CuneiformCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Marie-Lan NguyenWriting holds an uneasy position in the life of human thought. At the time of its gradual emergence as a cuneiform script during the Sumerian empire c.3000BC, writing represented both a leap forward and a challenge, as historian I M Roberts noted: “Literacy must have been both unsettling and stabilizing. On the one hand, it offered huge new possibilities of communicating; on the other, it stabilized practice because the consultation of a record as well as oral tradition became possible.”

For the first time, thought and voice could be rendered enduringly, and a man’s ideas could be apprehended (or misinterpreted) when the man himself was not present. This advance appears to have provoked a crisis in the way man understood both his self and the world. As Christopher Norris put it, “In spoken language, meaning is ‘present’ to the speaker through an act of inward self-surveillance which ensures a perfect, intuitive fit between intention and utterance.” A man spoke and heard himself, assured of his existence's centrality, but writing challenged presence and its purity.

If a new form of recorded communication dislocated man’s self, this threatened a profound effect on the course of Western thinking. This effect is at the roots of Western philosophy; Socrates (c.469BC – 399BC) refused to record his teachings due to a mistrust of the written word, and his erstwhile pupil, Plato (427BC – 347BC), perpetuated his teacher’s distrust.

A central tenet of Platonism is that any creation of the human imagination was an inferior copy to an existing state in nature, which in turn was a copy of the ideal form. Writing was a Man writingCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Peter Weiscopy of nature (in this case, human speech) and its copy of the form; therefore, writing was inferior to speech. Platonism aided the view of writing as secondary in Western thinking, compared to the seeming guarantee of presence given by voice. Julian Wolfreys surmises the situation: “an exteriorized representation of speech, writing was to be distrusted because of its transmissibility and repetitiveness beyond the immediacy of voice...writing exceeded and thereby exposed the limits of the phono- and logocentrism on which logic, rationality and theology in the West were grounded.”

This was the inheritance bequeathed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) when he came to write his Essay on the Origin of Languages (published posthumously in 1781) and, in turn, this was the tradition analysed by Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) in On Grammatology (1967). Through Rousseau’s essay, Derrida examines not only Western phonocentrism, but also seeks to free writing from speech, which he felt was type of writing in itself, another way of indicating things which were not present.

In his essay, Rousseau describes human speech as the best method of expressing the emotions experienced by early man, such as love and hate, with speech developing along purely figurative lines. However, as man’s needs grew more complex under the corrupting influence of civilization, the required greater vocabulary made a requisite of precision, at the cost of sentiment. Rousseau claimed ‘As a result, accent dies out and articulation becomes more persuasive; language becomes exact and clear, but more sluggish, subdued and cold.’

The subsequent rise of writing (and culture) was equally deleterious for speech. Whereas Rousseau saw early speech as natural and healthy, writing was ‘regarded with curious distrust as a merely derivative and somehow debilitating mode of expression...’ Pinned down and ‘infected’ by the reason of writing, speech became dominated by harmony and repetition, without accent, leading to monotony.

    To surmise the Rousseauist approach to writing, Derrida borrows a phrase from another posthumous work of Rousseau’s, from 1782: ‘Dangerous Supplement.’ Derrida’s use of this phrase is crucial to understanding his argument. For Rousseau, and (in Derrida’s terms) the Western canon, writing is tolerable only as a supplement, a reserve used only if unavoidable (Derrida: “When Nature, as self-proximity, comes to be forbidden or interrupted, when speech fails to protect presence, writing becomes necessary.”), otherwise it may weaken the power of speech and the self, as writing indicates the problematic absence of presence. Wolfreys explains further: “Writing supplements, it adds to, thereby apparently exposing, an inadequacy (that full presence is never in fact complete), while simultaneously replacing that allegedly irreplaceable here and now...of living speech.”

‘Supplement’ has two meanings, and Derrida intends both, as an indication to something added a whole and benefitting from the inadequacy. So, for Derrida, Rousseau unwittingly proves that writing shows up a deficiency in the supposedly self-sufficient state of Nature and if Nature is deficient, then knowledge, and how we come to know knowledge, is suddenly in disarray, hence the danger of the supplement.

 ‘Supplement’ also applies to individual units of communication, for each word produces a chain of supplements, extending not to a definitive meaning, but to the next supplement, which is in turn deferred to the next, different, supplement, and so on. “Through this sequence of supplements,” Derrida tells us, “A necessity is announced: that of an infinite chain, ineluctably multiplying the supplementary mediations that produce the very sense of the thing they defer: the mirage of the thing itself, of immediate presence, of originary deception.”

gel pen stubCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Piccolo NamekDerrida uses this process of supplementarity to suggest speech was never a guarantee of presence. If one word sets up a chain of supplements, and writing supplements speech, then speech leads back to another supplement, of thought – and thought must then supplement some other. “However small the gap,” according to Wolfreys, “temporally or spatially, there exists a disunity – between thought and sound, between articulation and comprehension...There can be no absolutely present moment, nor an undifferentiated presence in the taking place of speech.”

Invoking writing as a supplement, Rousseau becomes ensnared in a paradox – if human communication is a chain of unending supplements then, by definition, there is no origin for communication, making the Essay nonsensical. Supplementarity has made ‘origin’ unobtainable, and along with it all other fundamental logocentric concepts, such as God, truth and self which, under Derrida, cannot exist in any unified sense, given human subjectivity's constitution in language. Writing's repression is to protect intrinsic values such as Nature, for the supplementary argument suggested Nature was fallible and for Rousseau, Nature is in effect the ‘exterior reality’ suggested by logocentrism, and this being so, “The dangerous supplement breaks with nature” (Derrida).  

The ideal of Nature, in Derrida’s world, can never be reached, although the journey can always be begun. However, man can only traverse an unending route of his own making, the pre-existing system of language, be it writing or speech (there being no difference between the two for Derrida), thus leading us to Derrida’s famous statement: “‘...reading...cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language...outside of writing in regards the absence of the referent or the transcendental signified. There is nothing outside the text.”

As Peter Barry suggests, we must take care when considering this dramatic claim. Derrida is not advocating “an extreme textualism, whereby it is held that all reality is linguistic.” Instead, Derrida means we cannot escape our linguistic system; a text can only lead us to another text, which can only lead us to the following text, and so on. Instead language's illusion as a portal to somewhere beyond language, Derrida claimed we could instead only clear a path through this historic tangle by going backwards and peeling away the accumulated layers of meaning, beyond any possible definitive origin: “We must begin wherever we are and the thought of the trace...has already taught us that it was impossible to justify a point of departure absolutely.”

The supplementary nature of writing means that writing has always been creating itself, before it created itself in the literal sense, Sumerian cuneiform or otherwise. Norris: ‘Derrida’s aim is to show that writing emerges both within the very theme of speech and within the text which strives to realize and authenticate that theme.’ Writing cannot therefore be viewed in Rousseau’s terms as an exterior event impacting upon the natural state of man or as a parasitic by-product of healthy speech. Instead, Derrida demonstrates that language has always been inscribed by ‘writing,’ in its generalised sense, even before man could talk; without writing as an inevitability, speech could not have existed. Or, as Derrida puts it: “...the indefinite process of supplementarity has always already infiltrated presence, always already inscribed there the space of repetition and the splitting of the self...” Rousseau is therefore writing in an “inscribed...determined textual system,” one that despite his intentions to show otherwise, cannot account for the origins of writing, for to attempt find the origin, or ultimate, of anything, is a logocentric enterprise, and according to Derrida, logocentrism, and the canon Western thought has built upon it, is a false premise.

Needless to say, such a devastating conclusion has attracted a range of criticism, not least from a close associate of Derrida, Paul de Man, who accused Derrida of misreading Rousseau: “...there is something like an inverse relationship between the rigour, the un-self-deceiving clarity of Rousseau’s discourse, and the tendency in his orthodox interpreters to ignore this whole dimension of his writing and fasten on to themes which merely give back the reflected image of their own preoccupations.”

De Man called Derrida’s account no more than a story and argued Rousseau had deconstructed logocentrism just as well as Derrida had done. The idea of Rousseau as a proto-deconstructionist has also been posited by Derek Attridge, who sees Rousseau as deploying clarity to show how muddled and misguided the formal approach to language had become: “Rousseau is thus already engaged in a deconstruction of philosophical oppositions,” with Derrida serving only to highlight “the deconstructive activity implicit in Rousseau’s writing, though never explicitly articulated.” Rousseau’s technique “...sets him apart from the philosophical allow the truth to be heard in all its purity.” As a result, it seems Derrida has seen his own reflection in Rousseau’s text and the supplementary theory of writing came of the conferring between a ‘doubled Derrida’.

Going back to the idea of Rousseau misread by Derrida, Rousseau’s transparency formed a textual space in which Derrida placed his pre-formed opinions, and his analysis of Rousseau as ‘speech good, writing bad’, imposes the kind of binary argument of which he accused the structuralist writers, such as Levi-Strauss and Saussure. Other critics have denounced the consequences of Derrida’s deconstruction of writing as coming at too great a price, as Mark Edmundson comments: ‘...the weakness of Derrida’s position lies in what one must surrender to pass with him beyond illusion. For Derrida, at his most rigorous, compels one to turn against pleasure, against the allure of seeing, against worldly things and the things of the earth.” This, it seems, is too much to ask.

If supplementarity leads us into an unending chain of deferred meanings, then the consequences for the future of human understanding indeed seem dire. Camile Paglia notes that after publication, Of Grammatology, ‘...over the following decades, poetry and poetry study were steadily marginalized by pretentious ‘theory’ – which claims to analyse language, but atrociously abuses language.’ The fact that Geoffrey Hartman titled his 1981 attack on Derrida’s theory Saving the Text shows how seriously some took the threat of this abuse, likewise the rebellion led by certain Cambridge academics in 1992 to prevent Derrida from receiving an honorary degree.

Although I do not believe nihilism was Derrida’s intention, it can nonetheless be argued that Passarotti's 'Portrait of a Scriber'Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domainone does not need to take apart writing to prove the flaws of logocentrism. At some stage, meaning must be ‘ring-fenced’ to protect itself from limitless possibilities and oblivion. Derrida’s deconstruction of writing suggests we should, as it were, remove the ‘safety barriers’, if not dispose of them altogether (if so, there is something archly conservative or capitalist about Derrida’s notions). Minus this metaphorical ring-fencing, our driver, or reader, or society itself, would all go nowhere and might even be reduced to the state of the ‘noble savage’ so beloved of Rousseau! It isn’t that Derrida’s account of the supplementary nature of writing isn’t coherent (it is), or persuasive, but it is too persuasive, or as Edmundson puts it: “There’s something disturbingly mistake-proof in the way Derrida thinks.” Derrida, in a sense, is pulling at the thread that holds together the comprehension of language, as if daring us to allow him to pull the thread all the way out. Derrida’s is perhaps a necessary argument, albeit one not easily disproved, but nor should it be an argument readily followed.

    There is one last irony in the criticism of Derrida’s view of writing. Roger Solomon decries Derrida’s theory as “perverse” and made “with characteristic hyperbole.” These comments arrive in the final chapter of a revised edition of the Solomon book, a chapter is entitled ‘Supplement.’ In criticising Derrida’s theory of writing, we are inadvertently deconstructing deconstruction, adding to it another supplement, and thereby proving Derrida’s point.