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Derrida's ear

[1] In Plato's Symposium, Eryximachus dismisses the flute-player so that he can have a profound conversation with his guests. After all, the 'voice of the flute' (a non-discursive sonority) drowns out the voice of the logos. It impairs the ethical powers and causes one to go into an orgiastic flush. The flute produces (mimics) a human voice without logos, and the moment a human voice is without logos it becomes demonic and abysmal.

[2] Rarely have philosophers made themselves known as music enthusiasts. In addition to Plato, others have condemned music. One refuses to hear when one wants to think or philosophize. Since the ear cannot avert itself like the eye can, in a certain sense this undermines the freedom of the subject. Sound (music) disturbs the subject's peace. He needs to plug his ears so that he can hear himself and be assured of his own autonomy and freedom. In 'Derridas Ohr' [Derrida's Ear], Byung-Chul Han proposes that perhaps philosophers cherish deafness from the paradoxical desire to hear truer, better and more genuinely: one affirms deafness in expectation of finding, of hearing, more truth. Nevertheless, according to Derrida, the logocentrism of Western philosophy, the dominance of the spoken word in a conception that involves truth based on presence is closely connected to a phonocentrism. In Of Grammatology, Derrida argues that the ear is usually not presented as the sinister and uncanny place of the other. Rather, it is put forward as the most familiar or intimate domicile of the subject, which produces an effect of nearness and subjective inwardness. According to Derrida, Western thinking relates the ear to the voice, the ideal of presence and meaning.
As Han writes, however, the voice of this phono- and logocentrism has no sound; it is silent. It is not acoustic, it has no spatiality (cf. Han, p.10). Phonocentrism is in fact not only an oppression of grammocentrism, but of the sonorous voice as well. The phonocentric or logocentric reduction is deaf. In the protected hearing-oneself-speak area, there is no room for the sonorous voice. That voice endangers the intended meaning (vouloir dire) because it emanates a heterogeneous power that throws the subject off its position of being-present-to-itself. 'Danger in the voice. Sometimes in conversation the sound of our own voice confuses us and misleads us to assertions that do not at all reflect our opinion', Nietzsche writes in Human, All Too Human (aphorism 333). The sound of the voice guides the voice of the other to the voice of the self. It is a voice that the subject cannot control. Thus, the sound of the voice accomplishes the opposite of what one would expect from the idealized voice. Hearing one's own voice is a threat to the inner nature of the subject. The subject loses his autonomy.
Grammocentrism, like phonocentrism, excludes sound. Indeed, sound has a disruptive effect on the ideality, the unambiguousness of meaning; it is caught in the here and now. The written or printed word, liberated from the here and now, can be continuously repeated while remaining the same; it precludes the invasion of the heterogeneous. Here, phonocentrism and grammocentrism interlock: in their respective attempts to exclude the heterogeneous, the other, the ideal writing as well as the ideal speech make a plea for the absence of sound (cf. Han, p.12).

[3] In many of his early writings, Derrida leads the attack on the logo- or phonocentrism. However, Han argues that a deconstruction of logocentrism does not consist of giving logos an eardrum (and) to let it hear. Derrida regards the eardrum as a protective and defensive wall that can shut out the other, thus securing the autonomy of the subject. Nevertheless, Derrida does not mean to simply ignore the eardrum or cut off the ear. He envisions an entirely different (h)ear(ing). Derrida's ear, as Han describes it, is a very refined acoustic seismometer, a ready ear for the noise in a text. Derrida's ear develops into an organ that needs to train itself in receiving the unpredictable, the uncanny, the 'unheard'. It is not directed towards the sound of the flute that Eryximachus felt was disturbing, but towards the noise in a conversation, i.e. the heterogeneousness and différance of each utterance that brings chaos to the order of the logoi. Derrida's deconstructive strategies point us to the impossibility or fruitlessness of any precautionary measures that would prevent such a noise.
In Circonfession (published in Jacques Derrida by Geoffrey Bennington and Derrida), Derrida remembers the earaches that plagued his youth. The desire for a transparent voice remained frustrated because of this buzzing in his ears. According to Han, the inflammation of Derrida's middle ear was not only a rather far-reaching experience in Derrida's early life, it can be regarded a key word of deconstruction as well. Derrida shows throughout his work how discourses, which are supposed to be free from any viruses, certify a viral infection. These viruses do not penetrate from the outside to the inside, but are always already part of the inside. The desire for a transparent voice is a dream, an illusion. Every general Verstimmung (the word means both 'disgruntlement' and 'out of tune') at all times interrupts a familiar harmony. Verstimmung as disorder. Likewise, the textuality of a text obstructs the seclusion of a text in one single interpretation; it does not make up a complete set of meanings. Deconstruction reveals a multitude of voices within one text - a multitude that cannot (even) be reduced to a polyphony - and a multitude of tones - more than a polytonality.

[4] Derrida criticizes logo- and phonocentrism in the Western philosophical tradition that excludes the sonorous voice in its deepest craving for unmediated presence. Certainly in some respect, however, Derrida stays closely connected to the philosophers he criticizes. As is the case with most philosophers, Derrida, keeps the silence intact; his ear is mute as well. 'What interests me is writing in the voice, the voice as differential vibration', he writes (Points, p.140, my italics). Han states that Derrida's work does not accommodate the phenomenal aspect of the ear, the voice, or sound. The voice to which Derrida addresses his critical remarks has no tone, no body, no volume (cf. Han, p.21). His deconstructive practices do not reach the sonorous domain, the domain of music. He seems to not be concerned with sonorous qualities. More important to him is the idea that texts, either spoken or written, are marked by a certain (non-sonorous) tone, or better, a multitude of (non-sonorous) tones: deconstruction makes clear how texts always prove to consist of an infinite amount of tonalities.

[5] How right is Han in his conclusions? Does Derrida really pay no attention to sonority, sound, music?
Rudimentary and aside, Derrida writes in D'un ton apocalyptique about the impossibility of a pure tone in musical sense. The deconstruction of the tone. First, a tone is only a tone through tonal differences, the differences from other tones, the differences in vibrations. Second, every tone is continuously different from or within itself because it consists of vibrations.
But doesn't Derrida address sonority in more detail when he speaks and writes about différance, about the impossibility to hear in French the difference between 'différence' and 'différance'? (Would the equivalent in music be 'enharmony', the non-audible difference between G sharp and A flat, or C flat and B?) Maybe it is a negative attention, criticizing the idea that speech is supposed to be more effective than writing in communicating meaning. After all, sonority has a deficit here. Only sight gives you insight into which word Derrida uses. Nevertheless, he focuses his and our attention to sound and sonority as well.
And in 'Justification', I quote Derrida on non-discursive sonority. His play with words, his fascination for the materiality of words, the working of dissemination is certainly also influenced by their sounds, their audibility. So I think deconstructive practices do include the sonorous domain. However, in Derrida's case, they are not oriented towards music in the strict sense. Which can (thus) become the area for special attention of others. Of this site.