I find writing and speech converging more and more, and that it matters less and less whether I am speaking or writing. Of course, this has to do with technology, where speech is recorded and typed and then read and re-spoken…. the endless wheel of speech and writing where we lose track of which is which. That wheel was at the centre of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy, and sometimes I think his message awaits deeper appreciation.
Classical theories treated speech as primary, and writing as a secondary copy. They assume that speech begins earlier in time, that humans were speaking before they were writing, and so spoken words are considered the real original expression, and writing is a later technological reproduction which loses something from the original oral communication. Derrida’s philosopy dispenses with this assumption – that is the defining feature of his work – and asserts a primary writing as the new examplar of language. But this primary writing is a rather strange notion, quite unlike what is normally considered as writing.
He made a very simple argument to refute the classical privilege of speech. He said that what we call “speech” is systemically related to what we call “writing”, because it is the same words that are written and spoken. If there was no writing, then speech would be something entirely different than what we call speech. So, from this we can say speech and writing began at the same time – that you couldn’t have one without the other. This refusal of the classical theory can have drastic and also very uncertain consequences.
What is refuted here is not just an ancient theory of language, but also an assumption that is part of how languages are used. The assumption that expression begins with this buzzing in my throat – that assumption seems to be an important part of European culture, and all the alphabetic cultures of Indo-European civilization. These are what Derrida called phonocentric cultures, which are cultures organized around an invisible ideology that privileges the voice.
The case of the Chinese language stands out as an important contrast to phonocentric European culture. Chinese is the least phonocentric of languages, because the same character has multiple regional pronunciations, and so unlike alphabetic writing the character is not representative of sound. This point was understood by the polymath Gottfried leibniz (1646–1716) who Derrida considered a precursor in his campaign to escape from phonological civilization. Leibniz entertained very typical 17th century interests with systems of symbolic logic, and with mechanical automation. He dreamed of a great logical machine that could express the pure ethereal language of a Supreme Being. And he considered the oral bias of phonetic European languages as an obstacle that inhibited the expression of this universal God-mind. So, he studied of Chinese as a more conceptual symbolic system of representation.
These facts have a great deal of relevance today. At stake here is the concept of modernity, and the ordering of consciousness that it implies. It seems that to become modern is to realize the autonomy of writing, and to maintain the consciousness of an automatic writing. This concept of automatism recalls Leibniz, but more directly it refers to the refined modernism of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed there was constant expression in an unspoken language he called the unconscious. That unspoken language expressed the physiology of the body. He proposed various ways we could learn to read this unconscious symbolic language (dreams, somatic pathologies, slips, twitches, behavioural patterns…), but all of these were channelled through automatic speech. The patient had to keep talking, while the doctor asked them questions, and observed them closely. The doctor was trying to understand an automatic language of their body, and to guide their speech towards the silent writing of the physiology.
Derrida attempted to initiate a new phase of modernity by synthesizing Leibniz and Freud. He identified the divine writing machine of the Baroque logicians with the unconscious seat of physiology in psychoanalysis. Leibniz’s classical idealism was fused with radical psychoanalytic materialism, so that the Baroque symbolic machine became the language of unconscious.
Putting the unconscious at the centre of our discussion can have drastic and often uncertain effects on the quality of our discussion. The sense or direction of our language can shift around. It is no long what I am saying to you, but rather the strange writing of the unconscious that matters. Our activity is only interesting if it reflects what “It” is saying. It is physiology. Not just my physiology, but our shared physiology which extends into the environment. The pressure of physiology writes, and our problem becomes to interpret that writing.
This secret writing arises from the pressure of vital processes such as alimentation, sexuality and respiration. It is possible to analyse these forces (into needs, loves, desires etc.), but these forces come from life itself, and so the analysis has to be driven by life itself which must not be forced into humanistic concepts. The symbolic concepts in our languages may be worthless, since life may express other forces completely foreign to our words. It’s the forces of physiology themselves which matter, and those forces could prove to be radically nameless. That is why we can only observe them indirectly, through slips, twitches, day-dreams, night-dreams etc. Nothing can be assumed about what the body wants.
The strain of Derrida’s work that I find most intriguing is the maternal automaton, and especially where that figure becomes spectral. This is a theory of maternity itself as a kind of ghostly machine. One speaks most truthfully to their mother – that is where the physiology speaks freely. But we also speak automatically to the mother, and we continue speaking even when she is not there. Psychopathology is the disruption of this automatism, where we are no longer able to address the maternal ghost directly. This version of Derrida admittedly simplifies and forces his thinking. Where he leaves things open and elliptical, I prefer to shoot straight with conviction, and then abandon those convictions the next instant.
It is easy to see why the reception of Derrida has been so unsatisfactory. He writes on behalf of an other which is disjunctive with all available political ontology. More than anything else, at stake here is the relation between the singular and the universal. The kind of radical politics that proliferates today is usually a defence of singularities (subaltern cultures, or the right to “be yourself”) against the universality of imperial capitalism. This is the kind of politics that imperialists today expect to be confronted with, and which they hope to be confronted with. This is the kind of oppositional politics that they are trained to respond to. They can say “oh, you want to be different? You don’t want to just be another automaton smiling behind the service counter? Then why not get yourself another tattoo? Or how about an unusual pet? Maybe you could learn some exotic cooking or languages? Or maybe go travelling Tibet?…..” If the political problem is a demand for unique representations, then capitalism can solve it through the proliferation of distinct cultural experiences. The political problem is solved through refining the taste for alterity.
The Derridean theory of difference is completely unrelated to this adolescent quest for distinction, although it has been rejected for two ironic reasons: because it was not this quest for distinction, and because it was this quest for distinction. But his theory is not about becoming free by breaking out of automatism. Quite to the contrary, his theory is about getting bound into the fatal necessity of automatism. Of course this is not the automatism of capital, but the automatism of the dead mother.
Here we go mother on a shipless ocean.
Pity us. Pity the ocean. Here we go.
-Anne Carson, Decreations