Remarks on Derridean Deconstruction and the Iconography of the Walbiri
If structuralism began in many ways with Levi-Straus’s appropriation of information science and of Jakobson’s discretist phonology, so-called “post-structuralism” would perhaps constitute itself at least in part as a critique of such computationally oriented modes of language and communication. Derrida’s critique of structuralism takes up the criticism of discretist formalism through a phenomenology of reading and a tracing of the history of phonetic-alphabetic writing in its intersection with Western Metaphysics. The Western notion of writing is said to see writing as mere “means” “tool” “accident” and finally re-presentation behind which lies presence, part and parcel of the fact that phonetic-alphabetic script elicits a sequential and linear idea of time. The space in which Western thought moves then is the sequential, one-to-one, re-presenting of immediate presence or “evidence.” The progressive “numerisation” and “algorithmization” of society only would seem to attest to such a tendency.
Perhaps not emphasized enough, however, is Derrida’s indebtedness to the French paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan and to the latter’s key concept of mythography. The concept of mythography describes how writing is to be understood in a generalized sense beyond what we in the West conventionally understand to be writing: that is, writing is graphic display and figuration generally, the language of the hand. We might also say that whereas speech is the language of the mouth-ear system, writing is that of the hand-eye system. Gourhan even points to the fact that individuals coming from a culture without writing in the restricted sense may learn to write without difficulty, and so the cognitive-neural capacity for the perception and production of visual signs as part of a system must be internal to the physical make-up of the human being. Mythography as such nevertheless is to be understood as intertwined with oral speech and song. The ritualistic creation of wall paintings, body designs, sacred objects, exists in a dynamic interplay with chant, song, and narration.
Writing in the restricted sense arises following the Neolithic Revolution and the creation of the State. To put some of Gourhan’s ideas into Deleuze and Guattari’s language, writing moves from an inscription on the body of the earth (and of humans themselves as of the earth) towards an “alignment” (s’aligner) upon the voice of the despot. The move from a horizontal and dispersed, kin-based political structure across the earth, to a vertical and hierarchical caste-based system founded in the figure of the king or despot, removes writing from ritual mythography and figures writing as a representation of the voice (carrier of self-presence for Derrida). The transition is seen in part in hieroglyphs where “letters” still have a picturesque, mythographic character and are not totally linearized; rather, elements cluster together in various spatial arrangements. But ultimately, the alignment on the voice progressively phoneticizes writing and leads to the substitution of figural pictures by arbitrary and merely concatenated symbols that record the voice.
The iconography of the Walbiri, a “society without writing,” provides an excellent illustration of some of these hypotheses; that is, the Walbiri writing system is an example of mythography. In Nancy Munn’s study of the subject (Walbiri Iconography), she shows how Walbiri designs can be see to articulate a linguistic system that cuts across various social contexts, from relatively mundane communication purposes in daily story-telling (women’s sand illustrations) to the most ritualized, and “sacred” forms of ceremony and mythic reenactment (the men’s esoteric and sacred designs linked to totemic sites). Walbiri iconography deserves properly to be called a linguistic system because it is composed out of various, standardized, core elements (the most common are line, circle, and u-shape). However, and importantly, these elements are intrinsically polysemic and only ever take on various “meaning ranges.” There is no one-to-one relation between “letter” and sense (or word and sense). Nor is this writing linear but it is spatially dispersed, figural, and picturesque. It is not a mere mnenotechinc “tool” and in fact serves no function of recording information for posterity. If anything, as in the sand paintings, designs are often erased in the movement of the narrative, and act more like shifting “scenes.”
One interesting point of intersection here is to think about the role of the author, an object of critique for “poststructuralism.” Derrida critiques the transcendental subject as a site of self-presence and tries to show how Western ideas of individuality and spontaneity are belied in the notion of “the signature.” The signature is not a “pure” emanation of individual spontaneity and presence but in fact gains its consistency only from its iteration, which each time in fact differentiates it, destabilizing the pure point of authorial reference it might claim to represent.
Walbiri yawalyu designs, which are usually discovered by individual women in their dreams and accompany certain women’s ceremonies, could also be seen as indicating a “signature” though different from the Western notion. Though these designs are themselves built out of the fundamental elements of the graphic system, each design, having been seen and thus “invented” in a specific individual’s dream, is relatively unique. This relative uniqueness in part arises through the spatial arrangement of these elements, their unique figuration. At the same time, whoever was sleeping in the same camp as the dreamer also is thought to participate in the dream and so partially “owns” the design. What we see here is a space for individual invention and something of a “signature,” yet the signature develops in the context of social extension of individual claim and also still operates with conventional elements.
Invention thus occurs without a pure, authorial spontaneity of presence but rather occurs on what we might think of as a continuum between conventional literality and creative metaphor, tending more or less to either pole (cf. Roy Wagner’s Symbols that Stand For Themselves). The atomistic, discrete, and computationalist use of letters in Western society could be seen as the height of a kind of “conventionalization” of pure, univocal, elements, clothing itself in an ideology of individual presence and immediacy. In the Walbiri case, “signature” is a constant attempt at inventive and imagetic expansion that is nonetheless never entirely disconnected from conventional elements and the importance of social linkages.
Walbiri iconography points to a space of mythographic writing that is perhaps concealed in the Western tradition of the linear writing of the State and the ideology of presence. Yet, I do not think such criticisms need deny the importance of computationally-oriented kinds of knowledge and discrete theories of sign-systems, under which I would class classical structuralism. “Post-structuralism” as it is used here should itself be seen as simply as an expansion towards a broader continuum of the semiotic. In addition, what “post-structuralism” here offers are crucial propositions for anthropology, and our ethnographic example points to a space of empirical illustration as well as description and experimentation. Rather than claiming that “post-structuralism” might simply supplement anthropology, I would want to highlight how in its best moments, it might be anthropology. So far as such ideas in post-structuralism might still be part of philosophy, the anthropologization of post-structuralism points to a non-philosophy, in which the project of structuralism is in fact continued and born though.