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Jacques Derrida - Opening lines

Jacques Derrida - Opening lines

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Derrida takes ‘writing’, ‘trace’, ‘inscription’ as the unmetaphorical locus of a relation to the

history of philosophy. But this constellation of terms also has the advantage that by and of

itself it works to undo the distinction between form and content, being both theme and

medium for the theme (discussion of writing is done in writing). The terms bring with them,

as has been suggested earlier, the possibility of a non-linear temporality; they also render

inseparable the understanding of something and that thing itself. In regard to the central

concern of this chapter, they make possible a negotiation of the apparent opposition between

genesis and structure. To bear this out, I now consider two other examples, in other domains,

of the idea of writing, and the term ‘trace’.

The first is a piece of work in the theory of biogenetics, exactly contemporary to

Derrida’s first publications, which will serve to indicate clearly some of the conceptual

problems with which the idea of writing enables one to engage. H. H. Pattee published work

in the 1960s on the origins of life, relating the problem to the problem of measurement in

quantum mechanics, where, notoriously, the observed and the observer cannot be divorced.

Pattee’s articles are concerned with the relation between inorganic structure and the genesis

of living organisms. They use the notion of writing to conceptualize the overlapping relations

of structure of possibility, that is, of ‘initial conditions’ on the one hand, and of genesis and

development on the other. Pattee suggested that the difference between living and inert

matter (namely the former’s collective behaviour in the course of time) might be properly

expressed in terms of keeping and writing records:

In biological terminology we describe the recording process as the accumulation of genetic

information by natural selection. But this accumulation is now apparent only in highly

evolved cells in complex ecosystems. The origin of life problem is to explain how this

record accumulation began and why it can survive the universal tendency towards loss of

records which occurs in non-living matter. . . . Symbols and records have existed since life

existed. . . . Writing symbols is the preservation in space of time-dependent activity.

(Pattee 1971: 310–12).11

14 Histories and transcendentals

Writing in this speculation on the origin of living matter is used precisely because it prevents

a conflation of distinctions: the distinction between the commenting system doing the

observation or measurement and what is commented on cannot be assimilated to the distinction

between human mind and physical matter. ‘Writing’ allows the idea of selecting and preserving

information through time to be thought without implying intention or purpose, and without

separating writer and written-on, or agent and acted-on. The usual thinking of the relation of

active to passive, as source and result, or creator and created, cannot function. Further,

writing allows a paradoxical chronology to causality. The ‘pure origin’ of life cannot be

located, not because it involves infinite regress, but because the effect, that is, the ability to

make records, seems to act as cause. In Pattee’s work, archive and recording appear out of the

‘equations of constraint’, that is, the relations which adapt the coordinates of the system in

order to preserve its momentum. The archival process of living matter involves, Pattee

suggests, a selective freezing-out of degrees of freedom by a pattern of constraints which are

not back-traceable to original conditions, and thus not reversible. Such a pattern of constraints

must be ‘inherently statistical in its structure and dissipative in its operation’ because of its

irreversibility (ibid.: 314). The conception of a record, an archive which writes/is written,

which is both effect and cause of measuring and of differentiation, has led Derrida and Pattee

to interestingly similar conclusions: writing as irreversible temporal process, which upsets

in its origins the active/passive distinction, and thus disturbs causality as a consecutive

temporal sequence of action on separately definable elements; writing as involving constraints

of selection, which entail corresponding dissemination. It is as if a thinking through of

‘writing’ enables a dissolving or displacing of the conceptual difficulties underlying ‘genesis’,

‘structure’ and the difference between life and non-living.

Likewise, it is as if a thinking through of ‘trace’ enables understanding and what is

understood to be brought together, dispensing with the conception of objective truth-values

which can be determined independently of our knowledge or means of knowledge. Michael

Dummett’s work, as we shall see, because of its roots in intuitionism, throws a particularly

sharp light on some of the concerns of this book. In his (arm’s-length) construction of a

verificationist view of the truth of some statement made now about the past, ‘trace’ expresses

the complex chronology necessary if we do without a realist notion of truth. A realist notion

of truth suggests that it makes sense to speak of truth even if we do not in practice know how

to decide the truth of a statement in all circumstances.12

For the realist, in Kantian fashion,

argues that where we cannot recognize a particular statement’s truth, it could be recognized

by a Being whose powers are like ours, but sufficiently extended. A verificationist would

argue against this that there will be undecidable sentences for which, though we might come

across, so to speak, the recognition of their truth and falsity in certain situations, we have no

idea what we would need to find out to be able to get to that recognition where we are aware

that we do not have it. But sentences in the past tense impose a strange temporality on the


Histories and transcendentals 15

A previous observation can serve as conclusively establishing the truth of a

past-tense sentence only in so far as it is known to have been made, e.g.

remembered; so, from a verificationist point of view, it is not the past observation

itself, but the present memory (or other trace) of its having been made which

constitutes the verification of the assertion.

(FPL, 469)

Derrida could not be called a ‘verificationist’ without enormous misprision; yet where a

timeless system of truth-values existing independently of our knowledge (that is, realism) is

abandoned, the problems of knowing things about the past lead to an overlapping of the

known and the means of knowing, and an idea to play the role of the ‘trace’ is needed.

‘Deconstruction’ as an articulation of philosophy and history of

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