An Encounter of Jaynes and Derrida: Consciousness, Divine Voice and Writing

Gregory Conrow, paper presented at The Julian Jaynes Society Conference on Consciousness and Bicameral Studies, Charleston, WV, June 2013.

Abstract: A cursory reading of the secondary literature of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive writings would seem to suggest that Jaynes’s theory of the origin of consciousness, language and voice stands in stark opposition to Derrida’s (apparently) widely discredited assertion that writing precedes speech. For Jaynes, language as voice clearly preceded writing for it is language that made possible both the voices of the gods and the emergence of self-consciousness through its metaphors of mental processes. With such apparent widely divergent claims, is there any fruitful encounter possible between these two thinkers?

Why would Derrida make a claim that clearly contradicts the anthropological record? In this consideration, I suggest that to argue that Derrida claims that empirical writing preceded speech is a gross misinterpretation of his text. Rather, Derrida’s criticism centers around what he considers the perennial idealism of the Western philosophical tradition that hierarchically prioritizes the self-intentioned subject and the voice emanating from the subject over the externalized marks and inscriptions of writing. For Derrida, this prejudice maintains that the intentioned, self-present meaning of the auto-affective subject is an inner truth that self-expresses its meaning through its most proximate signifier, the voice. Consciousness and its expression of meaning through voice collude to form a hierarchical triad in the form of consciousness-voice-writing where writing is downgraded and dismissed as an artificial appendage and supplement, an afterthought to the contaminated and pure meaning-intention within consciousness.

Derrida’s aim is not merely to rehabilitate the status of writing by simply inverting its hierarchical relation to speech or to argue that writing in the “narrow sense”, that is, empirical writing such as inscription or marks, somehow historically precedes speech. Rather, he attempts to demonstrate that by ontologically demoting writing to a tertiary level and by moving backward to the alleged primary level, one does not divest oneself of the essential phenomenological features of writing, nor does one discover a self-present and pure meaning consciousness that exists independently of the phenomenological structure of writing. Rather, one finds the very dynamic operative within empirical writing itself; he calls it arche-writing and it is composed of supplementation, difference, repetition, displacement and erasure.

I purpose this more robust understanding of Derrida’s phenomenological analysis of writing significantly enhances our understanding of Jaynes’s theory of the emergence of the analogue consciousness and vice-versa. In particular, the visual displacement, repeatability and material mark of the sign in writing as Derrida describes in Force and Signification has interesting resonances with the visual metaphors and paraphrands that for Jaynes, constitute self-consciousness. The emergence of self-consciousness in writing can be located within the visual displacement and repeatability of the mark that produces the sense of absence: an anxiety of meaning in the visual metaphors that are the “housing” of self-consciousness. As Jaynes disseminates the causa sui mythos of self-consciousness by demonstrating that it has a genesis and history, so to Derrida’s notion of arche-writing disseminates the idealism implicit in the Western idealization of consciousness by problematizing the hard and fast lines between inside and outside; what is considered inside is always dependent on its outside. Thus, writing already displaces the absolute sovereignty of consciousness because inscription as arche-writing reveals the originary condition of mediation to both writing and speech.