August 8, 2008

Signs that Supplement

“The entirety of philosophy is conceived on the basis of its Greek source. As is well known, this amounts neither to an occidentalism, nor to a historicism. It is simply that the founding concepts of philosophy are primarily Greek, and it would not be possible to philosophize, or to speak philosophically, outside this medium. That Plato, for Husserl, was the founder of a reason and a philosophical task whose telos was still sleeping in the shadows; or that for Heidegger, on the contrary, Plato marks the moment at which the thought of Being forgets itself and is determined as philosophy – this difference is decisive only at the culmination of a common root which is Greek.”(1)

In continuing his analysis, Jacques Derrida does clarify that both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger developed two differing “archaeologies” yet both responded to Greco-Platonic philosophy by engaging in a “reduction of metaphysics.”(2) Their aim, as is Derrida’s, was a (re)interpretation (we might also call it a deconstruction) of metaphysics that would urge all later philosophical thought to return to the question(s) of “Being.”

If Plato did not fully “awaken” the purpose of metaphysics, if he became dazzled by rhetoric and Socratic dialogues, then perhaps the essence of Being would require redress from minds like Husserl and Heidegger. Yet Derrida insists that this “knowledge” is not “in the world.” Derrida holds that it is only the “possibility of our language” that might grant access, however tenuous, to thought and Being.(3)

The tenuousness of language and of writing in particular was a major task that Derrida launched through his numerous essays, books and lectures. Arguably his most famous lecture (Johns Hopkins in 1966) introduced his controversial critique of structuralism (and launched poststructuralism). In this lecture (not published until 1970, reprinted in Writing and Difference in ‘78), Derrida levels Saussurean structuralism, dismisses Lévi-Strauss’s “floating signifier” and exposes the “moment” that writing became part of the “universal problematic:”

“This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse - provided we can agree on this word - that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.”(4)

A life-long project undertaken by Derrida in the formidable footprints of Husserl and Heidegger (and Descartes and Kant), poststructuralism (and deconstruction) lead inevitably to broad reassessments in various fields of knowledge, including literary criticism (Barthes), psychoanalysis (Lacan) and the visual arts (Victor Burgin, Joseph Kosuth, Jeff Wall, Dan Graham). Through their analyses and critique, Derrida and these other poststructuralists have cast doubt over the certainty of “knowing” through the fragile structure of language. Moreover, Derrida stressed that writing has always been seen as nothing but a substitute - substitution through metaphor, inscription, narrative - for description, truth and history. Viewed as the weaker cousin to “speech act,” writing lacks the validating “presence” of the subject, conveys chiefly through semiotics, cannot be “trusted” to accurately reflect thought.

As supplement, writing is suspect. To put it bluntly, as Derrida almost never does, writing as supplement is secondary and at the service of something “original.” From Of Grammatology:

“If supplementarity is a necessarily indefinite process, writing is the supplement par excellence since it proposes itself as the supplement of the supplement, sign of a sign, taking the place of a speech already significant.”

It did not take long for visual artists to see that art was analogous to writing, of course. As objects that “communicate,” artworks are enmeshed in semiotics, driven by the system of representation that is “Art.” Thus, it would prove fruitful for scores of experiments, conceptualizations (especially in photography) and discourses about the supplementarity of the artwork as “sign.”

My installation, Song for Europe, seeks to expose the lineage of “Western-European philosophy” through the structure of language. Much more than structural, however, language is at the behest of the “Will” and yet words are fragile. Heidegger had a unique way to mutually agree on this fragility when engaging in philosophical discourse; words like “Being” were crossed out indicating they were “under erasure.” This allowed him to use a word while acknowledging its inaccuracy: “Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since the word is necessary, it remains legible.”(6)

Derrida, of course, extended this to all words. I have extended Derrida's “typographical expression of deconstruction”(7) as my “text bisection” process to incorporate both “inaccuracies” and “illegibility” to literalize the “play” of difference in both words and artworks as signs.

There is both a “reading” and a “looking” in Song for Europe, as I attempt to conflate the two actions into a single experience. Further, I wish to dissolve accepted ideas of narrative, inscription and signification to provide a glimpse of the textual process. This process is participatory through reading, looking, writing, speaking and thinking as I invite The Athenaeum visitors to action through an interpretation of the “language” of art.

Song for Europe opens Aug. 16, 2008 at The Athenaeum. Gallery hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-4 pm. For information: 1-703-548-0035.

Image: Song for Europe: The sign which supplements (French); detail; © Copyright 2008.


1. Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, Chicago, 1978, 81.

2. Op. cit.

3. Ibid., 82

4. Ibid., 280.

5. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, Baltimore, 1976, 281.

6. Spivak, Gayatri. “Translator’s Preface” in Of Grammatology (revised edition), Baltimore, 1998, xiv.

7. Taylor, V. and Winquist, C. Encyclopaedia of Postmodernism, London, 2001, 113.

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