Ong on Derrida
from Rev. of Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy, by Geoffrey H. Hartman. Philosophy and Rhetoric 15.4 (1982): 274-77.
Despite his explicit attention to writing, however, Derrida in fact concentrates not chiefly on writing but on print, inadvertently it seems. Like other deconstructionists and their predecessors generally, he seldom analyzes preprint texts and most commonly selects texts in or after the age of Romanticism, when print was conclusively interiorized in the human psyche. Earlier texts would perhaps prove too episodic or otherwise too loose to deconstruct effectively. Hartman (p. 35) notes the connection between Derrida’s work and concrete poetry (a typographic genre) and calls attention (p. 49) to the absence of any account in Derrida of the passage from the (orally grounded) world of “imitation” to the later (print-grounded) world of “dissemination.” Derrida does treat of orality, but he reads back to it out of subsequent literacy and print. He wants to know in what way the psyche is like a text (p. 49). A legitimate question, but one that needs interpretation by comparison with the deeper, historical question. How did writing grow out of the orally grounded psyche and what happened when it did?
There is a massive literature on this subject and on the related history of rhetoric, the all-pervasive study that mediated between orality and literacy in the West and shaped texts for over two thousand years. Just as Kafka’s denial of a past to his characters makes all their actions bizarre and grotesque (for without a past there is no way to motivate or structure action), so Derrida’s neglect of the oral past of writing gives many of his already brilliant paradoxes a psychedelic coloring. It is true that questions about orality are text-dependent, involving abstractions, distances, inconceivable in a mind not transformed by the technology of writing. Nevertheless, the questions can be addressed. Their resolution will involve paradox, which is not contradiction. Derrida’s paradoxes are often brilliant, but it seems to me they do not act out deep enough. Écriture and orality are both “priviledged,” each in its own way.
>Closer attention to the stages in the technologizing of the word (from orality through writing, print, and electronics) could invite rethinking the place in consciousness of such things as the “logocentrisim” that Derrida abhors. Logocentrisim builds up more massively in the print world than ever before. Peter Ramus (1512-1572) provides in his logic a virtually unsurpassable example of logocentrisim (in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, 1958, I called it not logocentrisim but “corpuscular epistemology,” one-to-one gross correspondence between concept, word, and referent). And Ramus’ logic implicitly takes the printed text not oral utterance or written texts, as the model for thought” (275-76).