Return of Oedipus

Stephen Bann

  • Dissemination by Jacques Derrida
    Athlone, 366 pp, £25.00, December 1981, ISBN 0 485 30005 2

Jacques Derrida once defined his intellectual project with the aid of an image from the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale. It was a question, he suggested, of ‘vomiting up’ philosophy and restoring her to the ‘sea of texts’ from which she had proudly withdrawn. Those who would like to take the allegory further might reflect that Jonah was not in fact precipitated into the sea but onto dry land, and lost no time in prophesying doom to the great city of Nineveh. Derrida’s message has indeed caused increasing disarray in the citadels of Academe over the past decade, and particularly in those of America. If American philosophers, such as John Searle, have reacted dismissively, the same has not been true of those restless denizens of the sea of texts, the literary critics. Geoffrey Hartman’s Saving the Text, whose subtitle hopefully sandwiches Derrida between the two bastions of ‘Literature’ and ‘Philosophy’, is a recent and highly impressive example of the recuperative effort which has been expended in responding to the challenge.

Writing in the last issue of this review, the American philosopher David Hoy gives courteous attention to Hartman’s redemptive strategy. But he remains sceptical about Derrida’s influence and, in the last resort, dismissive of his claims. For him, Derrida practises a ‘recognisable genre’, that of bringing philosophy to an end. But where Wittgenstein, for example, practises the genre for therapeutic purposes, Derrida’s enterprise has the same ambiguity as he detects in Plato’s use of the term pharmakon in the Phaedrus: it is either a poison or a cure. Hoy indeed goes further than this, and suggests that Derrida’s obstinate dedication to ambiguity may cause him to fall, irretrievably, between two stools. ‘We could decide his texts were neither literature nor philosophy, nor anything else.’

For someone who is more keenly aware of being adrift in the ‘sea of texts’, this categorical judgment is hard to accept. Hoy’s arguments are sound enough. But they do not take full account of the scope of Derrida’s achievement. Nor, it seems to me, do they diagnose the real challenge which Derrida is now obliged to face. Barbara Johnson’s painstaking translation of La Dissémination (1972) certainly comes to us as a dividend of American preoccupation with Derrida. But the questions which it raises go beyond his current notoriety, and recall us to the literary and intellectual context in which the work was first produced. Where does it belong in the sequence of his publications? How does it stand in relation to the heroic enterprise of ‘vomiting up’ philosophy? If Derrida has taught us nothing else, he has taught us to be sceptical about questions such as these, which take for granted an easily extracted ‘content’ and a teleologically-ordered direction within a sequence of texts. Nevertheless the attempt at elucidation has to be made.

One generalisation may be risked at the outset. Over the years since the publication of Grammatology and Writing and Difference in 1967, Derrida’s work has come to be presented less and less as a philosophic discourse, and more and more as a poetic discourse. The central notion of Grammatology – that there should be a theory of the written text as such – has been put into practice through an unremitting attention to questions of structure and form. The conventional form of the book as a sequence of chapters, anticipated in an omniscient Preface and summed up in a succint Conclusion, has been criticised and, as it were, exploded from within. Dissemination belongs midway in this process. The preliminary ‘Outwork’ (Hors-Texte) is a brilliant exploration of the metaphysical assumptions which underlie the convention of the prefatory text. The three following sections carry to an extreme the balance between citation and commentary which is the distinguishing mark of the learned article or critical review. Nevertheless the balance has not yet been tipped irretrievably towards citation, as in Glas (1974). Nor has the spatio-temporal unity of the book been sacrificed to the deceptively casual journal or ‘postcard’ form employed in recent works.

On one level, this process can be described as an imitative one. Derrida has adapted particular literary techniques, the distinctive styles of a number of French writers, to his own purposes. A clear example would be the borrowing from Genet of the device of two parallel, critically-related columns of text, which becomes the dominant form of Glas and is already anticipated in Dissemination by the embedding of Mallarmé’s ‘Mimique’ in Plato’s Philebus which launches the second section. Yet Derrida is never a mere magpie, stealing fancy devices. His borrowings are always put to work. The Jewish poet Edmond Jabès, whose Kabbalistic concept of the Book Derrida explored admiringly in Writing and Difference, has himself more recently paid tribute to the rigour of Derrida’s critical exploration and to the rich texture of cross-references which has been extended with every publication.

In addition to Jabès, a poetic parallel which has become ever more apparent is the remarkably individual work of Francis Ponge. By the stage of La Verité en Peinture (1978), Derrida quotes freely from Ponge. But the accents of Ponge’s playful, quasi-didactic rhetoric, steadily applied to the investigation of objects and the material world, resonate throughout Derrida’s later writings. Marges (a collection published in the same year as Dissemination) includes a flourish on the theme of the signature which vividly recalls Ponge’s poem, ‘Le Pré’. Doubtless it is Ponge’s use of the journal form for a kind of poetic and philosophical reverie, in works like La Rage de I’Expression (1952) and La Fabrique du Pré (1971), which lies behind Derrida’s recent choice of the same device.

It is worth pointing out at this stage that both Genet’s two-column text and Ponge’s ‘Le Pré’ were first published in the magazine Tel Quel. For Dissemination can hardly be understood without reference to the poetic and philosophical project of the Tel Quel group, at its liveliest juncture during the years of political and intellectual ferment which followed the events of May 1968. Dissemination was not merely published (like Writing and Difference five years before) as a contribution to Le Seuil’s Collection ‘Tel Quel’. Of its three substantive sections, two were initially published in successive numbers of the magazine in 1968 and 1970, and one of these (‘The Double Session’) was submitted to lengthy preliminary consideration by the ‘Groupe d’Etudes Théoriques’ gathered around Tel Quel. The third, originally published in 1969, was a review of a recent novel by one of Tel Quel’s founder members, Philippe Sollers.

Strangely enough, David Hoy’s review pays virtually no attention to this third major component of Dissemination. This may be because it is the most obviously ‘literary’ part, and indeed poses almost insuperable problems to the resourceful translator. But it would be a mistake to imagine that Derrida’s meditation on Sollers’s novel, which, after all, supplies the very title of the whole collection, can be so readily discarded. Perhaps more vividly than any of the other sections, it reveals the cultural and intellectual background against which the work was produced.

In other words, Dissemination cannot easily be divorced from this period of intense collaborative activity undertaken by the group and their sympathisers. However individual to Derrida, it arises from the same questioning of the role of the avant-garde in the light of recent political experience as other substantial works of the period, such as Roland Barthes’s Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971) and Julia Kristeva’s La Révolution du Langage Poétique (1974). The juxtaposition may appear obvious with regard to Kristeva’s work, which involves a reading of Mallarmé in most respects complementary to Derrida’s. It is perhaps more illuminating with regard to Barthes.

Barthes indeed uses the very term ‘disseminate’ (highlighted by Derrida in 1969) as a crucial reference in his Preface to Sade, Fourier, Loyola. He writes of the need to ‘fragment the ancient text of culture, science and literature, and disseminate its features according to unrecognisable formulae, in the same way as one dresses up stolen merchandise’. For Barthes, 1968 had removed the possibility of a critical science of signs, a secure standpoint from which to expose the workings of ideology. It had to be recognised that language had ‘no place outside bourgeois ideology’, and that the project of confronting that ideology through language was thus quite illusory. More oblique strategies had to be used – not confrontation but, as Barthes puts it, ‘theft’.

Dissemination is, for Barthes, the free spending of sperm – the avoidance of paternal law – as it is symbolised in the text of his first subject, Sade. For Derrida, it is also an oblique strategy, which seeks to avoid the heroics of confrontation. But to begin by interpreting it in philosophical terms would be to diminish its significance. Let us start on the detailed textual level. There is a tiny discrepancy between the first major section of Dissemination, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, and the original text as it was published in Tel Quel in 1968. In the first version, the article closes with a fragmented, deliberately obscure passage which refers to ‘three knocks’. In the later version, this has been altered to ‘Two knocks ... four’. Let no one imagine that this change is accidental or meaningless. It is part of the detailed, poetic structuring of the text which, in Derrida’s view, alone qualifies him to claim philosophical importance for his work.

Barbara Johnson puts the point succinctly in her introduction: ‘Both Numbers [the novel by Sollers] and Dissemination are attempts to enact rather than simply state the theoretical upheavals produced in the course of a radical re-evaluation of the nature and function of writing.’ Why does ‘three knocks’ have to go? Because Sollers’s Numbers is concerned throughout with repudiating triads and instating the numerical pattern ‘2 – 4’. Why does Sollers repudiate triads? Because he wishes to slough off the constraining triadic structures of Western thought: Dialectical, Oedipal and Trinitarian. Derrida is both endorsing Sollers’s philosophical project, and mimicking his poetics. No reference to ‘three’ can stand in a text which has now been placed in the same volume as that on Sollers.

It may be the destiny of any sympathetic review of Derrida to oscillate, as I have just done, between extreme particularity and a generality so vast as to invite irritated scepticism. An author who so intelligently and scrupulously covers his tracks leaves few points of access available. Nonetheless it is worth saying something more about the general strategy of dissemination, and the way in which the levels of the general and the particular are bridged. Dissemination is not the same as ‘polysemy’, or multiple meaning. When, in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, Derrida draws attention to the way in which the Greek term pharmakon is employed to mean both a poison and a remedy, he is not simply drawing attention to an ambiguity of meaning, which can be conjured away by pious axioms of semantic plurality. He is suggesting that such a systematic duality of meaning radically flaws the self-consistency of the text, and that it is in the nature of written discourse to be so flawed.

Equally, when Derrida considers the alternative possible readings of Mallarmé’s ‘Mimique’, he does not allow us to rest with the convenient notion of grammatical or syntactic ambiguity. The fact that we can give a phrase two totally different meanings, interpreting lit at one stage as a verb and at another as a noun, is consistent with Mallarmé’s own concern – in this text and others – to defer the relation between signifier and signified. A direct consequence of this kind of interpretation is Paul de Man’s suggestion, in the Preface to Allegories of Reading, that the provinces of rhetoric and grammar are entirely discontinuous. Despite the efforts of such theorists as Genette and Todorov, we cannot (according to de Man) expect to construct a normative rhetoric which will define and circumscribe the effects of figurative language, in the way that grammar defines the operations of ‘ordinary’ language. Once rhetoric is involved – and when is it not involved? – we stand before an abyss in which meanings spiral out of control – disseminate.

De Man is an excellent example of the influence of Dissemination. Equally, Geoffrey Hartman is a fine case of its betrayal, at least on the literal level. Derrida writes that he has no intention of engaging in ‘negative theology’, this being presumably the effect of refurbishing traditional attitudes precisely while denying or dissecting them. Negative theology is certainly involved in the claim made on the dust-jacket of Saving the Text: that ‘Derrida’s subjects are enhanced – “saved” – in the reader’s consciousness – by the creativity of his analysis.’ Against this American background, it is worth making some further remarks about the French context. Just as Dissemination belonged integrally to the programme of the Tel Quel group after 1968, so our retrospective assessment of it can hardly be unaffected by the substantial shift in the programme of Tel Quel – itself indicative of the far-reaching transformation in French culture since the mid-1970s.

Dissemination was the last work which Derrida published in the Tel Quel collection. In the decade since its publication, his concerns have not simply drifted apart from those of such central Tel Quel members as Sollers, Kristeva and Pleynet, but have become polemically opposed. This is particularly evident in the domain of the visual arts, where so many of Derrida’s more recent critiques of representation have been based, and where his influence on the younger generation of critics and artists has been perhaps more perceptible than in any other domain. Art theorists like Hubert Damisch and Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, whose publication Macula takes its title from Derrida, provide an interpretation of traditional and contemporary art which is diametrically opposed to that of Pleynet, and of the review Peinture – Cahiers Théoriques. While Derrida fastidiously dissects Cézanne’s claim to offer ‘the truth in painting’, Pleynet brings the study of Cézanne back to Catholicism, and the Lacanian concept of the ‘name of the father’. Trinitarian and Oedipal concepts ride again!

A further significant indication is the opening up of the pages of Tel Quel to the French, but American-based, scholar René Girard, whose two recent studies, Violence and the Sacred and Des Choses Cachées depuis la Fondation du Monde, are centrally concerned with the notion of the pharmakon. Girard acknowledges the brilliance of Derrida’s exposition in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’. But, where Derrida uses the dual meaning of the term to expose the internal inconsistency of Plato’s text, Girard sees it as evidence of the workings of a social mechanism which has immense anthropological ramifications. The pharmakon is the scapegoat, cast out of the city and sacrificed to ensure social harmony, and for that reason acquiring a sacred character. Girard’s interpretation does not of course exclude that of Derrida. It simply brings it up against a different framework of explanation. But this framework of explanation, relentlessly referential and social, itself presupposes structural constants in the human mind which Derrida has been concerned to ‘deconstruct’.

Derrida, it would seem, has remained on the burning deck when all around, or nearly all, have fled. But where does this resurgence of the old triadic structures derive from, despite Derrida, despite Foucault, despite the frontal attack of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipe? More than ever, the last quarter-century of French culture comes to seem the period of Lacan, in whom the three structures of Oedipus, the Trinity and the Dialectic acquired, for the first time, this troubling relationship of propinquity. Just as this translation of Dissemination is published, with its implicit attack on Lacan’s image of the upholstery button (‘point de capiton’) as linking the signifier and the signified, we have Lacan speaking again – in the first publication of the third volume of his Séminaire, dating from the mid-1950s, where the structuring role of the ‘point de capiton’ was first explained to an audience. Jonah may have prophesied doom to the city of Nineveh. But in the end, the Lord relented, and called him back to order.

What can the recalcitrant prophet do but invoke a higher authority, Freud against Lacan? Hoy is obviously right when he equates Derrida’s ambiguous Platonic pharmakon with the Freudian notion of double meaning, the Umheimlichkeit. For, in effect, an important section of Derrida’s most recent work, La Carte Postale (1980), is devoted to defending this notion of irreducible duplicity against Lacan’s efforts to ‘master’ it through the ‘triangular symbolic’ of the Séminaire. Evidently Derrida’s self-appointed role is now to drive a wedge between Freud and Lacan, to draw attention to the undoubted, if uncomfortable fact that Lacan’s ‘return to Freud’ has opened the way to a disconcerting series of questions, which Freud had hoped to relegate for good. If this is indeed Derrida’s purpose, he will have to do without the help of his erstwhile colleagues at Tel Quel, especially Philippe Sollers, who remarked in a recent number of the magazine: ‘What we are living through today is without doubt a boiling over of the sacred under the pressure of the return of the question of the Name of the Father.’ Here, perhaps, is as good a definition as we will get of what is agitating the ‘sea of texts’.