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The concept of writing serves to connect a number of crucial though apparently disparate concerns in the Cahiers: analysis of the logic of the signifier and its relation to science, conceptions of self-identity and self-presence, a critical engagement with Rousseau and his legacy, and an assessment of contemporary literature.

The theme of writing became a central concern of 1960s French philosophy and literary theory, thanks in particular to the work of Maurice Blanchot, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida.

Classical and conventional conceptions of writing had understood it as doubly derivative: as a transcription of speech, and as a response of some kind to an extra-textual referent or reality. In the domain of literature, the work of Gustave Flaubert and several of his contemporaries, followed by the poetry and critical reflections of Stéphane Mallarmé, began to assert the primacy and autonomy of writing as such. Detached from an identifiable speaker and an external context or referent, writing came to acquire the status of an anonymous and self-generating absolute. From Romanticism to Mallarmé, as Michel Foucault summarised things, ‘literature becomes progressively more differentiated from the discourse of ideas and encloses itself within a radical intransitivity.’ It thereby ‘becomes merely a manifestation of a language that has no other law than that of affirming […] its own precipitous existence. [… T]hus all its threads converge upon the finest of points – singular, instantaneous and yet absolutely universal – upon the simple act of writing.’1

Picking up where Mallarmé left off, Blanchot proposed a radically subtractive account of literary writing. ‘The word only has meaning if it gets rid of the object that it names’, he suggested, and poetry exists ‘to detach us from being’.2 ‘Literature aims to make of language an absolute, and to recognise in this absolute the equivalent of silence.’3 To write is thus to undergo a radical detachment, to lose one’s identity in an impersonal murmure anonyme. Writing begins when the writer forgoes ‘the power to say “I”’.4 When I write ‘I am not there, there is nobody there, but the impersonal is there.’5 A good deal of the French post-war literary avant-garde (Klossowski, Beckett, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, etc.) would devote itself to an exploration of the forms of self-erasure and depersonalisation associated with writing (cf. Milner, ‘Grammaire d’Aragon’, CpA 7.2:51).

Over the course of the 1960s, anchored in a critique of Husserl’s conception of speech and voice (as invested with the self-presence, sincerity and authority of a direct expression of thought), Derrida began to develop a far-reaching critique of canonical philosophical approaches to the theme of writing. For Derrida, the metaphysical tradition, from Plato to Rousseau through to Husserl and after, had always presented writing as secondary to and dependent upon speech,6, which it understood as the absolute immediacy of meaning, the presence of an intended meaning or signified, expressed by a suitable verbal signifier. ‘The whole history of metaphysics’, Derrida suggests, has been ‘phonocentric’7 (i.e., voice-centred) at the expense of writing. Partly in order to distinguish itself from mere literature, metaphysical reflection has ‘always placed in parenthesis, suspended, and suppressed for essential reasons, all free reflection on the origin and status of writing, all science of writing which was not technology and the history of a technique, itself leaning upon a mythology and a metaphor of a natural writing.’8

However, Saussure had established that signification does not proceed from the intentions of speakers directed at meanings or referents, but from the system of differences that serve to distinguish signifying elements on the one hand and signified terms on the other; however close the homology between these two orders of differences there is no way to ensure perfect overlap, and there are no ‘positive’, self-identical terms that underlie them.9 The lack of self-presence associated with writing as opposed to speech, Derrida argues, is in fact characteristic of all signs, spoken or written. All signifying processes presuppose the ‘spacing’ and differing of their terms, components or ‘traces.’ Against the tradition that associates speech with self-presence, Chris Norris explains,

Derrida argues what at first must seem an extraordinary case: that writing is in fact the precondition of language and must be conceived as prior to speech. This involves showing, to begin with, that the concept of writing cannot be reduced to its normal (i.e. graphic or inscriptional) sense. As Derrida deploys it, the term is closely related to that element of signifying difference which Saussure thought essential to the workings of language. Writing, for Derrida, is the ‘free play’ or element of undecidability within every system of communication. Its operations are precisely those which escape the self-consciousness of speech and its deluded sense of the mastery of concept over language. Writing is the endless displacement of meaning which both governs language and places it for ever beyond the reach of a stable, self-authenticating knowledge. In this sense, oral language already belongs to a ‘generalized writing’, the effects of which are everywhere disguised by the illusory ‘metaphysics of presence’. Language is always inscribed in a network of relays and differential ‘traces’ which can never be grasped by the individual speaker […]. Writing is that which exceeds – and has the power to dismantle – the whole traditional edifice of Western attitudes to thought and language.10

As Christina Howells further explains, what Derrida then calls archi-écriture ‘does not mean writing in the narrow sense but rather connotes those aspects of writing shared with speech [including transcription, notation, recording, classification, etc.] which are denied and repressed in theories that have an investment in maintaining the natural and unmediated nature of the spoken word’11 (cf. CpA 4.1:34).

Jacques Lacan’s primary concern is with language and the symbolic more generally, rather than with writing specifically. In his later work, however, the logic of Lacan’s line of investigation drew him closer to a position that would be forcefully championed by several Cahiers contributors, in particular Alain Badiou. Lacan’s enduring conviction that ‘the question of the real is commensurable with the question of language’ eventually came to find its final principle, as Badiou would later observe, with the process of ‘mathematisation […]. Lacan holds mathematisation to be the key to any thinkable relation to the real.’12 In his own later work (notably in Being and Event, 1988) Badiou develops an ontology based on precisely such a relation, on the post-Lacanian assumption that ‘the sole power that can be aligned with that of being is the power of the letter [puissance de la lettre].’13 In his earlier work (notably in CpA 10.8:n.18) Badiou already insists, after Althusser and following Mallarmé, that if ‘one wants to exhibit writing as such, and to excise its author’, then science should be recognised as the most ‘radical’ and most absolute domain of such exhibition.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Jacques Derrida’s ‘Nature, Culture, Écriture: La violence de la lettre de Lévi-Strauss à Rousseau’ (soon to be republished as a central chapter of his 1967 book De la grammatologie) is the most substantial engagement with the theme of writing in the Cahiers. It consists in large part of a reading of the ‘writing lesson’ that Claude Lévi-Strauss gave to the Nambikwara, as recounted in his memoir Tristes Tropiques (1955). According to Derrida, this ‘writing lesson’ illustrates Lévi-Strauss’s ‘declared and militant Rousseauism’ (CpA 4.1:11). The analysis of the Nambikwara mirrors in its structure Rousseau’s presentation of a state of nature, a nostalgic description of a ‘crystalline’ and ‘authentic’ society before violence and social hierarchies (27), which was corrupted by the arrival of the white man (i.e. Lévi-Strauss himself) and the abrupt introduction of his decadent ‘civilization’, as represented by writing. The artifice of writing heralds the loss of natural simplicity, sincerity, equality and justice.

Derrida then proceeds to deconstruct Lévi-Strauss’ account. He agrees that writing is a condition of violence and social hierarchies, but he argues that this is true of writing as such, writing broadly understood, and not just the Western ethnocentric version that Lévi-Strauss himself analyzed. This more general form of writing was already at work in Nambikwara society (as in any society), which could, consequently, no longer be presented as originally pure and innocent. Derrida calls this more general form of writing ‘arche-writing’ (CpA 4.1; see above). Derrida goes on to argue that arche-writing is at work in forms of individuation and inscription that have nothing to do with the conventional notion of writing as the transcription of spoken words, e.g. in the use of proper names, linear decoration, inscription, etc. The association of writing and violence, then, cannot be mapped onto a narrative that moves from an initial innocence to a subsequent corruption. Violence is already at work ‘in the difference or the arche-writing that opens speech itself’ (36-37). Constitutively bound up with violence, writing is also the necessary condition of all science, and of law, freedom and ethical responsibility (38; 43; 50).

Jean Mosconi’s ‘Analyse et genèse: regards sur la théorie du devenir de l’entendement au XVIIIe siècle’ (CpA 4.2) follows Derrida’s contribution, and its reference to Rousseau makes a broadly similar point. In Rousseau’s historical anthropology, the development of writing figures as part of a transition from original innocence to ‘civilised’ corruption. Society figures here as the process whereby ‘passion turns into institution’ (82). The first socialised passions, Rousseau speculates, remained ‘youthful’ and innocent, and were voiced in poetry and song. As social development progressed, however, new needs emerged which brought with them greed, jealousy and resentment; along the way, spoken language ‘degrades’ into writing, a process which completes the stifling of natural passionate expression (84). Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages should be read, Mosconi argues, as part of a ‘philosophical tradition which runs from Plato’s Phaedrus to the “Writing Lesson” of [Lévi-Strauss] Tristes Tropiques’ (85).

Alain Grosrichard would come back to the same theme in Cahiers Volume 8, when in his ‘Gravité de Rousseau’ (CpA 8.2:43-64) he explains how Rousseau seeks in vain to let nature speak without representation. Rousseau’s discourse operates in the ‘distance maintained between an exterior which it pushes away yet continuously belongs to, since it is written discourse and representation, and a silent centre it never managed to reach, since reaching it would have meant silencing and cancelling itself as discourse’ (46). As it unfolds, ‘the story of Rousseau’s oeuvre is the story of a split at the interior of the world, which becomes, little by little, interior to writing itself. The work is thus itself gripped in the process of perversion it denounces; it accomplishes it by saying it’ (46).

In the introduction he wrote for (but which wasn’t published in) Cahiers issue 7, ‘Les Pouvoirs de la littérature’, Jacques-Alain Miller claims that the work of Gombrowicz, Aragon and Borges surpasses previous modernist literary experiments that still left a place for commentary on the act of writing at their centre. To say that every work asymptotically tends towards an ever more reflexive commentary on the process of its composition leads to a ‘bad infinity’; here, on the contrary, the goal is to ‘realise the limit of the asymptote in a point’, and thereby to eliminate the dimension of reflection. In Gombrowicz’s Pornography, for instance, the character of Olek Skuziak is precisely such an ‘impossible’ and ‘anamorphic’ presence, ‘the composition now becomes the subject, a narrative constructing itself in proportion that it states the very system that supports it’. Such a literature of the completed or ‘achieved asymptote’ is one in which the literary ‘machine [is] constructed with the sole end of permitting the description of its own functioning’. (9).

Jean-Claude Milner’s contribution to Volume 7, ‘Grammaire d’Aragon’ (CpA 7.2:45), illustrates the point through a distinction between classical writing and Aragon’s ‘structural’ approach. A classical text can be described as a ‘game that unites and opposes various characters’, a game that disguises its rules via the ‘ruse of individuation’ underlying the apparent integrity of these characters (47). Aragon’s ‘disindividuating writing’, by contrast, disrupts characterisation by absorbing it within the empty ‘density’ of the impersonal ‘I’. ‘The I is indeed massivity, absorption, but its density is only the density of writing: a figure among figures, it designates the law of their composition, the space in which they move […]: the written’ (54). As a self-reflexive instance of writing, Aragon’s novel about writing thus ‘opens within itself the space in which it institutes itself […]: the novel, in writing itself, designates itself as a written work.’

Alain Badiou’s work on the logic and writing of mathematical science affirms a still more emphatic autonomy and austerity. His ‘Marque et Manque: à propos du Zéro’ (CpA 10.8:150) asserts an ‘inaugural confidence in the permanence’ and self-identity or self-substitutability of logico-mathematical marks or graphemes (156). Given any mark x, logic must always treat x as strictly and unequivocally identical with itself. Genuine scientific knowledge depends on the exclusion of the non-identical, with the proviso that ‘the concept of identity holds only for marks’, i.e. mathematical inscriptions. ‘Science as a whole takes self-identity to be a predicate of marks rather than of the object’, a rule which applies to the ‘facts of writing proper to Mathematics’ as it does for the ‘inscriptions of energy proper to Physics’, along with the instruments used to measure them: ‘It is the technical invariance of traces and instruments that subtracts itself from all ambiguity in the substitution of terms. Thus determined, the rule of self-identity allows of no exceptions and does not tolerate any evocation of that which is withheld from it, not even in the form of rejection. What is not substitutable-for-itself is something radically unthought, of which the logical mechanism bears no trace […]. What is not substitutable-for-itself is foreclosed without appeal or mark’ (CpA 10.8:157). This is enough, Badiou concludes (against Miller), to block any inscription and thus any evocation of the dimension of the subject within the field of science. (In his later work, Badiou will argue that by equating mathematics with ontology itself he has finally succeeded in developing a philosophy adequate to Lacan’s (late) insistence that ‘only mathematisation attains a real [atteint à un réel].’14 ‘The grasp of thought upon the real can be established only by the regulated power of the letter’, a regulation that only mathematics can perfect15).

If ‘Marque et Manque’ emphasises the self-identity of a written inscription or mark, the opening question of Badiou’s ‘La Subversion infinitésimale’ (CpA 9.8:118) concerns the nature of this empty place or blank surface presupposed by any such marking. The endless generation of finite numbers through succession (0, 1, 2, 3, 4...) ‘presupposes a (unique) space of exercise, that is to say, an out-of-place blank where the [empty] place is displaced in the retroaction of the inscribed’, a place he describes, after Mallarmé, as an essentially ‘“gratuitous” blankness […]: it is what is written that bestows upon it its status as place of the writing that takes place.’ Only insofar as we assume a space that is actually and already endless can we actually continue to count out an unending series of additional numbers. To inscribe a mathematical variable is already to presume (rather than merely to figure) the infinite domain of its reality: ‘the variable as mark cannot figure the Infinity of marks of a domain, since it is coextensive with their reality’ (CpA 9.8:123). The infinite can and should be treated, i.e. written as a number, rather than intuited or experienced as a horizon, a paradox, or as an intimation of the super-sensible or divine. The suitably axiomatised inscription of infinite or infinitesimal variables is a victory in the unending struggle that pits precise scientific writing against ideological forms of deception or intuition. Such is the struggle of ‘quality, continuity, temporality and negation: the oppressive categories of ideological objectives’ against ‘number, discreteness, space and affirmation: or, better, Mark, Punctuation, Blank Space and Cause: the categories of scientific processes. These are the formal indices of the two “tendencies” that have been in struggle, according to Lenin, since the origins of philosophy’ (136).

Purged of any reference to a subject, for Badiou science, i.e. mathematics, remains an austere ‘archi-theatre of writing’, the articulation of marks, traces, and traces of traces ‘indefinitely substituted for one another in the complication of their entangled errancy’. In terms reminiscent of Blanchot and Foucault, science here prescribes a signifying movement in which ‘we never risk encountering the detestable figure of Man’ (CpA 10.8:164), no more than God, Spirit or any other figure of the subject.

Select bibliography

  • Badiou, Alain. L’Etre et l’événement. Paris: Seuil, 1988. Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum, 2005.
  • Blanchot, Maurice. L’Espace littéraire. Paris: Gallimard, 1955. The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
  • Derrida, Jacques. De la Grammatologie. Paris: Minuit, 1967. Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
  • ----. L’Écriture et la différence, Paris: Seuil, 1967. Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
  • Howells, Christina. Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction from Phenomenology to Ethics, Malden: Polity Press, 1999.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques. Paris: Plon, 1955. Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
  • Norris, Christopher. Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (third edition). London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Essai sur l’origine des langues [written 1754], trans. Victor Gourevitch as Essay on the Origin of Languages, in Rousseau, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


1. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things [1966], trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1970), 300.

2. Maurice Blanchot, La Part du Feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), 37, 47.

3. Blanchot, La Part du Feu, 68.

4. Blanchot, L’Espace littéraire (Paris: Gallimard, coll. ‘Idées’, 1955 [1988 printing]), 19.

5. Blanchot, L’Espace littéraire, 27.

6. Cf. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 7-8. With Hegel, for instance, ‘Writing is that forgetting of the self, that exteriorization, the contrary of the interiorizing memory, of the Erinnerung that opens the history of the spirit’ (24).

7. Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles/Eperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 16.

8. ‘It is this logocentrism’, Derrida continues, ‘which, limiting the internal system of language in general by a bad abstraction, prevents Saussure and the majority of his successors from determining fully and explicitly that which is called “the integral and concrete object of linguistics”’ (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 43).

9. Christopher Norris generalises the point: ‘If there is a single theme which draws together the otherwise disparate field of “structuralist” thought, it is the principle – first enounced by Saussure – that language is a differential network of meaning. There is no self-evident or one-to-one link between “signifier” and “signified”, the word as (spoken or written) vehicle and the concept it serves to evoke. Both are caught up in a play of distinctive features where differences of sound and sense are the only markers of meaning’ (Norris, Deconstruction, 24).

10. Norris, Deconstruction, 28-29.

11. Christina Howells, Derrida, 49.

12. Alain Badiou, ‘Lacan et les présocratiques’ [unpublished typescript, 1990], 3-4.

13. Badiou, ‘Un, Multiple, Multiplicité(s)’, Multitudes 1 (March 2000): In its quite literal insistence on the void, Badiou’s mathematical ontology is perhaps the most consistent formulation of Lacan’s conception of the symbolic register, in which ‘nothing exists against a supposed background of absence. Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist’ (Lacan, ‘Response to Jean Hyppolite’s Commentary on Freud’s “Verneinung”’, Ecrits, 392/327).

14. Lacan, S20, 108, quoted in Badiou, Conditions (Paris: Seuil, 1992), 322. ‘The only [true] teaching is mathematical, the rest is a joke...’ (Lacan, ... ou pire, quoted in Conditions, 292). Only in mathematics can science realise its goal of an ‘integral transmission’ of knowledge (Lacan, S20, 100). For more information on Lacan’s use of mathematics see Alain Juranville, Lacan et la philosophie (Paris: PUF, 1988), 305-318.

15. Badiou, ‘Lacan et les présocratiques’ [1990], 3-4. More precisely, by founding his ontology on the letter Ø (see in particular Being and Event, meditations 4 and 5), Badiou can fairly claim to fulfil Lacan’s great programme: ‘it is in this instance de la lettre, to use Lacan’s expression, an agency or authority [instance] indicated here by the mark of the void, that unfolds thought without One […]. Thus is accomplished the equivalence of being and the letter, once we subtract ourselves from the normative power of the One’ (Badiou, Court Traité d’ontologie transitoire [Paris: Seuil, 1998], 36). What might be called Badiou’s epistemological optimism, early and late – his faith in the literal sufficiency of truth, and the consequent redundance of epistemology as such – is rooted in the several forms of his appreciation of the letter. ‘Only the letter effects but does not discern […]. The letter, which carries the murmur of the indiscernible, is addressed without division. Every subject is traversable by the letter, every subject is trans-literable. This would be my definition of freedom in thought, an egalitarian freedom: a thought is free as soon as it is trans-litered by the little letters of the matheme, the mysterious letters of the poem, the taking of things by the letter [à la lettre] in politics, and the love letter’ (Petit Manuel d’inésthétique [Paris: Seuil, 1998], 57).