intro to jacques derrida: absence speaks louder than words

What Derrida is doing is he’s psycho-analyzing philosophy. He’s interested in philosophy’s “slips of the tongue”, to borrow from Freud. He’s exploring the margins of philosophy, the blind-spots that philosophy has subconsciously ignored that reveals some sorta repressed, subconscious ‘truth’ about philosophy in general. This is interesting because it’s quite obvious that philosophy and all sciences have only ever been quite self-interested in positing their own thoughts and discoveries. Derrida sees this as a kind of neurosis that is linked to Western thought’s affair with metaphysics, a metaphysics that he links to ethnocentrism, logocentrism and privileging of whatever ‘ism’s’ in general. What are these sciences ignoring? What happens when we read between the lines? What has been left unsaid, left in the margins? That which we neglect reveals who we are more emphatically than those things we embrace.

Derrida is always hesitant to definitively define any term into a fixed and formulated definition so he never really explains exactly what deconstruction is, or  what ‘différance’ is either as we’ll see later. I’m not sure if he ever actually nominates deconstruction as a strict method, I’d be surprised if he did. However as readers of Derrida, we can see clearly that deconstruction is always a process that is at work in his texts. And it is never something that is final, it’s never a finished product. Like washing the dishes it’s always gotta be done, and there will always be more dishes to wash. To be clear, deconstruction is NOT destruction. This mistake is too often made. Derrida gets his notion of ‘deconstruction’ from Heidegger, who was occupied with a deconstruction of metaphysics. Destruction connotes an ending of something which Heidegger was trying to do with metaphysics. Here we see an obvious Heideggerian influence on Derrida, just as we’ll see it with ‘différance’. However, unlike destruction, deconstruction has no end. Everything has a ‘structure’, is constructed. What Derrida is doing is exposing these constructions as not being absolute. Hence de-construction. One deconstructs to expose philosophy’s presuppositions and assumptions. To liberate the margins. These assumptions are neither right or wrong, they’re simply just one way of seeing things. However, these assumptions have privileged the aforementioned “isms”and the point is to level the playing field. From the man himself (my emphases)-

“…I try to respect as rigorously as possible the internal, regulated play of philosophemes or epistimemes by making them slide- without mistreating them- to the point of their nonpertinence, their exhaustion, their closure. To ‘desconstruct’ philosophy, thus, would be to think- in the most faithful, interior way- the structured genealogy of philosophy’s concepts, but at the same time to determine- from a certain exterior that is unqualifiable or unnameable by philosophy- what this history has been able to dissimulate or forbid, making itself into a history by means of this somewhere motivated repression.” – p.6, Positions.

“It is not a question of junking these concepts…Doubtless it is more necessary…to transform concepts, to displace them, to turn them against their presuppositions, to reinscribe them in other chains…and thereby produce new configurations; I do not believe in decisive ruptures, in an unequivocal ‘epistemological break’…Breaks are always, and fatally, reinscribed in an old cloth that must continually, interminably be undone.” -p.24, ibid.

This is going to be hard to explain. Différance is a neologism Derrida creates to emphasize the difference between ‘différence’ and ‘différance’, a difference that can only be written or read and not heard. On this point, all of structuralism that posits a direct reference between signifier and signified breaks down. Meaning, the word “horse” does not actually refer to an actual “horse”, it only refers to itself, the saying of the “horse”, since there are currently no horses present. To borrow from Rick Roderick, “words don’t stand for things, they stand in for them.” We have words so we don’t have to be troubled with having to point to everything we talk about to make sure the person we’re talking to is understanding what our words refer to. A theory of signs in linguistics assumes that the objects that words refer to have presence, however words get their meaning via absence, not presence. If a horse were present, we could just point to it, we wouldn’t need the word “horse” to refer to the actual horse. But because currently a horse is absent, the word that we use to refer to gains meaning, precisely from this absence. As such, there are no such things as ‘words’, words are just echoes of other words, traces. Words are utterly metaphorical and refer not to objects in the real world but to themselves. Différance [refers] to this interminable deferring and delay of presence/meaning. Language does not exist with this production of differences that is the effect of différance. I should make note of Derrida’s indebtedness to Heidegger for the latter’s ontico-ontological difference which inspired Derrida’s concept of difference. Also, Derrida concedes that différance is still in the grasp of metaphysics. To break free, “we would have to become open to a différance that is no longer determined, in the language of the West, as the difference between Being and beings.” Derrida states that “there is nothing outside of the text.” So then, what is this ‘nothing’ that is outside of the text?

on grammatology
Derrida’s concept of grammatology is intimately tied with the above about differance and the notion that writing does not represent speech, it is not derivative of it. As a result what is written is always alive and an original entity, a thing-in-itself that is not its-self but a trace of an infinite amount of meanings. The idea that “there is no end of the book and no beginning of writing”…that every ‘end’ of a book [begins] again in a new, subsequent writing or act of creative interpretation, and that every ‘beginning’ of writing is not a beginning but a continuation of what came before it– traces, endless a priori references. In this sense books are to be considered without covers, that there is no such thing as ‘one‘ book, but many books that are part of the same book. Some more from the man or the text itself-

“producing a new concept of writing…Whether in the order of spoken or written discourse, no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present. This interweaving resulting in each ‘element’- phoneme or grapheme- being constituted on the basis of the trace within it of the other elements of the chain or system. This the text produced only in the transformation of another text. Nothing, neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.” -p.26, ibid

I think this is a good place to pause. the above sums up Derrida’s main ideas. Oh yes, and check out Derrida’s trading card.

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