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Derrida, the Supplement, and Alice

 

Alice in Wonderland 1

(Culler, Literary Theory 9-13)

"Oh, you ca’n’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."

"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here." (Alice in Wonderland 51)

 

"Theory is often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as ‘common sense’ is in fact a historical construction, a particular theory that has come to seem so natural to us that we don’t even see it as a theory" (Culler 4).

1) COMMON SENSE AND BINARY LOGIC

Western philosophy, a.k.a. Metaphysics

Binary Oppositions

 

B

A

 

These opposites are arranged hierarchically:

 

Good

Evil

Mind

Body

Reality

Appearance

Thought

Sign

Speech

Writing

Self

Other

Identity

Difference

Interior

Exterior

 

Lest we get too abstract, remember that these oppositions have political ramifications:

Man

Woman

 

Derrida, thinker of the 60s, wants to challenge these old ways of ordering the world.

 

2) WRITING AS A SUPPLEMENT TO SPEECH

The binary that Derrida works most famously with is:

 

Speech

Writing

 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (18th-century French writer):

"…writing serves only as a supplement to speech"

Writing comes after speech, less immediate

Writing is more removed from the immediacy of thought; it is not as PRESENT as speech:

Presence

Absence

 

Jacques Derrida (Late 20th-century French writer):

To supplement something is to add to it AND to complete it…

This implies that the thing being supplemented needs completion—

There is absence in what was supposedly present

Derrida shows how Western philosophers, in their efforts to prove the superiority of speech over writing, unwittingly turn to references and metaphors of writing. Indeed, they use WRITING to convey their arguments….

 

3) THE LOGIC OF SUPPLEMENTARITY:

"the thing supplemented (speech) turns out to need supplementation because it proves to have the same qualities originally thought to characterize only the supplement (writing)" (Culler 11)

Example: Rousseau's "infatuation" with the adolescent "Maman" (page 11):

He fetishizes the girl's sheets, her possessions, in order to supplement her absence.

When she is present, however, he still seems to experience some sort of absence and needs to supplement it…

 

How the logic of supplementarity works:

A is added to B.

A substitutes for B.

A is a superfluous addition to B.

A makes up for the absence of B.

A usurps the place of B.

A makes up for B's deficiency.

A corrupts the purity of B.

A is necessary to that B can be restored.

A is an accident alienating B from itself.

A is that without which B would be lost.

A is that through which B is lost.

A is a danger to B.

A is a remedy to B.

A's fallacious charm seduces one away from B.

A can never satisfy the desire for B.

A protects against direct encounter with B.

--from Barbara Johnson, "Writing," Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (University of Chicago Press, 1990)

 

4) THE RESULT:

Remember, if the goal is to question Binary Logic, then simply replacing the privileged component

(B, presence, speech)

with the supplement

(A, absence, writing)

then we would be simply reversing the equation and reinforcing binary logic…

Derrida's larger goal is to destabilize the binary structure and the corresponding hierarchy altogether.

(This is popularly referred to as DECONSTRUCTION)

The best way to do this is to show how much both sides of the binary structure have in common…

Thus, with the opposition

 

Speech

Writing

 

we see that both speech and writing involve absence, a loss of immediacy

 

5. APPLICATION TO ALICE

One of most prevalent concepts in Alice in Wonderland is the idea of "Nonsense."

We can fit this nicely into traditional binary structures, like so:

Reality

Fantasy

Order

Chaos

Victorian England

Wonderland

 

This culminates in a broad thematic opposition:

Sense

Nonsense

 

 

Thus, we can arrive at a working thesis:

In Alice in Wonderland, "nonsense" acts as a "supplement" to sense…

Nonsense replaces sense, seems inferior to it, and yet also completes it…

Nonsense says things about existence that can't be said through sense.

Nonsense, as a supplement, shows us how nonsensical sense can be.

Alice in Wonderland 2