Deciding Derrida

David Hoy on the work (and play) of the French philosopher

Of the essays collected and excellently translated in Dissemination, the best example of Derrida’s own practice of the deconstructive criticism he fathered is ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’.[*] Here he pursues his question why the metaphysical tradition from Plato to the present subordinates writing to speech. Derrida is not claiming to reverse Plato and to subordinate speech acts to écriture, intentions to texts. His suggestion is rather that the attempt throughout the history of philosophy to think about the relations of language, truth and reality is continually biased by the misguided oppositions between writing and speech, signifier and signified, the metaphorical and the literal, presence and absence, sense and intellect, nature and culture, or even male and female. For Derrida these dichotomies are set up not rationally, but with an implicit preference for one side or the other. His procedure for showing the prior exclusion of the other side is to study not the logic but the rhetoric used in such cases as Plato’s attack on writing, especially the metaphors and myths in the Phaedrus.

In particular, Derrida draws our attention to Plato’s frequent presentation of writing as a drug, a pharmakon. Words can be drugs, and like a drug the one word pharmakon can be taken to mean either cure or poison. Hemlock, for instance, poisons Socrates, but Socrates employs both rhetoric and metaphysics to argue that he is actually being cured. Similarly, in the Phaedrus’s mythical account of the origins of writing, the god Theuth invents writing and wants to give it to humanity as a gift. Theuth presents it as a pharmakon, meaning a beneficial ‘recipe’ for both memory and wisdom. However, the king who has the authority to accept the pharmakon hears the word differently and is suspicious of the addictive drug with its more probable narcotic effects.

The inventor of écriture is thus accused of smuggling drugs. The Czechoslovak authorities who arrested Derrida this January on the same charge may have been repeating the classic mistake of metaphysics by taking language as reality. Although having risked imprisonment in the name of the free discussion of philosophy certainly makes Derrida a political hero, it still will not make him a philosophical hero like Socrates. In fact, his play with puns and multiple meanings strikes his critics as the opposite of truth-seeking, and more like the eristics satirised in Plato’s Euthydemus. The attacks in the Academy on Derrida and de-construction run from the disdainful to the vehement, often implying the need to arrest such illicit activity. Are the charges against his writing legitimate, even if those against his person and political action in Prague were not?

Geoffrey Hartman’s Criticism in the Wilderness and now Saving the Text[†] represent an extensive and largely sympathetic rumination on Derrida’s textual practices and their influence. That Derrida has had considerable effect, whether for good or ill, on recent literary criticism in English cannot be denied, although there has been relatively little written on him by English-speaking philosophers (Richard Rorty being a notable exception). Many may think the peak of Derrida’s influence is past, but Hartman is still justified in saying that Derrida will not be forgotten, if only because he will not be forgiven.

Exactly what is so unforgettable is difficult to say from Hartman’s discussions, however, and this very difficulty may well be what motivated him to devote so much attention to Derrida’s Glas, a continuation of the practice of dissemination. We do not learn much about the philosophical content of Glas from Hartman, but he is suggesting that despite a long exposition of some remote parts of Hegel, the book is not a work of philosophy. Similarly, despite the attention in the other half of the book to Genet, it is not a piece of literary criticism either. Taking his cue from the idiosyncratic presentation of these two seemingly unrelated halves of the book in separate columns on each page, Hartman prefers to think of it as breaking with any identifiable genre and becoming a new art-form in its own right. His subtitle spatially represents Derrida as being undecidably in between literature and philosophy. Treating Glas as an art-form allows Hartman to dwell on its stylistic complexities – its puns, solecisms and typographical oddities as well as its lack of a beginning, end and signature. To ask about the point of Glas, or its argument, would then be a mistake.

Of course, there is a point, for style and content are not as disjunct as the columns on Derrida’s pages. Derrida’s notion of writing explodes the very idea of the Book, whether philosophical or literary. Traditional interpretive assumptions, such as that a book is or ought to form a totality or whole, with an underlying unity preferably provided by an author’s explicit intention, are said to be vestiges of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ or ‘logo-centrism’ that led Plato to think of truth as the presence of a formal reality in the language and mind of a speaker. Hartman has long been concerned with literary examples of the desire for unmediated vision, and now with Derrida’s Glas he has a case of writing no longer based either on ‘the wish to put ourselves in an unmediated relation to whatever “really” is, to know something absolutely’ or on ‘a desire to be defined totally’.

Critics of Derrida’s earlier works implied that if his attempt to sustain arguments against the notions of truth, reference and reality succeeded, these works themselves could not have been written, or at least that if Derrida really believed what he was saying, his subsequent books would be very odd. Glas seems to have been written simply to say: ‘Yes, very odd indeed – in fact, whether it is even a “book” is precisely the question.’ Derrida could then indicate Hartman’s many essays on it as evidence that even such a text will have its readers.

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[*] Dissemination by Jacques Derrida, translated by Barbara Johnson. Athlone Press, 366 pp., £25, 10 December 1981, 0 485 30005 2.

[†] Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy by Geoffrey Hartman. Johns Hopkins University Press, 224 pp., £7.75, 30 July 1981, 0 8018 2452 4.