Derridian Nonsense, Story Idea

You know, I decided to give Derrida one more try, by perusing a bit from Of Grammatology — the bit collected in A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, edited by Peggy Kamuf. The only thing that resonated with me was a bit of a footnote, which I’ll quote here:

Linear writing has therefore indeed [“]constituted, during many millennia, independently of its role as conserver of the collective memory, by its unfolding in one dimension alone, the instrument of analysis out of which grew philosophic and scientific thought. The conservation of thought can now be conceived otherwise than in terms of books which will only for a short time keep the advantage of their rapid manageability. A vast ‘tape library’ with an electronic selection system will in the near future show preselected and instantaneously retrieved information. Reading will still retain its importance for some centuries to come in spite of its perceptible regression for most men, but writing [understood in the sense of linear inscription] seems likely to disappear rapidly, replaced by automatic dictaphones… As to the long term consequences in terms of the forms of reasoning, and a return to diffuse and multidimensional thought, they cannot be now foreseen. Scientific thought is rather hampered by the necessity of drawing itself out in typographical channels and it is certain that if some procedure would permit the presentation of books in such a way that the materials of the different chapters are presented simultaneously in all their aspects, authors and their users would find a considerable advantage. It is absolutely certain that if scientific reasoning has clearly nothing to lose with the disappearance of writing, philosophy and literature will definitely see their forms evolve. This is not particularly regrettable since printing will conserve the curiously archaic forms of thought that men will have used during the period of alphabetic graphism; as to the new forms, they will be to the old ones as steel to flint, not only a sharper but a more flexible instrument.

What’s amusing to me here, besides the silly prognostications about automatic dictaphones (which are like nothing else more than they are like what people were proclaiming a century ago when audio recording was first invented, and it hasn’t happened in all that time… because, I fear, text can be skimmed and audio recording cannot), and besides the fact that in this claim, Derrida seems to demonstrate a stunning ignorance — perhaps purposeful and selective ignorance, mind you — of the differences between writing and speaking.

However, there is something stunning about the idea of being able to present an idea as a whole, in one shot. When ideas are presented in discrete parts, we can parse them and question them. The narratives open themselves to critique: when models or narratives are presented as completed wholes, imposed upon the mind in a single shot, it seems to me it’d be much more difficult to tease apart the threads and critique them. Which sounds like an interesting problem for future educators, philosophers, and dissidents. Theres a story in here somewhere, and I think it’s the real story at the heart of my M.A. Thesis’ title story, “With My Mouth,” in which speech and identity reformulation are deeply linked. Maybe I shall be able to rework that story during next semester after all!

Musing on this, and googling about for anyone who had anything interesting to say about it, I found an interesting post by David Larsen at Alli Warren‘s blog touching on the primal roots of voice and utterance:

The point here is that language is a system of symbolic behavior that arose from the need to escape whatever it is that threatens the speaking subject, usually conceived as a punishment of some kind. Language’s persistence and development beyond the individual organism’s lifespan are decisive proofs of its own resistance to oblivion.

Unlike Derrida, this makes a lot of sense, isn’t high on itself, and word-salad-like. It’s written to be comprehended, and it’s actually interesting!

The more I attempt to read Derrida, the more I get the sense he’s an adult waving his arms about and declaring things that we all thought of as kids. but it’s so dressed-up in fancy words and confusing phrases, and so decked-out in idiosyncracy, that nobody dares say, “I thought those questions up when I was twelve years old, and I long ago moved on.” After all, that was almost exactly my experience of Descartes’ deal with the “How do we know everything isn’t a dream?” My proof is I haven’t woken up, tentative though it is; that, and, well, to quote tons of random average Joes and Marys, “Whatcha gonna do, hey?”

By the way, for those curious, my back is doing somewhat better. I’ve been avoiding sitting, and finally they’ve discovered down at the physio place that they were treating me for the wrong condition. I have had much-diminshed sensation in the toes on my left foot for days now, which has weirded me out, but sensation is returning, and the pain in my leg is lessening. Looks like things are turning around. Whew!

gordsellar: Your host on this site. I'm an SF writer, homebrewer, and expat teaching at a university in South Korea. My policies for commenters on this site can be read here.

View Comments (7)

  • It sounds to me as though Derrida is describing art. Isn't that how we have always presented simultaneously whole cobwebs of ideas in one blow? And isn't the difficulty of teasing apart the messages (explicit and implicit) contained in paintings and sculptures one of the reason we have critics who, alas, are obliged to resort to long linear passages of words? (And those critics who don't resort to long linear passages of words, but who instead make objects as a means of illuminating other objects, are again called artists, aren't they?)

    It seems to me that the progress and power of science has tended to coincide with those periods when the culture turns away from one-shot depictions of worldviews and instead commits itself to the detailed and laborious disentangling of ideas in words. And even today, although we may teach scientific concepts with the aid of images and charts and graphs, the more advanced one becomes the more one is required to lay ideas out in words. It seems to me there's a link between comprehension and the ability to use words in just this way. If visual art were sufficient there would never have been a role for Newton and Darwin to play.

  • Marvin,

    First off, welcome back -- it's nice to have you comment here again!

    Maybe he is describing art, but he's pretending to describe human culture in general, I think -- or at least, the part of human culture that is instantiated in writing.

    I agree with you that it's stepping away from one-shot depictions of worldviews that coincides or probably facilitates advances in thought, science and otherwise. Funny how people who fancy themselves disentanglers of ideas themselves revere him.

    As for my new forms, I think he might well have missed the boat in the short term, but hypertext seems limited. Something bigger is out there in the future, waiting, and I suspect its something more about the embedding of text in gestalt. (A vague glimpse of which is the tagging of sections of images in Facebook or Flickr.)

  • Ah, Derrida. After six years of all that literary theory in the halls of academe, I came to the conclusion that I'd rather study for the LSAT. Well, I spent about eight years teaching and working at a law library as well, but you get the idea. Getting through one of the logic games is a lot more rewarding (and fun) than anything I've ever read by a french prof. Great confidence builder to - for the first time in my life I feel like I could tackle a college level calculus course if I had to.

    If you are reading this post and happen to be thinking about getting an MA in English Lit, I've got a piece of advice for you, with apologies to Bob Dylan, "Everybody, must get MBA's!"

  • Thanks Gord!

    Let me recommend to you a book called The Liar by Stephen Fry. I'm listening to the audiobook, and reading your comment about Derrida suddenly put me in mind of the main characters, especially Prof. Donald Trefusis, whose approach to language and truth is highly ludic indeed.

    Hypergestalt....I want a form of communication that senses both my emotions and confusions and can set me down illuminating paths in a fully realized 3d reality (and where the pr0n is spam-free)! ;-D

  • We aren't going to be rid of text as long as there are people with sufficient economic power who process text more easily than they process speech.

    I think we're OK for now.

  • Hello, just wanted to let you know that the post you kindly linked to was writted by the inimitable David Larsen.

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