The postmodern notion of écriture dates from the beginnings of la nouvelle critique in Roland Barthes’ 1953 Le degré zéro de l’écriture. In this work (whose anti-leftist stance, like that of Truffaut’s famous 1954 proto-New Wave manifesto, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,” tends to be forgotten in today’s academy), Barthes distinguished écriture from a writer’s personal style (le style, c’est l’homme même) as an essentially sinister phenomenon exemplified by the communist langue de bois. Écriture implicitly asserts a set of presuppositions, a Weltanschauung or vision du monde, prior to any specific content. The burden of Barthes’ book was that in a world increasingly dominated by écriture, the deliberately neutral prose of Camus’ L’étranger achieved a “zero degree” that we should find exemplary. But as Barthes himself would soon realize, the preexistence of écriture to actual writing suggests that it governs all discourse, making the degré zéro not merely utopian but unthinkable. In this perspective (as Althusser, for example, might have argued), Stalinist écriture could be justified by the need to correct the unconscious bourgeois écriture that would otherwise prevail by default. The interposition of écriture between the self and its language marks the demise of Sartre’s transparent notion of human freedom and the beginning of the postmodern ère du soupçon.
Taking off from Barthes’ intuition, Jacques Derrida redefined the concept of écriture in his foundational works, De la grammatologie and L’écriture et la différence (both 1967) by, on the one hand, retrieving its literal meaning of writing as opposed to speech, and on the other, dismissing the speech-writing opposition as secondary to the essentially “written” nature of all language. In contrast with “writing in the narrow sense,” écriture for Derrida characterizes any sign system that generates meanings by means of a paradigm of differentiated signs, thereby “erasing” the “proper” sign of its (mythical) originary referent.
In Derrida’s earliest work, his analysis of Husserlian phenomenology in La voix et le phénomène (also published in 1967), it is the speaker’s self-presence in his voice that guarantees the authenticity of his thought. For Derrida, the “logocentrism” of Western metaphysical thought from Plato to Rousseau to Saussure–and Lévi-Strauss–is defined by the erasure or rature of writing from language, conceived as emanating from a (self-) present subject. Derrida’s analysis subverts or deconstructs this logocentric-metaphysical model of authentic language, denouncing it as a “myth of presence” that sustains the “solar” authority of political domination.
Derrida’s rebuttal to logocentrism is that all language is écriture. One cannot truly be “present” in one’s speech; the paradigms of language defer meaning because all the members of the paradigm must be taken into account to define the meaning of each of its components–the Saussurean notion of signification as a process of selection within a system of differences. Thus when I say “red,” the meaning either I or my interlocutor constructs from this word depends not solely on a concept of redness, but on the delimiting concepts of yellow, orange, etc., that allow the color “red” to be specified.
Although Derrida considers all language to be structured as écriture, he pays special attention to inscription, the creation of a permanent trace, as the form of language that explicitly embodies deferral and materiality detached from the ostensibly present subjectivity of its human creator. In his analysis of Lévi-Strauss’ leçon d’écriture from Tristes tropiques (ch. 28) in the second part of De la grammatologie, Derrida mocks Lévi-Strauss’ claim that because the Nambikwara’s graphic art is limited to “geometrical” lines and they call the act of writing faire des raies [drawing lines] (180), they can be said to be unaware of writing. Considering the notion of trace as more fundamental than what it might be a trace of, Derrida assimilates, more by innuendo than explicit affirmation, all forms of inscription to “writing” whether or not they provide a record of human language, and even throws doubt on the chronological priority of writing to speech.
These intuitions, however perversely expressed, are of great significance to generative anthropology. The originary hypothesis need not take sides on the anteriority of speech vs writing. The function of the originary sign is to re-present the central object and in so doing, to defer its appropriation. The simplest way of understanding this sign is as a gesture, the “aborted gesture of appropriation.” (Although Andrew McKenna long ago pointed out that the gesture that comprises the originary sign is in fact an aborted act of appropriation, I have maintained the proleptic term “gesture” to draw attention to the fact that the intentional, spatial nature of the “act,” once broken off, is taken over directly into the gesture-sign.) The hypothetical gesture takes place in an external space-time, whether or not accompanied by a production of the speech apparatus, which at the time of the originary event would obviously not yet be adapted to articulated human speech.
As pointed out in Chronicle 385, Durkheim’s intuition that the “absolute” opposition between sacred and profane is the founding distinction of human society and the basis for all further classification allows us to understand the process of signification as prior to the existence of “difference” in the Saussurean sense. The sacred-profane distinction has always been misunderstood by Durkheim’s successors precisely because it cannot be assimilated to a binary distinction on the Saussurean model, of which it is rather the originary source.
The deferral of mimetic violence through the emission and exchange of signs that defines the originary event is “inscribed” in a time and space that separates the peripheral emitters of the sign from the (sacred) central referent it represents. Différance is in the first place the deferral of violence. The representation of the sacred/significant in a scenic space-time of deferral generates meaning as interdiction and “non-appetitive attention” (Girard). The originary generation of meaning through deferral is the source of all subsequent systems of differences; of the two components of Derrida’s différance, difference is dependent on deferral rather than the other way around.
Derrida’s descriptions of the “proper” as defined by logocentric myth sound as though they refer to the emission of the sign in the originary hypothesis:
|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.
. . .
C’est parce que le nom propre n’a jamais été, comme appellation unique réservée à la présence d’un être unique, que le mythe d’origine d’une lisibilité transparente et présente sous l’oblitération ; c’est parce que le nom propre n’a jamais été possible que par son fonctionnement dans une classification et donc dans un système de différences, dans une écriture retenant les traces de différence, que l’interdit a été possible, a pu jouer, et éventuellement être transgressé . . . c’est-à-dire restitué à l’oblitération et à la non-propriété d’origine. (159)
|There is writing as soon as the proper name is erased/crossed out in a system, there is a “subject” as soon as this obliteration of the proper takes place, that is, from the first appearance of the proper and from the first morning of language.
. . .
It is because the proper name has never been, as a unique appellation reserved for the presence of a unique being, anything other than the myth of origin of a readability that is transparent and present under obliteration; it is because the proper name has been possible only via its operation within a classification system, hence in a system of differences, in a form of writing retaining the traces of difference, that interdiction has been possible, has been able to function, and possibly be transgressed . . . that is, restored to its originary obliteration and non-propriety.
|La mort de l’appellation absolument propre, reconnaissant dans un langage l’autre comme autre pur, l’invoquant comme ce qu’il est, c’est la mort del’idiome pur réservé à l’unique. (162; italics mine.)
|The death of the absolutely proper appellation, recognizing in a language the other as pure other, invoking it as what it is, this is the death of the pure idiom reserved to the unique being.
|Nommer, donner les noms qu’il sera éventuellement interdit de prononcer, telle est la violence originaire du langage qui consiste à inscrire dans une différence, à classer, à suspendre le vocatif absolu. Penser l’unique dans le système, l’y inscrire, tel est le geste le l’archi-écriture : archi-violence, perte du propre, de la proximité absolue, de la présence à soi, perte en vérité de ce qui n’a jamais eu lieu, d’une présence à soi qui n’a jamais été donnée mais rêvée… (164-5)
|To name, to give the names that it may become forbidden to pronounce, this is the originary violence of language that consists in inscribing in a difference, in classifying, in suspending the absolute vocative. To think the unique within the system, to inscribe it there, such is the gesture of archi-écriture: archi-violence, loss of the proper, of absolute proximity, of self-presence, loss in fact of what never took place, of a self-presence that was never given, only dreamt . . .
|L’idéal qui sous-tend en profondeur cette philosophie de l’écriture, c’est donc l’image d’une communauté immédiatement présente à elle-même, sans différance. (197)
|The ideal that underlies in depth this philosophy of writing is therefore the image of a community immediately present to itself, without différance.
Except, of course, that Derrida constantly denies the reality of this “mythical” state of originary plenitude, presenting the introduction of différance as that of archi-écriture, the founding violence that the myth effaces. All this confusion can be eliminated if we understand différance in its most concrete sense as the deferral of violence, that is, as precisely the desired result of the constitution of the community.
When Derrida comes to offer a historical analysis of the origin of writing “in the narrow sense,” he conceives it as an instrument of the organization of production through the deferral of consumption, the management of the “reserve” or surplus. We may note in passing Derrida’s curious assimilation of human history to that of la vie en général, reflecting what appears to be the trace of an unavowed project in De la grammatologie to assimilate biology and perhaps even cosmology to the system of deferral and supplementation by which Derrida characterizes language.
|Toute cette structure apparaît dès qu’une société commence à vivre comme société, c’est-à-dire dès l’origine de la vie en général, quand, à des niveaux fort hétérogènes d’organisation et de complexité, il est possible de différer la présence, c’est-à-dire la dépense ou la consommation, et d’organiser la production, c’est-à-dire la réserve en général. Cela se produit bien avant l’apparition de l’écriture au sens étroit, mais il est vrai, et on ne peut le négliger, que l’apparition de certains systèmes d’écriture, il y a trois à quatre mille ans, est un saut extraordinaire dans l’histoire de la vie. (190; italics the author’s)
|This whole structure appears as soon as a society begins to live as a society, that is, from the beginning of life in general, when, at very diverse levels of organization and complexity, it becomes possible to defer presence, that is, expense or consumption, and to organize production, that is, the reserve in general. This takes place well before the appearance of writing in the narrow sense, but it is true, as we cannot ignore, that the appearance of certain writing systems between three and four thousand years ago was an extraordinary leap in the history of life.
Considered in the context of human history, writing extends and multiplies deferral. Derrida is not concerned to go farther than this, nor to distinguish specifically what about writing “in the narrow sense” contributes to this operation. What follows in his text is rather the observation that this occurred without any transformation notable de l’organisme, suggesting that différance stands in an inverse relationship to biological evolution, as it were in a grammatological reformulation of the nature-culture binary.
Neither Derrida nor Lévi-Strauss appear to be aware that the primary social function of writing is the production of documents. When Lévi-Strauss describes the Nambikwara chief after the leçon d’écriture as producing and “reading” a scrawled piece of paper to his people as a guarantee that the white explorer would provide them with certain requested items, he speaks of the paper as containing a “list,” but its primary function is as a contract. That Lévi-Strauss’ promises are supposed to be written on it makes it documentary proof that he made these promises and can be held to them.
The practice of writing is normally thought to originate with marks or icons included as a manifest listing the contents of a shipment so that the recipient can verify these contents on receipt. The “supplement” added by the document to the speaker’s absence objectifies his “speech” so that it can be maintained through time and verified not merely by his interlocutor but by any third party. This makes it possible for the transaction, which in contrast to Maussian gift exchange is essentially punctual, to be prolonged like the latter over time. This is a prerequisite for any kind of complex economic relationship, and it is easy to conceive that the expansion of such relationships would lead to the extension of writing to the recording of such things as laws and regulations. No doubt the societies in which writing emerged were hierarchical, but this does not imply that writing any more than speech is hierarchical in essence. Derrida himself points out the contradiction between Lévi-Strauss’ insistence that writing at first served the domination of a literate elite and his Foucaultian interpretation of the extension of literacy to the masses as the imposition of hierarchical social discipline: “La lutte contre l’analphabétisme se confond ainsi avec le renforcement du contrôle des citoyens par le Pouvoir. Car il faut que tous sachent lire pour que ce dernier puisse dire: nul n’est censé ignorer la loi” (“Leçon d’écriture“) [The fight against illiteracy is inseparable from the reinforcement of government control over the citizenry. For all must know how to read in order that authority may say: ignorance of the law is no excuse.]
If language be conceived as originating in the asymmetric sacred-profane distinction, which defers mimetic violence through the representation of the interdicted central object of common desire, then the effacement of the “proper” in the system of differences that constitutes mature language may be understood not as the erasure of this originary deferral but as its extension. Every significant object or phenomenon bears a parcel of sacrality; every utterance separates its subject from its surrounding background like the originary sacred center. Like the totemic systems analyzed by Durkheim, or the pantheons of antiquity that create an ecumenical system from a heterogeneous assemblage of local gods, Saussurean paradigms of differences are the traces of unique experiences of significance.
The sacred is not a mysterious, otherworldly quality; it measures the human community’s sense of the danger posed to it by the mimetic desire aroused by different phenomena. What we call secularization is the process whereby these dangers come to be assessed within their concrete historical context rather than by reference to originary history as preserved in religious traditions. Pace the militant defenders of atheism, the progress of secularization over the past three centuries is far from having demonstrated the ability of modern societies to provide a rational basis for these assessments.
The sociological context of the anxiety aroused by writing as opposed to speech is the familiar Gemeinschaft – Gesellschaft or status – contract opposition that distinguishes “compact,” “face-to-face,” traditional communities from modern societies composed of complex networks of mutual strangers. The ethnological perspective opened in the eighteenth century refocuses this distinction on the crucial watershed that divides egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities, which gave Rousseau his model of la société commencée, from the hierarchical agricultural and industrial societies that have almost completely replaced them. These egalitarian societies are indeed, as Durkheim assumed, “closer to the origin,” although in even the simplest community the originary presence reproduced in ritual must be extended to the everyday world through Maussian exchange.
The real basis for the “presence” that Derrida denounces as the founding myth of the logocentric social order is thus the self-presence not of the individual but of the community. The functional criterion of communal self-presence is the Durkheimian one of reinforcing “solidarity,” or in our terms, deferring mimetic violence by strengthening the interdiction of the sacred center and the procedures for its eventual division among the members of the group. “Presence” in this sense is realized in religious and other rituals to this day.
Western philosophy/metaphysics reflects from the beginning the loss of the compact community, and in its first flourishing, the precarious existence of an Athenian democracy supremely conscious of the difficulty of maintaining “solidarity” in a society where contract had largely replaced status. Plato’s abstraction of “Ideas” from language emancipates normative concepts from the face-to-face ritual community and makes them instantaneously and universally accessible. For Plato, the universality of the Idea of the Good–which is in fact no more than a sign–and its conceptual family gives proof of the existence of a good-in-general, which not merely trumps the good-for-me or the good-for-you but discredits these “indexical” concepts as subjective illusions.
Thus the metaphysician’s abstract communion in Ideas replaces the interactive communion of ritual by displacing the Ideas from their scenic origin, which ritual continues to reproduce, to an ideal world of infinite transparency that ignores the productivity of human time. In Rousseau’s extension of metaphysical transparency to the political sphere, the participants in the social contract discover the group’s preexisting volonté générale rather than generating it over time through a process of political debate. But language and cultural representation never exist in an abstract, timeless “presence”; the community’s self-presence takes place on a scene, with an open space-time of deferral between the sacred center and the human periphery. The collapse of the separation between center and periphery–notable in Nietzsche’s vision of tragedy–is the most dangerous of myths.
Metaphysics ignores the origin of propositional language in elementary linguistic forms (ostensive and imperative) and ultimately in an originary event. By taking the existence of the declarative sentence for granted, metaphysics cuts language off from its anthropological origins. Throughout the history of philosophy/metaphysics from its beginnings in the pre-Socratics, language remains an all-but-invisible vehicle for ideas. Even such explicitly language-oriented thinking as British “ordinary language” philosophy never conceives the need to provide an anthropological foundation for human language. That philosophy sees writing as merely “recording” speech is a corollary of the fact that philosophers from Plato to Kant and Hegel write about “ideas” as though they were independent of the language in which they are expressed. Throughout the vast bulk of philosophical writing, the “myth of presence” is exemplified in the assumption of the immediate mental presence to the thinker of his thoughts.
Descartes’ cogito, whose “idea” is equated with the enunciation of a specific proposition, opens a crack in the metaphysical edifice. The “early modern” era also gives rise to the Enlightenment speculation on the origin of language that will lead via the evolutionary thought of the nineteenth century to the postmodern thinking of Derrida, Girard, and GA (see The Scenic Imagination). But the virtual absence of language from Kant’s system, the final crowning glory of metaphysics, demonstrates the incompatibility of this anthropological speculation with the overall project of Western philosophy. Kant understood that the foundational analysis of the transcendental relationship between ideas and things must be pursued without reference to the words in which the ideas were expressed–that the unexplained availability of propositional language lies at the very core of metaphysics.
The value of Derrida’s critique lies in his recognition that metaphysics elides the human time of deferral, which is measurable in even the most intense ritual exchange, and which the extended temporality of writing forces into the open. What metaphysics rejects in writing is the confidence it embodies that the time separating the production of a document from its transmission is no obstacle to the mutual understanding that defers violence; writing can only function as “parasitic” on the “presence” of speech.
Where Derrida goes wrong is in seeing the temporality of deferral as itself a mode of violence. The human cannot be conceived without originary presence, but the very nature of language demonstrates that presence is constituted by deferral rather than by its expulsion. As Derrida noted in one of his last publications (see Chronicle 340), the ground of any act of language, whether in speech or writing, is the faith that others will share the meanings of the signs one has emitted. This sharing of meaning is a “presence” prerequisite to human communication and to the maintenance of the human community. Language does not place sous rature the “absolute presence” of the first sign; on the contrary, its system of differences extends this presence. Metaphysics’ suspicion of writing’s secondarity with respect to speech indeed reflects an originary intuition, but this intuition, rather than rejecting différance; seeks on the contrary to retrieve through detemporalization the originary différance that founds the human community. The cure for metaphysics is the retemporalization of its founding myth, not as the rediscovery of originary violence, but as the beginning of the never-ending history of its deferral.