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  • Of StigmatologyToward a General Theory of Punctuation
  • Peter Szendy (bio)
    Translated by Jan Plug

Excerpts from OF STIGMATOLOGY: PUNCTUATION AS EXPERIENCE, forthcoming from Fordham University Press

[End Page 6]

Monauralisms, or the Bubble of Quotation Marks

“To tympanize—philosophy”: with this injunction, Jacques Derrida in 1972 opened the discourse of Margins of Philosophy. An injunction echoed, two pages later, by this watchword borrowed directly from Friedrich Nietzsche: “To philosophize with a hammer.”1

To tympanize (from the Greek tumpanon, “drum,” from which the verb tumpanizein, “to beat a drum,” is derived) first of all means to criticize or ridicule publicly, which was done in the past by accompanying legal decisions and judgments with drumming. To tympanize then means to tire, trouble, bother by deafening the tympanum in the ear. Finally, to tympanize means to inflate or bloat the abdomen, stretching it tight with internal air pressure, like the skin of the timpani. All these meanings are there, on the lookout as it were, ready to jump out, lurking in the opening of Margins, which Derrida punctuates with the long dash that, like Tristram, he too uses and abuses, though no doubt for different reasons: “to tympanize—philosophy” is not only to attack it publicly, to torment it, but also to auscultate or percuss it by listening in order, as Nietzsche said of the idols, “to hear in reply that well-known hollow tone that tells of ballooned innards.”2

Derrida soon adds yet another sense to the broad scope of the verb “to tympanize” (and we don’t really know whether its subject is philosophy or if philosophy, in apposition to “tympanize” by way of a silent dash, is tympanization itself), allowing it to drift toward its homonym in the typographical lexicon: “In terms of the printing press,” he asks, “what is a tympan?” And, before quoting a “treatise on typography” at length, he responds: [End Page 7]

In terms of the manual printing press, then, there is not one tympan but several. Two frameworks, of different material, generally wood and iron, fit into one another, are lodged, if one can put it thus, in one another. One tympan in the other, one of wood the other of iron, one large and one small. Between them, the sheet of paper


Now, we know that feuille is French slang for ear.4 So we are led to read this allusion to the traditional art of printing as an allegory for the auditory apparatus as a mechanism for inscription or marking. As a result, the vocabulary of typography is superimposed, as it were, onto the vocabulary of hearing, as though some structural affinity brought the mechanism of the ear together with what is most silent in the typographic mark, with the muffled beats of what remains unheard-of.

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Which is to say with what Derrida will later in Margins describe as a sort of arche-punctuation that would silently space the text as well as language and speech—in short, the very play of différe/ance:

So-called phonetic writing . . . can function only by admitting into its system nonphonetic “signs” (punctuation, spacing, etc.). And an examination of the structure and necessity of these nonphonetic signs quickly reveals that they can barely tolerate the concept of the sign itself. Better, the play of difference, which, as Saussure reminded us, is the condition for the possibility and functioning of every sign, is in itself a silent play. Inaudible is the difference between two phonemes which alone permits them to be and to operate as such. The inaudible opens up the apprehension of two present phonemes such as they present themselves.5

Before Margins, in Of Grammatology, Derrida already attached great significance to this punctuation, which he said is “the best example of a nonphonetic mark within writing.”6 And later he continues to pay meticulous and curious attention to punctuating marks, sometimes going so far as to depict them as actual characters, like the fiery periods and other exclamation marks that haunt Perekladin’s dreams.7

And so, for example, in Of Spirit we see quotation marks that “provide . . . surveillance around the word...


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