When Derrida played Scrabble

Jacques Derrida famously said that there’s nothing outside the text. Il n’y a pas d’hors-texte. No outside text. Then nearly everyone misunderstood his words, including, most likely, me. It made no difference, the pronouncement became the rallying cry of a generation. Whatever you make of it, there’s no denial that our culture has been shaped by this strange linguistic awakening and we are still reeling from the effects those words, and their interpretation, have had on today’s society. Just look around.

My take on it is that language doesn’t ultimately point beyond itself, but to, and into, itself. That every word lives and breathes because of all other words with which it connects. That every single word we might think, utter, hear, read or write is adjacent to other words, on an endless grid of structural connections. What language communicates only makes sense within its own province and meaning is always generated in relation to all other words which, on that occasion, weren’t uttered. Words don’t float around, but they are always connected in ways we may not always be aware of.

The best image of this idea is the game of Scrabble. Except for the Ur-word, the first word on the board, all other words must be adjacent. Meaning is not important, what counts is connection and proximity. According to Derrida, there is something like a magnetic field in the field of language where nothing can survive on its own, and where nothing can escape the board. An enclosed space of finite rules and clear structure. Sounds familiar? Nothing can be referred to unless by reference to something else. And everything which might be said or written shares something with something else. Words leading to more words and back to themselves. The possibility of flight is forestalled, the words have nowhere to go. Transcendence is blocked, the board is all there is. There is no outside board, pas de hors-grille.

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