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Nothing Will Come of Nothing: On the Nature of the "Nothing" in "Il n'y a pas de hors-text"

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

The Second Coming, W.B. Yeats

How does one give meaning to what does not mean, does not signify? How can one make any comment on “nothing”, on a “no-thing”? These aporias are the fundamental questions of method that arise when trying to understand the nature of the “nothing” in Derrida’s assertion that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”: "there is nothing outside the text."

Such an (anti)metaphysical task is made more difficult when the impartiality previously ascribed to the language of metaphysics is stripped away, since to use that language is to become hopelessly implicated in the very concept—the supremacy/possibility of “Presence”, of a “centre”—which Derrida’s “nothing”—fundamentally an “absence”—works to refute. Once all connections between signifier and signified, and thus all certainty and stability, are removed from language, what path can lead to an understanding of this incomprehensible “nothing”? The only path left open is one of indirection, an elliptical route of metaphor and irony like that running throughout Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences, which, implicitly, examines this question: what is the “nothing” which lies outside of language?

Derrida begins by attacking the concept of a “centre”: that “point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible…where the permutation or the transformation of elements…is forbidden…interdicted” (83-84). The point he describes exists outside language, necessary to it but not a part of it. As Derrida shows, such a transcendental “point” is not, and it cannot exist as a fixed “point”. Instead, it is a “function, a sort of non-locus”; if “the centre is not the centre” (84), then the centre does not exist, the centre is itself a “no-thing.” The descriptions given here of the (nonexistent) centre seem suited toward understanding the “nothing” that we seek to investigate. This “nothing” is the space where all substitutions, all exchanges, are precluded, where play ceases and all signification collapses in on itself.

Here the “nothing” is not granted any sort of transcendental significance, not put somehow above or beyond signification, but instead grasped as the interstitial space both within and outside of language, characterized by absence. It is the place where there is “no-thing” to signify. The “nothing” is the uncertain void beyond language that language attempts to cover up; it is to this that Derrida refers when he states that the concept of a centre, of “fundamental ground”, allows us to master anxiety, which “is invariably the result of…being implicated in the game…of being…at stake in the game from the outset” (84). Language seems to offer certitude, but really only attempts, like some societal psychic defense mechanism, to mask the Lacanian “lack”—or “absence”, or “nothing”—of certainty that lies at the “centre” of the human condition.

It is important to note that language—and every text—consists of a surplus of signification, an “overabundance of the signifier” that supplements its own “lack” (92). Language is not a closed, static system, but rather an ocean of signifiers, never complete or able to be totalized; at the very instant of the creation of a “something” outside of language, language spills over, and incorporates that “something” into itself. In a sense, this “something” is always already implicit in the differing/deferring tissue of signifiers. Similar to the constant expansion of the infinite universe, language is both finite and infinite, “a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite” (91). Language encompasses all that can be known, and is at the same time able to expand, if necessary, to encompass still more.

Yet these explanations can themselves be deconstructed; each seems to posit a binary between language and nothing, continuing the presence/absence binary whose refutation is so necessary to an understanding of Derrida’s philosophy. However, while “there is nothing outside the text”, there is also nothing inside the text, no “presence” inherent in language, or to which language refers. The text is nothing more or less than the web of negatively differentiated signifiers, each linked to all through their traces, but never actually connecting to a signified. Text is, in this sense, a “no-thing”, which requires both its own absence, and the absence of any transcendent “reality” outside of it, to mean. If multiple signifiers were present at the same time, they would have no differential value, no signification; if a transcendent existed, it would negate the necessity of its signification. Therefore the “nothing” is not, cannot be, the “real”, since this “reality” is itself but a text to be read, inseparable from the moment of its construction.

If reality is a text, of sorts, congruent with the texts of language and discourse, then the notion that language represents or refers to some external “reality” breaks down. This hypothetical description (of one text by another) would become just another text itself, part of the over-arching text of the signifying system as a whole. If language doe not represent reality, we are left with nothing but Levi-Strauss’ bricolage, and “every discourse is bricoleur” (88). The concept of the bricoleur, compared to that of the engineer, may be of use when examining the “nothing.” The basic position of bricolage is that we must use “the means at hand” because we cannot “construct the totality of our language, syntax and lexicon” (88). We cannot be engineers, cannot construct new “tools” out of language precisely because there is nothing outside the shifting ground of language. There is no stable position or “centre” from which we can create anything which is not embroiled in language at the moment of its very conception: we cannot become “the absolute origin of our own discourse” (88).

Just as Levi-Strauss' engineer comes to be seen as “a myth created by the bricoleur” (88), so can the “hors-texte” be seen as a myth created by language, a myth needed by language in order to give it the illusion of authority and to quell the “anxiety” generated by its inherent contradictions and lack of authority. There is no “outside-the-text”, nothing “outside” the text created by the web of language: the nature of the “nothing” is nothing. Yet this “nothing”, this absolute absence, is absolutely necessary. For language to function, for a text to work, there must be something absent from it: “a centre which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions” (91). When this absence is understood, we all become bricoleurs, putting what is recognized as flawed, as both not enough and at the same time too much, to whatever use is needed. Instead of seeing the “nothing” in a negative way, it can be seen in an affirmative manner; the “noncenter" (the “nothing”) becomes “determined…otherwise than as loss of the center”, and we are free to “play without security” (93). To play without security, but with our eyes open, with the certitude of our lack of certitude: with, at least, a stumbling awareness that existence is but a text, and “there is nothing outside the text.”

Derrida, Jacques. Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. Critical Theory Since 1965, pp. 83-94. Ed. Adams, H. and Searle, L. Florida State Univ. Press, Tallahassee: 1986.

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