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.
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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.
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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
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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…
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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?
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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.