Scritti Politti

[1] The third track on Scritti Politti's debut album, Songs to Remember, is called 'Jacques Derrida'. (Not a fall back to soul language, but a re-reading of it using some of that style as Scritti's lead singer and guitarist, Green Gartside, emphasizes.) The lyrics (both music and words are written by Green) of this song express a deep sympathy for Derrida. (It is definitely not a bossa nova as the opening words 'I'm in love with the bossa nova' could suggest, but rather it is a pop song with a slightly artificial sound and an uncommon compositional structure.) Here is an excerpt from it:

I'm in love with a Jacques Derrida
Read a page and know what I need to
Take apart my baby's heart
I'm in love
I'm in love with a Jacques Derrida
Read a page and know what I need to
Take apart my baby's heart
I'm in love

[2] Are there other (contemporary) philosophers who have a song named after them? I don't know. And what would Derrida think about this explicit declaration of love? There is a story that his students played the song for him when it first came out. Thereafter, Derrida invited Green to come to Paris where they had dinner at the Beaubourg. Topic of the conversation: the notion of spontaneous and unmediated expression. Green always distanced himself from expressionist ideas in the arts, from anything that mythologized thoughts of spontaneity and immediate improvisation, often cherished in the (free) jazz world. Given his enthusiasm for and knowledge of Derrida's work that is expressed in almost every interview ('For me, you can't forget Derrida'), it is probable that these ideas originate from Derrida's critique of the so-called metaphysics of presence, the notion that there is a transcendental signified that lies beyond everything and guarantees a stable meaning. This metaphysics of presence seems most obvious in speech; speech often stands for the direct expression of the thoughts, emotions, and spirit of a subject completely identical with itself. The transfer of an inner experience of the presence of an ideal object in a complete intuitive thinking to the external domain of language can only succeed if the linguistic utterance does not interfere with what the rational subject wants to say. According to logocentric tradition (Western philosophy), this is achieved by speech, rather than by writing, which is less immediate, haunted by absence, and thereby unable to guarantee a stable meaning. Especially in Speech and Phenomena and Of Grammatology, Derrida comes to terms with this metaphysics of presence or logocentrism. First he makes clear that both speech and writing are supplements, supplements of eidos (ideas), audible or visible signs that (re)present something in its absence. But this is the classically determined structure of the sign. Derrida also puts into question the provisional secondariness of the (spoken or written) sign. Signs always defer the presence of what they (re)present and this deferral is endless. There is an endless chain of signifiers, each signifier referring only to other signifiers. This means that there is no presence before and outside the sign. Signified concepts are never present in and of theirselves. Every concept is inscribed in a chain within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, by means of a play of differences.

[3] In pop music, too, the voice is often considered an index of soul and authentic expression. Green tries to pervert this idea by the use of his voice. A producer recounts how Green spent hours in a studio trying to create authentic, 'spontaneous' vocal inflections. So he delivers up a perfect simulation of his own voice, a simulacrum, an artificiality of authenticity, a quasi-spontaneity (cf. O'Reilly, http://www.figure4.co.uk/scritti/intervie/independ.htm). And, as he sings on Wood Beez, his voice is 'the gift of schizo' instead of a purity of consciousness. 'It's a little bit a voice of innocence. It's somebody else doing that. I'll step aside and let somebody else have a go', Green says (cf. O'Reilly). Maybe Green's comments bear some resemblance to Derrida's critique of Husserl's use of the term 'I'. According to Husserl, someone speaking uses this term to indicate himself for himself: absolute presence. On the contrary, Derrida reasons that 'I' is the word by which a speaking subject indicates to himself his own absence. A subject completely present to himself would not feel the need to speak to himself. Derrida concludes that a subject is always already permeated by an other.
Green presents no transparent presence of a subject to himself, no pure and unmediated interiority, but a fragmented subject who is always already manipulating his expression. Most compositions on Songs to Remember reflect this fragmentation of the individual in the many different needs, desires, and energies that conflict with one another (Green's soft, touchingly feminine vocals can be regarded as an example of this). And about 'Jacques Derrida' in particular, Green says: 'It's about how powerful and contradictory the politics of desire are. About being torn between all things glamorous and reactionary, and all things glamorous and leftist. Then in the rap it dispenses with both in favor of desire' ('desire is so voracious') (Dwyer, 1982). According to Green, pop music is of the other; it is the least shut away or hidden otherness. It is the antithesis of sameness. (It's about criminality, sexuality, madness.)

[4] Language is about meaning, about sense. Viewed in this way, Green sets music opposite to language. 'I don't think its meaning or its sense are determined by language', Green says in an interview. Music lies outside the limits of language and logocentrism; it is disruptive to meaning. Like music in general, rhythm is without meaning and it transgresses sense. The acquired grammar of rhythm is at once constructive and destructive joy. 'I do not think that I am 'knowledgeable' of [beats], nor that I've somehow caught them or tamed them and can put them to my services. The exact opposite: this has to do with my awe of pop music as measured against the endless signatures and closures of more idiosyncratic music'. With pop music, there is a flooring of drives, knowledge is swept away. There is no 'knowledge' of beat, only the unmonotonous insistence of difference. That is its power; that is why it is 'violent' (Green in: Hoskyns, 1981).
According to Green, pop's assertion of rhythm, its interruption of language, its sexuality, the way in which it presents identity and dissolves identity, and the means with which it does so, converges with many postmodern philosophical concerns. 'It is possible to think about music as something that undoes. In as much as it is not semantic, does not have that bedrock of meaning, other than having other ways of circumscribing it, it is a deconstructive mood' (Green in: Toop, 1988, my italics). 'When I met Derrida he said that what I was doing was part of the same project of undoing and unsettling that he's engaged in. He's written that what sets the musician apart is the possibility of meaninglessness. That unsettling has always been my experience of pop, from the earliest moments - pop is about the abuse of language' (Green in: Reynolds, 1988).

[5] Of course (pop) music has meaning; it has political, economic, social, cultural and psychological meaning (and I am not only referring to its lyrics here). In this sense, we can approach music through language, through all kinds of discourses on music. But Green points to something, a non-localizable place, where music transgresses the power of language. We cannot understand music in the same way we understand language. Music is a language, music is text, but it is not the same as a spoken or written language. Because something in music always escapes comprehension, understanding. Language fails to make music completely transparent. Music appeals to something that exceeds the semantic part of language; it appeals to a non-discursive sonority.
In Justification, I examine the way in which Derrida seeks out this non-discursive sonority, the non-semantic aspect in language, by focusing on the spatial visibility and audibility of words, thereby creating a disquieting opening in the philosophical discourse because it is beyond (intended) meaning (signifieds) and about the material differences (signifiers). Derrida hesitates to call this 'musical', but the mere fact that he suggests a possibility of connecting meaninglessness to music indicates a correspondence between his thinking on this subject and what Green says.

[6] How should we judge the remarks of a pop musician, expressed mostly in interviews for pop magazines? Occasional attempts at in-depth interviews in what are usually superficial conversations? Up until now, Green did not seem to feel the need to express his ideas in a more profound and elaborate way. Maybe he does not want to; music is his means of expression. What becomes immediately clear is the way in which his utterances are saturated by post-structuralistic and deconstructive jargon ('I am influenced by, or interested in the work of modern French philosophers'). Although I briefly discussed one example (Green's use of his voice), closer examination is needed to determine if and how deconstruction is at work in Scritti Politti's music. However, this is not the right place. Not the right framework.