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An Introduction to Derrida

In 1967 Derrida made an impressive entrance
onto the French intellectual stage by publishing two
collections of essays and a short study of the early
Husserl (1967, 1,2,3). The importance of this
intervention stemmed from the fact that while he
endorsed the critical distance from phenomenology
that was de rigeur for all pan-structuralists, he
simultaneously developed a critique of the Saussurean concept of the sign on which ‘structuralis m’

rested. And as he both considers his work political
and ‘not inconsistent with Marxism’ while-maintaining a carefully tuned distance from any-particular
Marxist or radical texts, he has pose n a considerable problem of assessment ever since.

To understand the position from which this tissue
of distances was set up, we need to appreciate the
way he appropriated and fused into a new way of
– reading, the work of a number of his predecessors.

These include the accounts of the closure or
exhaustion of metaphysics developed by Nietzsche
and Heidegger, the radical critique of the concept
of meaning that Saussure’s semiology implicitly
opens up, and the Freudian critique of the
enthroned subject of consciousness.

As formative intellectual elements these do not
however pick out Derrida from the Parisian crowd.

What does distinguish him is the way he organises
these elements. He uses the critique of metaphysics to develop, by rethinking the classical
concept of the sign, a new ‘concept’ of writing,
which functions as the basis of a new diagnostic
programme. What he gains. from it is a more
direct access to the metapbysical alignments and
commitments both of his contemporaries (Levinas,
Foucault, Lacan, Levi-Strauss and of many
‘classic’texts (including those of Plato, Rousseau,
Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger).

Derrida’s position is based on the-belief that
there are two radically different ways of understanding language – ways parallel to the distinction
lIusserl makes between indication and expression,
on which Derrida fastens in his book on Husserl
(1967. 1). One can understand language as deriving
its ‘meaning’ from some underlying semantic layer,
such as experience, consciousness, or even the
Platonic world of forms. Or one can understand
ifs meaning as self-constituted, brought about by
the play of differences between terms, by their
repetition, without reference to some field of sublinguistic guarantees (1). The alternative to an
expressivist or foundationalist account of language
is one that treats meaning not as the basis of
language but as an effect of language. On such a
view language is understood ‘primarilyJ as writing.

This term has however been the source of a
certain misunderstanding, or non-understanding,.

It does not ,in principle involve any claim about the
relative ranking of the spoken or written word (2).

1 Cf. the distinction between logical and rhetorical models of language in
Newton Garver’s preface to Derrida (1967.1) (E. T 1973).

2 See for instance Plato’s Phaedrus, the locus classicus of this view.


Derrida’s championing of writing is an intervention
that opposes itself not to speech but to speech
considered (however silently) to be privileged, as
linked by a hot-line to meaning (3). To announce
that speech is a form of writing is simply to
deprive it of this metaphysical status, and to
assimilate it to the articulatory condition of all
meaning, for which the term ‘writing’ stan~.

The violence done to our linguistic reflexes by
the apparently perverse inversions found in
Derrida’s discussion of the relation between speech
and writing is strictly therapeutic. When we discuss his procedure of deconstruction we will get
some idea of the general strategy involved.

But if Derrida is not in principle committed to a
concern for the sort of writing found in books it is
to this area that his work is largely confined. To
say that his work is heavily parasitical on other
writing is not just to utter a truth about all
writing, but to say something special about his.

Other thinkers have intellectual debts, take issue
with the published views of others, even try to
refute the m. And even if, like the late r
Wittgenstein, one is concerned to come to terms
with people’s linguistic intuitions in the field of
everyday speech, one is still using a public
language. But Derrida’s modes of parasitis m are
quite other. In a whole series of texts, of which
Marges and Glas are the prime examples, he
doesn’t just feed off his prey, he hatches his eggs
inside their flp-Rh Sartre once talked about the
worm at the heart of Being. The possibility of a
Derridean inworming lies at the heart of every text.

If there is one principle behind this inworming it
is a basic questioning of authorial identity. What
is put in question is any principle that (a) guarantees the distinction between writer and critic, host
and parasite and (b) guarantees the unity through
time of the critic himself. This questioning has its
origin (and not just a temporal one) in the philosophical problem about the nature of personal
identity (the theological proble m of the nature of
the soul). In France this problem appears both in
the form of a defense of the concept of a person as
an ethical a priori – in the Christian tradition
especially – but also in the shape of the phenomenological concept of the subject, which either in its
transcendental form (Husserl) or its existential
version (Sartre) seems to embody a commitment to
the a priori unity anti continuity of the subject that
to many a post-Nietzschean nose is something short
of metaphysical. Identity is the atheist’s plastic

By using the term ‘writing’ Derrida is bringing
the problem of meaning back to language for its
solution. (Back to language becal·.se it started as
a problem about general names.) !: is by a narallel
‘linguistic turn’ – that is, a turn towards language that we can understand the transformation being
performed on the metaphysical problem of personal

3 See e.g. p55 of Derrida (1967.2) (E.T.1976).



identity. We can understand Derridaas endorsing,
at the level of ‘writing’, the criticisms that
Heidegger (see e. g. Being and Time ~ 19) before
him had already made of the classical Subject.

These criticisms included the rejection of the
subject’s a priori unity through time and the rejection of its metaphysical independence from the
‘external’ world. And what replaces the problem
of personal identity, in the new linguistic idiom,
is the problem of textuality. The fact that dreams
display such textual articulation is a symptom of
the theoretical displacement of the ‘enthroned
conscious subject’ (4) that this linguistic turn
involves. Indeed even consciousness will be seen
to have a structure based on the sign. This is the
theme of Derrida’s first book, and I shall now begin
to explain in more detail how some of the ideas I
have discussed have been presented in specific
De rridean texts.

The Text and Meaning
Derrida’s first published work of impOrtance was
devoted to the analysis of the work of Husser!, whom
Oedipal fingers point to as the father of phenomenology. His first unostentatious foray into the field of
Husserl criticism began with an introduction (171
pages) to his accompanying translation of Husserl’s
late and much shorter essay on the Origin of
Geometry. And this was followed by his account of
Husserl’s masterpiece, the Logical Investigations
(E. T.1970). The key word in the title of the short
essay that attracted his interest was ‘origin’, and
it is no coincidence that he should also write on
Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages (in
1967.2) , and, later, an introduction to Condillac’s
Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1973).

The English reader may not know quite how to
assess Derrida’s selection of objects of interest.

Many of us will never have looked at Condillac let
alone that ‘essay’, and neither Husser! ‘s nor
Rousseau’s essays are the first pieces one would
normally read in trying to understand their work.

Matters are a little different in France, but even if
Condillac is the Locke of French philosophy,
Derrida focuses on pads of the ‘essay’ which are
not normally taken as central, even in France. We
can understand what Derrida is up to, however,
without great prior knowledge of these texts. They
are Simply vehicles by which he is exemplifying
his practice of reading.

In each case the reference to an origin, even when
it is presented in a historical context – and after all
geometry, one supposes, did start sometime – is a
reference to a noint or a site nossessing a nrimary
enistemological power, a pure source of meaning,
a ground with which we can come into direct contact.

Under the guise of a history we find metanhysics.

They trace the past to find a presence, a point
beyond which we need not go in trying to give a
foundation to language, to geometry, to knowledge,
a ‘point which it may still be possible to reactivate.

What Oerrida shows is that in each case the theories
and models employed are shaped by this theme of
nresence. (5)
One of the interests of this analytical nrocedure is
that it allows Derrida to assimilate rather different,
indeed otherwise opposed noints of view. Husserl’s
pOSition, for examnle, is one which founds meaning
4 On this displacement Lacan is the obvious source. See also Derrida
(1967. t)
5 See Derrida (1967.2) (E. T 197~ p12) for the manifold meanings of

on intuition, while Rousseau founds it on feeling.

While the two can be so contrast’ed, they still share
a common assumption about what counts as an adequate account. In fact such an as’sumntion is the
basis of their conflict. An adequate account. of meaning has to discover. a source which is non-conventional, non-artificial, non-constructed, but nrimitive. For Rousseau this means ‘natural’ and for
Husserl it D;leans ‘pure’. Rousseau posits a natural
language of cries, Husserl a pure order of exnerience. Oerrida is not offering us here a scholarly
summary of their theories but rather a metaphysically symptomatic reading in which he displays
certain forms of theoretical apneal. And it would be
a mistake to think of this discovery of a ground, of
a centre, of what Derrida calls a oresence simnly
as a detached interest in the form of theories.

The metaphysical or logocentric tradition as he
calls it, can be seen as a tradition of inviable
textual authority. We are not referring just to the
traditional authoritative texts such as bibles, law
books, rule books etc, but to the legiti mation
structure of certain annarently innocent texts. The
tracing back of conclusions to noints, or presuppositions that cannoe be questioned because of
their privilege, hidden by the metanhysical value
that they embody, is in fact the exnosing of a textual
power, a nower given authority by the metanhysical
nrivilege of nresence. We can nerhaps understand
metanhysics in Derrida’s account as the legitimation
of textual power. The attack on the privilege of
nresence .nara1lels the nolitical attack on the divine
right of kings. I take UP this line of thought again

What I have said so far is thoroughly schematic.

I do not apologise for this and I shall return with
another simnle schematism a little later, but we
still ought to give some illustrations of how Derrida
actually goes about the business of uncovering logocentris m in his chosen texts. I will take two classic
cases, of Husserl and Saussure, for his account of
these thinkers explains how he is situated in a
complex space between and beyond both nhenomenology and structuralism. Derrija began his natricidal exercise on Husserl, as I have mentioned.

Husserl’s Logical Investigations, a long and systematic attemnt to provide for logic an:i what was called
logical gram mar (the sunposed a nriori structure of
language) a foundation that was neither purely
formalistic nor psychological, begins with what
Derrida rightly calls a ‘nortentous distinction’

between two different senses of the word “‘sign’.

We can understand by ‘sign’ both ‘exnression’ and
‘indication’ .

Before we exnlain what Husserl means by this
distinction it is worth recalling the theoretical
commitments he had already made. He had already
been attacked by Frege for the nsychologism of his
first work, and was trying this time to ensure that
no traces of the emnirical remained in his account
of the foundations of logic and language. Later on.

in Ideas (1913), the exclusion of the merely
emnirical was to be accomnlished by a kind of
epistemological screening nrocedure, the nhenomenological reduction. Here, dealing with what we
might call the raw material of logic – relations of
Signification – the distinction he draws between two
sorts of sign serves the same function at the
semantic level.

Those signs he calls ‘indications’ include both
natural and conventional signs, that is. both causal
or similarity relations (smoke ifire is a causal

example) and arbitrary linguistic relations (like
that of ‘chair’ to a chair). These cannot be the
pasis of the ideal ‘sciences’ with v.h ich he is concerned because they lack necessity. They are just
links by which the mind haonens to move from one
thing to another. Husserl thinks of relations of
indication as ‘external, suoerfic~al,’ so much episte.;..

mological dross. What is imnortant to him, and so
to carefully senarate and describe nhenomenologically, is that class of signs he calls ‘exoressions’.

These have an intimate relation of direct acquaintance with what they ‘mean’ and the naradigm of
such an acquaintance is our own inner exnerience
on uttering words to ourselves, nerhans silently.

This involves Husserl in a view of the social
emnloyment of language as a derivative and secondary phenomenon with no contribution of its own to
make to the nroduction of meaning. As the nublic
formulation of one’s ideas in language involves one
in the use of indicative signs (a nublic language
conSisting of arbitrary relationshipS between words
and things) Husserl insisted on the need to conduct
his enquiry into ideal meanings at the level of the
exnressive signs constituted in ‘solitary mental
life’, nrior to their taking on an external linguistic
form however necessary that might be for communication. Husserl, in summary, thinks he can and
must bracket out the imoure, external, emnirical
aspects of signification leaving the nure ideal
asnects available for internal and immediate
insnection by a oure consciousness. If we apnear
to be making a great deal out of the indication/
exnressjon distinction it is because Husserl devoted
the first of his. Logical Investigationb to the distinction, and hung the rest ofthero’ on it. And Dertida
hangs Husserl on it.

Derrida anproaches Husserl’s oosition here at
two levels. The first is an ironic one: to insist that
the separability of the ideal from the empirical in
the form of these two tynes of Signification is a
nresupposition that Husserl makes. And as
nheno:nenology takesnresunnositionlessness to be
a founjing value, there is something of an inconsistency here. Oerrida also recognises in this
nresupposition and particularly in the way Husserl
aoneals to a privileged sphere (pure consciousness)
to establish the indenendence of exnression from
indication, the most basic metaohysical theme of
oresence, in its oarticular form of the nresence of
meaning to consciousness. As Husserl is dedicated
to the elimination of metanhysics, which he thought
of as the cause of most of the sterile debates in the
history of nhilosophy, this criticis m is one to which
nhenomenology is peculiarly sensitive. (6)
Derrida does not just assert the metanhysical
nature of Husserl’s apneal, he argues for an alternative account of the sign and of meaning, which
would destroy the credibility of Husserl’s privileged
‘presence’. The idea of nresence is a very powerful
one. Its oower rests on the way it combines a
spatial and a temporal sense, a here and a now in
a single value.. And the appeal to it as an epistemological ultimate has, dare we say it, an immediate
plausibility. We usually rely on what we can see in
front of us. If the literal visual cases of seeing are
6 It is worth pointing out that Derrida is not the first French philosopher to
have criticized Husserl’s account oI a purified consciousness. Sartre and
Merleau-Ponty each made this a measure of their distance from transcendental phenomena. Derrida’s distinction is to have undertaken this
criticism not by an appeal to the impossibility of bracketing out ‘existence’

but to the irremediable uther relatedness (in many different senses) of the
sign, which is the structure of consciousness. Derrida would claim a
common inspiration in Heidegger, but I cannot help wondering about a
more direct relationship to the ‘vulgar’ Sartre.


subject to scentical doubts, we would eliminate
these doubts it might seem, if we restricted ourselves to the kind of ‘seeing’ with which consciousness appreh’ends its objects. And the problems
scepticism has with memory (what is only remembered is not immediately available and so subject
to doubt) can be solved by sticking to what is
jmmediately given at an instant of time. Derrida
demonstrates however that the immediate plausibility of the value of presence does not survive
closer inspection, as I shall now show.

Central to Husserl’s account of the non.-empirical
status of language, logic and nhilosonhy – all of
them ‘ideal’ disciplines – was the concept of
ideality. He understood the ideality of a term, say,
or a sentence, as the nossibility of its infinite
repetition. Derrida, however, inte,rnrets the notion
of infinite repeatability extensionally, that is, he
insist’s on cashing it out into a real infinity of
operations, with which of course we can never be
nresented, which can never be ‘given’. And so it
follOWS that we can never be acquainted with
‘ideality’. If we then say, as Husserl does, that
series are completed in the imagination, then we
are faced with a problem that the imagination is
linked to the very emnirical world Husserl has
fought to exclude. The final blow is struck when
Derrida j~xtaooses Husserl’s assumntion that there
could be an instant, a pure temnoral nresence in
which this confrontation with meaning took nlace,
with Husserl’s own fully develooed account of
time-consciousness (1966). And here a real inconsistency anpears. Husserl gives us an account
of the purified structure of time which makes quite
clear that there can be no pure nresent. Any ‘now’

is shadowed by the oast, and casts a light ‘forward
on the future. The ‘now’ is from the outset structured in terms of the past and future. There is no
nure present. Consequently there is no temporal
site, says Derrida, for the privilege Husserl has
accorded to presence.

As well as pointing out internal flaws in Huss~rl ‘s
account, Derrida also introduces an account of the
nature of signs which is thoroughly at odds with the
view that they are merely the external form given
to meanings. Signs relate to other signs, by onnosition, by derivation, by a whole Inlay’ of differences. All these ‘horizontal’ relationships make
nonsense of the ‘vertical’ model of Husserl’s which
ties signs down to individual meanings. To retain
that model; we would have to suppose that the
‘horizontal’ relationships we have mentioned, such
as opposition, were to be found at the level of



no 2 September 1978
This issuc carries articles ou [cmini,t polilical Ihcon anc! stratq~’,
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meanings, but in that case it would be imnossible
for them to be discretely grasped in conscious acts,
because in the act of immediate grasPing, their
relationships to other, absent signs would have been

Meaning for Derrida is always mediated, never
immediate. And by mediation is not meant just a
deferred presence which finally comes, but a nerma
nent state of deferment. The nlay of 1ifferences that
Derrida substitutes for Husserl’s immediacy of
nresence can never be captured in a system, can
never be represented (7). The wish for such a
structured se mantics is nothing but the reapnearanCE
of the belief in presence at another ievel.

‘0errida has cut a great swathe through Husserl.

One could argue that he has not given Husserl a fair
run for his money – perhans Husserl could have
,reconciled the two accounts of time, drawn after all
‘from different periods and contexts, perhaps he
:would have disputed the whole extensionalist interpretation of ideality by a more careful account of
the idealiSing functions of the imagination. Perhaps
Husserl was saying many other things that Derrida
has missed out. But there is no doubt that Husserl,
as they say, will never be ‘the same’ again.

In his critique of Husserl, Derrida used not only
Ithe Heideggerian view of metaphysics as the interi pretation of Being as presence, but also the·
Saussurean account of the sign. It was the externality of the signs to itself, the claim that all signs
Iare what they are by their relation to other signs,
ithat Derrida finally substituted for Husserl’s
:account of language, and this is essentially a
:Saussurean doctrine. But how can this be if Derrida,
:as we have said, also attacks Saussure? The time
is ripe for an account of Derrida’s Saussure.


Saussure is the main focus of the essay
Linguistics an:! Grammatology (in 1967.2). The way
! Derrida begins his study of Saussure is characterlistic. If we grant the expanded scope of the concept
lof writing that we have already introduced, then one
might imagine that just as se m iology, for instance,
lis the general science of signs, that there could be
la science of writing. This however raises certain
reflexive problems, problems that the subject
matter of such a science throws up for the status
of the enterprise as science. Firstly, might it not
be that the rigour and objectivity of science as such
presupooses writing as ‘the condition of the possibility of ideal objects’? Secondly, if we were to
grasp the apoearance of the science of writing as
the product of particular historical conditions, are
we not then confronted with the denendence of
history on the possibility of writing? Thirdly, a
brief exploration of the subject would reveal that
,the concept of science is dependent on a highly
determined relationship between speech and writing.

The general difficulty, then, is that writing does
not Simply serve to define the scope of its scie’nce
as an obedient subject matter should, but is the
problematic ground for the idea of science as such.




Given these problems – which are genuinely
fascinating – we might perhaps wonder whether
linguistics, supposed after all to be a general
science of language, might not be some help.

On the contrary, as the reader may have guessed,
the hope that Saussure might be able to come to our
7 Can it even be captured in a single article? A number of Derrida’s essays
are dedicated to an interventionist exposition and elaboration of a
substitute of non- meaning, or difference (Differa nce (see 1967.1) QhT..

1973), Derrida’s answer to Heidegger’s (1929) Is the classic case.

rescue is doomed to disappointment. What is at
stake in understanding Husserl is the status of
Saussure’s work as science. And Saussure is
immediately suspected of having made a grave
though not original assumption about the relationship between speech and writing, a presupoosition
which is nothing short of metaphysical. It is not the
first time that Saussure has been charged with
having invented a pseudo-science (8). But Derrida’s
reasons for making this charge are original. He
shows that the scientificity of Saussure’s choice of
an object of study – which turns out to be spoken
language, rests on his identification of the spoken
sound with meaning (thought). This phonocentris m
can achieve the integrity of its object only by treating writing as merely an external, secondary
supplementary addition to the SpOken word. What
Husserl claimed about language as such – its
externality (to thought / meaning / cons ciousness /
expression, appears in Saussure as the relationship
of writing to speech. Writing is just an external
notation. Derrida shows that this exclusion of
writing from linguistics is the product of an attempt
to draw the boundaries of linguistics in such a way
that it be a closed system. But the principle on
which writing is excluded from consideration – its
mere externality – is one which is contra:!icted by
the extraordinary Ch. VI of the Cours (E. T.1974)
in which Saussure inveighs against the damage done
to language by its transcription into writing, a sort
of dead skin that corrupts. Writing is seen as a
danger to the purity of the system of speech.

Derrida points out, too, the extraordinary language
of contamination, pathology, perversity associated
with writing, in opposition to the natural purity of
spoken language. This contradiction -between
writing as empty externality and writing as source
of contamination – is symptomatic. Saussure is
unable to consistently theorise the primacy of
speech over writing. For Derrida this ranking is
based on the privilege of presence that Saussure
as a representative of the logocentric tradition
accords to the spoken word.

What is Derrida’s response? Saussure is part of
a tradition that nee1s de construction , but what does
this consist of?

“de constructing this tradition will therefore not
consist of reversing it, of making writing
innocent. Rather of showing why the violence
of writing does not befall an innocent language.

There is an originary violence of writing because
language is first, in a sense I shall gradually
reveal, writing. ‘t (1967.2)
The rejection of a simple reversal is a lesson
learned from Heidegger and Nietzsche. If we are
trying to change the framework within which
opposed terms appear, then a mere reversal will
not be adequate, it will merely be a repetition of
the original structure. So when Derrida shows how
language is ‘first . .. writing’, it is ‘in a sense’

he must explain, a new sense.

To explain it, we might look at some of the
patterns of Derrida’s thought so far. In the texts
we have already referred to, what is particularly
striking is that he is constantly pointing to ways in
which these texts are organised according to metaphysically loaded patterns of space and time. He
8 To give a home-grown example, we find Ogden and Richards (1923)
opening the book with the objection’that Saussure’s ‘langue t ~’the
supposed object of linguistics – is a fiction, created by the ‘primitive
impulse to infer from words some object for-which it stands’ (p4).

Despite the real differences between Derrida and Ogden and Ri chards ,
it is fascinating that- they both attribute to Saussure an error based on a
metaphysicai conception of language.


defines logocentris no, for example as ‘the exigent,
powerful, systematic and irrepressible desire for
a “transcendental signified” ‘(1967.2 n49 E. T. ).

What he means by a transcendental signifie:! is a
‘,meaning which would exist outside any system of
signs, and ‘would place a reassuring end to the
reference from sign to sign’. In other words it
would en:l regresses in the search for the real
meaning. A philosopher’s stone.When Nietzsche said
that we had not got rid of God if we still believe in
grammar, it is just this structure of a privileged
first point to a series that he is talking about.

Here Derrida has located a constitutive feature of
metaphysics – the metaphysical organisation of an
ideal temporal series so as to produce a beginning,
at the level of the text. And in the same way, he
shows hoVl one of the most basic topological
structures – the relationship between inside and
outside – is loaded to carry’a metaphysical weight.

If it is the case (an1 it would take me an argument
for which I have neither time nor space to develop
here) that there are such analogues of spatiotemnoral organisation in, at least, all theoretical
texts, then the .assignment of a nrivilege, or an
orientation to such structures, silently, or invisibly, ·allows them to carry a metaphysical message.

If this sort of analysis is correct, one wpuld
expect Derrida to have something to say about
Snace and time in the textual sense. and of course
he does. Most of his ‘constructive’ as well as his
deconstructive essays contain some account or at
least a trace of an allusion to an alternative theory
of language, one which can only function as a substitute for the one he is dis mantling for those who
have rnanaged to shake off the ‘powerful 1esire’ ·to
which we have just allw:led. Kant’s solution was to
demonstrate to us the proper limits of reason so
that reason would then cease to stray with the
slightest hODe of .succe$S beyond those bounds, like
a trained dog that will not pass an ooen gate.

Derrida’s solution is to intervene with a new set of
terms, and a new account of the spatiotemporality
of the sign to ‘undernin’ it. So;1’e of this can be
found in the remainder of this essay on Saussure.

But the best source is the essay Differance. It is a
difficult essay and not a little eccentric but with a
little priming it is well worth reading. His explanations of the packing and unnacking of the term
‘differance’ allow one to locate him in a history of
‘influences’ (1967.1 E. T. p130) and to see what I
mean by his alternative spatiotemporalisation of
the textual

I said above (see note 7) that Differance is
Derrida’s answer to Heidegger’s lecture What is
Metaphysics? I did not mean that it was a conscious
renly, but that it occupies a parallel nlace in his
writing, that it is even more outrageously ‘brilliant’,
and that it presents many of the same nroblems of
assessment. The Heidegger lecture is all about
Nothing (which is neither a thing, nor Simply
.nothing) while Derrida’s lecture is about Differance
(which is neither a word nor a concept). And both
offer accounts of the role of their ‘terms’ which
sound like new transcendental roles, while this
status is vigorously denied. There are many more
things which should be said just for the record
about the influence of Heidegger here, but they will
have to be deferred for the time being. I will proceed to the task of trying to summarize what is
going on in this essay.

We must understand that ‘difference’ (with an ‘e ‘)

is itself derived from the French word ‘differer’

which already embodies a combined spatio-temporal
sense in its two meanings ‘to differ/differentiate’

and ‘to defer’. ‘Differ’ or ‘differentiate’ are understood as snatial in the sense of involving differences that are most naturally renresented on some
sort of spatial grid. Derrida transforms ‘difference’

(with an ‘e ‘) into ‘differance’ with an’ ‘a’ to mark a
difference between his term and the one he is
modifying. Marking the difference with an ‘a’is
son”)2 thing of a serious joke. If we remember that
‘Derrida’s project can be viewed as the establishment of the primacy of ‘writing’ over ‘speech’

when the latter is understood logocentrically, then
the fact that the difference between ‘differ~nce’

and ‘differance’ is only visible and not audible is
Derridean wit. Why ‘a’? Think first of the ABC …

Has not ‘a’ a sort of privilege? And Lacan’s ‘a’

for ‘autre’ (otherness). Or ‘a’ for ‘arche’ origin or first point. ‘a’ may not be defined but it
is not unmotivated and such an unfinished series
of allusions is just the sort of ‘meaning’ that
‘differance’ allows. If we are not hanpy with the
sort ofways he introduces ‘differance’ it is because
we hanker after something which could be properly
defined like a concept, but that is to fall back into
the logocentrist account of language of which differance announces the limit, if it cannot tell the end.

With all the subtle reflexivities and theoretical
embodiments of the term differance it is really a
very brutal way of nose-rubbing in the materiality
of language. But at the same time it clearly does
connect to all the themes we have described. The
way Derri:la puts it, it sounds like a tin-onener:

“it opens up the very space in which …

philosophy produces its syste m and its history”
(1967.1 E.T.p135)
It performs this role by being carefully llsed in
such a way that it cannot be thought in terms of the
traditional OPpOSitions constitutive of that space,
so that it can never legitimate those forms of blindness that philosophy has necessarily taken so

Derrida distinguishes the two senses of differance
as spacing and temnorising (9). Insofar as the traditional concept of the sign has involved the representation of a presence (e. g. a thing or a meaning)
rn its absence, breaking out of that conception will
involve us in dropping our commitment to that
presence which is deferred, and to understand
deferment without implicit reference to a final
realisation. We can understand differance in its
sense of ‘spacing’ by referring to Saussure’s
account, which some have found hard to swallow,
of signs as having a differential character. Signs
have their value by the differences that relate
them to other signs, an explanation dispensing with
any fixed or privileged point. Or ‘in language there
are only differences and no positive terms’ as
Saussure put it. What Derrida extracts here is the
odd way in which Saussure’s principle of difference
seems to be of a different order to that of the signs
that it accounts for. As differance incorporates
this Saussurean sense, we can understand it as a
‘play of differences’, a play which, while making
concepts possible, is not itself a concept.

Derrida cannot however bring himself to say that
it is an activity, nor that it has effects. That would
be to attribute to it the function of a new ground or
9 The English translator entirely misses the distinction that Derrida
makes between temporizing (playing for time?) and temporalizing (op. cit.

note 7, pi36). Cf. the original, p47.


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founding principle of a metaphysical order. And then
all would have been in vain, the game lost. He
christens the non-effect of this non-cause the
, ‘trace’. He cannot avoid the use of metaphysical
terms to explain himself, but his commitment to
them is only an expediency, part of a de constructive
strategy. It is impossible to do without them, but
the implication is that one can use them to contest
the very system of which they are a part. This
refe rence to strategy gets cashed out not only in
relation to the future but also in terms of the whole
chain of terms with which differance can already be
linked, drawn from his other texts (10). So differance, neither a word nor a concept, takes its place
in a guerilla army of similar ‘terms’ none of which
are exactly synonyms, but each of which shares the
job of displacing the logocentric competition and
disordering the field in which they are place.

Summaries, strictly writing, are impossible, and
summaries of summaries are subject to the law of
even more diminishing returns. ‘For that reason I
shall leave the very rich second part of Differance
for unguided exploration. What De rrida does is to
reveal the campaign contributions of Hegel,
Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud and Levinas, in a
tantalising collection of trailbrs for more important

Before I make some more critical and general
remarks on what Derrida is doing I ought to fill in
some of the ground that I have not covered so far.

I have concentrated on presenting some of the more
10 For a very useful list of references to Derrida’s terminologIcal eXpOsitIon
see Derrida (1967.1) ~ 1973 p142 n.6).

accessible routes to the Derridean heights. But I
have not exhausted the field. In particular, I ought
to repeat that Derrida writes texts in which the
classical authorial function is abandoned, in which
the author as friend who explains what he is doing,
who presents his ideas with ease of comprehension
in mind, who at least plays at producing a classical
text – this author has left the scene. Glas (1974) is
the extreme case but the principle of withdrawing
guarantees of unambiguous textual identity is one
distributed throughout his work. The further
principle of exemplifying his theory of writing in
his practice of writing is inevitable given its radical
nature, and yet makes for considerable difficulty in
reading him. The reason he has to exemplify his
theories performatively is to be found in his
sympathetic account of Hegel ‘s problem~ with
prefaces (11). Prefaces to philosophical texts
attempt the impossible, for texts cannot be
summarised (12). The summary is simply a
different text. There is no meaning that can be
boiled down. The attempt to do so just leads to its
evaporation. Consequently there is an irreducible
aspect of demonstration or ‘showing’ or practice
about Derrida’s work, and a showing in the form
of an articulated doing.

I have so far tried to keep fairly close to the
ground, but I would now like to take up a certain
distance from Derrida, and pose some questions
for him, to which I shall offer some sorts of
answers. But there is no pure distance, only within
a particular space.

Deconstruction and its Implications
Where does Derrida stand in relation to other
sorts of radical theory and practice? I shall raise
some general problems based on the wo-rk we have
already considered, and try to answer them in part
by reference to his published interviews. In trying
to come to terms with the political dimension of
Derrida’s writing, I will make a provisional
distinction’ between on the one hand the question of
Derrida’s theory of reading, and its relationshin to
a Marxist reading of philosophy, and on the othe r ,
the wider political relevance of Derrida’s work.

I will begin with the first question.

I will take it for granted that if there is any single
method that captures Derrida’s theory of reading it
is the practice of what he calls ‘de construction ‘.

While accounts of this can be found in a number of
places in his work perhaps the most important is an
account of what he calls its ‘general economy’ in
the title interview of Positions (1972.1, p56) with
Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta.

‘The subject matter of de construction on any
particular occasion is a text, either a philosophical
text in the traditional sense ,or a theoretical text
with critical pretensions such as Saussure’s Cours.

The local aim is to display the latent metaphysical
structure of the text, according to a theory of what
constitutes metaphysics. (the privileging of some
‘presence’ or other) and then to transform it. The
deconstruction of a particular text derives its wider
meaning from a neo-Heideggerian account of the
history of Western thought, in which it is claimed
that this entire system of thought, with a few heroic
exceptions, is a kind of internal debate employing
certain fixed conceptual oPPositions, and is essent11 See Hors Livre (1972.2).

12 CL Barthes (1977), Writers Intellectuals
dislike of writing’.


‘the summary is a


ially finit~. that is to say ,it has limits and these

can be described. Derrida’s forte is to apply his
method to texts which themselves take up a severely
critical attitude to their own tradition and to show
that these texts are nonetheless naive in their understanding of that tradition, that they repeat the
errors they criticize in a disguised way.

Deconstruction is a critical method of displaying
the latent metaphysical structure of texts, which is
distinctive in the way it tries to avoid falling into
the same traps itself, even if this is to some extent
unavoidable. In the interview we mentioned above
Derrida’s account of de construction is directed to
this comnlex problem of how to transform a -text
without merely endorSing the wider framework to
which its terms belong:

“one would have to avoid, at one and the same
time, a simple neutralisation of the binary
onpositions of metaphysics and simply remaining
(resider) inside, an:! so confirming the closed
field of these oppositions. ,. (op. cH. )
[my translation, as below]
In many respects this is just updated Nietzsche so
far. In order to prevent one’s critical enterprise
from being aborted in this way, Derrida distinguishes the de constructive strategy (for that it is) into
two phases. The first he gives a name to – reversal.

The second we will call transformation.

1 Firstly, why ‘reversal’? What is revers~d?

“in a classical philosophical opposition [and it
is out of oppositions that texts are structured Dew] we do not find a peaceful co-existence
between the two sides. but a violent hierarchy.

One of the two terms dominates the other (axiologically, logically, etc) occupies the higher
place. To deconstruct the opposition one must
first of all, at a given moment, reversp, the
So if we were cOli.fronted with a text promoting
idealis m, working with a loaded opnosition between
the ideal and the material, the first move would be
to reverse this hierarchy, to argue for the priority
of the material, etc. If instead of doing this one
were to merely transcend the opposition straight
away, then
“one passes too quickly without giving the first
ooposition much consideration, to a neutralisation which practically speaking would leave the
first field as it was, depriving oneself of any
means of effectively intervening in it.”
Reversal, even if naive in the last analysis, is at
least a move in the game. It is strategically justified if one can use it as the first move in changing
the game. It is important that Derrida finds it
natural at this point to draw a practical analogy:

“we know what the practical (and in particular
the political effects have been of leaping
immediately beyond all opposition, and of
protests in the simple form of neither/nor … ”
Derrida is not in favour of transcendental politics.

And yet this determinate negation of the hierarchical organisation of one concept’s relation to another
is useless by itself.

“The hierarchy of the dual opposition always reconstitutes itself. To hold onto this stage one
needs the second stage.”
2 The second stage – transformation – corresponds
to what I earlier described as Derrida’s hatching
his eggs in his host. The aim of stage two is to
prevent the old opposition from simply re-establishing itself, by putting a conceptual spanner in the

“This involves operating further on the terrain
and in the interior of the deconstructed system.

One must also, by this double writing, carefully
stratified, displaced and displacing, mark the
distance between the inversion which, by deconstructing the sublimating or idealisillg
genealogy, brings it lower, and, on the other
hand, the irruptive emergence of a new ‘concept’,
one which no longer allows itself (not that it ever
did) to be understood on the earlier ground.”
So it becomes clear that inversion or reversal is
on 1y a pre 1″lnllna r y t 0 a more rad’lca1 reorgam’s a t·IOn
of the conceptual field brought about by the introduction of a new term.

Derrida’s concept of ‘writing’ is a good case in
point. The first stage of his deconstruction of the
privilege of speech is to privilege writing instead.

The second~tage is to redefine writing, if only by
use, so as to include speech and indeed any other
such articulations. The first stage brings about an
engagement with the present field, the second stage
aims at transforming it so that it cannot reform
itself into the old pattern. He imports into the field
concepts which are ‘indecidables’ from the point of
view of the old field, and which to be handled at all
require that the work of de construction be left

Many of his essays consist of a putting these new
terms into a new textual practice so that they
acquire, by example imitable patterns of use, recognizable functions, if not quite meanings.

‘Differance’ which he originally claimed was neither
a ‘word’ nor a ‘concept’ because of the unwanted
presunoositions that can be read into these innocent terms, he now concedes has become a word!

But if we have now got a clearer picture of what at
least the ‘general economy’ of de construction consists of, how should we assess it? I would first
like to point out two quite contrasting aspects of this
method, which, united, give it power. Firstly, it
is a highly formal method of criticism, and second,
it is nonetheless guided by considerations of strategy which are thoroughly practical (in a limited
sense). It is formal in the sense that he is concerned with the structure of philosophical texts, or
with reading a structure in them which betrays the
imbalances and hierarchies that are grist to his
mill. At this level there is not much to choose
between Derrida and other philosophers with a
general view of the history of philosophy, except
perhaps the ingenuity and originality of his analyses.

The difference comes at the second level with his
strategies for forcing a permanent change in the
ways we read not just the texts le has chosen but
theoretical texts in general, incfuding as we shall
see, the texts of the Marxist tradition. For it is
clear that these strategies have analogues, not to
say models in what seem to be extra-textual
struggles. But are they? There is nothing,
Derrida has said, ‘hors text’. We will return to
this question.

My analytical separation of the formal and
practical aspects of de construction has severe
li mits. One of the most revealing features of
Derrida’s writing is the use he makes, even in
describing what I have called the formal strands
of his method, of militaristic and ‘political’

language. ‘Peaceful co-existence’, ‘violent
hierarchy’, ‘dominate’, ‘structure of conflict’

even ‘strategy’ itself. We have already learned
from Derrida that metaphors are never innocent.

We can perhaps understand the force of these
terms but how do we assess them? One might
think of them simply as a rhetorical enhancement
of a less dramatic way of putting the whole business, one that perhaps reflects Derrida’s own unhaopy consciousness of his own political irrelevance
or impotence. But more plausible is the view that
politics and struggle are inseparable from the rethinking of language and writing on Derridean lines,
and that one can use the sharpened sense these
terms can acquire in their use to describe a
strategy of interventionist reading, to reaccentuate
their relevance in conceptualising and structuring
other forms of political action.

If not wholly accurate this second reading of
Derrida’s language is closer than the first. It is
clear that he thinks the form in which certain
problems of radical transformation occur at the
level of rethinking writing is one we can learn a
great deal from. Let me illustrate this point
further. At the end of his paper The Ends of Man
he gives us a distinction between two sorts of
deconstructive strategies, the first of which he
associates with Heidegger, involving the kind of
inworming or internal subversion we have just
described, and the second a kind of break, a standing apart, a refusal to participate, the invention of
one’s own dance, laughter… There is something
of Nietzsche in this account (and a bit less in the
first). Derrida suggests that both can be used, and
even intermingled. The point is that both are solutions to a proble m, of how to overcome what I
would caU the conservative logic of system recup’eration, that has a very distinct political analogue.

The absorption and toleration of dissent characteristic of Western ‘democracy’ and the development
of strategies to prevent such recuperation has, for
example, been one of the central themes of the
post-war Frankfurt school. Indeed Derrida’s
remarks about the illusions of freedom of speech
at the beginning of his delivery of that paper could
have come straight from Marcuse, for all their
other differences. The illusions of OPPOSition,
originality, ‘revolution’ which litter the history of
logocent’ric philosophy offer Derrida an ideal field
in which to develop the vocabulary of escape from
the seemingly inescapable, the very predicament
so often felt by those engaged in radical politics.

This account does not however go far enough. It
still makes the relationship between the practice of
de construction and of radical political action just
one of analogy and Derrida would contest that
limitation, as I shall explain shortly.

Derrida says at one point that he does not think
that he has ever said anything inconsistent with
MarxiSm (a remark which CQuld have come straight
out of a heresy trial), but that needs a lot of unpacking: To understand Derrida’s relation to
Marxis m there is no substitute for at least a glance
at his relation to Heidegger (see below) and Hegel.

First of all, with all his rejections of humanism as
a form of metaphysics (13), Derrida has a certain
sympathy with Althusser. But Derrida has a
different reading of Hegel, and great debts to
Nietzsche and Heidegger. Derrida’s Hegel, if we
can discount his eschatology, his teleology, the
13 See The Ends of Man E, T, of Les Fins de I’Homme in (1972.2).

Criticizing the latent humanism in Sartre, for example, he says:

“Everything takes place as though the sign ‘man’ had no origins, no
historical, cultural, linguistic limit, not even a metaphysical limit. ”
(In this assessment of Sartre he follows Heidegger closely.)

final return of presence in that terminus he calls
Absolute Knowledge, has a profound understanding
of writing as such, of philosophy as textuality.

Even if his thought is finally a testi mony to the
logocentric tradition, Hegel’s system is an account
of the progressive discovery of the limits of other
philosophical systems, the destruction of their
finite forms, the instability of their oPPositions,
and perhaps most important, the understanding of
any ‘knowledge’ as a mnemonic ‘trace’ which is
never purely present except ‘at the end’. The
journey from the Hegelian concepts of dialectic and
Aufbehung (overcoming, sublation) to ‘differance’

is a journey through mined territory, fraught with
complications. To merely stand Hegel on his head
would be to continue to work within the same metaphysical space. One does not escape a frame of
reference by negating someone else’s terms.

Derrida tries to produce fron. Hegel a new text
free from logocentrism. If Marx found Hegel a
representative of German Idealism, Derrida sees
him through the spectacles 9f the logocentric
tradition. The Felationship between logocentris m
and idealism? Derrida tries to explain this in the
course of answering the criticism that he ‘underestimates, even ignores the struggle between
materialism and idealism’ (14). His answer is
complex. He argues that if he has neglected that
problem it is because he thought that the most
necessary and urgent tas k was to give a ‘general
determination of the conditions of emergence and of
the limits of philosophy and of metaphysics’ and all
that it entails. But in principle he has not neglected
it, because logocentrism firstly, is also fundamentally idealis m; secondly, it is the matrix of
idealism; thirdly, idealism is the most direct
representation of logocentris m; and fourthly, logocentris m is a larger concept than idealis m. These
variants are trying to capture the fact that one need
not be an idealist to be logocentric, but all idealists
are logocentrists. He goes on to insist that as the
de construction of logocentrism is at the same time
the de constitution of idealis m, he has not ‘ignored’

(efface) the ‘struggle’ against idealism. In saying
that, however, he has not actually said where he
stclnds in the struggle against idealis m; he has left
out the questioner’s reference to materialis m. And
the reason must be that materialism too in any ordinary sense that opposes it to idealis m must itself
be exposed as metaphysical. Indeed he goes on to
say that certain so-called non-idealists, and antiidealist philosophies are part of this tradition.

Two questions arise from this account. The first
is the status of the necessity and urgency of the task
of delimiting philosophy. This surely poses the
question: necessary or urgent for what? But
Derrida will not stay for an answer. Secondly we
are not much closer to understanding what he thinks
of Marx. His questioner obviously thought the same,
because the status of the proble matic of writing in
relation to dialectical materialism is raised a few
pages later. Derrida talks like a lawyer. Insofar as
logocentris m shares being a critique of idealis m
with dialectical materialism, he agrees with it.

What he doesn’t say is which bits he rejects.

Derrida shows himself extremely reserved about
Marxism. He claims that his thought is not incompatible with Marxism, but insists that if there
are gaps in his work about his relationship to Marx,
these are deliberate. That is work yet to be done.

He cannot spell out in any. simple way what that
14 See (1972.1) p69.


relationship is. And he concludes by indicating the
sorts of reservations with which he would read Marx.

He does not think of the texts of Marx, Engels or
Lenin as homogeneous, and in reading them he
would necessarily transform them, as Althusser
has already demonstrated.

Derrida’s reserve is not hard to understand. He
cannot abandon his critical perspective, and that is
constituted by a whole apparatus for the dismantling
of philosophical and indeed any theoretical texts.

Fro m that vantage point, Marxis m appears as a
series of texts with debts to the past, with internal
conflicts, limitations etc, i. e. as complex objects
for analysis. To set up Marx’s writing or anyone
else’s writing as an ultimate point of reference is
to repeat an old error. And if one wanted a concrete
example as to why, he would point to the pervasive
concept of ‘contradiction’, ‘a concept which has not
yet been freed from its ‘speculative, teleological,
eschatological horizon’.

There is another influence on Derrida central to
understanding the distance he takes up to Marxism:

Heidegger – the same Heidegger for whom Marxism
is ‘the spirit taken (= falsified as) as intelligence’ (15).

Derrida’s debt is both to Heidegger ‘s understanding
of the history of philosophy as the metaphysics of
nresence, what Derrida calls logocentris m and the
problematic of the limits of philosophy as ~ell as
the development of a language that might take one
beyond those limits – of ‘difference’, ‘appropriation’ etc. Derrida is no simple disciple – he in
turn accuses Heidegger of bringing back presence
in the shape of the problematic of Being, but what
he does seem to accept is the possibility of what
we might call an ‘internal’ audit of the history of
philosophy, an assessment which confines itself to
the field of its texts. Derrida, like Heidegger and
Begel, will ten us about the relationship between
Marx and Democritus before he will mention
capitalism. It is important to realise that neither
Derrida nor Heidegger think that in having these
priorities they are failing in their duty. One can
understand this in Heidegger’s case, because he
allows himself the language – at least. – of German
idealism. The term ‘SPirit’ gets one a long way in
being able to write about thought, culture and
politics in the same ‘breath’ (see 15) but that
language is not available to De:rrida. Does he nonetheless harbour the same generalising confidence
about the scope of the logocentric tradition? And
the effects of dismantling it interminably?

If we bear in mind the influence on Derrida of
these theorists of metaphysical closure, and of the
illusions of escape, of the snares, the traps and the
ironies we can at least appreciate if we do not
accept, why the question of strategy is so central
for Derrida, and at the same time why the question
of political commitment is so difficult for him.

Before I conclude
political directions
I would like briefly
assess ments of his

with an assess ment of the
in which his work could lead us,
to consider some previous
political significance.

Christine Buci-Glucksman, first of all (16) draws
a basic distinction between a ‘political’ reading of a
text and a Derridean reading, and describes the
commitment latent in Derrida’s practice of deconstruction as, in so many words, intellectualism.

! At its sharpest points, she says, de construction
15 See Heidegger (1953) p39.

16 In L’Arc 54 devoted tp Derrida. Her essay is entitled Deconstruction et
Marxiste de la Philosophie.



bears witness to the division of intellectual labour,
the hierarchical ordering of languages in society
(she refers here to Barthes), and to the division of
the human sciences into separate disciplines. She
asks moreover whether we can really be happy with
a theory of the effects of a philosophical discourse
which is only concerned with the theoretical
practice of the text.

Much the same criticism is made by Jameson (17).

He draws certain parallels with Marx: the givenness of the past built into the idea of a ‘trace’

Qorresponds to Marx’s (but equally Heidegger’s or
Sartre ‘s!) account of the givenness of social
existence, the attack on logocentrism is seen as a
sort of demystification, but his final analysis is
that Derrida falls into a kind of text-centrism:

“in the very act of repudiating any ultimate or
transcendental signified, any concept which
would dtctate the ulti mate or fundamental content
of reality, Derrida has ended up inventing a new
one, that of the script itself.” (pp182-83)
Finally, after the Althusserian and Hegelian
marxist, we might perhaps recall Foucault’s drops
of acid (1972). Foucault’s main objection is again to
Derrida’s text centredness. He reduces ‘discursive
-practice to textual traces’, ‘ … It is a historically
sufficiently determined little pedagogy … that tells
the pupil that there is nothing outside the text … ‘

It is a pedagogy, he thinks, because it gives the
maitre the power to license his oupils in endless
readings. The archaeologist of the ‘document’

must be peculiarly aware of the problems of this
sort of reduction. But is he right to claim that
Derrida offers no account of discursive practice?

Derrida’s answer must be that writing is a practice,
that he does not distinguish theory and practice in
the way implied, and that all discourse has the
form of writing, a point that takes us back to our
earlier point about the non-privilege, on Derrida’s
analysis of either speech or writing (in the old
sense) as such. But it does raise an important
point and that is that although Derrida ascribes no
metaphysical privilege to writing (old sense), for he
does not simply invert the classical orivilege of
speech, and although all that he says about writing
(new sense) is applicable not only to speech but also
to consciousness (if we take his account of Husserl
seriously), Derrida nonetheless specializes in the
analysis of writing in the old ‘literal’ sense. That
is he concentrates on what people have written in
bo~ks in a way that Barthes, for example, does not.

Now there are many reasons for this. We need only
recall the urgency he claims for a rather special
project – of delimiting the boundaries of philoso phy.

And yet that need not confine one to the analysis of
written texts (old sense), as Wittgenstein demonstrated. Indeed the latter’s later work is a rejection
of such a confine ment on philosophical grounds!

Might it not be that the focus on the text, which
Derrida repeats, is the basic presupposition responsible for the continuation of the metaphysical
circus? Even if one limits oneself to the study of
written texts (such as books) without claiming any
completeness of purpose, does one not still presuppose the adequacy of an analysis restricted to
the level of the text, an adequacy which would be
challenged by anyone for whom the non-philosophical
nexus within which philosophical texts are produced,
is important? Derrida can recognise this only in
the abstraction of an ‘outside’. How important or
urgent is the limited project that concerns itself
only with the classical philosophic~l tradition?

17 See Jameson (1972), p183.

My point, in brief, is that the belief that one can
come to understand the logocentric commitments of
particular texts involves a number of highly
dubious assumptions. The tracing of a universal
theme like this is blind to the particular contingent
conditions to which such a the me may on each
occasion be responding. To talk about logocentrism
as an irrepressible desire and to relate it to anxiety
reduction, as Derrida does, is to psychologize.

metaphysics, and there is an alternative: without
naivety, to historicise it.

In the abstract, Buci-Glucksman’s objections to
the intellectual division of labour that Derrida’s
practices involve could equally apply to her critique.

But if we concretize it, it is worth reminding ourselves that Derrida does have to (!) teach philosophy at the highly traditional Ecole Normale. And
for at least some of his courses, the topic is laid
down by a higher educational authority, as is the
method of textual exposition. In that context, a
radical reading of texts is the obvious answer to
keeping one’s job and one’s sanity at the same time.

But this surely does not endorse Foucault’s ‘little
pedagogy’ accusation.

What we seem to be drawn into is the question
about whether there might not be quite different
ways of raiSing the question about the limits of
philosophy other than the textual/ metanhysical
ones that Derrida chiefly concerns himself with,
and these questions relate to philosophy as a

A Linguistic Politics?

I would like to conclude this introductory paper
with some positive remarks about the application of
his work and in such a way as to try to answer some
of the questions and doubts I have raised or

I think that the most obvious uses to which one
can put Derrida’s work in political practice are in
those areas with a strong linguistic infrastructure.

I would pick out three main areas: educational
institutions, other linguistically denendent institutions, like mental hospitals and families, and everyday ideological struggle.

1 The role of some version of the strategy of deconstruction in schools, polytechnics and universities to be quite concrete, seems to me clear.

De construction illuminates in previously innocent
books, structures of nresunposition, structures of
authority which run diagonally across th~ logical
order of argument. Derrida’s commitment to
liberating educational practices and the role of
philosophy in that liberation is clear in his founding
support for Greph, a group of lycee philosophy
teachers formed to fight the Haby ‘reforms’, which
would substitute job-oriented school-teaching for
such endless games as philosophy (18). I am also
convinced that Derrida has something like the
Leninist view of philosophy, as the class struggle
at the level of theory, and consequently of the value
of doing battle at that level. There does seem to be
some point in this, if only a limited one, in that the
effect of Derrida’s readings on intellectuals /academics is to make naive appeals to philosophy’s
treasurehouse of ulti mate justifications considerably
less plausible. Kant’s arguments against masturbation will fall on sterile soil.

2 Derrida’s strategies can, I think, be adapted for
use in challenging the linguistically embodied
structures of power in such institutions as families,
factories, mental hospitals and, at a different level,
schools etc (as above). How this adaptation should
be performed is a difficult question. One would need
to adapt the insights about the ways in which opoositions are so loaded as to give one side a ‘privilege’

so as to provide a theory of the hidden use of power
in discourse. And what we are not in a pOSition to
tackle is the degree of importance to attach to the
linguistic dimension of power, in relation to, say,
the powers of physical confinement, which are
exercised by all these institutions.

These remarks about institutions are nartly based
on remarks I have heard Derrida make about the
use of de construction in the disruption of conventions of discourse, and thereby to challenge the
structures of power that depend on those conventions. I would suspect that the problem of handling
system recuperation, as I have called it, would
require in these ‘impure’ areas,
where power is of many kinds, a different analysis,
one which Derrida has not given.

3 This reference to the relation between power and
convention brings me to the last category of the
direct political application of Derrida’s ideas. I
have called it ‘everyday ideological struggle’.

My point is simple. That struggle takes the form
of intervention almost entirely linguistically
mediated, into what are often our own practices
and habits. These interventions often take the form
of questioning language, questioning assumed
patterns of domination. Derrida has given us techniques for the contestation of linguistically rooted
domination, and they can be applied.

Derrida once gave the example of a press condemnation of foreign workers as ‘parasites’ on the
French economy – the same term often applied in
Britain to the unemployed. He has on a quite
different occasion attempted to challenge the
appearance of one-way dependence implied in the
judgement of parasitism (in the context of the
philosophical claim that an unusual use of a philosophical term is ‘parasitical’ on the standard case, :

in discussing Austin). His philosonhical deconstruc-!

tion of the concept of ‘parasite’ is given a new lease
of life in a political context.


To give another concrete case, the fight against
sexism has a very important linguistic element and
involves the perpetual exnosure of the privilege
language accords men in its most habitual nractices. The complicity of language with phallocentrism is the perfect target for a Derrideaninspired assault. It is no accident that very many
of Derrida’s most serious ‘disci pIes’ are women.

It is also worth streSSing that one of the most
com mon and discursive practices is that of justification – of actions, ‘state of affairs’ etc. Philosophy
does not rule the world, and never will, but crude
versions of the principles it sometimes manufactures, and often cleans and perpetuates, are inseparable from the public world of discourse.

Insofar as the metaphysical ground of these principles is an appeal to ‘presence’ (see above note 5)
and Derrida specializes in diagnosing such anpeals,
he has an important contribution to make to every::.~:L~A”l”r:{:

18 See Gordon and Ree (1977).

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day argument. I am well aware, both here and in
relation to the last section on institutional apolicaions. that it might well be thought that there are
others whose work requires far less effort to
apply to com munication situations, such as
Foucault, or Habermas, but I cannot go into a
comparative study here.

These atte mpts at marketing Derrida may, when
11 is said and written, be utterly misguided. Both
hen reading Derrida and listening to him reply to
uestions, one can see why he claims that all that
e does is a risk, a gamble, that it demands his
constant vigilance to ensure that he is not mis-

understood. I have been as tempted as other~ to
conclude that what Uerrida is actually offering,
however surrounded by disclaimers, warnings,
reminders, signposts, are new sorts of transcendental arguments which would take us back – perhapS
even deeper into the metaphysical mire. Is there
any reason to suppose that he would be spared this
sort of misunderstanding if he was used as the
basis for a new form of extratextual political
practice? Texts have controls (indeed are systems
of control) that speech does not have. That is
something of the secret of Derrida. But might not
his ‘text-centrism’ be his Achilles heel?

Barthes (1977) Image, Music, Text, Fontana
(1962) Trans. and Intro. to L’Origine de la Geometrie (Husserl), PUF;
(1967.1) La Voix et le PhenOmEme, PUF (E. T. Speech and Phenomena,
Northwestern, 1973)
(1967.2) De la Grammatologie, Minuit (E. T. Of Grammatology, Johns
Hopkins, 1976)
(1967 ~ 3) L ‘Ecriture et la Difference, Seuil
(1972. 1). POSitions, Minuit (E. T. Diacritics, Winter ’72, pp35 -43; Spring
’73, pp35-46)
(1972.2) La Dissemination, Seuil
(1972. 3) Marges, Minuit (includes Lea Fins de 1’Homme, trans. The Ends
of Man, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 30, pp3lf)
(1973) .L ‘Archeologie du Frivole, Galilee
(1974) Glas, Galilee
(1975) Economimesis, in Mimesis, Aubier- Flammarion
(1976.1) Ou commence et comment finit un corps enseignant, in Politigue
de la Philosophie, Grasset, 1976.

(1976.2) Fors, preface to Le Verbier de l’homme aux loups (by Abraham
and Torok), Aubier .. Flammarion~
(1977) L ‘Age de Hegel; La Philosophie ‘et ses classes; Responses a la
Nouvelle Critique in Qui a Peur de la Philosophie? GRE PH, F1ammarion.

(1978.1) Scribble, preface to Essai sur leshieroglyphes by Warburton,
Aubier- Flammarion.

(1978.2) Eperons: les styles de Nietzsche, Flammarion.

Foucault (1972) ‘Mon Corps,. ce Papier, ce feu”‘, in Histoire de la Folie
(2nd edition) cited and discussed in Spivak (1976) p.. 1xi.

Gordon and Ree (1977) ‘The Philosopher in the Classroom’, Radical Philosophy

(1929) What is Metaphysics, trans. in Werner Brook (ed) Existence and
Being, Gateway, 1949.

(1953) Introduction to Metaphysics, Anchor 1961.

(1978) Basic Writings (ed. David Farrell Krell} Routledge.& Kegan Paul
(a very good selection which includes (1929) above).

(1966) Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness, Indiana.

(1970) wgical Investigations, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jameson (1972) The Prison-House of Language, Princeton.

Saussure (1974) (ET) Course in General Linguistics, Fontana/Collins.

Spivak (1976) excellent introduction to Derrida (1967.2) ET 1976).

Ogden and Richards (1923) The Meaning of Meaning, R&KP.


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