Text as a fabric of signs
In the previous column on ‘Of Grammatology’, we concluded with an
observation by David Potts who said that ‘The closure’ (or bounds) of
the logocentric epoch lies in the recognition of this 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 . ”
Derrida postulate the thesis that ‘there is no linguistic sign before
writing’; “The exteriority of the signifier is the exteriority of
writing in general, and I shall try to show later that there is no
linguistic sign before writing. Without that exteriority, the very idea
of the sign falls into decay. Since our entire world and language would
collapse with it, and since its evidence and its value keep, to a
certain point of derivation, an indestructible solidity, it would be
silly to conclude from its placement within an epoch that it is
necessary to “move on to something else,” to dispose of the sign, of the
term and the notion.
For a proper understanding of the gesture that we are sketching here,
one must understand the expressions “epoch,” “closure of an epoch,”
“historical genealogy” in a new way; and must first remove them from all
Thus, within this epoch, reading and writing, the production or
interpretation of signs, the text in general as fabric of signs, allow
themselves to be confined within secondariness.
They are preceded by a truth, or a meaning already constituted by and
within the element of the logos. Even when the thing, the “referent,” is
not immediately related to the logos of a creator God where it began by
being the spoken/thought sense, the signified has at any rate an
immediate relationship with the logos in general (finite or infinite),
and a mediated one with the signifier, that is to say with the
exteriority of writing.
‘When it seems to go otherwise, it is because a metaphoric mediation
has insinuated itself into the relationship and has simulated immediacy;
the writing of truth in the soul, opposed by Phaedrus to bad writing
(writing in the “literal” and ordinary sense, “sensible” writing, “in
space” the book of Nature and God’s writing, especially in the Middle
Ages; all that functions as metaphor in these discourses confirms the
privilege of the logos and found the “literal” meaning then given to
writing: a sign signifying a signifier itself signifying an eternal
verity, eternally thought and spoken in the proximity of a present
The paradox to which attention must be paid is this: natural and
universal writing, intelligible and nontemporal writing, is thus named
by metaphor. A writing that is sensible, finite, and so on, is
designated as writing in the literal sense; it is thus thought on the
side of culture, technique, and artifice; a human procedure, the ruse of
a being accidentally incarnated or of a finite creature. Of course, this
metaphor remains enigmatic and refers to a “literal” meaning of writing
as the first metaphor.
This “literal” meaning is yet unthought by the adherents of this
discourse. It is not, therefore, a matter of inverting the literal
meaning and the figurative meaning but of determining the “literal”
meaning of writing as metaphoricity itself. “
Derrida argues that writing itself is metaphoricity; “ In “The
Symbolism of the Book,” that excellent chapter of European Literature
and the Latin Middle Ages, E. R. Curtius describes with great wealth of
examples the evolution that led from the Phaedrus to Calderon, until it
seemed to be “precisely the reverse” by the “newly attained position of
the book”. But it seems that this modification, however important in
fact it might be, conceals a fundamental continuity.
As was the case with the Platonic writing of the truth in the soul,
in the Middle Ages too it is a writing understood in the metaphoric
sense, that is to say a natural, eternal, and universal writing, the
system of signified truth, which is recognised in its dignity. As in the
Phaedrus, a certain fallen writing continues to be opposed to it.
There remains to be written a history of this metaphor, a metaphor
that systematically contrasts divine or natural writing and the human
and laborious, finite and artificial inscription.
It remains to articulate rigorously the stages of that history, as
marked by the quotations below, and to follow the theme of God’s book
(nature or law, indeed natural law) through all its modifications.”
In summerising the chapter, Potts says, “What is needed is a wholly
new conception of language which puts writing first. Rather than
signifying signifieds in a series terminating ultimately in a
transcendental signified, written signifiers according to the new
conception signify only other signifiers, not because of a failure of
the signifieds but because there is no need of them.
There is only a perpetual chain or circle of signifiers, an endless
“play of signifying references”, which is never anchored to anything.
“This, strictly speaking, amounts to destroying the concept of ‘sign’
and its entire logic”.
The key concept is differance (with an “a”), which implies both
difference and deferance. Every signifier is inherently different from
what it signifies, and we should uphold this difference, not seek to
erase it in a misguided quest for presence. By the same token every
signifier defers recognition of what it signifies, and we must embrace