5.2 Application of Deconstruction-2

Application of Deconstruction:

In order to show how Deconstruction works in philosophy, Derrida introduces in his Of Grammatology some great thinkers and linguistics like, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Rousseau and applies deconstruction to their thought. In this section we will discuss about Derrida and Rousseau.

Derrida and Rousseau

Having displayed how Saussure’s argument about the centrality of speech deconstructs itself, Derrida proceeds to make the same sorts of moves on the 18th century French Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, the father of French romanticism. In Discourse on Sciences and Arts, Discourse on the Origin and Bases of Inequality and Confessions, Rousseau reacted against the view of his contemporaries that progress in the arts and sciences will make human beings happy. Instead, he argued that civilization and learning corrupt human nature. He celebrated the “original”, “natural”, “uncivilized” man, the “noble savage” who was innocent of writing, private property and the powerful property and the powerful Institutions of the political state. Rousseau yearned to return to a “natural” state of idyllic simplicity, innocence and grace, living most of his life with an illiterate servant girl.


Rousseau’s writings depend upon a binary opposition between nature and culture. Nature is good, original, virtuous, noble and present. Culture is corrupt, degenerates, a “supplement” to nature’s fullness of presence. Rousseau also feels that writing is perverse—a product of civilization, a dangerous supplement to natural speech. He argues that in small scale, organic, living communities the face-to-face presence of speech had eventually given way to civilization, to inequalities of power and economics, and to the loss of the ability to speak one-to-one.


For Rousseau it is writing that has intruded upon the idyllic communal peace and grace of the one-to-one intimacy of natural speaking societies. But Derrida says that “Is it Rousseau’s dream of idyllic, intimate, primitive, speaking community simple the social and political equivalent of logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence? Isn’t he just yearning for the full presence of speech and distrusting writing? ” Yes, he is. And it is Derrida’s task, then, to demonstrate how Rousseau’s writings deconstruct themselves. Now Derrida says, that all these Rousseau’s writings are writings, i.e. Rousseau is not present to us, he is absent, he is not speaking, we know him only through his writing, which he must depend on to communicate his thoughts to us. Rousseau, writing in a candid, confessional mode, realizes that even though writing is artificial and decadent, he is a writer. He realizes that he must rely upon writing to make his own most intimate thoughts and feelings known, even to himself. He also confesses that it is when writing down the history of his life and emotions, that he feels tempted to embellish, to fictionalize, to dress up the original, natural truth. Thus, he concludes that writing is a dangerous supplement to speech.[1]


However, Derrida seizes upon the fact that supplement, (suppléer, in French), can mean not only 1) to supplement, to add on to—but also, 2) to take the place of, to substitute for. So supplement is paradoxical, it can mean adding something on to something already complete in itself, or adding on something to complete a thing.

So it is like an ambigram.[2] And for Rousseau, writing is both something that is added on to speech, which is supposedly already complete and full of presence—and it is something which makes speech complete. But speech is obviously not complete if it needs writing to supplement it. It is not full of presence. It must contain absence.


And then Derrida shows that for Rousseau all his human activities involve this play of presence/absence. For instance, Rousseau writes that melody—the pure, spontaneous impulse to sing—is central, because it is so present to the natural voice. Harmony, on the other hand—the arrangement of multiple voices in concert—is unnatural. After all it depends upon notation, which is a form of writing. Rousseau argues that as civilizations become more complex, more abstract, written harmonies replace the innocent grace of natural speech-song—melody.[3]


But Derrida shows how Rousseau’s argument deconstructs itself. Rousseau writes that melody “has its principle in harmony, since it is an harmonic analysis that gives degree of the scale, and the chords of the mode, and the laws of modulation, the only elements of singing.[4]” We always sing a melody in a certain key, in a certain scale—and that is harmony. So the pure, pristine melody is always a form of its dangerous supplement—for it substitutes or adds a perverse, solitary and weakening pleasure to the normal, natural presence of erotic experience with a lover. The masturbator has fantasies about absent beauties with his imagination, supplementing them for the real thing.


And both sex and masturbation realizes Rousseau, may be just a substitute for his foster-mother his original object of desire. Thus the masturbator, the fantasist, is engaged in an endless quest. For his fantasies—and even his lovers—can never replace the full presence he enjoyed with his foster-mother. Again, but, is not it that just another form of the yearning for full presence all over again…? Just another example of what Derrida calls the metaphysics of presence…?


Yes, And what Derrida reveals is that throughout the Confessions, Rousseau relies upon the dangerous supplement, fantasy—because he admits that at the very core of “natural” sexual desire—there is lack, absence. Rousseau admits that his “natural” erotic experiences with women have never been passionate, as exciting and fulfilling, as his erotic dreams and daytime fantasies. Sex can not live up to fantasy. Neither can it live up to the fullness of presence he once felt with his foster-mother. So like speech and melody, the presence of sex is always already inhabited by a certain lack, by an absence, which then must be filled in with dangerous supplement—fantasy.


Picking up on Rousseau’s comparison in the Confessions of “silent and ill chosen reading” to his first discoveries of auto-eroticism (masturbation), [5] Derrida comments on the difficulty of separating writing from masturbation. What links these two activities is the experience of “touching touched,”[6] or the double sensation of two exposed surfaces of the body at once. Not only, he argues, are all living things capable of auto-affection, but also “auto affection is the condition of an experience in general”[7] because sensory exteriority “submits itself to my power of repetition.”[8]


Derrida also wants to employ the metaphorical sense of masturbation as the expanding or the ejaculation seed in the world. Speech does not fall into the exteriority of space. While suppressing difference, speech nevertheless requires the listener as present other. It is what is added to “living self present speech” as supplement, much as masturbation presupposes (or supplements) the concept of sexual activity with a partner.[9]


Rouseau favors speech, melody, nature and sex. But then Derrida notices how Rousseau finds a dangerous supplement in all of these—in harmony, in writing, in civilization and in fantasy or masturbation—regarding all these supplements as marginal



Central Marginal

Melody Harmony

Speech Writing

Nature Civilization

Sex Fantasy/masturbation

Central Marginal

Melody Harmony

Speech Writing

Nature Civilization

Sex Fantasy/masturbation


But, if something needs a supplement, there must be something lacking in it in the first place—there must always already be absence in it. And this is how Derrida brings about the deconstructive reversal or inversion, showing how the marginalized term can be central. Thus it seems that in everything that Rousseau found fullness of presence, there was, in Derrida’s view, always already an original lack, and absence at work. Yet, Rousseau’s whole argument depends upon maintaining that melody, speech, etc, are full.


So Derrida shakes up the stability of these pairs of binary opposites, by playing upon the double meaning of the term supplement. For again, in French it can mean to add something on to a thing already complete in itself, or to complete a thing by adding on it. Supplement, then, cannot be defined simply. Like the ambigraph of the faces and the candles, it is two things at once. Then it seems as if all of life is like a text, or like the term supplement, or like the faces and the triangles, nothing but a play of differences.


Derrida enumerates two series of terms or concepts in Rousseau’s text that relate to each other according to the structure of supplementarity:

We thus see two series working themselves out: (1) animality, need, interest, gesture, sensibility, understanding, reason, ete. (2) humanity, passion, imagination, speech, liberty, perfectibility’, etc.

The second set of terms relate to the first as supplementary metaphysical determinations. As supplements, they desire to complete the terms in the first set in order to achieve an integrated metaphysical coherence. While setting up this structure of concepts as though to allow such appropriation by the second set to take place, Rousseau will not allow it to happen. Imagination, for example, is hardly an unambiguously affirmative supplement if it gives birth to “moral love,” the depravity of culture, the degradation of writing, and the enervation of man. Out of the supplementary difference of these sets comes death, the “dangerous difference.”[10] Derrida is not simply dismissing death as a grammatological figure. It is neither dying nor being dead, but rather “the anguished anticipation of death,” which underlies supplementarity. This anticipation is “the abyss from which all menaces announce themselves” and of which all supplementarities are but metonymic substitutions. In so far as death, in this sense, is an image generated by the imagination, the imagination for Rousseau – and for Derrida – “is the power that allows life to affect itself with its own representation.” Or, more simply, “lmagination is at bottom the relationship with death”[11] in that it is the means by which life refers to the other than itself. As the “faculty of signs and appearances,” the imagination both awakens and transgresses what Rousseau calls human perfectibility and Derrida call it human potentiality.


[1] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p. 51

[2] A graphical figure that spells out a word not only in its form as presented, but also in another direction or orientation, and thus giving two different meanings of the same word or object.

[3] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p. 52

[4] As quoted in Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p. 52

[5] Of Grammatology, p. 340n

[6] Of Grammatology, p. 235

[7] Of Grammatology, p. 165

[8] Of Grammatology, p. 165

[9] Of Grammatology, p. 167

[10] Of Grammatology, p. 183

[11] Of Grammatology, p. 184