The names of authors or of doctrines have here no substantial value. They indicate neither identities nor causes. It would be frivolous to think that ‘Descartes,’ ‘Leibniz,’ ‘Rousseau,’ ‘Hegel,’ etc. are names of authors, of the authors of movements or displacements that we thus designate. The indicative value that I attribute to them is first the name of a problem ... I think all concepts hitherto proposed in order to think the articulation of a discourse and of an historical totality are caught within the metaphysical closure that I question here, as we do not know of any other concepts and cannot produce any others, and indeed shall not produce so long as this closure limits our discourse; as the primordial and indispensable phase, in fact and principle, of the development of this problematic, consists in questioning the internal structure of these texts as symptoms; as that is the only condition for determining these symptoms themselves in the totality of their metaphysical appurtenance; I draw my account from them in order to isolate Rousseau, and, in Rousseauism, the theory of writing.I recently re-read Of Grammatology--after giving up a third of the way through the first time around--and I was surprised by what I found. My initial reaction was to assume that Derrida was beating up on poor Rousseau, just like he beat up on poor Lévi-Strauss. Nietzsche, after all, had made a sport of showing up "the grunting and greed of Rousseau's instinct for revenge" (Twilight of the Idols). There is no reason not to mock him--like his contemporaries, his successors are so invested in their modernity, even when they pretend not to be, that Rousseau's rejection of everything they stand for is like a slap in the face. Derrida, though, doesn't do that; he tries to resist the temptation to turn Rousseau's body of work into a pharmakos. Why is that?
- Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology
I think the answer must hinge on Derrida's own understanding of this particular author-function. A few months ago, I thought I had seen through Rousseau: his use of constant and fundamental self-contradiction, I thought, functioned as an indictment of discourse itself. But now, I'm not so sure. What do we get when we attempt to move beyond Rousseau as a "problem"--when we move back to the moment when the problem is posed? When the supplement emerges in Rousseau's work, though its problematic nature is unacknowledged, it is always still Rousseau who poses the problem.
What Derrida seems to realize about Rousseau is that Rousseau is not really under the illusion that he can capture true presence, true authenticity, truly unmediated natural speech, with the tools of philosophical and historical investigation. The First Discourse already denies the simple relationship between the study of the thing and the thing studied: when the Romans began to study virtue, they stopped practicing it. So, given that he's not a naif, what does he think he's doing? Surely the result of whatever investigation into authenticity he can produce can only be a result that does violence to authenticity itself.
What his work offers is an attempt to think the unthinkable, to get around the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of virtue by pursuing it whereever it can be found. Any lesser man, given Rousseau's premises, would have given up, or sworn off writing and philosophy completely. Knowing his quest is quixotic, Rousseau pursues it anyway--and fails, of course. But what we are left with are the findings of a completed archeology of presence, its broken bones and shards.
Thus, in a sense, Rousseau's daring is what makes Derrida possible. By bringing forward the question of presence without obscuring it or hiding from it, Rousseau reveals it in its emptiness. After his failure, Derrida doesn't have much left to do--point it out, develop explicitly what Rousseau must have known by instinct. If Derrida makes of Rousseau only a problem, not a living author, it is because he knows that Rousseau was as aware of it as he is.