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:
...there has never been anything but writing, there have never been anything but supplements and substitutional significations which could only arise in a chain of differential relations...
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:
No one would dare to declare incorrect... the identification of language as audible utterance of inner emotions, as human activity, as a representation by image and by concept.
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.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002