Derrida’s third dimension to meaning

January 24, 2015 § 1 Comment

Derrida’s attachment to Marx surprises young readers, though looking at the ten plagues of new world order it shouldn’t [like The Communist Manifesto, they read like common sense]. What’s missing from this list, & is probably the most crucial of all these plagues to Derridian thought is the Marxist use of language: language conceived as the exploitation of man by man. “Certain governments are interested in having languages muzzled, thus ensuring that one no longer speaks to the sovereign people. The abuse of writing is a political abuse” (On Grammatology 301).

Ours is a dualistic hegemony which creates & groups meanings through opposition, determining the nature of things by what they are not. Derrida is different; he does not follow a dualistic understanding of the epistémè, rather one of difference to reinstate the third dimension to meaning. The verb “to differ” is an enantioseme — meaning both to temporalize &, more conventionally, to be unlike. It is to mend this duality of the root “to differ” that Derrida introduces “différance”, which “refers to this whole complex of meanings not only when it is supported by a language or interpretive context (like any signification), but it already does so somehow of itself” (284).

To name this “complex of meanings”, he takes the idea of the trace [die Spur] from Heidegger: “not a presence but […] rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, & refers beyond itself” (297). This notion basically tracks the accumulated historical determination & turns it into a metaphysical phenomenon. It is against the idea of an immortal essence [a soul, if I must name it]. The trace stands in place of identity, but it is not an entity unto itself. It exceeds the question What is? & contingently makes it possible” (75). What is? is replaced with How?

There is an unfortunate side-effect to this: supplement, Derrida calls it, or that which has “always already infiltrated presence, always already inscribed there the space of repetition & the splitting of the self” (163). Supplement is any separation of life from text [where text is also the interior monologue by which we digest life]. It is the knowledge required to understand a joke, for instance, or the irony behind something. But who has the knowledge of life’s great joke & irony? That is why the supplement is “maddening” (154) because it tears us away from any potential of reconciling happiness; but it also corresponds to perversion & diversion, expectedly [which can be sources of happiness in themselves].


Derrida employs the deconstructionist approach; his translator & student, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, offers a helpful explanation of the modus operandi:

Deconstruction, as it emerged in Derrida’s early writings, examined how texts of philosophy, when they established definitions as starting points, did not attend to the fact that all such gestures involved setting each defined item off from all that it was not. It was possible, Derrida said, to show that the elaboration of a definition as a theme or an argument was a pushing away of these antonyms. (423)

The effect of this focus on the negative is only subtly unlike the dualistic — or antonymic — popular approach, but true to the form of this work the value is in the subtlety. The focus on différance gives us a perspective of Derridean politics which asks the ultimate question of politics, How do you make friends of your enemies & eventuate reconciliation? To focus on homogenization is one approach; pluralism is its alternative.

Homogenization is world-affirming. It argues for the continuation of life as it is & the changing or confining what exists as life isn’t. Homogenization ensures a secure world. “Certain governments are interested in having languages muzzled, thus ensuring that one no longer speaks to sovereign people. The abuse of writing is a political abuse” (301).

The human sciences which rely on the predictability of human behavior, especially the study of economics, are conditionally tied to the homogenized world. The structures of power likewise employ a locked system of meanings to ensure that “no determined science, no abstract discipline, can think as such. Indeed, one must understand this incompetence of science which is also the incompetence of philosophy, the closure of the epistémè” (93). It might be said that he offers a Marxist reading of the use of language: writing as the exploitation of man by man.

Perhaps the best example of such universalistic thought is Human Rights — who, after all, would deny being a supporter of Human Rights? Here is the problem: we are often re-affirming the fight for Human Rights uncritically, when we should aim instead at remembering that these terms do not have stable meaning. What are rights for one person or group of people can mean the taking away of rights for others. Colonization was practiced under the rights of civilized man — or even the duty — to spread democracy or Christianity. Modern forms of imperialism, that is Human Rights themselves, are just the same. They are the most powerful homogenization machine today & homogenization’s response to How do you make friends of your enemies & eventuate reconciliation?

Pluralism is world-negating, not only denying the reality in its present construction but also the construction of any systematic reality whatsoever.

Language is too dependent on limiting structures to attract serious pluralists [Gertrude Stein tries nobly], but we find many in the fields of visual & performing arts. As opposed to writing, however, speech is already much closer to being emancipated for it is the word in action, already a force. “It is by itself language at liberty & the liberty of language, the freedom of a speech which need not borrow its signifiers from the exteriority of the world, & which therefore seems incapable of being dispossessed” (168), writes Derrida in a passage reminiscent of Antonin Artaud describing the act of screaming. These are methods of extracting the potential of exploitation out of language while still communicating. Perhaps only then communicating.


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