What was first? This is the question Derrida tries to expose as one that misleads us in the West into imposing our tradition as one that is to be deemed universal. He does so in 450 pages of not always very readable prose. Maybe that is not a coincidence because it is not easy to pull of a Houdini from within a tradition to expose his tradition as just a tradition whilst not getting caught up in a new entanglement (for instance by becoming a Houdini who is caught up in constantly performing ever more tortuous escape acts). Obviously he doesn’t succeed. Succeeding would defeat his point. He winds up saying:
Said differently, it does not suffice, it is not – really – about showing the interiority of what Rousseau thought exterior; rather it is to give as food for thought the power of the external to generate the interior. p. 441 (my emphasis)
The operative word here is ‘really’ (in French: ‘au vrai’). It shows Derrida circling back to the question of what was – really, truly – first. It exposes the universality of that question – the question of firstness. In exposing dichotomies he imposes his new dichotomy: instead of matter and mind, nature and nurture we get thinking and writing, the interior and the exterior, origins and inscriptions, intuition and traces, assimilation and difference. And it is a truly inspiring dichotomy; one which summarizes 20th century philosophy as well as should inspire 21st century philosophy. Let me briefly say why this is so.
The hatred towards postmodernism is the hatred towards an insubordination that is an original trace of every tradition. Postmodernism is itself the new center from which the very possibility of a center is denied. If difference is original then sameness is so too, one cannot have insubordination without tradition. The only resolution of dichotomies lies in recognizing that:
It is also necessary, following the same dichotomous principle repeating itself infinitely, to distinguish within the melody itself a principle of life and a principle of death, and to separate them carefully from each other. p. 301
Which reveals Derrida looking desperately to transcend life and death by deconstructing life to death. What finally gets unmasked in Of Grammatology is that unmasking strategy itself. It is Nietzsche with his head firmly planted in the ground. The significance of trace lies in it being left mostly anonymously but always for some anonymous passer by. Every trace is a sign of something that passed away but also a sign of something passed on. One can see it as two moments where the Western tradition tries to congeal the movement on one pole: that of truth and transparency. Derrida’s criticism here is à propos, the rational myth of the ability to make things immediately present – present without mediation – in a direct way is a myth. There is no such thing as reason separate from the stains of a trying to exercise that reason in the mud of everyday dealing with reality. He quotes Rousseau – saying “Never for me something intermediate between all or nothing.” – and deconstructs it as a hatred for the middle, the medium (p. 226) and this hatred is the hatred of the West – its fanatic wish to abolish all difference (or subsume it under the only remaining label of ‘success’).
But in trying to prune away the sense of forgetting the other pole, that of inscriptions left to “whom it may concern”, he forgets the everyday in which people do make sense of the shared inscriptions by talking to each other. Surely the ideal of a society of dialogue as it stood in the mind of Rousseau is one which misses a point. As surely the non-ideal of this non-society where people struggle to make sense of each other and their environment is, also, one which misses the point. The truth is that there is truth but not of the kind that is being glorified in the aftermath of the success of instrumental reason in the 20th century (a success that is defined based on the acceptance that most people are – and have to be – failures or, in the best of cases, means to promote an end). The truth is muddy. It cannot be unified except in the realization that it the principle of life and death are intertwined: one writes and one understands.
There is no before inscription. There is, however, a beyond inscription. That beyond isn’t a target but the mere result – a new inscription – of a meeting of minds. This truth is such that it is always rediscovered, not as Truth but in the very act of trying to understand. It’s not even important whether this trying leads to success (it mostly does to some extent, at the same time it never can do in a full sense). The only importance is the trying itself and that trying is an ethical thing: it is being at home, being disturbed by otherness and being at home again. The moral of Derrida is that one has to try to understand but that one has to stop trying to achieve something that can be called true understanding. In this sense it may be non-coincidental that his actions spoke, morally, louder than his words.
Still, one does not have to be a postmodernist or a posthumanist or a poststructuralist or a post-anything to appreciate this simple moral everyday truth. In this sense Rousseau is right (and in this sense it is logical Derrida took Rousseau as his conversant), we have an immediate appreciation of what is moral and an always present intuition that truth can’t be had (or unified). The idea that we were once better people is ludicrous and the notion that we are becoming better people more so. What was first was a trying to understand – and a realization that this trying could never lead to any other success as creating a new inscription to be understood. The material world outdates this first moral encounter but everything we know about the material world is only known because of it.