Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology (1967


Notes from Spivak’s preface to Of Grammatology:


In the preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Spivak offers us a way to understand the conversations that OG responds to, the dense, shifting and unstable concepts that Derrida introduces in OG, a clarification of and supplement to Derrida’s key arguments, and an overview of the text’s structure.  Spivak reminds us that Derrida is working against commonly accepted conceptions of language and processes of knowing, especially the assumptions that knowledge leads to truth and that language is a vehicle for arriving at a stable truth.  Derrida advocates language-play, according to Spivak, which recognizes that conclusions are always provisional, origins are always unoriginal, and that the world of infinite signs is always open to interpretation. For Derrida, Spivak explains, all signs are structures of difference, which are marked by traces of an absent but always present other and which give rise to multiple possible meanings rather than closure.  In pointing to the play of language, Derrida wants us to realize that “language bears within itself the necessity of it own critique” (qtd on xviii) and that “knowledge is not a systematic tracking down of a truth that is hidden but may be found.  It is rather the field of ‘freeplay’, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble” (qtd. on xix).  We must, in Derrida’s eyes, give up our incessant desire to unify, order, and stabilize meaning, and instead embrace methods that allow an “opening” of meaning.  For as Nietzsche asserts, this will to truth, to which interpretation always belongs, is really a will to power because “the so-called drive for knowledge can be traced back to a drive to appropriate and conquer” (qtd. on xxii).  The supreme will of power, according to Nietzsche, is “to impose upon becoming a character of being” (xxxv).  Thus, in Derrida’s eyes, to ask “what is” undermines the act of becoming and is simply a reflection of one’s will to power.  We must recognize that “one is shaped by difference…that the ‘self’ is constituted by its never- fully-to-be-recognized-ness”; we are the play of chance and necessity (xliv).  We must also embrace the will to ignorance—“ a matter of attitude, a realization that one’s choice of ‘evidence’ is provisional, a self-distrust, a distrust of one’s own power, the control of one’s vocabulary” (lxxiv). 


Derrida explains that writing is always a structure of signs under erasure, “always already inhabited by the trace of another sign which never appears as such” (Spivak xxxix).  As Spivak explains in paraphrasing Derrida, writing effaces the presence of a thing while simultaneously keeping it legible (xli).  In recognizing this attribute of language and textuality, meaning of a text can never be closed.  Structuralism then, as the objective attempt to identify and isolate general structures of language, is problematic; for it is impossible to engage in objective description to identify what the structure of the sign is because the structure is always under erasure; it is constituted by both difference and deferment.  Also, as Spivak explains, “the description of the object is as contaminated by the patterns of the subject’s desire as is the subject constituted by that never-fulfilled desire” (lix).  These patterns in Western intellectual traditions are plagued with binary, hierarchized oppositions, which grammatologists always put under question.  


Writing in Derrida’s eyes is more than the narrow sense of graphic inscription; it is also the investigation into the structure of differance, which is always constituted by “absence of  ‘author’ and of ‘subject matter,’ interpretability, deployment of space and time that is not ‘its own’”  (lxix).   Grammatology reminds of the always-present difference of language.  This is not to say that Derrida does not make use of the sign, however.  It is just that the “structure of the gramme is the sign under erasure—both conserving and effacing the sign” (Spivak lviii). And also, “ the signifier and the signified are interchangeable; one is the difference of the other; the concept of the sign itself is not more than a legible yet effaced, unavoidable tool.  Repetition leads to a simulacrum, not to the ‘same’” (Spivak lxv).


Deconstruction is Derrida’s method of finding those moments in a text in which the text seems to “transgress its own system of values” (Spivak xlix) and where the binary oppositions seem to function harmlessly as ordered yet in reality threaten the collapse of the text’s system of unified meaning (lxvv).  Deconstruction’s aim is not to prevent a text from having meaning, but to open up possibility for meaning.  Derrida models deconstruction by deconstructing Levi-Strauss’ claims that some communities were without writing and that phonetic writing is practice of civil rather than savage and barbaric society.  Derrida also deconstructs Rousseau’s arguments that claim speech is pure and original form of language—a belief linked to phonocentrism and logocentrism. In addition, Derrida identifies the blind spot of Rousseau’s use of the concept of the supplement, which Rousseau positions as exteriority, pure addition or pure absence (167). 

Derrida ultimately argues that speech is constituted of writing. Derrida rejects the notion that writing is exterior to speech, speech to thought, and signifier to signified (82). 


Method of deconstruction, if there can be one, is reversal and displacement.  Stage 1:  identify and overthrow hierarchy.  Stage 2:  displace by putting winning term under erasure to make room for new concept.


Key Quotes:


Humankind’s common desire is for a stable center, and for the assurance of mastery—through knowing or possessing -xi.


“…all texts are at least double, containing within themselves the seeds of their own destruction” (liii-liv). 


it is this longing for a center, an authorizing pressure, that spawns heirarchized oppositions.  The superior term belongs to a presence and the logos; the inferior serves to define its status and mark a fall.  The oppositions between intelligible and sensible, soul and body seem to have lasted out ‘the history of Western philosophy,’ bequeathing the burden to modern linguistics’ opposition between meaning and word.  The opposition between writing and speech takes its place within this pattern” (lxix).


“deconstruction in a nutshell:  to locate the promising marginal text, to disclose the undecidable moment, to pry it loose with the positive lever of the signifier; to reverse the resident hierarchy, only to displace it; to dismantle the order to reconstruct what is always already inscribed” (lxxvii). 


“The outside, ‘spatial’ and ‘objective’ exteriority which we believe we know as the most familiar thing in the world, as familiarity itself, would not appear without the gramme, without difference as temporalization, without the nonpresence of the other inscribed within the sense of the present, without the relationship with death as the concrete structure of the living present.  Metaphor would be forbidden.  The presence-absence of the trace, which one should not even call its ambiguity but rather its play…, carries in itself the problems of the letter and the spirit, of body and soul, and of all the problems whose primary affinity I have recalled” (71). 


The traditional concept of time, an entire organization of the world and of language, was bound up with it [linearity].  Writing in the narrow sense-and phonetic writing above all-is rooted in a past of nonlinear writing…..A war was declared, and a suppression of all that resisted linearization was installed….The word history has no doubt always been associated with a linear scheme of the unfolding presence according to the straight line or the circle (85). 


This unnamable movement of difference-itself, that I have strategically nicknamed trace, reserve, or differance, could be called writing only within the historical closure, that is to say within the limits of science and philosophy—93.


Thought for me a perfectly neutral name, the blank part of the text, the necessarily indeterminate index of a future epoch of difference.  In a certain sense, “thougth” means nothing. Like all openings, this index belongs within a post epoch by the face that is pen to view.  This thought has no weight.  It is, in the play of the system, that very thing which never has weight.  Thinking is what we already know we have not yet begun; measured against the shape of writing, it is broached only in the episteme (93). 


If all writing is no longer understood in the narrow sense of linear and phonetic notation, it should be possible to say that all societies capable of producing, that is to say of obliterating, their proper names, and of bringing classificatory difference into play, practice writing in general.  No reality or concept would therefore correspond to the expression oneirism, upon the vulgar, that is to say ethnocentric, misconception of writing (109).


By one and the same gesture, (alphabetic) writing, servile instrument of a speech dreaming of its plenitude and its self-presence, is scorned and the dignity of writing is refused to nonalphabetic signs (110). 


If it is true, as I in fact believe, that writing cannot be thought outside of the horizon of intersubjective violence, is there anything, even science that radically escapes it? -127


If writing is to be related to violence, writing appears well before writing in the narrow sense; already in the difference or the arche-writing that opens speech itself – 128


That what opens up meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of natural presence – 159.


Writing is inscribe in a determined textual system – 160


We must begin wherever we are and the thought of the trace, which cannot take the scent into account, has already taught us that it was impossible to justify a point of departure absolutely.  Wherever we are:  in a text where we already believe ourselves to be (162).


The concept of the origin or nature is nothing but the myth of addition, of supplementarity annulled by being purely additive.  It is the myth of the effacement of the trace, that is to say of an originary difference that is neither absence nor presence, neither negative nor positive – 166.  Origin is simply a “point situated within the system of supplementarity” (243).    Is the concept of the origin, or of the fundamental signified, anything but a function, indispensable but situated, inscribed, within the system of signification inaugurated by the interdict? -266


Philosophy is invention of prose – 287


The supplement is always the supplement of a supplement.  One wishes to go back from the supplement to the source:  one must recognize that there is a supplement at the source – 304


Writing represents (in every sense of the word) enjoyment.  It plays enjoyment, renders it present and absent – 312


Writing carries death…


Key Terms:


Differance == structure of sign which is always constituted of difference and deferring.  Never to be fully recognized element of language.  Active forgetfulness in which even as we know language can never assert truth, we make claims anyway…”invites us to undo need for balanced equations, to see if each term in an opposition is not after all an accomplice of itself” (lix)


Grammatology –“concerned with the place of ‘truth’ in discourse and the place of signifier in general” (lxiii).  Attempts to undermine logocentrism and phonocentrism. 


Trace—that which does not let itself be summed up in the simplicity of the present –66  doesn’t really exist; trace is simulacrum??  Haunting?


Language—“is a structure—a system of oppositions of places and values—and an oriented structure.  Let us rather say, only half in jest, that its orientation is disorientation. One will be able to call it a polarization -216


Writing– Writing in Derrida’s eyes is more than the narrow sense of graphic inscription; it is also the investigation into the structure of differance, which is always constituted by “absence of  ‘author’ and of ‘subject matter,’ interpretability, deployment of space and time that is not ‘its own’”  (lxix). Writing occurs before and within speech.




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One response to “Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology (1967

  1. Out-of-body Thinking

    Derrida gets the language for his epistemology from Husserl. Phenomenology starts with a “principle of principles” that “primordial presence to intuition is the source of sense and evidence, the a priori of a prioris.”

    This means that “the certainty, itself ideal and absolute, that the universal form of all experience (Erlebnis), and therefore of all life, has always been and will always be the present. The present alone is and ever will be. Being is presence or the modification of presence. The relation with the presence of the present as the ultimate form of being and of ideality is the move by which I transgress empirical existence, factuality, contingency, worldliness, etc.” [Speech and Phenomena, 53-54.]

    However, the choice of the words “present” and “presence” to indicate the ground of all knowledge has some very unfortunate consequences. That choice sets up a confusion between two completely different meanings of the word “presence.”

    One meaning is “phenomenological presence”. This refers to the immediate access to being in the original act of knowledge. It does not refer to time at all. So, phenomenological presence might be better expressed by calling it presence-to-being. That would save it from being confused with the other meaning of “presence”, what we should call “temporal presence”, that is, the occurrence of an event at a particular moment in time.

    Derrida also calls this living presence “the now”. This reinforces the confusion between presence-to-being and occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time. It is also unfortunate that Derrida uses the word “form” in the phrase “the universal form of all experience”. What he wants to refer to is the “universal basis of all experience”, which is not a form. It is an act. But this word-slippage is also quite telling, and one of the many clues in Derrida’s work that he is confusing the order of abstract concepts and the order of actual reality.

    This epistemology leads to the cornerstone mistake of claiming that iterability is an a priori condition of knowing, whereas in fact iterability is an a posteriori result of knowing. An original presence-to-being (insight) occurs in time. Consequently it is repeatable. So, iterability is not “inside” phenomenological presence, it is extrinsic to it. This mistake is made all the more easy since both relationships are necessary. Once you get this, then all of Derrida’s objections to realist epistemology collapse, and his whole philosophical system collapses into imaginary ashes.

    I have discussed these issues at length in my article “Dealing With Derrida”, which you can find on the Radical Academy web site.

    Although running down Derrida’s mistakes in his text is difficult, once you get the key point that he was dissociated, the whole pattern of his out-of-body thinking makes sense. Once you discover Derrida’s dissociation, you find it in many thinkers. There is a lot of out-of-body thinking in philosophy and social theory. Perhaps leaving one’s body is an occupational hazard for professional thinkers. Dissociation is the result of trauma, and trauma is easy to come by.

    There are many sources of insight into dissociation. I recommend Trauma and the Body (2006) by Pat Ogden et al. as a start.

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