Plato’s Pharmacy: preliminary notes I
John W. P. Phillips
I describe Derrida’s text as “a critical reading” in in Two Parts and Nine Sections. Part Two begins midway through Part five.
By “critical reading” I mean that genre which from ancient times has functioned at the heart of our discipline. We are makers (poietes) in this sense, poets of reading critically. We are attuned towards a particular art form: the critical reading. We best approach “Plato’s Pharmacy” as just this—a critical reading, something that, by reading, Derrida has produced. Since the thirteenth century and even now we reside in the school of the humanities, named (in Latin) after a sentence, aptly enough, from Plato. The Humanities continues to produce critical readings as an essential part of its business. You could say you argue by making a critical reading … or more conventionally that you make an argument by reading critically.
Each section of “Plato’s Pharmacy” serves a specific purpose in the reading. The dimensions of classical reading are all here in relatively independent sections: the secondary sources quarrelling over textual questions; the rooting out of the textual sources of Plato’s material (especially the myths); the textual analysis identifying the crucial distinctions (e.g., between knowledge and myth—so by extension philosophy and literature, thought and writing, etcetera); the analysis of the structure of Plato’s text—especially as it concerns the peculiar resonance its structure maintains with myth …
We might follow up a preliminary reading by then beginning to sort these different reading modalities into a distinct order (nothing is ever simply self contained in a given section, because the general argument is addressed to the cunning modes of overlap that a complex literary-historical philosophical text like The Phaedrus mobilizes).
The text, written first for publication in Tel Quel in 1968, is collected in Dissemination (1972) and we have a version from the English translation (by Barbara Johnson).
Many people know the following: that beginning in the early 1960s Derrida’s philosophical breakthrough concerns how writing has played an ambivalent role in Western thought. Philosophers and even linguists can hardly live with it but also cannot, despite themselves, live without it. Furthermore they tend largely to situate it outside and beyond the sphere of living speech. Heidegger had by early in the twentieth century shown that being has always been determined as presence. In this context, then, presence involves exactly that sphere outside of which philosophers situate writing. We can easily see why:
We need to think in two ways about this.
First, empirically, writing commonly names the modes of communication that we carry out in the eventuality (or expectation) of our, mine or the other’s, absence (I sign a cheque, I write a letter to my grandmother, I address the muses in my epic poem). The writer writes in the absence of a present addressee, where otherwise speaking might have been better. The reader reads in the absence of the writer (who may have written the message the day before, several years earlier, or last century—and so they might have died already). That’s how writing seems to work—it extends the sphere of communication in principle limitlessly and undoubtedly beyond the life of the writer. The empirical observation nevertheless continues to assume a primacy in presence. I must have been there—e.g., as Dasein, “being there”—or somewhere, at sometime, in order to write. Likewise the paw print in the snow tells us that the bear probably hiding in the woods was at some point right there in the snow where we are now.
So, second, a logic (or technicality) that emerges from the facts of writing begins to reveal a yet more disturbing state of affairs. Writing logically functions only as repetition: repetition across time and/or space (e.g., an 8th century manuscript from Alexandria reappears as a reprint of perhaps a more recent edition in Singapore in the 21st century). Writing, which names the sum total of possible ways that a written text can be repeated over time and space, only exists by way of its marks (inscriptions) and thus only exists by way of its repeatability.
Bring the empirical and logical domains of writing together: it functions independently (and often in the absence) of addresser, addressee, meaning, reference, context; it exists only by its marks, which are not beings as such but repeatables. Now ask the question: how is it that writing comes to serve as the repeater of 1) spoken communications, 2) thoughts, 3) memories, 4) entire philosophical systems, and so on and so forth? The answer to this we’ll begin to explore in Plato’s Pharmacy but suffice it to say in the meantime: it’s because these domains already function exactly as writing does, as repetitions limited in principle only by the means to hand of physical inscription. We begin in repetition and thus in a presence that is only ever re-presented. There are no origins or presences as such but only traces of traces.
What implications might be derived from this apparently simple exercise? The philosophical system, which apparently (in Plato and in particular the Phaedrus but also the Republic and other texts) builds a border between its inside and outside, names these separable domains philosophy and myth—or knowledge and writing. Knowing, in the Socratic sense, ought to be distinct from the kind of “repeating without knowing” that attaches to myth or to writing regarded as independent of a consciousness that would guide it properly).
Deconstruction—the name that secretly stands for more or less all philosophy, all literature, and all critical reading—begins with the identification of such a self-classifying distinction: I’m philosophy and outside my legal borders you’ll find myth. Deconstruction, regarded as a kind of method, proceeds by tracing the problem according to which the element of the outside—e.g., writing—is required to explain and expand on the distinction (between inside and outside) and ultimately that to which it has been opposed: presence.
The protected sphere (me, my thoughts and memories, my knowledge, my relation to others, my kith and kin, and so on) relies on that against which the protection was set up in the first place: I protect myself from myself (my other); I protect myself from the knowledge that I protect myself from myself; and—a last twist—I protect myself from my protection. Yes, we’ll have to unpack that particular Pharmakon quite carefully.
In the context of a philosophical/mythical/literary system like the one Plato draws into the Phaedrus we have a complex series of enclosures where the distinctions tend to come unstuck in interesting ways. We’ve got fathers, of course, and more obscurely mothers, as well as children, orphans, men and women, parasites, hosts, we have the law (and the law of the law) and not least a text (which “is not a text unless it hides from the first comer the rules of its composition and the law of its game”).