“There is nothing outside the text”
I’m wrapping up Braver’s A Thing of This World. I’m on the last chapter, which covers Derrida. I’ve got two complaints.
First, Derrida uses the concepts signifier, signified, and referent in ways that closely follow Saussure. What is important is that a signified is not a referent—but Braver seems to think they’re the same thing. However, this doesn’t screw up his analysis that much, because the relationship between signifier and signified and signified and referent are formally homologous for Derrida.
Second, and more substantially, I think Braver’s reading of “There is nothing outside the text” is not radical enough. Consider the following possible meanings:
- “There is nothing outside the text” implies some sort of radical idealism—like Bishop Berkeley ramped up a notch. Language gets between us and reality, and we’re therefore locked inside the so-called “prison house of language.” Language, on this view, is like the colored glasses that distorts our view of reality.
- “There is nothing outside the text” implies not that language gets between us and reality, but that reality is in part constituted for us through language. That is, concepts aren’t like colored glasses, but like cookie cutters: they don’t separate us from the world, but they allow us to cut up the stuff of the world so that it is what it is for us. (I.e., different cookie cutters produce a different reality—which is what Foucault says over and over again.)
- “There is nothing outside the text” could also mean that the structure of reality is homologous to the structure of writing. On this view, the phrase could be roughly translated as “everything—including what we call ‘reality’—is written.”
Derrida flatly denies #1, as Braver rightly points out. But Braver offers #2 as an explanation of what Derrida means by the claim that “there is nothing outside the text.” This is not right. Derrida does accept what I describe in #2: he would agree that the world is constituted as it is for us through language. But this isn’t what he means by “there is nothing outside the text.”
The best warrant for #3 rather than #2 immediately follows the appearance of the infamous quote in Of Grammatology. Braver himself quotes what Derrida says after the “nothing outside the text” line:
In what one calls the real life of these existences of “flesh and bone,” beyond and behind what one believes can be circumscribed as Rousseau’s text, there has never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references ….
The latter part suggests what I say in #2 above: the stuff of the world “comes forth” for us through language. But note what it is that “comes forth”: writing (=supplements). Flesh and bone itself is written (or “supplementary” in nature), and then comes into existence for us through language. Derrida is insisting not only that the stuff of the world is brought into relief only through language, but also that the stuff of the world is written.
What exactly that means is possibly best understood by reading “Qual Quelle,” in Margins of Philosophy; there Derrida shows how self-sufficient entities are ontologically impossible.
In any case, Derrida is not making a claim about language—he’s making an ontological claim. One of the biggest problems is that people read Of Grammatology as belonging to the philosophy of language, where it is actually a treatise on ontology or metaphysics (although it messes around with these).
UPDATE: Braver goes on to quote this line from one of Derrida’s other texts:”What I call ‘text’ implies all the structures called ‘real,’ ‘economic,’ ‘historical,’ socio-institutional, in short: all possible referents. … [E]very referent, all reality has the structure of a differential trace.” This confirms my claim that he’s not talking about how the stuff of the world appears to us, he’s talking about it’s ontological constitution.