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Voice and Presence

Derrida’s critique of language is a critique of the self-present voice, the phonè, and its unity to the logos. As it is from ‘hearing one-self speak’ that the entire world is constructed, this has far-reaching implications: the idea of presence, of interiority, etc, all arise from a self-perception of the phonè, even if in actuality that voice is never uttered; breaking the link between the voice and these things would radically alter our understanding of the world. In traditional contradistinction to the voice is writing, which is thought of as voiceless, absent, not present in any sense of the word. Writing is by convention grouped outside of, exterior to, the self-present voice, and is seen as a means, one only mechanical, of imperfect re-presentation of it. Derrida asserts though that in fact writing, or what he calls writing, encompasses language — language becomes a facet or segment in the field of writing, rather than the always-presence of the phonè.

Privileging the phonè, the voice, has a long tradition of ignoring or omitting the fact that the feelings of the mind, the voice of the interior monologue, are not transparent. This tradition insists on their transparency:

In every case, the voice is closest to the signified, whether it is determined strictly as sense (thought or lived) or more loosely as thing. All signifiers, and first and foremost the written signified, are derivative with regard to what would wed the voice indissolubly to the mind or to the thought of the signified sense, indeed to the thing itself (whether it is done in the Aristotelian sense, manner that we have just indicated, or in the manner of medieval theology, determining the res as a thing created from its eidos, from its sense thought in the logos or in the infinite understanding of God).

These methods, these assertions, are used to ensure the significance, particularly, of truth:

All metaphysical determinations of truth, and even the one beyond metaphysical onto-theology that Heidegger reminds us of, are more or less immediately inseparable from the instance of the logos, or of a reason thought within the lineage of the logos, in whatever sense it is understood: in the pre-Socratic or the philosophical sense, in the sense of God’s infinite understanding or in the anthropological sense, in the pre-Hegelian or the post-Hegelian sense.

Privileging the phonè is an outgrowth of the “historical determination of the meaning of being in general as presence”: “presence of the thing to sight as eidos, presence as substance/essence/existence [ousia], temporal presence as point [stigmè] of the now or of the moment [nun], the self-presence of the cogito, consciousness, subjectivity, the co-presence of the other and the self, intersubjectivity as the intentional phenomenon of the ego, and so forth.” Needless to say, if the basis for these things is removed, they would need to be radically altered to remain of use, if they could be at all.

Phonocentrism, the long chain of its iterations, brings about the situation in which we find ourselves: the age of the sign, an ‘essentially theological’ age that obscures the relation of the signifier to the signified and uses the difference it constitutes between them to justify all manners of logical thinking:

To this epoch belongs the difference between signified and signifier, or at least the strange separation of their “parallelism,” and the exteriority, however extenuated, of the one to the other. This appurtenance is organized and hierarchized in a history. The difference between signified and signifier belongs in a profound and implicit way to the totality of the great epoch covered by the history of metaphysics, and in a more explicit and systematically articulated way to the narrower epoch of Christian creationism and infinitism when these appropriate the resources of Greek conceptuality.

Not much — if anything — escapes the long heritage of opposing and subordinating signifier to signified. Our concepts, from philosophical to scientific are, in a sense, soiled by their history. What then is to be done? We cannot just treat these objections as if they are of no importance — to do so would be to continue reinforcing and reiterating the theological and metaphysical assumptions that they critique. Nor can we simply strike out anew: if we were to abandon the the long history of concepts and the technique which engendered them, not much — if anything — would remain. Instead of dreaming of new methods free from the errors of logocentrism, we must make due with the tools at hand to deconstruct the undergirding metaphysical machine that supports and renders meaningful our concepts. In this way we may see the path out.

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