Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Our Oral Culture

No. 130: Saturday, March 28, 1998

The postwar revision of the traditional relationship between speech and writing was inaugurated by Roland Barthes' Le degré zéro de l'écriture [Writing Degree Zero] (1953), which first gave prominence to the term écriture, defined in opposition to style as an impersonal and so to speak unconscious set of language elements that presuppose without affirming a certain vision of the world. (One tends to forget that Barthes' primary example of écriture was the langue de bois of Stalinism.) "Style" was, in spirit if not in practice, and however ironic the etymology, oral. The writer's style expressed the presence of "l'homme même" [the man himself] whereas écriture was always an absence. In Le degré zéro, Barthes seeks the reduction of this absent power to the "zero degree" (as maximally approached by the dead-pan writing of Camus' The Stranger), but it is the power that centrally preoccupies him.

Fifteen years later, Jacques Derrida's De la grammatologie (1968) presents writing, in opposition to speech, as the heretofore-rejected and now-to-be-favored model of language. Speech fosters the illusion of self-presence and mastery of the logos, whereas writing openly displays its deferring, supplementary nature. For this reason, Western metaphysics from its inauguration with Plato through its modern rewriting by Rousseau to its transformation into the exemplary human science by Saussure has always "expelled" writing, relegating it to the role of a mere auxiliary to speech. The prestige of The Book, Bible, Koran or other, is as recorded speech, not as writing per se. Barthes in his later Plaisir du texte (1973) reflects, in a less rigorous discursive mode, the enhanced prestige of what he now calls the "scriptible" or "writeable" as opposed to the readable / lisible. The readable provides a passive pleasure, the esthetic analogue to the security of the illusory presence that Derrida attributes to metaphysics. But the scriptible, the "writerly," procures jouissance, orgasm/ecstasy; its self-aware non-correspondence with any prior reality invites the reader to construct its meaning for himself.

Turning the tables on unexamined certitudes like "phallogocentrism" is the very soul of rhetoric, the "art of persuasion," which functions by arousing our resentment against what it presents as a heretofore unchallenged usurpation of central authority. The championing of writing over speech exemplifies as well the duplicity that has always been associated with rhetoric. As one condemns the illegitimate centrality of the adversary in order to legitimate one's own centralizing claim, the pretense of modesty is de rigueur, to wit, Shakespeare's Antony: "I am no orator, as Brutus is." But when the attack is a universal denial of the illegitimate centrality of rhetoric--speech--itself, rhetorical duplicity becomes properly foundational, a substitute for originary paradox. Différance may differ "unspeakably" from différence, but the term was in fact first promulgated in a speech (Derrida's lecture on la différance to the Collège de philosophie). The postmodern attack on the logos and its "subject" has been accompanied by, not to say driven by, a drastic increase in the orality of the academic culture within which it has flourished--particularly that of the US, where deconstruction has remained since the early 70s far more influential than in France.

What do I mean by "orality"? I need only cite the familiar adage that describes today's academic world far better than the naive--and largely obsolete--"publish or perish": "it's not what you know, it's whom you know" (or "who you know," in the non-academic version). "What you know" = writing; "whom you know" = speech. As the Humanities job market continues to stagnate in conjunction with a still-expanding pool of candidates, the pressure to engage in personal networking is ever more inexorable. Today's graduate students are far more active in the profession than the junior faculty--indeed, any faculty--a generation ago. When I chaired my department in the early 80s, my junior colleagues helped me to put on a yearly one-day colloquium. Now our graduate students all by themselves put on a yearly three-day colloquium. With such a beginning to one's career, it is easy to imagine life on the professional summit. Successful academics may attend a dozen or more prestigious conferences a year, invitations to which are obtained not through the solitary labor of écriture but face to face and phone to phone. The link between the domination of the Humanities by a "media elite" and the critique of the self-present subject of the logos can hardly be coincidental.

In saying this, I imply no conspiracy. The "death of the subject" that the promotion of writing over speech implies reflects the general evolution of the mature market system. Claims of central authority polarize resentment and block the circulation of discourses through which the exchange system functions. To promote writing over speech undercuts the authority of the center. Yet the center is still there. The relationship between the audience and the central speaker at an academic lecture is the same as it was at the beginning of hierarchical society: one person speaks, all others are silent. Those who make their reputations as participants in conferences have renounced none of their privileges by denying the authority of their own presence. On the contrary, to claim authority is to lose it; if one needs to claim it, one does not have it. To deny it is the true proof that one has it.

But to denounce the phallogocentric authority of speech is to renounce anthropological understanding of the communication that speech, or writing for that matter, effects. Language is fetishized, set up as an independent force. Those who smile knowingly at Marx's denunciation of the liberal bourgeoisie for pretending that its universalist morality was more than a mask for class-bound self-interest listen approvingly to speakers who denounce the pretensions of speech. Although language speaks through the speaker, he or she gets the honorarium.

The speaker's "presence" is not an artifact of metaphysics; it is an originary anthropological reality. But the notion of logocentric presence conflates two distinct elements of the originary scene: the externally observed presence of the central being, which is the effect of its sacred inaccessibility, and the "self-presence" of the emitters of the sign, which is not self-absorption but presence to the central object that it designates. The self-presence of speech is self-alienation; I am "present to myself" only in the sense that the sign as the name-of-God expresses my ecstatic dispossession by the Being to which it refers. It is just this ostensive ecstasy that is suppressed by metaphysics in the name of the harmony-bringing Idea.

Derrida's own visit to UCLA a few years ago was a media event; people who had no idea of his writings sought out the presence of the Great Thinker. Such phenomena can only be explained by an anthropological rather than metaphysical model of presence. The speaker's presence before the community permits the deferral of violence. The central locus from which he speaks is undecidably that of the victim and that of the divinity to whom the victim is sacrificed. To occupy that locus is to risk the horror of the sparagmos in the hope of furnishing the community with the goods for the feast. The speaker, like the "big-man" at the origin of hierarchical society, is the originary provider of the sacrifice who is thereby authorized to speak in the name of the divinity.

To stand before an audience is always to usurp the place of the divinity and its victim. In order to seek the audience's indulgence for this usurpation, one claims to speak only from the margin of the "logocentric" scene. The audience is to focus its hostile energy on the real central locus of phallic power and forget the speaker's presence on the periphery. Everything is done to prevent us from noticing that, as soon as one begins to speak, the scene shifts and recenters on the speaker. The Freudian fantasy of killing the Father is enacted once again to the benefit of the Son.

One does not give speeches to oneself; the speaker's potency does not derive from solipsistic self-presence but from presence to the community. The illusion of self-presence that Derrida sees as the essential blind spot of metaphysics is the originary cultural illusion: the illusion of unmediated subject-object interaction. It is a variant formulation of the constitutive "illusion" of the sacred center: the existence of sacred Being independent of human desire and representation. As in those countless fantasy movies (The Fifth Dimension is a recent example) in which one must place a number of stones in a circle in order to make the divinity appear, the power of the center can manifest itself only in the peripheral presence of human desire.

Derrida's notion of différance or deferral relies on Saussure's notion that the sign only signifies through its difference from other signs, that it cannot itself point to its worldly referent. But différance is prior to the Saussurean differentiation of signs; it is its cause rather than its effect. The primary difference of the sign is its difference in kind from its object. The word defers the thing and, in that space of deferral, generates the thing's transcendent Being. I cannot be "present" to my speech, not because my word's meaning is deferred by other words, but because my word's meaning is constituted by deferral itself. The separation of the sign from its referent would be a merely worldly separation, like that of the appetitive gesture of appropriation from its intended object, did it not generate the ontological separation between the object itself and its transcendental Idea or signified. Once the sign has been emitted, the referent is no longer merely a thing; it is inhabited by its difference from Itself. It can be destroyed and eaten as a victim now that the "real" object of desire is no longer present in this world.

All language is "writing," deferral of central, present Being. But charismatic speech never claims central authority for itself. On the contrary, the speaker is our leader (Duce, Führer) who effects our Exodus to the Promised Land by liberating us from the illegitimate usurpation of the scenic center, be it by Phaoroh, "The International Jew," or the phallogocentric patriarchy.

But wait, my reader may say, the aim of the writer of these lines is no different: to lead us from the Egypt of deconstruction to the Promised Land of Generative Anthropology. No doubt. But rather than deny the communicative presence of discourse as a metaphysical claim, we should concern ourselves to minimize it as an anthropological reality. It is sacrificial violence that is our real original sin, and that we must always do our best to minimize. The netsurfsers who read these words are in a far better position to defend themselves against this violence than those who participate in the academic equivalent of the sacrificial feast.

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Last updated 3/28/98