Deconstruction is America Part 2


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When a Derridean says that everyone has access to writing, part of the problem is conceptual, but part of the problem is more rudimentary than that, hence more nagging, since in that claim we find our first indication that deconstruction invites us to believe things that are not true. Here’s another: A moment’s reflection should be enough to show that a contempt for writing simply is not the hallmark of the entire Western intellectual tradition. If you’ve read around in deconstruction, you have been told repeatedly that it is—you have been told that we must rally to writing, that we must rescue it from an almost universal opprobrium—and if you have come to accept that idea through sheer repetition, it might be worth pausing to consider again whether you actually take it to be accurate. So ask yourself: Do our most widely shared intellectual traditions train us to distrust writing? The point isn’t entirely far-fetched. It seems true enough that scholars working in the modern academic disciplines do not like having to contend with their own writing practices; they would prefer not to consider their writing as writing or to acknowledge what we might for the sake of convenience call the literary features of their output. Historians don’t like to be told that they are arranging the data of the past into well established narrative genres or that these genres determine what they write at least as much as whatever they last photocopied in the archives. Chemists and physicists don’t like to be shown that something in their prose remains stubbornly figurative and non-formalizable. No-one, scholar or not, much likes to consider the ways in which the words with which we make sense of the world are artificial—fictional, if you like, or poetic—that words are contrivances for endlessly fabricating distinctions where there were none, all of which could and eventually will be different. It is perhaps a bit peculiar to call this bundle of verbal anxieties “the suppression of writing,” but the anxieties surely exist, and it is useful to call them something.

But then maybe that formulation—“the suppression of writing”—isn’t just peculiar. Maybe it’s worse. Derrida’s readings of Plato, Rousseau and Husserl are all, taken serially, quite convincing, as is his grand re-staging of the old Hegelian idea that everything is mediated and nothing directly given. The question in front of us is whether these readings add up to the insight that Plato and Rousseau are the representative figures in European philosophy, that everything in Western metaphysics, including the ordinary language infiltrated by that metaphysics, defaults back to the banishment of the poets. And if we give in to the idea that in some sense or another Westerners just can’t deal with writing, then how do we account for the scripturalism of most Christian churches, or for the writerliness of the old humanist, grammar-school curriculum, or for the centrality of ancient languages to the nineteenth-century European university? It was the innovation, in fact, of twentieth-century linguistics to stick up for the study of spoken language against what the new discipline saw as centuries of overweening textualism—the obsession of Orientalists and classicists with the scribal cultures of antiquity. Grammatology, which Derrida presented as a new science struggling to be born, is perhaps better grasped as the disguise assumed by a refurbished philology, whose authority it attempts to restore. And what of bureaucracy, as both word and social form? Would a society that had comprehensively disempowered writing need a term that meant “rule by writing desk”? Of course, the very word, which has always been an epithet, could itself be understood as an instance of Europe’s deep contempt for writing—as further evidence of our collective determination to shame writers and writing whenever they become powerful. So am I meant to give up, as logocentric, the critique of bureaucracy? Is deconstruction a bureauphilia?

And what, finally, of the great ideologies of civilization? It’s enough to round up some commonplaces on the topic: “The invention of writing was one of the great advances in civilization.” “Whereas historians argue on what exactly civilization is, writing, cities, agriculture, government, religion and art are usually on the list.” Online, you can cue up a lecture course on “Writing and Civilization,” though you may not need to if you’ve already worked through the dozen or so webpages grouped under “Writing and the Development of Civilization.” If, conversely, you can’t be bothered, you might download and sign your name to a college essay called “Writing and the Rise of Civilization.” The word “civilization” is paired so often with the word “writing” that it can seem to absorb this other into itself, referring not just to the cities of its etymology, or to the making urbane of once unsettled places, but also to text and the expansion into new territories of scroll, book, or document. But then does this latter—grammification, we might call it, or scriptification—really have nothing to do with Western metaphysics? Do we really think that European intellectual traditions need to be called to account for having placed insufficient emphasis on civilization-which-is-to-say-writing? If writing is the opposite of metaphysics, and writing and civilization are closely linked, then does that mean that civilization, too, is un-metaphysical and so exempt from deconstructive scrutiny? If you find yourself answering no to these questions, then you might be coming round to the idea that Derrida, by sticking up in some general way for writing, can’t have been attacking Western metaphysics, if such a thing exists, which I doubt.[i]

At this point, if not sooner, the learned Derridean interrupts to object that this simply isn’t what Derrida meant—that when he offered his theory of écriture, he wasn’t talking about writing in any of its accepted senses and certainly not in this Babylonian one, that deconstruction has no interest in that Victorian progression from cuneiform to hieroglyphics to ancient Hebrew (or “Phoenician” or “West Semitic”) and onto the Greek alphabet. When deconstruction speaks of “writing,” it doesn’t mean what Derrida used to call “writing in the narrow sense,” but something like the unfixed quality of all language, the tendency of language to head out in all directions in the way that mass mailings do paradigmatically. And when it speaks of the suppression of writing, it means the tendency of most language, including most written language, to pretend that it is more stable and transparent than it actually is. Deconstruction might indeed wish to rescue writing, or bring it out into the open, but only in this second, wholly specialized sense. To this one can only respond that the word “writing” is a truly terrible way of making that point, depending as it does on a sharp break with ordinary usage that the Derridean is condemned to explain and re-explain and explain again. Deconstruction is the philosophy that licenses a permanent and predictable confusion between the usual meanings of the word “writing” and what the Derrideans, when pressed, will tell you they mean by it. It is that system of thought that allows a defense of civilization to hitch a ride on what it insists is at one level only a defense of Mallarmé and Joyce. The Derrideans cannot reasonably expect us to bracket out the everyday associations that accompany their master term. Hence my second question: Derrida says that we People of the Book are the ones who repress writing. But we don’t repress writing. So who are deconstruction’s real targets?


[i] For the commonplaces, see:


All sites retrieved December 17, 2015.


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