Of Technology in Of Grammatology

(You would never again think of your self as you had : you would no longer think, but recite yourself. You would be dazzled and you would be nauseated, you would be profound. You would recognize, in writing, power.
* Derrida, Jacques. De la Grammataologie. Les Editions de Minuit, 1967.
* Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Johns Hopkins Universitiy Press, 1974, corrected edition 1997.)

At the end of the first part of Of Grammatology Jacques Derrida boldly asserts the very extent to which writing, and not yet speech, is constitutive of and distributed over the vast network of human activity. It is not just that writing is part and parcel of human activity in general (for this is almost a truism)—-Derrida more radically asserts that writing is always a horizon of every human enterprise:

The fact that access to the written sign assures the sacred power of keeping existence operative within the trace and of knowing the general structure of the universe;
that all clergies, exercising political power or not, were constituted at the same time as writing and by the disposition of graphic power;
that strategy, ballistics, diplomacy, agriculture, fiscality, and penal law are linked in their history and in their structure to the constitution of writing;
that the origin assigned to writing had been-—according to the chains and mythemes-—always analogous in the most diverse cultures and that it communicated in a complex but regulated manner with the distribution of political power as with familial structure;
that the possibility of capitalization and politico-administrative organization had always passed through the hands of scribes who laid down the terms of many wars and whose function was always irreducible, whoever the contending parties might be;
that through discrepancies, inequalities of development, the play of permanencies, of delays, of diffusions, etc., the solidarity among ideological, religious, scientific-technical systems, and the systems of writing which were therefore more and other than “means of communication” or vehicles of the signified, remains indestructible;
that the very sense of power and effectiveness in general, which could appear as such, as meaning and mastery (by idealization), only with so-called “symbolic” power, was always linked with the disposition of writing;
that economy, monetary or pre-monetary, and graphic calculation were co-originary, that there could be no law without the possibility of trace,
all this refers to a common and radical possibility that no determined science, no abstract discipline can think as such
(OG, 92-93).

Much is whispered here: Derrida would agree that it is not fully appreciable today. Focusing now: most important to Derrida within the context of this book is the very fact that writing is also therefore constitutive of any science, in fact of the very notion and practice of ‘science’ in general. That Saussure proposed to form a science of language that accounts for writing as derivative, would already have been a derivation of writing itself. The very field in which Saussure could produce a science of writing would have always already confronted the multiple horizons and limits that writing imposes. These horizons and limits are under constant displacement, to be sure, but they, Derrida believes, delimit the field of, among other things, scientific inquiry.

In Of Grammatology, I find it unfortunate that Derrida does no more than suggest (in the quoted paragraph in fact) the practical horizonal functions of writing. There is, in other words, and this is I believe typical of much of Derrida’s earlier work, an insistence on an abstract horizon constitutive of human activity without a corresponding typology or description of the practical functions and effects of this limiting. One important horizon that Derrida's conception of writing imposes, I believe, is technological. Preliminarily, let me speak to a remark of Derrida’s that may cause a few objections to this claim. Now we are at the beginning of Of Grammatology, Part I. Derrida objects to the classical characterization of writing as ‘technics in the service of language’. This seemingly refutes my proposition that writing, as technology, imposes some kind of broad limit to human activity. However, Derrida’s explanation does not counter the project I here propose:

I believe that a certain sort of question about the meaning and origin of writing precedes, or at least merges with, a certain type of question about the meaning and origin of technics. That is why the notion of technique can never simply clarify the notion of writing. It is therefore as if what we call language could have been in its origin and in its end only a moment, an essential but determined mode, a phenomenon, an aspect, a species of writing (8).

Writing, then, is not explained as a technology, or reduced to one form of technology among other. Rather, the question of the origin of writing is also the question of the origin of technologies. The question concerning technology is, in fact, the question concerning writing. Writing is constitutive of technology in general. There could be no technology that could not be written or symbolized.

Following and expanding Derrida, then: human pursuits, in almost all their shapes, are rigorously limited by the impositions of technologies of writing. This does not imply that these technological limits cannot alter, for they do alter on an almost daily basis. Such change occurs, for example, in art. What it does imply is the thorough domination of the human being by the forces that issue from writing.

In this scenario, writing is at once a primary medium of power, a source of power, and the limits of power itself. As the limits of power, as I understand that word, writing is power. The copula is not an equality, but an isomorphism. Writing and power are always already simultaneous. Power is the very limit of writing. It is not a contingent fact that both are in constant motion and exchange, for they both are. Yet, where the one moves, so must the other, at least is a possibility. What I saying is: there could be no exchange of power where there would not also be a corresponding exchange in writing, and vice versa. This is witnessed, for example, by our legal procedures, which always must be accompanied by an endless chain of documentation and signatures. One is never imprisoned, for example, without a document bearing that imprisonment. Nor, for that matter, is a prison built without a document citing its building. Nor, that matter, is the concept of justice or retribution, violence even, conceivable without conceiving first of an isomorphism in writing that would be that justice. There could never have been an imprisonment that wasn’t symbolized. “The very sense of power and effectiveness in general … was always linked with the disposition of writing” (93).

(Between the parentheses, I here note the connection between the notion that writing and power are isomorphic and the description of this in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, in which a seemingly inconsequential flow of ‘symbolic’ documents haunts Joseph K.. That these documents are, ultimately, not inconsequential is the very subject of the text. Joseph K. is constantly hounded by the power these documents enact in regard to him. He would like to defend himself, but such defense is impossible. The documents are ambiguous and so is the power engulfing him. Yet, he is, certainly, engulfed. That his freedom seems so difficult to determine is not an expression of the irrelevance of the documents, but rather an expression of their very ambiguity, which gives rise to the ambiguous power which is exercised on him. I believe the same sort of scenario could also be found within Before the Law.)

In order to fully divulge my claim that writing always already limits human activity insofar as it imposes technological limits on our activity, one would not only demand a thorough reading of Of Grammatology and a research into the word ‘power’ which I am here using in a roughly Foucauldian sense1, but also an investigation of writing as a technology, of the technology of writing, and the limits it does, in practice, impose.

1On this see cletus the foetus and anthropod on Michel Foucault and cletus the foetus on power. More situation is provided within A Conversation Regarding the Work of Michel Foucault, especially in jderrida's writeup in that node.