Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology is the seminal work of what has come to be called deconstructionist criticism. Essentially, deconstructionist critics reduce texts to their most fundamental elements in order to reach irreducible signs. The text as narrative in effect ceases to exist in order to privilege the signs it conveys; deconstructionists see this process as necessary violence which yields positive results. Consequently, there is no definitive text of any sort at any time, only a series of signs which can be reconstituted in an infinite number of ways. For example, this discussion of Derrida’s Of Grammatology is not his book; yet it reconstitutes its signs, the grammai (Greek for “the strokes of writing”), and thereby becomes a proximate model of it. Still, this discussion is far from what came from Derrida’s mind, which was itself different from what came from his pen; indeed, this discussion of Of Grammatology is the product of this writer’s deconstruction of Derrida’s text as it was translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (the translation is an earlier deconstruction). In essence, the only constant in this process is the gramme, the single stroke.

Because it relies upon the gramme, not even the lettre, Derrida’s book cannot strictly be called literary criticism; nor does it present a theory of linguistics, a discipline Derrida believes “grammatology” supersedes. Nevertheless, despite its unconventional nature, Derrida would be the last to deny the eclectic influences which one can trace in his work. Indeed “trace” is a recurring word in Derrida’s vocabulary. He argues that one can discern the trace in every text; this trace remains an indelible indication of the signifier within what is signified. All writing is, therefore, a process carried out, as it were, sous rature (under erasure). Derrida uses...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

A fundamental poststructuralist document, Of Grammatology introduced deconstruction to the field of critical theory and defined the rupture with traditional Western philosophy that occurred during the late 1960’s in Western Europe. In it, Jacques Derrida drew upon and modified ideas from key Western philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, producing a new understanding of Western philosophy. In Of Grammatology, Derrida moved beyond Heidegger’s destruktion, which disclosed the mechanisms of a system, to introduce deconstruction and analyze systems on their own terms, seeking their internal contradictions. Though Derrida began by analyzing the work of philosophers such as Edmund Husserl and investigating specific aspects of culture, in Of Grammatology he merges various analytic strands and demonstrates their application to all areas of Western culture. Issuing from a literal burst of writing that produced two other significant texts, La Voix et le phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (1967; “Speech and Phenomena,” and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, 1973) and L’Écriture et la différence (1967; Writing and Difference, 1978), Of Grammatology clarifies Derrida’s attempt to reinvigorate philosophy and infuse it with a sense of creativity and innovation.

In the preface to Of Grammatology, Derrida suggests the work’s general separation into theory and application. He avoids the implication of a bounded structure, alerting the reader that the work proceeds in relation to an axis, rather than in strictly linear order. The metaphor introduces the broader notion of writing or philosophical elaboration that breaks with the tradition of unified, predetermined direction. In that sense, the introduction begins Derrida’s strategy of merging commentary and process that permeates Of Grammatology, permitting him to analyze or deconstruct both his own text and the concepts under scrutiny.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Part 1, “Writing Before the Letter,” proceeds along several interwoven courses, all of which converge on what he terms “logocentrism,” the fundamental dependence of Western philosophy on a notion of original and essential truth as a fixed point, a definitive source from which all thought and meaning evolves. Derrida identifies that center point as a “transcendental signified,” a stable source of all meaning, the basis for all subsequent assumptions of natural order, leading to the development of hierarchies in Western culture. Hierarchies, in his analysis, draw their priorities through a system of binary oppositions such as good/evil, day/night, in which the first member of the pair is valued over the second and considered its polar opposite, its antithesis. He bases his analysis on the fundamental philosophical bias for speech above writing, citing the Western tradition of assigning values to sign systems as primary evidence.

The analysis precisely defines deconstruction in that Derrida applies Western philosophy’s specific logic to reveal its inner contradictions. Rather than imposing a new set of oppositions for the old, he applies the system’s own syllogisms to argue that the basic paired terms are not polar opposites, but in fact overlap, each unit or term being and containing part of the other. He neither argues for writing as superior to speech, thus merely constructing a new binary system, nor proposes to destroy or supplant the old structure or its basic units. He simply demonstrates the internally flawed logic of binary pairs and their assumed opposition, demonstrating instead a free play of difference.

Starting with the Greek philosopher Plato, Derrida analyzes speech’s privileged status as a reaffirmation of the notion of an identifiable origin or source of meaning. The requirement for an identifiable origin, a speaker, in order for speech to occur forms the central idea of Western philosophy, which Derrida identifies as a “metaphysics of presence.” A system that requires a fixed origin or truth source and depends upon binary opposition favors presence; speech requires presence as a condition of origin, thus shares status with truth, thought, or logos. Writing and absence acquire negative value as opposites to speech and presence. Their parallel status acquires even greater negative value by association with origin’s binary opposite, death. Derrida depicts the “metaphysics of presence” as both corollary and basis for Western religious metaphysics, forming a mutual corroboration at the core of Western culture.

Structuralism Deconstructed

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Continuing his deconstructive process, Derrida expands Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralist analysis of linguistic systems, developing an internal critique of both structuralism and the “transcendental signified.” Derrida employs Saussure’s own analysis to reveal the fundamental flaw in this phrase and to clarify structuralism’s metaphysical dependence. In Saussure’s sign structure, an essential concept or meaning, a signified, is represented by a signifier, the utterance or sound that refers to it. Derrida argues that Saussure’s structure repeats the metaphysical operation. The signified occupies an inner or intellectual position, a center, and the signifier occurs outside, separate from the intellectual process, yet connected by reference. Writing, for Saussure, is a degraded representation, referring not to the signified, the central meaning, but by duplication, to the signifier, speech. Thus, Saussure considers writing to be a threat to meaning because it disguises the role of speech, seeming to replace it but representing only the sound, not the meaning.

Derrida’s basic critical maneuver is to accept Saussure’s sign-based analysis but then call attention to the fact that Saussure must rely on writing to communicate his analysis. This maneuver introduces the suggestion that speech may not be sufficient even for Saussure. More crucially, Derrida also acknowledges Saussure’s claim that signs of meaning, signifiers or spoken words,...

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Nature and Culture

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In part 2, “Nature, Culture, Writing,” Derrida clarifies logocentrism’s ultimate implications and completes his deconstruction by reference to philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Derrida establishes Rousseau’s dependence on a nature/culture opposition and carefully demonstrates the binary’s precise conformity to the “metaphysics of presence.” The connections to religious, moral, and aesthetic codes in Rousseau’s parallel of speech/writing with his nature/culture opposition corroborate Derrida’s depiction of fundamental hierarchy as institutionalized throughout Western culture.

In a conclusive deconstructive maneuver, Derrida then applies Rousseau’s own analysis to reveal meaning’s inherent instability. Accepting writing’s depiction as “supplemental” to speech, Derrida notes that Rousseau acknowledges speech’s deficiency by identifying a supplement that, by definition, completes.

Rousseau’s opposition thus overturns itself, allowing Derrida to observe that speech and writing, in fact, contain aspects of each other, requiring each other for existence. Accordingly, they no longer can be considered opposites but must be recognized as an example of the constant play of meaning and difference expressed in “arche-writing.” In that sense, both speech and writing may be placed under “erasure,” signifying their individual inadequacy and mutual necessity. It is not so much that their...

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Derrida’s Impact

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

This most widely known study from Derrida’s large body of work remains, for many, a vital point of access to his discourse. Of Grammatology’s publication in 1967 generally coincided with Derrida’s 1966 appearance before the International Colloquium on Critical Languages and the Sciences of Man at The Johns Hopkins University, where he analyzed structuralism’s internal flaws, generating immediate controversy. Of Grammatology vastly expanded that presentation and coalesced many of the deconstructive ideas he had developed in his previous writing. Derrida stated subsequent to the English-language publication of Of Grammatology that the work represented a significant event in his own development, in that it brought coherence to his perception of the interrelation of Western culture and writing. The work also retains a key position in the introduction and development of poststructuralism.

Because it appears to follow a “traditional” book structure, many experts view Of Grammatology as Derrida’s most accessible work. That view runs counter to the central purpose not only of the work but also of Derrida’s deconstructive perspective. It also risks overlooking the fact that the work does not stand separate from Derrida’s writing as the one “traditional” work. Rather, the work tends to use its position within a recognizable textual tradition and its implicit susceptibility to customary analytical reading as a deconstructive device; the text illustrates the discourse. Of Grammatology enacts many of the ideas and theories detailed in Derrida’s previous writing, but, perhaps inescapably, eludes thorough development without a reading of Derrida’s other works. In that sense, Derrida succeeded in producing a work with the apparent structure of a traditional book that resists a sense of containment, confinement, closure, and definitive meaning. In that sense, the work’s significance may also lie in its position as a deconstruction of the book both as a tradition and as a self-contained product.


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Additional Reading

Johnson, Christopher. Derrida. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Lamont, Michele. “How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida.” American Journal of Sociology 93, no. 3 (1987). Serves as a brief synopsis of the life of Jacques Derrida and his importance to French and North American philosophy. Contains an appendix that includes a list of secondary sources.

Morag, Patrick. Derrida, Responsibility and Politics. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997. Morag’s examination is directed toward the foundations of legal, moral, and political authority and at the questioning of form itself as it relates to the ethico-political significance of deconstruction.

Norris, Christopher. Derrida. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. This text introduces Derrida in a post-Kantian light without delving too far into technical detail. Norris covers a broad spectrum of ideas while focusing on the subtle logic that surrounds Derrida’s reasoning. Its emphasis on the philosophical importance of ontology presents the reader with a solid foundation for further inquiry.

Powell, Jim. Derrida for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1996. Powell offers a superb introduction to the thought and life of Derrida. Recommended for readers who are approaching Derrida’s ideas for the first time.

Sallis, John. Deconstruction and Philosophy: The Texts of Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. This text represents the first attempt to compare Derrida’s deconstruction to Western philosophy up to and including Heidegger. Includes a work by Derrida previously unavailable in English.

Salusinszky, Imre. “Jacques Derrida.” In Criticism in Society. New York: Methuen Press, 1987. Focuses on the application of Derrida’s deconstruction to education. Includes an introduction to the main ideas of grammatology and deconstruction.

Whitford, Margaret. “Jacques Derrida.” In Makers of Modern Culture, edited by Justin Wintle. New York: Facts on File, 1981. Summarizes the life, work, and philosophical significance of Derrida.