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Derrida and Writing

Derrida’s larger project is anti-humanist in the sense that he does not want origins or “fixed presence? of structure or a genesis of subjects. In order for Derrida to conduct his project, which essentially does away with a stable subject, he had to privilege writing. Put differently, to undo the inheritance of Platonic “truth-seeking? (or words as representative of an essence) and an accessible ontological presence, Derrida first had to attack speech as a superior vessel of intended meaning and authentic truth by privileging writing. Furthermore, to push the ontological difference further, which Heidegger posed, Derrida had to look at a representational form of language already premised upon the absence of a subject before he could move to other forms of communication. Although Derrida concedes that no stable referent or presence is possible in oral communication, theorizing absence through writing illustrates a more accessible means through which to establish an ontological modification of presence—since the subject generating the “mark? is inherently removed in writing. Derrida notes, “This structural possibility of being weaned from the referent or from the signified (hence from communication and from its context) seems to make every mark, including those which are oral, a grapheme in general … cut off from its putative ‘production’ or origin. And I shall even extend this law to all ‘experience’ in general as it is conceded that there is no experience consisting of pure presence but only of chains of differential marks? (1482).

In other words, Derrida posits writing as a productive example for his project of the “continuous modification of presence? or a rupture in presence, which, for him, is fundamentally exposing the quest for stability as a mistake and the indeterminate play of differences as desirable. Moreover, Derrida sees a misguided effort in the desire to posit the intentionality of a subject because it can only produce teleological readings/understanding. Derrida is careful to assert that there is nothing “outside? the mark; rather, he states that every mark can break with any given context “engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable … this does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchorage? (1483). In my reading, Derrida does not assume that one needs a transcendent signifier (center), rather, the duplication of the mark or “iterability? of the mark is not an “anomaly?; it is what allows the mark to have anything close to a function “called ‘normal’? (1483-84). In sum, Derrida poses the question: “What would a mark be that could not be cited?? In Derrida’s world, one must think of the interplay of differential marks as intrinsic to language—for this Derrida chooses the word “différance.? He states “this deferral must be capable of being carried to certain absoluteness of absence if the structure of writing … is to constitute itself? (1479).

Writing serves as the ideal site for Derrida to work out his project because for him ecriture “axiomatically? (if I can use that word w/ D.) is a representation that can more easily be posited as removed or “absent? from the “presence? of the speaker/subject. This move is necessary for Derrida to assert that writing is not just a convenient substitute for the original; rather, it represents the true nature of language, which cannot be totalized. Thus, Derrida can push the ontological difference further than Heidegger who posits, “language is the house of Being.? His project is at its core metaphysical in the sense that he wants to attack philosophical ontology that has origins and seeks to restore presence, which ultimately denies language and privileges the subject.

As Said says better than I can possibly articulate: “Derrida wants us to see—if not to understand—that so long as we believe that language is mainly a representation of something else, we cannot see what language does; so long as we are expecting to understand language in terms of some primitive essence to which it is a functional addition, then we cannot see that any use of language means not only representation but, paradoxically, the end or permanent deferring of representation and the beginning of something else, which he calls writing. So long as we do not see that writing, more accurately and materially than speaking, signifies language being used not simply as a substitute for something better than itself but as an activity all its own, we cannot recognize that ‘something better’ is a fundamental illusion. In short, we will remain in the grip of ‘metaphysics’? (Edward Said, “The Problems of Textuality? 689-90).

Kim TP