Not in the Mood


Adam Shatz reviews Benoît Peeters' Derrida: A Biography, in the LRB:

Derrida’s early work was written in the shadow of decolonisation. His first book, a translation of Husserl’s 43-page Origin of Geometry preceded by a 170-page introduction, was published in 1962, but it wasn’t until 1967 that he made his mark. That year he published three books of astonishing audacity which, taken together, amounted to a declaration of war on structuralism, then all the rage in France: Speech and Phenomena, another study of Husserl; Writing and Difference, a collection of essays originally published in journals like Tel Quel and Critique; and his masterwork,Of Grammatology. Few read the formidably dense Of Grammatology from cover to cover, but it acquired tremendous cachet; a year later, its cover made an appearance in Godard’s Le Gai Savoir. What was Of Grammatology about? When Madeleine, the heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s campus novel The Marriage Plot, asks a young theory-head this question, she is immediately set straight: ‘If it was “about” anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.’

That’s not so far off. In all three books, Derrida’s argument was that Western thought from Plato to Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss had been hopelessly entangled in the illusion that language might provide us with access to a reality beyond language, beyond metaphor: an unmediated experience of truth and being which he called ‘presence’. Even Heidegger, a radical critic of metaphysics, had failed to escape its snares. This illusion, according to Derrida, was the corollary of a long history of ‘logocentrism’: a privileging of the spoken word as the repository of ‘presence’, at the expense of writing, which had been denigrated as a ‘dangerous supplement’, alienated from the voice, secondary, parasitic, even deceitful.

Derrida wanted not only to liberate writing from the ‘repression’ of speech, but to demonstrate that speech itself was a form of writing, a way of referring to things that aren’t there. If logocentrism was a ‘metaphysics of presence’, what he proposed was a poetics of absence – a philosophical echo of Mallarmé’s remark that what defines ‘rose’ as a word is ‘l’absence de toute rose’.