What Derrida does inPlato's Pharmacy is the essence of deconstruction. He uses Plato's own words against Plato. Derrida subverts the speech/writing hierarchy with the Phaedrus, a Platonic dialogue that discusses the value of writing. In the dialogue, writing is proposed as a pharmekon, which in the Greek language, means both 'remedy' and 'poison.' Plato has Socrates condemn the pharmekon, or writing. But does he? What Derrida illustrates in the essay is that translators have traditionally decided for Plato which definition of the word (remedy, poison, or something else) he means at a given time.
So how does he do it? In short, through his demonstration of differance. Writing is presented as a substitute for absence. Thus, it is not as good as presence. We read a letter from someone because they are not there to vocally tell us whatever it is that they want to tell us. Writing, or absence, is equated with death, and allows for forgetfulness. We write something down so that we do not have to remember it. This dulls the mind. Memory, however, is "finite by nature" and also needs signs to "recall the non-present" (Derrida, 109). Thus, memory is no different from writing in that it requires a natural supplement.
Derrida assigns to the conclusion of the Phaedrus a new meaning: it is "less a condemnation of writing in the name of present speech than a preference for one sort of writing over another" (149). Derrida illustrates a new dichotomy--good writing/bad writing. Like the pharmekon, writing can have a plurality of meaning. As a hierarchy, it is obvious that good writing is better than bad writing, but in true Derridean style, the boundary between them is blurry. Bad writing is needed as a foil for good writing (149).
See the Opening Remarks
Return to Individual Theorists