Analysis

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Of Grammatology (French: De la grammatologie) is one of the three 1967 philosophical books written by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, which established him as an important figure in contemporary Western literature and philosophy. The other two books are Speech and Phenomena (French: La voix et le phénomène) and Writing and Difference (French: L'écriture et la difference).

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The book was originally published in French and had its first English translation published in 1976, with further revised versions appearing in 1997 and 2016. In his book, Derrida, essentially, reviews the writing styles and concepts of several influential writers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Étienne Condillac, Louis Hjelmslev, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Roman Jakobson, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, André Leroi-Gourhan, and William Warburton.

In Of Grammatology Derrida presents his groundbreaking theories and ideas on linguistics, writing, structuralism, deconstruction, postmodern literature, philosophy, and even psychoanalysis. Because of its revolutionary character, the book was widely debated by Derrida’s fellow authors and the European, and later on American, academic circles, and it’s considered the world’s first un(official) definition of deconstructive, contemporary criticism. Derrida's main argument seems to be the favoritism and privileging of speech over writing by almost all of the writers he analyzes, which, according to him, seems to be present ever since Ancient times and the writings of Plato.

The book consists of two parts: the first part, "Writing before the Letter," presents Derrida’s theories on structuralism and post-structuralism, focusing on the writing concepts of famed linguists Ferdinand de Saussure and Edmund Husserl; the second part, "Nature, Culture, Writing," focuses on the concept of deconstructive criticism, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas on the ‘logic of supplementarity.’

Through his reviews and analyses, Derrida creates a unique approach to epistemology, or the philosophical theory of knowledge, naming it “grammatology.” He seems to be asking more questions about methodology and the metaphysical, than giving answers, and refuses to draw significant conclusions, leaving his theories open to interpretation. He does, however, present several opinions and definitions which are and will remain to be very important and fundamental for those interested in the concepts of deconstruction, structuralism, philosophy, and writing in general. Thus, Derrida writes:

A writing that breaks with the phone radically is perhaps the most rational and effective of scientific machines; it no longer responds to any desire or rather it signifies its death to desire. It was what already operated within speech as writing and machine. It is the represented in its pure state, without the represented, or without the order of the represented naturally linked to it.

Form and Content

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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 this analogy because it best describes what happens in the correction process. No matter how carefully the change is made, a trace of what was before always remains. What was before itself embraces the trace of what was before that. That leaves the gramme as the only essential sign, the stroke of writing having no referent except itself.

Though clearly a revolutionary idea, Derrida’s theory of grammatology follows quite logically from several sources and reflects the atmosphere of challenge and upheaval characteristic of scholarship in the 1960’s. Four theorists were especially important in shaping Derrida’s thought (though Derrida’s ideas are significantly different from the ideas of these men): Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). From Nietzsche, Derrida developed a general distrust of metaphysics as a systematic study and a suspicion of fixed values of meaning. Nietzsche had sought to liberate the signifier from its absolute identification with logos (word). Derrida, like Nietzsche, questions the meaning of truth and the primary signified (but Derrida criticizes Nietzsche’s indefinite expansion of sign chains, which ultimately lead to undeniable truth). For Derrida, even the most apparently incontestable ideas as embodied in logoi contain the trace of their own contradiction; he indicates this by crossing out expressions on the page, so that the original is somewhat obscured but still legible.

From Freud, Derrida derived the notion that every concept is sustained by its opposite, that a unit of meaning necessarily admits at least the possibility of its own contradiction. For example, the pleasure principle contrasts with, yet actually serves, the death instinct. Similarly, the death instinct inspires an economy of life and manifests itself in life as inertia. Derrida refers to the permanent trace of conceptual opposites as La differance. The capitalized article and the spelling of “difference” with an a are used to convey the three notions of “differing,” “deferring,” and “detour”—sous rature in all rational processes.

Husserl distinguishes between a transcendental apprehension of consciousness (for example, each human being’s understanding of an individual relationship to the world) and a pure psychology of consciousness (for example, the idea of “world”). Freud’s contribution, so Derrida would argue, is in obliterating the distinction between “being in the world” and “world,” even as he underscores it through the process of psychoanalysis. In more simple language, the analysand discovers that what causes individuation (the psychosis) is simply an eccentric manifestation (a differance).

Derrida uses Heidegger against Nietzsche. Though Nietzsche questions being as an ultimate signified, he never questions the questionings. For Heidegger then, the idea of “Being?” is surpassed by Nietzsche. Heidegger holds that the question unquestioned leaves only another element, posited as though it were irreducible. Derrida thus views Heidegger as, in a sense, anticipating his own concept of sous rature.

Context

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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.

Speech/Writing

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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

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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, acquire meaning by their difference from other signs or groups of sound, instead of through any inherent meaning in the sound. Thus, “cat” refers to a concept of the specific animal because its sound is different from “bat” or any other word in the language. Its meaning is not exclusive, however, since gato refers to the same concept within a different language.

Derrida accepts the notion of language as reliant on meaning through difference as Saussure develops it, but then insists that if such is the case, there can be no direct or “natural” connection between speech, the signifier defined by difference, and a stable, fixed concept. Following Saussure’s logic, the signified gains meaning by its difference from other signifieds; it, too, is defined by difference. Its meaning is not fixed but constantly reliant on other meanings. Derrida coins the term différance to suggest this continual deferral of essential meaning produced by différence, or constant difference. However, Derrida points out that the graphic signs, or writing, that Saussure must use to explain his linguistic structure also derive meaning by their difference from other signs. The written signs are, then, not opposites, but merely different aspects of the constant interaction of difference that produces language. Derrida identifies this ongoing contingency, the reliance between signs, as “arche-writing,” an intangible negotiation of difference that makes meaning possible but constantly latent and deferred.

By the end of part 1, Derrida has worked through two deconstructive maneuvers: He has identified the central concept that forces meaning into oppositions or binaries, and he has subverted the binary order, suggesting writing is vital to the expansion of meaning. His suggestion of “arche-writing” and Saussure’s self-contradiction implies a further step, anticipating the extension of his analysis in the second part of the work.

Nature and Culture

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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 relationship cannot be articulated, but rather that there is no specific relationship; it constantly redefines itself.

As Derrida elaborates Rousseau’s nature/culture opposition, he draws the parallel with that of Claude Lévi-Strauss, disclosing logocentrism’s historical persistence and emphasizing its precepts’ universal application through Western culture. Introducing anthropology allows Derrida to elaborate the impact of logocentric systems as inevitably producing a “violent hierarchy,” predisposed to exclude and marginalize devalued opposites. He typifies that violence by the ethnocentrism and implicit colonialism that grants status to phonetically based language as a “natural” link to speech, to the detriment of any other system, such as Asian pictographic writing.

Thus, though Derrida does not proceed through Of Grammatology in strictly linear fashion, his various analytical strands describe logocentrism’s pervasive function not only as a standard for linguistic discourse but also as a determining structure for all aspects of Western culture. Simultaneously, he demonstrates in practice rather than definition the deconstruction process by first locating the metaphysical biases central to Western cultural discourse from Plato through Lévi-Strauss. Further, he avoids origin-based linearity both in method and discourse, blending analyses of various positions, for example, moving backward from Lévi-Strauss to Rousseau, rather than arguing an evolutionary influence.

Upon identifying the basis for a structure, Derrida then applies the system’s own logic, as in the case of Rousseau and Saussure, to overturn basic oppositional premises, suggesting the primacy of the degraded terms. Finally, he demonstrates the absence of opposition, arguing that each term in a binary, as speech and writing, is both inadequate and present in the other. By extension, he proposes a movement from the linearity of linguistics into grammatology, an exploration of difference and referentiality in arche-writing, the crucial switch to the free play of différance, the difference and deferral of final meaning.

Derrida’s Impact

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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.

Bibliography

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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.

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