Saturday, 24 February 2007

Jacques Derrida - from "Plato's Pharmacy"

This brief evocation of Pharmacia at the beginning of the Phaedrus - is it an accident? An hors d’oeuvre? A fountain, “perhaps with curative powers”, notes Robin, was dedicated to Pharmacia near the Ilissus. Let us in any case retain this: that a little spot, a little stitch or mesh (macula) woven into the back of the canvas, marks out for the entire dialogue the scene where that virgin was cast into the abyss, surprised by death while playing with Pharmacia. Pharmacia (Pharmakeia) is also a common noun signifying the administration of the pharmakon, the drug: the medicine and/ or poison. “Poisoning” was not the least usual meaning of “pharmacia”. Antiphon has left us the logogram of an “accusation of poisoning against a mother-in-law” (Pharmakeias kata tes metryias). Through her games, Pharmacia has dragged down to death a virginal purity and an unpenetrated interior.

Only a little further on, Socrates compares the written texts Phaedrus has brought along to a drug (pharmakon). This pharmakon, this “medicine”, this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence. This charm, this spellbinding virtue, this power of fascination, can be - alternately or simultaneously - beneficent or maleficent. The pharmakon would be a substance - with all that that word can connote in terms of matter with occult virtues, cryptic depths refusing to submit their ambivalence to analysis, already paving the way for alchemy - if we didn’t have eventually to come to recognize it as antisubstance itself: that which resists any philosopheme, indefinitely exceeding its bounds as nonidentity, nonessence, nonsubstance; granting philosophy by that very fact the inexhaustible adversity of what funds it and the infinite absence of what founds it.

Operating through seduction, the pharmakon makes one stray from one’s general, natural, habitual paths and laws. Here, it takes Socrates out of his proper place and off his customary track. The latter had always kept him inside the city. The leaves of writing act as a pharmakon to push or attract out of the city the one who never wanted to get out, even at the end, to escape the hemlock. They take him out of himself and draw him onto a path that is properly an exodus (...)

It is at this point, when Socrates has finally stretched out on the ground and Phaedrus has taken the most comfortable position for handling the text, or, if you will, the pharmakon, that the discussion actually gets off the ground. A spoken speech whether by Lysias or by Phaedrus in person - a speech proffered in the present, in the presence of Socrates, would not have had the same effect. Only the logoi en bibliois, only words that are deferred, reserved, enveloped, rolled up, words that force one to wait for them in the form and under cover of a solid object, letting themselves be desired for the space of a walk, only hidden letters can thus get Socrates moving. If a speech could be purely present, unveiled, naked, offered up in person in its truth, without the detours of a signifier foreign to it, if at the limit an undeferred logos were possible, it would not seduce anyone. It would not draw Socrates, as if under the effects of a pharmakon, out of his way. Let us get ahead of ourselves. Already: writing, the pharmakon, the going or leading astray. (...)

This association between writing and pharmakon still seems external; it could be judged artificial and purely coincidental. But the intention and the intonation are recognizably the same: one and the same suspicion envelops in a single embrace the book and the drug, writing and whatever works in an occult, ambiguous manner open to empiricism and chance, governed by the ways of magic and not the laws of necessity. Books, the dead and rigid knowledge shut up in biblia, piles of histories, nomenclatures, recipes and formulas learned by heart, all this is as foreign to living knowledge and dialectics as the pharmakon is to medical science. And myth to true knowledge. In dealing with Plato, who knew so well on occasion how to treat myth in its archeo-logical or paleo-logical capacity, one can glimpse the immensity and difficulty of this last opposition. The extent of the difficulty is marked out - this is, among a hundred others, the example that retains us here - in that the truth - the original truth - about writing as a pharmakon will at first be left up to a myth. The myth of Theuth, to which we now turn.

Up to this point in the dialogue, one can say that the pharmakon and the grapheme have been beckoning to each other from afar, indirectly sending back to each other, and, as if by chance, appearing and disappearing together on the same line, for yet uncertain reasons, with an effectiveness that is quite discrete and perhaps after all unintentional. But in order to lift this doubt and on the supposition that the categories of the voluntary and the involuntary still have some absolute pertinence in a reading - which we don’t for a minute believe, at least not on the textual level on which we are now advancing - let us proceed to the last phase of the dialogue, to the point where Theuth appears on the scene.

This time it is without indirection, without hidden mediation, without secret argumentation, that writing is proposed, presented, and asserted as a pharmakon. (...)

In a certain sense, one can see how this section could have been set apart as an appendix, a superadded supplement. And despite all that calls for it in the preceding steps, it is true that Plato offers it somewhat as an amusement, an hors d’oeuvre or rather a dessert. All the subjects of the dialogue, both themes and speakers, seem exhausted at the moment the supplement, writing, or the pharmakon, are introduced. (70-73)