Predication as Originary Violence: A Phenomenological Critique of Derrida's View of Intentionality
Appears in G. B. Madison, ed., Working Through Derrida, Evanston IL.: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1993, pp. 120-136.
What happens to intentionality in the thought of Jacques Derrida? When he is finished--when the terminological chain of differance has been finely interwoven with and marked off from that of “presence”--what has been made of that common state of affairs in which an “act” of consciousness and/or language ‘selects’its object? What then are its components to be, and how are they related? For example, when I recall the first automobile I owned, or plan what I will work on during my next sabbatical leave, or savor the colors in a sunset sky? How does Derrida analyze that peculiar type of affinity between particular events of consciousness and specifically correlated events (of the various possible types) which we often express by the prepositions “of” and “about”? What is the basic nature, according to him, of that ofness or aboutness which is characteristic of acts of consciousness? Especially, how does differance enter into it?
The fabled king Midas of Phrygia turned everything he touched, including his food, into gold. There is a long-standing tradition in Western thought according to which whatever objects present themselves to consciousness are the products of some more fundamental type of “touching” between the mind and--something else. Our first thesis here is that Derrida falls squarely within this “Midas” tradition in the interpretation of intentionality: a tradition which very few philosophers in the modern period--possibly only Husserl, though the most common reading does not even exempt him--have managed to escape. It seems clear that intentionality for Derrida really is a kind of making: a making that is always a re-making, thus moving all “objects”--the individual as well as the universal--into the realm of the ideal as he understands it, and simultaneously doing “violence” to that from which this ‘ideal’ object of consciousness is produced, as well as to the produced object itself. Our second thesis will be that his view is descriptively false to the facts of consciousness, and driven by metaphysical prejudices--perhaps, ultimately, historical prejudices--which he not only never rationally supports, but which are in fact rationally insupportable--perhaps by his own insistence.
The Midas tradition extends into obscure antiquity. Locke and Kant are the most obvious members of it from within the “Modern” period of philosophy; and they, of course, are highly instructive to study in clarifying its dynamics. But here we shall begin with Bergson, who, in truth, left so very little for Derrida to say. Emmanuel Levinas has recently tried to remind us of the extent to which Bergson pre-empted the later critiques of technological rationalism and “logocentrism” with his own form of “life” philosophy and his analysis of the relationship between concepts, language, history and duree.1 But Bergson remained a basically hopeful philosopher. Perhaps there should be no serene philosophers in a world where, increasingly, only sour resentment and despair seemed appropriate--especially toward the intellect, which had proven astonishingly inept at realizing the hopes of the Enlightenment for humankind. Thus Bergson’s name and spirit practically disappeared, though his substance continued to be of great historical effect in the work of people who might be embarassed to be associated with him.
Now we find Bergson saying that:
“...what I see and hear of the outer world is purely and simply a selection made by my senses to serve as a light to my conduct....My senses and my consciousness, therefore, give me no more than a practical simplification of reality. In the vision they furnish me of myself and things, the differences that are useless to man are obliterated, the resemblances that are useful to him are emphasized; ways are traced out for me in advance, along which my activity is to travel. These ways are the ways which all mankind has trod before me. Things have been classified with a view to the use I can derive from them. And it is this classification I perceive, far more clearly than the color and shape of things.... The individuality of things escapes us.... In short, we do not see the actual things themselves; in most cases we confine ourselves to reading the labels affixed to them.... The word...intervenes between it and ourselves....
“Not only external objects, but even our own mental states, are screened from us in their inmost, their personal aspects, in the original life they possess.... We catch only the impersonal aspect of our feelings, that aspect which speech has set down once for all because it is almost the same, in the same conditions, for all men. Thus, even in our own individual, individuality escapes our ken.... [W]e live in a zone midway between things and ourselves, externally to things, externally also to ourselves.“2
Of course Bergson did concede that metaphysical “intuition” and the experience of art allow us, upon occasion, to get to the individual, and thus, with reference to the self, to “grasp something that has nothing in common with language, certain rhythms of life and breath that are closer to man than his inmost feelings, being the living law--varying with each individual--of his enthusiasm and despair, his hopes and regrets.” (p. 154) Although they all decry the “objective” mode of knowledge, there still is some kind of “knowledge”--for Bergson as well as for the Existentialists and for Derrida himself--which accesses what cannot be accessed “objectively” or “logocentrically.”
Sartre at one point gave great promise of escaping the Midas model, with some help from Husserl. In his brilliant little note, “Une idee fondamentale de la ‘Phenomenologie’ de Husserl, l’intentionnalite,” which appeared in La nouvelle revue francaise for January of 1939, he deftly skewered the idealisms of Brunschvicg, Lalande and Meyerson by describing how, for them,
“....the mental spider draws things into its web, covers them with a pale spittle, and slowly swallows them, turning them into its own substance. What is a table, a stone, or a house? It is a certain assemblage of ‘contents of consciousness’, a arrangement of those contents. An alimentary philosophy! How evidently true! Is not the table the actual content of my perceptions? And is not my perception the present state of my consciousness?.... In vain did the more simple and uncultivated among us search for something solid, something which, at last, was not mental. Everywhere we were met only by a flabby mixture in which we discerned ---ourselves!”
By contrast, Sartre notes,
“Husserl never ceased to assert that the thing cannot be dissolved into consciousness. You see, possibly, this tree here. But you see it there at the roadside, just there where it is. --- Amidst the dust. Alone and withered in the heat. Twenty leagues from the Mediterranian coast. It could not enter into your consciousness, for it is not of the same nature as your consciousness.“3
But, alas! Hopes are only to be dashed. By the time we get to Being and Nothingness, if not earlier, the table, stone, tree, etc., which was saved from being “mental,” now proves to be something that, through its necessary “world,” is internally related to, and so could not exist without, the “pour-soi,”“Dasein,” or “Nothingness”--and now we must also say the “differance”--that alone can explain the the possibility of a world--of a structure of identities and differences opened up by interwoven “nots” or “lacks.” (See “Part Two” of Being and Nothingness.) This is, today, a familiar story, and needs no elaboration. The only consolation it offers us is that tables and trees are, at least, not parts of someone’s mind. But, under such headings as the “noematic,” the “non-real,” or the “ideal,” their substance has nevertheless been transformed by ‘the Midas touch’ of consciousness, generously interpreted, into something that, whether “mental” or not, would not exist without “the mental spider”--now, however, a spider conceived in social/ historical/linguistic terms and inscribed front and back with names such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Saussure, Freud, Levi-Strauss, etc.
When we turn to Derrida’s writings, two significant points become very clear. One is that the overall view of the “world” of science and common sense objects expressed by Bergson and Sartre, according to which it is a product of human reality, is the one accepted by Derrida. Admittedly, his presentation of this view significantly differs at certain points from that of his predecessors--including Heidegger, to whom he no doubt is closest. But the cognitive substance of what he says remains much the same as the views of Bergson and Sartre. We will come back to this claim below, to give it a basis in the Derridian texts.
The other point is that Derrida certainly believes that the view of the world and of the objects of science outlined above, according to which they are fundamentally “products” of Dasein, is also the view of Husserl. I shall not try to support this claim here, because I think any careful reading of Derrida’s Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction and Speech and Phenomena will amply show it to be true. He believes this, I think, because he accepts the interpretation of Husserl according to which the objects of consciousness are noemata.4 And I strongly agree that Husserl can be exempted from the tradition of the Midas touch only if he does not hold that objects of consciousness are, in general, noemata.
But in my opinion he did not hold that noemata are the objects of consciousness--and also did not equate the ideal with the unreal, as Derrida constantly assumes. To the contrary, for him the usual objects of consciousness, whether real or ideal, are not noemata--though noemata can, of course, be taken as objects of consciousness in special acts directed, precisely, upon them--and those “usual” objects would continue to exist and to be what they are if all consciousness disappeared from the universe. Such objects, that is, as stars and galaxies, worms and algae, trees and stones, colors and shapes, concepts and numbers. Not some “metaphysical correlate” of them, but these themselves as they may now be given to a veridical consciousness. And, for Husserl, even such objects as would disappear with consciousness, e.g. acts of consciousness themselves, would not disappear because they ceased to be “present,” but because they make up consciousness.
Derrida’s views are parasitical upon Husserl’s texts. His interpretations of Husserl’s views enter essentially into, and (in a rhetorical manner) provide substantial force for, his own presentations. So it will be appropriate to refer to a few passages from Ideas I in support of my claims about Husserl’s views, though I cannot hope here to set aside what has by now become an entrenched interpretation of them. In truth, he is not misread in the manner indicated for lack of his explicit statements to the contrary. Subsection 43 of Ideas I is headed, “Light on a Fundamental Error.” The fundamental error in question is that of “supposing that perception (and, each in their own way, every other type of thing intuition) fails to arrive at the thing itself” because of the appearances necessary to see it--except in the case of God who allegedly cognizes them “without mediation through ‘appearances’.” The idea is that appearances prevent us from seeing what appears. Indeed, the spatial thing can only be given to us in connection with appearances, which it always exceeds or transcends. But “the spatial thing which we see is, despite all its transcendence, perceived, given in person to consciousness. An image or sign is not given in its place.” (Cf. subsection 10 of the VIth “Logical Investigation”)
The standard reading of Husserl today--even among many who agree that the object is for him not the noema--is that the transcendent and possibly real object is only a something referred to by means of the corresponding noemata or appearances, which of course are mind/language/ history dependent insofar as they are temporal events. But Husserl holds there to be an unbridgeable difference of essence between consciousness via meanings or symbols and perception. In the former case “we intuit something in consciousness as imaging or signitively pointing to something else. Having the one within our field of intuition, we are not directed upon it, but, through the medium of a founded apprehending, upon the other: the imaged, the designated. But there is none of this in the perception, as little as in plain and simple recollection or phantasy.” The tree, table, etc. is directly present to us, no matter how complicated the act in which it is given.
Moreover, what is intuited in the usual perception does not mean, is not of or about, something else, as the appearance or noema most certainly is. This writing pad is not of something, as its appearances as well as acts of perceiving it are, each in their own way, of it. Both the intentional experience (“act”) and the corresponding noema (“appearance”) have a content and, based therein, a reference to an object, the object being the same for both. (See end of subsection 129 of Ideas I) But for Husserl the object itself has, in the usual case, neither content nor object in that same sense, and hence is neither act nor noema (appearance). So the (“usual”) object is not a noema.
Finally, all objects, even when they are experienced, come to consciousness as being there prior to their being known, and not as being produced or as being dependent upon the acts or appearances in which they come to consciousness. (See subsections 45 and 52) He is especially emphatic about the absurdity of holding ideal objects (essences) to be produced by psychical acts. (subsection 22) Any alleged dependence of our usual objects upon mental activities is not something findable, but can only be derived from metaphysical prejudice. Appearances (whether called noemata or not) are radically different kinds of things from trees and tables. You only have to attend to their details to see. To suppose that we might not be able to tell when we are contemplating a table and when we are contemplating the appearance of a table is to make a astounding, gratuitous concession from which there is no recovery in philosophical work. For what could possibly be more obvious than that a table is not an appearance of a table--once you attend to what an appearance of a table is?
One of Husserl’s discussions concerns the claim “that when we think we perceive, e.g., the property of white, we really only perceive, or otherwise present to ourselves, a resemblance between the apparent object and other objects....” In a manner characteristic of his whole approach he responds that here
“...in the face of all Evidenz an object evidently different from our intentional object has been substituted for it. The thing comprised in my intuition’s intention, the thing I think that I am grasping perceptually or imaging in phantasy stands by and large above all dispute. I may be deceived as to the existence of the object of perception, but not as to the fact that I do perceive it as determined in this or that way, that my percept’s target is not some totally different object, a pine tree, e.g., instead of a cockroach. This Evidenz in characterizing description (or in identification and distinction of intentional objects), has, no doubt, its understandable limits, but it is true and genuine Evidenz.” (IInd “Logical Investigation,” subsection 37)
My hope is that considerations such as these will strongly suggest, at least, that Husserl is not in the Midas touch tradition of epistemology. Or, in any case, that the line of interpretation that puts him there by treating his noemata as the objects of the usual acts of consciousness is mistaken. And surely there is no other ground in his writings for associating him with that tradition.
By contrast, a very simple line of reasoning locates Derrida squarely in the Midas tradition:
Hence: Ordinary objects, beings, things “present,” are after all the outcome of individual minds (“inhabited” by or “inhabiting” language and historicity, to be sure) touching (being touched by) originary unity or process and transforming “something” of “it” into trees, tables, persons, etc. Without such minds there would be no world of beings. This is our first thesis, stated above.
To explain the reasoning back of this thesis we look more closely at Derrida’s system. He has a system of thought. Not that he denies this. Indeed, he affirms it--with his standard qualifiers.5 And what he says about the limits of “system,” as one link in the logocentric conceptual chain, is a part of his system. But what must be emphasized is that he does tell us how things essentially stand. His writings are full of synthetic apriori statements--e.g. that “It is impossible for any identity to be closed in upon itself, on the inside of its proper interiority, or on its coincidence with itself. The irreducibility of spacing is the irreducibility of the other.” Or: “There cannot be a unique sign for a unique thing.“6 His claim that in certain areas we cannot, strictly, state essence is a part of his report on, precisely, how things essentially stand. This is not changed at all by his further claim that the “telling” of how things essentially stand must be done by putting stress on the logocentric framework and causing it to “tremble” by showing that its constitutive contrasts--especially the one between presence and absence--require that the opposing terms inhabit each other through the dynamism of differance and “trace.” In this regard he is only one more in a long line of 19th and 20th century philosophers who have held that the “real philosophical stuff” can only be shown and cannot be said.
Derrida’s system is basically tripartite. It is strongly Kantian. Another close parallel would be Critical Realism as practiced in Anglo-American philosophy of this century. In each case, the world of objects of science and common sense--including the individual self--is treated as a result of some deeper level of “interaction” between factors of what there is. The three dimensions of the “system” are:
Here we are especially interested in the status of the world of ordinary objects or beings. They originate, as we have indicated, through a certain violence. “The structure of violence is complex,” Derrida holds,
“and its possibility--writing--is no less so....To name, to give names that it will on occasion be forbidden to pronounce, such is the originary violence of language which consists in inscribing within a difference, in classifying, in suspending the vocative absolute. To think the unique within the system, to inscribe it there, such is the gesture of the arche-writing: arche-violence, loss of the proper, of absolute proximity, of self-presence, in truth the loss of what has never taken place, of a self-presence which has never been given but only dreamed of and always already split, repeated, incapable of appearing to itself except in its own disappearance.“9
Proper names, indeed, never function except as “a designation of appurtenance and a linguistico-social classification.” (Gramm. p. 111) What is really at work in names is a system of classification, expressed in predicates, through which things are designated in terms of their other, subjected to “the violence of difference, of classification, and of the system of appelations.” (p. 110) Within the organized meanings of a language, nothing ever just is what it is called. What is made present in the predicate or name is treated as just this. The mastery that comes from this making something to be present founds “a sort of infinite assurance. The power of repetition that the eidos and ousia made available seems to acquire an absolute independence. Ideality and substantiality relate to themselves in the element of the res cogitans, by a movement of pure auto-affection. Consciousness is the experience of pure auto-affection.” (Gramm pp. 97-98)
Whatever is an object of linguistic meaning will, therefore, always be characteristically different from whatever is not an object--specifically, it will always have the presence which makes it a being. And yet, as classified, it also bears the essential traces of its other within it--as the letter “a” is marked by its place in the system of the alphabet, its relationships with the other letters. Thus, even “The thing itself is a sign.” (Gramm p. 49) That is, it always points to the absent which is present within it through the relationships implicit in its classification or kind. Thus: “From the moment that there is meaning there is nothing but signs. We think only in signs.” (p. 50) The signified which transcends the system of signifiers is an illusion. “Writing” he says, is “the impossibility of a chain arresting itself on a signified that would not relaunch this signified, in that the signified is already in the position of the signifying substitution.“10
Yet the being that is given or taken as present is not, for Derrida, an illusion. In his interview with Kearney he responds vigorously to the oft repeated claim that he denies the existence of the subject, the person--and by implication of other “substances”:
“I have never said that the subject should be dispensed with. Only that it should be deconstructed. To deconstruct the subject does not mean to deny its existence. There are subjects, ‘operations’ or ‘effects‘ of subjectivity. This is an incontrovertible fact. To acknowledge this does not mean, however, that the subject is what it says it is. The subject is not some extra-linguistic substance or identity, some pure cogito of self-presence; it is always inscribed in language. My work does not, therefore, destroy the subject; it simply tries to resituate it.“11
This is a highly important statement for interpreting Derrida’s views. The beings (whose Being is presence) really do exist--though Derrida, like Heidegger, never provides a clarification of what it is, in general, for something to be: of the difference between being and not-being. (The distinction between the being and its Being--the ontico-ontological difference-- gets all the attention and the difference between being and not-being gets lost.) Trees and tables, colors and numbers, are, even though without the violence which enables them, forces them, to have “presence” they would not exist.
This clarification goes hand in hand with another important statement to Kearny. Derrida emphatically rejects the view “that deconstruction is a suspension of reference,” along with those critiques which see his “work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language.“12 It is, he says, “the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the ‘other’and the ‘other of language’.” He refers to those who (referring to him) treat ‘Post-Structuralism’ as the view “that there is nothing beyond language, that we are submerged in words--and other stupidities of that sort.” True,
“deconstruction tries to show that the question of reference is much more complex and problematic than traditional theories supposed....[And] the other, which is beyond language and which summons language, is perhaps not a ‘referent’ in the normal sense which linguists have attached to this term. But to distance oneself thus..., does not amount to saying there is nothing beyond language.” (p. 123-124)
These highly significant correctives to popular misunderstandings must be kept in mind. However, one must also be clear about what it is in Derrida’s texts that gives rise to such misunderstandings. It is his view that the usual sorts of objects, including and especially linguistic signs themselves (WD p. 50), have a being tied to the kind of identity (re-identifiability, hence freedom from context, hence ideality) which they possess. That is, a Being which is presence. To be is, for them, to have presence. And presence does not belong to anything apart from significations or concepts, which do not exist outside of language. (Here as usual add in all of the deconstructive points about “inside/outside.”) On the other hand, differance, trace, mark, etc. do not exist or have an essence13 --when “exist” is used to indicate the Being of what has presence. What is ‘outside’ of language does not “exist”--even if in some sense (which Derrida can hardly be said to have made comprehensible) it “has Being.” Accordingly it is hardly appropriate, though it is understandable, for him to refer to “stupidities of that sort.” The problem is not stupidity, and Derrida should accept his share of responsibility for the misunderstanding. Clearly, for him, the world of objects with presence would not exist but for language and its gathering and dissemination significations; for presence, the self-identity that gives logocentrism its power and allows us to subject beings to standard logic, mathematics, and the like, is a function of language--even of “writing” in the usual sense of that term. What that ‘other’ is that transcends, lies outside of, language (again, in the usual sense) can hardly be regarded as obvious.
Let us now grant to Derrida that language and meanings are not the inventions, are not produced or brought into being, by individual subjects. The beings of our world are formed by a historical reality. Can Derrida, given this, escape the charge of subjectivism, of being in the “Midas touch” tradition of epistemology? I don’t see how. Language and historicity do not obtain and have effects in their own right. Derrida more than most wants to reject action from a heavenly “safe place.” If individuals are at the disposal of language and history, owe their beingly Being to it, it is also true that language and history certainly have power only through their insertion into individuals (or through insertion of individuals into them). The being and action of significations is not indifferent to that of persons. While language and history are indifferent to any arbitrary individual subject, they are totally dependent upon the existence and activities of language users. Concepts and signs do not have a being apart from individual humans: one from where, irrespective of individuals, they might gather the logocentrically re-identifiable object into that degree of presence (never complete or unadulterated with absence, of course) which allows it to be (have presence)--which allows there to be oak trees in North America, for instance.
Language and significations require the existence of historically developing communities of communication. It is for the individuals that make up such communities, not for language or history apart from them, that there is a world and that there are oak trees in North America. Language is existentially dependent upon the individual subjects, though not on any one of them in particular. This is not lessened by the fact that the subjects must be qualified in a certain fashion that has developed historically. And it does not really help, I think, to point out that to raise the question about individual subject and language in this way is to fall back into the oppositional structures of logocentrism (or of “metaphysics” or even “philosophy,” in Derrida’s special sense). However you interpret it, the fact remains that language is powerless to structure objects except through the actions of individuals. Contact with individual minds “results” in beings. No contact, no beings. Of course the minds are beings too--but then nothing is every just what it is for Derrida.
These remarks bring to light the fact that Derrida really has no account at all of how language (conceptual systems) and the self relate to each other and to the objects present to or through them. In this he is like the anti-psychologistic logicians of the early and mid-20th century, who divorced the science of logic from mental events so far that they could not longer explain how logic could serve in the critique of actual thought and discourse.14 Derrida wants to avoid both empiricism and platonism. He tries to do this by introducing senses (concepts, essences, significations) which provide a moving structure without reference to an absolute beginning or end. But this is where the properly phenomenological critique of his views begins to take hold. For the fact is that he simply has no account of how sense history enters into the individual mind or minds at a given time to yield the correlative world of beings--including subjects. His investigations are, apparently, not even intended to operate at that level of analysis. The result is that in fleeing from origins, transcendental signifieds and the like, he leaves us with no positive analysis of intentionality: of the grounds (in the act and in the object) of the intentional grasp of the object by the act. And even if it were shown that a logocentric account of this nexus cannot be wholly correct, it does not follow that no account is available or required.
Instead of doing the canonical phenomenological labor of examining particular cases where an act of a certain type is directed upon its object, he contents himself with general argumentations derived from selected associations of certain terms. The basic term examined is, of course, “representation.” This term, he states, can be understood “in the sense of re-presentation, as repetition or reproduction of presentation, as the Vergegenwaertigung which modifies a Praesentation or Gegenwaertigung. And it can be understood as what takes the place of, what occupies the place of, another Vorstellung (Repraesentation, Repraesentant, Stellvertreter).“15 Thus the specific phenomenon of intentionality (ofness, aboutness) is ignored in favor of what Derrida will call differance, in the form of repetition (being the “same” as, though not merely “identical” with) and replacement.
But now a few questions must be asked. First, do we not know that the affinity which my present perception has with this computer screen, its intentional bearing upon it, is not a matter of the latter (or the former) being a repetition of and/or replacement for the former (or the latter). Isn’t it just nonsense to suppose that any part of my perception or that perception as a whole repeats or replaces the screen? Can any of Derrida’s points about difference change this? Secondly, how would it assist my act to be about the screen if part of it did repeat of replace the screen or conversely? After all, ‘repeating’ and ‘replacing’ often occur in contexts where they do not involve the repeated or replaced standing in the intentional nexus with what repeats or replaces it. Just as, contrary to the suggestion of many, similarity is too general a trait to use as an analysis of “ofness” or representation, so with differance.
One sees evidence in many of Derrida’s statements that he has simply lost the sense of basic semantical and intentionalistic terms. For example, one of his more well-known theses is that “even within so-called phonetic writing, the ‘graphic’ signifier refers to the phoneme through a web of many dimensions which binds it, like all signifiers, to other written and oral signifiers, within a ‘total’ system open, let us say, to all possible investments of sense.” (Gramm p. 45) Now in fact the graphic signifer does not refer to the phoneme at all. It is not of or about or intentionally directed upon it. It has some sort of relationship to it, and perhaps what Derrida says about differance casts some light upon that relationship. But to speak of “reference” here is simply to deprive the word of any utility for semantic analysis. A similar point is to be made for the claim that the signified always becomes a sign because an absence always inhabits its presence. The differance structures of Derrida are found just about everywhere, so far as I can tell. But intentionality, the affinity of a given act or sign with its specific object, is a specific type of union which, on the whole, appears to be pretty rare in the universe. We have to consider the possibility that, distracted by his ingeneous and fruitful insights into differance, Derrida has yet to discover or discuss intentionality. A general point about sameness (namely, that where present it is never simply “identity,” but always “deconstructs” to exhibit “otherness,” always necessarily involves difference, when examined with care--and what else was it that F. H. Bradley and many others like him taught us?) cannot be turned into a philosophical account of practically everything, even if it does suggest intriguing things about Western culture and history.
Derrida’s discussion of voice and consciousness--an indispensable cornerstone of his entire system--shows the same phenomenological flaws as noted above. “Why,” he asks, “is the epoch of the phone also the epoch of being in the form of presence, that is, of ideality?” (SP p. 74) His answer is that voice “is a medium that does not impair the presence and self-presence of the acts that aim at” the (always ideal) signified. (pp. 75-76) “The ideality of the object, which is only its being-for a nonempirical consciousness, can only be expressed in an element whose phenomenality does not have a worldly form....My words are ‘alive’ because they seem not to leave me: not to fall outside me, outside my breath, at a visible distance....” (p. 76)
“The ‘apparent transcendence’ of the voice thus results from the fact that the signified, which is always ideal by essence, the ‘expressed’Bedeutung, is immediately present in the act of expression. This immediate presence results from the fact that the phenomenological ‘body’ of the signifier seems to fade away at the very moment it is produced; it seems already to belong to the element of ideality. It phenomenologically reduces itself, transforming the worldly opacity of its body into pure diaphaneity.” (p. 77)
Thus, “the signifier, animated by my breath and by the meaning-intention...is in absolute proximity to me. The living act...seems not to separate itself from itself, from its own self-presence.” (p. 77) Thus it becomes paradigmatic of beings (with small “b”). “The subject can hear or speak to himself and be affected by the signifer he produces, without passing through an external detour, the world, the sphere of what is not ‘his own’. Every other form of auto-affection must...pass through what is outside the sphere of ‘ownness’....” (78) This leads Derrida to hold that “de jure and by virtue of its structure, no consciousness is possible without the voice. The voice is the being which is present to itself in the form of universality, as con-sciousness; the voice is consciousness.” (pp. 79-80)
Now we must note, to begin with, that Derrida here does not trouble himself to describe in detail a specific case of the experience of voice or speech. He begins von oben, with the general claim that an object is ideal and so can only be expressed--we are never told why--by “an element” also exerpted from the context of real or worldly existence. His next claim is that my speech, my spoken words, seem not to leave me and take on separate existence, but to fade away, allowing the signified to be (to seem?) immediately present in the act of expression, thus giving the act the type of undivided self-identity and ideality that characterizes beings: allowing the immediate presence of the signified in the act of expression.
But let us look at some facts. Speech, my words, in soliloquy or in colloquy, are sounds experienced as located in my specific parts of my body. When I say there is great danger of war in the Middle East, the words used are experienced as sounds moving in and from my chest and throat. (Try it and see. That is the simple phenomenological test.) When things are in good working order, speaking may be relatively effortless, but it is never a case of unmediated auto-affection, as anyone learning to speak a new language (to make the unaccustomed sounds with their bodily parts) or suffering from a good case of laryngitis can easily testify.
The crucial difference between spoken and written symbolism has nothing to do with “proximity,” but with the fact that speech consists of events, while writing consists in continuants or substances which are the results of events. Spoken words do not become “diaphanous.” In the manner of events they simply cease to exist after an appropriate temporal elongation, which is very different from becoming diaphanous. But they no more have a special proximity to the act of expression than, for example, the movements of the fingers in the sign language of the deaf, which utilizes space and not sound.
Once these matters are clear from the descriptive analysis of actual speaking, we will then understand that to say that no conciousness is possible without speech is to say something obviously false. Consciousness constantly and mainly occurs without corresponding speech. Hence, consciousness is not essentially linguistic. This, as a matter of historical fact, is a point upon which all of the great philosophers through the centuries (Plato, Descartes, Kant, etc.), up to and including Husserl, agreed. Perhaps because simple description of the details of specific events in our conscious life will show it to be so. (How to explain the 20th century reversal on this point is another matter.) And if to claim that voice is consciousness, that no consciousness is possible without speech, is not to say something obviously false, it is to use the word “voice” in a way that has nothing to do with actual speech or language. As, for example, when voice is said to be consciousness--where, so far as I can tell, speech or ‘voice’ is (falsely) assigned the absolute self-presence often said to be the essence of consciousness. Here, instead of an honest reference to language, a cosmic principle of the most obscure nature (differance, “writing”) is invoked.
So it emerges, in my opinion, that Derrida does not really have a view of the specific phenomenon of intentionality or meaning. However intriguing in other respects, his reflections on differance cast no light on how language (name, predicate) works through individual minds to accomplishes presence and thereby the corresponding “objects.” They also provide no understanding of wherein consists that peculiar affinity or selectivity of the act (or sign), bearing upon its object or referent, that we call “intentionality.” It is not so much that his account is wrong as that it really is no account at all of these matters.