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Is speech superior to writing?

In this series on ‘Of Grammatology’ by Derrida, we would further examine the idea that speech or ‘spoken word’ is superior to ‘written word’. we concluded the last week’s column with Pott’s observation that Derrida’s distinction between ‘intelligible/ sensible” provides a ‘natural elaboration of ‘metaphysico-theology’: “ Thus “the epoch of the logos” implies an entire “philosophy of presence” an epithet by which Derrida characterises the whole history of Western philosophy. All of the distinctions and oppositions fought out in Western philosophy have been determined by the “logocentric” framework described above. The only such distinction of which Derrida gives more than a hint is Plato’s distinction between the intelligible and the sensible. The ideas are intelligible, i.e., immediately graspable by the mind through “an absolute logos.” Physical things are merely sensible traces of the intelligible ideas. Therefore, the former are fit only to be signifiers of the latter, and only the latter have real being. The intelligible/sensible distinction thus provides a natural and even necessary elaboration of the logocentric “metaphysico-theology”

Jacques Derrida

Derrida describes ‘speech’ is superior to ‘written word’. He argues that ‘spoken words’ are the symbols of ‘mental experience’ and the ‘written words’ are the ‘symbols of the spoken words’;

“ In the pre- Socratic or the philosophical sense, in the sense of God’s infinite understanding or in the anthropological sense, in the pre-Hegelian or the post-Hegelian sense. Within this logos, the original and essential link to the phonè has never been broken. It would be easy to demonstrate this and we shall attempt such a demonstration later. As has been more or less implicitly determined, the essence of the phonè would be immediately proximate to that which within “thought” as logos relates to “meaning,” produces it, receives it, speaks it, “composes” it. If, for Aristotle, for example, “spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words” it is because the voice, producer of the first symbols, has a relationship of essential and immediate proximity with the mind.

Producer of the first signifier is not just a simple signifier among others. It signifies “mental experiences” which themselves reflect or mirror things by natural resemblance. Between being and mind, things and feelings, there would be a relationship of translation or natural signification; between mind and logos, a relationship of conventional symbolisation. And the first convention, which would relate immediately to the order of natural and universal signification, would be produced as spoken language. Written language would establish the conventions, inter-linking other conventions with them.

Speech sounds

Just as all men have not the same writing so all men have not the same speech sounds, but mental experiences, of which these are the primary symbols are the same for all, as also are those things of which our experiences are the images .

The feelings of the mind, expressing things naturally, constitute a sort of universal language which can then efface itself. It is the stage of transparence. Aristotle can sometimes omit it without risk. In every case, the voice is closest to the signified, whether it is determined strictly as sense (thought or lived) or more loosely as thing. All signifiers, and first and foremost the written signifier, are derivative with regard to what would wed the voice indissolubly to the mind or to the thought of the signified sense, indeed to the thing itself.

The written signifier is always technical and representative. It has no constitutive meaning. This derivation is the very origin of the notion of the “signifier.” The notion of the sign always implies within itself the distinction between signifier and signified, even if, as Saussure argues, they are distinguished simply as the two faces of one and the same leaf. This notion remains therefore within the heritage of that logocentrism which is also a phonocentrism: ”

Potts observes, “Speech is superior to writing in the hierarchy of signification because the voice is closer to thought and thus to presence. We think spoken words, inner speech, not writing. Written signs in fact--on the logocentric view--are merely signifiers of spoken signs. Thus logocentrism “debases writing” as “mediation of mediation”.

Derrida expounds the idea as; “ Logocentrism would thus support the determination of the being of the entity as presence. To the extent that such a logocentrism is not totally absent from Heidegger’s thought, perhaps it still holds that thought within the epoch of onto-theology, within the philosophy of presence, that is to say within philosophy itself. This would perhaps mean that one does not leave the epoch whose closure one can outline. The movements of belonging or not belonging to the epoch are too subtle, the illusions in that regard are too easy, for us to make a definite judgment.

The epoch of the logos thus debases writing considered as mediation of mediation and as a fall into the exteriority of meaning. To this epoch belongs the difference between signified and signifier, or at least the strange separation of their “parallelism,” and the exteriority, however extenuated, of the one to the other. This appurtenance is organised and hierarchised in a history. The difference between signified and signifier belongs in a profound and implicit way to the totality of the great epoch covered by the history of metaphysics, and in a more explicit and more systematically articulated way to the narrower epoch of Christian creationism and infinitism when these appropriate the resources of Greek conceptuality.

This appurtenance is essential and irreducible; one cannot retain the convenience or the “scientific truth” of the Stoic and later medieval opposition between signans and signatum without also bringing with it all its metaphysicotheological roots. To these roots adheres not only the distinction between the sensible and the intelligible—already a great deal—with all that it controls, namely, metaphysics in its totality. And this distinction is generally accepted as self-evident by the most careful linguists and semiologists, even by those who believe that the scientificity of their work begins where metaphysics ends. “

As pointed out by Potts, the closure of the ‘logcentric epoch’ lies in the recognition of ‘radical incoherence’. “the concepts of being, truth, sense, logos, and so forth, cannot be made good within the logocentric framework. It is the work of deconstruction to expose the tail-swallowing nature of these concepts and thereby reveal the bankruptcy of logocentrism. Deconstruction does not attack the concepts of the logocentric epoch from the vantage point of a new epoch but from within the logocentric epoch--the only place from which they can be conceived at all.”



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