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"If You Read Derrida for the Plot, You Would Shoot Yourself"

April 16, 1977

Joel Robine/Getty

In April 1970 a colloquium of French philosophers and critics was held at Cluny on certain major themes in contemporary thought. By all accounts the most voluble presence at the proceedings was a man who was not present at all: the Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Most of the discussions turned, twisted and swirled upon his work, especially the three books he had published in 1967, La voix et le phénomène, a critique of Husserl's theory of signs, L'écriture et la différence and De la grammatologie. For all 1 know, there may have been some philosophers at Cluny who claimed to have felt the first tremor of recognition several years before Derrida became famous; perhaps when he published his first book, a translation of Husserl's The Origin of Geometry (1962) which included a long introductory analysis of the work. But I doubt it. Derrida's reputation in France in the years before 1967 was provoked mainly by the essays brought together in L’écriture et la différence. The books published in 1967 have now been extended in several directions by Derrida's La dissémination (1872), Marges de la philosophie (1972), Positions (1972) and the bizarre production, Glas (1974). It is clear that Derrida and Jacques Lecan largely define the spirit of the age, or at least the spirit of the present moment, in French philosophy and criticism.

The position in the United States is different. David B. Allison's translation of La voix et le phénomène was published by Northwestern University Press in 1973 as Speech and Phenomena, but it did not cause a stir, so far as I recall. But gradually, over the last few years, some of Derrida's most important essays have been translated and published in such periodicals as Diacritics and New Literary History. The result is that where two or three avant-garde critics are gathered together at any university from Yale to Irvine, Derrida is in the midst of them, as present and absent as he was at Cluny. Students who are satisfied that they have taken the gist of Lévi-Strauss, Barthes and Foucault are now doing their homework on Derrida. I assume they are finding the experience extraordinarily difficult. So Spivak's translation of De la grammatologie has arrived at the precise moment of its necessity. Her long introductory essay is nearly as difficult as the text it precedes, but it is extremely perceptive and helpful.

Derrida has described his philosophic project as "a general strategy of deconstruction which would avoid both simply neutralizing the binary oppositions of metaphysics and simply residing, while upholding it, in the closed sphere of these oppositions." This description, if it could be embodied in anything but its desire, would put Derrida beyond metaphysics and Structuralism alike. The main force of his critique has always been directed against nostalgia; particularly against those cries of nostalgia which constitute, in his view, the metaphysics of presence and origin. Those lost paradises are places of yearning for origin and end. Derrida opposes in Husserl the metaphysics of self-consciousness which accords privileged status to speech and voice: nostalgia is logocentric, phonocentric, it speaks of being and experience, universal logic, alphabetic writing, and its only theme is loss. Derrida wants to turn us away from that predicament. He is concerned with everything that escapes or refutes the metaphysics of presence and refuses to return to a paternal source. Deconstruction is an effort to dismantle the axioms upon which a metaphysical argument is based: it requires a critical parsing of a terminology, so that even when the philosopher uses the given terms his use of them is heretical. Much of Derrida's work is a series of arguments with his predecessors, especially Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger and Husserl; in recent work he is arguing with Hegel, Foucauit, Lacan, Sollers. Of Grammatology is a meditation provoked by Derrida's reading of Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Languages, supplemented by critical glosses upon Saussure and Lévi-Strauss. Grammatology itself arises from Derrida's dissatisfaction with these predecessors and especially with tinges of nostalgia which he finds in their writings. As for the word: it is available already to mean "a treatise upon letters, upon the alphabet, syllabation, reading, and writing," but in Derrida's use the word points only toward a possibility which he is the first to declare at the same time an impossibility. Grammatoiogy, were it to exist, would be beyond semiology, it would dismantle logocentrism and use conventional signs only while erasing them, "sous rature." Spivak's introductory essay is splendid on this aspect of Derrida, and especially on the bearing of his technical vocabulary, such words as l’écriture. différance. alterité, errance, jeu, trace, and déconstruction. A philosopher, like a poet, is revealed in his diction: by his choice of words he is known. Just as Derrida discloses in Rousseau a writer who distrusts writing and longs for the proximity of the self to its voice, so Spivak approaches Derrida through the structure of his diction; no ideas but in the words themselves.

It would be misleading to say that Derrida is trying to bring metaphysics to an end. Either metaphysics has already come to an end or the question of its end is beside the point. Besides, it would be lonelier without the loneliness. Like any honest heretic, he wants to retain religion if only to pervert it; retaining its terms while erasing them, deleting the words while keeping their trace still legible. He does not claim to have stepped beyond philosophy, but rather to have read the philosophers in a certain spirit. I do not think much would be lost or abused if we called that spirit Irony and referred to Derrida as an ironist. Irony smiles upon contradiction and speaks blithely of catastrophe: it dislikes residence and offers itself, like Derrida's work, as a philosophy for nomads. Derrida circumvents residence by resorting to the concept of jeu as an act logically prior to the possibility of presence or absence. The final intention of De la grammatologie, according to Derrida, is "to make enigmatic what one thinks one understands by the words 'proximity,' 'immediacy,' and 'presence.'" Could any stated aim express the spirit of Irony more precisely? Not to clarify, but to retain the enigmatic state; and to put every crucial noun within the scrutiny of those inverted commas. No philosopher is more inclined than Derrida to the inverted commas: every abstract noun is forced to reveal its speciousness. Derrida takes pleasure in showing that when we have ostensibly demonstrated the coherence of a structure we have merely revealed the force of a desire. He loves to ascribe to objects only a virtual status; their existence is less reliably substantial than the shadow they cast. If someone points to a center, Derrida does not deny that there is or may be a center, but he asserts that the center is a function, not a being. It would be no pleasure to Derrida to have his mind praised for its creative force; it has no creative ambition. Criticism as he practices it is a contraceptive act, appropriate in his view to an age of mass populations and mass clichés. Indeed he is willing to use his mind only as a double agent: never what it seems or says, always an accomplice, its promises at best provisional, its language an honest lie, its vocality a form of equivocation. Such a mind could not have been a native Structuralist, because structuralists believe in the structures of opposed terms they employ. Derrida employs such terms only on the understanding that belief is not required of him: his mind is willing to be stained, contaminated or provoked by nouns, but it admits no obligation to them. Derrida tends to explain things on the ground of their impossibility; and then to admit possibility by admitting desire. Faced with something that is thought to be an attribute, he rejects the appelation, drives it away from ontology, and locates it in a space of need, desire, or play. He loves to be able to say of something that it may always not have taken place, "il peut toujours n'avoir pas

lieu," or that its operation cannot be ontologically sustained. The long meditation on Rousseau which accounts for most of De la grammatologie is mainly concerned with supplementarity (supplémentarité), a mode of replacement and substitution, and Derrida concedes that supplementarity "makes possible all that constitutes the property of man: speech, society, passion etc." But lest we think anything has been achieved or money lodged in the human bank, he asks: "But what is this property of man?" Answer:

On the one hand, it is that of which the possibility must be thought before man, and outside of him. Man allows himselfto be announced to himself after the factof supplementarity, which is thus not anattribute—accidental or essential—ofman. For on the other hand, supplementarity, which is nothing, neither apresence nor an absence, is neither a substance nor an essence of man. It is precisely the play of presence and absence, the opening of this play that no metaphysical or ontological concept can comprehend.

Presence is already absence: what seems an origin is already belated. Derrida endorses only that presence which goes out of itself and returns to itself in the forms of substitution. He is patient only with demonstrably fugitive forms of immediacy.

I have mentioned that Spivak seeks Derrida in his technical vocabulary and that it is the right place to start looking. But there is a simple sentence in De la grammatologie which I offer as especially revealing: it does not contain any technical terms, but rather a gesture which is pure Derrida. The sentence reads: "Penser, c'est ce que nous savons déjà n'avoir pas encore commencé à faire"; 'thinking is what we already know that we have not yet begun.' Pure Derrida; because it enacts nothing but the gap between belatedness and futurity, placing a void where traditional metaphysics would place a presence. There are many philosophers who love to use both hands to achieve precision: on the one hand, and yet on the other. Derrida uses both hands to say the same thing: no, the situation is neither this nor that but the play between them.

How can we account, then, for Derrida's hearing upon contemporary thought in philosophy and criticism? There are a few obvious considerations. His work is clearly congenial to a situation in which Europe has been displaced from the center of the metaphysical circle: metaphysics is no longer permitted to proceed along white Caucasian assumptions, history is no longer understood merely as the history of meaning. No orchids are currently offered to ethnocentrism, eschatology, teleology, or idealism: the notion of play is deemed to make up for the lack of a stable center. Structuralism is on the decline: only the most ardent believers would wish to have the decline arrested. Derrida finds in the very notion of structure a longing for presence, origin, and center. It may be that De la grammatologie is one of those books which not only create the audience by which they are appreciated, but are willing to wait until an even more sluggish audience is in the mood to receive them: they wait for readers to catch up with them.

I have implied my own view of Derrida, that his work is important chiefly because it extends the possibilities of irony: it brings post-Nietzschean joy and gaiety to bear upon circumstances which, left to their own attributes, would make for demoralization and ennui. If you read Derrida for the plot, you would shoot yourself. Paul de Man has described the main theme of Derrida's work as "the recurrent repression, in Western thought, of all written forms of language, their degradation to a mere adjunct or supplement to the live presence of the spoken word." Hence the reading and misreading of Rousseau in De la grammatologie. Students of philosophy are likely to find Derrida's meaning chiefly in the idea of différance; students of literature will probably come upon it more congenially through the idea of jeu. relating it to other and more readily available terminologies of literature as play. In either case there is cause for rejoicing in the translation of De la grammatologie, an excruciatingly difficult work in any language. Spivak's translation is deliberately literal, and she knows that there is bound to be a pedantic air in the English which the French accommodates more cheerfully. "Nous sommes donc d'entrée de jeu dans le devenir-immotivé du symbole" sounds more at home to itself than the English version," From the very opening of the game, then, we are within the becoming-unmotivated of the symbol." 1 suppose it would be easier to say, ". . .we are taken up in the unmotivated play of the symbol," but that would make Derrida sound more agreeable and less 'Germanic' than his French. The same would apply if we tried to translate Derrida's "d'exhiber son être inacceptable dans un miroir contre ethnocentrique" as something more gracious than Ms. Spivak's version, "of exhibiting its being-unacceptable in an anti-ethnocentric mirror." Spivak's understanding of Derrida's work is extremely acute: she is determined that if we encounter him at all we will earn the right to do so by coping with his recalcitrance. An easy translation would be a bad translation.