- Splitting the Différance:Beckett, Derrida and the Unnamable
"They do not understand how that which differs with itself is in agreement . . ."—Heraclitus
"The danger is in the neatness of identifications."—Beckett
Toward the end of "Structure, Sign and Play," Derrida acknowledges that he has arrived at an impasse: he can no longer work within the Western philosophical tradition, yet he is unable to move beyond it. What remains, he tells us, is to explore both the "common ground" which joins these alternatives and the "irreducible difference" which separates them. Derrida refers to this intellectual no man's land as différance, and he compares its strange eruption to a monstrous birth:
Here there is a kind of question, let us call it historical, whose conception, formation, gestation, and labor we are only catching a glimpse of today. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the operations of childbearing—but also with a glance toward those who, in a society from which I do not exclude myself, turn [End Page 873] their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable [my emphasis] which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.
This rather lurid description—suggesting a kind of creature from the deconstructive lagoon—may sound more like science fiction than philosophy, yet its antecedents are to be located not in Hollywood B-movies but in the French avant-garde novel. For that species of a non-species, that mute and formless monstrosity waiting to be born, is immediately recognizable to readers of Samuel Beckett: he calls it, as does Derrida, l'innommable, or the "unnamable."
"Structure, Sign and Play" is not the only place where Derrida evokes the "unnamable." Again and again in his work, the struggle to gain a position outside the Western philosophical tradition has the same effect: it points toward, opens onto, or glimpses at what cannot be named. Thus, in Speech and Phenomena, the effort to move beyond voice as self-presence leads "across the inherited concepts [of the West], toward the unnamable" (77); in "White Mythology," the Nietzschean acknowledgment of philosophy as metaphor is identified with an "unnamable articulation" (Margins 270, Derrida's emphasis); in "Plato's Pharmacy," the deconstruction of the "pharmaceutical 'system'" (167) of Platonism prompts the question, "into what general, unnamable necessity are we thrown" (Dissemination 168); in "La parole soufflée" the attempt to project oneself "beyond man, beyond the metaphysics of Western theater" looks toward the "unnamable Divine" (Writing 185); and in Of Grammatology the assault on Saussure and "the age of the sign" discloses the "crevice through which the yet unnameable glimmer beyond . . . can be glimpsed" (14). Derrida provides what we might take as a summary view for all this in Positions:
To "deconstruct" philosophy, thus, would be to think—in the most faithful, interior way—the structured genealogy of philosophy's concepts, but at the same time to determine—from a certain exterior that is unqualifiable or unnameable by philosophy—what this history has been able to dissimulate or forbid . . .(6)1
As this catalogue of citations makes clear, the "unnamable" functions as one of Derrida's key terms, something on the order of "supplement," "tympan," "trace" or "hymen." It is worth pointing out, however, that a certain grammatical slippage occurs as we move between Beckett's use of the "unnamable" as a noun, and Derrida's use of it as both a noun and an adjective. This slippage is, of course, already present in Beckett, since l'innommable is by definition whatever resists nominalization, a noun (nom) which denies its own power to name, a noun which negates itself (in-nom). Indeed, even at the level of grammar, the "unnamable" [End Page 874] appears to be a kind of faux substantif, an adjective which, by virtue of a definite article, has reinvented itself as a noun. Derrida further emphasizes the grammatical mobility of the "unnamable," its vacillation between and across categories, not only by employing the word as both...