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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 266

Of Grammatology is considered to be a foundational text in the Post-Structuralist Movement. Unlike the Structuralist Movement which precedes it, post-structuralism is most concerned with the reader of a text and the context in which something is read. Post-structuralism, therefore, takes into account the influence of culture and society on...

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Of Grammatology is considered to be a foundational text in the Post-Structuralist Movement. Unlike the Structuralist Movement which precedes it, post-structuralism is most concerned with the reader of a text and the context in which something is read. Post-structuralism, therefore, takes into account the influence of culture and society on how we come to understand the world around us.

In the first essay, Derrida argues against structuralism and its totalitarian assumptions. He argues that structuralism presumes absolute truths. In addition, he questions how we come to derive meaning from language, and he critiques how Western philosophy uses language. He believes that speech has become dispossessed from meaning through structuralism. In other words, language gets in the way of what we are trying to say. He coins the phrase “signifier of the signifier” to question what is meant by the language we use. This is based off of the linguistic and philosophical terms “signifier” and “signified.” The signifier is what we use to express meaning. Meanwhile, the signified is the concept or idea behind the signifier. Derrida believes that more often than not, structuralism uses signifiers to point to other signifiers. When this happens there is nothing signified, or there is no meaning behind what is being said.

It is a bit ironic that Derrida writes about how Western philosophy has come to lose its meaning through the use of language, because his writing can be so dense and difficult to understand. However, the ideas are quite simple. What we say does not mean the same thing to everyone. Therefore, a text is not stable and absolute.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154

Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology is a fundamental work of what has come to be called deconstructionist criticism. “Grammatology” is a term borrowed from Ignace J. Gelb, a linguist and ancient historian who first used it in his A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology (1952). Derrida’s Of Grammatology reexamines and aims to replace traditional Western logocentrism. By logocentrism, Derrida means the identification of the words of a text with the truth the text contains.

From the pre-Socratics to the post-Hegelians, logos (Greek for “word,” “reason,” or “spirit”) has been the origin of truth, its constitutive element. Western culture, influenced by the book of Genesis, and also by Plato, has identified logos with the source of creation itself. The thought of God or some overriding transcendent principle is thus identifiable with logos, while logos at its essence implies creation.

Language conveys signs, and signs contain two elements: the signifier (the physical symbol) and the signified (the thought beyond the symbol). The signifier and signified are ever present, and they are always distinct from one another. They may be distinct only to a small degree, or they may have a wide separation. For example, the coldness of ice cream might make one person think of winter, another person of a summer day at the beach, and a third person of the pain from a sensitive tooth.

It is thus apparent that there is something like a logocentric hierarchy of signification. Things signified have a greater or lesser validity insofar as they approach the universal, or in more metaphysical terms, insofar as they approach a primum signatum—the signified that requires no signification. This first and highest signified validates all those that are lower. Furthermore, the primum signatum is “logologically” essential, and without it a chaos of signifiers would make a sign lose all signification.

Presence validates the signified because one cannot doubt that which clearly exists; the higher the signified, the greater its degree of presence. Cold as signifier of winter has a greater degree of presence for anyone who has experienced winter. It is likely to be more universal than cold as signifier of ice cream if one has never eaten ice cream. Concomitantly, an individual is absolutely real to that same individual. Reality thus validates presence.

The most potent signifiers are intelligible. Love as concept or idea, for example, is immediately apprehensible intellectually, though the path through which the mind apprehends it is in its relation to absolute logos. Physical reality, which is necessarily on the level of sense, traces a higher metaphysical counterpart. Physical entities thus signify intelligible ideas, and intelligible ideas have validity and reality.

Derrida privileges speech to writing. Speech has a higher signification because it eliminates the intermediary of the written word. One thinks in words—inner speech—whereas the written word, by interposing itself, simply signifies the spoken signifier. The written word is a mediator of a mediator and, thereby, imposes distance on idea and, thus, on presence. Because logocentrism seeks presence, it attempts to efface written words by implying unity between signifier and signified. Though the spoken word is closer to presence than the written word, even it can never reach the truth or pure presence that transcendent validity requires.

Logocentric linguistics itself, therefore, ultimately fails because it can never reach the universality of absolute presence and, through this, ultimate truth. Logocentric linguistics deludes a person with illusions of unity through a chain of signifiers and entities signified, but it eventually collapses in failure to signify anything. As a basic example, consider technical operational or repair manuals for such things as automobiles or computers. They proceed through a hierarchic series of comprehensible signs that initially appear to have clearly signified entities. Even so, they ultimately become babble to all but those initiated into their jargon. Even initiates and initiator, however, frequently find a welter of contradictory significations.

Because reaching the truth is impossible through logocentric linguistics, Derrida proposes a new conception of language, grammatology, which privileges writing. This results in an endless chain of signifiers and eliminates the need for the transcendent signification of logocentric linguistics. It also destroys both the concept and the logic of the sign. Every signifier inherently differs from that which it signifies and defers recognition of what it signifies. This is what Derrida calls différance, which he spells with the letter a to show simultaneously both “difference” and “deference.”

Signs and hierarchic signification are nevertheless embedded in the logocentric tradition; this trace remains visible. In Derrida’s grammatology, one always writes under erasure, crossing out signifiers with an X while allowing them to remain visible to indicate necessary reliance upon them.

Derrida, in part two, continues his analysis, looking at what he considers the concealment of language in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1781-1788). It is in Rousseau that Derrida sees the origins of the grammatology he proposes. Confessions, Derrida argues, describes the process by which Rousseau became a writer in terms of a calculated effacement of presence in speech. Writing thus allows Rousseau a calculated means of presenting his true self.

Of course, anyone who has read Rousseau’s Confessions, or even Rousseau’s fiction, realizes that its author is always present and always absent in what he writes. Having claimed that truth is the primary criterion of his Confessions, Rousseau declares that his is a type of work never before written, though he had been clearly aware of Saint Augustine’s work of the same name. Rousseau writes that he intends to offer the work to his creator (though he does not believe in God; Rousseau’s creator is Rousseau), and because he has written every word, he has become his own recording angel. His self-indictments become his accomplishments, and his failures become his distinctions.

For Derrida, then, Rousseau becomes a pivotal example of the failure of the logocentric epoch and the birth of the new grammatology. Confessions fills a lack of nature; it is a supplement and it substitutes (it is a suppléance). Language is the “mother” Rousseau lacks; mama is the name he gives his first mistress. Rousseau desires “to lie at the feet of an imperious mistress.” The writer is the servant of language insofar as language invariably limits.

Even so, none of these elements is truly what it appears to be because signification does not truly signify. Neither language nor his first mistress and patron—Louise Eleonore de Warens—nor the imperious mistress of Rousseau’s fantasies can be the mother who died giving birth to him. Confessions is his child and not his child. The work’s primary character both is and is not the autobiographer, and its protagonist both is and is not the recording angel who submits the work to the creator in whom he does not believe (nor ever confesses he believes) exists. The signifiers chase one another almost as instruments in a musical fugue, but they never transcend themselves.

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