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Sunday, 19 May 2013





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The unity of heterogeneity

Continuing the series on Jack Derrida’s Of Grammatology, in this week’s column we examine another chapter leading to Derrida’s seminal argument of his thesis de-construction. What Derrida attempts is to deconstruct the entire philosophical development of the Western history from the Greek philosophy to the present. Derrida observes, “The reassuring evidence within which Western tradition had to organise itself and must continue to live would therefore be as follows: the order of the signified is never contemporary, is at best the subtly discrepant inverse or parallel—discrepant by the time of a breath—from the order of the signifier.

And the sign must be the unity of a heterogeneity, since the signified is not in itself a signifier, a trace: in any case is not constituted in its sense by its relationship with a possible trace. The formal essence of the signified is presence, and the privilege of its proximity to the logos as phonè is the privilege of presence. This is the inevitable response as soon as one asks: “what is the sign?,”

Jacques Derrida

It follows that to learn to read and write an alphabetic writing should be regarded as a means to infinite culture that is not enough appreciated; because thus the mind, distancing itself from the concrete sense-perceptible, directs its attention on the more formal moment, the sonorous word and its abstract elements, and contributes essentially to the founding and purifying of the ground of interiority within the subject.

In that sense it is the Aufhebung of other writings, particularly of hieroglyphic script and of the Leibnizian characteristic that had been criticised previously through one and the same gesture. (Aufhebung is, more or less implicitly, the dominant concept of nearly all histories of writing, even today. It is the concept of history and of teleology.) In fact, Hegel continues:

“Acquired habit later also suppresses the specificity of alphabetic writing, which consists in seeming to be, in the interest of sight, a detour through hearing to arrive at representations, and makes it into a hieroglyphic script for us, such that in using it, we do not need to have present to our consciousness the mediation of sounds.”

Non-phonetic writing

It is on this condition that Hegel subscribes to the Leibnizian praise of nonphonetic writing. It can be produced by deaf mutes, Leibniz had said. Hegel: Beside the fact that, by the practice which transforms this alphabetic script into hieroglyphics, the aptitude for abstraction acquired through such an exercise is conserved [italics added], the reading of hieroglyphs is for itself a deaf reading and a mute writing.

What is audible or temporal, visible or spatial, has each its proper basis and in the first place they are of equal value; but in alphabetic script there is only one basis and that following a specific relation, namely, that the visible language is related only as a sign to the audible language; intelligence expresses itself immediately and unconditionally through speech.

What writing itself, in its nonphonetic moment, betrays, is life. It menaces at once the breath, the spirit, and history as the spirit’s relation-ship with itself. It is their end, their finitude, their paralysis. Cutting breath short, sterilizing or immobilising spiritual creation in the repetition of the letter, in the commentary or the exegesis, confined in a narrow space, reserved for a minority, it is the principle of death and of difference in the becoming of being. It is to speech what China is to Europe: “It is only to the exegeticism of Chinese spiritual culture that their hieroglyphic writ-ing is suited. This type of writing is, besides, the part reserved for a very small section of a people, the section that possesses the exclusive domain of spiritual culture. . . . A hieroglyphic script would require a philosophy as exegetical as Chinese culture generally is”.

If the nonphonetic moment menaces the history and the life of the spirit as self-presence in the breath, it is because it menaces substantiality, that other metaphysical name of presence and of ousia. First in the form of the substantive. Nonphonetic writing breaks the noun apart. It describes relations and not appellations. The noun and the word, those unities of breath and concept, are effaced within pure writing. In that regard, Leibniz is as disturbing as the Chinese in Europe: “This situation, the analytic notation of representations in hieroglyphic script, which seduced Leibniz to the point of wrongly preferring this script to the alphabetic, rather contradicts the fundamental exigency of language in general, namely the noun. . . . All difference in analysis would produce another formation of the written substantive.”

The horizon of absolute knowledge is the effacement of writing in the logos, the retrieval of the trace in parousia, the reappropriation of difference, the accomplishment of what I haveelsewhere called 15 the metaphysics of the proper [le propre—self-possession, propriety, property, cleanliness].

Yet, all that Hegel thought within this horizon, all, that is, except eschatology, may be reread as a meditation on writing. Hegel is also the thinker of irreducible difference. He rehabilitated thought as the memory productive of signs. And he reintroduced, as I shall try to show elsewhere, the essential necessity of the written trace in a philosophical—that is to say Socratic—discourse that had always believed it possible to do without it; the last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing. ”

Potts summerises the chapter as “ Two differences from Foucault. (a) Though both speak of “epochs,” Foucault’s epochs are typically about 200 years long. Derrida speaks of only one epoch, which spans Western history from the birth of Greek philosophy to the present. (This is the same span of history that Heidegger wishes to “de-struct.”) Derrida thus believes that what governs his epoch is something more fundamental than the “epistemes” that govern Foucault’s. (b) Whereas Foucault constantly refers to the facts of other epochs in a way that makes him to possess an extra-historical vantage point he denies to the rest of us (a point amusingly exposed by Derrida in “Cogito and the History of Madness”; e.g., “everything transpires as if Foucault knew what ‘madness’ means” (Writing and Difference 41, emphasis original), Derrida refuses to step outside the confines of our own epoch and emphasizes that deconstruction operates within and upon the logocentric framework. ”

Potts points out that Derrida suggests that de-construction operates within our own ‘epoch’ and it operates upon logocentrick framework.


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