The Metaphysics of Authorial Presence

Of Grammatology, one of Derrida’s earliest works, is in part an apologetics of writing in response to a long historical preference for the spoken word.

Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. – Aristotle

A persistent attribute of Western thinking is the “metaphysics of presence.” Truths are eternal, but in temporal human existence the eternal manifests itself as presence. Humans live in the present; therefore any eternally true idea has to make itself known in the present. The true idea appears before our conscious minds in the immediacy of our thinking of it. Truth is eternal logos; speech is verbal representation of logos. Once truth comes to mind it can immediately be spoken. Speech and thought are nearly inseparable in time; there is no delay between thinking an idea and speaking it. Speech is characterized by presence: it is produced in the ongoing stream of moments that characterize human existence. Consequently speech has been regarded as the most authentic way of representing truth. Writing is deferred speech: there is a delay between the thought and the hand’s inscription of the words representing the thought. Writing, being not present, is not as “true” as speech.

Derrida observes other aspects of speech that lend it authority and priority. Historically, spoken language emerged before writing. Children learn to speak before they learn to write. Writing is tangibly external: it requires inscribing marks on a material surface in the world, a world that is not eternal or ideal. Speech is internal, produced inside the mouth and throat; it comes out with the breath that is intrinsic to living. I hear myself at the same time that I speak. Speech takes place in the presence of a listener, whereas text might not be read until long after it was written, if ever. Speech is present, immaterial, transparent, alive.

*   *   *

Recently our daughter took me to a Zombies concert – they were her boss’s tickets, but he was out of town so he couldn’t make the show. I know quite a few of their songs from the sixties, but they had disbanded after a very short run in the spotlight. They recorded an album just before they broke up, but it failed to chart. The band members went their separate musical ways, rapidly fading into public obscurity aside from the occasional airplay of their hit singles on oldies radio. It turns out though that over the subsequent decades that last Zombies album, Odessey (sic) and Oracle, gradually gained a cult following until now it is regarded as a kind of alt-pop classic.

The reunited band drew a full house, a thousand or more fans filling the vintage downtown auditorium. Though admittedly dominated by old-timers, the audience spanned an astonishingly wide age range, including youngsters who probably find it odd, maybe even a bit disrespectful, to remain seated at a concert rather than jumping up and down directly in front of the stage. After intermission the Zombies played their now-famous album in its entirety, it being the fiftieth anniversary since its original release. Was it just showmanship on display, or did those old musicians enjoy playing and singing their old music together as much as it appeared that they did, performing with practiced self-assurance and receiving with gratitude the exuberant audience response? A lyric from one of the album tracks: This will be our year, took a long time to come. It was hard to avoid making the obvious remark as we walked back to the parking garage: the audience brought the Zombies back to life.

The band had broken up before the album dropped so they never played the songs live: now, here they were, fifty years later, playing it start to finish on a multi-stop American tour. Not only would they play the songs; the keyboard player explained that the band would perform the entire album note for note. The original recording included some overdubs and multitracks, so in order to match the record’s sound in live performance several backup singers and musicians were brought onstage. At times the keyboardist performed his part on a vintage Mellotron, an electronic instrument that John Lennon left behind in the studio after the Beatles finished recording their Sgt. Pepper’s album, an instrument that the Zombies “borrowed” for their own sessions. Mostly though the band member used a synthesizer to simulate the original Mellotron sound. After playing a few songs he announced the end of side one – time to flip the record over.

They sounded just like they did in the sixties, enthused a Facebook post written by a friend of my wife’s who also attended the concert. Not to my ears they didn’t. The same band members may have exhibited the same level of musicianship, they may have played the exact same notes, but their live performance of the album did not sound the same as the album. The amplification and the acoustics combined to produce a rock concert, and a good one; the album, by contrast, is a kind of baroque pop suite, its subtlety and timbre more suited to an unplugged chamber ensemble.

The band and the audience converged in time and space to celebrate an audio recording made fifty years ago. We had front row seats, retail price $180 apiece. I never bought the Zombies album that was simulated note for note in the concert, but I can still listen to it anytime I want for free on the Internet. That’s why bands go on tour: when people can listen to the records for free, the only way the musicians can make money is to perform before a live audience. Just like in the good old days before radios and phonographs.

*   *   *

Derrida doesn’t try to argue that writing is as close to the moment, as present, as speech is. Rather, he directs his critique against presence itself. He doesn’t try to step out of the moment into eternity; instead, he embeds presence in a broader temporal and spatial context, undermining it from within.

The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not expect it

– Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 1967

*   *   *

While you’re reading you might sometimes feel as though the writer is speaking directly to you, even though you know it’s not so. The relation between reader and writer is heavily mediated – by text, by time, by distance. Suppose you go to a public reading. The author, speaking aloud the words she had previously written, happens to meet your glance as you listen. Is the author speaking directly to you now? After the reading you approach the writer at the dais, telling her how much you admire her work. The writer replies, flexing her larynx to generate sound waves, shaping them with buccal and laryngeal muscles before launching them through the air. After a short but measurable delay those sound waves hit your eardrum, causing vibrations of corresponding frequencies. Are you hearing the writer speak, or are you hearing the narrow radial segments of sound waves being propagated through the air that happen to strike your eardrums? The eardrum’s vibrations are transmitted at a rapid but measurable speed through the auditory nerves to the brain, activating the various language processing areas in your cortex which, after a brief but measurable delay, translate these vibrations into comprehensible language. Is the author speaking directly to you now? The writer’s voice is electronically amplified and transmitted via radio waves; the signal is received on someone’s computer 3 thousand miles away. The writer’s vocalizations are recorded and stored, then retransmitted 3 months later, 3 years later, 30 years later, after the writer has died…

*   *   *

In deconstructing the metaphysics of presence Derrida leans heavily on Heidegger, who contended that human existence isn’t a continuous presence, a perpetual living in the moment, but is rather a duration. Being in time means being embedded in an interval whose temporal horizons stretch into the past and the future. It means having been born in a particular place and time and inevitably dying in some unpredictable place and time. These horizons inevitably influence the way we live in the moment. Ideas aren’t always present either; they take shape from prior ideas and memories, work themselves out, come to fruition, become transformed into different ideas. Ideas have history and trajectory — just like human lives. The present moment is only a trace of temporal duration as it moves from the past into future.

Again from Heidegger, Derrida rejects interiority as a criterion for truth. For humans, to be is to be in the world. In earthly existence there can be no transcendence of materiality, of incarnation, of place. The Western metaphysics of presence isn’t just temporal; it’s also spacial: it presumes the direct presence of eternal truths before the mind. But if being means being-in, then human truths, like human beings, are in the world. To uncover truths in the world requires investigation, movement, interaction with the world in its extension.

Truths, rather than being always already present in the mind, move through space and time. Truths are dynamic, taking shape not only in the unchangeable and the atemporal, but also in the play of differences across space and time. There are irreducible differences between idea and word, word and speech, speaking and hearing. Human thought depends on memory, which is the trace of past moments inscribed on the mind — so in a way even memory is exterior to thought. Likewise the signifiers of language are inscribed in memory — so speech depends on the temporal delay between learning the language and using it.

*   *   *

I’m not sure whether I’ve experienced it personally but I’ve heard others claim that, as readers, their engagement in fictional narratives is made more vibrant by their empathic identification with the characters. For me it’s more like I come to know the characters, my curiosity and concern being activated by a virtual relationship with them, or perhaps by my immersion in the fictional life space they occupy. Whether it’s identification or relation, the link between reader and fictional character is itself a fiction, because those fictional characters aren’t real. And what about when the reader forms a virtual relationship with or – heaven forfend – identifies with the author? Is this connection more real or less real than the reader’s fictional alliance with the characters?

I pick up Proust where I left off a couple of months ago:

My mother was asleep when, after engaging a room for Albertine on a different floor, I entered my own.

Though uncharacteristically short and direct, this sentence is embedded in the fictional ambiguity of the work as a whole. Whose sentence is it: Marcel the narrator’s, or Marcel the author’s? And now I’m thinking about an episode in one of my own fictions: a dinner at a Mexican restaurant in which a conversation unfolds between two characters, an unpublished writer and his cinematographer friend who recently expatriated to Italy along with his wife and children. Is this an imaginary event involving imaginary characters, or is it a thinly disguised recounting of an actual conversation I once had with a real friend of mine at a real Mexican restaurant – a friend who happened to call just last night, the night before he moves back to Italy for good (again)? If in my text I was chronicling an actual conversation, then would that text seem more authentic, a more direct communication with the reader, if I assigned to the two conversing characters their real nonfictional names?

*   *   *

In a Heideggerian framework presence no longer has priority over deferral and spacing. Material that is immediately available to consciousness doesn’t take precedence over material retrieved from memory or self-reflection or investigation. Speaking/listening isn’t a more authentic means of communication than writing/reading. Derrida doesn’t propose that writing take precedence over speech, that reflection dominate spontaneity. Rather, he calls for an end to the represssion of pluri-dimensional symbolic thought. All conceivable ways of thinking and communicating should be explored and encouraged to the fullest.

Implications? In psychotherapy, it might be less important to close the gap between client and therapist. Therapy need not concentrate solely on the present moment of client-therapist conversation; memories, dreams, reflections, even writings, can find a place in the therapeutic relationship. In Biblical study, the spatio-temporal gap between writer and reader can become a source of meaning rather than just an obstacle. And an event in which God’s presence was experienced in real time doesn’t necessarily take priority over the event’s subsequent commemoration in text.

*   *   *

In the old days an author wrote or typed a book on paper, so the typeset and printed copies distributed by a publisher constituted a more polished version of the original manuscript. I write my books on a computer. A downloaded computer file of one of my books is a lot closer to the original manuscript than is a printed and bound replica. Original written or typed manuscripts of famous books fetch a lot of money at auction. After contemporary celebrated authors pass from the scene, will their heirs sell the hard drives on which their forebears wrote their famous books?

*   *   *

The segments in this post addressing Derrida’s ideas on presence were cut and pasted from a post on my old Ktismatics blog: Derrida and the Metaphysics of Presence, posted 18 April 2007. That single 11-year-old post, on a blog that’s been inactive for nearly 4 years, has been viewed more often over the past 30 days than all 27 Ficticities posts combined. Now there’s 28.


7 thoughts on “The Metaphysics of Authorial Presence

  1. Good post. It continues a discussion we have been having, going back at least as far as the original Derrida post, regarding virtual reality.

    As we sort of anticipated, humans are living more and more of their lives online. The younger one is, the more time is spent on a screen, in a form of virtual reality. We may be getting closer to Huxley’s world, and I don’t say that as a Jeremiad. I wonder about it more in terms of neurobiology. We evolved as animals whose bodies were connected with the outside/natural/real world in an intimate way. Survival depended on a large range of skills that all connected our senses to the otside world.

    So, I’ll reference Harari:

    “The flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era. Even today, scholars in this field claim, our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured. To understand why, evolutionary psychologists argue, we need to delve into the hunter-gatherer world that shaped us, the world that we subconsciously still inhabit….”

    Life for the hunter-gatherer was a sensory rich experience:

    “Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximise the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal. They needed to know which foods were nourishing, which made you sick, and how to use others as cures. They needed to know the progress of the seasons and what warning signs preceded a thunderstorm or a dry spell. They studied every stream, every walnut tree, every bear cave, and every flint-stone deposit in their vicinity. Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites or hungry lions. Mastery of each of these many skills required years of apprenticeship and practice. The average ancient forager could turn a flint stone into a spear point within minutes. When we try to imitate this feat, we usually fail miserably. Most of us lack expert knowledge of the flaking properties of flint and basalt and the fine motor skills needed to work them precisely. In other words, the average forager had wider, deeper and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants…”

    Harari notes that some academics speculate that our minds may have shrunk since the hunter-gatherer days. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know. What I’m more concerned about is our biology. Will technology continue to uncover new and deeper neurotic disorders, the further we move from our sensual engagement with nature.

    It’s a question of neurobiology, perhaps, and not of metaphysics or perhaps not even of language. It’s also a question of happiness. Perhaps we do not grow more neurotic, but can we be happy if we move farther and farther from sensual engagement with the world outside of our screens?

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  2. Derrida highlights one particular and ancient form of virtual reality: text. “It’s sunny and cold outside.” That sentence is a simulation; the sentence itself isn’t sunny and cold and outside. But even if you were sitting here in Durham and I were to say to you “It’s sunny and cold outside,” that verbal remark is still a simulation — a virtual reality — not the real reality it describes. But it’s presumably a reliable simulation: based solely on my spoken assertion you might well put on a coat before heading out the door for a walk, even without confirming that my statement is accurate. I.e., you would prepare for going outdoors by regarding the virtual reality of my sentence as corresponding to the physical reality it describes.

    The Zombies concert illustrates the sort of inversion between virtual reality and real reality that Derrida likes to highlight. The recorded album came first; it wasn’t until 50 years later that the band simulated the reality of that recording in a live performance.

    I’ll get back to your discussion of evo psych later, but in the meantime… Humans co-evolved with spoken language. I recall Harari contending that humans learned to talk so they could gossip. Be that as it may, from birth humans are immersed in an ecosystem suffused with language, in which people use vocalizations to describe things that are present, as well as things that are absent and things that are imaginary. I.e., humans spend a great portion of their time occupying a virtual reality comprised of spoken language. This is true also of the hunter-gatherers.

    Gossip might be true or false, but either way it is virtual — descriptions and interpretations of events rather than the events themselves. But gossip can also have material impacts on those being gossiped about, enhancing or detracting from their reputations and power within the community. The virtual reality of gossip can precede and have effects on material reality of social relations.

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  3. “Survival depended on a large range of skills that all connected our senses to the otside world.”

    That’s still true, though the outside world is different now: paved roads, cars, traffic signals, grocery stores, office buildings… Is the modern world more alienating by having been transformed so thoroughly by human invention and intervention? Following on from the preceding post about accelerationism, Marx regarded not technology but capitalism as the source of modern alienation. Stone knives, rabbit traps, spears — those are technologies too. Humans have innate abilities that enable them to master these technologies with practice, but that’s true also of mastering screen technologies, driving cars, balancing checkbooks, writing novels.

    I don’t doubt that the external material environment I live in is less complex, requiring less adaptive skill and learning, than is the external environment of hunter-gatherers. But overall the modern world is I think more complex, requiring longer apprenticeships, in order to master the artificial environment in which we’re immersed. Certainly most of the artifice is produced and used in a capitalistic milieu of division of labor and commodification., so it’s hard to imagine the artifice transported into a different economic system.

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  4. I agree that we are still engaged with our environment, whether that is breal” or “virtual,” we are engaged, but my question has to do with the manner with which we engage. In concerned with HOW we engage. If we evolved to engage using our five senses in very keen and sharp ways, then perhaps there are consequences for us since we now primarily engage the world visually and mentally.

    So when a couch potato starts jogging everyday, s/he starts to feel a mental health benefit. Our bodies evolved for intense physical activity, so when we don’t engage the physical body, we aren’t doing what we evolved to do and hence there are consequences.

    Taking it further, we evolved to be absorbed in nature with a very rich sensual immersion, as per the Harari quote. Like other animals, we developed subtle sense organs, which we used all day every day. Now we mostly sit around and think and look at screens. I’m not saying that’s “bad” or even “inferior,” nor am I suggesting that everyone ought to go jogging everyday. (Some people hate jogging and rather prefer lounging on the couch.) I’m just wondering if we aren’t severely underestimating the neurological toll that our new and modern way of life has on our mental health.


  5. To extend this a bit, it may be that VR technology can stimulate our senses in the same way. Perhaps one day we’ll log into a VR program that simulates a hunt for a mammoth, then spend all day on an epic adventure – running and leaping and fully engaged in a rich sense experience. Think Star Trek hologram room, that sort of thing.

    The VR technology they have now is pretty damn trippy, or so I hear. Maybe that will be the key to capitalist control in the future: only the privileged get to hunt mammoths. Or maybe that will be the reward for workers once eco systems start to collapse. I think there was a Black Mirror episode to that effect.

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  6. You’re no doubt right: modern humans are a pretty flabby and sluggish lot compared to our evolutionary forebears. I’ve got no strong views on whether humans would be better off as hunter-gatherers. Humans have remarkable levels of neuroplasticity, enabling them to adapt to all sorts of environments even though their physical strength and speed and sensory acuity is kind of pathetic compared to other apex predators. They’re great at inventing tools and schemes to compensate for their physical limitations, and they’re even better at imitating adaptations invented by others. Meanwhile, our cat seems plenty well adapted to a life of indoor leisure, relying on his human colony-mates to keep his food bowl filled while he lies around all day. He’ll go dashing around the house from time to time, but clearly it’s just for fun and exercise.

    Hunter-gatherers might have had more leisure time than do most people in the industrial world, but again that seems largely an artifact of capitalism — the investors have plenty of time and money to go off on mammoth hunting safaris. It’s also an artifact of population growth. Infant mortality, disease, and warfare kept populations small enough to support the hunter-gathering lifestyle; if your tribe got too big you could head out for unsettled territories. Farming takes a lot more time, but it also supports a bigger population. It is odd that anybody can make a living doing work that doesn’t directly support physical survival. It’s also curious that in contemporary society the wealthy tend to be in better physical shape than the poor: better nutrition plus more aerobic exercise, not out of necessity but for lifestyle enhancement. And the wealthy have fewer children; most of the population growth is happening in Asia and Africa.


  7. Linking back to Derrida, the evolutionary environment has left its traces written in human DNA, and those traces persist in the human psyche hundreds of thousands of years later. The individual human’s duration doesn’t extend only from birth to death; it extends all the way back through all preceding generations to genetic Adam and Eve. Does the individual human duration also extend forward, into the species’s future? Certainly humans plan ahead, and they anticipate the consequences of their actions on possible future scenarios that might unfold in their own lifespans. Procreation and childrearing are DNA-programmed traces that spawn and nurture subsequent generations of the species. Contemporary concerns about climate change and destruction of natural habitat and automation of work and continued consolidation of wealth at the top of the pyramid, research into curing diseases and extending the human lifespan and exploring other planets: these are collective human endeavors that extend the time horizon beyond one’s own individual lifetime.

    I don’t know whether hunter-gatherers were more conscious of their collective past than late-capitalist society is. The preservation of traditions and the honoring of ancestors suggest that they were. Nowadays people tend to regard each generation, or even half a generation, as something unprecedented. Innovation is valorized — think it up, build it, burn it down, rinse and repeat — even though it’s clear that the new always contains within itself traces of the generations of innovations preceding it. How about the collective future? Did hunter-gatherers envision not just individual life after death but a whole thriving and growing population of dead ancestors, whose world needed to be honored by the living and into whose number one expected to enter after death? Probably.

    Despite the huge worldwide population of humanity there’s still enough food to go around. In a socialist economy people could return to the shortened hunter-gatherer workweek, with plenty of leisure time on their hands after meeting basic survival needs of themselves, their progeny, and their elderly. Does the evolutionary trace of hunting-gathering cause humans to believe that working for survival is what gives their lives meaning? Or is it the evolutionary trace of leisure that causes humans to work for the weekend and after-hours amusements and retirement? Either way, capitalism exploits these genetic traces for the benefit of the investors.


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