Trickster and Derrida

In the preface to Pharmacia, Derrida suggests that language is a game. The object of language’s game is to hide its true meaning from those who seek to interpret it and especially from those who would seek to pin language down and load it with concrete meaning.

Language is like jello, if I can adapt Derrida to a more modern example. He says that it is like cutting through a medium with a knife and having the medium heal the trace of the blade behind it. I imagine this is much like cutting through jello. You can’t really see the cut you made; it sews itself up behind you. In other words, if you seek to make a mark on language, by pinning some meaning to it, you’ll find that it will defy you. It will outdo your attempts at interpretation by morphing into something new and completely distinct from what you thought you had. Language is a shape-shifter, a trickster.

Yet another one of Derrida’s metaphors caught my attention. A text, he says, is like a cloth (textile) that we can embroider upon. You might find that if you try really hard to make a complex pattern on the cloth that your seams will not hold. They will unravel if you tug upon them too much, and the unraveling will be a long process. Through this embroidery, we can change the superficial appearance of language, but never its substance. The problem is getting back to that cloth, textile, or substance. It is so buried and layered upon that there is almost no getting back to the plain cloth.

Even if we get deep enough to unravel the entire embroidery, what would we find beneath the first stitch? Would there even be cloth there to find? I think it is more likely that language would find a way to trick us again here, to morph into something new and unexpected. Beneath the last unraveling, we might find not cloth, but perhaps smoke, or a painting (would that painting be real, true, counterfeit, fake? Ask Orson Welles for confirmation).

Risk, Derrida says, is necessary to play this unraveling game. Also, there needs to be an understanding that the game is a game. If you take the unraveling too seriously, language will trick you. You must be aware of the trickster and perhaps have a little of the triskster in you to take the risk that makes the game possible. Hiding behind words like “prudence” and “norms,” Derrida says, add nothing to the mix. People who live behind those concepts cannot play the game and ever make any serious contributions to the embroidery. Their seems unravel fastest because they were so deliberately stitched.

Plato later refers to language in yet another trickster role, as poison and cure. Unlike spoken words, “words that are deferred” (71) have a kind of allure to them. They make you “stray from one’s general, natural, habitual paths and laws” (70). They draw Socrates out of the city and into the uncertainty of the countryside. If Phaedrus had promised him no more than spoken words, there would have been no attraction; “if at the limit an undeferred logos were possible, it would not seduce anyone” (71).

Part of the problem with writing, Socrates and Derrida point out, is that there is little knowledge of the power of what one has got. As opposed to knowledge learned “by heart,” through careful dedication and study, Phaedrus offers “mere bookish knowledge, and the blind use of drugs” (72). Socrates compares this to an experiential example:

I expect they would say, ‘the man is mad; he thinks he has made himself a doctor by picking up something out of a book (ek bibliou), or coming across a couple of ordinary drugs (pharmakiois), without any real knowledge of medicine'”

Rather than learning by doing, writing offers the chance for knowledge to be repeated without understanding (75). Prospero, in Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” for example, derive all of his magic from his books. He doesn’t understand them fully though, considering that it took him more than a decade to release the spritely Ariel from his wooded prison. Books are imperfect. Reading is imperfect.

With reading, there can be no understanding. If we take Derrida’s metaphors (imperfect in their own right) as examples (examples of examples?) then we realize that there is no concrete understanding to get back to. There are always more layers of interpretation and meaning to find. Since no one can know exactly what a speaker meant (let alone an author), listening to words is little different that reading them, so far as understanding goes.

That is the trickster nature of language coming to a brief bit of light. There is no direct translation, as Derrida notes about Plato. This is expecially true between our thoughts and the muscles that power our mouths and tongues. No direct spicket exists to pour knowledge from the head in a pure flow.


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