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Epigraph, Derrida, the Postcard and the Fragmented Lish

Here, for your consumption and reading pleasure, is a critical essay by Camelia Elias, Ph.D.,  that uses Derrida’s book, The Postcard, and the theory of fragmented texts representing fragmented lives and the broken nature of memory, to examine Lish’s “novel,” Epigraph.

It was published in a rather obscure dry journal, Oxford Literature, so is most likely difficult to track down, thus we present it here.

We also note that a recent short film has been made based on some letters in Epigraph. More on that later….

Framing the Fragment: Epigraphic

Writing in Gordon Lish

and Jacques Derrida

Camelia Elias

“We need to use books as oracles. Open them up and ask them a question”. The American/Romanian poet and essayist Andrei Codrescu’s statement could be considered – albeit obliquely – a project not only involving the question of how one reads a book, but to what extent its beginning matters. Seen in a historical context, oracular reading has always been linked with the interpretation of a fragmentary prediction. From the Greek vestals to the writing of aphorisms, the element of chance has been linked to certain universals. Picturing the beginning of a battle that would end up in a blood bath relies primarily on the artefact-ness (picture) of representation (prediction). Oracles, then, are beginnings predicated or asserted by the attributions of sovereignty inherent in a fragment. The fragment, as its Latin root frangere indicates, is a consequence of breaking, a detachment, a residue. Breaking through reading (oracles or texts) involves beginning with a fragment, detaching its meaning from completeness, and making the complete text a residue of the fragment. Opening a book at chance, casting a glance at a sentence or a paragraph involves selection. Selecting fragments, which are part of a total work, and letting them begin the work of a commentary or interpretation of the text in which they nevertheless appear is a deconstructive practice par excellence.

Opposing the fragment to a complete text means endowing the fragment with the power to begin the work of interrogating the text, its premise, and its totality. Fragmenting texts is a consequence of the fragment.

Postmodern writers and literary theorists use fragments– also in the sense of borrowed texts which emphasize an opposition to totality – in order to have something to say about the fragmentary. That is, while the fragment is not defined as such, it is given agency to act on behalf of the writer, act behind his back as it were. Reading Derrida, for instance, often involves reading a fragment that Derrida chooses specifically in order to govern his own reading of a detail he might have found prior to the finding of the fragment. “I am opening the Traumdeutung approximately in the middle”, says Derrida at one point in The Postcard[i], with the intention of letting Freud’s voice plug itself into his own arguments. When Derrida looks for fragments, he looks for connections that would explain the significance of a textual practice, which on the one hand is self-referential, and on the other, a consequence of the fragmentary. “One text finds itself, is found in the other” (418), he further states, thus consciously waving his authority, so that the fragment become autonomous. Opening a book, asking it a question, and letting the fragment answer, suggests closeness to the text one wishes to decipher. “Now we must come closer, reread, question” (425), is one such example in which the intent to read, for Derrida, represents an economy of the frame of the fragment.

Thus, when authors like Jacques Derrida and Gordon Lish, each in their own way, declare that the text they are engaged in writing is not governed or controlled by them, but by a selected fragment with a connective capacity similar to the line of the telephone, their respective authorship becomes a vehicle for the fragments. These fragments, then, take the attributes of epigraphs, signatures, and inscriptions, which in turn comment on “Lish” and “Derrida’s” interpretative activities of the fragmentary. In this sense, the fragment occupies the meta-level of the text. Here I would argue that for Derrida and Lish strategic reading which relies on the oracular is a method of distinguishing between the aesthetics and poetics of the fragment. Whereas aesthetics describes the fragment in relation to the fragmentary, as a production of what is imagined, poetics describes the fragment in relation to what the fragmentary produces aesthetically. Poetics produces a discourse in which what is considered is the difference between the fragment and the fragmentary as such. The fragmentary subordinates itself to the fragment, as the latter is a ‘continuous’ comment on the first’s ‘discontinuous’ interpretation. Hence, the fragment performs the fragmentary.

The fragment which is a condition for the fragmentary here gives two possibilities: (1) if the fragment subordinates the fragmentary, then the fragment can be defined as a textual production in which language, words, and sentences are given primacy over ideas, and imagination (Lish); (2) if the fragment replaces the fragmentary altogether, then the fragment can be defined not in terms of what it is, but what it constantly becomes (Derrida). Put differently: in either case the fragment becomes a metaphor of the fragmentary. This metaphor posits itself as an expression of the signification of the text that is controlled not by the author, but by oppositions between subject (reader) and object (book), or subject (fragment) and predicate (inscription). The figure of the metaphor is necessary here, for what defines the fragment is not a (deconstructive) practice which allows it merely to oppose a totality and thus become itself a centre, but an authority which is based on the affirmation of the value inherent in the name of the fragment when it is conditioned by predication. The fragment is not a name but a mask which the epigraphic text wears. Epigraphic writing then posits not so much the difference between the fragment and the fragmentary but the distance between them.

The significance of oracular reading, or the implication of opening a book and asking it a question, becomes apparent when one further considers the deconstructive practice of reading. For instance, what makes Derrida’s reading essential and authoritative in its thrust is the reading of the fragment. Hillis Miller has it for instance that, for Derrida, rigorous writing is often generated by the reading at random of a fragment in a book[ii] – either read in its entirety long ago, or never read at all. Now, reconstructing from memory or exercising one’s imagination is bound to disrupt a certain coherence that would otherwise be present when reading a book from cover to cover. Asking the fragment a question means subordinating oneself to its answers. Moreover, taking the fragment as a corner stone for subsequent rigorous thinking means endowing the fragment with the authority to let the rest of the text bring itself forth. In other words, the fragment contains the fragmentary, the fragment explains the fragmentary, while the fragment itself remains outside definition.

That the fragment cannot be defined is obvious, since the author makes himself a vehicle for the fragment all the while letting the fragment avail itself of a sovereign name. Only in one sense can the fragment be thought of as a totality: if we suppose that the fragment is the king of the text, then it is so whether by constitution or self-proclamation. Yet, the fragment is predicated by the context in which it appears, while still a fragment. Thus, if the author is the vehicle for a fragment in a book, then reading itself becomes fragmentary, whereas the book becomes either a ‘direct’ discourse on the beginning of writing/reading, or an ‘indirect’ discourse, not on what defines the fragment, but on what predicates it. Hence, it is the predicate that conditions the definition of the fragment. The fragment, then, begins with a textualization of its own form. That is, where the epigraph interprets, the fragment that contains it textualizes it by performing it.

An epigraphic fragment that begins with a concern with its own ontology and topos is a performative fragment. If we do not want to disregard the element of chance, one could in fact imagine a scenario in which even by coincidence one opens a book and begins with a beginning that begins with the epigraphs. (Although epigraphs can also be found randomly scattered throughout a book, they always mark a beginning.) Thus, epigraphs themselves open books and they can also ask questions. In this sense epigraphs are double oracles, with predictions not only for the author who chose them, but also for the reader who questions their status.


Gordon Lish and the Epigraphic Epigraph

Gordon Lish’s novel Epigraph (1996)[iii] displays an extreme concern with paratextual frames. These frames play with the question of what we see: do we see the epigraph and not the text that encompasses it, do we see the text, but not the epigraph, do we see both or neither? Lish sets out to answer the question of mediation between paratextual topology and its functionality. Thus the work plays with is own form from the outset. One cannot immediately decide which genre the book subscribes to, nor is one able to identify the position Lish assigns to the epigraph, first as a title – or rather as a usurper taking over the title – and second as an epigraph as such.

Lish’s book is a collection of letters the writer or the protagonist writes in connection with the death of his wife. There is no clear distinction as to who does the writing, since the book plays on the protagonist’s name being the same as the writer’s, namely, Gordon Lish. Here, the question of genre imposes itself already, and possibilities vacillate between fictitious ‘auto/biography’, epistolary novel, or confessional prose.

Now, since the work is titled Epigraph, one is invited to consider first the epigraphic moments in the book. First then, there is an epigraphic structure. For the whole work Lish uses five epigraphs: two in the beginning – attributed to Julia Kristeva and F.W. Lish, respectively (in the book, F.W. Lish is Gordon Lish’s father) – and three at the end – again attributed to Kristeva and F.W. Lish. Two of the closing epigraphs are separated from the third by what Lish calls ‘Errata’, the very last epigraph being attributed to Nietzsche.

From the beginning the reader is plunged into the text and almost forced to ‘introject’ the work, as the first epigraph has ‘mouth’ and ‘words’ in its content. The text becomes physical as it progresses: “Through the mouth that I fill with words, instead of my mother, whom I miss from now on more than ever, I elaborate that want, and the aggressivity that accompanies it, by saying. – Julia Kristeva”. The quote here obviously refers to the process of weaning, and Kristeva points to the resulting lack which necessitates fulfilling, culminating in a reversal from ingestion to regurgitation, in this case of the words. The reader swallows without masticating or rather witnesses the words that are spat out in substitution of the feeding breast. Here the verbal signification is substituted by something tangible; the mouth is ready to receive a heritage, not in the form of the words of the mother but as the material of a consciousness analogous with a present state. So far so good, until one gets to the second epigraph: “Yeah, yeah, sure, sure. – F.W. Lish”. Clearly this is a derogatory reply to Kristeva’s reductive discourse, and it represents complete dismissal on the connotative level. Yet it is a reinforcement of the act of saying, and we find affirmation all the way through: the mouth gets filled with words, and the present becomes a moment of self-authentication.

However, it is less interesting how exactly these epigraphs comment on the body of the text. What is interesting is the epigraphs’ relation to the closing epigraphs, attributed to the same two people and to Nietzsche. The closing epigraphs are identical to the opening ones, not in content but in representation: they form a theme, they are frames. The first one is an elaboration on precisely that way of saying which renders the present moment affirmative: “Inverted into its formalism, literature sets out on a difficult course, its quest of the invisible becoming imperceptible and progressively antisocial, nondemonstrative, and also by reason of its being antispectacular, uninteresting. – Kristeva”. The epigraph here epitomizes the breakdown of the boundaries between text and other verbal and non-verbal signifying practices, namely the generation of the suspending disbelief in what the text suggests. (This is evident from the negativity of the words: antisocial, nondemonstrative, antispectacular, uninteresting). And the text suggests ‘nothing’, as represented in the simple, derotagory reply:

“Nice try, Jewboy. – F.W. Lish”.

However, this ‘nothing’ is not static but goes on, and the reader finds delight in a variation that ‘nothing’ creates: both the affirmative and the negative aspect of the element of complementarity is done away with, and one reads the “Errata”: “Transpose pages 84, 88, 98 and 112, 114, 116. Transpose pages 118 and 273. Delete closing epigraph and replace with epigraph indicated one further turn onward”. This “Errata” marks the in-betweeness of the ‘nothing’, which nevertheless makes the epigraphs engage in a dialogue, and then in a meta-dialogue with each other. The epigraphs belonging to Gordon Lish’s father are a comment on both Lish’s activities as an intellectual – proven by his very knowledge of Kristeva, feminism, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism – and also on the content of the book that Lish, or “Lish”, is engaged in writing. The mentioned pages are blank or non-existing, so the substitution would be between blank and no pages at all: ‘nothing’ substitutes nothing, a very neat syllogism.

What remains of the “Errata” works as a cover-up for one essential transaction: the actual deletion of the father. This transaction, however, does not engage the reader but the writer. The reader does not engage himself in the act of transacting, not even for an interpretation – the reader is busy with ‘nothing’, as it were. Here then, if there were one thing that could be transposed, it would have to be the threshold. On a general level, one could contend that prior to the threshold is the angle from where different perspectives are seen as themes in a strange loop. And the angle is in this text the moment of ‘deletion’. What Lish wants is not that the epigraph be deleted but that the father be so, although the father still manages to be present in the form of the initials: the letters F.W. become the nom propre of an other F.W., Friedrich Wilhelm. The initials here are precisely of that text which contains itself. What remains is the use of the apostrophe in the final epigraph which both marks and confirms the idea that after deletion nothing else comes – there can be only returns: “O come back, my unknown god! my pain! my last happiness! – Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche”.

Thus, Lish’s entire epigraphic structure creates itself en-abyme: the first two epigraphs mirror the last two epigraphs in a convex way, since any attempt to achieve some kind of understanding of what happens in between, in the middle of the book, is conditioned by a wide conceptual distribution: the four epigraphs constitute a two-sided act which forms an identity theme. Gordon Lish uses “Gordon Lish”, who in turn, presents the consciousness of his character ‘as it is’ – without interfering with comments or hints to inform the reader what ‘nothingness’ is being rendered.

The “Errata”, moreover, occurs throughout the texture of the book – Lish’s letters in fact being a string of transpositions. The “Errata” thus occurs in the aporias – the holes and blank pages are an example. Likewise, the dynamics of these aporias makes up for a description of an interpretation, not an interpretation per se. The apostrophic “O” in the final epigraph points to an unnamed centre of return, or restitution, which can only be known by its signature, although even that is ambiguous: Gordon Lish or “Gordon Lish”?

The point of this detailed account of the epigraphic structure is to show that there are instances when opening books and asking them a question may involve finding ‘nothing’ there, concretized nevertheless in the resonance that the epigraphs strike in the reader. An obvious question poses itself here: is ‘nothing’ not itself an epigraph in-between – neither here, nor there – that answers the question of “how to do nothing with words”[iv]. Is ‘nothing’ not the only way of substituting the words of precisely that paratextual polarity, in which the epigraph is neither a paratextual epigraph, nor a paratextual title, but a fragment of oracular force?

Insofar as an epigraphic structure frames (both literally and figuratively) the text it circumscribes, the frame itself then must be both a question of rhetoric as well as a question of structure. If we return to the events that actually take place in (the) Epigraph, one notices that the writings of letters – the protagonist leaves it up to the reader to decide whether they ever get sent – is a way of enunciating a moment of obscure detailing in the text, generating a performative threshold. For instance the whole dynamics of the book is comprised within the extended elaboration on the event of the wife’s death which came as a result of the protagonist’s stopping to collect a ‘jibby-jibby’ (lint) from the floor while he was on his way to give her morphine. The subsequent letters are written as variations on the self-portrait that Lish is sketching. Between Gordon Lish and “Gordon Lish”, between “myself and “Myself”, there is a scenario of poetic production in which the construction of self-portraits does not focus on the producer of images but on the production itself. This play is held in tension by the idea of stopping instead of going. Between stopping and going is the primary hypothesis that the existence of “jibby-jibbies” on the floor is the dimension between death and writing. The hypothesis is therefore poetic in its thrust, and the various self-portraits are not ontologically polarized but a production of the self in itself. Whenever the recurrent instance in which the protagonist exclaims “I Gordon – Gordon!” appears in the letters, it also marks a moment of self-apostrophising: the protagonist seems to be ushering himself out of the text.

Viewed as a paradigmatic construction Lish’s Epigraph is very much concerned with staging the relationship between theory and fiction, theory and practice, theory and reality. In other words, what emerges in Lish is a specific epigraphic signature that is both paradigmatic – the death of the wife completes the depiction of the other characters – and syntagmatic – the consequence of the wife’s death completes the tableau, splits the author into multiple personae, thus dispersing his power into variations of it. By giving a biographical account of the first person in the third person, or the third person’s autobiography, Lish collapses biography into autobiography, positing the author on the threshold of the autobiographical genre. For Lish the epigraph is that threshold, neither entirely in the work, nor outside of it.

Seen from a stylistic point of view, Lish’s discourse thus becomes pure rhetoric, yet contradictory of itself. Examples of this instance are given in the letters written to different female representatives of a mercy order who took turns being in the protagonist’s house at the time of the wife’s death. These letters are always apologetic and assume the tone of de-negation, as if to say: I assure you this happened, but I didn’t do it, while at the same time recollecting the event of death with empty words that literally say nothing. Yet the words become metaphoric instances of the very discourse that uses them:

That the ensuant emanation of a jibby-jibby […] detained me for less than a wink of an eye is true, is true, but it is false – unimpeachably false! – that this fact can in any wise be argued to have asserted itself in the composition of all those otherwise ghastly facts that now give us – and that gave Barbara, that gave Barbara! – the tragic, although not cruel, I would allege, not cruel outcome the evening of the eighth day of this month. For my part, I say, at any rate, let us now be done with all this melancholy and from this moment forth be instead concerned to seek the means of renewing ourselves. Have I told you that I am seeing someone? I am, dear woman, seeing someone. Indeed, I am, it felicitously happened to me, seeing not one but two ladies, one who delights in confecting cakes, another who delights in consuming them. (Epigraph, 12-13)

Language-games, sentences, cadences, commas, hyphens are here indicators of the grotesque and the bizarre. The strange associations of melancholy with renewal, amorous escapades, grief and slander, together with repetitions of names – I Gordon – Gordon! – of performative character, all make the reader aware of Lish’s preoccupation with meaning construction based on codes, signs, and signification. These signs are in fact colours which Lish uses for his specific way of character portrayal. Punctuation, for instance, is as well a way of codification and thus most important to Lish’s structure. In place of proper character development in depth, he uses punctuation as the surface of the function of roles and characterization. He thus construes an image whose central theme is the inaccessibility of the image. In other words, nobody has access to knowing his personae, but there is access to seeing how they are being portrayed. This is what marks Lish’s moment of schize: it is his literary trope as a portal for getting inside the book and being outside it at the same time, by shifting the characters from here to there, as it were, on the surface of language. We can assume that Lish, the author of the Epigraph, is so to speak an “exotopic” writer who produces the scenario in which Lish, the character is an “endotopic”, or depicted author. Although not really knowing the profession of the depicted Lish, perhaps the fact that Lish is “Lish” opens a space for assigning Lish the character the same attributes, also when it comes to professions. Here then, the function of the schize is to emphasize the fictionality of the autobiographical moment in the text. Thus Lish is fictitious because he presents himself as an “other” “Lish”. The whole work of Epigraph concludes with the statement: “I myself Gordon–Gordon – constitute the concluding part of this party” (77-80), thus delegating agency to the paratext. The paratext is then endowed with the task of framing writing, in and out of its context.

Via performance, as in the constant performance of the Kristeva epigraph, when words are made to come out before any process of thinking takes place, ‘epigraphy’ is the poetics that enforces the theory of ‘thinking to oneself’. The text itself probes that poetics:

I am sitting here thinking to myself Gordon–Gordon […] The tricks of the mind – the mind! will play on you, let alone the floor. I mean, go ahead and ask yourself how many tricks there are when you have billions and billions of them just to begin with. Well, what can anybody but the philosophers say? These things, they are for the philosophers – and I say thank god this is who they are.” (96)

In conclusion to this work, it would not be too contentious to assume that Lish’s ‘self’ is represented as the image of the image of a theory of self-portraiture, for which the self is the philosophy of the picture. As Lish further says: “This was my thinking. I am trying to develop for you the picture of my thinking” (145). Epigraph then is the superimposed image of the paratext on its own function. For Lish, surrounding the context in which writing is dependent on contextual philosophical insertions of autobiographical character fulfils the function of signature, thus making the epigraph an emblematic inscription. For Lish, insofar as paradox is the condition for the possibility of self-representation, self-representation is dependent on the play between text and context. Lish relies in his epistolary form on the power of the fragment to detach a work from its genesis, distribute it from one level to another. It is for this reason that we have a syntagmatic constitution of the author.[v] This constitutive relation determines the possibility of creating a unit: if the work of Lish is the work of Lish alone, then, Lish, or the lishean-like work (the notorious lishiness of the situation, so to speak) opens up the possibility for some other work to constitute itself as different. The syntagmatic relation then is necessarily a metonymic relation.

Conversely, what constitutes the point of beginning (begin with the title, the epigraph, or the epigraph as a title) is not the paratext, but the act of paratext portrayal, as it were. If this is the case, the book has a paradigmatic dimension. Thus, where the paratext interprets, the fragment textualizes. Lish’s attempt to bridge the distance between autobiography and fiction is by making the epigraph figurative of its textual fragmentation. The fragment then is the emblematic epigraph of the fragmentary text.

Jacques Derrida and the Epigraphic Preface

Jacques Derrida begins The Postcard with a hypothesis: “You might read these envois as a preface to a book that I have not written”, thus reminding us of the writing practice that takes place at the margins, circumscribed by quotation marks: prefaces, epigraphs, first sentences, or titles. Hypotheses of this kind enforce a specific performative quality in the text, as they always involve an intent, addressed, not so much to the writer himself to write a book, but to the reader to read the book which was never written. Derrida’s ‘instead of preface’ can therefore be read as an epigraph to the whole work which divides itself in three interrelated parts mediated by an investigation into the workings of psychoanalysis and postal service. The pleasure principle (PP) is mediated through the writing of postcards, or Envois, (the first part of the book) which are then entrusted to the post office. Derrida is, however, not concerned with the situation in which the postcards or letters arrive, but with what happens when they get lost, as they say, in the mail. The potential to lose writing is developed by Derrida as a tripartite relation, sending / receiving / returning, which inscribes itself within a circuit governed by the “Postal Principle” (pp) operating with another set of ideas, or orders: thesis/athesis/hypothesis. (Re)writing the lost postcards, in terms of writing from memory, or revising by hypothesising, triggers a special pleasure, especially when deliberations on the new contents of the postcards end up in a decision to talk about them on the telephone. The telephone is the athesis of the postcard’s thesis.

The collection of postcards – almost all depicting Plato and Socrates in an inverse order, with Plato taking Socrates’s place – which Derrida’s writer writes to a beloved, constitute an assembly of seemingly incoherent events, going to and fro between various concerns with a philosophical tradition passed down to us from Socrates via Plato; subject/predicate; writing; reading; love mediated by writing/reading; love mediated by the telephone; writing lost/writing found.

What fascinates Derrida in the Postcard is that Socrates seems to have been ‘mistaken’ with Plato. Although Plato made it known that Socrates opposed writing, in the postcard that Derrida has found, Socrates writes. Portrayed by one Matthew Paris – a 13th century artist whose drawing appeared on the frontispiece of a fortune-telling book entitled Prognostica Socratis basilei – Socrates, bent over a desk, takes dictations from Plato.

Derrida’s arguments in the Postcard orbit around the implication of this reversal: what used to be thought of as the subject (Socrates – S) of the entire western metaphysics is replaced by the predicate (Plato – P). In spite of  the fact that Plato’s writing has always been the vehicle for Socrates’s ideas, Derrida’s writer ponders the question: what is the difference between Socrates and Plato, between subject and predicate? The reader of Derrida’s writer further poses the question: what is the difference between a predicate, which is conceived intentionally as a subject, being made more interesting than the subject, not only modifying the subject but defining it, and the predicate which is a predicate malgré lui? It is evident that since Socrates never wrote, he could not possibly be a subject in himself. Yet Socrates was a subject, but he was Plato’s written subject. Thus, Socrates is according to Plato. Socrates is a subject with a mask and no name. Socrates is in effect Plato’s as if construction. Derrida explains:

this is the catastrophe: when he writes, when he sends, when he makes his (a)way, S is p, finally is no longer totally other than p (finally I don’t think so at all, S will have been totally other, but if only he had been totally other, truly totally other, nothing would have happened between them, and we would not be at this pass, sending ourselves their names and their ghosts like ping-pong balls). pp, pS, Sp, SS, the predicate speculates in order to send itself the subject (Postcard, 30)

Derrida chooses to select the predicate (Plato/as is) as his (Socratic/as if) fragment. Plato performs Socrates while Socrates is the fragment in Plato’s writing (fragmentarily). The relationship between the fragment and the fragmentary is posited here as an opposition between the telephone (the call) and the postcard (the called), the name and its ghost. The postcard is a medium with a double potential: to transmit a message – if the card arrives at its destination – and to interrupt it – if the card never reaches its addressee. Conversely, a telephonic message is dependent on a double determination on the part of the receiver: to answer the telephone or not. The first case involves an immediacy of the situation – if one answers, the interlocutor ‘talks back’ – and the second case represents an economy of the situation – if one does not answer, the telephone would still ‘ring a bell’. In other words, the message that is not delivered still has a tonality, or a resonance similar to that of the epigraph.

On the threshold of delivery, the message never discloses its content, but is a representation of a potential content that would testify to the imaginary status of the ‘original’ content. “The secret must be told not revealed”, Derrida declares elsewhere, which emphasises the difference between two structures of the message that is at once original and in a state of potentiality, a name and its ghost, or a face and its mask. When the message is original is has a textual structure. When the message is potential it has a hermeneutic structure. Where the textual structure relies on the self-delimitation of the subject (ex. Socrates), self-circumscription of the object (ex. writing), and self-affirmation of the predicate (ex. Plato), the hermeneutic structure is the matrix of philosophical investigations. Between textuality and hermeneutics lies the beyond of the pleasure principle. If, however, with Derrida, that which is beyond the pleasure principle gets lost in the mail, then the pleasure principle itself cannot be a principle but only a mediated form. The question is then, if this form is philosophy with a mask, can the investigation be true?

The picture cards sent to the beloved depicting the impersonation Plato-in-Socrates/Socrates-in-Plato as a moment of imposture, mirror the writer’s own concern with what grounds the transmission of a disguised philosophy. Here, the figure of the telephone is employed as a mediator between ‘as if’ written messages and their “scrambled” oral form. Socrates’s ‘spoken’ language, as it were, is always dubious, fleeting, and needs to be deciphered in writing. The instance of the oral versus writing is furthermore mirrored in the writer’s relationship to his beloved: while contact is established by the sending of postcards, whenever the beloved has something to say, it is said on the telephone. The time and space of communication is, however, divided in equal measures: when the writer is not writing, he is on the phone. Thus, sending postcards and being on the phone initiates, on the one hand, a concern with the emission of words as fragments on the threshold of something oracular, linking hypothetical events, yet always on the verge of happening. On the other hand, emitted words are seen as an emblem of oral signification. “The chance of the telephone – never lose an opportunity – it gives us back our voice” (10) expresses an interest in time that is calculated and time that is unpredictable. The distance between the two is the distance, between writing and speech, between Plato and Socrates, between sender and addressee, lover and the beloved. I call this distance the name the fragmentary gives the fragment.

For Derrida, moreover, voice is linked to potentiality, and potentiality names the imaginary: “the idea that you might ‘call’ me and that I might not answer overwhelms me. All this telephone between us.” (41) Beyond the pleasure principle as a mediated form by the post, sending is a subject with a double configuration always both internal and external to other configurations of past and future texts, original and potential states, textual and hermeneutic structures. When the message is original, it has a textual structure, when the message is potential, it has a hermeneutic structure. What interests Derrida is ultimately to localize the subject of the beyond, beyond the beyond as it were. This subject is not a principle, but a desire desiring desire. As such, the desiring desire is always engaged in arriving, always on the threshold, always epigraphic.

The Postcard invites us to make the assumption that writing is a metaphor of speech, the subject is a metaphor of the predicate, Plato is a metaphor of Socrates, the lover is a metaphor of the beloved, and time is a metaphor of space. Insofar as the writer writes himself as a metaphor of the reader, having selected a detail or a fragment of ‘inverse’ philosophy to serve as his proper name, the reader necessarily engages in the hermeneutic project of localizing the metaphor of the ghost. Derrida’s disconcert with “names and their ghosts” reflects the disconnectedness between the postcards themselves and their telephonic counterparts. Socrates’s philosophy achieves its conceptual expressivity via Plato’s figurative construction of Socrates’s ghost. And we begin to see how Socrates’s fragment becomes the metaphor of Plato’s fragmentary figurations. Plato was indeed a writer, but first he must have been ‘reading’ into Socrates’s discourse, he must have plugged his line into Socrates’s telephone. Plato’s connective reading of Socrates axes itself on the role of the latter’s figurative language. Plato is thus able to (g)host Socrates’s discourse as well as his own. A movement of affirmation and cancellation is at work and this is what allows for the various permutations between principles and systems, SS, Sp, SP, PP, Ps, etc.

For Derrida, however, the affirmation of Socrates’s value is only a pretence as far as Plato is concerned, for which reason Plato’s truth can be considered a matter of formalism (or that is the price Plato pays for having a telephone line installed). What triggers Derrida’s logic is the idea that Matthew Paris’ reversal is in fact a figuration of ‘nothing’, no thing, or no-name, as a reading of the hypothesis that Plato can name Socrates’s discourse his own.  But this hypothesis can only be confirmed in the zone of what is between Plato and Socrates. And what if there is nothing between them? Whereas Paris looks for the correspondences between Plato and Socrates, which are and which are not, Derrida discovers the name of their respective philosophies, which is and which is not. Insofar as philosophy can never reinstate itself by a new definition, philosophy repeats itself in an appropriated zone. All that is left of philosophy is therefore a matter of appropriation and repetition.

“But there is never repetition itself” (351) says Derrida in his second part of the Postcard, in “Paralysis”, the essay whose beginning poses the question of writing philosophy on the exhumed body of repetition, as it were. The second part is entitled “To Speculate on Freud” and is divided into four variations on the ‘Freudian condition’: (1) “Notices” and “Warnings” voice the oracular in (2) “Freud’s Legacy”, only then to enforce a moment of (3) “Paralysis”, whose spell can only be broken by the sign of (4) “Seven: Postcripts”.

Now, the essay on “Paralysis” begins with a subtitle which reads: “The Zone, The Posts, Name Carrying Theory” suggesting that what carries “Theory” forth is the sending of posts (as in fragments) to unknown zones in need of a name. Here repetition is examined as a “hypothesis”, namely that the image of death becomes the reality of desire, while desire becomes the image of compulsion. On this basis we can assume that, for Derrida, the power of the image is repetition, and repetition is sustained by sustained repetition, which leads to the process of reproducing reproductions. Again the Plato/Socrates postcard serves as an example in which the inversion of roles points to the kind of writing that mirrors Derrida’s own, and as such, is specular of its own self-referentiality. Says Derrida: “When I have nothing to do in a public place, I photograph myself and with few exceptions burn myself.” (37) In other words, Plato engages not in signing the work of Socrates, but de-signing it. Plato repeats not Socrates, but his ghost, and the ghost writes en-abyme a text moulded in its own image, which is neither that of Plato nor Socrates. Rather it is the image of the mask, or the image of repetition, perhaps the image of Derrida writing. One begins to understand what repetition which is not itself means. Here Derrida reasons:

Sometimes repetition, classically, repeats something that precedes it, repetition comes after – as it is said, for example, that Plato comes after Socrates –, repetition succeeds a first thing, an original […]

But sometimes, according to a logic that is other, and non-classical, repetition is “original”, and induces, through an unlimited propagation of itself, a general deconstruction. (351-352)

Derrida’s argument is that if repetition is not itself, but an original fashioned in the image of an other “original”, then it can only be expressed as a parable (Plato-in-Socrates/Socrates-in-Plato) which uses paratextual devices in an emblematic way (P-in-S/S-in-P) to point to the economy of the language which cannot represent what a mystical experience means. Waiting for the telephone call, which informs that the postcard got lost in the mail, is the master performative fragment that governs epigrammatic relations in the text which exhibits epigraphic character. Waiting itself can be thought of as a fragment of an act, always on the threshold of an act, and therefore paratexual in a textual context. Propositions such as: “In the beginning, in principle, was the post, and I will never get over it” (29) function as epigraphic prefaces decoding the very principle of the postal principle. Insofar as the fragment expresses a universal for which the said preface functions as an epiphany, the fragment calls for an event which exceeds performativity. The oracular itself is that event.

The fragment’s performativity is similar to Derrida’s own mode of discourse. From the beginning Derrida presents his reader with two different kinds of rhetoric: (1) the rhetoric of “Derrida” is particularly deconstructive, enacting its own mode of discourse, yet displaying itself as an operative essence; (2) the rhetoric of “Deconstruction” is particularly Derridean, enacting its own mode of discourse too, yet displaying itself as an operative characteristic. In other words, the move in both instances is not from essence to characteristics but from characteristics to essence, and more so, from characteristic to characteristic (where the postcards are concerned). Since, however, Derrida does not believe in essence, essence becomes translated into a universal characteristic of deconstruction which is able to manifest itself as the difference (différance), repetition, trace, signature, etc.

Deconstruction for Derrida is essentially non-essential, it is inseparable from that which it is a characteristic of. As such, deconstruction is an aesthetic experience which mediates all other relations in the text. Conversely, what mediates mediation is the performative in a state of mise-en-abyme. Here, Derrida gives us an example of the fragment which performs another fragment en-abyme. This other fragment performs Derrida who performs Freud, who performs his pleasure principle and beyond, which Derrida performs beyond the beyond, where Derrida performs “Derrida”; Derrida the original performs Derrida the potential, the pleasure principle performs the postal principle, Plato performs Socrates. The fragment performs the fragmentary:

Rushing to extract a fragment of it, to retain only its discursive content – a “hypothesis”, a “theory”, a “myth”, all three at once, for such are his own words in the lines preceding the citations (371-372)

What exceeds performativity is the fragment’s universality, expressing a series of epiphanies. Epiphany answers the question of arriving at a destination by returning to the point of departure. Derrida probes the hypothesis of “repetition” with the theory in which form justifies content, where form is a manifestation of content, and content is an enactment of form.

If the first part of The Postcard, “Envois”, is a concern with the variations of time and space – the time of sending and the space of reading, the time of Plato as Socrates – the second part concerns itself with the repetition of variations. Woven through compressed time, warnings, legacies, paralysis and postscripts suggest that repetition is the only possible movement through immobility.

The third part of The Postcard, then, is a concern with what makes the ground for variations. It is a return to the paratext, a performance of the paratext on whose ground variations can only be made as hypotheses. Derrida returns to the preface of a book not yet written. And “Le Facteur de la Vérité” begins, almost expectedly, with an epigraph from Baudelaire.

The truth of philosophy is but a preface to the book not yet written. The truth of nothing. “Psychoanalysis, supposedly, is found” (413) says Derrida in his first statement of “Divested Pretexts”, the introductory subtitle to his essay. The epigraph seems to divert the question: is the truth of Plato Socrates’s fiction? To the question of what happens to the psychoanalytical text which attempts to decipher a text that already explicates itself, Derrida finds that truth cannot be an example of the equation in which truth is a factor. If truth were put onstage, it would have to perform. Truth onstage would reflect a mimetic relation to fiction, not reality, in which case truth itself cannot be represented other than as a fictional construct. Derrida cannot address this hypothesis without making recourse to the same deconstructive method of reading: open a book and ask it a question. “As an apologue or parabolic pretext, and in order first to rehearse the question of a certain multiplicative coefficient of the truth, I am opening the Traumdeutung approximately in its middle.” (414) Seeking truth then, for Derrida, begins with the parabolic paratext. The epigraph approximately in the middle. The epigraph does not refer to the essence of truth, but rather to an operative function. Yet the epigraph as a characteristic of the paratext cannot be non-essential.

Derrida goes in circles, circumscribing text and paratext, truth and fiction, Plato and Socrates, by making them correspond. This relation of correspondence is expressed as a text in a paratext, Plato in Socrates, truth in fiction, thus emphasizing the idea that a text is dependent on a continuous movement between the actual operative functions of the paratext. These functions, however have to be virtually possible. Conversely, the characteristic of the paratext (its movement through space and time) is dependent on the actualization and realization of the higher correspondence that links, for instance, the philosophy of Plato to that of Socrates, Freud to psychoanalysis, the postcard to the telephone, the name to its ghost. As a consequence, a middle instance is created, which can be seen as a performative fragment. The fragments of the “Envois” can be seen as the scission between what can be actualized and what can be realized in the relation send/receive/return. The trajectory that the “Envois” takes can be seen as an ideal corresponding line that is actualized in one story and realized in the other, that is: what the postcard actualizes, the telephone realizes. This is the relation between Plato and Socrates. Plato actualizes Socrates’s realizations. It is for this reason that Derrida’s divested pretexts can be read as realizations of other texts and not merely their representations.

In conclusion, the whole of Derrida’s discourse in The Postcard is a discourse on the scission between subject and predicate, sentence and norm, text and paratext, fragment and the fragmentary. Derrida’s rhetoric is, however, in constant fluctuation, and in deviation from the norm. Reading for Derrida is oracular, it settles in its potential for transformation, in a continuum of variation. The tripartite relation in the book – sending, receiving, returning – mirrors the tripartite relation which characterizes the Postal Principle: “the thesis, athesis, hypothesis” (54). Each of the three instances stages the principle for each of the book’s three parts: as Derrida himself puts it: “everything was staged, from the beginning” (60). The beginning, however, begins with a preface that comes from the future, to which Derrida nevertheless returns: “Tomorrow, if I want to write this preface, I will set myself to running down all the paleo- and neo-testamentary courriers.

Thus, The Postcard can be read as an attempt to bridge the distance between Plato and Socrates, time and space, text and paratext, fragment and the fragmentary. Defining a theory of the philosophy of the fragment is for Derrida a relation which begins with waiting for that which is already a fait accompli. That is, Derrida is interested in the fragment only to the extent that the fragment exists in relation to something else: insofar as Socrates defines Plato, space defines time, the paratext defines the text, and the fragmentary defines the fragment. What defines definition comes ‘after the (f)act’. The move of epigraphic mise-en-abyme which Derrida plays means to give writing a voice. In this way, Plato becomes the voice of Socrates, fragments enunciate the fragmentary, and time travels supersonically through space.

Derrida distinguishes between fragment and fragmentariness by creating a preface of proximity. Derrida remembers the fragment because the telephone rings. Lish’s fragment too operates with a proximity to the text as a whole, a text with the potential to have a beginning, middle, and an end. Writing what one remembers means writing near the text, guessing the distance between the fragment and the fragmentary. The fragment for Lish is a detail that performs and governs all paratextual relations that appear in an inverse order. Lish’s fragment repeats itself, creating a frame which lends the fragment both a transcendent and an immanent significance. Lish signs his fragments over to writing, and skipping the ground lets the signing take place in variation. Derrida’s fragment is oracular. It comes from the future, it does not even exist. “The fragment has always already occurred”, says Michel Pierssens, comparing Derrida to the fragment, in his imperative: “Compare Derrida”:

[the fragment] is born as such, straight off. Not as a result of a process, but as a state of nature, other. To be fragmentary of the given word, which can (in its fundamental passivity) then be accommodated: proverb, enigma, verse inscription, censure. Raw speech, passed over the cooking fire of enunciation.

There is nothing missing from the fragment. Whereas the narration, fiction always lacks the nth possibility.[vi]

The fragment is a-textual, yet without being a re-collection of quotes in translation. Insofar as the fragment is a variation theme to the text whose ground is not signed, the fragment is (born as such), and thus becomes epigraphic (other).

The epigraphic fragment is the oracular voice of the text on the telephone.


[i] Jacques Derrida, The Post Card – From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago & London:  University of Chicago Press, 1987)), 414

[ii] Hillis Miller, “Deconstructing the Deconstructors” in Theory Now and Then, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991) 107

[iii] Gordon Lish, Epigraph (New York & London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996)

[iv] See Mark C. Taylor: “How to do Nothing with Words” in Tears, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990)

[v] See V. I. Stoichita, The Self-Aware Image, An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 198-247

[vi] Michel Pierssens, “Detachment”, Fragments: Incompletion and Discontinuity, ed. Lawrence Kritzman, (New York: New York Literary Forum, 1981), 167


2 responses »

  1. Indeed, very nice try, Jewboy! Thanks for popularizing.

    I love the pics. Reminded me of what a great line this one of Jacques’ is: “When I have nothing to do in a public place, I photograph myself and with few exceptions burn myself.” (Postcard, 37)

  2. Pingback: THE GREEN DOOR

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