The simplest way to understand the coupure épistémologique that separates GA from philosophy/metaphysics is that it is defined by the very material of The Origin of Language: the hypothetical derivation of the declarative form of mature language from the elementary utterance forms that must have preceded it. For metaphysics, language is independent of human history; it consists of a set of rules for constructing propositions and determining their truth-value. The time involved in the historical evolution of these forms, or in the construction of individual manifestations of them, is no more relevant to their functioning than it would be to the operation of a computational algorithm. Of course “the cat is on the mat” refers to a particular moment and a particular place, but the referential reality that determines the proposition’s truth or falsity is in no way characteristic of the proposition itself.
This dogma is challenged from within the philosophical edifice by Derrida’s master non-concept of la différance, temporal deferral as the source of semiotic difference, the “deconstructive” correlative of the differences by which Saussure defined language and by extension all sign systems. That la différance was originally grounded in predication is made explicit in a 1968 lecture, “La différance” (in Théorie d’ensemble, Seuil 1968), that I have rarely seen quoted. Here Derrida defines la différance by the deferral/delay implicit in choosing an element from a paradigm. Given an object, to describe its color, one doesn’t spontaneously think “red,” but must choose it from a paradigm of colors. Clearly this model of behavior is not based on the experience of “seeing red.” Derrida’s model is explicitly that of constructing a proposition, where the object X being given, one must then determine its color: X is (not pink nor yellow nor… but) red.
Yet what the notion of différance shows is precisely the opposite of Derrida’s assertion of the always-already existence of language as the archi-trace. Difference as deferral is temporal, exists in time, and if this be taken seriously, then temporality cannot be limited to the gap between subject and predicate, to the interior of the proposition where it is always-already annulled and must constantly be resuscitated, but must be admitted as well between non-language and language, that is, at the origin of the human. History, the self-conscious human temporality that began with the originary event of language, does not obey the laws of the proposition.
Language is not a reflex; in contrast with all animal responses to the world of perception, its signs are consciously composed. The primary différance, the originary supplément, is what puts the sign in the place of whatever animal reaction would have been there previously, whether appropriation or avoidance. It is in the time of deferral, the temporal version of Sartre’s “spatial” néant that opens up to human consciousness the airless world of the en-soi, that the différance of the sign is inserted. The originary sign is itself so to speak the first “predicate” in its application to its worldly referent.
The temporalization of the proposition is indeed “always already” annulled in the proposition itself; it does not “express” the différance that went into its construction. This is not, however, true of the originary deferral that made language possible. No doubt Derrida’s insistence on the always-already existence of language and culture within the “state of nature” into which they emerge, although never understood as such by Rousseau and his contemporaries, is nonetheless a reasonable analysis of their theories of origin, from an era when it was no longer satisfactory merely to allude to God’s creation, yet before the human species could be understood to have evolved. The quasi-pre-social stages of man (sauvagerie, société commencée) that Rousseau gamely postulates in his several efforts to overcome this obstacle can only “supplement” this same always-already problem. But we of the post-Darwinian age are aware of Homo Sapiens as an animal species that emerged from more archaic species that did not, like ours, use signs.
Language is spoken and even written in time, but in the metaphysical conception of language as consecrated by Plato and Aristotle, it is an atemporal, uncreated medium of propositional thought, whose rules of logical manipulation were first spelled out in the works that make up the latter’s “Organon.” It is not necessary to consider the origin of language in order to study logic, let alone mathematics. But the foundational knowledge that philosophy purports to seek of the human, or of “Being” as we conceive it, is one into which human language must emerge at some specific moment as the origin of the historicity constitutive of the human, of our consciousness and memory of events experienced in temporal sequence.
The deconstructive temporal considerations that problematize the time-less structuralist paradigm are a feature of the “Continental” play with/in the boundaries of metaphysics, in contrast with “Anglo-Saxon” analytic philosophy, whether of the ideal language or the ordinary language variety. Both trends are expressions of the growing dissatisfaction with classical metaphysics that began in the Early Modern era in the wake of the growing permeability of the hitherto unbreachable barrier between the world of language/culture and that of “nature.”
That era was a period of increasing exploration of the pre-civilized world, and as a consequence, the beginning of what can truly be called anthropological reflection: the search for an overall conception of the human across not merely civilizational differences but differences of cultural level that would suggest a process of historical evolution. This resulted in putting into question the vision of humanity that had been taken for granted in Western thought as described either literally or figuratively in the Biblical account of the Creation. Once the human comes to be understood as having evolved, along with its sign-systems, from non-human nature, the ontological independence of language from its worldly referents, which philosophy/metaphysics had always taken and continues to take for granted, no longer appeared as a fact of nature, but as a human-imposed convention.
The greater part of Derrida’s masterwork, De la grammatologie, is dedicated to the analysis of Rousseau’s Essai sur l’origine des langues. This is a posthumous publication not precisely situated in Rousseau’s oeuvre, although I tend to agree with Derrida that, whatever its early sources of inspiration in his musical theories and his polemic with Rameau, it is essentially posterior to the second Discourse (on Inequality). This conclusion follows from the fact that, where the Discourse treats the question of language origin as a paradox (“if men needed language to learn to think, they needed even more to know how to think in order to discover the art of speech”) and discusses it in abstract terms (maternal vs public speech, “natural” cries vs expressions of “ideas”) with no reference whatever to specific languages, the Essai sets up numerous language-specific oppositions, mostly oriented on a South-North axis, reflecting the polemic with Rameau, whose French operas Rousseau rejected in favor of what he saw as more truly musical Italian ones. Thus “Southern” languages and their music (meaning essentially Italian) are melodious, Northern (meaning mostly French, but also German, Russian, etc.) are harmonic, Southern languages emphasize vowels, Northern, consonants, Southern speech and song are passionate, Northern, practical…
Derrida sees Rousseau as the archetype of logocentric Western thought in the dawning age of anthropology. Standing at the end of the Early Modern era, a philosophe rather than a rigorous metaphysician in the German mold, and one who achieved notoriety in the “civilized” age of Voltaire by his denunciation of the corrupting influence of les sciences et les arts, Rousseau prefigured the Romantics’ problematization of culture’s “supplementary” improvement on nature.
Rousseau’s writings were the acknowledged inspiration of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who extended the spirit and methodology of linguistic structuralism to ethnology. Derrida’s analysis in the first part of De la grammatologie of Lévi-Strauss’s “writing lesson” from Tristes tropiques effectively shows that, whatever its objective value, the modern ethnologist’s denunciation of writing’s corrupting influence on the tribal Nambikwara reflects his unchanged Rousseauean logocentrism.
No one has done a better job than Derrida in teasing out over 400 pages of relentless deconstruction the paradoxical core of Rousseau’s intellectual (and psychological) persona. Derrida has every reason to understand the Essai as an obsessive problematization of language as always-already writing, a supplément to and corruption of nature—one which, by the logique du supplément, is at the same time a restoration of nature from this corruption. In this “logic,” the illusions we debunk can never be discorded, because their denunciation is our only path to originary purity. Rousseau was someone who lived the critique of writing as the mortal supplément in Plato’s Phaedrus (as analyzed in one of Derrida’s best-known essays, “La pharmacie de Platon,” in La dissémination, Seuil 1972), recognizing its necessity even as he denounces its superfluity.
Plato could denounce writing as (in principle) corrupting even as he writes his dialogues, but he shows no sign of being troubled by, or even aware of, this irony. Socrates is speaking to Phaedrus, and although Phaedrus reads Lysias’ speech, Socrates’ response is “oral,” period. Whereas Rousseau both denounces writing and “confesses” to us its personal necessity. In a word, Plato has a sense of good and bad, but not of (original) sin; Rousseau imports the Judeo-Christian Fall into the Enlightenment. Derrida’s analysis reveals Rousseau’s thought process (as well as aspects of his personal behavior) to be analogous to that of the believer whose only source of salvation comes from continuing to sin in order to be able to purify himself with repentance.
Derrida never tires of showing that in all Rousseau’s quasi-temporal derivations, say, of language as at first Southern-passionate and only subsequently Northern-analytic, where Rousseau seems to be constructing a proto-Hegelian historical dialectic, the terms can be reversed, and the supplements supplemented, leading back to untainted nature just when we think we have found an excess of supplementarity. It as though by building supplements on supplements, Rousseau, and Derrida as well, sought to escape from the clôture de la métaphysique to reveal the “true” place of man in nature.
Given the impossibility in the pre-Darwinian era of actually situating human origin in time, the supplement that adds to “nature” is always already part of nature, hence although a source of corruption, also an element of progress, und so weiter. That in our own day it is no longer impossible to formulate plausible hypotheses concerning this origin is, to say the least, irrelevant to Derrida’s concerns.
Derrida’s analysis of Rousseau’s Essai carries out its demonstrations in such detail that it becomes itself an archetype less of our liberation from metaphysics than of our imprisonment within it. It is fascinating to follow Rousseau’s constant backing and filling. But are we as thinkers, let alone as anthropologists, interested primarily in Rousseau, or even in logocentrism, as though along with the first we were trapped in the second? Isn’t it the ultimate aim of all such reflection on the human condition to understand, not why it is impossible to situate an origin of language that has always already taken place, but on the contrary, how language and the other aspects of human culture most likely originated? They did originate, after all. The Daniel Everetts who tell us how easy it was (see Chronicle 567) have this element of common sense on their side: it must have happened, because here we are.
It seems to me that it is time to cut the Gordian knot. Language is a communal phenomenon whose emergence is only conceivable on a public scene, and the declarative sentence that combines a subject/topic and predicate is equally inconceivable other than as derived from more elementary forms. The longer the world of human science denies this, or seeks to put it out of its mind, the longer it demonstrates its failure to face the problems that Derrida, for all his perversity, was not willing to dismiss. If we would avoid the endless toujours déjà of deconstruction, then we must agree to take la différance seriously as an anthropological phenomenon and provide for it a plausible scenario of birth.