourse–must itself be mythomorphic. It must have the form of that of which it speaks.” [And Derrida then says] This is what Lévi-Strauss [himself] says in [the following passage taken from one of Levi-Strauss’ most famous books] The Raw and the Cooked.

I just want to quote the end of it, the middle of the right-hand column, still on page 921. Levi-Strauss says:

“In wanting to imitate the spontaneous movement of mythical thought, my enterprise, itself too brief and too long, has yet to yield to its demands and respect its rhythm. Thus is this book on myths itself and in its own way a myth.”

In other words, here is a moment when Levi-Strauss is admitting something about his own work which he is not admitting in his analysis of the Oedipus myth in the essay from Structural Anthropology that you read last time.

What Levi-Strauss is saying here is that his approach to myth is itself only a version of the myth. That is to say, it participates in the mythic way of thinking about things. It uses what in the Structural Anthropology essay he calls “mythemes” or “gross constituent units” of thought. It deploys and manipulates those gross constituent units of thought in the ways that we saw, but notice what Levi-Strauss is saying in that essay as opposed to the passage Derrida has just quoted. He says in effect, “This form of the myth is scientific. One of the versions that I have made use of to arrive at this scientific conclusion is, for example, Freud’s version of the Oedipus myth. In other words, Freud, Sophocles, all of the other versions I have at my disposal, have equal merit as versions, but none of them is a transcendental signified, none of them is a blanket term, and none of them is the causal explanation or meaning of the myth. The meaning of the myth is discoverable only in my science.”

Now, of course, Freud himself thought he was a scientist, and his reading of the myth was also supposed to be scientific. What was Freud’s reading of the myth about? Two or one! [laughs] It was, in other words, about the problem of incest, the problem of the over-determination of blood relations and the under-determination of blood relations. It was a thorough examination of that problematic leading to the conclusion that that’s what the myth was about. In other words, Levi-Strauss’s conclusions are already anticipated in Freud. Furthermore, what is Levi-Strauss doing? He’s denying the influence of Freud, right? It’s my myth, not his myth–right?–which of course is precisely what happens in the primal horde. It is a perfect instance of the Oedipus complex. Levi-Strauss is repudiating the father and, in repudiating the father, showing himself to fall into the very mythic pattern that Freud had been the first to analyze. Okay? So when you say that what you’re doing is scientific in a context of this sort, you are making yourself vulnerable. The moments in this essay in which Derrida is criticizing Levi-Strauss are those moments in which Levi-Strauss has unguardedly said something on the order of “My work is scientific”; but there are lots of occasions, and he always quotes Levi-Strauss tothis effect, when Levi-Strauss is not saying that–when Levi-Strauss is conceding that his work, that is to say his viewpoint, disappears unstably into the thing viewed.

Chapter 5. Derrida and Semiotic Science [00:22:39]

All right. Now also take a look at–because we’ve been doing this too–take a look at page 917, the left-hand column, where Derrida is talking not about Levi-Strauss but about Saussure. Here he’s talking about the nature of the sign, and he is concerned, very much concerned, about this relationship between the concept and the sound image–which is to say, the signified and the signifier–that is the basis of the science of Saussure: that is to say, the relationship that’s involved in the pairing of signified and signifier is the basis, the cornerstone, of the science of Saussure. So here’s what, a little more than halfway down, the left-hand column, page 917, Derrida has to say about that. He says:

… [T]he signification “sign” has always been comprehended and determined, in its sense, as sign-of, signifier referring to a signified, signifier different from its signified. If one erases the radical difference between signifier and signified, it is the word signifier itself which ought to be abandoned as a metaphysical concept [which is to say, a transcendental signified: in other words, the idea that the concept in some sense generates the signifier–right?–which is the basis of Saussure’s thinking about this].

Here’s where I come back to that example that I already gave you with a question mark next to it when I was talking about Saussure. Suppose I think of the relationship between “signified” and “signifier” as the relationship between twoterms–because after all, one way of signifying the concept “tree” [gestures towards the board] is to write the word “tree” and put quotation marks about it. So if I take away the quotation marks, all I have is the word with no indication that it’s a concept. Notice that this is now a relationship which Jakobson would call “metalingual.” What it suggests is that “tree” is another word for “arbor.” In other words, it’s a relationship not between a signified and a signifier but between a signifier and a signifier, so that the binarism of the relationship is broken down, and we begin to understand the combinatory structure of speech or writing as one signifier leading to another–I think– signifier: Derrida says in effect, “Let’s banish the word ‘signifier,’” but he might as well say, “Let’s banish the word ‘signified.’” I think a signifier, and it triggers by association–as Saussure would say–it triggers by association a subsequent successive signifier, which triggers another, which triggers another. That’s what gives us, in the language of deconstruction, what we call “the chain,” the signifying chain: not an organizational pattern but an ever self-replicating and self-extending pattern, irreducibly linear and forward-progressing through a sequence of temporal associations.

One of the things that happens when you demystify the relationship between a concept and a signifier or a sound image is that you also demystify the relationship between a set of associations, which exist somehow in space, and the way in which association actually takes place, which is necessarily in time: in other words, if one signifier leads to another–if like history, where there’s one damn thing after another, speech is one damn signifier after another–then that is actually the nature of the associations that Saussure has been talking about in the first place. But it doesn’t exist in a systemic space; it exists in an unfolding time, right? These are some of the implications of no longer being satisfied with the way in which a sign can be understood as a concept to which we attach belatedly a signification, a signifier. What we have is a situation in which we find ourselves caught up in a stream of signification, all of which is, in a certain sense, there before we came along and are moved, as down a stream, by the way in which one signifier succeeds another in ways that later on, as we take up concepts like “supplementarity” and différance, we can think of a little bit more precisely.

Chapter 6. “Event” and History [00:28:13]

Okay. So now finally then, there’s one other way in which Derrida’s essay from the very outset confirms what we’ve been saying about the crisis of structuralism being the need to deny ordinary understandings of genesis or cause. In structuralism, if something emerges, it emerges from between two things. That is to say, it’s not this and it’s not this, or it “emerges” as that which is not this, not this. It doesn’t, in other words, derive from an antecedent single cause as an effect. It emerges, on the other hand, as difference within a field.

Now that’s what Derrida is talking about with extraordinary intensity of complication in the first paragraph of your essay, page 915, left column, first paragraph: his first words uttered at the famous conference in- at Johns Hopkins in 1966. He says:

Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event” [évênement, something which emerges, something which is there now and wasn’t there before]…

That’s the most problematic issue for structuralism. When structuralism thinks about how yesterday things were different from the way they are today, it has to say: yesterday there was a certain synchronic cross-section of data, and today there’s a slightly different synchronic cross-section of data. But structuralism is unable and furthermore–much more importantly–unwilling to say anything about how yesterday’s data turned into today’s data–in other words, to say anything about change. It sees successive cross-sections, and it calls that “history.” I am anticipating here, and we’ll come back to this in other contexts: but it doesn’t say “one thing led to another”; it says “one thing after another”–in my facetious reference to history as I have already given it to you.

Now this is what Derrida is deliberately struggling with in this first paragraph:

… an “event” [quote, unquote], if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural–or structuralist–thought to reduce or to suspect. But let me use the term “event” [quote, unquote] anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture [that is to say, an emergence among things, right–a rupture: the volcano parts and there you have lava, right–an event] and a redoubling [a redoubling in the sense that “something has happened”].

As Bob Dylan would say in effect, “Something has happened, but it’s not something new. It is, in fact, a replication of what was unbeknownst to you because, Mr. Jones, you don’t know very much of what was, unbeknownst to you, there always–as Derrida says–already: something that emerges but at the same time presses on us its status as having already been there, always already been there.”

All right. So in all these sorts of ways, understanding structuralism as a problematic critique of genesis–because it’s still very hard to grasp, to accept the notion of things not having been caused–why can’t we say things were caused, just for example?–the notion of the sign as an arbitrary relationship between a substratum of thought which is then somehow or another hooked onto a derivative series or a system of signifiers; the notion of getting outside of myth and being scientific, and the notion that we can ascribe reality to the vertical axis–all of these are ways of questioning the integrity, the security within its skin, of structuralism we have actually already undertaken. I only want to suggest to you with this long preamble that much of the work that lies before us is actually in the past and we have already accomplished it.

Chapter 7. Language and Writing [00:33:42]

Now “Structure, Sign and Play” is a critique of “structurality.” It’s not just a critique of structuralism. It’s a critique of the idea of anything that has a center, one which is at the same time an enabling causal principle. In other words, I look at a structure and I say it has a center. What do I mean by a center? I mean a blanket term, a guiding concept, a transcendental signified, something that explains the nature of the structure and something also, as Derrida says, which allows for limited free play within the structure; but at the same time the structure has this kind of boundary nature. It may be amoeboid but it still has boundaries–right?–and so at the same time limits the free play within the structure. That’s like the New Critics saying that a text has structure. It has something that actually in the phenomenological tradition is called an “intentional structure.” Kant calls it “purposiveness”–that is to say, the way in which the thing is organized according to some sort of guiding pattern.

But to speak of an intentional structure as a center is not at all the same thing as to speak of an intending person, author, being, or idea that brought it into existence, because that’s extraneous. That’s something prior. That’s genesis. That’s a cause, right? The intending author, in other words, is outside, whereas we can argue that the intentional structure is inside. But that’s a problem. How do you get from an intending author to an intentional structure and back? A center is both a center and not a center, as Derrida maddeningly tells us. It is both that which organizes a structure and that which isn’t really qualified to organize anything, because it’s not in the structure; it’s outside the structure, something that imposes itself from without like a cookie cutter on the structure, right? This then is an introductory moment in Derrida’s thinking about centers.

On page 916 in the lower left-hand column, he talks about the history of metaphysics as a history of successive appeals to a center: that is to say, to some idea from which everything derives, some genesis or other that can be understood as responsible for everything that there is. The list is very cunningly put together. This is bottom of the left-hand column. It’s not necessarily chronological, but at the same time it gives you a sense of successive metaphysical philosophers thinking about first causes, origins, and about whatever it is that determines everything else. I’ll just take up the list toward the end: “transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth.” Notice that though the list isn’t strictly chronological, man nevertheless does succeed God. In other words, he’s thinking about the development of Western culture. In the Middle Ages and to some extent in the Early Modern period, we live in a theocentric world. Insofar as he understands himself as man at all, man understands himself as a product of divine creativity, as something derived from God, as one entity among all other entities who participate and benefit from the divine presence. But then of course, the rise of the Enlightenment is also the rise of anthropocentrism, and by the time the Enlightenment is in full cry you get everybody from Blake to Marx to Nietzsche saying not that God invented man, but that man invented God. Man has become the transcendental signified. Everything derives now in this historical moment from human consciousness, and all concepts of whatever kind can be understood in that light.

But then of course he says, having said “man,” [laughs] he says “and so forth.” In other words, something comes after man. Man is, in other words, an historical moment. There are lots of people who have pointed out to us that before a certain period, there was no such thing as man, and in a variety of quite real senses, after a certain moment in the history of culture, there is also no such thing as man. The argument Derrida is making about the emergence of his “event” is that a new transcendental signified has actually substituted itself for man. In other words, the world is no longer anthropocentric; it’s linguistic. Obviously, the event that Derrida is talking about–the emergence, the rupture, an event which makes a difference–is the emergence of language.

What I really want to talk about here is something that is on page 916, the right-hand column:

The moment [of emergence–the event, in other words, about halfway down] was that in which language invaded the universal problematic [in other words, that moment in which language displaced the previous transcendental signified, which was man]; that in which, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse–provided we can agree on this word–that is to say, when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences.

He’s making a claim for language while erasing it. In other words, he’s painfully aware that language is just the new God, the new Man. Many critiques of deconstruction take the form of saying that deconstruction simply instrumentalizes language, gives it agency, and gives it consciousness as though it were God or man and then pretends that it isn’t. This is a common response to deconstruction.

Derrida is aware of it in advance. He says in effect, “Look, I know we’re running this risk in saying everything is language,” or, if you will here, everything is discourse. At the same time, we are saying something different, because hitherto we had this problem: in other words, we had the problem of something being part of a structure–that is to say God is immanent in all things, human consciousness pervades everything that it encounters–in other words, something which is part of a structure but which is at the same time outside of it. God creates the world and then sort of, as Milton says himself, “uncircumscrib’d withdraws,” right? God is not there. God is the Dieu caché: God is the hidden God who is absent from the world and is, in effect, also the structure of the world. The same thing can be said of man. Man brings the sense of what the world is into being and then stands aside and somehow sort of takes it in through an aesthetic register or in some other remote way.

Language doesn’t do that. Language is perpetually immersed in itself. Derrida is claiming that language is different in the sense that it makes no sense to talk about it as standing outside of what’s going on. This is an essential part of the critique of structuralism. Language is not other than speech; it is perpetually manifest in speech, right? It’s simply a distinction that can’t be maintained, which is why he calls it an “event.” In other words, something of significance has happened, Mr. Jones, and that is language, right?

Chapter 8. Language, Supplementarity, and Différance [00:42:34]

All right. So I suppose in the time remaining and, alas, there isn’t a lot of it, we’d better ask what “language” is. We’ve talked about it. We’ve had a great deal to do with it, but of course we still haven’t the slightest idea what it is. Soon we’ll know. First of all, we’d better say, as is already clear from what we’ve been quoting, language is not quite Saussurian. That is to say, it is not a system of signs understood as stable relationships between a concept world and a world of signifying. It is not a world in which language can be understood as somehow or another a means of expressing thought. Deconstruction calls into question the distinction between language and thought in calling into question the distinction between signifier and signified, so it’s not quite Saussuria–even though, as Derrida says, it can’t do without a Saussurian vocabulary.

Another problem is–and also related to the critique of Saussure–is that this idea that what’s inward, what is essential, is something that can be voiced and should be voiced; so that if I think a sign is a way of talking about the expression of a thought, notice that I call–if I am Saussure–that expression a “sound image.” In other words, language, according to Derrida, in the Saussurian tradition seems to privilege sound over script, over what is graphic. He claims that this is a hidden bias in the whole history of metaphysics. Why, in other words, should we think of language as speech, as voice? Why do we think of voice–in the sense of the divine logos, the word: “in the beginning was the word”–why do we think of voice as a kind of fully present simultaneity that is absolutely present precisely in consciousness or wherever it is that we understand language to derive from? What’s so special about voice? Why do they say all of these terrible things about writing? Writing is no different from voice. Voice, too, is articulated combinatorially in time. Voice, too, can be understood as inscribed on the ear. This is a metaphor that Derrida frequently uses, as a kind of writing on the ear. The distinction, which Derrida takes to be metaphysical, that Saussure wants to make between something primary, something immediate and underivative–voice–and something merely repetitious, merely reproductive, merely a handmaiden to voice–namely writing–needs to be called into question.

Now this is the point at which we need to say something about a number of key terms that Derrida uses to sustain this sort of criticism of traditional ideas of language. The first has to do with the notion of supplementarity. A supplement, he points out, is something that either completes something that isn’t complete or adds to something that already iscomplete. For example, I take vitamin C. I also drink a lot of orange juice, so I’ve got plenty of vitamin C, and if I take a vitamin C pill I am supplementing something that’s already complete; but if I don’t drink any orange juice, then of course if I take a vitamin C pill I am supplementing something that’s not complete, but either way we always call it a supplement. It’s very difficult even to keep in mind the conceptual difference between these two sorts of supplement.

Now a sign traditionally understood is self-sufficient, self-contained. Saussure has made it a scientific object by saying that it’s both arbitrary and differential, but a sign understood under the critique of deconstruction is something that is perpetually proliferating signification, something that doesn’t stand still, and something that can’t be understood as self-sufficient or independent in its nature as being both arbitrary and differential. It is a bleeding or spilling into successive signs in such a way that it perpetually leaves what Derrida calls “traces.” That is to say, as we examine the unfolding of a speech act, we see the way in which successive signs are contaminated. That’s not meant to be a bad word but suggests being influenced, one might say, in the sense of “open the window and influenza,” by those signs that precede it. Supplementarity is a way of understanding the simultaneously linear and ever proliferating, ever self-complicating nature of verbal expression.

Now différance is a way, among other things, of talking about the difference between voice and writing. There is a difference between voice and writing even though they have so much in common. Voice and writing, by the way, are not a stable binary. There are no stable binaries in Derrida. The difference between voice and writing is that writing can give us all kinds of indication of difference that voice can’t give us. Part of the interest of misspelling différance, as Derrida insists on doing, is that we can’t, in terms of voice as sound, tell the difference between différance and différence. Actually, one can, slightly, but it’s not a difference worth lingering over. Différance, in other words, with its substitution of the a–and remember the riff in the essay “Différance” on a as a pyramid, as alpha, as origin, and as killing the king because the king, remember, is the transcendental signified: God, man and so forth. The riff on the a in différance as all of those things is something that we can only pick up if we understand language as writing, because in speech these modes of difference don’t register.

Différence (with an e) is simply the Saussurian linguistic system, a system of differences understood as spatial: that is to say, understood as available to us as a kind of smorgasbord as we stand in front of it. Différance introduces the idea ofdeferral and reminds us that difference–that is to say, our understanding of difference, our means of negotiating difference–is not something that’s actually done in space; it’s done in time. When I perceive a difference, I perceive it temporally. I do not understand the relation among signs as a simultaneity. I want to, if I want to pin it down scientifically, but in the actual–as Joyce would say–stream of consciousness, I understand difference temporally. I defer difference. I unfold. I successively negotiate difference, and in doing that I need the concept of différance.

All right. There a couple of things that I want to say about the key moves of Derrida. I will mention those next time. I will also look over my notes and see what I might say further about these troublesome terms and their relation to Derrida’s understanding of language so that Tuesday our introduction will still have to do with Derrida and then we’ll move into thinking about de Man.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]