“I’m not talking about making a porno film about Hegel or Heidegger”:Reading and Writing Derrida

“This implies that the organism, having been engendered, must have a beginning and an end… consequences of such a norm are immense.”

Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy”

In his essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Derrida breaks apart binaries to discover the assemblage of meaning in the Greek word pharmakon. While Derrida deconstructs the translation, he also uncovers patriarchal and capitalist constructions of writing. Specifically, Derrida says Logos (reason, judgement, the Word of God, or, as Derrida says: discourse, which means authoritative discourse) acts as a father to logoi (governing principles). Derrida says, “Linguistics, logic, dialectics, and zoology are all in the same camp,” which becomes problematic because Truth needs to stay exposed and vulnerable for it to remain capable of ongoing truth. Derrida examines Plato’s idea that writing can only repeat itself. Writing is a construction that is almost self-congratulatory and it needs to be deconstructed, hence Derrida’s ultimate contribution to critical theory and literary analysis: deconstruction. By laying out this theory and deconstructing Plato’s Phaedrus, Derrida exposes assumptions Westerners have about gender, science, and writing.

Derrida points out the link between the mythical character, Pharmacia, a virginal nymph who occupied a poisonous spring, and pharmakon as well, deconstructing the meaning of this passage in Plato’s Phaedrus:

Phaedrus: I should like to know, Socrates, whether the place is not somewhere here at which Boreas (the North Wind) is said to have carried off Oreithyia from the banks of the Ilissos? . . .

Socrates: Oreithyia was playing with Pharmakeia (Pharmacia), when a northern gust carried her over the neighbouring rocks; and this being the manner of her death, she was said to have been carried away by Boreas.

Derrida decides this is significant for our understanding of what pharmakon ultimately means saying: “Let us in any case retain this: that a little spot, a little stitch or mesh (macula) woven into the back of the canvas, marks out for the entire dialogue the scene where that virgin was cast into the abyss, surprised by death while playing with Pharmacia. Pharmacia (Pharmakeia) is also a common noun signifying the administration of the pharmakon, the drug: the medicine and/or poison” (70). The virginal Orithyia was carried off by Boreas, The North Wind, and killed while playing with Pharmacia. Derrida takes this to mean that pharmakon represents a straying from one’s governing laws into a search for truth, which is actually an “anti-substance.” Fitting right along with deconstruction, perhaps we can understand pharmakon as a searching for truth which is shown, in this myth, as a deadly practice. Interesting that this virginal character was “playing” with Pharmacia when she met her death. This almost seems to discourage the play Derrida pushes for in his theory of deconstruction; a discouragement of playing with structure under the threat of death. However, life is short enough that we can continue to search for truth throughout our existence even though we know we will never “arrive” there.

Considering the dialectics of Western Metaphysics has an arrival point which ends at Truth, whereas dialogic discussion creates assemblage of nuances, Derrida gets at the gendered discussion of discourse. He takes issue with the beginning and end structure, and, as a crude entry point for a gendered discourse, I see the writing of Western Metaphysics to be similar to a male sexuality even unto the abrupt ending or “arrival” (male orgasm, if I need to be even more explicit).

In the sciences, if we have a set structure of how we arrive at truth, the “father” of that structure has shaped all of the conclusions of future experiments. Derrida asks, “Should we consider this known, and with this term–the known– classify the other term within what one would hasten to classify as a metaphor?”(80). Here he means: all language is simply a metaphor for what is taking place in the physical world. If I say I have “white skin” that doesn’t account for all the brown spots I have on it, black ink of my tattoos, and redness of my face. If I say “I live in my apartment” I am not accounting for the times when I am not there, the years I did not live there. It’s simply a symbol for what is happening at a certain moment. Just like diseases are simply names for a variety of physical symptoms. If I say I have Leukemia, I am pressing others to assume what my symptoms are and opening myself up for treatment, but we cannot account for the specifics of my disease or that it is the type of disease doctors make it out to be.

Derrida also seems to account for the potential of Plato’s text to be speaking for the protection of not only patriarchy, but capitalist patriarchy when he remarks on the translation of the word Pater:

Logos represents what it is indebted to: the father who is also chief, capital, and good(s). Or rather the chief, the capital, the good(s). Pater in Greek means all that at once. Neither translators nor commentators of Plato seem to have accounted for the play of these schemas (81).

Therefore, the concept of father and patriarchy are directly related, but Derrida points out that connection to capital is closely linked. The concept of social or cultural capital comes to mind when thinking of Plato’s capital, especially when we think of social mores, social or cultural capital, which is commonly accumulated by the rite of “good” birth (rich white male status). Derrida goes on to politicize when he mentions: “One of the drawbacks of democracy lies in the role that capital is often allowed to play in it…”(82). We see this in our elections all over the U.S., the seat of Western Metaphysical thought; capital is at the heart of what is allowed to happen in our democratic process.

Derrida then elaborates that Pater is “this father, this capital, this good, this origin of value and of appearing beings,” and this emphasis in particular reinforces the patriarchal structure of Western thought and language. Even the privilege to write in the public has been historically linked to men. The canon of literature has many texts by affluent, white men, which is seen as “the origin of value” and at the very least is what we’ve always read. It is also interesting to see men as a “good.” There is a gendered implication of this, too, of course. If assigning “good” to men, in Western binary we would then see women as “bad.” This is evident in our treatment of women as “bad” in rape cases where affluent white men are let off easily (as in the recent Stanford rape case). But also, since “good” can also mean commodity, we can notice the seeds of Western capitalism because men have become commodities for capital; they are machines of capital, or, human resources. Since men are these supposed pillars of truth, we also see women mimicking their behaviors or being subservient to align themselves with ‘T’ruth.

Since men are the “father” and the originators of good or goods and men are supposed to be the exemplar of human behavior, we have everyone mimicking men’s obsession with capital gains as women have become obsessed with capitalist earning as well. Derrida calls this “that offspring of the Good (ton tou agathou ekgonon), which the Good has created in its own image (hon tagathon egennesen analogon heautoi), and which stands in the visible world in the same relation to vision and visible things as that which the good itself bears in the intelligible world to intelligence and to intelligible objects” (82). Remarkably, Derrida turns his reading of Phaedrus into a scathing social critique of capitalist patriarchy, which includes reverence toward science and taxonomic systems of knowing.

Thoth (also referred to as Theuth), the God of writing, is also an intriguing part of Derrida’s explication. Thoth is the son of Ra, the sun God, and we remember from Plato that the sun represents all that is true. Thoth uses the signs of his father, which represents language. He uses the discussion of Thoth to explore “mythemes” and “philosophemes” (86). A mytheme is considered an unchanging truth which can never be challenged, and a philosopheme is a syllogism, or, a truth with a binary. The syllogism implies, “It’s either THIS or THAT. There is nothing else.” He says this is what underlies Western logos. We see, then, that language cannot account for all truth. Thoth also later becomes the scribe and bookkeeper of Osiris, which means Thoth does not represent creative writing, per se, he simply represents transcription of ordered directions and calculations (90). The writing Derrida would endorse, likely, as a product of “Truth” is that which is constantly revised. Though through his writing, Derrida seems to think writing is never a way to find Truth (yet he has written several BOOKS on the topic, go figure).

Ultimately, Derrida’s analysis seeks to destroy the grounds we think we have for making all the assumptions of Western thought. Deconstruction, then, paves the way for a rupture of canonized knowledge. Funny enough, Plato’s work lends itself well to this criticism because it seemed to be a work that at least tried to provide conditions for truth, even if that truth was just reproducing the dominant culture of the time. The dialectical binary is not the ideal because as Derrida points out, there are always details which become lost in translation. These areas of ambiguity always leave room for discussion, and Truth remains an open ended process without arbitrary, categorical thinking. This breaks apart social constructions of race, gender, and sexuality. Not only that, but it opens us up to ask questions of just about everything we’ve ever known.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1981. Print.

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