“The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.” – Franz Kafka
Recently, I had the pleasure to reread Derrida’s “Structure Sign and Play” and a few sections from Of Grammatology. In this post I will show you an easier way to understand Derrida’s concept of “difference”, “otherness”, and “supplement” without any phenomenology and ontology. I will show you how Derrida thinks meanings are generated between differences via the discourse of communication and other famous practical examples that Derrida uses (i.e. nature / culture, public / private).
Most of my blog posts are sounding boards for my bigger projects. I am not sure if this will become a staple / extension to my other Derridean post, which focused on Part I in Of Grammatology (the most difficult section of the book). This post focuses on some of the contents from Part II—particularly on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the incestuous relationship between nature, culture, and writing.
What is Derrida trying to say to his readers when all he ever does is close read other people’s works in abstruse language? What does it mean to be a Derridean? Similar to Jacques Lacan, Derrida’s difficulty comes from the way he applies his ideas into his own writing in order to make you experience what he is trying to say. As Alain Badiou once said: “Philosophy privileges no language, not even the one that it is written in”.
To understand Derrida’s concept of difference, which actually comes from Ferdinand de Saussure, we must become familiar with the function of meaning in relationship with its context that it is placed in. We need to understand that “meaning” varies depending on context. In this sense, context is the way which words differentiates within a system of other words that defines what the former word could mean within its structure. The word “life” can have various meanings depending on who you ask through the contextual structure of words it is placed in (i.e. different cultures, traditions, etc.). Thus, meaning can constantly change as it gets compared to different contextual words. Is the author saying X or Y? Or perhaps she is saying V because X is different to G since now there is a T?
Most importantly, how words are interpreted depends on not only the context it is situated in, but also the specific spatial-temporal context that you—the reader—offer to it with your own knowledge, history, past experiences, personal values, etc. Thus, when we communicate to other people, one might sometimes realize that what they are expressing cannot be completely felt by the other person in the same way that they are experiencing it through their own mind and body (this also has to do with the representational aspects of language; another reason is because you are not the other person). In other words, we are always in some ways misunderstood. And it is through this “misunderstanding” via the play of differences between author / reader which creates a mutual “understanding”. This is applicable even when an author speaks to themselves (See Voice and Phenomenon, “Meaning as Soliloquy”).
This “misunderstanding” is crucial because it is through communicative exchange between the author and reader that produces meaning. Instead of interpreting words, Derrida is saying that meanings can only be produced in relationship with the reader who creates meaning from the author’s words through their own play of differential structures / contexts (similar to Roland Barthes’ “Death of the author”, but not quite). Meanings can only be produced through “other meanings”, such as the context and discourse that the reader situates the author’s words in.
In The Post Card, Derrida presents fragments of burnt love letters that were written to his wife. In it, he famously states that “the letter never arrives at its destination” which opposes to Lacan who famously said, “the letter always arrives at its destination”. For Derrida, love letters functions like a post card—like meaning—where there is always a possibility that it arrives in the wrong place, like the postman, or a stranger who will open the letter and misread its writing via their own supplementary context. The letter never arrives at its “destination” because its “destiny” depends on context, error, and contingency. Anyone can open The Post Card (or any book; or a stranger’s love letters) and read it via their own supplementary differences which creates various meanings (this writer is romantic, a creep, stupid, etc.).
We create meanings out of the author’s words by supplementing their structure of differences with our own system of differences. Instead of saying “this author is saying X”, one should be looking at what the author is not saying which constitutes what they are trying to say. What the author’s words are not saying reveals who the author is—especially when you compare what they are not saying in one book with what they are saying in another. Most importantly, what the author is not saying also reveals who you are as a reader because it is through this supplemental structure of your “Other” words which makes the author’s meanings possible. Meanings are produced through the glimmers between “binary oppositions”: word / context (signifier / signified), author / reader, speech / writing, life / death, feminine / masculine, man / woman, past / future, public / private, outside / inside, absence / presence, reason / passion, who / what, etc.
In Derrida’s documentary, he asks why Martin Heidegger and G.W.F. Hegel presents themselves asexually in their work (to be sure, we are not making a porno film). He also wonders why they never talk about their private lives. Clearly, Derrida was interested in what both Heidegger and Hegel are not saying in their works which constitutes their work as such. Even if we look beyond Derrida, most of us are aware that a writer or a philosopher’s life affects the work they produce. This is also part of the reason why Derrida thinks that, with specific precautions, autobiographies can become a powerful form of writing. This is not only because autobiographies are often confessional, but because the difference between what is said and not said produces meanings about the author via self-reflection.
However, Derrida also thinks that people tend to privilege one side of the binary opposition over the other. In Of Grammatology (1967), Rousseau becomes Derrida’s center of attention. Like Saussure and Socrates, Rousseau thought speech was more natural than writing because it represents a more naturalistic form of expression that directly comes from our thoughts; whereas writing is a representation of speech that is secondary. This led Derrida to “deconstruct” (interpret) Rousseau by asking why he privileged speech over writing, yet felt the need to write down his thoughts in order to express himself in his famous autobiography called, The Confessions. Rousseau later revealed that speech, while being more natural, was partly “deficient” in the sense that it cannot travel over long distances and won’t last through the test of time. Hence, writing was required in order to supplement speech. It is the difference between speech / writing where Rousseau’s confessions are produced. Let us read a short passage by Derrida:
“When Nature, as self proximity comes to be forbidden or interrupted, when speech fails to protect presence, writing becomes necessary. It must be added to the word urgently.[…] [Writing] is the addition of a technique, a sort of artificial and artful ruse to make speech present when it is actually absent. It is a violence done to the natural destiny of language.[…] But the supplement supplements. It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it fills a void.[…] Compensatory and vicarious, the supplement is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes-(the)-place. As substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness.” [my italics] (OG, p. 144-145; 1997 edition).
This is where Rousseau famously asserts “Nature denatures itself” which suggests that what is most natural—such as speech—always had the space for supplementation by the unnatural. In this sense, writing functions like an instrument, a technology, or an unnatural method. Derrida traces this thought to Rousseau’s famous text called, “Essay on the Origins of Languages”. In it, Rousseau speaks of how people from early history used unnatural methods to produce fire in order to supplement the natural warmth of the sun during the winter. People discovered unnatural ways to survive the winter due to the deficiency of Nature. People manipulate Nature by building dams, etc. and supplement what Nature cannot consistently provide. Elsewhere, Rousseau talks about the natural deficiency of a child where they require supplementation and nurturing by culture and education. Derrida writes:
“Like Nature’s love, ‘there is no substitute for a mother’s love’ says Emile [Rousseau]. It is in no way supplemented, that is to say it does not have to be supplemented, it suffices and is self-sufficient; but that also means that it is irreplaceable; what one would substitute for it would not equal it, would be only a mediocre makeshift. Finally it means that Nature does not supplement itself at all; Nature’s supplement does not proceed from Nature, it is not only inferior to but other than Nature.
Yet all education, the keystone of Rousseauist thought, will be described or presented as a system of substitution destined to reconstitute Nature’s edifice in the most natural way possible. The first chapter of Emile announces the function of this pedagogy. Although there is no substitute for a mother’s love, ‘it is better that the child should suck the breast of a healthy nurse rather than a petted mother, if he has any further evil to fear from her who has given him birth’. It is indeed culture or cultivation that must supplement a deficient nature, a deficiency that cannot by definition be anything but an accident and a deviation from Nature.” [my italics and underline] (OG, p. 145-146).
In this case, culture is what we are referring as unnatural. Here, we recognize the binary opposition between natural and unnatural where nature supplements itself by denaturing itself. Where is the evil when the violence of the unnatural is part of Nature? For example, think about sciences and technologies that are used to genetically engineer food, or the machines that produce and reduce CO2 emissions. Are they “natural”? Make no mistake, Derrida is not saying that we should destroy Nature. Rather, he is trying to show us how the otherness of Nature (the unnatural) is produced through Nature and contingency as an “accident” that unfolds before the human subject from a “future to come”. In other words, the movement between Nature and culture consists of improvisation, play (bricolage), and differences.
This leads to Derrida’s famous line, “there is no outside text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte). The outside is the inside. What belonged outside of Nature becomes the inside through supplementary differences. This supplementation is what Derrida refer as “archi-violence”—the most originary form of violence that occurs through pure contingency of the Other (will get to this later). Thus, Rousseau’s apparently “inauthentic” and “incestuous” written representation of his speech becomes authentic, even if it is an unnatural invention that originates from outside of Nature.
Finally, think about my last post on black slavery that I wrote in my underwear: “Can a person of color proclaim their liberation through the language of their colonizers?”. Think about the violence of external powers colonizing a territory; or the colonizer’s language that usurps the colonized subject. It is not a coincidence that the theme of archi-violence (“the outside is the inside”) was found in many post-colonial theories shortly after Derrida published Of Grammatology in 1967 (Spivak, Said, Bhabha, etc.). As we can see, some serious ethical questions arises. On one hand, if the outside (i.e. English language) is the inside of the colonized subject, then one can argue that the person of color can proclaim their liberation through the language of their colonizers (in the same way that Rousseau’s inauthentic writing becomes authentic). Yet, on the other hand, this proclamation also acknowledges the internalization of external forces which highlights the origins of archi-violence that is found in the incestuous relationship between nature and culture. Nature denatures itself as the outside becomes its other without boundaries. If the latter is the case, then where is the evil found within its movement? How can we achieve “decolonization”? I will let you answer these questions because they get even more complicated once we consider other disciplines (i.e. etymology and ontology). This is one of the reasons why Derrida was interested in his fellow Jewish philosopher / friend, Emmanuel Levinas and his “face to face ethics”.
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Regardless of how provocative these differences might be, let us return to the concept of difference that occurs between a word and its context. Language is a gigantic system of words that creates meaning through differences of other words. The meaning of “life” varies depending on how you compare the word within your own context. An author who thinks they have excellent command of the meaning of “life” is annulled by the reader who unexpectedly reinterprets “life” through their own supplementary differences—of what the author is not saying. Whenever we read a text, our interpretation will always miss the differential structure that the original author implied. This is due to the near infinite ways we can piece together words which is influenced by our own personal experiences, values, etc. We are constantly re-contextualizing words as we acquire new knowledge. As a result, this textual motion sets out contingent outcomes of meanings. As readers, you can already see the allusions that I am making to Rousseau’s “dangerous supplement” between natural / unnatural. Only that I am presenting it under a different context.
Now, as we read Derrida’s Of Grammatology for example, we tend to immediately situate Derrida’s words into specific context in order to give it meaning. Only that Derrida speaks through multi-contextual layers of words that plays and compares with other systems of words from other texts which makes it difficult to produce stable meanings. This is what Derrida calls “archi-writing”: an originary form of writing that is written through differences. Derrida is intentionally doing this to force you (the reader) to play within differences and “understand” what he is trying to say through your own supplementary differences. We know that when we read Derrida, we are reading him read other author’s works. Derrida’s writings often talks about what the authors are not saying in their works by comparing it with their other works (this is why Derrideans are often found in comparative literature). In turn, this produces the meanings of what the author is saying through Derrida’s own supplementary differences (which in secret, are the reader’s differences—as in the readers who are reading Derrida read the author’s works).
This leads us to our question: How do we read Derrida when he is all about how you read him? This includes the post you are currently reading because you are interpreting Bobby interpreting Derrida interpret X. To tell you the truth, I never had the intention to answer this question. Perhaps the question that we should be asking is: when we read Derrida’s words, is it “I” the reader, who produces the meaning that Derrida is trying to make? Or is it through what Derrida’s words are not via my own supplementary differences / contexts that makes me read Derrida the way I did? We already know the answer: it is the “Other” words that I supplement which produces meaning out of Derrida’s text. It is the differential “Other” who wins and defines what Derrida is saying. Thus, the final form of our question: what is the significance of this “Other” and what does she/he want to say to me and who I am as a person as I interpret texts (literature, novels, etc.)? In this sense, self-reflection becomes crucial if I want to discover who I am as a person (yet, there is also a division within self-reflection between the difference of past / future).
Derrida shows us that our identities and meanings are produced through differences that are underwritten by contingency. This makes Derrida subject to being accused for nihilism (i.e. Jordan Peterson and Stephen Hicks). We must understand that Derrida does not ignore facts. Neither does he reject science or tolerate solipsism. What he really questions is whether anyone can guarantee the meanings that an individual up holds for themselves (i.e. their identity, values, ethics, world view, philosophies, etc.) will remain exactly the same over long periods of time. This is because Derrida saw how events changes our contextual and epistemological frameworks, which influences our perceptions of our present space. Events such as: the confrontation of death, falling in / out of love, war, climate change, trauma, reading a novel, acquiring new knowledge, etc. In the same way, one cannot guarantee that, upon the second and third readings of the same novel, the reader will discover something new that they had not previously recognized. This is due to the infinite ways the reader plays with their supplementary differences through time which produces different outcomes of meanings. The contingency of the Other underlies all our interpretations.
Supplement, difference, and trace, are fundamental to reading and writing. It is essential to all human experiences. We never notice it because we take interpretation for granted in our daily lives (we listen to others talk, we write to them on social media, we listen to music, we read books, we look at art, etc.). Despite all the complicated moves Derrida makes, his message is simple once we consider the first word of our question and understand that the “how” functions as the play of differences: between what is said and what is not said. How you interpret nature, people, events, novels, or films; how you interpret life, death, love, space, and time; or how you interpret anything, tells you about who and what you are as a human being. What is it that you are not telling others that makes you do the things you do in your life? This is what Derrida wants you to think about—to self-reflect; to deconstruct differences. —Thus, let us once again ask: What does it mean to be a Derridean?
“…the dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy. You will say I too am a dreamer; I admit it, but I do what others fail to do, I give my dreams as dreams, and leave the reader to discover whether there is anything in them which may prove useful to those who are awake.” —Jean-Jacques Rousseau