Speech and phenomena

I’m no expert in the nuances of French, but it’s always struck me as interesting that Derrida’s La voix et le phénomène was published in English under the title Speech and Phenomena. “Voix” could also be translated “voice,” as it is in a more recently published translation (and doesn’t speech suggest a different book called La parole et le phénomène?). I find this interesting because of a faint difference of meaning between “voice” and “speech,” which for all I know isn’t reflected in the meanings of voix but which anyway seems relevant to the book, and to Derrida’s work. Speech has a stronger connection with language as social and conventional, whereas voice is more embodied. What’s interesting about this distinction is how it reflects the English reception of Derrida’s work, particularly the way in which connecting Derrida with the “linguistic turn” might have occluded important features of his work. I’m thinking particularly here of the importance of phenomenology to Derrida’s early development of his philosophy. The story I got told when I was introduced to Derrida was one which placed Derrida, and post-structuralism more generally, one one side, and the opponent of this side was phenomenology. This kind of direct opposition now seems to me very un-Derridean, and indeed looking again at his early work, it’s clear that the deconstruction of phenomenology is not a rejection of phenomenology, but retains phenomenology with a deconstructive twist. The narrative which set up an opposition between speech and phenomena, or which posited a linguistic turn against phenomenology, however, has had important theoretical ramifications.

Consider Joan Scott’s article, “The Evidence of Experience.” This is, rightly, a classic, with its necessary criticism of positions that neglect the mediation of theory in favour of an appeal to “experience” as an unquestionable foundation. Rather than seeing experience as a foundation, Scott thinks that our analysis can question experience, and ask how we come to experience things in certain ways. In explaining how this analysis would take place, though, Scott continually slips towards a position which distinguishes language and experience and then privileges language. Scott writes that we need to pay attention to “complex and changing discursive processes” (792), and to do this requires “attributing experience to discourse” (787). Scott recognises the problem of simply inverting uncritical reliance on experience and so setting up language as a new foundation, and writes that she does not want to advocate “a new form of linguistic determinism” (793). Instead, Scott wants an analysis of experience which refuses “a separation between ‘experience’ and language” (793). Nonetheless, in the way she presents this interrelation, it does seem that language has a certain priority. Scott writes, for instance: “Experience is a subject’s history. Language is the site of history’s enactment. Historical explanation cannot, therefore, separate the two. The question then becomes how to analyze language” (793). A discussion of the inseparability of language and experience, that is, gives rise to a question about language alone. When Scott writes that “the history of … concepts … becomes the evidence by which ‘experience’ can be grasped” (796), the relationship seems rather one-sided: it is the history of concepts, that is to say, discourse, which grasps experience.

This temptation to divide the linguistic from the phenomenal, then, works against what Scott says she wants to do, and indeed against the examples she gives of the sort of theoretical practice she is advocating. Scott demonstrates the method she has in mind in an attempt to read a crucial scene in Samuel Delaney’s memoir in a way which would not reduce it to the testimony of a fixed authenticity. She draws attention to the way Delaney’s writing itself calls into question the transparency of experience, endorsing another reading of the text which emphasises “the properties of the medium through which the visible appears – here, the dim blue light, whose distorting, refracting qualities produce a wavering of the visible” (Karen Swann, quoted on 794). This description emphasises something we might miss if we think too quickly or too narrowly in terms of language: that language is itself sensuous, that it traffics in affect and its use has its own phenomenological character.

The sensuous character of language and theory is one of the themes in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera. “Writing is a sensuous act,” as she puts it; “the spirit of the words moving in the body is as concrete as flesh and as palpable” (93). Anzaldúa insists, that is, on the specifically sensuous and phenomenal character of theoretical work, particularly the use of images and language. The connection between the image, its sensuous force, and the phenomenology of its expression is central to her work:

My love of images – mesquite flowering, the wind, Ehécatl, whispering its secret knowledge, the fleeting images of the soul in fantasy – and words, my passion for the daily struggle to render them concrete in the world and on paper, to render them flesh, keeps me alive. (20)

The materiality of language is expressed in the multiple meanings of her chapter, “How to tame a wild tongue,” where the tongue in question is Anzaldúa’s literal tongue, her metaphorical tongue (her unruly speech) and her language, the language or languages she shares with other Chicanos. There are thus multiple levels of materiality in play, from the geography in which Chicano Spanish is spoken (and the forces that prevent this speech) to the materiality of the organ of speech, the materiality that makes speech possible. I am particularly interested in the materiality of the mouth and a series of images through which Anzaldúa reminds us that the mouth which speaks does not just speak. Mouths also eat, and it is by no means a digression that Anzaldúa’s chapter on language includes a discussion of the way we “internalize identification” through “food and certain smells” (“My mouth salivates at the thought of the hot steaming tamales I would be eating if I were at home,” 83). The mouth that speaks is also the mouth that ingests, which is the basis of Anzaldúa’s inversion of the phallogocentric connection of the mouth to a language gendered masculine:

The Olmecs associated womanhood with the Serpent’s mouth, which was guarded by rows of dangerous teeth, a sort of vagina dentata…. Snake people had holes, entrances to the body of the Earth Serpent; they followed the Serpent’s way, identified with the Serpent deity, with the mouth, both the eater and the eaten. (56)

Anzaldúa’s connection between language and the materiality of mouths reminds me of one of Derrida’s most striking pieces of writing, “Tympan,” in which he emphasizes the material and indeed fleshy character of language in order to undermine the imagined self-sufficiency of philosophy; “the bloodiness of a disseminated writing comes to separate the lips, to violate the embouchure of philosophy, putting its tongue into movement, finally bringing it into contact with some other code, of an entirely other kind” (157). “Tympan,” like many of Derrida’s works, develops the critique of phonocentrism, the idea that spoken language provides a direct guarantee of authenticity of or truth. Not coincidentally, this is the same guarantee that experience is supposed to provide in the approaches criticised by Scott. However, whereas approaches to poststructuralism which draw a sharp division between language and experience would follow up the critique of phonocentrism by emphasising how the linguistic properties of language undermine spoken language’s claim to authority, that is not the approach Derrida takes in “Tympan.” Instead, Derrida describes how the material and sensuous character of speech undermines its authority. “Indefatigably at issue is the ear, the distinct, differentiated, articulated organ that produces the effect of proximity” (156). Paying attention to the materiality of the ear as organ disrupts that effect, the supposed proximity or immediacy of the voice. This emphasises something that is too often missed about deconstruction: that the materiality of language is crucial to its deconstruction, because, as Pheng Cheah puts it, matter “depicts the opening up or overflowing of any form of presence such that it becomes part of a limitless weave of forces or an endless process or movement of referral” (“Nondialectical Materialism,” 145).

I’m tempted to push this further, in light of Anzaldúa’s analysis, and argue that the phenomenology of language is central to deconstruction; indeed, that deconstruction is at base a critical materialist phenomenology. For Derrida, the ear drum (the tympanum) is the site of the deconstruction of the philosophical subject’s attempt to talk only to himself; but the tympanum could also be the tongue, the retina, or the skin; the ambiguous, fleshy borders of any of the senses. The phenomenon of experience is itself split, as Anzaldúa above all points out, and it is this split in experience that makes possible deconstruction.

The tympanum, the tongue, the retina, the skin; or, as Derrida mentions, the otoliths, the small stones in our ears that provide our sense of balance (157). This kinaesthetic sense is perhaps the most intimate sense, and so is the occasion for one of the most striking examples of critical phenomenology, which illustrates how far from simple self-authenticating evidence the discussion of experience can be. Frantz Fanon’s phenomenological account of his being a Black man, or more specifically a Black Martiniquan in metropolitan France, begins with the kinaesthetic, the “corporal schema” or “consciousness of the body” (Black Skin, White Masks, 110):

I know that if I want to smoke I shall have to reach out my right arm and take the pack of cigarettes lying at the other end of the table…. And all these movements are made not out of habit but out of implicit knowledge. A slow composition of my self as a body in the middle of a spatial and temporal world – such seems to be the schema. (111)

The sense of the self here is built out of direct experience of the body as agent in the world. But in examining his own experience, Fanon does not find this directness, this “real dialectic between my body and the world” (111). Instead, interposed between his self, his body, and the world, Fanon finds “a historico-racial schema” formed “by the other, the white man, who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories” (111). Hence Fanon’s phenomenological analysis is the analysis of a division, an analysis of the historically and socially constructed racial schema that overdetermines and divides him from his own experience (112).

In Fanon, that is, we find one of the clearest examples of an alternative to the idea, implied by Scott, that theorising from experience involves treating experience as a unified and given foundation. For Fanon, on the contrary, the experience of the Black man is always divided from itself. Furthermore, it is in the process of analysing this experience that Fanon demonstrates that experience is not a universal category that applies to everyone in the same way. It is specifically as a Black man that Fanon encounters the “historico-racial schema,” the stereotypes concocted by white people, as a barrier between himself, his body, and the world. To put it another way, discourse is encountered experientially, so the deconstruction of discourse must travel through a deconstruction of experience.

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One Response to “Speech and phenomena”

  1. Daniel Says:

    I enjoyed reading this post, and was sad that it had no comments. Maybe it got attention on twitter? I don’t know where the cool kids comment on blog posts nowadays.


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