115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Culture and Corruption in Rousseau’s Essai sur l’Origine des Langues

Owen Staley, California Baptist University

In this paper, I return to Grammatologie at its fiftieth anniversary to inquire what has been the lasting effect of Derrida’s deconstruction of Rousseau’s etiology of language?  I conclude that the reputations of both texts have prospered, but that Grammatologie has obscured rather than revealed important concerns within Rousseau’s Essai


     Rousseau’s eccentric “Essay on the Origin of Languages,” published posthumously in 1781, was by his own account a fragment of his 1754 Second Discourse, "On the Origins of Inequality," which covers some of the same ground. The exact chronology is disputed, but the relation between texts is clear: the Second Discourse describes the advance of human kind from savagery to civilization, and the institution of language is a signal moment in that development. Where and how it occurs is somewhat unclear, as the Essai provides two parallel etiologies: the origin of “southern languages” to express passion (chap. 9), and in “the north,” including France and Italy, to express necessity (chap. 10). There follows a gradual decline from strongly accented melodic verse to language’s final degradation, writing, “which seems as if it should fix language, [but] is precisely what alters it,” substituting precision for expressiveness (chap. 4, trans. Scott, p. 300).

     Derrida enters the conversation with his 1967 De la Grammatologie, using explication de texte to reveal that the philosophical language of Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, and for most of the book, Rouseau’s Essai is replete with contradictions, particularly when privileging of presence over absence or speech over writing. Derrida offers “grammatology” as a means of revealing and thus remedying the constraints of binary logic, demonstrating that all language is polysemous écriture marked by a “dangerous promiscuity and a nefarious complicity between the reflection and the reflected which lets itself be seduced narcissistically” (36). Derrida locates several contradictions among statements made in the Essai and with statements made elsewhere, showing Rousseau’s text to be an improbable bricolage of conflicting assertions that when read carefully often appear absurd.

     An archival examination of articles and translations produced in the interval shows that after its initial French publication in 1967 and English translation in 1976, each followed by several reviews and a smaller number of full-length articles, mostly criticizing Derrida’s writing, Grammatology has had few lasting effects on Rousseau’s reputation and cultural significance that I have so far detected. One such effect has been to attract interest to an otherwise obscure supplement to a more compelling discourse, elevating it into the canon of “western metaphysics.” But otherwise the steady production of Rouseau translations and analyses has shown little alteration.

     Why? Speculatively, one reason might be that aside from its verbal technique, which produces the effect of revealing deeply hidden truths, Derrida’s discussion doesn’t provide much that isn’t already obvious. Where Derrida excels is in his Freudian analysis, for example when he dwells on Rousseau’s use of the term “dangerous supplement” as a euphemism for onanism. I tentatively suggest however that the biggest shortcoming of Grammatology is that instead of teasing out the problematic historical implications of Rousseau’s ethnocentric assumptions, or attempting to link them to subsequent events, it tends to further obscure them, leaving Rousseau’s association with Maximilien Robespierre for example to future scholars to excavate.