The Pharmakon and Narratives of Cultural Identity:
Reading Derrida in Lowe
academic essay by Kai Ying Chieh
Lisa Lowe’s account of the relationship between the system of transnational capitalism and the intersecting subjective narratives of Asian immigrant and Asian American women labouring within this system works in a critical tradition that values plurality and ambiguity. In this essay, I will first explore Derrida’s playing with the pharmakon – the drug that is also the cure – and its relationship with ambiguity, memory, and hierarchy. I will then examine how Lowe’s politics of intersectional narrativity derive from the breakdown of binaries with which Derrida works and predicts, with the goal of considering the similarities between Derrida’s work and the political implications of its manifestation in “Work, Immigration, Gender”.
Derrida opens “Plato’s Pharmacy” with an incitement to play. “Let us begin again” (65), he says. To play in this context is to revisit and revise the interpretations of a text, but not necessarily by chasing a sense of truth: he declares that “a hermeneutics assigns intuition” (69). The play he desires depends on an understanding of the text as fundamentally ambiguous: in the Saussurean tradition, linguistic signs are differentiated on arbitrary grounds: linked signifieds and signifiers take on a coherent meaning in their association with each other. Derrida thus wants to explore using an arbitrary system such as this, where signifiers cannot necessarily point directly to their signifieds, or signify greater ranges of conceptualization. He notes later that translations of key terms of Plato’s text, especially ‘pharmakon’ translated as ‘remedy’, “[obliterate] the virtual, dynamic references to the other uses of the same word” (98): a destructive move, for Derrida’s play is situated in the textuality of the signs themselves. The erasure of the term’s ambiguity and multiple implications simplifies and looks past “the magic virtues of a force whose effects are hard to master, a dynamics that constantly surprises the one who tries to manipulate it as master and as subject” (97). His play, then, is liberatory. Likewise, his text approaches concepts from nontraditional angles, swerves down detours, revels in the nuances of ambiguous concepts, and flows over the interrelated concepts he explores. In circling away from his text as text, then turning it back towards itself, Derrida has the form of his work follow the framework of the pharmakon. But what is the pharmakon? Derrida observes that in Plato’s Phaedrus it is both remedy and poison, “alternately or simultaneously—beneficient or maleficent” (70). It is, in fact, made up of “cryptic depths refusing to submit… exceeding its bounds as non-identity, nonessence” (70). To return to its linguistic root, it signifies multiplicity within a single sign, evolves into a constant state of “going or leading astray” (71), as mirrored by the wanderings of Derrida in his essay, to parts of the idea but never an entire, simple whole.
Since the word pharmakon itself can be seen as in an endless struggle to cohere its signifieds, Derrida cites Plato in seeing text or writing, also, as a struggle to render the signified. “Through writing or through myth, the genealogical break and estrangement from the origin are sounded” (74): the struggle to render is a struggle to reflect the origin in its totality. Here Derrida uses Egyptian myth to construct a posed origin coming from:
god-the-king [who] experiences the pharmakon as a product, an ergon, which is not his own, which comes to him from outside but also from below, and which awaits his condescending judgment in order to be consecrated in its being and value…He has no need to write. He speaks, he says, he dictates, and his word suffices. (76)
This speaker-king-subject is the originary point. Speech issues from him; it is birthed from him; he is the father of the spoken word, the logos. Does its intimacy with the subject give it power? Derrida says that “logos is a son that … without his father, [would] be nothing but, in fact, writing” (77). The difference is that logos has the appearance and the association with the authority of origin when in fact it “represents what it is indebted to: the father who is also chief, capital, and good(s)” (81). The source, subject, and speech depend on one another in a sense from which writing is removed while “the definition of writing [becomes] to repeat without knowing” (75). It seems a grim verdict for writing and the pharmakon, but we can revisit the linguistic sign of the pharmakon as rejecting manipulation by the subject, refusing to be conceived of as simple oppositionality between signifier and signified:
The pharmakon is that dangerous supplement that breaks into the very thing that would have liked to do without it yet lets itself at once be breached, roughed up, fulfilled, and replaced, completed by the very trace through which the present increases itself in the act of disappearing. (110)
This trace is the trace of the father, the originary point, the signified. Plato’s fear is that writing replaces the art of living memory, mneme, in its function as a supplement. But, since Derrida argues that “memory is finite by nature… [it] always therefore already needs signs in order to recall the non-present” (109), the fear is truly, as above, that the pharmakon will replace representation, destroy the spectre remaining. This is the death: the death of the ideal of truth or meaning. It is the liberation from the idea of the text as a stable presence.
In light of the Derridean tradition, then, what is Lowe’s approach to the question of the text when she deals with alternate cultural subjectivities and the narratives they shape, if her discussion of testimony is one that focuses on a form of speech? In her account of the experiences of Mrs. Fu Lee, the speaker’s subjectivity is upheld in the presentation of the testimony as logos. Lowe’s critical approach, however, reflects a Derridean attitude toward the destabilization of binaries and interest in multiplicity. Testimony in the community of Asian immigrant women, for Lowe, allows for a genre-specific realization of subjectivity beyond “representations disconnected from ‘real’ political life” or “’transparent’ histories of struggle” (Lowe 33). As such, speech is important as it brings together the individual subject and the logos, amassing cultural productions that “[extend] the scope of what constitutes legitimate knowledges to include other forms of practices” (33) in immigrant women’s narratives that have long been excluded from attaining validation. Lowe states that “we can read testimony as more than a neo-positivist ‘truth’, as a complex mediating genre that selects, conveys, and connects ‘facts’ in particular ways” (34). Testimony begins as speech but becomes writing, the complex intersubjectivities of the Asian immigrant women’s experience formulating a kind of pharmakon placed in opposition to the greater national narrative, which incorporates the labour of these Asian women while denying or delimiting their narratives when deviating from an established structural norm or truth: a greater father and logos.
Perhaps the transposition of the qualities of the pharmakon onto Lowe’s understanding of testimonial can be further extended to the cultural and political narratives of the women within the Asian immigrant community. Derrida’s play is hinged on exploring and fully realizing the ambiguities inherent in the linguistic sign and the written word. He sees the process of mis- or under-translating the signifier for “pharmakon” as itself failing to read the complexities of the word’s contradictory but deeply interlinked functions, in a way that undermines the pharmakon’s power. Likewise, Lowe presents the United States’ drive toward political security at the same time it hopes to achieve transnational capitalist hegemony as creating “the abstract citizen”, asking that any differences be collapsed to enter into the “unified body in which all subjects are granted equal membership” (37), under the capitalist state’s rule. If the capitalist state system – a system of “goods” – is the origin, the logos is present in the engendering of an idealist “interchangeable ‘abstract labor’ without characteristics” (43) by the system. The multiple axes of the identities of Asian immigrant women are muffled at the same time that they are exploited along those same axes for the state’s gains.1 They are rendered, like the pharmakon in the eyes of the king, “products” waiting to be “consecrated” by way of citizenship and/or recognition for their work. In a sense, the Asian immigrant seamstresses working with Fu Lee “repeat” the labour that is formed to support the capitalist system without “knowing”, or being able to engage in the same practices of commodification that require them, like Derrida’s writing, repeating without knowing. And yet they too contain the characteristics that the capitalist system denies; Lowe says that “it is precisely those characteristics that are the material trace of their historical disenfranchisement from the political realm” (43). If we reiterate now Derrida’s caution on the power of the pharmakon:
The pharmakon is that dangerous supplement that breaks into the very thing that would have liked to do without it yet lets itself at once be breached, roughed up, fulfilled, and replaced, completed by the very trace through which the present increases itself in the act of disappearing. (Derrida 110)
For Lowe, narratives stemming both from testimony and fiction in the community of Asian immigrant/Asian American women in the work force can be “cultural forms through which new ‘political’ subjects and practices are narrated, and through which new ‘political’ actions are mediated” (43). In the sense that they refer to the “trace” of the capitalist system, these narratives act as memorials that have stemmed from and repeated previous narratives of the labour force; at the same time, the presence of Asian immigrant women within the workforce for much of its existence has meant that the line between memorial and memory is indistinct. The memory of the nation, as much as it overlooks the part of Asian immigrant women in its hegemonic history, feeds back in to the memorialisation of their narratives.
“Plato’s Pharmacy” concludes with a narrative of Plato closing the pharmacy, facing the pharmakon and feeling his world reverberate as his words disjoin around him, mimicking and becoming part of the destabilization of the text. “A whole story. An entire history” (169), Derrida wonders: the entire history of philosophy, the entire history of rule, and for Lowe the history of transnational capitalism, are shaken. Lowe’s account of these women whose narratives defy the capitalist national system while they work and carry the trace of their historical devaluations presents them, similarly, as sites of intense contradiction, with specific cultural identities sublating “earlier models of political subjectivity” (38) that myopically operate across one isolated axis at a time. By reflecting hidden powers and identities like Derrida’s pharmakon, the narratives of Asian immigrant women working for the capitalist nation raise hope for the recognition of alternate subjectivities and axes of oppression; to “breach, rough up, fulfil and replace” the contradictions and oversights of the system they support and indeed act to “supplement”, with the help of the material trace left behind by the politics of the logos. Like Derrida on writing, this is a breaking down of hierarchy in a traditionally structured universe: a liberation.
Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University Press, 1981. Print.
Lowe, Lisa. “Work, Immigration, Gender: New Subjects of Cultural Politics.” Social Justice 25.3 (1998): 31-49. JSTOR. Web.
- “Because many are non-English or little-English-speaking women and consider their employment options limited, and because eight out of every 10 Chinatown immigrant families with multiple wager earners say they would ‘barely get by’ if there were but one breadwinner in the family, these women are forced to accept the payment conditions dictated by the employer.” (Lowe 32) [↩]