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The Original Sin of Metaphysics? The Emergence of Logophono-Centrism in its Historical Context

The Original Sin of Metaphysics? The Emergence of Logophono-Centrism in its Historical Context

Derrida's Thesis about the Emergence of Logophono-Centrism in its Historical Context

This is a transcript of Prof. Gumbrecht's talk: 

[...] What I have to contribute is the results of new research. As people say in Russia, when they present researchI find it very funnythey present "a report," like you have a lab and do research and you just show the arithmetic results of your research… so I don't have new research, it is not even a new thesis; Literally what I want to do is a reminder. I wanted to remind you of a time not too long ago, a quarter century ago, when the concentration of speech – unless speech is in the sense of organizers, all human communicationwell, the concentration of speech, let alone the representation of speech in written textswas considered to be ultimately bad taste intellectually; It was actually prohibited, you were not allowed to do that. And I'm of course referring back to the glorious or inglorious claims of the dominance of Deconstruction. And even those who were not professed deconstructionists had to find a position vis-à-vis Deconstruction.

I remember, for example, my first Stanford colloquium that I had the privilege of organizing, in 1991, under the title "Writing / Ecriture / Schrift." It was as if you had to insist on the priority of writing in three languages which was actually meant to be a critical revision of this priority in Deconstruction, but it turns into a celebration of writing, of the superiority of writing; I mean, if you want to look it up, some of the papers for the colloquium are now published at Stanford Literature Review (1992). And you'll see how everybody was saying how great that idea was, about the superiority of writing. But a couple of years before thatI mean, seeing in retrospect, 1990 was already the beginning of the downswing of the Deconstruction; I mean, by 1995 I remember I had a graduate student, a doctorate student, who was then teaching in Germany, and who very furiouslyit was not a jokehe was a doctorate student and he had lunch with [other] doctorate students, and he made it a point to eat letters soup every day, because letters soup will give him that mystical closeness to the writing. This was not a joke and I will also add that this habit, this quite religious habit about writing, didn't prevent him to become today a quite visible and renowned professor and chair holder of aesthetics at the Humboldt University in Berlin (he's actually the successor of Friedrich Kittler. His name will remain unmentioned; it's your task and assignment to find whose his eating letter soup made his academic career).

Now, my reflection about those times, those reminders, is simple as threefold. In the first part I wanted to remind you of what Derrida's main arguments about the antilogophonocentrism are. I see that this is stumbling a little bit by only saying "antilogophonocentrism"you have to say it fluently if you want to be on the right side… What are the key arguments of the antilogophonocentrism? I taught a seminar in the fall, here at Stanford, the title was a serious title, not a rhetorical question"Was Deconstruction illusion?" – and in that seminar I realized, that even today, my graduate students weren't even born at the age of "letters soup eating"whenever you reconstruct Derrida, there will be somebody in the classroom saying that you did not do justice to Derrida. Sometimes with authors that are dead, I'm asking myself what's the point of doing justice, are they observing us from heaven and criticizing us?I will assure you that I will try to do justice to Derrida. I will also confess or profess that in those glory days I definitely never was a deconstructer, like I was not lying, I was not wearing black silk shirts, which was a condition for being a real deconstructerbut I was not also full of resentment, as you do in boxing, for half distance, and sometimes boxing a little bit. I mean, I once wrote an article about "Who's afraid of Deconstruction?," which immediately turned into an enemy of the Deconstruction, but I didn't have to have these bad feelings.

I just want to remind people, just for the record, that I was the first person who brought Derrida to this university. If you read the latest biography by Benoit Peeters, he dedicates to me a long footnote because he realized that Stanford was an enemy university for Derrida, he had enemy and friendly universities, and how had I managed to bring him to Stanford? I mean, the answer is easy, it was money… It was the Stanford presidential lectures that were extremely well paid. You know, for ten thousand bucks you can even come to an enemy university. So I was neither really enemy, definitely not a deconstructer, and I think I'm in good position to do justice with Derrida.

The second point will be the question why did it occur to him to formulate this antilogophonocentrism argument? I mean, this is trying to contextualize it historically, so what were the reasons, why did it do this resonance? It was an astonishing, it has a fantastic resonance that makes you green or yellow with envy when you look back at it, and then finally, and this is the decisive question I want to ask: whether the reasons that brought Derrida to formulate the antilogophonocentrism can still be our reason today. Because if we embrace the argument, then this colloquium has to be immediately interrupted and suspended, as it could not have taken place in 1990. In 1990 you could get money for a colloquium of "Writing / Ecriture / Schrift," but you would not have gotten any money for a colloquium on your topic.

OK, part one, a reconstruction. Let me say the point is really, by the reconstruction of this argument in its context, to assess our own position intellectually. I mean, where are we in 2015 intellectually compared to those days? I mean, does this prohibition still have any merit, any validity for us? Okay, the reconstruction. The decisive book for the antilogophonocentrism argument, La voix et le phénomène, in English, Speech and Phenomena (I don't really know why phénomène was translated in the plural, but whatever the reason was), has a prehistory in Derrida's career, and this was [...] his truly masterful masterpiece, maîtrise, of 1962; it was an analysis of Husserl's introduction to Geometry. Some people say (but that's always polemic) that it is the only good text that Derrida ever wrote. I would disagree with that; but this is clearly the prehistory. This leads in Derrida's annus mirabilis, 1967, to three book publications in one year by somebody who nobody knew his name: De la grammatologie, Speech and Phenomena, and L'écriture et la différance. This leads in Speech and Phenomena to a polemical position, to an aggressive position and aggressive critique of certain implications. So there is not so much difference in philosophical substance between the maîtrise of 1962 and Speech and Phenomena but all of a sudden what was a classically and well done academic maîtrise becomes a polemical book in Speech and Phenomena.

Now, what is the starting point, what was the angle, what is the perspective of Speech and Phenomena? The perspective of Speech and Phenomena is one of the few, and I quote, "philosophical discoveries of the twentieth century," that you see for example beautifully laid out in the second chapter of Sartre's L'Être et le Néant [Being and Nothingness] from 1938, and this is the thesis of the mauvaise foi [bad faith]. It is the thesis that it is absolutely humanly impossible to ever have full self-transparence of all your own mind, of your own consciousness, of your Bewusstsein, as you would say it in German. And is this possible in this working through a phenomenology, of Husserl's phenomenology, which was the agenda of French philosophy in the second and third quarter of the twentieth century – Derrida starts by asking the question, is it so obvious that we cannot have this full self-transparency of consciousness, so how can we explain that so many people for two and half thousand years have believed in this possibility? (Even Freud believed in this possibility. It's difficult but ultimately it is the premise of Deconstruction that this is ultimately possible, if you do a talking cure; I mean this is what the client has to [...], full self of transparency of your own conscious). But how have people believed that this was possible?

And this leads to the polemical point in Derrida; this leads to the "Original Sin" of phonologocentrism, which are the Platonic dialogues. This is what I'm referring to in the title of my talk. Why are they the "Original Sin"? Because they present oral communication in a written form as if it were oral communication. It is (he doesn't say that) but it is a lie, a fake. It isn't really oral communication; it is in reality written communication.

But what is so evil about oral communication? And there Derrida makes an argument that everybody rushed to accept and that I find until the present day not terribly convincing but interestingly I do not know (and in the seventies I was reading a lot of secondary literature from that time), I do not know anybody who took issue with that argument. The thesis is that when you are listening to yourself, you can have the illusion of being able to embrace the entire [...], the entire text at one time (I have to say this doesn't happen to me when I listen to myself speaking but everybody said yes, yes…). There is this illusion produced by listening to yourself in oral communication. It is also not as if in written communication didn't have self-reflexivity. Of course, you see your hand going over the paper when you write; I mean, this is a different self-reflexivity. But Derrida never goes to this differentiation. He claims that listening to yourself produces the illusion (and I do think it would have to be an illusion) of full self-transparency. Now, this phonologocentric illusion, as he indeed calls it in La Voix et le Phénomène, becomes the origin of metaphysics (I'm not saying this is the truth, but this is Derrida's argument), becomes the origin of the metaphysics because as you believe that you can see completely what you are producing, as you can be in full awareness of your intentions, etc., as you can be completely honest or completely lying, as you think you can do that, you believe that you are able to interpret the world adequately, you believe that you can control the world (this is an association between interpreting the world and controlling the world), and this leads to the emergence of Subject and agency, and subjecthood and agency, and the illusion of controlling the world, and the desire to control the world; they are altogether very very evil and that's metaphysics.

This is the moment from which [point] on one couldn't use the metaphysics without saying quote or unquote or without saying it does very very evil or saying you would not capitalize it, you name it. The good thing compared to the evilness of metaphysics was, as a friend from Berkeley continues to say, the deconstructive reading, or a rigorous deconstructive reading. What is it: "deconstructive reading"? It is a reading, I believe, predicated in a strange kind of philosophical realism. It says, when you observe how you read a text (and I think that's a correct observation), you realize that you do not produce entire meaning, you do not produce the meaning of the entire text, but in each given moment (and the metaphor is mine), you produce so-to-speak centrifugal clouds of meaning: you read something and you cannot anticipate the entire text. This is a truthful argument: that the most microscopic and elementary level of reading indeed produces these centrifugal clouds. This is what Derrida refers to in two words that became sacred words, the most sacred words, being différance (with e it was the evil, with a it was redemption) and trace. (I could observe in my seminar with the students born after these glorious moments, and didn't know much about Deconstruction, but when they would say trace, there was a certain trembling in their voice. Like colleagues who didn't know a word in French in the eighties at Stanford referring to Jacques, when they talked about Derrida, as if he was a personal friend. In those days you would not say "Derrida" if you were deconstructionist; you would say "Jacques.") So trace and Jacques and différance, it was all very very holy…

Finally, it was Derrida's secret claim to authority: he associated his own Original Sin, his narrative about the "Original Sin" of metaphysics in the Platonic dialogues, with Heidegger's attitude. I don't think that Heidegger and Derrida shared all that much philosophically, but the rumor that there was an association of philosophical closeness comes from this point in Speech and Phenomena when Derrida says that "like myself, Heidegger was right in seeing the origins of metaphysics in the Platonic dialogue." This of course with a binarism that was not deconstructive because binary distinction is even worse than metaphysics. He then established the difference between bad philosophy (I'm exaggerating), and this was of course the Platonic dialogues and the consequences of metaphysics, and very good philosophy, and good philosophy was of course pre-Socratic philosophy, and in that he followed Heidegger, and I find it very strangeof course, he was an erudite, cultivated man, he never said that pre-Socratics were only writing, only existing in writing, but as the pre-Socratics all of a sudden turned into "the positive guys"our late colleague Richard Rorty liked to say ironically, "good guys philosophers" and "bad guys philosophers"so the pre-Socratics were "good guys philosophers"they had this aura of belonging to writing, to Writing, which is very strange to think about it historically. So I will admit that […] I got a little bit carried away with ironic undertones, but I hope I will not have a question in the Q&A whether I did justice to Derrida.

I do think that basically I'm following his argument; of course, as always, the real arguments are more complicated and I do not follow Derrida in all of his ramifications, I have no intention to falsify the document, and when I'm saying that there are certain things that I do not agree with, I will give you the argument why I do not agree with this claim of the deconstructive reading being the real reading, philosophic-realistic reading, but while I'm a critic about it, [that] doesn’t turn me necessarily into a bad or ill-intentioned person. So, so much about the basic argument. Now, second question is the historical context and motivation; I mean: why was this argument so important to Derrida, and above all, why did it have this uncanny resonance, nationally, first in this country, and internationally? I would like to say to younger colleagues: this is very difficult for you to imagine in the relatively cool, cold, and flat-footed atmosphere of today, how passionate it was, how passionately people were deconstructers or antideconstructers; how can I explain this investment, this intellectual and emotional investment?

Just one more anecdote as a footnote, showing I was not an antideconstructer: I seemingly was the first person to persuade Derrida to have a short visiting professorship at my university, and lots of people in black silk shirts came to that small town of Siegen where I was teaching, and one day it was raining and I don't like umbrellas, and I didn't have an umbrella to accompany Derrida from my car to the restaurant, and everybody had said, this is completely impossible, how rude I was not to have an umbrella for Derrida, and I said, you know, it is not the Dalai Lama (if the Dalai Lama ever gets hit by a drop of rain, he's no longer the Dalai Lama), but Derrida will continue to be Derrida. The dominant intellectual procession [...] in France in those years when Derrida was working on this annus mirabilis, on these three books, you know, I would say that he spent a year at Harvard in the fellowship in '62-'63 saying that he spent the entire year which is merit [...] reading Ulysses, first in a French translation and then in the English original, so he probably started to work on these three books in '64-'65.

Now, what was the dominant paradigm in France in these years? Well, I'll give an eyewitness account of that, because I spent my last high school years at Lyceé Henri IV in '66-'67, and when you went to an intellectual bookstore in Paris, what you saw, in front of the libraries, in the window shop of the librarie [the bookstore], was Althusser, who was, by the way, Derrida's mentor but a mentor with whom he had both friendly and oedipal relationship. That was something at stake to be in a tension with Louis Althusser. There was above Althusser's Lire le Capital (Read Marx' "Capital.") Now what was the point in that book? The point was to transform Marxism into a more rigorous science, by the import, by the fusion, of Structuralism; so the convergence of Marxism and Structuralism was the point of Louis Althusser and was the point that dominated French intellectual life in this annus mirabilis of Derrida in 1967, when La Voix et le Phénomène, Writing and Difference, and Of Grammatology appeared in one and the same year. So there was immediately, and I think it is important to keep in mind, a polemic. Foucault did not exist yet (for the youngsters). The first book by Foucault that really made an impact, so to speak, Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things), appeared in 1966, but you would have not just found that book in the bookstores. Starting in high school, I was pretending I am a university student, so I always wanted to know the names of the authors that were the current, so Foucault was not yet a name that I thought I had to remember.

Now, what is the polemical position of La Voix et le Phénomène? It is in the first place, and this is explicit and even more explicit in the lecture published in Writing and Difference, the lecture that made Derrida's first impact in the US, in 1966, a colloquium at Hopkins dedicated to Structuralism and Lacan, [where] Derrida gave the paper published in Writing and Difference and "the free play of the signifier" and was all of a sudden a sensation, so much so that Lacan was leaving the colloquium [...] prematurely because he couldn't stand the fact that there was this young man with a resonance greater than him. So it was a critique of Structuralism. Why is Structuralism evil? Because it's a version of metaphysics. A structuralist has presupposed that you can analyze the entire text. And from this position of reading realism, of philosophical realism, there can always only be in one moment of the text, with those centrifugal clouds, that's an impossibility, that is the consequence of the "Original Sin" of metaphysics. And that is very explicit, and nobody has ever denied that Deconstruction was explicitly and polemically anti-Structuralist. But I do believe, and this has been denied, and would not be astonished if somebody on the Q&A would challenge me on that, that there was an equally strong bias and polemic against Marxism and against the gigantic capital S Subject that Marxism presupposes. A Subject that is a collective Subject, it's a class, it's the proletariat, and it's the proletariat that is supposed to interpret correctly into one world historyI mean, if you embrace Marxism au pure de la lettre [literally]. Clearly because the point of reference was Derrida, there was also a critique of Marxism, but I think we should forgive Derrida for not mentioning that, because if you wanted to be an intellectual in France in 1967 and above all, if you wanted to have an academic career, which he unfortunately never had, I say "unfortunately" because it is ridiculous that he never had a chair, he had not arrived to the university in France, you could not profess if you were anti-Marxist or if you were critical with Marxism. You could do that implicitly but it would have ruined in 1967, his academic career. But the second thesis, it isn't undermining critique, if you want to use this as a word of Deconstruction of Marxism tool. In the first place of Structuralism and in the second place of Marxism, so of this point of convergence that identifies Althusser. But also, and thirdly, and people have normally taken that for granted but I don't think it's a sacred tool, Derrida embraces the position of linguistic turn. What I'm saying is that this does not necessarily follow from the position of the critique of Structuralism and the critique of Marxism.

Critique of Structuralism and Marxism isn’t necessarily a linguistic turn. What is interesting actually is that Derrida's annus mirabilis, 1967, is the year when Richard Rorty, then an unknown young analytic philosopher, published a collection of essays under the title The Linguistic Turn. I mean, under the name of Constructivism, under the name of ready-to-handness since being in time and so forth [...] and so forth, such position, the equivalent of the linguistic turn had existed; but the linguistic turn as a linguistic turn comes precisely out of the incubation of Derrida's La Voix et le Phénomène. So why a linguistic turnerI mean, this is the famous sentence [that has] endlessly been repeated in all of these three publicationsil n'y a pas de hors-textethere's no way to have a position from outside the text. I mean, you all know that, I'm just mentioning that [...]. He could have the same critique on Structuralism and the same critique on Marxism without being a linguistic turner. What is interesting, just for completion and for justice' sake, it's also the [...] linguistic turn position of Derrida always has an aura of melancholia. It is always as if saying, we cannot transcend the text, there is no referent, but isn't that sad that there is no referent? This is strange. I mean, you also associate this antilinguistic with the free play of the signifier. The signifiers play happily in the text, and so they have no business referring to the world outside.

Now, one thing is the motivation of Derrida, the historical context. I think this for starters isn't adequate reconstruction; it's my claim of the situation out of which the starting Derrida emerges, but why this position has the resonance that it had immediately, why actually already in 1966 at this colloquium at Hopkins people were seemingly (I mean, I know a couple of people who were there) so excited when [...] was deeply wounded because he had invited Lacan [...]. Why was this excitement, this passion, and why did it start in English departments in the United States, and not in the French departments, not in the philosophy departmentsthis has been turned into an argument against Derrida (I don't think it's an argument against Derrida)but why in the English departments? I have two hypotheses to try and answer this question. The first hypothesis (I mean, it also has to do with memories of people in my age; I think I can remember this moment), this is from academic co-politics, and I don't use this description without a certain grain of irony today—but this is post-student revolution. I mean, they tend to forget that what we now call—and some colleagues enthusiastically still call—"the Student Revolution" came out of the Bay Area; it really starts at Berkeley, so it's the political agitation for which the English departments are a very strong route.

Now, in the time of the reception of Derrida's books, in the late sixties, early seventies, and I can still remember that, there was a downswing, there was a moment of disillusionment, there was this belief we have lost our political agenda, that there's [something] lost because this student revolution did not become what the highest projections had promised, and I think that in this place, Deconstruction, undermining certain values, bourgeois values, evil values [...] was the new political agenda. So Deconstruction provided a political agenda that at this same time was not a repetition of that agenda that had once run out of steam.

Secondly, however, and this is normally much underestimated, Derrida's style of deconstructive reading, which is a microscopic reading, had of course an enormous, almost ironic affinity with the New Critical tradition cultivated in the English departments. So if you were a very innocent, not a political, New Critical reader in an English department, you could be transformed from one day to another. It was like an agenda transformation: declare you are whatever you want to be because you woke up and had a dream, so you had that dream to be a deconstructer, and as you had already the reading technique, you easily could declare yourself a deconstructer. And I think this explains why it had this uncanny success in the first place in English departments.

I rush to come to the conclusion and the conclusion is shorter, but decisive perhaps. So, are we bound, are there good intellectual arguments for us, to follow this position? I mean, do we still feel that we have to be under the prohibition [...] of oral speech, of the presentation of oral speech? Do we still have to embrace this priority of writing? Is this all still a taboo? I'll give two answers for that. In the first place I would say that the enemies, that were enemies for Derrida, in the sixties, and that were very powerful paradigms, Structuralism and Marxism, really are no longer such strong presences as enemies. I mean, I feel today Structuralism belongs to this strange toolkit of tools of methods and theories. You know, as if for each question you have one tool, so you still teach Structuralism as an introduction to theory course, in a certain way you can use that, but it's not the most powerful paradigm today. For Marxism I would just say that I will teach a seminar next fall, here at Stanford, under the title "Against Theory?"—This is not an ironic question but a rhetorical question, what's left of Marxism? There are things that are left, and interesting things that are left, but it is not certainly the overpower in paradigms. So I fear that even if one takes Derrida's position very reasonably—I mean, you know, forty years later almost, fifty years later, we're just in a completely different scenario and are you so sure that the polemics, then the sharp polemics, that had a target, are running [...]? What interests me more, however, and which may be, can be, a small contribution to the agenda of this colloquium, is that I believe that the strange binarisms of Derrida's never-admitted philosophical realism, so the real thing is to follow différance and trace, to observe all these centrifugal elements of meaning production. And this is what Derrida's texts do, when they work with a text. They work through the text; they don't reach to conclusion, but in each moment they produce this opportunity of clouds, of not certain [...] meaning; to insist that this is too-realism in the first place is not realistic.

Yes, I think that basic level of the reading of any text, you may want or not, functions in this way. But I also believe, and in this sense Husserl's intuition and Husserl's description convince me fully, that involuntarily too, we constantly, retrospectively and prospectively, synthesize. We cannot help synthesize in shaping these centrifugal clouds. That's not that I can say I switch it off, it's completely impossible, so what Derrida says is barely an effect of oral communication, is not barely an effect of all communication. You do that while you are listening to me. Yet with each word you have these clouds, I hope, if you listen at all, but whether you want that or not, and maybe along with me or against me, you're synthesizing, retrospectively and prospectively. And all of you at this point, if you have listened, have certain expectations of how I will end this talk, whether it's right or wrong, but you have an expectation, and this was not a written communication.

So in the first place, this binarism between oral communication and written communication does not function; and in the second place, what Derrida says, what is the real reading along the lines of différance and trace, is only, so to speak, one layer, or fifty percent of the real reading. The real reading, the basic reading, the inevitable reading, always includes acts of synthesis, retrospectively and prospectively. So I thought, if there is any inspiration to have you at the colloquium, from Deconstruction, it would be to do something completely prohibited by Deconstruction—namely, to apply the intuition that is in the concept of différance to speech, to oral texts. And to follow in oral texts how, while you're listening to somebody, and while you're speaking, you constantly produce these centrifugal clouds but at the same time, retrospectively and prospectively, you also process with synthesis and observation, which probably [...] to the Derridean prohibition has never been practiced in literary studies. And to end, I thought the colloquium will take place in the former German department library, to and on a good note and with my favorite German classic, Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Viking, 1971), 43. ↩ ↩, I will end with a quote from one of my favorite texts by Kleist, a fragment from "Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden" ("On the Gradual Construction of Thoughts during Speech"). Kleist describes that when you start speaking, and you're not prepared, when you start speaking you have a vague intention, and then you stumble forward. That would be the equivalent of these vague centrifugal clouds, and then retrospectively and prospectively you do synthesis, and by doing synthesis you end up making sense of your own speech, as opposed to having a conception and then executing this conception, and then Kleist opens this process to something that Derrida unfortunately never thought about, and this is dialogue. So Kleist says:

But because I do have some kind of obscure inkling [when he starts speaking], that harbors a distant relation to that which I am seeking, if only I utter a first bold beginning [that would be these clouds], as the words tumble out, the mind will, of necessity, strain to find a fitting ending [so this is the prospect of synthesis], to prod that muddled inkling into absolute clarity, such that, to my surprise, before I know it the process of cognition is complete [so I mean, his process of cognition is complete because of his involuntary acts of synthesis]. I mix in [this is very interesting] unarticulated sounds, draw out the conjunctions, add an apposition, even though it may not be necessary, and make use of other speech-stretching rhetorical tricks to gain time enough to hammer out my idea in the workshop of reason. [And now comes the dimension of dialogue:] Nothing, meanwhile, is more helpful than a gesture from my sister, as though she wished to interrupt; for my, in any case, already strained mind will only be all the more roused by this external attempt to wrest a train of thought on which it was set, and like a great general, when pressed by changing battlefield conditions, I too will find my intellectual capacity stoked to yet a higher degree of my performance.[1]

Thank you for listening to my performance.  

1. Heinrich von Kleist, "On the Gradual Construction of Thoughts during Speech," in: Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, trans. Peter Wortsman, Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2010, 257. ↩