Meyer H. Abrams
It is often said that Derrida and those who follow his lead subordinate all inquiries to a prior inquiry into language. This is true enough, but not specific enough, for it does not distinguish Derrida’s work from what Richard Rorty calls “the linguistic turn” which characterizes modern Anglo-American philosophy and also a great part of Anglo-American literary criticism, including the “New Criticism,” of the last half-century. What is distinctive about Derrida is first that, like other French structuralists, he shifts his inquiry from language to écriture, the written or printed text; and second that he conceives a text in an extraordinarily limited fashion.
Derrida’s initial and decisive strategy is to disestablish the priority, in traditional views of languages, of speech over writing. By priority I mean the use of oral discourse as the conceptual model from which to derive the semantic and other features of written language and of language in general. And Derrida’s shift of elementary reference is to a written text which consists of what we find when we look at it--to “un texte déjà écrit, noir sur blanc.” In the dazzling play of Derrida’s expositions, his ultimate recourse is to these black marks on white paper as the sole things that are actually present in reading, and so are not fictitious constructs, illusions, phantasms; the visual features of these black-on-blanks he expands in multiple dimensions of elaborately figurative significance, only to contract them again, at telling moments, to their elemental status. The only things that are patently there when we look at the text are “marks” that are demarcated, and separated into groups, by “blanks;” there are also “spaces,” “margins,” and the “repetitions” and “differences” that we find when we compare individual marks and groups of marks. By his rhetorical mastery Derrida solicits us to follow him in his move to these new premises, and to allow ourselves to be locked into them. This move is from what he calls the closed “logocentric” model of all traditional or “classical” views of language (which, he maintains, is based on the illusion of a Platonic or Christian transcendent being or presence, serving as the origin and guarantor of meanings) to what I shall call his own graphocentric model, in which the sole presences are marks-on-blanks.
By this bold move Derrida puts out of play, before the game even begins, every source of norms, controls, or indicators which, in the ordinary use and experience of language, set a limit to what we can mean and what we can be understood to mean. Since the only givens are already-existing marks, “déjà écrit,” we are denied recourse to a speaking or writing subject, or ego, or cogito, or consciousness, and so to any possible agency for the intention of meaning something (“vouloir dire”); all such agencies are relegated to the status of fictions generated by language, readily dissolved by deconstructive analysis. By this move he leaves us no place for referring to how we learn to speak, understand, or read language, and how, by interaction with more competent users and by our own developing experience with language, we come to recognize and correct our mistakes in speaking or understanding. The author is translated by Derrida (when he’s not speaking in the momentary shorthand of traditional fictions) to a status as one more mark among other marks, placed at the head or the end of a text or set of texts, which are denominated as “bodies of work identified according to the ‘proper name’ of a signature.” Even syntax, the organization of words into a significant sentence, is given no role in determining the meanings of component words, for according to the graphocentric model, when we look at a page we see no organization but only a “chain” of grouped marks, a sequence of individual signs.
It is the notion of “the sign” that allows Derrida a limited opening out of his premises. For he brings to a text the knowledge that the marks on a page are not random markings, but signs, and that a sign has a dual aspect as signifier and signified, signal and concept, or mark-with-meaning. But these meanings, when we look at a page, are not there, either as physical or mental presences. To account for significance, Derrida turns to a highly specialized and elaborated use of Saussure’s notion that the identity either of the sound or of the signification of a sign does not consist in a positive attribute, but in a negative (or relational) attribute--this is, its “difference,” or differentiability, from other sounds and other significations within a particular linguistic system. This notion of difference is readily available to Derrida, because inspection of the printed page shows that some marks and sets of marks repeat each other, but that others differ from each other. In Derrida’s theory “difference”--not “the difference between a and b and c …” but simply “difference” in itself--supplements the static elements of a text with an essential operative term, and as such (somewhat in the fashion of the term “negativity” in the dialectic of Hegel) it performs prodigies. For “difference” puts into motion the incessant play (jeu) of signification that goes on within the seeming immobility of the marks on the printed page.
To account for what is distinctive in the signification of a sign, Derrida puts forward the term “trace,” which he says is not a presence, though it functions as a kind of “simulacrum” of a signified presence. Any signification that difference has activated in a signifier in the past remains active as a “trace” in the present instance as it will in the future, and the “sedimentation” of traces which a signifier has accumulated constitutes the diversity in the play of its present significations. This trace is an elusive aspect of a text which is not, yet functions as though it were; it plays a role without being “present;” it “appears/ disappears;” “in presenting itself it effaces itself.” Any attempt to define or interpret the significance of a sign or chain of signs consists in nothing more than the interpreter’s putting in its place another sign or chain of signs, “sign-substitutions,” whose self-effacing traces merely defer laterally, from substitution to substitution, the fixed and present meaning (or the signified “presence”) we vainly pursue. The promise that the trace seems to offer of a presence on which the play of signification can come to rest in a determinate reference is thus never realizable, but incessantly deferred, put off, delayed. Derrida coins what in French is the portmanteau term différance (spelled -ance, and fusing the notions of differing and deferring) to indicate the endless play of generated significances, in which the reference is interminably postponed. The conclusion, as Derrida puts it, is that “the central signified, the originating or transcendental signified” is revealed to be “never absolutely present outside a system of differences,” and this “absence of an ultimate signified extends the domain and play of signification to infinity.”
What Derrida’s conclusion comes to is that no sign or chain of signs can have a determinate meaning, But is seems to me that Derrida reaches this conclusion by a process which, in its own way, is no less dependent on an origin, ground, and end, and which is no less remorselessly “teleological,” than the most rigorous of the metaphysical systems that he uses his conclusions to deconstruct. His origin and ground are his graphocentric premises, the closed chamber of texts for which he invites us to abandon our ordinary realm of experience in speaking, hearing, reading, and understanding language. And from such a beginning we move to a foregone conclusion. For Derrida’s chamber of texts is a sealed echo-chamber in which meanings are reduced to a ceaseless echolalia, a vertical and lateral reverberation from sign to sign of ghostly nonpresences emanating from no voice, intended by no one, referring to nothing, bombinating in a void.
For the mirage of traditional interpretation, which vainly undertakes to determine what an author meant, Derrida proposes the alternative that we deliver ourselves over to a free participation in the infinite free-play of signification opened out by the signs in a text. And on this cheerless prospect of language and the cultural enterprise in ruins Derrida bids us to try to gaze, not with a Rousseauistic nostalgia for a lost security as to meaning which we never in fact possessed, but instead with “a Nietzschean affirmation, the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without error [faute], without truth, without origin, which is offered to an active interpretation….And it plays without security.…In absolute chance, affirmation also surrenders itself to genetic indeterminacy, to the seminal chanciness [aventure] of the trace.” The graphocentric premises eventuate in what is patently a metaphysics, a world-view of the free and unceasing play of différance which (since we can only glimpse this world by striking free of language, which inescapably implicates the entire metaphysics of presence that this view replaces) we are not able even to name. Derrida’s vision is thus, as he puts it, of an “as yet unnamable something which cannot announce itself except…under the species of a non-species, under the formless form, mute, infant, and terrifying, of monstrosity.”
D B GAVANI