Vernon W. Cisney, Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014; 254 pages. ISBN 978-0-7486-4420-9.

Reviewed by Matthew Wood, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Since the thought of Jacques Derrida has gradually become accessible to English-speaking audiences over the past half-century, its reception in a broad spectrum of theoretical disciplines has tended grosso modo towards the extremes of (a) fervent adulation and (b) utter scorn. If the first of these characterizes the enthusiasm with which Derrida’s ideas were welcomed in literature departments in the U.S. throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the second describes no less accurately the way these ideas were also reviled by cadres of Anglo-American philosophers and public intellectuals who not only disdained his work, but openly denounced the man himself as a charlatan. Vernon W. Cisney’s Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon is to be commended for avoiding both of these extremes in its sober engagement with one of Derrida’s earliest published works.

Cisney’s book is presented as a philosophical commentary, or “reader’s guide” to Voice and Phenomenon, the English title of Leonard Lawlor’s 2011 translation of the work named La voix et le phénomène at the time of its French publication in 1967 (and alternately called Speech and Phenomena in an earlier English translation published by David Allison in 1973). The text itself is divided into four main sections: after a brief biographical introduction (1–14), Part 1 (15–56) elaborates the historical and philosophical contexts of Voice and Phenomenon; Part 2, “A Guide to the Text” (57–205), presents Cisney’s close reading of the work itself, divided into eight sub-sections corresponding to the work’s introduction and seven chapters; and, lastly, Part 3, entitled “Study Aids” (206–237), consists in an annotated glossary of terms intended to assist in the comprehension of the text, and to provide resources for approaching Derrida’s other works.

Writing a guide to one of these texts, and especially a guide that purports to be an introduction to Derrida’s thinking in general, is tricky for several reasons, the most obvious being what Cisney calls its “parasitic” nature. To the extent that Derrida’s ideas emerge only in and through his readings of other works, one needs to be already familiar with the texts he is reading in order to appreciate the conclusions he draws from them. With respect to Voice and Phenomenon, which primarily deals with Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations (1900–01), readers stand in need of some prior understanding of Husserlian phenomenology: its background, method, and aims. Cisney touches on these points succinctly in Part 1, which summarizes Husserl’s project and its subsequent influence on 20th century French philosophy. Although schematic, this section succeeds in furnishing and clearly explaining the starting points necessary for understanding Derrida’s argument in Voice and Phenomenon, the most important of which Cisney affirms is the Husserlian distinction between “expression” and “indication” (26), and the related notions of “the living present,” “protention,” and “retention.” (29–32)

In attempting to disclose the philosophical stakes of Derridean deconstruction, Cisney generalizes early on that “much of the thrust of Derrida’s argumentation consists in his ongoing demonstration that the philosophical tradition is constituted and defined by its contradictory commitments which, despite their oppositional statuses, are nevertheless demanded by the language in which they appear.” (2) While aiming to substantiate this thesis, Cisney’s book also advances the claim that it is in Voice and Phenomenon specifically that the above characterization of deconstruction is easiest to discern, and that this text, as Lawlor also argues in the introduction to his translation, “contains ‘the germinal structure’ of Derrida’s entire thought.” (Quoted on 12) For Cisney, it is no accident, in this regard, that many of the terms (différance, trace, archiwriting, deconstruction, etc.) that have since come to be identified with Derrida’s thinking make their first appearance in this text as well.

If Cisney thus agrees with Lawlor, that Voice and Phenomenon is seminal for deconstruction as a whole, this is also because the latter in some way discovers its ideal object in the thought of Husserl. The function of deconstruction here, on Cisney’s account, is not so much to attack Husserl’s position as it is to lay bare in the genesis of the Husserlian project a network of conflicting assumptions that Derrida refers to as the “metaphysics of presence.” While, for Derrida, this network of assumptions subtends not only the Western philosophical tradition, but all linguistic meaning in general, he nevertheless considers it to have found its most complete and radical expression in Husserlian phenomenology, which in Positions he identifies as “metaphysics in its most modern, critical and vigilant form.” (Quoted on 12) In the glossary of Part 3, Cisney characterizes the metaphysics of presence as operating “on the basis that presence comes ‘first,’ and then representation or the use of signs comes after-the-fact in order to attempt…to reproduce the presence which has now in whatever sense been lost.” (212)

Cisney clearly explains how the paradigmatic status of Husserlian phenomenology vis-à-vis the metaphysics of presence is tied up in general with a certain understanding of the linguistic sign, and, in particular, with the difficulty that, on Derrida’s reading, Husserl has in maintaining the distinction between “expression” and “indication.” As explained by Cisney, each of these terms is, for Husserl, a kind of sign, but “an expression is a meaningful sign, while an indication is a sign that points us from one state of affairs to another.” (28) Differently put, an indication is a sign that, like a footprint in the snow, points to the existence of a brute fact, whereas an expression, which Cisney glosses simply as “the linguistic sign,” is the kind of sign that signifies a repeatable ideality in an intentional act of consciousness. (27) The milieu of this intentional act is what Husserl calls “the living present,” consisting in a “primal impression” that Cisney characterizes as “the source point in which experience is impressed or stamped.” (31)

While Derrida recognizes that Husserl does not explicitly formulate the method of reduction (epochē) that makes transcendental phenomenology possible until the time of Ideas (1906), several years after the publication of Logical Investigations, he nonetheless claims, as Cisney shows, that the viability of this method is implicitly tied up with that of upholding the basic distinction between indication and expression in the earlier text. For Derrida, insofar as each Husserlian epochē clearly proceeds by progressively bracketing whatever does not belong to the pure structures of consciousness in the immediacy of its intentional relation to a signified ideality, they presuppose not only that (a) the distinction between indication and expression formulated in Logical Investigations can be upheld, but moreover that (b) expression, and not indication, must alone define the signifying acts in which consciousness thus intends this ideality to itself. As Cisney explains, the “relationship to the ideality of objectivity demands the use of signs that do not point elsewhere, but only mean, purely. It demands, in other words, the sustainability of the essential distinction between indication and expression.” (75)

If, on Cisney’s account, Derrida thus considers the aforementioned distinction between expression and indication to legitimate Husserlian phenomenology in principle, then it follows that any implication of indication in the expressive acts that constitute for Husserl the interior life of consciousness would have dire consequences for the whole phenomenological project. Such an implication, in other words, would in fact suggest what Cisney calls a “contamination of the transcendental with the empirical” and would call into question the adequacy of the reductions in general. (68) Yet Cisney shows precisely how each chapter of Voice and Phenomenon elaborates a different way in which, on Derrida’s reading of Husserl’s subsequent discussions in Logical Investigations and other texts, the basic distinction between indication and expression, in addition to numerous parallel distinctions that follow from it, is implicitly compromised every time it appears.

Throughout his presentation of Derrida’s argument in Part 2, Cisney is careful to stress that Derrida does not simply consider the breakdown of the distinction between indication and expression a result of any particular failure in Husserl’s attempt to keep them separate. Rather, the very fact of Husserl’s valorization of expression leads him, in and of itself, to an indirect affirmation of the constitutive role of indication as well. Similarly, Cisney argues that Husserl’s radical commitment to the founding value of immediate, living presence commits him implicitly, on Derrida’s interpretation, to affirming the primacy of alterity and absence at the same time:

In his explicit comments, as Derrida has tirelessly shown, Husserl remains ensnared within the structures of a metaphysics that makes presence…first, and representation…derivative. Nonetheless, as Derrida’s analyses have also shown, Husserl’s thought is ceaselessly pointing, in all of its movements, towards an outside of the metaphysics of presence. (193)

Thus it is, according to Cisney, that in Voice and Phenomenon Derrida first gives the name of “deconstruction” to the thought that discloses the contradictory structures binding the metaphysics of presence to its own reversal (and vice versa). Rather than being a way of reading that Derrida himself, as an author, considers himself to have voluntarily invented and imposed on Husserl’s texts, deconstruction is, in Cisney’s words, always “already operating, wherever language itself is operating.” (194) As Cisney takes pains to show, for Derrida the philosophical tradition in its entirety is a tradition made possible in and through writing and written signs, which from the standpoint of the metaphysics of presence are in fact “dead,” because they are separated in time from the signifying act of the mind which gave them meaning, and therefore characterized by absence rather than presence. For Derrida it is absence rather than presence, death rather than life, that constitutes the true nature of the sign, and the metaphysics of presence is a kind of performative contradiction that consists in concealing this true nature by affirming the founding value of presence while also, in the same gesture, relying for its own dissemination on the very representative character of the sign that it attempts to suppress. The disclosure of this contradictory affirmation of two incompatible understandings of the linguistic sign that operates at the heart of the western philosophical tradition is simply what deconstruction is.

In the final analysis, Cisney responds well to the challenge of making a very difficult and controversial thinker accessible to beginners, and of offering them the means to follow Derrida’s own advice to the neophyte to “always, always ‘venture beyond the beginning.”’ (Derrida 2000, 108) Perhaps most importantly, by avoiding both the adulation and the scorn with which Derrida’s thought has been received in the Anglo-American world, Cisney also opposes the caricature of deconstruction that both extremes seem to legitimate in treating it as a series of interpretive “techniques” that are voluntarily applied ad hoc to written texts in order to make them mean anything whatsoever. By taking Derridean deconstruction seriously as a philosophical position, Cisney’s commentary on Voice and Phenomenon presents a refreshing alternative to this image of Derrida’s thought.


Additional Work Cited

Derrida, Jacques (2000), “Demeure,” in Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida, The Instant of My Death/Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, (tr.) Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford University Press).