Derrida: the Never-Ending Story
by Daniel Hartley
When is a book finished? The obvious answer is when you’ve reached the last full stop of the last page. And there’s nothing wrong with that answer: it makes perfect sense on a day-to-day basis. But since literary theorists constitute a significant percentage of the global academic workforce, they have to complicate things a little or else they’d be out of a job.
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), who was actually an Algerian-born French philosopher but who was co-opted almost immediately by a lagging literary community, was different from the majority of that workforce, in that he actually had some exciting and original things to say. In an essay he wrote in 1963, entitled ‘Force and Signification’, he touches briefly upon what he calls ‘theological simultaneity’. Now, in order to understand this, imagine a novel that ends where it begins (one could do worse than Coelho’s utterly banal The Alchemist). The scholars against which Derrida was writing (the structuralists), but to a vast extent we, too, today, would undoubtedly wax lyrical about the ‘circular’ structure of the plot. But Derrida poses two important questions:
- Where is this circle? Where does it exist?
- How can a whole book be present at one moment?
Reading is a temporal process. As we read, the book is never present in its entirety; indeed, a mere sentence isn’t even present all at once. (Just go back and read that last sentence: how could anyone ‘hold the whole sentence in their minds’? No sooner have we read ‘As we read’ than it disappears to make way for ‘a book’, and so on.) So those who speak of a ‘circle’ are under the impression that they can contain the whole book in their minds in one go, which is a lie. This is what Derrida means by ‘theological simultaneity’: these critics make a Platonic god of the physical object; ‘simultaneity is the myth of a total reading or description, promoted to the status of a regulatory ideal’ (p. 29). It spatializes time.
So how is this relevant to normal life? Well, at a trivial level, it means that a book is never finished. Technically, a book can never even start. Don’t be fooled by the tome you hold between your hands: you might think you control it, but it contains mysterious powers which evade you. You can tear a book, or drown it, or burn it, but meaning itself is the great Houdini which no page or talk of circles could ever circumscribe. Like Bob Dylan, there where you think you’ve pinned him down is precisely where he’s not.
And this, amongst many other reasons, is why Derrida is so politically potent. Any totalitarian regime is the social equivalent of ‘theological simultaneity’, claiming to be now, and always and everywhere, like an all-conserving, unchangeable myth. But what Derrida has shown, far better than I have managed to express here, is that this myth is, indeed, but a myth. Such regimes claim to have found the fountain of eternal youth, but in the deep of night they jolt awake, cold and panting, because their dreams are haunted by the man who got there first: Derrida. He poisoned that fountain with time, and différance, and age.
 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), pp. 1-35.