Derrida: Language, Text, and Possibilities
The documentary film Derrida (Dick and Kofman 2002) opens with camera shots of the waters of the river Seine in Paris, traffic on flyovers and bridges, cement mixers and industrial cranes, and the backs of apartment blocks. Over these shots Derrida tells us that he makes a distinction between the future and l’avenir, the “to come.” The future is “tomorrow, later, and the next century”: it is foreseeable and predictable. It is part of the ordinary, even mundane, dimension of things that the camera has shown us. We know that there will be a tomorrow or the year 2050, even if we do not know what will occur then. To think of l’avenir, on the other hand, is to imagine the arrival of something or somebody radically unpredictable and unexpected, the coming of the wholly Other. This sense of a Beyond, of what transcends conventional knowledge and prediction, is the sense of a kind of specter: of what is not real in any common or usual meaning of the word but is powerful enough “to haunt us with uncanny possibilities, above all, the haunting possibility of the impossible” (Caputo 1997).
The writings of Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) are haunted by this possibility of the impossible. Later in the film, he talks about the impossibility of real forgiveness. Often when we say we forgive someone, it is more a way of trying to rid ourselves of our anger and resentment, or perhaps it is, consciously or not, a strategic move to put someone who has done us harm at a disadvantage. Something would have to be unforgivable in these false ways of forgiving if it could be the possibility of our truly forgiving it. Derrida embraces the paradox: we can only (only really, we might say) forgive the unforgivable. Elsewhere Derrida writes in similar terms of giving and the gift (The Gift of Death, 1995) and of hospitality (Of Hospitality, 2000). Most of our giving is colored by barely suppressed thoughts of reciprocity: what shall I give her for her birthday, bearing in mind what she gave me for mine? How good a bottle of wine should we take to their dinner party, in view of what they brought to ours? This is not the true making of a gift, since it involves calculation that is essentially focused on self-interest and avoiding embarrassment. Real hospitality in turn could not occur if our guests have power over us: we would be acting not out of hospitality but out of obligation. In fact hospitality seems to imply that we have some power over them: the power to offer food and shelter, say, or to refuse it. Yet this turns “hospitality” into an act of condescension, as it were to refugees whom we might as easily turn away from our door as admit through it. And this is not what we supposed we had in mind when we thought of hospitality.
This is to introduce some common themes in Derrida’s writings. At their heart is the constant reminder that concepts we normally treat as stable and take for granted may be far from fixed or secure and that the attempt to fix them tends to distort them and sell them short. There is a paradox here and Derrida’s readiness to relish paradox rather than resolve it. There is a hint of mysticism, most obviously in openness to the Beyond or l’avenir, to what cannot be known or named. At the same time, we might remind ourselves that some of these ideas are quite familiar to us and have a good deal of practical relevance. We might, for instance, worry about the way that schools and universities these days are more and more being regarded primarily as places where young people acquire qualifications that will help them find jobs. What has become of them as essentially places where education, and not just preparation for examinations, takes place? Yet the project of making a university a distinctively and fully educational place is not like the project of traveling to Tokyo or climbing a particular mountain. The latter can be ticked off our list of things done, but there could never be a point where we sat back, satisfied that we had built the university of our educational dreams. This will always lie beyond anything that the most enlightened reforms could bring about.
I will return to these points later. Something must be said first, however, about the paradoxical nature of this chapter itself. I hope to explain some of Derrida’s principal ideas as clearly as I can: to place them firmly for the reader, so to speak. Thus I risk fixing, as if they were doctrines, the complex thought of a writer who is the least doctrinaire of all, who asks us to get over our habit of trying to fix, to nail down, what is by its nature fluid, slippery, labile, protean. I can only acknowledge the contradiction. There are various ways around it, including attempts to imitate Derrida’s elusive and complex prose style – attempts that do no service to the reader who is, reasonably, hoping for a readable introduction. Perhaps I may at least observe that this chapter is hardly intended to be the last word on the subject and this not just in the spirit of proper diffidence but because the concept of a “last word” is peculiarly inappropriate to any text that takes Derrida as its subject.
When grown-ups named some object, perhaps gesturing towards it, I noticed it and grasped that the object was named by the sound they made when they deliberately called it to my attention … Thus I gradually realised what objects were signified by the words I heard when they were regularly used appropriately in various sentences. (Confessions I. 8, my translation)
Wittgenstein quotes a slightly longer version of this passage at the very beginning of his Philosophical Investigations (1972). He comments that Augustine gives us here a “particular picture” of the essential nature of human language. In this picture “the individual words in language name objects – sentences are combinations of such names.” Thus the general idea is that “Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands” (§ 1). Wittgenstein, Saussure, and Derrida all find the Augustinian picture inadequate. Wittgenstein notes that often language does not so much refer to or picture reality as constitute it. For instance, to say to someone “I promise to pay this money back to you next week” is not to refer to something but to do something, that is, to promise. The same is true when we ask someone to pass the salt, invite them to a party, warn them about the patch of ice ahead, or apologize for standing in their way. None of these uses of language label, refer to, or picture reality: they perform an action. They are sometimes called “performative” uses of language.
For a structuralist like Saussure, the crucial point is that while it is natural to think that the meaning of “laptop” or “refrigerator” is given by the object which the word labels, the same does not apply to an extensive range of other words such as “and,” “the,” “nevertheless,” or “Sunday.” If in one of my lectures I ask the students what “laptop” means, they will very reasonably point to the object in front of them and say “It’s one of these.” They have difficulty on the other hand in finding howevers or Sundays that they can point to. Saussure tells us not only that language does not always mirror the world but also that in general language has meaning via relations of difference. Language is a system of signs and of differences. The meaning of “man” lies in its differentiation from “woman.” “Sunday” has meaning by virtue of being neither Saturday nor Monday nor any other day of the week. There is no such thing as a Sunday for it to reflect and derive its meaning from.
Furthermore, the connection between words and what we think of them as naming is arbitrary. We might like to think of the word “Sunday” as distilling the essence of that particular day of the week (going to church, watching a football match, spending time in the garden, eating an unusually large lunch), but “Sunday” has no inner Sundayness to which it can refer, not least because millions of people spend their Sundays without doing any of these things. We might like to think of the word “rose” as somehow capturing the very nature of that beautiful and scented flower but, to quote Shakespeare, “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet II. ii 1–2). We like to think that some words at least display that essential relation in the form of onomatopoeia: we represent a dog’s bark as “woof woof” because that is, as a matter of fact it might seem, the sound that a dog makes. While in Britain dogs say “woof woof,” however, in France they say “ouah ouah,” and in China “mung mung.” Or we might like to imagine there is some other kind of intrinsic relationship between a word and what it indicates. We write “giraffe” on the board and, for the children’s benefit, we turn the two letters “f” into tall animals side by side. Look, children! And the very word “look” – doesn’t it seem to have two eyes at its center? We can write that on the board as well, and dots in each letter “o” make everything clear.
The central feature of poststructuralism is that it takes Saussure’s ideas much further. For Derrida meaning is not just arbitrary: it is unstable. This too is a feature of language that should be familiar enough to us. The word “wicked” supplies a good current example; where it once simply indicated a high degree of nastiness or evil, it is now often used for emphasis, as an alternative to “really” or “very”: the online Urban Dictionary offers as an example “This car is wicked cool.” The word “fit” is at present in the process of shifting from its old meaning of “in good physical condition” to its new sense of “sexually attractive.” The instability of language can be illustrated by further examples. What is the meaning of “Stalin”? Does it denote a great leader who saved Europe from the tyranny of fascism or a psychopathic, paranoid dictator who was responsible for the deaths of millions of his fellow Soviet citizens? What are we to make of the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century, which brought to France greater social equality but also the “Reign of Terror” in which tens of thousands of innocent people were murdered?
Thus the full and final meaning of a word or a text is never conclusively reached. Caputo (1997), in the best discussion of Derrida that I know, notes that the very idea of letters, of rereading, opposes closing things down. He writes that “the letter, by its very structure, is repeatable, disseminative, public, uncontainable, unfettered to any fixed meaning, destination or context” (p. 59). There are some kinds of writing where this is clearly the case. A play by Shakespeare – Hamlet, say – is constantly being interpreted and reinterpreted. There are interpretations that offer a feminist reading, for example, or a Freudian one, and naturally there are poststructuralist readings. Every generation comes to the play with new interests and perspectives, and being a rich and complex text, there will always be new interpretations (and interpretations of these interpretations, as when we reevaluate the work of a particular literary critic). The process is endless, and it makes no sense to suppose that 1 day we shall reach the correct and ultimate interpretation, after which all further work on the play can cease. Not even the writer of the play (or poem or novel) can be authoritative about the meaning of her text. There is no anterior meaning which Keats grasped in its entirety before embodying it in a poem. Otherwise a plain statement of the meaning would be as good as, or perhaps better than, the poem itself. (This is not to say that every interpretation is as good as every other: some may be rich and productive and others crude and sterile.) The meaning of Keats’s poem, or of Hamlet or of every text, is thus deferred, as Derrida puts it. The ideal interpretation is always to come.
The instability of language is further emphasized by Derrida’s treatment of binary thinking. When we note differences between two terms, we are inclined to think of one of the pair – of the binary – as somehow superior to the other. “Man” is different from “woman,” but it is easy to slip into the assumption that man is not just different but superior here. The phrase “the history of mankind,” for instance, suggests that any history worth writing will be the history of the lives and deeds of men, not of women. The talk of “manning the fire engine” implies that women cannot be firefighters (whom in Britain we have only recently stopped calling “firemen”). Consider other binaries: reality/appearance, presence/absence, adult/child, and literal/metaphorical. We readily conceive the first term as prior and the second as derivative or secondary. Derrida offers us readings of texts where, at the touch of a careful reading, these binaries turn through a hundred and eighty degrees or fall apart altogether. These readings are the kind of criticism that he calls “deconstruction.”
Derrida (1981) offers an example of deconstruction in a reading of Plato’s Phaedrus. Plato’s text is written as a dialogue between Socrates and the young man, Phaedrus, from which it takes its name. Here, in the very form of the text, is the assumption of the supremacy of speech over writing (another binary: speech/writing). It is easy to imagine that the spoken (and heard) word is somehow prior to the written word and that writing is an attempt (necessarily inadequate: how, for example, could it catch the speaker’s exact tone?) to capture its immediacy. Speech, Socrates tells Phaedrus, bears a closer relation to thought than writing. When you write something down, you often have a sense of “that’s not what I meant to say”; you cannot question writing in the way that you can ask a speaker what he meant. And of course this is why the Phaedrus is written, as virtually all of Plato’s texts are, as a dialogue. But it is written as a dialogue, as Plato would hardly not have noticed. It is full of literary tropes: metaphor, figurative language, and rhetorical devices. At the point where we thought we were establishing the supremacy of speech over writing, the writing that appeared to be persuading us of the strength of the case shows the precise opposite. The speech/writing binary is turned, dizzyingly, upside down.
Derrida coins the word différance to capture the nature of language both as a system of differences and as the endless deferral of meaning. The French verb différer means both to differ and to defer, and the noun derived from it is différence, spelled with an e. By spelling the new word with an a, Derrida not only highlights the two meanings of différer but plays something of a joke. In our binary thinking, we give speech priority over writing, but the difference between différance and difference can only be registered in writing: the two words sound exactly the same in speech. Thus again the speech/writing binary is problematized, since the normal order of priority is inverted: only in writing, and not in speech, is justice done to the nature of language.
These ideas are disconcerting, especially in the face of the widespread desire to find something secure and reliable to guarantee the meaning of language and put an end to the disseminating play of signifiers. Derrida calls this desire for something indubitably there behind the language the “metaphysics of presence.” The phrase recalls Descartes, who hoped to base certain knowledge of indubitable truths in his own presence: in thinking and doubting, at least he could be sure that he was real. In another of its forms, the desire appears in the appeal to reality, as when people are told that their academic qualifications will not impress anybody in “the real world.” In another, “what works” is called on to do the job, as when it is proclaimed that the only educational research worth the name is the kind that reveals “what works” in the classroom: as if what counts as “working” (short term or long term? Resulting in next week’s test scores or the development of deep understanding?) was not itself contestable. Divine sponsorship is sometimes seen as the answer: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1. 1, Authorized Version). This is a natural temptation for Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who variously regard themselves or each other as People of the Book, of the text of the Qur’an, Torah, or Bible. Whether turning from words to the Book and the Word demonstrates a fine consistency or a deep irony is beyond the scope of this chapter.
cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general … There is no outside-text. Derrida (1997/1967), p. 158.
The phrase translated above as “there is no outside-text” is il n’y a pas de hors-texte. This is sometimes mistranslated as “there is nothing outside of text,” as if Derrida was, absurdly, claiming that nothing existed but text. We might rather use the analogy of a Möbius strip, which is made by giving a strip of paper a half-twist and joining the ends together so that the strip forms a continuous loop. If we think of one side as being for writing, there is no other side for anything else. Derrida is criticizing “the tranquil assurance that leaps over the text toward its presumed content, in the direction of the pure signified” (ibid., p. 159).
That assurance, it should be noted, whether tranquil or not, is much in evidence in our own time. It is displayed by the numerous attempts to fix the meaning, to declare that there is one true meaning and no other. There is space for only one example. UK universities are now the responsibility of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, and its official publications hammer home the message that the purpose of going to university is simply to become the kind of graduate that “employers want” (this phrase occurs 35 times in a recent government document: see Collini 2016), as if no other possibilities and no different ideas of the university had ever been entertained. The search for secure foundations leads to fixed fundamentals, and from there the road leads to Fundamentalisms of all kinds, not least the neoliberalism that currently claims to speak the one true language of the real world. Derrida shows us that we do not have to take this road.
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