An interview with Jacques Derrida
By Paul Brennan
P.B.: How would you respond to the assertion that you are trying to set up a kind of literary science?
J.D.: It's not really a science in the traditional sense. It's strategy for interpreting sciences, and philosophy also... to deconstruct them, to look at them from many points of view (but of course also from a political point of view) and to show the implicit limits of sciences. For instance, language sciences are the dominant models of science on the French scene.
P.B.: What can a grammatologist do that other philosophers and linguists can't do?
J.D.: First I must say [laughs] that since grammatology is not a positive science... nor a philosophy, there is no "grammatologist". The book on grammatology is not a book for grammatology; it's also a book which insists on the limits of grammatology.
P.B.: You talk about living languages, where the written language closely reflects the spoken language. And you talk also about dead languages, where the written language has no connection with the spoken language. If you look around the world at the hundreds of languages which exist at the moment, which ones would you say are very much alive and which ones are approaching death?
J.D.: Excuse me, but I never said exactly so. I never said that there are totally living languages and that there are dead languages. I think that there is a part of death in every language. And the opposition of life and death in language is a false opposition. The traditional statement about language is that it is in itself living, and that writing is the dead part of language. And this is what I'm fighting against. So, I would not engage myself in saying that there is a hierarchy of more or less living languages today. There are more or less powerful languages - on for instance the technical level, on the economic, or scientific or military level. There are some languages - for instance, English, Russian, Chinese - which are spoken not only by more and more people, but by people and nations which are, for the moment, more powerful than others. But I wouldn't draw the consequence that they are more "living" than the others.
P.B.: You do make a contrast between spoken language and written language and the relationship between them...
J.D.: Ah... it's not an opposition. What I've been doing in the last few years is to extend I mean to give an absolute extension to - the concept of writing so that even the spoken language is written in some way. I mean, there is what I call an "arche-writing" (arche-écriture) which is implied within the spoken language, which implies that the concept of writing is transformed, of course. So there is no opposition between them. For instance, tape recordings are writings in some sense.
P.B.: You've suggested we should stop thinking about various media - speech and writin - that we should stop thinking about them ethically and that the two media of language are beyond good and evil. This obviously puts you at variation with someone like Marshall McLuhan who talks about the medium in very ethical terms - "the microphone created Hitler" and so on.
J.D.: Mm... I think that there is an ideology in McLuhan's discourse that I don't agree with, because he's an optimist as to the possibility of restoring an oral community which would get rid of the writing machines and so on. I think that's a very traditional myth which goes back to... let's say Plato, Rousseau... And instead of thinking that we are living at the end of writing, I think that in another sense we are living in the extension - the overwhelming extension - of writing. At least in the new sense... I don't mean the alphabetic writing down, but in the new sense of those writing machines that we're using now (e.g. the tape recorder). And this is writing too.
P.B.: You end your book with a quotation from Rousseau, who has written about writing as a kind of dreaming. He says:
The dreams of bad nights are given to us as philosophy. Younwill say that I too am a dreamer. I admit this. But I do what others fail to do. I give my dreams as dreams and leave the reader to discover whether there is anything in them which may prove useful to those who are awake.
My question to you is: are you allowing me to interview in much the same spirit - as a dream to be taken as the listener or reader wishes?
J.D.: Yes, but if I were to indulge in saying so, I would imply that I am totally awakened while dreaming, and I have no illusion about that.