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Why do we so often misunderstand one another? Derrida on communication

The other night we enjoyed a fabulous poetry evening at the local branch of the Alliance Francaise, with several poets presenting their poetry, from the increasingly well-known poetess, Lelethu to the well-known Brian Walter, with his Helenvale poets and the Afrikaans poet and literary critic Marius Crous. Because, being a Francophile myself, I have been on excellent terms with the people at the Alliance for a long time, and because they are aware of my love for French culture, they sometimes invite me to make a contribution to events such as this poetry evening.

The theme of the evening had something to do with poetry crossing divides between people, so what better contribution could I make than a presentation commemorating one of the giants of French philosophy, Jacques Derrida (who died in 2004) – not on crossing the gap that separates us, but on the way the nature of language itself more often than not prevents us from bridging that chasm. In short, my talk concerned Derrida’s thoughtful, provocatively paradoxical claim that interpersonal communication is both possible AND impossible.

In Ulysses Gramophone: Hear say Yes in Joyce. (Trans. Kendall, T, & Benstock, S, in Kamuf, P (ed), A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp.571-598), Derrida elaborates on the conditions of the simultaneous possibility of understanding AND of misunderstanding one’s interlocutor. Whether this is in a face-to-face conversation, or a telephonic chat, or reading someone’s letter, or e-mail message, or text (SMS-) message, this ineradicable possibility of misunderstanding, or being misunderstood, always haunts one, with no guarantee of ever getting rid of it.

The same goes for interpreting poetry, or a novel – in fact, any literary, or other kind of written text – there is no guarantee that your interpretation of the text is “accurate”. The fact that this was Derrida’s theme in the essay on James Joyce referred to above was no accident. He had been invited to present a lecture at the very exclusive Joyce Society of the world, and because Derrida was always ready for a challenge, he accepted. Why a challenge? Because Joyce famously claimed that it would take literary critics centuries to make sense of his notoriously difficult novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and the invitation to Derrida was as much as saying to the philosopher known as Monsieur Texte: “Come and say something original about Joyce, if you can!” And surprise them with something original he did.

Here I can obviously only provide a severely truncated version of his paper/essay. (If you want to know more, read Derrida’s original, or my paper, “The (im-)possibility of communication”, Communicare, Journal for Communication Sciences in Southern Africa, Vol. 23, (1), July 2004, pp.79-91). In a nutshell, Derrida analyses the situation where one has to interpret something, like reading Joyce’s Ulysses, or being involved in a conversation, along the lines of “the yes”. Consequently he analysed the relevance for communication in general of the last words in Joyce’s Ulysses (p. 704 of the 1968 Penguin edition): “ … and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”.

For Derrida this use of “yes” by Joyce to conclude this mighty novel is highly significant (1991:576): “In order for the yes of affirmation, assent, consent, alliance, of engagement, signature, or gift to have the value it has, it must carry the repetition within itself. It must a priori and immediately confirm its promise and promise its confirmation. This essential repetition lets itself be haunted by an intrinsic threat, by an internal telephone which acts like a parasite, like its mimetic, mechanical double, its incessant parody”.

This is an eloquently philosophical way of saying that, when one says “yes”, implicitly it contains a promise that an hour from now, or tomorrow, or next year, one would say “yes” again regarding the subject of one’s conversation at the time. To say “yes” today and reverse one’s stance on the matter tomorrow means that you did not mean “yes” in the first place. As he observes (p. 576): “The yes can only speak itself if it promises itself its own memory … The affirmation of the yes is the affirmation of memory. Yes must preserve itself, and thus reiterate itself, archive its voice in order to give it once again to be heard and understood … Yes gramophones itself and, a priori, telegramophones itself.”

What the heck does this mean, you may be asking at this point. Simply put: saying “yes”, whether it is in a literary text or on the telephone, immediately confirms its own memory in the sense of promising to remember. But surely this is all good news about the possibility of communicating “effectively”, and being understood? Yes and no. Yes, because every affirmation (“yes”) indeed confirms the occurrence of understanding, of being understood, BUT it also, simultaneously (as Derrida’s use of the term, “telegramophones” indicates), contains its own “archive” or memory in the form of a merely “mechanical” repetition, as in the case of hearing someone’s voice on an answering machine when you phone them.

In other words, when attempting to “get through” to someone, you may only succeed getting through to a mechanical version of the “yes”, and not the person herself. And can you trust this recorded voice to be a sincere, reliable response to your “Hello”? Similarly, when attempting to interpret a difficult novel like Ulysses, is there any guarantee that your interpretation is not the equivalent of a “mechanical” response to what is already there, in the text, which Joyce cleverly pre-programmed into the text so that your interpretation is nothing more than a kind of answering machine that was anticipated by him?

This is why Derrida proceeds to distinguish between two kinds of “signature” and two kinds of “laughter” that always accompany any act of interpretation in the process of communication. Every act of communication, every “yes” – in the form of a text, like Ulysses, or in verbal communication (directly or telephonically, or by email, or Facebook) – constitutes a “signature” of sorts. Not a signature extraneous to the act of communication, but one that coincides with it.

In the case of Ulysses the text as a whole, with all its words or signifiers arranged in a certain sequence comprises Joyce’s signature in the text. In a conversation the tonality of the voice, as well as what is said by interlocutors amounts to the “signature”. And when one attempts to understand the text (Ulysses, eg), or what your conversation partner says, your interpretation is your “counter-signature”. This “counter-signature” can be met by one of two types of laughter: first, a “reactive, even a negative, yes-laughter” (p. 587), which is a sardonic, mocking laughter in the face of your futile attempt to give an original interpretation to the text or the spoken/written words. In the case of Joyce’s Ulysses this most often happens, because of the writer’s uncanny ability, contained in the text, to anticipate every attempt at interpreting it. As if he was saying: “You cannot bring anything original to this hyper-pre-programmed text; I have anticipated EVERYTHING, and you can only repeat it”. In the same way Hegel believed he anticipated all future philosophy in his book, The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hence the sardonic laughter.

But, says Derrida, there is a yes-laughter with a different tonality in Ulysses, a “ … yes-laughter of a gift without debt … ” (p.589). This gift-laughter intimates that, alongside the mocking laughter of indebtedness to the author, there is a laughter signifying the unforeseeable event or unexpected arrival of the “other” – so unexpected that not even the most algorithmically calibrated technological instruments or megaprogrammes of control ever devised could leap into the unknown future to greet it with a sardonic, anticipating “yes-laughter”, depriving you of your own ability to “repeat differently”, in your own voice, and not mechanically.

This, for Derrida, is a reminder that our responses to texts as well as utterances could be a unique “counter-signature”, exceeding what the hyperprogrammed text (Ulysses) or mechanically repeating voice anticipates. Only then can we avoid the pitfalls of miscommunication. But you can never escape the possibility that your counter-signature will provoke the derisive laughter that says that you have misunderstood, or that you have simply repeated, mechanically, what is already there. Hence the paradox: communication is possible AND impossible – it is (im-)possible. And no smartphone can remedy this.