Heidegger’s and Derrida’s Notions of Language and Difference

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Heidegger’s and Derrida’s Notions of Language and Difference

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.

AuthorCyril Wong
2018-08-21T17:23:19+00:00 September 1st, 2005|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 44|0 Comments