Derrida, Jacques

Assigned: Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy”from Dissemination (1608-36); From Specters of Marx (1636-45); from The Animal That Therefore I Am, from Chapter 1 (1645-54). Also read the editors’ introduction (1602-07).

From Dissemination (1972)

Plato’s Pharmacy

Introductory Paragraphs

1. On 1608-09 (“A text is not a text unless…”), how does Derrida begin to establish the aims of his coming exploration of parts of two of Plato’s dialogical texts, The Republic and Phaedrus? How does he employ a textile metaphor to evoke the complexities of textuality and interpretation? How do you connect Derrida’s opening sentence—“A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game” (1608)—with his interest in the manner in which certain interpretations of, and interpretative impositions upon, Plato’s dialogues have proven to be fundamental to the Western philosophical tradition?


From Section 1. Pharmacia

2. On 1609-11 (“The brief evocation of Pharmacia…”), in Derrida’s view, what accounts for the long history of Plato’s translators rendering (not “mistranslating”) the same word—pharmakon—as “remedy,” “poison,” “drug,” and other such incompatible things? What does such rendering have to do with “the very passage into philosophy”? (1611) Moreover, the usual reading of Plato’s intention in the Phaedrus is to say he makes Socrates condemn writing altogether. But what ambiguities in Plato’s text does Derrida begin exploring on these pages—ambiguities that trouble the usual gesture of dismissing or downgrading the written word in favor of living speech?

3. On 1611-13 (“This association between writing…”), what does Derrida imply about the way Plato prepares the ground for determining the status of writing in relation to speech and truth? Why is it significant that Plato makes Socrates invoke a myth rather than stating his claims in a more prosaic fashion?

From Section 2. The Father of Logos

4. On 1613-15 (“The story begins like this…”), Derrida points out that in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus (Leitch 89-95), King Thamus is said to look down upon writing because he prefers being the “father” (1614, 1615) of living speech (“speech” is one meaning of lógos, λόγος). But how does Derrida take issue with this put-down of writing? In what sense is Thamus’ “paternal” or fatherly position not as secure as he wants to believe it is? Why is an “orphan” (1615) like writing threatening to this paternal way of regarding speech?

5. On 1615-21 (“The Phaedrus would already be sufficient…”), Derrida discusses the metaphor of the “father of logos” in more detail. The idea is that the spoken word is “fathered” by its speaker. But how is the father/son metaphor anything but simple? What problem with the supposed Platonic construction of the superiority of speech and the inferiority of writing begins to appear? Moreover, how do you account for Derrida’s interest in the “sun” in its connection to logos?

From Section 4. The Pharmakon

6. On 1621-24 (“Let us return to the text of Plato…”), Derrida explores the “two gestures” (1623) made by Plato, or his fictive characters, in Phaedrus: “Plato is bent on presenting writing as an occult, and therefore suspect, power,” but at the same time, “the King’s reply presupposes that the effectiveness of the pharmakon can be reversed: it can worsen the ill instead of remedy it” (1622). In Derrida’s analysis, “the translation of pharmakon by “remedy” can be “neither accepted nor simply rejected.” On 1623-24, why can’t the pharmakon, writing, be merely a beneficial remedy or aid to memory? Why, according to Derrida, must it be rendered both “remedy” and “poison” without our being able to decide on one meaning or the other?

7. On 1624-28 (“Sophistics—the deployment of hypomnesia…”), how does Derrida put Plato and his enemies the Sophists into relation—what is similar about the way they and Plato regard the supposed inferiority of writing as opposed to speaking? Still, how does the Sophistic explanation of speech’s superiority differ in its emphasis from Plato’s? How does a Sophist like Gorgias of Leontini describe the powers of living speech? (1627-28)

Section 5. The Pharmakeus

8. On 1628-30 (“But if this is the case…”), what connection between Socrates and the pharmakeus does Derrida briefly explore in connection with Plato’s dialogues, in particular The Symposium? (1628-29) How, too, does he characterize the disturbing quality of Socrates’ philosophical discussions—in what sense do they both excite and paralyze their auditors? (1629-30) In relation to this analysis, how does Derrida redefine the term “Socratic irony” (1630)—what is it, and what is it not?


From 9. Play: From the Pharmakon to the Letter and from Blindness to the Supplement

9. On 1631-33 (“It has been thought that Plato…”), Derrida explores Plato’s approach to the concept of “play.” According to him, how does Plato at once affirm and negate this concept? Why is it always necessary in Plato’s philosophical scheme to erase “play” (and “writing”) even as they begin to matter in a given dialogue? Consider also Derrida’s remark, descriptive of Plato’s logic, that “Play is always lost when it seeks salvation in games” (1632). How do you interpret that statement? Finally, why, according to Derrida, is it the case that Plato, “while subordinating or condemning writing and play, should have written so much, presenting his writings […] as games, indicting writing in writing…” (1632)? Why, that is, does Plato find himself driven to make that self-contradictory move again and again?

10. On 1633-34 (“Grammatical science is doubtless not…”), how, according to Derrida, does dialectics (argumentation, basically) try, and ultimately fail, to distinguish itself from grammatical science? Why does dialectics inevitably open itself to “writing” (1634), and in that way necessarily fail to arrive at the pure presence and pure truth it seeks?

11. On 1634-36 (“To repeat: the disappearance of the good-father…”), Derrida sums up his argument. These pages are difficult since they draw together some key notions in his work, but focus on the following statement involving “supplementarity”: “What is is not what it is, identical and identical to itself, unique, unless it adds to itself the possibility of being repeated as such. And its identity is hollowed out by that addition, withdraws itself in the supplement that presents it” (1634). Might we understand such a passage as describing the inherent frustration of being compelled to seek something fixed, stable, unchanging, absolute and true in media—speech and writing both necessarily included as sharing the same essential structure and limitations—that demand such stability when the very operations of those media render that achievement forever unattainable? Try to bring in at least one other passage from these pages that helps us arrive at a similar conclusion about the inherent contradictions in Western philosophy’s pursuit of “Truth.”

12. General question: Discuss what have you taken away from our selections from Dissemination with regard to one or both of the following: 1) the relationship posited by Plato between speech and writing and the relation of both to truth; 2) the manner in which our understanding of philosophical systems arises and the subsequent effects of that understanding of what a philosopher has written.

13. General question: Derrida is almost universally considered a difficult (if witty and sometimes elegant) writer, whether one finds his claims congenial or not. “Style” is not a term he took lightly. So how would you characterize Derrida’s prose in our selections from Dissemination—try to describe his way of moving an argument forwards, examining a point in detail, bringing out the possibilities in a word or phrase, etc. Choose one or two good instances and discuss.

From Specters of Marx (1993)

From Chapter 1. Injunctions of Marx

1. On 1636-37 (“The specters of Marx. Why this plural…”), Derrida begins by reproaching himself for not paying sufficient attention to Marx for decades. He agrees that “It will always be a fault not to read and reread and discuss Marx” (1637). How does he justify that conclusion, and what value does he draw from his retroactive insight about the very first noun in The Communist Manifesto, the singular form “specter” (in German, ein Gespenst). With its aid, how does he begin to recalibrate his thinking on Marx?

2. On 1637-40 (“Many young people today…”), Derrida addresses both the temper of the times (he is giving this address in 1993, a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union) and the complexities of rereading Marx at such an historical juncture. Firstly, how does Derrida characterize the affinities between the revolutionary era of Marx’s time (the mid-nineteenth century), the period of his own youth as a French-Algerian intellectual (the 1950s) and the early 1990s? Secondly, how does he present the dilemma posed by rereading Marx in the latter period—that is, what temptation would a student of Marx’s texts be liable to give in to, and why would that be a bad thing? (1638-39) Finally, how does the “specter” of Marx(ism) still haunt the capitalist countries even after the fall of the Soviet Union? (1639-40)

From Chapter 3. Wears and Tears

3. On 1641-44 (“The time is out of joint…”), Derrida says he wants to enumerate the factors that would “risk making the euphoria of liberal-democrat capitalism resemble the blindest and most delirious of hallucinations” (1641 middle). In other words, he will discuss some of the factors that could potentially take down the “New World Order” optimistically alluded to by President George H. W. Bush, aka “Bush 41.” Choose a couple of these factors and draw them out to the best of your own insight—what threat do your chosen factors pose to the Western order as it’s shaping up in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution?

4. On 1644-45 (“Which Marxist spirit, then…”), how does Derrida sum up the significance of engaging with Marx’s works as of 1993? Why does he suggest that his way of doing so probably won’t please people who still call themselves “Marxists” (1643)? Even so, what value and resourcefulness in Marx’s work and in “a certain spirit of Marxism” (1645) does he nonetheless identify as being the payoff for such an endeavor?

5. General question: With present-day reference to question 4 above regarding 1641-42 of our selections from Specters of Marx, what can you add to Jacques Derrida’s list of threats to the supposed post-Soviet New World Order? Are there, in other words, some new problems on the horizon today, or do you think the ones Derrida mentioned would still be accurate (if of course you find them so for the time he’s discussing)? Explain.

6. General question: Jacques Derrida’s usual way of proceeding with a text is to read it closely while paying attention to the binary oppositions that structure it and underwrite its claims (speech/writing, presence/absence, to name a few); he is also known for his propensity to choose seemingly marginal terms and sections of a given text and then suggest how those seldom-considered parts are more important and destabilizing to the text’s overall argument and coherence than anyone suspected. But that’s a general description of deconstructive reading, so how would you describe what Derrida is up to here in our selection from Specters of Marx? Try to respond both in terms of the text’s stylistic qualities and in terms of its methodology—not that we need think of those as completely separate concerns.

From The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006)

From Chapter 1: The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)

1. On 1645-47 (“The animal, what a word…”), Jacques Derrida sets forth as a first hypothesis that “for about two centuries […], we who call ourselves men or humans, we who recognize ourselves in that name, have been involved in an unprecedented transformation” (1646). How does he go on to characterize the transformation he is referring to in connection with our thinking about animals, and our treatment of animals?

2. On 1647-48 (“All that is all too well known…”), Derrida turns to the matter of the compassion, the pathos or feeling, arising from our domineering relations with animals. Here, too, there is no simple matter to dispense with. What accounts for the complexity of our feelings for and about animals? Why isn’t it a sufficient move to cast in our teeth something like a “realist painting” that would show what “everybody knows” about the torture we systematically visit upon so many animals—all the “industrial, mechanical, chemical, hormonal, and genetic violence” (1648) to which we have subjected them for the last two hundred years or so? Why would this not overcome the “disavowal,” the “dissimulat[ion],” the insistent “forgetting or misunderstanding” (1647) that clearly structure human attitudes towards the things we do to our fellow creatures?

3. On 1648-50 (“It is in thinking of the source and ends…”), Derrida continues his meditation on the issue of the compassion we feel for animals. What question did the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (mentor to John Stuart Mill) raise about animals, and why, according to Derrida, is that question a vital one to pose? (1648) How does he draw out the implications of Bentham’s question about suffering, and how does he connect it, at least potentially, with mortality, that all-important human possibility (1649)? Finally, why does it matter that the response to this question is undeniable, that it “leaves no room for doubt” (1650)? How does this fact of undeniability lead Derrida to state most clearly and directly his second hypothesis?

4. On 1650-52 (“Here now, in view of another thesis…”), what does Derrida apparently mean by his term “limitrophy” (1650) in the context of the present essay? Why is he not interested in undoing the longstanding claims humans have made about the “abyss” (1651) between themselves and the beings they call animals? Derrida writes, “I have thus never believed in some homogeneous continuity between what calls itself man and what he calls the animal” (1651). So why would simply dismissing such a thesis about the supposed abyss between human and animal be a mistake? How, nonetheless, can a discussion about that abyss become more useful to us as we attempt to understand what Derrida called at the outset the “unprecedented transformation” through which we are now living—what are the three versions of the thesis Derrida develops in this regard? (1652)

5. On 1652-54 (“Yes, animal, what a word!…”), Derrida’s investigation shifts more completely to the language whereby we have long tried to distinguish what is human from all else. What does he find questionable about our use of the singular noun “animal” or “the animal,” as opposed to the plural of that word? How has a certain linguistic operation allowed human beings to define themselves over against a reductive conception of an almost infinitely diverse animal realm, and to employ an equally reductive way of talking about animals’ capacity or incapacity to “speak”? In what sense is language, as so often in Derridean analysis, shown to be the very stuff of both the revelation and concealment of powerful needs, motives, and so forth? With that question in mind, how has this entire piece of writing been an exploration of the effects of our insistently binary thinking in terms of human/animal?

6. General question: In his “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” the sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne asks, “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is occupying her time with me more than I am with her?” Derrida’s study seems to draw inspiration from this question since he said “The Animal That Therefore I Am” was sparked by a significant look between him and his cat. (Cats are the French philosophers’ best muses, it seems. Foucault had a cat named “Insanity,” so we can add him or her to the list.) If you have a cat (or some other animal you consider clever), how do you respond to this often-asked question: What, if anything, can a glance, a moment of play, or other similar connection between human and animal reveal?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake