Derrida: The Supplement

THE LANGUAGE OF FOREIGNNESS

Part 1.2.3

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was contemporary to Merleau-Ponty, and directly influenced by Phenomenology: his first university works were on Husserl. The phenomenological heritage is perhaps not visible in the content of Derrida’s work – Derrida is not remembered for his use of the phenomenological method in any of his main studies – but in the form of the philosophical approach already adopted by Heidegger and by another direct inspiration of Derrida’s, Emmanuel Levinas. This formal peculiarity was to do with the value of the philosophical discourse: profoundly aware of the reduction operated by any language – Levinas would go further and discuss the violence of language – they did not hope to rely on language to simply express their clearly thought theories; instead, they pushed linguistic formulations to near their intuitions, and often, they even played with language in order to attempt the expression of truths in forms multiple and occasionally, contradictory. There is with Heidegger, Levinas and Derrida a conscious, and painful effort to bend writing and language’s limitations in order to express views that would be necessarily corrupted if one were to follow language’s habitual usage.

If language was a violence for Levinas, for Derrida it is the field of a terrible injustice. In Of Grammatology (French edition: 1967), Derrida undergoes an in-depth study of the discussions of writing and speech from the Greeks to the latest linguistic theories, to show that Western culture has always favored speech over writing. This is how Derrida introduces a concept later applied by him to other cultural items, and widely used, after him, in multiple social theories: supplementation.

Derrida’s conceptual creations generally stem out of textual analyses. In one of these, he notices that, as is well known, 18th century Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of The Social Contract (1762), argued that humans are fundamentally good in their state of nature, and that it is civilization and culture that corrupt them. This favoring of nature, the original, unperturbed good, over culture, the artificial, later development and corruption, which Rousseau advocates, is further elaborated in another set of binaries: “Languages are made to be spoken, writing serves only as a supplement to speech … Speech represents thought by conventional signs, and writing represents the same with regard to speech. Thus the art of writing is nothing but a mediated representation of thought” (Rousseau, “Pronunciation” quoted in Derrida 1976, 144). Indeed, Rousseau furthers the established views on the matter since the Greeks, who believed that speech is the primary form of language for humans, with writing coming later, as a secondary and anonymous rendering of the noble original verbal expression. In other words, writing would be the supplement of speech. Derrida’s use of the concept of the supplement has to do with the meaning of its ‘original’ French version: le supplément is the common derivation of two verbs, supplémenter, to add on to, and suppléer, to substitute (145). A supplement is simultaneously something that completes another thing, and something that may replace it, play the role of substitute for it, and therefore, be a threat for it.

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Derrida’s use of the concept of the supplement has to do with the meaning of its ‘original’ French version: le supplément is the common derivation of two verbs, supplémenter, to add on to, and suppléer, to substitute. A supplement is simultaneously something that completes another thing, and something that may replace it, play the role of substitute for it, and therefore, be a threat for it.

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Derrida explored Rousseau’s writings and noticed that there are other instances of supplementations. Education is one of them: with Rousseau, “all education . . . [is] described or presented as a system of substitution” (145). Education, a medium of culture, is criticized by Rousseau as a lower human activity to the primitive, innocent and intuitive interaction of humans with nature. Another supplement is targeted by Rousseau: masturbation. Masturbation is denigrated by Rousseau in that it is a substitute for ‘real’ sex, a play with fantasy and the imaginary replacing the actual sexual partner. Supplementation is also found in Rousseau’s views on music: melody, the ideal, unaltered musical inspiration, is supplemented by harmony, its actual setting in configuration, the arrangement of multiple voices in a musical performance. Slowly emerge two groups of concepts, representing a system of hierarchy and power: nature, speech, sex and melody are central, original, while culture/civilization, writing, masturbation/fantasy and harmony are derivated, substitutes, marginal.

This play of hierarchy is problematic, according to Derrida, because it veils the actual importance of the allegedly unnecessary supplements. Derrida’s deconstructive approach is not simply a destruction or an inversion, the reversal of the observed hierarchy in order to posit all supplements as actual originals. It is, rather, a destabilization of the orders in place. Derrida shows that each author’s hierarchical discourse ‘bites its tail,’ that it encounters self-contradiction. For instance, Rousseau acknowledges, in his Confessions, that writing may be secondary, but that he is personally dependent upon writing to get his thoughts known to the world, and even to himself. Derrida also shows how Rousseau admits that the ‘pure’ melody is in fact established and organized by principles of harmony, while also conceding that his actual sexual experiences could never compete with the pleasure of his greatest masturbatory fantasies.

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Speech is primary only if writing is there to be, by difference, secondary. Sex needs masturbation to be conceived as original. French is only the “original version” of Derrida’s text if there is also an English version of it, to be contrasted to: “to be the ‘original’ the text must be translatable.”

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Rousseau’s judgmental stance over these supplements, according to Derrida, exemplifies the establishment of arbitrary and extremely powerful dichotomies at the heart of our cultural understanding. Another instance of this sort, with regards to language, is found even in later scholarship. Derrida analyzed the groundbreaking insights of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and discovered another set of unjust hierarchy. Saussure’s famous theory explains that language is a set of signs, composed of two elements: the signified, the object that the word or sign refers to, and the signifier, the word-sound used to refer to that object. Derrida noticed that there is already a hierarchical positioning in this theory: first is the object (the signified) in the external world, and only later comes its expression through the word standing for it (the signifier). Furthermore, the signifier means nothing in itself and acquires meaning only by being associated with the object signified. The signifier, only entity present in our use of language, stands for the absent object (we find here an instance of the critique of the metaphysics of presence expressed by Derrida, following Heidegger). Ultimately, the power-relation of the original over the supplement is disturbed, according to Derrida, when one realizes the extent of dependency of the former on the latter. The supplement is not an optional add-on to the original: it is the condition of the original (Royle 2003, 57). Speech is primary only if writing is there to be, by difference, secondary. Sex needs masturbation to be conceived as original. French is only the “original version” of Derrida’s text if there is also an English version of it, to be contrasted to: “to be the ‘original’ the text must be translatable” (58). Through his analysis, Derrida shows that the supplementary is, behind its assumed peripheral importance, essential to all the ways in which we think.

References

Image courtesy: Confessionality

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