In Plato’s Phaedrus, the Egyptian god of writing—Theuth or Thoth—offers King Thamus writing as a “remedy” (“pharmakon”) that can help memory. Thamus refuses the gift on the grounds that it will only create forgetfulness: for him, it is not a remedy for memory itself, but merely a way of reminding. Writing is thus a “poison” (“pharmakon”). In his reading of the Phaedrus, Derrida focuses on the “pharmakon”—which can also mean philtre, drug, recipe, charm, medicine, substance, spell, artificial colour, and paint—as that which produces a flickering and disorienting play in conceptual/ philosophical oppositions: remedy/ poison, good/ bad, true/ false, positive/ negative, interior/ exterior. According to Derrida, the pharmakon of writing itself cannot be reduced to the series of oppositional concepts that it precedes and produces (see Dissemination 103).
The pharmakon is thus particularly useful for thinking about writing as something that is essentially ambivalent and irreducible to simple conceptual/ philosophical binary oppositions: ironically, having dismissed writing as a mere image, Socrates in the Phaedrus tries to counteract the pharmakon of “writing” with his most effective medicine (pharmakon teleotaton)—the living word of knowledge that is “graven in the soul.” Socrates can counteract pharmakon with pharmakon, says Derrida, only because of the essential ambivalence of the pharmakon of writing which already bears its own “opposite” within itself (since it is already both poison and cure): “The ‘essence’ of the pharmakon lies in the way in which, having no stable essence, no ‘proper’ characteristics, it is not, in any sense (metaphysical, physical, chemical, alchemical) of the word, a substance…It is rather the prior medium in which differentiation in general is produced” (Dissemination, 125-6).
“If the pharmakon is ‘ambivalent,’ it is because it constitutes the medium in which opposites are opposed, the movement and the play that links them among themselves, reverses them or makes one side cross over into the other (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.).…The pharmakon is the movement, the locus, and the play: (the production of) difference. It is the différance of difference. It holds in reserve, in its undecided shadow and vigil, the opposites and the differends that the process of discrimination will come to carve out. Contradictions and pairs of opposites are lifted from the bottom of this diacritical, differing, deferring, reserve. Already inhabited by différance, this reserve, even though it ‘precedes’ the opposition between different effects, even though it preexists differences as effects, does not have the punctual simplicity of a coincidentia oppositorum. It is from this fund that dialectics draws its reserves” (Dissemination 127).
The translation of the pharmakon as “remedy” is not simply “incorrect”: it is always going to be partial, missing the mark: “Such an interpretative translation is thus as violent as it is impotent: it destroys the pharmakon but at the same time forbids itself access to it, leaving it untouched in its reserve. The translation by remedy can thus be neither accepted nor simply rejected” (Dissemination 99).
Girard connects the pharmakon to the arbitrary and generative violence that is turned on the scapegoat (“pharmakos”) in order to establish or create an ordered community:
“Philosophy, like tragedy, can at certain levels serve as an attempt at expulsion, an attempt perpetually renewed because never wholly successful. This point, I think, has been brilliantly demonstrated by Jacques Derrida in his essay “La Pharmacie de Platon.” He sets out to analyze Plato’s use of the pharmakon. The Platonic pharmakon functions like the human pharmakos and leads to similar results.…All difference in doctrines and attitudes is dissolved in violent reciprocity, is secretly undermined by the…somewhat naïve use of pharmakon. This use polarizes the maleficent violence on a double, who is arbitrarily expelled from the philosophical community.…Derrida’s analysis demonstrates in striking fashion a certain arbitrary violence of the philosophic process as it occurs in Plato, through the mediation of a word that is indeed appropriate since it really designates an earlier, more brutal variant of the same arbitrary violence.” (VS 296).
Jacques Derrida. “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Dissemination
(trans. Barbara Johnson.
René Girard. Violence and the Sacred (trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).