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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415

Jacques Derrida begins by analyzing the relationships among language, speech, and writing. He delves into the problems of linguistics as a science that aims to understand language, yet privileges its written form in order to record even unwritten speech. The word, he cautions, is a “screen.” Because most applications of linguistics, he cautions, emphasize

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the written form of language, [they] could make us believe in the fundamental importance of the divisions of the written text and make us forget that one must always start with the oral utterance in order to understand the real nature of human language. Also it is more than ever indispensable to insist on the necessity of pushing the examination beyond the immediate appearances and the structures most familiar to the researcher. It is behind the screen of the word that the truly fundamental characteristics of human language often appear.

Because of society’s extreme dependence on writing, there is no longer an effective way to distinguish meaningfully between them. Derrida rejects the notion that writing is a record of thoughts and ideas conceptualized separately, as through speech; rather, the idea of writing imposes on the mind predetermined ways of organizing thought. This has been an evolving process.

By a slow movement whose necessity is hardly perceptible, everything that for at least some twenty centuries tended toward and finally succeeded in being gathered under the name of language is beginning to let itself be transferred to, or at least summarized under, the name of writing.

This correlation, however, raises the question of how to understand or characterize, as anthropologists do, the languages of peoples who did not use writing, or the physical manifestations of speech as something other than writing. Here he critiques Claude Lévi-Strauss for positing that a culture “does not” have writing, noting this division is fundamentally ethnocentric.

[I]f Lévi-Strauss constantly recognizes the pertinence of the division between peoples with and peoples without writing, this division is effaced by him from the moment that one might ethnocentrically wish to make it play a role in the reflection on history and on the respective value of cultures. The difference between peoples with and peoples without writing is accepted, but writing as the criterion of historicity or cultural value is not taken into account; ethnocentrism will apparently be avoided at the very moment when it will have already profoundly operated, silently imposing its standard concepts of speech and writing.

All quotations are from the 1976 translation by Gayatri Spivak.

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