Heidegger's and Derrida's Notions of Language and Difference
By Cyril Wong
In his article 'Signature Event Context', Jacques Derrida refers to how writing is assumed to be a “means of communication” extending the possibilities of “locutionary and gestural communication”. The issues concerning the hierarchy of speech over writing – the age-old phonocentricism that treats writing as derivative of speech, a mere “operation of supplementation” or a “modification of presence”, this “presence” being what speech is effectively supposed to carry – play a major part in Derrida’s writing here, as the article suggests that all forms of speech, gestural, and written acts can be placed under the general rubric called telecommunication, where all of these different acts of communication are intrinsically unstable.
Telecommunication involves a kind of distance across which communication is effected, a distance that is interesting in Derrida’s case, due to implications of absences and a sense of severance in the act of communication itself. The classic argument made against writing – where writing’s dependence upon an absence (of speaker, listener or both) is seen negatively, as opposed to the supposed sense of presence in speech – is overturned when Derrida attacks Etienne Bonnot de Condillac’s claim that writing is a “progressive extenuation of presence”. Condillac’s statement hints that this “presence” is not only extremely important, but is also a stable and unproblematic concept. This notion of presence is derived from a classical, metaphysical necessity, a logocentric ideal, and it is this idea of a stable presence in communication that Derrida overturns in his article.
Heidegger does not refer to the hierarchy between speech and writing, as, in his case, the evocation of “language speaks” suggests that both writing and speech are involved in a same, fundamental sense of speaking, the root of both writing’s and speech’s different ways of communicating. Moreover, Heidegger uses a poem printed on the page – an act of writing – to demonstrate when language is speaking “purely”, erasing somewhat any conflict or possibility of a hierarchy between writing and speech. Also, the application of the poem by Trakl is interesting, as poetry has traditionally been an aural tradition, and the Trakl poem could be read out loud with different speech inflections, depending on who is reading, and these verbal differences might possibly change the levels of meaning in the poem. However, Heidegger is only using the poem, in my opinion, to make a general point about certain basic workings of language, or, more correctly, to try and actually approach the ineffable nature of these basic workings. It is a search that goes beyond any talk of any hierarchy between speech and writing.
I refer to the hierarchy here because of Derrida’s concern with it in many of his writings, when he goes against the idea which has once passed into common sense (some would argue that it is still regarded as such) – that, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) once wrote, “Languages are made to be spoken; writing serves only as a supplement to speech”. Derrida demonstrates that both speech and writing are themselves series of supplements, of signs that are themselves intermediaries of what is considered the “reality” behind the text, which is always being deferred by these signs. When one tries to grasp the full presence of this reality that is being communicated by a speaker or writer, what one gets is only more signs and chains of supplements; when explaining a concept, one only uses more terms, which are themselves signs, to point to other signs, for example, having to describe the idea of a cow (represented by the word “cow”), one resorts to other words / signifiers, like “a female type of cattle”. It does not matter if the text is on the page or spoken, as Derrida writes:
Derrida’s aim is in demonstrating how this constant deferral of meaning occurs in both these forms of (tele)communication, and how this suggests a greater instability in language than commonly understood. In 'Signature Event Context', Derrida continues deconstructing the perceived stabilities of language, assuming already that “there has never been anything but writing” and focusing on the iterability of writing (the latter as in Derrida’s newfound sense). Condillac himself justifies the value of writing as “a progressive extenuation of presence”, not unlike the idea that writing is a supplement to speech, in the way Rousseau described. Derrida challenges the assumption of the certain tenability of this presence Condillac points to. As Derrida writes elsewhere, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” or “There is no outside-of-text”, only a perpetually deferred series of meanings in the text.
As I mentioned earlier, Heidegger’s project in 'Language' seems to be not merely to debunk traditional notions of language, but to try and discover – re-cover, perhaps – what language really is. The latter involves a Phenomenological angle in Heidegger’s train of thought, which I will elaborate on further in the course of this essay. The assumptions that Heidegger attacks in his article seem to pre-empt those that Derrida himself confronts. In 'Language', he writes:
This is in line, it seems, with Derrida’s labeling of Condillac’s view of language as “ideological” in the way it is framed by “the background [sur le fond] of a vast, powerful, and systematic philosophical tradition dominated by the prominence of the idea (eidos, idea)”, and the assumption of “the sign as representation of the idea which itself represented the object perceived”. This concept of the idea is linked, in my way of looking at these terms, to the concept of presence, related to the use of language, in speech or writing, as a method of conveying stable meanings or ideas, intentions, presence. This is akin to Heidegger’s point about the “audible utterance of inner emotions”. The assumption in this statement is that it is an unproblematic description, that there is indeed an effective, free, or smooth flow in the transmission of “emotions” into an “audible”, readily understandable and secure utterance. Heidegger’s idea that language is “representation by image and by concept” – hinting at the possible instabilities in this concept of representation by language by stating how “no one would dare to declare [this as] incorrect” – seems to be preparing the way for Ferdinand de Saussure’s notion of the signifier and the signified, and his exposition of the arbitrariness between the two. His claim is that the relation between one and the other is based on convention, a system of differences – as when “Saussure says of the linguistic sign, ‘Its most precise characteristic is to be what the others are not.’ ” – and is not an inevitable or natural consequence. The arbitrariness that Saussure talks about is in direct opposition to the traditional notions of there being a natural nomenclature in language, in that meanings or objects were there before language could name them in an, assumedly, inevitable process. This arbitrariness is related to a series of differences between signs in language which result in language’s capability for signification. This can be further illustrated by how the idea of a cow is represented as “cow” in English, but “vache” in French, or how “cow” can also, theoretically, be spelled “gyb”. Yet they would all be referring to the same idea; meanings and names are based on conventions.
Derrida has moved on from this Saussurian sense of difference and arbitrariness to unveil a greater uncertainty in language through his notion of trace, in which all signs bear the traces of other signs from which they are differentiated – such as “pig” from “big”, the trace of “p” or “b” – in order to be meaningful. It is the idea of the trace that points towards a kind of ambiguity in the origin of meaning. What I am doing here, by tracing a link from Saussure’s sense of difference in language’s signification to Derrida’s idea of trace, is to show how both philosophers point to an overall sense of ambiguity in language, an arbitrariness, a definite uncertainty that is intrinsic, even necessary, for language to function. It is an uncertainty that goes against conventional ideas of language – that language is capable of carrying the full presence of any reality or meaning. This uncertainty strikes at the heart of logocentric Western metaphysics.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002
I just want to conclude for now with the emphasis upon how both Derrida and Heidegger have a similar agenda in their de(con)struction of language and its perceived stability. Heidgger, in 'Language', seems to me to be making a phenomenological point about language. Phenomenology, first as a superficial introduction, is a philosophy of consciousness based highly on intuition and is concerned with phenomena – the appearances of things and our awareness of those appearances, an awareness that cannot be grasped singularly by rational proofs and scientific data. This philosophy, in its Heideggerian sense, is committed to the exploration of what he calls the Seinsfrage, or question of Being, an investigation into what it means for something to be and into the very Being of beings. The question of the meaning of Being seeks an account of how it is that beings come about in terms of their Being or existence. This question is framed in terms of presence and presencing. If any being is existent, is present to us, how does this presence arise? In 'Language', when Heidegger deals with what language is, it would seem he is attempting to get at the possibilities of presence in language itself. It seems like a close to impossible task when Heidegger falls back on tautologies in his essay, or when he resorts to elaborate metaphors – by way of the poem, for instance – to, at the very least, hint at what language really is. However, one major feature in the essay, as well as in Heidegger’s major attempts to get at the possibilities within this presencing, is the event of differentiation, which I shall talk about and compare simultaneously with Derrida’s own différance later on.
Heidegger has been known for the opacity of his writings, their “abstruseness, impenetrability and obscurity... [full] of mysticisms and obfuscations; sham tautologies...”. Heidegger goes on about what “is” is, and raises questions about the nature of Being, which A. J. Ayer, British analytic philosopher, dismisses as a “senseless querying of what must be an absolute presupposition... Heidegger has displays of surprising ignorance, unscrupulous distortion and what can fairly be described as charlatanism.” Heidegger himself recognises his own “empty tautology” when he talks about how “language itself is language”. I have assiduously copied out these criticisms, like Ayer’s, here in my essay not to reveal my own disgruntlement with Heidegger’s writing, but to show that, perhaps, Heidegger intentionally goes beyond rational, philosophical argumentation because what he is trying to say about the actual nature of Being is, in itself, unanswerable by way of traditional logic and conventional ways of looking at the world. Moreover, I doubt very much if Heidegger can be easily dismissed as senseless when one is capable of tracing a link from Heidegger to Saussure’s own version of what difference is, and later, to Derrida’s take on difference as well. In particular, I will deal with both Derrida’s and Heidegger’s notions of difference.
I am assuming that the “dif-ference” in 'Language' is the same idea that is derived from much of Heidegger’s phenomenological discourses about the event of differentiation – the workings of difference – that is central to the issue of the possibility of presence. The concept of difference here refers to that between Being as presence and beings as present, which creates a situation where these two elements are held together at the same time of their departure from each other. It is through setting apart that both elements are held together, brought to a presence. In 'Language', Heidegger describes it as such: The unifying scission [difference] gathers together the two [differentiated elements] out of itself, insofar as it calls them into the fissure (Riss) which it itself is.
These notions of Being as presence and beings as present come into 'Language', as they appear to me to be, as notions of World and Things, an inter-penetration – not a fusion, as Heidegger himself would emphasise – between the two, with dif-ference as the threshold that sets them apart, yet providing them with their presence. This is the way dif-ference, or difference, unfolds terms into presence, and “the very mechanism of difference itself” is what Heidegger terms Ereignis, or appropriation, where terms like World and Things, like Being as presence and beings as present, “relate to, or appropriate, one another across the difference... to the extent that the event of differentiation is nothing other than the event signifying the coming about of this mutual situation”.
Derrida, in 'Signature Event Context', goes about undermining the idea that a context is a major determining force in the framing of full presence and stable meanings in writing, and also speech (both falling under the general rubric of telecommunication, as mentioned previously in this essay). At one point, he writes about how because writing is repeatable – iterable – “in the absolute absence of the receiver or of any empirically determinable collectivity of receivers”, a rupture in the idea that the context of a writing can claim that very writing for itself occurs. He says that it is a “radical destruction of any context as the protocol of code”. This also brings about a rupture in the notion of a continuous modification of presence. But what I want to stress here is that this rupture is related to Derrida’s notion of différance, as he talks about how “différance [difference and deferral, trans.] as writing could no longer [be] an [ontological] modification of presence”. But how does différance bring about this rupture? In his essay 'Différance', Derrida notes:
Derrida also goes on to write, “This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but... there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring (ancrage)”, revealing a sense of contingency in the mark, in its signification – a presence of meaning that is seemingly whole like a reflection on the surface of water, but which fractures when one tries to pin it down with a pebble or stone. But it is the seemingly whole that allows language, or writing, to function. Derrida’s point, in my view, is that we must stop believing in this absolutism, in any kind of “anchoring”, and accept the seemingly whole as necessarily temporary, as an illusion of wholeness and of stability, where the instabilities generated by différance are essential for any kind of stability to exist and to see how one is necessary in order for the other to operate. This is because if language were merely stable, and words had pure or fixed and fully stable meanings, words would not be “normal” and would lose their flexibility to function in a variety of contexts.