The Weather project, Studio Olafur Eliassion, 2003
Plato's pharmacy by Derrida
In this essay Derrida takes a closer look at the myth of Teuth included at the end of Plato's Phaedrus.
Socrates never wrote anything himself, Plato did. And writing is sophistry, like rhetoric, and speech is socratic, according to Plato. Now, Plato of course wrote in dialogues and it is often up to the reader to take a certain side.
Plato's case is clear and he sides with Socrates and thus king Thamos: writing will only create forgetfulness and is not a remedy for memory itself, but a way of reminding. Writing is a not a "remedy" (pharmakon) for memory but instead it is "poison" (pharmakon). Pharmakon can mean both things.
As a side note, it is interesting that Theuth, the inventor of writing, symbolizes the moon, and king Thamos, the judge, is interchangable with the sun God Amon. Writing is a reflection just like the moon reflects the sun.
Derrida wants to deconstruct the opposition of writing/speech. Now Derrida focuses on the word pharmakon, which is affiliated with writing. He states that writing itself cannot be reduced to the series of oppositional concepts that it precedes and produces . So he is saying that writing is the origin of the origin and that the son (Theuth) fathers the father (Thamus). Pharmakon is the prior medium in which diferentiation is produced.
This means that it is impossible to attach conceptal opposites (differentation) like remedy/poison, good/bad, light/dark etc. without writing. Writing constitutes the medium in which opposites are opposed. Pharmakon produces difference.
I'm reminded by Derrida's famous statement "There is nothing outside the (con)text".
Text, according to Derrida refers to context and includes all about the "real-life" situation of the speech/text.
Socrates is actually standing in for Thamos (presence), while Phaedrus is standing in for Theuth (absence).
Thamos is closer to the Forms, while Theuth is all about shadows. Theuth is supplementary to Thamos, according to Plato.
Socrates is setting up logocentrism here in Western philosophy, which is the view that speech and not writing is central to language.
Now I understand that Pharmakon is an example of Derrida's concept of trace. A trace is originary, it conveys the impossibility of an origin or a centre (like logocentrism). So when you say pharmakon signifies Remedy it implies that it is not Poison. It implies what is does not mean. They are interdependent. So speech is in a way dependent on writing as well! Writing is not exterior to speech but also has a quality of interiority itself.
So Derrida suggests that written symbols are signifiers on their own (and not signifiers of signifiers), that they should not be considered as derivative from speech.
And if writing is supplementary to speech, it also implies that there is a loss of presence in speech that must be supplemented by writing. Writing may recover what is lacking in speech. So writing is not merely absence, just as speech is not merely presence. Speech occurs in writing and writing occurs in speech.