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  • "The Nature of a Text": Ford and Conrad in Plato's Pharmacy

I. Reading/Writing (after) Derrida

One must then, in a single gesture, but doubled, read and write.

—Jacques Derrida, Dissemination

"If reading and writing are one," writes Jacques Derrida at the beginning of "Plato's Pharmacy," "if reading iswriting, this oneness designates neither undifferentiated (con)fusion nor identity at perfect rest; the isthat couples reading with writing must rip apart" ( Dissemination63-64). To read (and write) with/against Derrida is thus to commit a certain violence against conventional modes of literary practice. For Derrida reading and writing are transgressive acts that disrupt and destabilize the meaning of the symbolic order they posit; and the "violence of the letter" ( Grammatology101)activated by writing/reading is constitutive of the nature of textuality itself as a structure of traces inhabited by absence and negation, ruptured by the gaps of spacing that (de)compose signification, and rift by the radical otherness of difference which threatens the annihilation of any meaning predicated upon it. "Textuality being constituted by differences and by differences from differences, it is by nature absolutely heterogenous and [End Page 499]constantly composing with the forces that tend to annihilate it" ( Dissemination98). Hence, for Derrida, "Metaphysics"—and one might add, most literary criticism—"has constituted an exemplary system of defense against the threat of writing" ( Grammatology101): a sustained last-ditch effort to contain the transgressive potential of reading/writing within prescriptive systems that can only dissimulate the violence upon which all texts are founded. To read and write in the radicalsense is thus to commit a kind of crime. By defying the law of the symbolic that constitutes the economy of textuality, deconstructive practice violates the conservative strategies of literary orthodoxy to disclose the criminality of textuality that Derrida identifies with writing.

Yet at the same time this transgressive practice should not be confused with simple lawlessness. Instead, the practice of deconstruction proceeds by its own (supplementary) logic. As Derrida observes, "The reading and writing supplement must be rigorously prescribed, but by the necessities of a game, by the logic of play, signs to which the system of all textual powers must be accorded and attuned" ( Dissemination64). Reading in the Derridean sense is thus a matter of following through "the dissimulation of the woven texture" "the hidden thread" (63) that will undo the weave of the text and so deconstruct it, revealing behind the signifying surface the unrestrained play of difference(s) from which it is generated.

Following the dangling thread of the supplement through Plato's text(s) in Dissemination, Derrida discovers the mysterious substance known as the pharmakon, and through it, the hidden medium of differences from which textuality is constituted. "The pharmakon," he writes, "is the movement, the locus, and the play: (the production of) difference. It is the difference of difference" (127). Establishing the "fund" or "reserve" from which all subsequent contradictions and pairs of textual opposites are generated, the pharmakonthus leads beyond the binary logic of signification and into the inner workings of writingas an unrestricted economy of violent excess. "The pharmakon," Derrida writes,

keeps itself forever in reserve even though it has no fundamental profundity nor ultimate locality. We will watch it infinitely promise itself and endlessly vanish through concealed doorways that shine like mirrors and open onto a labyrinth. It is this store of deep background that we are calling the pharmacy.


The doors of the pharmacy are always open. From time to time writers and readers follow the thread of the pharmakoninto the labyrinth. Hence one can trace its workings in diverse texts, operating outside the explicit logic of signification, undermining the order of meaning, exceeding the domesticating efforts of criticism to tame its violence. Yet although "No absolute privilege allows us absolutely to master its textual system" (96), it is sometimes possible to read its effects and, in reading, to write: the nature of a text is the nature of a crime. [End Page 500]

II. FOrd and Conrad in Plato's Pharmacy

A text is not a text unless it hides from the first...


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pp. 499-512
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