Other Writing

Orchid Mantis Profile (2015)

Working Through Of Grammatology

In his book Of Grammatology (40th Anniversary Edition cited throughout), Jacques Derrida makes it clear that he is unsettled by both the linguistic science and the understanding of the relationship between speech and writing that have achieved common consent. All the philosophical and scientific discourses on linguistics up to Derrida have arrived upon a theory of language that holds speech as the primary expression, writing as derivative of this primacy, and the sign as the object of study. Furthermore, in spite of the apparent sedimentation of this science of language, as made possible by Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, the study of language has yet to identify its transcendental condition. This is clear in that there has been no reduction of the sign, such that our understanding of the value of the sign still relies upon it gaining meaning from the infinity of the signs that it is not. It is this illusion of progress that Derrida attacks. Instead of a writing representing an original speech, Derrida argues for what he calls arche-writing, which is not writing in our exact understanding of the word, but a system which seeks to explain, among other things, why we are left with a system of signs only gaining meaning from themselves, why there can be a breach between what is intended to be meant and what is conveyed, and why the meaning of a text is caught in a never ending cycle of deferral to a future presence.

Derrida first introduces us to arche-writing on page 61. What is at stake is the idea that writing is derivative of a speech that is the primary form of expression. He insists that writing can only have ever been derivative if there never was a point of derivation, an “originary” language, a true “living speech.” (p. 61) This statement presents itself to me as a sort of working backwards towards the “black hole” which we continue to talk about: writing from speech, speech from what? Derrida acknowledges that though using the term arche-writing is problematic, it is only done because it corresponds to our common or “vulgar” understanding of writing: exteriorization, secondariness, inscription; all of which, as I understand Derrida, can be attributed just as much to speech, which also works itself out through difference, or in relation to that which it is not, namely, the absence of speech. He ends this passage, however, by cautioning those who might attempt to study arche-writing as the object of a science, as it is that “very thing which cannot let itself be reduced to a presence,” (p. 61) presence being a necessary condition for the formation of a theoretical framework; more than just arbitrariness and difference, arche-writing is indeed the possibility of both. On these grounds, Derrida denounces the Saussurean “scientification” of writing as an illusion.

Several pages later, Derrida reiterates the error of setting out a scientific framework for arche-writing. In dispensing with Hjelmslev’s glossematics, a theory which seems to me just a restatement of much of what Saussure proposes in the Course, he is also calling into question theories of experience. According to Derrida, experience, a concept that must be acknowledged as fundamentally misrepresentative of itself and thus be considered under erasure, describes proximity to a presence, whether conscious or not. Hjelmslev makes appeals to a transcendental “theory” of experience that is totally “independent,”(p. 66) a theory which can stand on its own without relying upon any other regional or cognate theories. Derrida points out that this experience of proximity, by the very nature of the word, is a regional experience leading to regional sciences (“historical, psychological, physiological, sociological, etc.” ibid.).

On the contrary, experience as arche-writing is radically non-regional because the trace is non-present. In order to “parenthesize,” regionalize, enclose, however, regions or all of experience, we’d have determine the transcendental condition of experience, a universal condition that gives form to experience but allows for its variation. This is what must happen with language: everything that is metaphysically not must be determined, and the origin of the system that remains must be put under a microscope. If we fail to determine the nature of the linguistic system and the science which holds it as its object, while at the same time continuing to treat language as we always have, we are conceding to an “unperceived or unconfessed metaphysics.” (ibid.) So that we don’t make this concession, in this instance, Derrida says, we have to accept a transcendental critique that at other times might itself be the object of critique. This is possible by virtue of there being a “short-of” and “beyond of” (ibid.) transcendental critique. I still struggle to grasp the exact nature of this distinction, but for the purposes of the argument, I have assumed it to mean that the former is a transcendentality that does not satisfactorily reveal the truth of itself, and the latter is one that does.

Regardless, Derrida insists they are both equally as necessary, for “[to] see to it that the beyond does not return to the short-of is to recognize in the contortion the necessity of a trail.” (ibid.) In other words, as far as the matter is concerned, there can be no success without the recognition that there might have been failure. Otherwise, success and failure are awfully similar; they’re both just an outcome. Derrida says that acknowledging this resemblance is “erasure,” and startlingly, that the arche-trace, trail, wake, has to “make its necessity felt before letting itself be erased.” (ibid.) In truth, the arche-trace is not the vanishing of the origin; there was never an origin to vanish, it was back-formed as the posited origin of the trace, when in fact just the opposite the force was at work: the trace is the origin of the origin.

I’m not fully comfortable with my understanding of transcendental phenomenology, but Derrida seems to use the term analogously to transcendental experience, the “absolute form” (p. 67) of which Husserl conceived as the Living Present. Its descriptions of temporalization apparently match Derrida’s description of the necessity of the movement of the trace: they both consider non-presence to be as “originary” as presence. Yet Derrida has already shown that we cannot simmer down the trace and be left with a transcendental experience/phenomenology. For this reason, “the trace can no more break with a transcendental phenomenology than be reduced to it.” (ibid.)

Derrida considers this theme later, as it relates to spacing, “the becoming-space of time and the becoming-time of space,” (p. 74). He describes spacing as the essential difference in language. Spacing marks the non-present within the present, and because of this, he admits that it really exceeds phenomenology.  It could be, on the one hand, that Derrida is moving to destroy the notion of arche-writing as simply spacing within a phenomenology of writing, because whereas the latter relies on its presence, the former is entirely non-present, and therefore cannot be the non-presence within presence. Alternatively, that might be precisely what Derrida is suggesting, that arche-writing is essentially the non-presence, the spacing, within the phenomenological presence, and for this reason cannot be “confused” with it. This second view seems to be the more likely. In any case, Derrida proceeds to explain that a phenomenology of writing as focused on the sign is impossible, because “no intuition can be realized in the place where ‘the ‘whites’ indeed take on an importance.” (ibid) He must be using intuition in the phenomenological sense,i meaning that we cannot come to understand the true essence of a system in which non-presence (the whites) is as important as presence (the sign). This position is a mirror of Derrida’s earlier description of the movement of the trace within a transcendental phenomenology.

Derrida later extends his analysis of the trace as relevant to the formation of the regional sciences themselves. In the third chapter of part one, under the section “The Rebus and the Complicity of Origins,” Derrida discusses the sense in which psychoanalysis is “archontic,” or constitutive of the arche-trace, for other regional sciences. On the basis that psychoanalysis is concerned with the origins of objectivity and value, such that nothing really can be rooted out as good or bad from an objective theoretical framework, but must be estimated to be so by a subject, Derrida says that psychoanalysis is not merely another regional science. (He also hints that the fact that most people consider it to be one is indicative of a certain amount of disregard for the practice.) Even if psychoanalysis fails to achieve a pure transcendentality in the manner of the arche-trace, it can be seen as archontic to the other regional sciences. My interpretation of his supporting argument is that the object of psychoanalysis is the workings of the subject who, by using writing, mathematics, abstract thinking, etc., creates objectivity. Thus, the “ideal objectivity” of all regional sciences must trickle through the “investments” (p. 95) of writing.

All of these threads, (the idea of arche-writing as possibility, the necessity of the movement of the trace, the erasure of our understanding of it, the shakiness of origin) having been run parallel to one another, become tightly interwoven by one passage on the penultimate page of Part One. Once we began to question the origin of phoneticization, we saw the muddling of its origin with those of that which its movement revealed itself to enable: “science, religion, politics, economy, technics, law, art.” (p. 100). We are distinctly hard pressed to untangle these origins, for phoneticization presents itself as a fundamental condition in most every case. It is entirely necessary, though, for such an untangling to occur, because if these origins remain muddled, then none of these sciences are rigorously delimited, and in order for them to remain standing on their own, we have to again appeal to an “unconfessed metaphysics.” Derrida says that is why we must recognize “this complicity of origins” (ibid.) as arche-writing. I take this to mean that the fact that all of these ostensibly distinct sciences cannot find a true individuality of origin, appealing to their own transcendental phenomenology, hearkens them all back to the murky black hole, an originary non-presence that, as Derrida has shown, is possible only through the movement of the trace, which, in making its presence felt, is indeed the origin of this non-present origin.

In summary, Derrida’s project is to put forth an entirely honest discourse on the science of language. We are not where we thought we were. He seems at times to suggest that we might not even know where we are. He does this by giving us the concept of arche-writing, which is not literal inscription, but really at once the possibility and the workings of our current system of language. He proceeds to show, however, that the implications of arche-writing do not limit themselves to language, and that the sad fact that we still cannot scientifically reason out the true origin of, well, anything, is the cause of the sacrosanctity of many other things, some of which (like ethnocentrism) have violent ends.