Quels qu’aient été le moment et les circonstances de son apparition dans l’échelle de la vie animale, le langage n’a pu naître que tout d’un coup. Les choses n’ont pas pu se mettre à signifier progressivement. A la suite d’une transformation dont l’étude ne relève pas des sciences sociales, mais de la biologie et de la psychologie, un passage s’est effectué, d’un stade où rien n’avait de sens, à un autre où tout en possédait. [Claude Lévi-Strauss – Introduction à l’œuvre de Marcel Mauss]

(Que la biologie et la psychologie puissent rendre compte de cette rupture, c’est ce qui nous paraît plus que problématique.) [Jacques Derrida – De la grammatologie, p. 177]

[Whatever might have been the moment and the circumstances of its appearance on the scale of animal life, language could only have been born all at once. Things could not have begun to signify progressively. Following a transformation whose study does not belong to the social sciences, but to biology and psychology, a passage was effected from a stage where nothing had meaning to another where everything did.

(That biology and psychology could account for this rupture seems to us more than problematic.)]

Lévi-Strauss’ punctualism is a historical extrapolation of Saussurean structuralism; because language is a system of interdependent differences, it could only have emerged all at once. Yet this instantaneous emergence is not an event; it provides no time for a scene of différance. According to the originary hypothesis, the punctual emergence of language is not only compatible with différance but implied by it; the sign’s deferral of violence could take place only as an event, a historical moment possessing a memorable and repeatable internal temporality. The contradiction inherent in the punctual non-event is the Achilles’ heel of structuralism. Because structures can mutate but not emerge from non-structure, they are “born” fully formed yet have no moment of birth, more precisely, no human moment.

Derrida rightly finds unconvincing Lévi-Strauss’ appeal to “biology and psychology.” How can culture emerge in a non-cultural event? How can the first appearance of symbolic representation not be representable? Yet beyond this parenthetical doubt, Derrida does not comment on this passage; he cites it to show that in claiming that writing appeared punctually (a notion Derrida bizarrely qualifies as “epigenetic”), Lévi-Strauss is merely reprising an earlier statement about language itself. Derrida is not shy of relying on empirical gradualism in insisting that what he will later call “writing in the colloquial sense” must have emerged gradually and laboriously (“l’apparition de l’écriture qui a été au contraire laborieuse, progressive, différenciée dans ses étapes [the appearance of writing that was, on the contrary, laborious, progressive, differentiated by stages],” 185), and, he claims (without citing a reference), as a tool for preserving genealogies (182) rather than, as is generally assumed, an accounting device for recording quantities of commodities. Yet with respect to écriture in the broader sense in which it is equivalent to language in general, Derrida affirms that “Il y a écriture dès que le nom propre est raturé dans un système, . . . il y a ‘sujet’ dès que cette oblitération du propre se produit, c’est-à-dire dès l’apparaître du propre et dès le premier matin du langage [there is writing as soon as the proper name is effaced in a system, . . . there is a ‘subject’ as soon as this obliteration of the proper takes place, that is, from the moment of the appearance of the proper and from the first morning of language]” (159)–a premier matin that cannot well have been the product of a “laborious and progressive” evolution, yet whose reality as an event is never entertained.

Derrida’s critique of Lévi-Strauss might have been leveled at Saussure; the system of language (la langue) is a stable tissue of differences that differ without différance. Derrida’s critique of Saussure and his school never makes this point explicitly, but it is a corollary of his assertion that

la prétendue dérivation de l’écriture, si réelle et si massive qu’elle soit, n’a été possible qu’a une condition: que le langage “originel”, “naturel”, etc., n’ait jamais existé, qu’il n’ait jamais été intact, intouché par l’écriture, qu’il ait toujours été lui-même une écriture. Archi-écriture dont nous voulons ici indiquer la nécessité et dessiner le nouveau concept; et que nous ne continuons à appeler écriture que parce qu’elle communique essentiellement avec le concept vulgaire de l’écriture (82-83).

[The so-called derivation of writing, as real and massive as it may be, has only been possible on one condition: that language as “originary,” “natural”, etc., has never existed, that it has never been intact, untouched by writing, that it has always itself been writing. Arche-writing, a new concept we wish to outline and whose necessity we indicate here, and which we continue to call writing only because it communicates essentially with the vulgar concept of writing.]

Archi-écriture is later described as “mouvement de la différance [movement of différance]” (88), which is itself equated with “La (trace) pure”:

L’apparaître et le fonctionnement de la différence supposent une synthèse originaire qu’aucune simplicité absolue ne précède. Telle serait donc la trace originaire. Sans une rétention dans l’unité minimale de l’expérience temporelle, sans une trace retenant l’autre comme autre dans le même, aucune différence ne ferait son œuvre et aucun sens n’apparaîtrait. Il ne s’agit donc pas ici d’une différence constituée mais, avant toute détermination de contenu, du mouvement pure qui produit la différence. La trace (pure) est la différance (91-92). [italics the author’s]

[The appearance and functioning of difference presuppose an originary synthesis that no absolute simplicity precedes. Such would then be the originary trace. Without retention in the minimal unity of temporal experience, without a trace retaining the other as other within the same, no difference would operate and no meaning would appear. What is in question here is therefore not a constituted difference but, before any determination of content, the pure movement that produces difference. The (pure) trace is différance.]

Thus Saussure’s signified or “image psychique” cannot be understood as a “réalité interne copiant une réalité externe [internal reality copying an external reality]” (94). Derrida’s conclusion is that:

La trace est en effet l’origine absolue du sens en général. Ce qui revient à dire, encore une fois, qu’il n’y a pas d’origine absolue du sens en général. La trace est la différance qui ouvre l’apparaître et la signification. Articulant le vivant sur le non-vivant en général, origine de toute répétition, origine de l’idéalité, elle n’est pas plus idéale qui réelle, pas plus intelligible que sensible, pas plus une signification transparente qu’une énergie opaque etaucun concept de la métaphysique ne peut la décrire (95). [italics the author’s]

[The trace is in effect the absolute origin of meaning in general. Which comes down to saying, once more, that there is no absolute origin of meaning in general. The trace is différance that opens appearance and signification. Articulating the living upon the non-living in general, origin of all repetition, origin of ideality, it is no more ideal than real, no more intelligible than perceptible, no more a transparent signification than an opaque energy andno concept of metaphysics can describe it.]

The association of repetition and ideality not with humanity but with life in general effaces the specifically human nature of language. Derrida includes the story of human “writing” within a series of “programs” that go back to the first living organisms and can be understood only on the basis of “le concept le plus général de gramme [the most general concept ofgramme/program/inscription]” (125). This fundamental concept must be understood before we can understand the difference between the “programs” that sustain the life of an amoeba and the ones human beings create in language; it is anatural category independent of any notion of the origin of meaning, that is, of human language and the historicity it founds. Whatever the specificity of human écriture, it is unproblematically included within the broader scope of this concept. The contrast with generative anthropology is instructive. From the standpoint of the originary hypothesis, human representation is not a simple broadening of a prior category of gramme. If, indeed, representation is neither “intelligible” or “sensible,” a mode of neither “internal” nor “external” experience, then its inclusion within this broader category not only defers consideration of its specificity but evades the crucial epistemological question of how conceptual thought, by which we think this and all other categories, became possible. The fact that we have no difficulty in principle in conceiving the structure of DNA or the patterns of amoeba behavior only makes it all the clearer that the general concept of (pro)gramme cannot help us solve the mystery of human thinking itself.

The elusiveness of the “trace” that is the origin of meaning is due to the fact that whereas a trace is, in Peirce’s terminology, an indexical rather than a symbolic sign, the Deriddean arche-trace is the trace of what is already a representation, something that will be repeated rather than simply reproduced in response to the same stimuli that previously produced it. But to conclude from its secondarity that the trace has no beginning is to remain in the conceptual vacuum of metaphysics, where concepts operate within individual minds whose interaction is of secondary importance because these minds are constituted from the outset as repositories of concepts or Ideas. Once we understand the origin of language as an event, we need no longer evoke a mythical self-presence to describe the mutual presence of the participants mediated by the central object of desire as referent of the sign. The deferral of violence by the sign minimally requires only the difference between the “vertical” act of emitting the sign and all other, “horizontal,” behavior. This difference is inherently dynamic because it distinguishes a new mode of behavior that has a positive effect on the potential survival of the group that generates it. Originary difference is always already différance, and the historical dynamism of différance suffices to generate–in stages stretched over hundreds of thousands of years–the complex differential structure of mature language.

Derrida’s subordination of the symbolic trace to the gramme evacuates human specificity in favor of an updated dialectics of nature. Derrida is only justified in assimilating human language to écriture because human language uniquely installs, in Sartre’s terminology, the néant of différance in the heart of the en-soi of natural experience. Différance is not mere structuration; its differentiation is the trace not of natural occurrences of appetite and aggression but of the deferral of violence.


To understand more clearly why Derrida misses this point, let us turn to a nearby passage of De la grammatologie.

C’est l’ethnologue qui viole un espace virginal si sûrement connoté par la scène d’un jeu et d’un jeu de petites filles. . . .

Donc la simple présence du voyeur est un viol. Viol pur d’abord: un étranger silencieux assiste, immobile, à un jeu de petites filles. Que l’une d’elles ait “frappé” une “camarade”, ce n’est pas encore un vraie violence. Aucune intégrité n’a été entamée. La violence n’apparaît qu’au moment où l’on peut ouvrir à l’effraction l’intimité des noms propres. (166)

[It is the ethnologist who violates a virginal space so unambiguously connoted by the scene of a game, a game of little girls. . . .

Thus the simple presence of the voyeur is a violation. Pure violation at first: a silent stranger is present, immobile, at a game of little girls. That one of them may have “struck” her “comrade” is not yet real violence. No integrity has been breached. Violence appears only at the moment when the intimacy of proper names can be opened up to penetration.]

In The Ethics of Criticism (Cornell, 1988), Tobin Siebers remarked on the perversity of a vision that finds violence everywhere but in the sole attested act of real violence in the entire book. If a slap doesn’t violate one’s “integrity,” would a blow with a fist? a machete? Derrida’s blindness to the ethical monstrosity of this position lets us glimpse the profundity of postmodern nihilism.

One might object that Derrida is only echoing in free indirect discourse the position of Lévi-Strauss, whose account of his guilt for having violated the innocence of the girls’ play never refers to the slap as an act of violence. Perhaps; but Derrida does not contradict Lévi-Strauss on this point. To quote Siebers’ discussion of this passage, “a certain moment arrives when parodic imitation merges with its object; especially in those instances where the device advances Derrida’s own position, we should not hesitate to strip away the exaggeration and to read a passage seriously” (86). Even if we assume that the scare quotes comment ironically on Lévi-Strauss’ failure to address the similarity between the girl’s act of physical violence and his own act of cultural violence, both Derrida and Lévi-Strauss fail to observe the deferral of violence that the exchange of words, be it the revelation of “proper names”–which the play of différance makes always already “improper”–represents in relation to the slap. The survival of human society depends on the gradient of violence between action and representation, beginning with the first sign that defers the potential conflict over the central object.

Derrida’s equation of language with violence through its operation of deferral is the most perversely insightful variant of the postmodern critique of the human, whose roots lie in the violence of the Holocaust. The vulgar notion of deconstruction as a critique of the “binary oppositions” that subordinate black to white, female to male, and so on, finds its founding confirmation in the Aryan-Semite “binary” and its consequences. From its inception in Barthes’ Degré zero de l’écriture(1953), the process of écriture has been associated with violence. The first words of the book describe Hébert’s use of blasphemy to connote revolutionary authenticity, and its most fully developed example is that of Stalinist rhetoric. Ecriture is the deferred, unpresent reality behind the “phallogocentric” usurpation of the center that presents itself as revealed truth–a usurpation whose “subject” plays the same role in Derrida’s discourse as the sinister clerics in Nietzsche’s account of the origin of Christianity. For Derrida, the founding myth of metaphysics is the myth of the speaker’s self-presence in his voice that guarantees the presence of reality in the (verbal) sign. Saussure’s arbitraire du signifiant does not suffice to expel the naturalness of the relationship of sign to referent because the sign-system, which appears all at once fully formed, is in effect a second nature.

Yet, as we have seen, for Derrida the différance that deconstructs this myth is not radically associated with the human; nature, or life at any rate, is always already inhabited by the gramme. What is uniquely human is not écriture but the myth of its absence, a myth that includes not merely discourses of religious and political authority but those of science.

S’il est vrai, comme nous le croyons en effet, que l’écriture ne se pense pas hors de l’horizon de la violence intersubjective, y a-t-il quelque chose, fût-ce la science, qui y échappe radicalement ? Y a-t-il une connaissance et surtout un langage, scientifique ou non, qu’on pourrait dire à la fois étranger à l’écriture et à la violence ? Si l’on répond par la négative, ce que nous faisons, . . . s’il faut lier la violence à l’écriture, l’écriture apparaît bien avant l’écriture au sens étroit: déjà dans la différance ou archi-écriture qui ouvre la parole elle-même. (185-86)

[If it is true, as we in fact believe, that writing cannot be thought outside the horizon of intersubjective violence, is there something, be it science, that radically escapes this violence? Is there a knowledge and above all a language, scientific or not, that we could call foreign to both writing and violence? If one answers in the negative, as we do, . . . if violence must be linked to writing, then writing makes its appearance well before writing in the narrow sense: already in the différance or arche-writing that opens speech itself.]

To affirm the necessary violence of language is akin to the paradoxical statement that all statements in a given language are false; with what criterion of truth does one judge this or another “violent” assertion? No doubt, as Gregory Bateson observed, every usage of language modifies the world it represents and in this sense does violence to it. This is not, however, the kind of violence Derrida appears to have in mind. The postmodern critique of the intersubjective violence of writing, Derrida’s included, is focused on denouncing its myths of innocence rather than praising its capacity for creative destruction. The moral utopia at the heart of language, which Derrida fails to see as itself a product of linguistic deferral, remains the unexamined touchstone of this critique, which rejects the notion of culturally revealed presence without repudiating the metaphysical perspective that it sustains. Derrida’s never makes clear whether the horizon de la violence intersubjective preexists language, is a byproduct of language, or is coeval with language. When we “link violence to writing,” is there a direction of causality or are the two somehow codetermined? These questions cannot be answered without proposing a hypothetical real origin.

To Saussure’s langue as a stable, atemporally constituted system of differences, Derrida opposes a model of language asécriture inhabited by the dynamism of différance. But dynamism without an origin is an inertial movement indistinguishable from stasis. We cannot understand, even in strictly Darwinian terms, the adaptive function of language without explaining how and why the deferral of meaning that constitutes écriture ever got started. For this purpose, what is deferred cannot be an always-already paradigmatic choice within language, but an appropriative choice in a proto-human world. The breakdown of animal order stimulates the discovery/invention of the linguistic sign through whose mediation the clash of individual appropriative acts can be transmuted into a shared, collective one and the meaningless object of individual appetite transfigured into the sacred being of communal desire. Rather than condemning “myths of presence” as occultations of deferral in the service of oppression, it is more conducive to our self-knowledge to conceive human history as a process in which experience of the various modes of social organization enriches our understanding of the scene on which this presence is enacted with ever more explicit revelations of the deferral that has been “always already” implicit in it.