Derrida and Oralcy: Grammatology revisited

Christopher Norris

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It’s still difficult to get used to the idea that Derrida’s no longer alive, no longer ‘there’ as a kind of tutelary (sometimes cautionary) presence. This is only the second time I’ve given a talk about him since he died. It’s difficult for all sorts of reasons, partly because he was so much a dominant influence on the intellectual scene, partly because he was so active, productive and intellectually creative right up until the last few months of his life. But also because he wrote so much over the years about questions of presence, the writer’s supposed presence in his or her work, and about questions of absence, including the kind of absence that overtakes a body of written work when the author dies and is no longer present to answer directly for his or her words. This raises the whole question of intentions, of authorial meaning (vouloir-dire), of how far we can or should respect those intentions, and so forth. And of course it also raises crucial issues about the scope and limits of interpretation, issues that we are very much concerned with here.

In some of his earliest work, for instance in his 1971 essay on J.L. Austin and speech-act philosophy, Derrida was already saying that one of the peculiar traits of written language was the fact that in some sense it survives, it lives on, it continues to communicate or signify beyond the writer’s lifetime. In a sense this is obvious enough, yet Derrida thought of it as something really quite mysterious and hard to explain, this way that writing manages to convey at least the simulacrum of presence regardless of the author’s absence, whether through death or just not being there to respond to any queries. So there are all sorts of weird, rather spooky intimations in Derrida’s work about our situation now, that is to say, the situation of trying to make sense of Derrida’s work when he’s no longer around to talk at conferences like this one and explain what he originally meant. His almost obsessive interest with the whole question of oralcy vis-à-vis literate culture goes back to his earliest work, including his great work Of Grammatology, which is, among other things, centrally a book about speech and writing.

As a kind of structuralist – albeit one highly critical of the structuralist enterprise -- Derrida was much concerned with binary oppositions, with either/ors, with one thing as opposed to or defined by contrast with another. He put the case (and many scholars have questioned this, have found it an extravagant and quite preposterous claim) – he argued that the speech/writing opposition was central to all these binary distinctions, including those between nature and culture, philosophy and literature, reason and rhetoric, concept and metaphor, male and female . . . all the structuring oppositions of what he called Western logocentric (or ‘phallogocentric’) discourse. He wrote On Grammatology at a time when there was quite a burgeoning industry of speculative writing on the relations between oral and literate culture – the ‘Gutenberg galaxy’ debate -- and Derrida took a line which, on the face of it, was pretty squarely opposed to the ideas being put forward by Marshall McCluhan and Walter Ong. (By the by: was Terry Hawkes the first to make that joke about ‘the Ong with the numinous prose’?) What Derrida appeared to be saying was that writing is in some sense prior to speech – of course not historically, chronologically, or developmentally prior but prior in the sense that spoken language presupposes the possibility of writing, that the potential for writing – along with many of its structural characteristics – is built into the very nature of language from the outset.

That struck many readers (one is tempted to say: many not too patient or careful readers) of On Grammatology as being a downright absurd or nonsensical claim. In historical, developmental, diachronic, or cultural terms speech comes before writing; there is no recorded instance of a culture that developed writing before it was able to speak and communicate through spoken sounds. So clearly, Derrida is not saying that. What he is saying is that writing in a certain sense, the possibility of writing, is always there at the origin of speech. This question of the origin of language had long been a bone of contention, especially amongst French academicians. I gather the French Academy actually once placed a veto on any further essays on the origin of language, because it got people tied up into such conceptual knots. Derrida is not so much trying to unpick those knots and finally resolve the issue but is rather trying to understand just why we get into such a muddle when we speculate on the origin of language or, for similar reasons, on the speech/writing relationship. To put it in structuralist terms, which are the terms in which Derrida first came at this problem: which comes first, langue or parole? On the one hand we are compelled to suppose that certain ‘primitive’ speech-acts, perhaps certain kinds of fragmentary, gestural as yet pre-articulate but somehow intelligible utterances must have been produced – and secured some sort of basic communicative uptake – before language could settle down and get codified into a systems of conventions, semantic, grammatical, and so forth. That would be a fairly commonsense, intuitive way of thinking about the origin of language. On the other hand, how could it count as a language in anything like the full sense of that term unless it already possessed certain structural characteristics, I mean, lexical distinctions and grammatical markers and at least the possibility of conveying articulate ideas and concepts through a stock of shared conventions? This is why so many people became confused: can you ever disentangle those conflicting priorities and make sense of questions concerning the origin of language?

Derrida doesn’t provide an answer to that. What he does say is that we have to re-conceptualize the problem, which is of course a typical Derridean move; we have to see how closely it is tied up with the issue about speech and writing, with the former conceived as somehow more ‘original’, more natural, spontaneous, genuinely expressive, etc., and the latter (writing) conceived as just a bad supplement, a corrupting addition to the primacy and self-sufficiency of spoken language. And then – famously – he goes on to show how this ‘supplement’ is always there at the origin, how the various predicates (the negative values and pejorative associations) that have so often been attached to writing are in fact, all them of, equally applicable to spoken language. Thus Derrida says in Of Grammatology that in some sense -- and this is a provocative and contentious move -- we have to think of writing as being the condition of possibility for any kind of language. As I have said, this struck a lot of his commentators as being an absurd claim. However, what he means by it is that we can’t conceive language without structure, without system, conventions, parts of speech, grammar, tenses, and the rest. He has a marvelous, extended, immensely detailed and (I think) very cogent reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology where he says that the entirety of Rousseau’s work, not just his essay on ‘The Origin of Language’ but all his thinking about language, music, culture, society, civil institutions, sexual relations -- all these topics are structured on the opposition between presence and absence, nature and culture, speech and writing. Rousseau associates speech with the natural, the primordial, the spontaneous, the sincere, the passionate or heartfelt. His basic idea is that in speaking to each other, preferably in a small, close knit, mutually dependent organic community, we don’t (or wouldn’t, or shouldn’t) need writing because we don’t need laws, we don’t need class differences, differences of rank or hierarchical distinctions of any kind. We should just have straightforward, face-to-face oral communication, and it’s only with the development of society, as social structures become more complex and hierarchical, that we need a more complex language, a highly articulate language that can communicate complex ideas. And of course it is at this stage that we also develop a need for writing as the means whereby to record laws, deliver judgments, draw up constitutional arrangements, assign various sorts of delegated authority, etc.

So writing for Rousseau was an instrument of oppression because its various powers and capacities were exercised by the few at the expense of the many. Derrida’s point is that the kinds of suspicion or hostility so often directed against writing by philosophers, social thinkers, religious thinkers (especially in the Christian tradition), and even by linguists – Saussure among them – has always been aimed at something other and more than just ‘writing’ in the sense of a graphic or written as opposed to a spoken language. It has always attracted these negative or pejorative associations because writing is conceived as secondary, derivative, supplementary, parasitic, and all those other (supposedly) bad things. Just think of that biblical passage – ‘the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life’ – to which Derrida adds numerous others from a great range of religious, philosophical, and other ‘logocentric’ traditions of thought.

There is a fascinating demonstration of this – and of the kinds of textual complication to which it gives rise – in Derrida’s classic essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’. Plato had a deep mistrust of writing, influenced by his teacher Socrates, who made a virtue of writing nothing since the written word had a corrupting influence on spoken language and, through that, on the proper, truth-seeking exercise of human reason. So it was left to Plato to record Socrates’ thoughts and thereby ensure that they were handed down to posterity, in however inadequate or defective a form. There is one dialogue especially, the Phaedrus, where this issue comes to the fore, that is to say, which has to do with the inherent superiority of speech and unsuitability of writing for the communication of philosophical ideas. Such communication can be truly achieved only between collocutors, people who address each other face to face in a process of reciprocal reason-giving and shared intellectual enquiry. Thus the only proper way to teach Philosophy was the Socratic way of walking around, talking to people and engaging them in conversation, teaching them and responding to their questions. Socrates says at one point: you know the trouble with books (or with scrolls or whatever) is that they don’t answer back; if you say ‘what do you mean, scroll?’ it doesn’t reply, it just carries on saying the same thing, in a stupid and inert sort of way. This is a rather comical example but it does make Derrida’s point: that the animus against writing in Western culture has its roots deep in this attachment to the notion of an inward, living, intrinsically meaningful thought-speech and this attendant aversion to the idea of a dead, mechanistic, spirit-killing, intrinsically inferior writing.

Derrida also picks out some remarkable passages in Saussure where he says that the written language has a corrupting influence on speech. Saussure gives the example of certain proper names in French that were once pronounced in the ‘proper’ original, authentic way and were later written down with some discrepancy in the spelling. The result – he declares with some vehemence – was that first the written form diverged from the spoken, and then (contrary to nature) the spoken form followed suit. Thus writing exerts what Saussure regards as a corrupting, wholly deleterious effect upon speech, just as culture – in Rousseau’s view – exerts a deeply corrupting influence on the natural state of human relations when society had not yet advanced to the stage of (so-called) ‘civilized’ existence. In line with this prejudice, Saussure says that whenever the linguist possibly can, he or she should consult an oral tradition, a living body of spoken language rather than a mere repository of dead, inert, written texts. Of course, they will have to fall back on written sources if it’s a dead language they’re dealing with, or a culturally remote language or one that is likewise difficult to access for whatever practical reason. All the same there is still this clearly marked bias and value-laden opposition between speech and writing. Moreover, Derrida argues, it is one that falls square with that long tradition of logocentric thinking that has characterized Western culture from Plato to the present. And logocentrism goes along with phonocentrism in so far as the idea of a punctual, immediate, self-present access to meaning and truth – the idea that has motivated much of that tradition, from Plato to Husserl – involves the appeal to a notion of speech as the privileged means of such access, whereas writing functions only as a block to truthful or adequate communication. Hence Derrida’s philosophically-loaded pun on the phrase s’entendre-parler, that is, ‘to hear/understand oneself speak’, as if the one were somehow equivalent or anyway near-enough equivalent to the other.

So we can see that Derrida’s readings of Plato, Rousseau and Saussure have a lot to do with the contrast between oral and literate cultures, even if – on his deconstructive account of it – that contrast doesn’t work out quite as thinkers like McLuhan and Ong were arguing at the time when Of Grammatology first appeared. His point is that Plato, Rousseau and Saussure trip themselves up, so to speak, that their arguments turn around and bite them. Thus he shows, very convincingly I think, that when Saussure describes the properties of language – the fact that it is differential, that it’s a system of differences ‘without positive terms’ – then he relies on what Saussure himself calls the ‘trace’, the absent yet contrastive trace of other words in the word that one is using at the moment. That is to say, it is the contrasts, the differential structures of language that make it possible for language to function or communicate in the first place. And it is here – in trying to account for this – that Saussure falls back on a whole set of metaphors, a whole series of analogies with written language: the very word ‘trace’, for instance, which turns out to be the only means by which Saussure can explain just how it is that language becomes able to function in this purely differential way.

Something similar happens to Rousseau – or, more precisely, to the logic of Rousseau’s argument – in the course of his reflections on the origin and history of language. When Rousseau tries to explain language, he gets into a mythical scenario and says: ‘Once upon a time, before it was corrupted, language was oral, it was spoken (not written) and therefore it was innocent, authentic, and sincere’. The further back you go, Rousseau suggests in this very speculative way, the further back you get toward a purely passionate speech-song where language and music would not yet have separated out, and where feelings and emotions passed from mind to mind (or from soul to soul) without any detour through merely linguistic or social conventions. People didn’t need elaborate systems of grammatical, or lexical, or logico-semantic distinction since verbal language and music still had a common source in the passionate expression of natural human feelings, needs, and desires. So it was only with the later, lamentable split between verbal language and music that the process of corruption set in.

At this point Rousseau introduces yet another mythical story to account for our present, post-lapsarian state. Rousseau was himself a musician, a performer and composer, and he wrote a great deal about music history and theory, in particular about the relationship between melody and harmony. He had a kind of running feud with Rameau, a composer who was extremely popular and successful at the time, whereas Rousseau’s music was not very successful or popular. (You can track down his opera The Village Soothsayer in a CD recording, which goes some way toward explaining why Rameau eclipsed him in musical terms, then and now.) One way of looking at Rousseau’s ideas about the melody/harmony dualism is to view them as the working-out of a tiff he was having with Rameau. Thus he says that the French music of his day is much too elaborate, ingenious, complex, ‘civilized’ in the bad (artificial) sense -- it’s all clogged up with complicated contupuntal lines, whereas the Italian music of the time is heartfelt, passionate, authentic, spontaneous, full of intense vocal gestures. It still has a singing line, it’s still intensely melodious, and it’s not yet encumbered with all those elaborate harmonies. Hence another of the value-laden binary distinctions that Derrida’s so good at picking out in Rousseau’s texts – the distinction between melody and harmony. At the outset melody was self-sufficient, it had no need of harmony, and good music -- authentic music -- is still (or at any rate should be still) pure melody, with no need of the ‘dangerous supplement’ of harmony, just as language (authentic, spoken language) should still have no need for the ‘dangerous supplement’ of writing. Harmony is a supplement, a mere supplement, which unfortunately added itself to the otherwise self-sufficient nature of melody, so that – at a certain point in its historical development – music took this path toward artifice, corruption, false sophistication, through the advent of counterpoint or harmony.

What’s more, Rousseau says, this is where writing came in and exerted its deleterious effect, because if you have a complex piece of contupuntal music, by Rameau let’s say, then you’ve got to write it down. People can’t learn it off by heart; you can quite easily learn a folk tune, or an unaccompanied aria, or perhaps a piece of plainchant, or anything that doesn’t involve harmony because it sinks straight in, it strikes a responsive chord straight away. But as soon as you have harmony then you have this bad supplement that comes along and usurps the proper place of melody, that somehow corrupts or denatures melody, so to speak, from the inside. Now the interesting thing, as Derrida points out, is that Rousseau can’t sustain that line of argument, because as soon as he starts to think harder about the nature of music, as soon as he begins to write his articles about music theory, he recognizes that in fact there is no such thing as melody without harmony. I think this is one of the remarkable things about Derrida’s reading of Rousseau, that it carries conviction as a matter of intuitive rightness as well as through sheer philosophical acuity and close attention to the detail of Rousseau’s text. His arguments seem to be very cerebral, very technical and even counter-intuitive, but in this case they can be checked out against anyone’s – or any responsive listener’s – first-hand experience of music. Thus even if you think of an unaccompanied folk song, or if you just hum a tune or pick it out in single notes on the piano, it will carry harmonic overtones or suggestions. What makes it a tune, what gives it a sense of character, shape, cadence, etc., is precisely this implicit harmonic dimension.

Derrida gets to this point through a close reading of Rousseau’s text which shows it to concede – not so much ‘between the lines’ but in numerous details of phrasing and turns of logico-semantic implication – that there is no melody (nothing perceivable or recognizable as such) without the ‘bad supplement’ of harmony. Thus, for instance, Rousseau gets into a real argumentative pickle when he say – lays it down as a matter of self-evident truth – that all music is human music. Bird-song just doesn’t count, he says, since it is merely an expression of animal need – of instinctual need entirely devoid of expressive or passional desire – and is hence not to be considered ‘musical’ in the proper sense of that term. Yet you would think that, given his preference for nature above culture, melody above harmony, authentic (spontaneous) above artificial (‘civilized’) modes of expression, and so forth, Rousseau should be compelled – by the logic of his own argument – to accord bird-song a privileged place vis-à-vis the decadent productions of human musical culture. However Rousseau just lays it down in a stipulative way that bird-song is not music and that only human beings are capable of producing music. And so it turns out, contrary to Rousseau’s express argumentative intent, that the supplement has somehow to be thought of as always already there at the origin, just as harmony is always already implicit in melody, and writing – or the possibility of writing – always already implicit in the nature of spoken language.

What Derrida does with the concept of writing is give it a far broader, more general sense, to the point where – as arche-écriture or a kind of proto-writing – it becomes pretty much co-extensive with culture as opposed to nature. This will be not just writing in the sense of graphic inscriptions, marks on a page, whether in the form of pictographs, hieroglyphs, ideographs, or – what we nowadays tend to take as its highest, most developed or sophisticated stage – alphabetical-phonetic notation. For Derrida, ‘writing’ should rather be defined as a sort of metonym for all those aspects of language – or of human culture generally – that set it apart from the realm of natural (that is, pre-social, hence pre-human) existence. That is to say, it encompasses not only writing in the usual, restricted (graphematic) sense but also speech in so far as spoken language likewise depends on structures, conventions, codes, systems of relationship and difference ‘without positive terms’, and so forth. This is why Rousseau has such difficulty in making his arguments stick. For it then seems flatly contradictory for Rousseau to claim that the best languages are those – like the Italian, and unlike the Northern European, e.g., German of his day – which have stayed closest to their origins in a kind of passionate speech-song, a pure ‘language of the emotions’ that would not yet have undergone the passage to a more complex or sophisticated stage of development. The same tension comes out very plainly when Rousseau tries to say – does in fact say – that music ought still to have preserved its purely melodic, spontaneous character without recourse to the bad ‘supplement’ of harmony, while none the less conceding that all melodies have a vital (indeed, a constitutive) basis in our grasp of their implied harmonic dimension. Thus Rousseau’s idea that language and music both have their source in a natural, primordial, pre-articulate or pre-harmonic mode of passional utterance is one that runs aground not only on numerous textual aporias – or moments of self-contradiction – but also on the plain fact that no such language or music could ever have existed outside this myth of his own inventing. Some critics have argued that Derrida is playing fast and loose with the term ‘writing’, that he expands its meaning to suit his purpose from one context to the next, and that only in a highly metaphorical sense can ‘writing’ be deployed in this way. However I think that Derrida’s case holds up pretty well. It’s impossible, he claims, for Rousseau to conceive of some kind of pure orality, some culture that would be entirely ‘natural’ in so far as it was centered on speech and the straightforward, direct, spontaneous expression of feeling without ‘articulation’ of any kind.

He makes a similar point about Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, more specifically, about the book Tristes Tropiques where Lévi-Strauss has a lot to say about the contrast between natural, ‘primitive’ cultures as yet untouched by the evils of ‘civilization’ and those other, more ‘developed’ cultures whose guilt he (the anthropologists) shares through his corrupting presence on the scene. This was one of those full-dress public encounters between old and new maitres à penser which frequently enliven the French intellectual scene. Lévi-Strauss was a great established figure in French cultural life at the time, and Derrida was something of an upstart, about to make his own spectacular stage entry with three major books published in 1967. He takes on Lévi-Strauss in two places, in On Grammatology and in an essay called ‘Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences’. In a chapter of Tristes Tropiques entitled ‘The Writing Lesson’ Lévi-Strauss expresses his intense sense of guilt and responsibility for the fact that, as he saw it, anthropology was simply a strategy for extending European colonial rule by alternative means. Of course the colonial empires were by this time mostly in an advanced state of collapse but anthropology carried on the same process of subjugation, now through the subtler instruments of cultural and intellectual as opposed to military power. This is something like Edward Said’s diagnosis of the workings of cultural imperialism, but here offered from a first-person, confessional point of view. Thus Lévi-Strauss expresses his acute sense of guilt at being the emissary of a rich, powerful and still hegemonic western power. ‘The Writing Lesson’ records how he was sitting in on a meeting of tribal elders of the Nambikwara, an Amerindian (Brazilian) tribe, and was making observations – or perhaps just doodling – in his notebook. Then he noticed that the Nambikwara people were copying him, pretending to write -- not that they actually understood writing straight off, it wasn’t some kind of amazing revelation, but in that moment he felt that he recognized the destructive potential of writing. What he read in their faces and deciphered in their imitative gestures was a glimpse of the power that writing could bring, that is, the power to give some people power over others through possession of an occult skill or technique that made them the law-givers, cultural elites, and wielders of rank and privilege.

This is why Derrida says Lévi-Strauss still belongs squarely to the epoch of Rousseau, in his belief that somehow, at that very moment, these people recognized a hitherto undreamt-of means to conserve, extend and reinforce their power. By acquiring a monopoly on the gift (or, as Lévi-Strauss would have it, the curse) of writing they could hang onto their privileged role as scribes, priests, lawyers, property-brokers, and authorities in all matters of intra-tribal dispute. This filled him with an intense sense of nostalgia, guilt and sorrow; he says that in that moment he read the future, that this tribe would eventually acquire all the bad accoutrements of European ‘civilization’, that it would first become corrupted and then overwhelmed by the forces of so-called ‘progress’. He goes on to give another, yet more telling example of this process at work. One day a little girl came up to him surreptitiously and revealed the secret name, the supposedly secret tribal name of another little girl who’d offended her, upset her in some way: it was a childish act of vengeance. This was a ‘proper name’ not just in the usual, classificatory sense but in the sense of belonging uniquely to her – the victim of this act – and being known only to her, her family, and perhaps a few intimate friends. Lévi Strauss says that this very strongly reinforced his awareness of being an intrusive stranger who was responsible for bringing violence and corruption to the tribe, just because he was the outsider, and because he was also the means by which the little girl had exacted vengeance through a gross and deliberate betrayal of confidence.

Now Derrida really takes this argument apart. Not, I should add, in a polemical or destructive way: when he reads Rousseau or Saussure or Lévi-Strauss it’s with great respect and this comes across in the sheer amount of detailed attention he gives to their work. But he does point out various anomalies and curious blind-spots in Lévi-Strauss’s account, among them the fact of his ignoring all the signs – well, not so much ignoring them as setting them aside for his own interpretative purpose – that in fact the Nambikwara already had writing before he (Lévi-Strauss) came along and supposedly introduced them to it. Not of course writing in the usual, restricted or graphematic sense that they could write things down, take notes, record observations, or whatever, but in the sense that they had a whole elaborate system of rituals, laws, kinship systems, property relations, hierarchical structures of power, etc. This is where Derrida’s definition of writing becomes really broad: he says that even territorial markers or signs of ownership, like a path across the middle of a field to demarcate two separate pieces of property, are forms of proto-writing, of arche-ecriture: they are, after all, highly visible inscriptions which signify a certain legally enforced order of property relations. Likewise he says that kinship systems are a form of writing; they already harbour within themselves the possibility of the emergence of writing in the narrower, ‘literal’ sense.

Moreover, Lévi-Strauss gives us all the evidence of this, because he’s a wonderfully acute observer of the scene, trained to observe significant details – though without necessarily drawing the relevant conclusions. Chief among them, Derrida suggests, is the fact that all the necessary conditions for the emergence of writing were there already, manifest in every aspect of tribal life, including – what Lévi-Strauss fails to reckon with even though he describes it in exemplary fashion – the existence of a highly differentiated social structure with various punitive sanctions attached. So it is a kind of Rousseauist mystique of origins – the dream of a mythical, non-existent organic community – that leads Levi-Strauss to ignore all the evidence that he himself has so patiently assembled and maintain that the Nambikwara didn’t up to then possess anything like writing. In the case of the little girl, Derrida says that again Lévi-Strauss is being in a sense naïve, or not accepting the implications of his own fieldwork. There must already have been the potential for that kind of violence built into the very system of ‘proper’ names, a system that allows for such acts of betrayal even though – or just because – it rules against them. After all, names are not just an innocent, neutral kind of nomenclature; they belong to a system that marks various socially sanctioned structures of kinship, inter-generational difference, familial authority, gender distinction, property ownership, and so forth. That is to say, proper names are not ‘proper’ in the sense of belonging to the individual by some kind of special, authentic, proprietary right but rather n the sense of having been assigned on the basis of various social, cultural, and economic norms. So the fact that the ‘secret’ name was revealed to him, to Lévi-Strauss should be taken as a sign, not of his guilt as a purveyor of evil from outside, but of the potential violence that was always there, built into the very nature of the system.

So, in many ways, Derrida seems to be advancing a thesis directly contrary to some of the arguments we’ve been hearing at this conference. What I have in mind is of course the idea of ‘secondary orality’ and the claim put forward in the late 1960s by thinkers like McLuhan and Ong that we were entering a new epoch of mass-communications, a global village marked by this new kind of massively extended, technologically enhanced oral culture. That thesis looks highly prescient from our own perspective, forty years on. Moreover, it seems to sit awkwardly with Derrida’s idea that claims for the priority of speech of speech over writing should be seen as expressions of the logocentric (or homocentric) bias that is well-nigh ubiquitous in Western intellectual tradition but is everywhere subverted or undermined by its tacit reliance on that which it denounces. On the other hand, it’s clear that Derrida is not in any sense devaluing spoken language, or denouncing oral cultures, or claiming (absurdly) that writing – in the narrow sense – should take priority over speech. What he’s saying, rather, is that language in general partakes of all those supposed defects that have always been attributed to writing, but which in fact provide language with its very capacity to function as a means of communication. And what he is seeking to expose, as a corollary to this, is a certain nostalgic mystique of origins – of speech as the natural, proper, uncorrupted form of language – whose regular effect is to deny or efface all the signs of that proto-writing in the absence of which, quite simply, we should have neither language nor culture.

This is really Derrida’s central topic in all his early texts. There are many examples of it, and one of the most striking is his reading of Plato’s Phaedrus. The Phaedrus has often been considered by classical scholars and philosophers to be an ill-formed, rather maladroit piece of dialogue construction. It used to be thought of as an early work of Plato, composed when he hadn’t yet learned to write really good, tightly argued and well constructed dialogues; then more recently the fashion has been to say that he wrote it very late in his career when he’d forgotten how to pull the thing off. The reason for this – one reason, at least – is that the Phaedrus contains a rather curious and (for Plato) out-of-character episode from Egyptian mythology concerning the origin and invention of writing. Now Plato was famously ‘against’ myths, since he thought that they belonged, like the poetry of Homer, to an earlier and somewhat infantile state of human cultural development. In his view humankind should have put such childish things behind them and embraced the greater wisdom and knowledge afforded by philosophy. Yet the Phaedrus does have this mythic component that cannot be dismissed as just a jeu d’esprit or a kind of ironic subterfuge since it’s a load-bearing part of the dialogue, an episode that has to be given due weight if the whole structure is not to fall apart or appear downright incoherent, as the scholars used to think

It’s actually about a lesser god, Thoth, in the Egyptian pantheon who comes to the great sun-god Thamus and offers him the gift of writing. Thamus says he’ll go off and think about it, then come back the next day and announce his verdict. This takes the form of catalogue of virtues and vices, of the benefits that writing will bring along with its attendant drawbacks and limitations. To be sure, as Thoth says, writing will extend the scope of historical and cultural memory, it will make possible the preservation of scientific and other truths, it will promote knowledge in all sorts of ways and thus make up for the inherent shortcomings of oral tradition. On the other hand, Thamus remarks, writing will have a deleterious effect on the human capacity for critical, reflective, thought, for the active exercise of mind, and for the genuine learning (rather than the rote-like, mechanical memorization) of knowledge. It will do so by substituting dead letters – the inert pseudo-language of the written sign – for that inward, spiritual access to truth that can result only from the kind of oral teaching or face-to-face dialogical exchange that Socrates took as his métier. This connects rather strikingly with modern jeremiads about the internet, electronic data-banks, and other such modern resources: the kids won’t actually learn anything (so the argument goes), they won’t get things off by heart, they won’t really know and understand, they’ll just go and run a Google search and then forget it straight away. What you find in fourth century BC Athens, and notably in this speech of Thamus, is very much the same sort of complaint about the negative aspects of writing: that it just lies there inert on the page, it never answers you, it can’t engage in dialogue, it circulates beyond the writer’s control and can always be misinterpreted. In the legal context especially, texts (such as letters) can be subject to all sorts of misinterpretation, whether deliberate or not; they can be used against you, adduced as evidence in the prosecution’s case . . . . So on balance, Thamus decides, writing is a bad thing and a gift that had better be refused.

These issues all constellate around the opposition of speech and writing. And allied to that is the opposition between presence and absence, since writing is always read in the absence of an author, sender, or correspondent who is not there – in person, on the spot – to answer for herself, to explain her intentions, to put you right about what she meant. And this applies just as much, in an odd sort of way, to the experience of reading a self-addressed text, you know, like a note to yourself on the refrigerator door saying ‘don’t forget to put the milk bottles out’, or ‘eat the yoghurt – close to its sell-by date’, or whatever. Even if you don’t die overnight, even if you wake up next morning and read it you are being addressed by someone else, you are being reminded, prompted by someone who might just possibly have died by this morning, who might not actually have been there to read it, so that maybe somebody else would have had to put the milk bottles out. In which case, of course, they’d have understood the message – got the gist readily enough – even though the sender was no longer there, no longer on hand to explain it, since this is just the virtue (but also the odd, rather spooky thing) about writing: that it can always carry on ‘meaning’ something even if the author has died, disappeared, or maybe disowned whatever she originally meant to say. It is what Plato picks up on in the Phaedrus when he has Thamus deliver that set-piece speech against writing, and it is also what Derrida picks up on, in a different way when he talks about the ‘iterability’ of speech-acts, that which ensures that they will carry a certain sense or performative force across a great, indeed an open-ended and wholly unforeseeable range of contexts. This is yet another respect in which spoken language can be thought of as a kind of writing: that speech-acts depend for their meaning or performative efficacy on codes, conventions, and generic features that are most aptly characterized in terms of the way that written marks function from one such context to another.

Although it might seem strongly counter-intuitive this argument is one that Derrida develops in various ways throughout his work, including his later, less obviously ‘textualist’ work on ethics, politics, the future of Marxism, and on the notions of justice, hospitality, asylum, forgiveness, and kindred themes. In each case his approach is by way of that binary opposition between presence and absence, or the need to re-think these concepts in response to the topic in hand. But it’s also a theme that goes back to Derrida’s very earliest and in many ways formative work namely his intensive study of Husserlian phenomenology from the mid-1950s on. He spent a good part of that time doing scholarly and critical research in the Husserl archives and writing about the complex, aporetic relationship between phenomenology and the newly emergent structuralist human sciences. This resulted in a number of book-length studies devoted to Husserl’s philosophy of language, his account of time-consciousness, and the various problems thrown up by his investigation into logic and the structure and genesis of scientific concepts. There was also Derrida’s book-length introduction to Husserl’s late essay on ‘The Origin of Geometry’ where these issues are raised in a particularly keen and philosophically productive way. Moreover, he always maintained that working through Husserl, working through phenomenology, showing up its blind-spots as well as its strengths, was absolutely prerequisite to any present-day philosophy worthy the name.

What is central to Husserl is precisely the idea of trying to locate the present moment of consciousness, the moment of punctual, self-present, apodictic consciousness which can then serve as a basis or anchor-point for rendering our knowledge and experience proof against the threat of sceptical doubt. This is how Husserl sets about his project of transcendental phenomenology, that is to say, his attempt – very much in the spirit of Descartes but pursued with a far greater degree of analytic and conceptual rigour – to provide both the natural and the human sciences with a new sense of philosophical security and purpose. As regards language, it leads him to enquire: what is it that somehow infuses our words, whether spoken or written, with the power to express our meanings and intentions? And again: how can we specify the difference between such authentically expressive uses of language and those other, merely ‘indicative’ types of sign whose sense involves nothing more than their belonging to some purely conventional, arbitrary system of agreed-upon significations? To which Husserl answers that the difference lies in the intentional character of expressive language, that is, in its conveyance of meanings that are present-to-mind in the very act of utterance and thereby infused with a purport that is entirely absent from indicative signs. Yet, as Derrida shows, this order of priority is thrown into question as soon as one adopts a structuralist, as opposed to a phenomenological approach, since then it seems – following Saussure – that the indicative (i.e., the structural or systemic) dimension of language must always be conceived as the precondition for whatever we are able to express in the way of speaker’s meaning or intent. But then again, this approach comes up against its limits when confronted with the power of language – especially creative or literary language – to express something other and more than could ever be explained by a purely structuralist analysis. Thus Saussure is caught up, no less than Husserl, in just the kind of strictly unresolvable aporia that Derrida is so perceptive in bringing to light. And this in turn has much to do with the speech/writing opposition which very often goes along with the issue of priority between language in its twofold (creative-expressive and structural-systemic) aspects.

Likewise central to Derrida’s deconstructive reading of Husserl is the problem of time-consciousness and how we are to conceptualize the experience of time from a phenomenological standpoint. What is it about that experience that gives the present moment its privileged character, its status as a kind anchor-point or focal center for our knowledge of time past and time-yet-to-come? And again – Derrida’s chief question in his reading of Husserl – how can we possibly define or conceptualize time-present except by contrast with that which we remember or learn to have occurred in the past and that which we think of as belonging to the realm of future possibility? So there is clearly a close connection between the problems that Derrida uncovers in Husserl’s philosophy of language and those that he reveals in Husserl’s philosophy of time-consciousness. What they have in common is also what places Derrida very much in the Kantian line of descent, that is to say, a kind of transcendental (or, in this case, negative-transcendental) argument that turns on the conditions of possibility – or, in this case, the conditions of impossibility – for some particular claim or philosophical thesis. Thus Husserl’s appeal to the self-evidence of speaker’s meaning or to the vouloir-dire of self-present expressive intent finds a parallel in his likewise cardinal notion of time as centered on the living moment – the ‘now’ – of temporal experience. Yet this moment is no more exempt from the effects of différance – of differing-deferral or contrastive definition – than are those authentically expressive (as opposed to merely indicative) signs that provide a linguistic grounding for Husserl’s phenomenological approach.

Of course the paradox about time is one that goes a long way back. Aristotle was the first to spell it out clearly, and there’s a famous argument by the Oxford philosopher McTaggart which purports to demonstrate the unreality of time. This has to do with the two different ideas of time, what he calls the ‘A-series’ and the ‘B-Series’, the past-present-future (phenomenological) conception and the objective (earlier-than, simultaneous-with, and later-than) conception. McTaggart showed, to his own satisfaction at least, that these conceptions cannot be reconciled, that they generate certain strictly unthinkable paradoxes, and hence – remarkably enough – that time can’t exist. Derrida doesn’t go quite as far as that but he does bring out the impossibility of defining or establishing the present moment, the moment of self-present speech, and the way this connects with the speech/writing opposition. What he shows, in brief, is that there cannot be a clear-cut distinction between expressive language (by which Husserl means primarily spoken language) and that other, indicative realm of signs – often associated with writing – that are merely conventional, arbitrary; not meaningless but expressionless like traffic lights, or ‘Keep Out’ signs, or anything else that serves to convey a message without the appeal to speaker’s intent. So you don’t ask a traffic light or a ‘Keep Out’ sign what it means to express or intends you to do; you just register its standard, conventionally encoded prescriptive or proscriptive force and then act (or refuse to act) accordingly.

Husserl maintained that there was – had to be – some means of drawing a clear, categorical, and principled distinction between expressive and indicative signs. Expressive signs were the basis of all authentic communication, of any utterance that truly conveyed what the speaker had in mind and what the listener (or recipient) had to grasp if he or she was to count as having properly understood its meaning. Indicative signs were secondary, derivative, parasitical on expressive signs since they acquired their routine sense only through having first conveyed some authentic (intentional, expressive) purport and then become mere conventional ciphers. Yet this cannot be the case, Derrida argues, if one takes Saussure’s point about the priority of langue over parole, that is to say, the absolute impossibility that any utterance should mean, convey, or communicate anything whatsoever unless there is already a system in place – a network of systemic relationships and differences ‘without positive terms’ – which constitutes the necessary precondition of all meaningful utterance, spoken or written. What Derrida does, essentially, is juxtapose the insights of structuralism and phenomenology, the two great movements of thought that really formed the matrix of Derrida’s work, especially his early work. Phenomenology because it had gone so far – in the writings of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty after him – toward describing that creative or expressive ‘surplus’ in language (and also, for Merleau-Ponty, in the visual arts) that would always elude the most detailed and meticulous efforts of structuralist analysis. Structuralism because, on its own philosophic and methodological terms, it revealed how this claim for the intrinsic priority of expressive parole over pre-constituted langue would always run up against the kind of counter-argument that I have outlined above. Thus most of the essays collected in his early volume Writing and Difference can be seen as coming at this issue between structuralism and phenomenology from various angles. They don’t so much claim to resolve that issue as treat it – like Kant’s Antinomies of Pure Reason – as a spur to further, more rigorous and philosophically fruitful reflection.

Structuralism basically takes one side of the chicken/egg dilemma I mentioned at the start of this paper, putting its chief emphasis on system, code, convention, the arbitrary nature of the sign, and all those elements of language that must be in place before we can even begin to communicate. Whereas phenomenology in Husserl’s conception, and as Merleau-Ponty conceived it later on, was about the strictly irreducible surplus of expressive meaning over anything that could possibly be articulated in terms of a structural account. Derrida has a very striking and evocative passage in one of his early essays, ‘Force and Signification’, where he says that once you have completed a structuralist analysis of a literary text – here one might think of Roman Jakobson’s exhaustive (and exhausting) analysis of a Shakespeare sonnet – what’s left is something like a city that’s been laid waste by some man-made or natural catastrophe. He makes it sound like a neutron bomb, you know, those bombs that do no damage to buildings and infrastructure but kill all living creatures within miles around, so you have this kind of deathly, uninhabited zone of structures that survive but the life has gone out of them. Some readers may well be surprised when they come across that passage, because Derrida is supposed – not without reason – to be highly sceptical about meaning, intention, expressive purport, authorial ‘presence’, and so forth. Yet in these essays what he’s doing is precisely playing off a phenomenological approach, a regard for whatever in the nature of language surpasses a purely structural account, against the structuralist critique of that idea which he sees as being valid, not decisive or definitive, but valid on its own conceptual terms. For again the familiar question arises: how can we conceive of an expressive language, a mode of creative speech, that wouldn’t always already bear the marks of structural articulation, and therefore lend itself to some kind of structuralist analysis?

I hope I have made it clear, in keeping with the topic of this sub-project, that the debate about speech and writing, about oral and literate cultures, and also about the distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ orality, is absolutely central to Derrida’s work. I don’t know whether he’d read McLuhan’s work when he wrote those early texts – Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Dissemination – which I have mainly been discussing here. There is no direct evidence that he had, but then, Derrida was a really voracious reader so it’s never safe to assume that he hadn’t come across this or that source. But in a sense that question is irrelevant: what needs saying here is that his work engages deeply and critically with these issues and moreover that it complicates the whole idea that one can clearly distinguish not just oral from literate cultures, but ‘primary’ from ‘secondary’ forms of orality. One need only look to the opening chapters of Grammatology to gain some impression of the range of Derrida’s scholarship, the historical reach of his argument, and also how decisive or uncannily prescient that argument must now appear, forty years on, when so many of its claims that then seemed highly speculative or downright wild have been amply borne out by developments in various (not least scientific) fields.

Thus it took a quite remarkable, well-nigh prophetic degree of insight to recognize the extent to which concepts (or metaphors) of writing would be put to work as heuristic tools in areas such as genetics, molecular biology, information theory, and artificial intelligence. Indeed one of the central questions here – especially as concerns genetics – is how far these should be regarded as a genuine, operative scientific concepts with literal or referential content, or how far they serve in a largely metaphoric (since empirically and theoretically under-developed) role. This is Derrida’s topic in his essay ‘White Mythology: metaphor in the text of philosophy’, where it is pursued through a series of exemplary close-readings of philosophers from Aristotle to Gaston Bachelard. It is also, as we have seen, crucial to his treatment of the speech/writing opposition, since speech has so often – from Plato down – been associated metaphorically with the access to truth through authentic, inward, self-present knowledge while writing has so often acquired just the opposite range of metaphoric attributes. What sets his early work decidedly apart from some of the then more fashionable strains of futurological thinking is, again, their depth of historical perspective and their extreme critical acuity. It seems to me, as Derrida says of the encounter between phenomenology and structuralism, that no treatment of the oralcy/literacy debate can afford to neglect or to sidestep that decisive contribution.