Critical Inquiry 11 (3):385-398 (1985)

In a wholesale destructive or deconstructive critique of Western philosophical tradition, it is precisely this ethnocentric-phonocentric view of language that Jacques Derrida has chosen for his target. In Derrida’s critique, Hegel appears as one of the powerful enactors of that tradition yet peculiarly on the verge of turning away from it as “the last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing.”13 As Derrida sees it, phonocentrism in its philosophical dimension is also “logocentrism: the metaphysics of phonetic writing” . Derrida makes it quite clear that such logocentrism is related to Western thinking and to Western thinking alone. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak points this out in the translator’s preface to Of Grammatology: “Almost by a reverse ethnocentrism, Derrida insists that logocentrism is a property of the West…. Although something of the Chinese prejudice of the West is discussed in Part I, the East is never seriously studied or deconstructed in the Derridean text” . As a matter of fact, not only is the East never seriously deconstructed but Derrida even sees in the nonphonetic Chinese writing “the testimony of a powerful movement of civilization developing outside of all logocentrism” . When he looks within the Western tradition for a breakthrough, he finds it in nothing other than the poetics of Ezra Pound and his mentor, Ernest Fenollosa, who built a graphic poetics on what is certainly a peculiar reading of Chinese ideograms:This is the meaning of the work of Fenellosa [sic] whose influence upon Ezra Pound and his poetics is well-known: this irreducibly graphic poetics was, with that of Mallarmé, the first break in the most entrenched Western tradition. The fascination that the Chinese ideogram exercised on Pound’s writing may thus be given all its historical significance. [P. 92]Since Chinese is a living language with a system of nonphonetic script that functions very differently from that of any Western language, it naturally holds a fascination for those in the West who, weary of the Western tradition, try to find an alternative model on the other side of the world, in the Orient. This is how the so-called Chinese prejudice came into being at the end of the seventeenth and during the eighteenth centuries, when some philosophers in the West, notably Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, saw “in the recently discovered Chinese script a model of the philosophical language thus removed from history” and believed that “what liberates Chinese script from the voice is also that which, arbitrarily and by the artifice of invention, wrenches it from history and gives it to philosophy” . In other words, what Leibniz and others saw in the Chinese language was what they desired and projected there, “a sort of European hallucination,” as Derrida rightly terms it. “And the hallucination translated less an ignorance than a misunderstanding. It was not disturbed by the knowledge of Chinese script, limited but real, which was then available” . Zhang Longxi is on the faculty of the Department of English Language and Literature at Peking University. He is the author of A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century Theories of Literature and is currently studying comparative literature at Harvard University
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DOI 10.1086/448294
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