Monday, March 1, 2010

Derrida: Writing, Deconstruction, and Logocentrism

Derrida (film)Image via Wikipedia


Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2007), born in Algiers, is the founder of the philosophical movement Deconstructionism. Deconstruction is a critical method that attempts "to undo" the logic of antitheses. But his work goes beyond 'deconstruction.'

Despised and belittled by many academics, Jacques Derrida' s work is in contrast appreciated by artists, writers, students, and the public in general. Even linguistics genius and professor at MIT, Noam Chomsky, called Derrida "a charlatan," simply because he couldn't understand some of Derrida's writing.

Of course Chomsky is a busy personality and couldn't take time to attempt to learn the language that Derrida employed in his journals, articles, and books. When I hear IT people talking to each other and don't understand a single word of what they are saying, let alone the topic of discussion, I don't dismiss them as "charlatans." I make the concession that they have their own language and that the use it to communicate and convey the nuances of information and computer science.

Derrida's work has dismantled many of the assumptions we --ordinary human beings-- make about accepted 'facts.' Deconstructing binary —also called polar— oppositions, just to give an example, has helped us understand that built into these oppositions are hierarchical assumptions that confer power to one pole over the other. In the polarities 'male/female,' 'presence/absence,' 'slave/master,' 'black/white,' you can just guess which is favored. Derrida's work helped us see that binary oppositions structure thought of individuals within a culture—e.g., Western culture.

But the object to this article is to learn how to understand 'writing,' as expounded by Jacques Derrida.

In Plato's dialogue Phaedrus, the god Thoth, the inventor of writing, is accused of encouraging mental laziness. This is myth lore invented by Plato and Socrates, for we know that writing encourages agility of mind. Rousseau also saw writing as a supplement to speech—as signs. In contrast, because Francis Bacon --the great Elizabethan courtier and scholar-- saw speech ("Idols of the Cave") as a barrier to true knowledge, he went on to write many books. In the end gossip and false testimony, in particular, gained him a year in the London Tower. The moral being: beware that speech can be more lethal than writing.

As it turned out, today we realize that writing and books have become the warehouses of wisdom. It is with the written word that wisdom is created, preserved, and expanded in the different levels of human endeavor. Even symbolic logic and mathematics need the written word to lock and secure exact meanings. Scientists use language to put forth their discoveries, their insights, and to falsify or verify them empirically.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida sees in writing-in-general an entire system that nourishes the human race—archi-écriture. Despite the 'difficult' language he uses, we can extract some meaning from it, by defining some of the deconstructionist jargon:

"What we have tried to show in following the connecting thread of the "dangerous supplement" is that in what we call the real life of these "flesh and blood" creatures ... there has never been anything but writing, there has never been anything but supplement and substitutional significations which could only arise in a chain of differential relations ... And so on indefinitely, for we have read in the text that the absolute present, Nature, what is named by words like "real mother," etc. have always already escaped, have never existed; that what inaugurates meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of natural presence."

To understand fairly the above paragraph, one needs to go back to Immanuel Kant who distinguished between 'reality' (the world of nature and objects) and reason and the senses that apprehend reality—or as Kant call it: the thing-in-itself. According to Kant humans are doomed to never know the thing-in-itself. At best humans may represent it by the senses and the categories of the mind.

Much like Kant, Derrida has invented his own language; he uses the word 'supplement,' 'substitutional significations,' 'chain of substitutions,' as synonyms for the signs with which humans filter, mediate, and represent reality.

When he refers to reality, he uses 'real life,' 'flesh and blood creatures,' 'the absolute present, 'nature,' 'real mother,' 'original,' 'the thing itself of immediate present,' and other similar utterances.

Writing then, for Derrida, is a metaphysical concept that guides human thinking for humans to survive in the world of nature and man-made objects.

While speech is ethereal and instantaneous, writing lingers and sequesters the traces of speech and life to bring about the thing-in-itself: a presence. For Derrida:

"Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" '"There's nothing outside the text."

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