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Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

“No one will ever know from what secret I write and the fact that I say so changes nothing.” —Jacques Derrida

Reading Derrida is no easy task. Today, I will show you an easier way of understanding some of the major components to Derrida’s project on “deconstruction”. We will be looking at the problem of interpretation and why there are infinite interpretations to any texts.

Although this post will be quite “intense” (just like me when I talk about philosophy in real life), it supposes that the reader knows nothing about the history of philosophy, Ferdinand de Saussure’s general linguistics, semiotics and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. This means I will be trying to explain Derrida’s thoughts in layman terms, which is not easy. Despite my attempts in simplicity, this post will gradually get more difficult and abstract due to the nature of the topic such as temporality: our first-person experience of time.

An Overview on the “Problem” of Interpretation

Derrida is known for showing that there are infinite number of interpretations in any text (or events). As soon as any (philosophical) book leaves the original author and gets distributed to its readers, the reader becomes the author where they reproduce their own unique interpretation and meanings of the text. What this “meaning” consists of will depend on the reader’s contextual framework that takes place as they read the book. Now, suppose that the readers of this first book becomes authors who responds to the original author; and the people who reads this new author’s works becomes authors. As a result, we end up creating more books based on our “unique” interpretations of other texts which eventually leads to centuries of books, novels, and every single piece of writing on the planet.

Since interpretation and meaning is determined by context, in order for me to fully understand the intentions of the original author, there is a demand that I must understand their contextual background or “where they are coming from”. Thus, if I want to understand this brand new philosophy book, I will have to read all of these other books to develop a more “accurate” interpretation of the author. As a result, I end up chasing the entire history of philosophy because that is what the original author did. This is where Derrida takes a jab at philosophy since nearly all philosophy books are a response to other philosophers (and all books are influenced by other books in general).

The problem with closely interpreting these “texts” in the book is that the inscription of writing also consists of a series historical contexts which transformed itself into English language as such. Every language is a translation, mediation, and a combination of other historical languages. Therefore, we encounter the same problem where, in order to understand certain terms and words within the book, we also have to understand its historical background: the etymology of words. As we attempt to do this, we will discover that language and translations are actually full of holes and gaps known as an “aporia” , where the meaning of certain words becomes undecidable. The most famous example is from Derrida’s Plato’s Pharmacy, where the English translation in some of Plato’s works shows how the word “Pharmakon” can mean “poison”, “remedy”, and “scapegoat” at the same time. This is why Derrideans likes to play with translations, since these aporias reveals the contradictory nature of interpretation. It is also one of many reasons why Derrideans are found in comparative literature rather than philosophy departments in universities.

Essentially, it is impossible to acquire the entire context of any book since they are based on a “unique” interpretation of the previous (historical) authors, where these authors are based on readings of other authors, and to infinity. There is no such thing as an “accurate” interpretation of a book that is identical to the intentionality of the original author—including Derrida’s own “deconstruction” of the text. This is the fundamental nature of interpretation regardless of how clear someone’s writing is. Even if you read a book closely (i.e. “deconstruction”) the reader will discover the author’s contradictions and the instability / uncertainty of their thoughts (via aporias, etc.). At the same time, the reader will also encounter their own interpretive contradictions as they read the author’s work. When you read Derrida, you are reading him read other people’s works. The frustration people get while reading Derrida is part of what he is trying to show you. But this does not mean that one cannot establish meaning or interpretation to any text. Rather, and once again, meaning is defined and established by a contingent historical framework that is unique to the individual subject which can never be temporally “pinned down” with precision (you will see why later on).

On Language: Speech and Writing

 

“Socrates—he who does not write” — Friedrich Nietzsche

In the most general sense, language consists of two forms: speech and writing. Let us begin by considering how you are reading a written transcript of my spoken words in this post. Three phenomenon occurs (I will use some of these as a point of reference later on):

1) This writing becomes the representation of my spoken words where I would have communicated to you in spoken form if you sat in front of me. This argument traces back to Plato, who suggested that writing is only used to represent speech, whereas speech is more authentic than writing because it is representation of our mental thoughts. This argument as we will see later on, is false.

2) As you read these words, you are supplementing my absent being as a presence. You are reading this text as if I am speaking / communicating to you, even when I am not speaking / communicating to you before your eyes (I will get to this in the next point). This supplementation happens all the time. For example, when we read a novel, we are reading it as if the characters in it are present in our mind, even when they are absent. You are reading Samuel Beckett, even when you are reading an inscription of a ghost who died 30 years ago. The news reporter appears to be talking to you on the television, even when they are absent and you are looking at a black screen. Writing consists of an element of absence. There are times when we recognize this absence within writing—such as when a stranger sends you an email, text message, post card or a letter and you fail to supplement their absence since you do not know who they are (hence, it is “creepy”). Another instance where this absence becomes apparent is when we encounter a word that is untranslatable.

3) When you are reading this text, I am actually not talking to you because you are talking to yourself. The presence that you supplement for my absence is not me, but yourself, the reader. You are the speaker of my (your) words. This phenomenon will be very important for us to understand once we get to Husserlian phenomenology, where we will learn why “the reader becomes the author”. Essentially, “silent reading” is never silent because we are always talking to ourselves through inner monologue.

Sounds (Phonemes) and Images (Graphemes)

Now that I have roughly sketched out the premises of our discussion, we will learn Saussure’s general linguistics. I began by saying that, language consists of two forms: speech and writing. Let us consider these forms by isolating them from each other.

Speech by itself consists of individual units of sounds. These individual units can be anything from a baby uttering non-sense, all the way to you talking to your boss about how stupid they are. In short, speech is heard and not seenOn the other hand, writing consists solely of visual elements. Just as a baby who utters units of sounds which makes “no sense”, she can also scribble visible lines on a piece of paper in unintelligible ways. Writing is what we refer as image, which is the visual elements of language. What is unique about images is that it is not restricted to “writing” or any forms of inscription. Images also includes everything that we see and it is the dominate form of language. For example, the physical cup that is sitting beside my computer which I can visually see is what I phonetically call “cup”. The photo you see in my “About” page is Bobby, etc. This is why Derrida will often say that writing is everywhere since everything we see are images.

If unique sounds are not seen, and unique images are without sounds, then how do we know certain sounds relates to certain images? We know that specific units of images refers to a specific unit of sound because we are aware of the “concept” of language. I know that, the image “A” is associated with the sound “A” because I already understand the concept—which is that of English language.

Saussure referred semiotics as “general” linguistics because he saw how “sounds” can be represented with even more specific sonic units known as “phonemes”; and “images” into specific “graphemes” (and within these, we can create even more units such as glossemes, cheremes, etc.). In effect, this turns language into an object that can be studied as a science, such as linguistics. For Derrida, expanding general linguistics into phonemes and graphemes does not solve any of the fundamental problems of language in relationship to “being”. This is because Derrida saw how linguists are just going to create more conceptual sounds and images to represent our current system of sounds and images (we must be cautious here, because Derrida is not trying to critique linguistics).

Signifier and Signified

Ultimately, these varying units of sounds and images are what Saussure calls “signifier”. Whereas the “concept” is how these specific sounds and images creates meaning—of what we shall call the “ideality of sense”. It “makes sense” that the sound and image of the word “tree” coincides with each other. Yet, there is no particular reason why the sound “tree” is linked to the image of a tree. Their relationship is “arbitrary” (this is known as the “arbitrariness of the sign”).

Before we move any further, let us once again, return to the beginning where I said that language consists of two forms: speech (sounds) and writing (images). What we begin to see is how the fundamental properties of speech and writing are required in order to represent the concept of language. Another words, speech is actually a form of writing and vice versa, since they are both representing the same language that we already know. Thus, Plato was wrong when he said that writing is only used to represent speech, and that speech is more authentic than writing since it is closer to our thoughts (refer #1).

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The complication arises from the influence of Louis Hjelmslev at the Copenhagen school of linguistics, who points out that the signifier (sound-image) is characterized as physical forms, whereas the signified “concept” is a mental concept. For example, we get a mental concept, such as an image of a tree in our minds, when we physically read the signifier “tree” as it appears before your eyes on this page. This “material” external form of writing (i.e. this text) along with the external sounds you hear (i.e. when someone is talking to you) are combined together as an mental “internal” concept. Everything that is visually external to you, along with every sound you externally make / hear, is only possible because of how your brain processed it internally. When someone is explaining to you how thunderclouds are formed at a coffee shop, you are creating an internal mental image of what they are externally signifying as they speak.

Differance

The twist Derrida puts into all this, are of two things. First, this internal signified / “mental concept”, is actually just more signifiers (we will not fully understand why this is the case until we get to Husserl’s phenomenology and temporality). For example, if I write the word “poop”, in your head you will be thinking of poop in conjunction with speaking to yourself the sound “poop”. This mental “poop”—the “mental concept”, which is an image of a piece of poop—is just another signifier, and not a signified. To explain this simply, Derrideans often uses the popular “chasing the dictionary” example. Every signifier I search in the dictionary (i.e. poop) will lead me to its definition (signified), which is just more signifiers that are used to describe the signifier I searched for. Suppose that, within this definition, I do not know what another signifier meant, and I begin to search for that signifier and the same thing happens. As a result, I endlessly chase the dictionary around for signifiers, only to find out that there are near infinite amount of signifiers that represents other signifiers (also, when I search and look into the etymology of these signifiers, I find more signifiers). These signifiers which leads to different signifiers is where the idea of difference comes from (it is also found in Saussure’s text, I cannot recall where from memory). The fact that I know poop is not the same as dog or table, chair, etc. allows poop to have its meaning.

Derrida deploys the word “differance” (a spelling mistake) to describe how the signifier’s meaning is established by what it is not—such as its oppositions—where meaning is never completely stable due to these differences. In addition, differance is also used to show how the presence of meaning is only possible through its own absence via differences, which is nevertheless still “present” (something which we will not understand until later on). The reason why Derrida changes the “e” to an “a” is to show that writing can actually do more than speech. In French, the proper spelling of “difference”, and the spelling mistake “differance” verbally sounds the same. Their differences can only be recognized in writing. Here, Derrida is taking a “revenge” on Plato for calling writing secondary even when it is not. There are more reasons why Derrida calls it “differance” such as its play on the words “differ” and “defer”—I will not talk about these here (See his essay called, Differance).

Second, while Hjelmslev thinks only the signified is an internal mental concept. We now see how—since the signified is just more signifiers—even the signifier becomes internal. This will be a contradiction that we will encounter in the next few sections between Husserl’s external “indication” and internal “expression”. It is why Derrida points out that, “the outside is the inside” and “there is no transcendental signified”. This “transcendental” is what lies outside of us as subjective being, such as this text. There is no outside signified because they are just internal signifiers expanding infinitely in our minds via differance as you read my writing. Thus, Derrida’s famous passage: “there is no outside text”. I will demonstrate the concept of differance later on.

Indication (Signifier) and Expression (Signified)

We will now add another twist to all of this by introducing the Husserlian terms: Indication and Expression which is more or less equivalent to the Saussurean Signifier and Signified. Recall how the signifier represents an external physical form of sound-image, whereas the signified represents an internal mental concept—which, for Derrida, is just more signifiers. Coincidentally, Husserl also makes a similar distinction between the indicative sign which is external, and the expressive sign which is internal.

For Husserl, indication “points” to an expression (indication is what Derrida sometimes calls, “the point of the finger”). The best example of indication is this piece of writing (or language in general). But if I write “asfopfaddsg”, this external indicative sign points to an expression which we do not know (a word / indication that we don’t know its “meaning” / expression to). Similar to what we already know, Husserl saw how indication (signifier) functions as a physical medium which serves as a form of communication such as speech and writing (i.e. this writing). All indications are entangled with an expression (signified) since we are already familiar with the English language.

Indication / expression is quite complex. Through Husserl’s thoughts, Derrida associates indication / expression with not just writing, but with the movement of our physical bodies. This will be something which I will not explain because to really understand it, you have to be fluent in Husserlian phenomenology, which can be quite difficult (Derrida is already difficult enough).

Inner Monologue, Expression and Animating Intention

 

“We are all mediators, translators.” — Jacques Derrida

Let us look at this piece of writing very carefully. Not many people visits my blog—only those who wishes to stalk me or is genuinely interested in the things I write would come here. If no one reads this writing, this text does not exist—it is literally, “dead”. Indication (writing) by itself is dead. But as soon as someone (i.e. a living being such as yourself) reads and interprets this writing, indication is animated by the person (you) as an expression (refer #2 and #3). This animation of indication into expression is what we shall call intentionality. Every time you animate this text, there is always an intention, even if this intention is of no intention.

Let us once again recall that indication (signifier) is external; expression (signified) is internal. For Derrida, since expression (signified) consists of more indications (of signifiers established by differance), indication is also an internal phenomenon. The complexities between indication and expression lies in how they are two sides of the same coin. When I indicatively write this post (or when I speak), I have an intention to express something from my internal mental thoughts into external indicative writing. At the same time, I am also expressing myself while I internally indicate (speak) to myself. Internal expression is entangled with “external” (internal) indication because I am internally talking to myself as I write; and this is what makes “inner monologue” as such. In the same way, when you (the reader) are interpreting this external indicative text, you are reanimating my writing with your own internal expressions and indications—i.e. you are talking to yourself as you read this text (refer #3). My external indicative writing becomes your internal expression / indication as you reanimate it with an intention that is uniquely your own. To help you understand this, I will share a diagram from my notebook:

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As the author, I am someone who attempts to communicate by animating internal indications which occurs in my mind as expressions. The author passes from internal expression (indication / speaking to myself) externally as indicative writing. Inversely, when you read this indicative writing (“text”), the reader (you) reanimates my indicative writing into their (your) own internal expression / indication (refer #3). The word “intention” that is written on top of the arrows on both side of author / reader are heterogeneous—they are of different intentionalities.

This is where we understand why there are infinite interpretation to any text. Pure intentionality cannot be transmitted through speech / writing. Furthermore, this is also where we discover the difficulty of translation since we can never fully inherit the intentions of the original author. Hence, “pharmakon” which can translate into “remedy”, “poison” and “scapegoat” becomes undecidable. We simply do not know which word Plato meant. And whether it is one or the other depends on the intentionality of the reader / translator. Most importantly, this “pure” intentionality cannot even be expressed within our internal minds due to the effects of differance and temporality because it is always influenced by the reader’s unique contingent historical context.

Trace, Differance, Spacing and Temporality

 

“Time is out of joint” —Hamlet

We will now take one step further and integrate some of Derrida’s thoughts on how the signified (expression) is just a bunch of signifiers (indication) that occurs internally in our mind which is characterized by differance. We will also be drawing relationship on how this physical external indication which represents the phenomenon of space (“spatial”), entangles with our internal expression which is related to our consciousness of time (“temporal”). This will lead to a Derridean passage in Of Grammatology, on how our consciousness opens up the notion of “spacing”, which is “the becoming time of space [external] and the becoming space of time [internal]”. Just as external indication (space) is actually an infinite internal expression (through time), for Derrida, space and time are inseparable because they constitute each other as such.

The common perception of time is that it runs linearly in seconds, such as: “1…2…3…4…5…”, etc. In this case, while numbers are a representation of time, it does not account for how we experience time from a first person perspective (this is what phenomenology tries to study). The best example of understanding our experience of time is to compare it to how you are reading this text which also appears as a linear line (this is an idea from Heidegger that Derrida borrows from). Temporality consists of three main aspects. First (1), there consists of this very moment of “now”—of every single word you read in this sentence which is characterized as “the present moment”. The second (2) is the idea of “retention” where every single recognition (repetition) of this now is retained in our brain as what had just past. The third (3) is protention, which is the anticipation of what is to come in the near future which can never be fully predicted.

The complexity of this phenomenon is how every signifier you just read constantly refers itself to a retention / past—of what I shall now call as a “history” (or historical context). In order for me to understand this sentence, I have to retain the words at the very beginning. Just as, if I want to understand this post, I have to retain the information that was first introduced. And above all else, if I want to “understand” Derrida, I have to retain and understand the historical context of Husserl, Heidegger, Saussure, etc. who in themselves defers to more historical philosophers, poets, scholars and to infinity.

For Derrida, retention is a combination of all sorts. It is not a simple retention or short term memory of this moment, but an infinite deferral of a past / historical discourse that has always already been influenced by our imagination and memories (if I remember correctly, Derrida refers to retention as “Now X” which means “undefined”; and not “A” like in my diagram below). Another words, this present moment is only possible through the retention of the words you had just read—which is influenced by your own pre-established historical discourse. This is where we see differance taking full effect through its own absence.

The infinite movement of differance that occurs in our internal conscious mind is the absence of this word that you had just read. Indeed, what allows for a “presence” of meaning to establish is characterized by what had just disappeared into “space” as you read—namely, of what this word is not (as you just read it through time). Yet, this disappeared word still nevertheless “appear” to be “present” through our consciousness of temporality via retention (of X), even when it is absent. This quasi appearance of presence that reveals between the spaces of words as we read this sentence, is what Derrida famously calls, “Spacing” (of time).

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In this diagram, the straight long arrow represents the linearity of time. What we see is how the “Now” (B) is only possible through the retention of A (or “X”, as Derrida would put it since it is a retention of all sorts). B is “B” because it is not “A”. And what sits between the space of B, A, and C is referred as spacing. This is why Derrida points out how the empty white space in this page takes on an importance. Our interpretation of every word relies on an abstract and absent mode of a historical past that has already been “written” before the subjective reader engages with the text (i.e. your unique contingent historico-contextual framework which allows you to establish meaning as you interpret every word in this text). This abstract and absent writing of space is what Derrida calls “archi-writing”, the most originary and unique form of writing. Thus, to “interpret” is “to read what wrote itself between the lines” which is a radically different “organization of space” than what appears as linear before our eyes. This is one of the reasons why the first part in Of Grammatology is called “Writing before the Letter”.

Now, the trickiest part of all this is how retention is also a mixed with protention as we read this text. Another words, what allows for our articulation of this present moment is not only that it is never “present” since it refers to a past, but it is also always moving towards a protention—such as your anticipation of the next word as you read. This “phenomenon”, if we can call it that (we can’t since this idea precedes phenomenology), is what Derrida calls, “Trace”. This “concept” of trace (not a concept), which is very similar to differance, is an abstract term devoid of any presence (I have demonstrated enough times on how this moment is constituted by differance, which is also a trace towards a past / anticipation). Trace is what Derrida refers as “the unity between retention and protention”—of a past and “what is to come”.

Metaphysics of Presence and Origin-Heterogeneous

“Metaphysics of presence” is a term Derrida borrows from Heidegger (physics studies reality; metaphysics studies what lies beyond reality—the term is hard to explain unless you already know what it is). Basically, Derrida thinks we have always privileged a form of immediate presence via metaphysics, which forces a “closure” in language by establishing a stable meaning. Derrida refers to this presence of closure as “logocentrism”. But as we can already see, there is no meaning that is completely “stable” due to the temporal effects of differance and trace. Every time we conceive of the “now”—which is the metaphysics of presence of the present moment—is always already a past. In another words, there is never a “now” moment (the presence of the present), since time is always moving between retention and protention.

Recall how, when we read a book and attempt to understand it, we end up chasing the entire history. What we are really doing is we are trying to look for the “origin” of the author’s intentions in order to read them “accurately”. We often think we have found this “origin” through our interpretation of their book (and their influences) while privileging the “metaphysics of presence”; even when this origin cannot be found since it is based on our contingent historical discourse of a past that is always under temporal movement (and there is also the problem of intentionality which cannot be transmitted through speech and writing). Let us apply everything that we have learnt: your interpretation of the word—“origin”—implies how there are no origins since it is established by your retention which traces to all sorts of past and a future that is always to come. This is what Derrida calls “origin-heterogeneous”. Trace is the origin of your interpretation of the word “origin”. Trace is an absolute singularity because the concept does not exist. This is the most fundamental concept of deconstruction. —Thus, “deconstruction” deconstructs itself.

You were reading a somewhat retro loveletter, the last in history. But you have not yet received it. Yes, its lack or excess of address prepares it to fall into all hands: a post card, an open letter in which the secret appears, but indecipherably. What does a post card want to say to you? On what conditions is it possible?

Its destination traverses you, you no longer know who you are. At the very instant when from its address it interpellates, you, uniquely you, instead of reaching you it divides you or sets you aside, occasionally overlooks you. And you love and you do not love, it makes of you what you wish, it takes you, it leaves you, it gives you.

On the other side of the card, look, a proposition is made to you, S and P, Socrates and Plato. For once the former seems to write, and with his other hand he is even scratching. But what is Plato doing with his outstretched finger in his back? While you occupy yourself with turning it around in every direction, it is the picture that turns you around like a letter, in advance it deciphers you, it preoccupies space, it procures your words and gestures, all the bodies that you believe you invent in order to determine its outline. You find yourself, you, yourself, on its path. […]

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