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[ Naming ]

4. Supplement

According to Jacques Derrida in his book, Of Grammatology (1967), the binary oppositions in thought, such as subject versus object (nature versus society, active versus passive etc.) are assumed to have a hierarchy in which one of the terms is more powerful. Derrida uses an example of the binary opposition found between speech/writing but asserts that there is no stable hierarchy, as speech/writing makes an unfounded destabilising play between the two. As Derrida states:

If indication is not added onto expression which is not added onto sense, we can nevertheless speak in regard to them, about an original ‘supplement’: their addition comes to make up for a deficiency, it comes to compensate for a primordial non-self-presence.[1]

Derrida argues that writing has been considered as merely a derivative form of speech. Critiquing this relationship between speech and writing, Derrida suggests that written symbols are legitimate signifiers on their own—that they should not be considered as secondary or derivative in relation to oral speech. This hierarchical ideology between speech and writing can be traced back to the impacts of colonialism,[2] as western colonisers tended to only recognise written languages that had a phonic alphabet. Therefore, the colonised peoples had to learn the coloniser’s language to gain access to power. Frantz Fanon describes this power relation, in Black Skin White Masks (1952), ‘…a man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language. What we are getting at becomes plain: Mastery of language affords remarkable power.’[3] Fanon is highlighting that the colonized body has to think and operate within the language of power (colonizer) in order to access that power and, therefore, to decolonise requires a change in this power relation. As a result of the colonial power relation, other modes of language and, as we think through language, other modes of thought were written over (colonised) and lost. Walter D. Mignolo declares in Cultural Studies (2007) that, ‘De-linking requires analysis of the making and re-making of the imperial and colonial differences and it requires visions and strategies for the implementation of border thinking leading to de-colonisation of knowledge and of being.’[4] Mignolo’s idea of de-linking and changing the terms of the conversation, aims to fracture the dominance of colonial forms of knowledge and understanding (which still rule our current systems) to reconstitute other ways of thinking, speaking, living and being in the world.

The operation of this power relation is still very prominent within art practices and museum display strategies to this day. Subsequently to the museological models originally introduced by the Louvre and MoMA, visitors in museums and galleries have formed a habit of reading the descriptive label about the work in order to understand an art object. The museum’s omnipresent knowledge and understanding (coloniser’s language) suggests to visitors, through what is often interpreted as a neutral voice (coloniser), to believe that they are on the correct path to understanding the artwork. I aim to follow Mignolo’s idea of de-linking within the context of the artwork’s relationship to language, by de-linking from the dominant model for interpreting art and building up a subjective and experiential understanding of looking at and perceiving things.

In Derrida’s, Of Grammatology (1967) he assesses Saussure’s linguistic structuralism by starting with a quote by Saussure, ‘…language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first.’[5]Saussure claims that writing is secondary to speech. In contrast, Derrida questions whether speech can be created before and after writing. He concludes that speech will always need its written text to assist and preserve itself in the present. Simultaneously, he asserts that writing can exist independently of speech. Derrida declares that speech itself is also a sign; speech and writing can be both absent and present, so they do not need to simultaneously be heard/read side by side. Therefore, the hierarchy associated with speech and writing is undone through the ambiguity and autonomy of their positions. Derrida claims that context is unbounded, ‘If meaning is related to context, there is, with respect to the very structure of language, no proper context to provide proof of a final meaning.’[6] Both signified and signifier are related and irrevocably detached but this also means that words, phrases and sentences are able to be repeated in different contexts. Derrida critiques Saussure’s ides of signs and instead suggests that they are not only two-sided but also over-lapping. In Derrida’s thinking, the binary opposition has been deconstructed and this, ‘… has suggested a method in which we can subvert these oppositions only by showing that one of the opposite terms can only exist within another.’[7] As a result, the structures in language themselves begin to overlap and clash. For example, the binary oppositions of presence/absence and speech/writing are relational, as they can only express themselves in relation to the other. Each term in the relation is generated through the other and the one needs the other to prove its inverse existence. This overlapping shows that there is a co-dependent relationship of one relying on the other. In the signifier and signified, the two-sided and over-lapping relationships are similar to the colonial construct as highlighted by Mignolo. The colonial position relies on the binary relationship it has constructed with the colonised to assert and affirm its power.

It is through the habitual behavior of rehearsal and repetition that humans have constructed generic objects. Human behaviour is often viewed as unusual because we can act and interact while having the ability to analyse each act. The contradiction between human naming (dominating) and the thing that is named (object), can be extrapolated through Derrida’s term, ‘Logic of Supplementarity’.[8] Through the Logic of Supplementarity, Derrida uses the term ‘supplementarity’ from Of Grammatology (2016) to represent his concept, which is that the original is created through its copies or supplements. The supplement leads to more supplements, which are needed in order to create the original. This process of copying (supplements) is then what makes the original, ‘Original’, as without the copies how is the original defined? Derrida states, ‘Rather the supplement of origin: which supplements the failing origin and which is however not derived: this supplement is, as one says of a spare part, of the original make.’[9] Therefore, the copies assert the importance of the original and strengthen its position. Derrida appears to be asserting that in one way, it can be observed that the human-object relation positions humans as in command of objects because humans are the only ones that find things, create things and name things. However, it can also be explained that it is the objects which make humans complete, as without using and naming things the concept of the original or the copy (both as a result of the supplement) that humans rely on would not exist.

Derrida highlights that the name/thing binary also has an unclear master/servant relation, which produces a chicken-and-egg conundrum. In a way, it does not matter if the answer is chicken or egg, both the former and the latter are like Saussure’s idea of signifier and signified; they are two sides of the same coin. They need both to be complete; one cannot be all, only all can be one. From the human view, it is difficult to track back whether the name of the thing came before the object (through its conceptualisation/invention) or the use of an object (such as a tool) came first and then was named due to its purpose. It is difficult to clarify their different statuses. We often assume that the process is that a thing is created or found first, then humans name the thing and it becomes an object. Children name their toys, which is a taught behaviour in which we identify the toy in order to possess the thing. An example of this naming methodology is the classification model introduced by the production and use of dictionaries.

Robert Cawdrey, Table Alphabetically,1604

Dictionaries are the equivalent of a Bible but one that forges object identities; through the narrative explanation (definition) it promulgates the object’s (whether physical, conceptual or virtual) certificate to existence (name and function). From the human perspective, it is one such model that humans use to dominate and organise the objects (and subjects) we name. For example, take the definition of Orange in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Orange (noun.) The fruit of a tree, a large globose many-celled berry with sub-acid juicy pulp, enclosed in a tough rind externally of a bright reddish yellow colour. An evergreen tree, a native of the East, now largely cultivated in the South of Europe, the Azores, and in most warm, temperate, or subtropical regions;
it produces fragrant white flowers.[10]

Above is a common definition of what an orange is defined to be in a dictionary. In contrast, if humans came across an unknown variety or species of orange then they are unlikely to eat the unknown thing (or at least not until we have tested it on others). So, why do humans choose to classify their surroundings through the definition/name of an object (orange)? Does the definition process make the landscape safer and more reliable or does it restrict our human horizons and opportunities for knowing things?

A dictionary is a book with resources and information; it lists the words in a given language and allocates them with meaning, pronunciation, etymology and usage. It is a book of naming and defining objects. The function of an English dictionary was standardised through Robert Cawdrey’s, Table Alphabetically (1604). Cawdrey aims to carefully list all the words in alphabetical order and defines each word through a brief description. Each word is written in order and is normalised through its function and identification. The dictionary has become a standard for the relationship between objects and humans; meanings are stabilised and used to defend the traditions of language. The dictionary is like a powerful chain that ties both the thing and its name tightly together for the human subject’s easy consumption. By providing the reader with a taxonomy, pronunciation, provenance and function for each term, dictionaries construct a stable identity for each subject/object. All things have to have a terminology, to enable humans to recall them and to become perceptible or meaningful to humans. This system of learning language looks reasonable to humans because we are educated to explore and dominate things (through such tools as a dictionary). We are taught to search for an unknown object (thing) in order to name it (to find something new and then conquer it). This is a universal approach for humans to produce our own version of the world. We can also see this approach reflected in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), ‘The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony.’[11] Said highlights that Orientalism is produced through colonial discourse and analysis that represents the colonised cultures as radically Other, in order to create a stronger identity for Western cultures. Therefore, the colonisers present an ideology that defines itself against others to build up power. Said also questions one of William Robertson Smith’s comments in relation to another culture in his Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885), ‘Yet many of the prejudices which seems to us most distinctively Mohammedan have no basis in the Koran… The Arabian traveler is quite different from ourselves.’[12] The word “us” and “ourselves” deployed by Smith in this sentence clearly defines the writer as speaking from a coloniser's vantage point. “We” are this, “they” are that, explicitly uses the binary oppositions of coloniser and colonised. This means that the colonisers are tied to the colonised through this relation. Therefore, each binary (Occident/Orient, Coloniser/Colonised, Presence/Absence to Speech/Writing) includes both oppositions and binds the two terms together.

Fruits, The New Oxford Picture Dictionary, Oxford University Press:
New York, 1988

[1] Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1973. Quoted in Robert Bernasconi, “Supplement”. In Jacques Derrida: Key Concepts. edit. Claire Colebrook. 19-22. Oxon: Routledge, 2014. <>

[2] Colonialism - The policy of a nation seeking to extend or retain its authority over other people or territories, generally with the aim of economic dominance. The colonising country seeks to benefit from the colonised country or land mass.

[3] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2008), 18. <ttps:// > (accessed 05. December.2019)

[4] Walter D Mignolo, Cultural Studies (London: Routledge,2007), 459. <> (accessed 19. December.2019)

[5] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (London: Duckworth, 1983.), 23.

[6] John Lechte, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity (London: Routledge, 1994), 123.

[7] Ceren Yegen, Derrida and Language: Deconstruction (Turkey: Macrothink Institute-International Journal of Linguistics, 2014), 53.

[8] Logic of supplementarity - It is a notion of the original is created by the copies, and that the original is always deferred – never to be grasped, meaning that the original, becomes a supplement which will then leads to more supplements needed to help explain (original).

[9] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns poplins University press, 2016), 341.

[10] Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press <> (accessed 23. January. 2020)

[11] Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 5.

[12] Ibid., 236.


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