(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1329 words.)