The Fold of Language

Derrida, pre-University essay on Shakespeare, written in 1950.
Writing in red his tutor’s comments and 10 out of 20 mark. © Stanfond University

Post #13 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

The Relationship Between Language and the Gift (GT, 79-81)
Derrida says any definition of language is informed by a certain relationship to the gift being there in advance, it is a relationship that obliges us to think the gift. We also speak of language as a given, one received out of a “fundamental passivity.” Language “gives one to think” but it also:

Steals, spirits away from us, whispers to us, and withdraws the responsibility it seems to inaugurate, it carries off the property of our own thoughts even before we have appropriated them (80)

The scope of this double capacity of language extends beyond the spoken idiom, “to all textuality in general.”

All semantic ambivalence and the syntactico-semantic problem of giving-taking are not situated only within the words of language or the elements of a textual system. Language is also an example of it, as is any textual determination. In a riposte to structuralism Derrida goes on to say:

One must not … ask oneself, in something close to rapturous wonder, how is it possible that to give and/or to take are said this way or that way in a language, … one must remember first of all that language is … a phenomenon of gift-countergift, of giving-taking—and of exchange. All the difficulties of nomination or writing in the broad sense are also difficulties of self-naming, of self-writing. (81)

Everything said about giving-taking folds back on language and writing as giving-taking. Giving comes back, comes down to taking and taking to giving, folding over not only language or writing but the text generally “beyond its linguistic or logocentric closure, beyond its narrow or common meaning.” This “come back” redoubles endlessly not only the semantic ambivalence that Beneveniste speaks of, but also the “ambivalence of the gift as good and bad, as gift and poison (Gift-gift).” (ibid)

Derek Hampson

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