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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Derrida's Hostility to Phonocentrism


Dr. Alice C. Linsley

Phonocentrism is the belief that uttered sounds and speech are inherently superior to written language. Phonocentricists maintain that spoken language is the primary and most fundamental method of communication whereas writing is a derived method of capturing speech. 

Some writers have argued that philosophers such as Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Ferdinand de Saussure have promoted phonocentric views. Walter Ong (1912-2003) expressed support for the idea of phonocentrism. He drew on the work of Eric A. Havelock, who suggested a fundamental shift in the form of thought coinciding with the transition from orality to literacy in Ancient Greece. 

Ong viewed writing as a laboriously learned technology which effects the first transformation of human thought from sound to sight. This transition has implications for structuralism, deconstruction, religion, and anthropology. Ong argued that the general culture of the United States is particularly non-phonocentric.

In 1962, Jacques Derrida, a young French-speaking Algerian of Jewish parentage took interest in this subject, having read a set of lectures by the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin (1911-1960). Austin's "How to Do Things with Words" contained a theory of the different kinds of speech acts. Beginning in 1946, Austin made a distinction between constative speech and performative speech. Austin was not particularly interested in the distinction between what is spoken and what is written. The philosophical points he made apply to both forms of communication.

Derrida, however, found importance in the distinction and felt that in Western culture and Philosophy too much emphasis had been placed on the spoken word.

Jacques Derrida used the term "phonocentrism" to criticize what he saw as a disdain for written language. He argued that phonocentrism developed because speech, being more immediate than writing, has been regarded as closer to the presence of subjects. He believed that the binary opposition between speech and writing is a form of logocentrism, in which words and language are taken as a fundamental expression of an external reality.

This was problematic for Derrida whose deconstruction of narratives suggests that the notion of meaning is far more complex. Derrida's opposition to phonocentrism came from his attack on what he called "the metaphysics of presence". Derrida characterizes as the metaphysics of presence the tendency to conceive fundamental philosophical concepts such as truth, reality, and being in terms of ideas such as presence, essence, identity, and origin—and in the process to ignore the crucial role of absence and difference. For Derrida negative space is presence. Here we perhaps see some influence from his Hebrew background. The horned altar of the Hebrew was a negative (apophatic) solar image.

Anthony Kenny explains, "Derrida 'deconstructs' the opposition between speech and writing and gives the privileged position to the written text, the one furthest from the control of the author, the one most capable of diverse and superseding interpretations. Some have seen Derrida's attacks on the metaphysics of presence as an enterprise, in a very different key, parallel to Wittgenstein's demolition of the notion of private language." (A. Kenny, Philosophy in the Modern World, Vol. 4, p. 92)

For Derrida, presence and absence are a binary opposition worth exploring. This applied even to his personal preferences. On his reluctance to be photographed and his insistence that no image of himself would appear on his book covers, Derrida said, "For me, writing means to withdraw myself, even if one appears when one writes because publishing means appearing in a certain way. But I didn’t want my appearance to be framed by the contemporary uses of photography where they show the author writing or in a head shot. So I thought it was very important to exclude all forms of photography and all public images of myself." 

Peter Salmon notes, "Jewish, French, Algerian, Derrida’s identity was complicated, and he strove to apply this complexity to all he touched. Part of thinking like Derrida involves taking those things we take most for granted – such as our identity, such as our language – and looking for unexplored assumptions, contradictions and absences."

Derrida’s deconstruction reveals great complexities of meaning in written texts, ideas, myths and human customs. He wanted to know what dominates and blocks what seems not to be present. He ascribes to subordinate objects a more substantial existence than the shadow they cast, or their “trace.” He wrote: "Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition, and a general displacement of the system. It is on that condition alone that deconstruction will provide the means of intervening in the field of oppositions it criticizes" (Metaphysics).

Derrida explores the hidden presence. In so doing, deeper and/or unfamiliar meanings emerge. His method involves neutralizing the shouting voice in order to hear resonances of underlying voices. He looks for Plato behind Aristotle, for mystery behind logic, and for the metaphysical behind the physical. His reversals are a strategic intervention to free western philosophy from the constraints of empiricism, materialism, and linear logic. 

This project necessarily drives one toward the written word which stands still long enough to be deconstructed.

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