Jacques Derrida: The Play of Presence and Absence
Various scholars have written on this notion of presence. Michel Foucault wrote about truth. Jean Baudrillard (1999) talks about the real. Derrida (1996, 438) relates his use of the word “presence” to a string of synonyms—essence, existence, consciousness, the transcendental signified, God, Man—all standing for this fundamental principle, which, he argues, animates traditional Western thinking.7
Applying his interpretation to a linguistic model, Derrida demonstrates what is at stake. He argues that philosophy suffers from a phonocentric bias that privileges speech, as being closer to thought or consciousness (presence, again), over writing. According to this system, speech represents thought, and writing, in turn, represents speech. Writing, seen as further removed from speech than thought, is viewed as at a greater risk for distorting thought. Derrida counters this by insisting that all language functions as a kind of writing. As the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1983) observed, language is not ruled by some transcendental force; rather, meaning is created in the play of presence and absence implied in each sign as one signifier leads inevitably to another and another. Derrida (1996,439) concludes that language is “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.” Language can never fully re/present meaning; rather, meaning is created, indeed is made possible, in the play that characterizes the process of signification itself (447). So, thought is as vulnerable to the “distortions” of speech as it is to writing; but, more to the point, thought is not properly regarded as the source of meaning. Meaning is instead produced through the medium of language.
Looking to cinematic and theatrical modes of production, this relation between presence and representation is made clearer. As Roger Copeland (1990, 35) outlines: “A representation cannot be fully ‘represented’ precisely because it signifies or alludes to something that isn’t fully there, whose ‘real’ existence lies elsewhere, beyond the confines of the stage.” What is perhaps less evident is the degree to which we have come to rely on second-hand representations. Although there are advantages and disadvantages to every medium, (e. g., while breaking news can be televised live, such pieces tend to lack the considered analysis of print articles [Benedict 1992]), we are almost completely dependent on (corporate) mass media to stay informed about world events.8 However, as Copeland suggests, “ironically, there’s no reason to believe that ‘being there’ is always preferable to the omniscient detachment provided by advanced technology” (1990, 40). This point is well demonstrated in Norelli’s (2001) film, City of Dreams, which indicates that evidence of police misconduct in the investigations of the murdered Juarez women may be seen in how the authorities represented their actions in the media.9
Returning to Derrida: if we reckon with poststructuralists that there is no essential, universal truth out there (the logical extension of Derrida’s semiology), what is left? Derrida (1996, 445) explains: “One could say—rigorously using that word whose scandalous significance is always obliterated in French— that this movement of play, permitted by the lack or absence of a center or origin, is the movement of supplementarity.” Lacking access to a single source of meaning, which cannot be said to exist, we have only mediations; intermediaries that both defer to and differ from that which they signify (Derrida 1976, 157). This idea is encompassed by Derrida’s use of differance. It also relates to the in/famous phrase from Of Grammatology: “There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il ny a pas de hors-texte]” (158). In addition to being a comment on the absence of the core idea (truth/presence/transcen – dental signified) that I have been describing, Walter Truett Anderson’s (1995, 87) reading of this statement is useful: “I think he means that human experience is inseparably entangled with our descriptions of it.” In a broad sense that which Jean-Jacques Rousseau invoked by his reference to the “dangerous supplement” is dangerous because it competes with, and ultimately displaces, the real, “natural presence” (Derrida 1976,159). With these ideas of presence and supplementarity comes the understanding that our access to the real is always mediated by our representations, which is to say, of course, that we cannot gain access to the real because it does not exist.10 Our very conception of what is real, what is true, is formed by language, by representations, by culture. I consider the implications of this reading with reference to Juarez, but first I examine important points on the fetishization of the documented.