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  • The Linguistic Return:Deconstruction as Textual Messianism
  • Anthony Reynolds (bio)

“the revelation of what revelation destroys”

— Blanchot

“a matter of thinking another historicity”


In a 1994 interview with Maurizio Ferraris, Derrida expressed some frustration at the way in which deconstruction had been assimilated or “inscribed in the ‘linguistic turn,’” when in fact it began as “a protest against” it: “The irony … of the story is that often, especially in the United States, because I wrote ‘il n’y a pas de hors-text,’ because I deployed a thought of the ‘trace,’ some people believed they could interpret this as a thought of language (it is exactly the opposite)” (Secret 76). It has become a familiar story to us, practically a topos of the discourse: Derrida being called to defend deconstruction from the misreadings and misappropriations of friend and foe alike. And to the extent that the linguistic turn can be taken to mean something like a methodological appropriation of structural linguistics, we can empathize with Derrida’s evident frustration. Yet the linguistic turn has generally been understood far more broadly—and more vaguely—to designate a watershed moment in the history of philosophy when language begins to be problematized across a range of philosophical movements and schools, from the analytic philosophy of Frege and Wittgenstein to the structuralism of Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Lacan and certainly including the neopragmatism of Richard Rorty whose 1967 anthology The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method helped popularize the term. And more to the point, in his 1966 critique of structuralism, “Sign, Structure and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Derrida himself clearly acknowledged this more broadly conceived linguistic turn as a “moment” in the “history of the concept of structure” “when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse,” citing Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger as “those authors in whose discourse this occurrence has kept most closely to its most radical formulation” (28). In retrospect Derrida’s strategic deployment of the linguistic turn as the opening move in this early critique of structuralism seems glaringly at [End Page 152] odds with his more recent dismissal of the linguistic turn as a modality or manifestation of the very structuralism it was meant to destabilize. What has motivated, we might ask, this late turn against the turn?

Given the scope of its meaning and the range of theoretical projects and movements it is meant to encompass, the concept of the linguistic turn remains perhaps insufficiently nuanced and in need of further theoretical refinement along poststructuralist lines in order to distinguish it—if possible—from mere structuralism or logocentrism. To this end I would like to suggest that, rather than designating a discrete moment—a unique historical moment—when “language invaded the universal problematic,” the linguistic turn marks a “return of language” from its long repression or subordination within the discursive formations it has engendered—within what Foucault has called the episteme of classical representation and what Rorty has called the tradition of philosophical representationalism (Foucault, 42-4, 303-7, 384; Rorty, Mirror 3-13). In what follows I attempt to resituate the linguistic turn within a tradition of philological historicism that informs the work of Vico, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Rorty, among others, for whom intellectual history is understood as a recursive or messianic cycle of rhetorical projection and recuperation or return. This reconsideration seeks to disclose not only the messianism already tacitly at work in the poststructuralist model of the linguistic turn (evidence of which began to appear in Derrida’s late interest in “the messianic structure that belongs to all language,” [“Deconstruction and Pragmatism” 82]), but also the messianic status of deconstruction itself as a discursive or methodological effect of this linguistic return.


The tradition of philological historicism from which the messianic idea of the linguistic return may be said to emerge begins with Vico, who in the 18th century advances a theory of abstraction or idealization predicated upon the faculty of the poetic imagination. Motivated by a desire to counter the current philosophical understanding of Homer as a kind of Greek sage endowed with esoteric wisdom, and to discover...


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pp. 152-165
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