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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1329

Derrida’s book begins with an “exergue,” which, strictly speaking, is the empty space around the edges of a coin or a medallion. He thus avoids the semantic implication of the word “preface,” that the ideas about to be presented have not already been constituted. An exergue allows him to see his subject (the relationship of writing, speaking, reading, and knowing) as a topic which can be approached in any number of ways, not merely through history. Though writing begins as something ethnocentric (in that it traces the history of the people who produce it), it is simultaneously logocentric: It is equally conscious of itself and develops its own history through what it is called upon to convey.

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Despite what might be viewed as writing’s evolving complexity, its having to produce methods of conveying the concepts an evolving culture produces, Derrida argues that writing immediately assumes a life of its own which simultaneously overtakes (even as writing is written) the culture which produces it. This idea can be illustrated in several ways. The pictogram (which conveys knowledge through pictures) is immediately (and increasingly) an abstraction of the ethnocentric known. The ideogram (syllabic script) encroaches immediately upon the langue (the spoken word). It does not, however, reproduce the langue; even when haltingly deciphered (as, for example, Mycenaean Linear B), it reveals nothing of the modis loquendae (method, manner of speaking) and nothing of the intellectual process which produces the content the ideogram conveys, so close to knowing.

One might imagine that a universal alphabetic script would break the tyranny of the letter, but even if one could posit a single script representing a single langue, its proximations to knowing would be no closer. If the hypothetical universal culture were technological, the jargon of the logoi would still overwhelm the concepts it describes; it would, furthermore, survive those concepts, outliving them to the point at which the concepts had ceased to be known or had ceased to be known as originally known.

In an attempt to discover seminal knowledge, humanity posits the sign, the unit which has no meaning beyond itself. Because of the “logocentricity” of humanity, logos became understood as sign. Nevertheless, it is clear that not every logos can be a sign; indeed, very few even remotely qualify. Antiquity and the Middle Ages attempted to resolve this problem by positing a “logological” hierarchy in which logoi have logos as their ultimate referent. One can discern elements of this principle in Plato, through his theory of forms in the Phaedo and Socrates’ logological chains in the Phaedrus (c. 388-366 b.c.e.); Saint Augustine’s Confessions (397-400), in which the infant’s cry becomes the adult’s word, becomes the convert’s prayer; in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), where allegory races toward a true understanding of itself in the beatific vision.

The great break with this tradition came during the eighteenth century with the Age of Reason. This period was neoclassical in name only, for it saw the rise of modern metaphysics. Not content with an Aristotelian understanding of the transcendent, metaphysicians of the eighteenth century, such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), posited causal chains whose absurdities were lampooned by Voltaire (1694-1778) in his popular fable Candide (1759; English translation, 1759). Nietzsche called the entire study of metaphysics into question a century later with his “Genealogy of Morals,” but it was Freud who argued that nearly every concept (whether “true” or “false”) holds in its being stated precisely by its opposite. Derrida understands this idea as the differance (differing, deferring, detouring principle). “Being” implies nonbeing; “is” implies “is not”; “inside” implies outside; and “presence” implies absence. Thus, Derrida concludes that writing begins when book ends; the gramme and not the logos is the sign, that which defines itself and is its own subject and object. Positively stated, history, philosophy, and science have bowed to the episteme (closed, profound, comprehensive knowledge) of the gramme, and one can legitimately pursue its study as “grammatology.”

The second part of Derrida’s study focuses on the Enlightenment, specifically on the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). For Derrida, Rousseau best illustrates the simultaneous presence of subject-signifier and material signified. Rousseau’s autobiography, Les Confessions de J.-J. Rousseau (1782, 1798; The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, 1783-1790) insists from its beginning upon the authenticity of its author’s experience, upon the author’s intention to convey that experience in a wholly accurate way, and upon the individuality of that experience as never lived by any other. It is striking that Rousseau is aware of the life of his text and that he desires that his book be its writer and not simply a representation of its author’s life. Rousseau’s autobiography thus posits a phonological presence, the author’s voice, externally and unceasingly constituting itself independently of the reader, or external referent. Derrida would say that the metonymy of using Rousseau’s name alone for “Rousseau’s writings” holds especially true because of this autoactuated phonological presence.

Nevertheless, the truth of any text is questioned by structuralist critics, who are generally at odds with the methods of the deconstructionists. Derrida cites the contention of one of the foremost structuralists, Claude Levi-Strauss, that writing by its very nature implies falsehood, an idea striking when juxtaposed to Rousseau’s insistence upon the veracity of his own text. Levi-Strauss (and the structuralists generally) would argue that no text can be understood in a linear or historical sense, that it is like a plant which sends its roots in all directions—tapping what came before it, disguising that in the aspect of its own substance, and even anticipating what other texts will make of what it has done. As one example, William Shakespeare, seen in this context, is a “diachronological” (passing through and by time) embodiment of his predecessors, a “radical” (in the sense of radix, or root) expression of them, and one link in a chain which never achieves closure. Structuralists use this hypothesis to deduce larger, sociological, transcendent meanings from recurring structural elements in a wide variety of texts. Like the deconstructionists, structuralists believe that narrative is irrelevant, but Derrida argues that structuralists continue to privilege logos, that they do violence to the text merely to establish another text. In effect, Derrida accuses Levi-Strauss of slackness of method, of a sentimental ethnocentrism which understands writing only in a narrow sense—which remains logocentric. Levi-Strauss, seen this way (and, one must note, against his own strong objections to the contrary), becomes a deconstructionist unwilling to move against logocentrism.

Derrida repeatedly demonstrates what he holds are recurring characteristics of knowing-language-writing (all the same for Derrida). One of these is the proper name, a form of narcissism which seeks immortality and privilege for a name even as it desires to make the name common, a part of the idiom, of the parole (the language as spoken). This is manifested at times in wordplay (no matter whether intentional). “Hegel” (proper name) is evoked, so Derrida believes, as “eagle” (the French aigle, corresponding to the pronunciation of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s surname), implying imperial and magisterial power. The philosopher’s name is at once immortalized and effaced within the text (which is the author).

Though Derrida notes that Rousseau ultimately interrupts the unity of signifier and signified through a “supplement,” the disturbance itself represents the author’s desire to continue the text as a continuation of self, a wish for immortality. Perhaps that is why Derrida continues his own text through five supplements which rely heavily on fable for illustration. At this point Derrida, in effect, sets exposition to one side and becomes a fabler. Plato, who supposedly eschewed mythology as falsehood, is situated in Derrida’s pharmacy, appropriately named White Mythology, for the product it sells. Rousseau, who candidly admits to frequent masturbation in The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, has an erotic dream in which his “supplement” rapes metaphysics (enters her by force).

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Critical Context