2. Of Grammatology


Of Grammatology

Derrida’s monumental work Of Grammatology (1967) is his most representative work. Of Grammatology is an examination of the relation between speech and writing, and it is an investigation of how speech and writing develop as forms of language. Derrida argues that writing has often been considered to be derived from speech, and he says that this attitude has been reflected in many philosophic and scientific investigations of the origin of language. He says that the tendency to consider writing as an expression of speech has led to the assumption that speech is closer than writing to the truth or logos of meaning and representation. He explains that the development of language occurs through an interplay of speech and writing and that because of this interplay, neither speech nor writing may properly be described as being more important to the development of language.

Of Grammatology is divided into two parts. Part I is entitled “Writing before the Letter,” and Part II is entitled “Nature, Culture, Writing.” Part I describes traditional views of the origin of writing, and explains how these views have subordinated the theory of writing to the theory of speech. Part II uses this explanatory method to deconstruct various texts in such fields as linguistics (Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics), anthropology (Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques), and philosophy (Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages).

Even though his Of Grammatology is a comparatively early work, it offers a classic statement of deconstructive processes and a detailed formulation of Derrida’s theories of written language. Parts of the text were composed in 1965 as reviews of books on writing by Madeleine V. David and Andre Leroi-Gourhan and of a collection of papers from a colloquium entitled L’Ecriture et la psychilogie des peuples. These reviews in substantially their original form appear in part I, chapter 3. Similarly, much of Derrida’s discussion of Levi-Strauss, first published in 1966 in the Levi-Strauss issue of Cahiers pour l’analyse, reappears in part II, chapter 1. The complete text of De la Grammatologie (French), which Derrida calls a two-part essay, was translated into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and published in 1976. While her own accomplishment in this translation is superb, it is apparent from her detailed translator’s preface’ that Derrida served, however modestly, as the translator’s collaborator.

Of Grammatology opens with a preface and an exergue. The preface outlines the structure of the text: Part I offers “a theoretical matrix,” which is then tested in part II by a reading of the “age of Rousseau”. For Derrida, Rousseau’s example and influence extend undiminished from the eighteenth century to our ‘own time. To read the age of Rousseau is to assess the structures of thought that reach from the years Rousseau wrote to the present. Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Derrida himself are in this sense Rousseauists. Not only, however, is this philosopher who has been marginalized by historians of philosophy allowed to give his name to the chronological expanse that includes Kant, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, but also Derrida has the courage to select the little-known text of the Essay on the Origin of Languages in order to read the age of Rousseau and to test the theoretical work of part I of Of Grammatology.

As he proceeds with his fundamental project “to produce the problems of critical reading[1],” Derrida, while having “no ambition to illustrate a new method,” demonstrates the necessity that reading free itself “from the classical categories of history. . . and perhaps above all, from the categories of the history of philosophy[2]” . Already Derrida anticipates ways in which Of Grammatology will be misread. Its methods are not new; rather, they have been overridden, not by history, but by a mode of historical writing that neglect (or refuses) to view the past “in every respect as a text.”[3] Although it continues to be claimed that Of Grammatology’s (or deconstruction’s) project is anti-historical and apolitical, Derrida’s argument, forcefully announced on the first page of his text, refutes this claim in advance. Of Grammatology ‘reads’ the age of Rousseau by recovering the textual remains of its past, texts that intervening historians have systematically left unread, justifying their neglect by invoking such unexamined categories as philosophy and literature and by assigning Rousseau to the latter in the interests of purifying the history of philosophy.

Of Grammatology‘s preface concludes by forecasting a fundamental contradiction in the age of Rousseau: on the one hand, it values documentation and the protocols of historiography – “legibility and the efficacy of a model.”[4] But even as it sets about the recovery of the past, it necessarily disrupts it, as will be seen in Derrida’s later critique on Levi-Strauss, as yet unnamed modern anthropologist of the preface final sentence. Despite the surprises of the preface, its tone is quiet and restrained, especially in contrast to the messianic call of the exergue. Derrida does not set himself above or apart from the age he is about to read, nor ‘is he claiming himself immune to the contradictions and disruptions of previous Rousseauist historians. Indeed, all of the texts he reads—Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Saussure, Heideger, Levi-Strauss—he reads with compassionate respect and with a recognition of his own susceptibility to the errors he identifies in others.

In this vein the exergue outlines Of Grammatology as a field of thought by focusing on unexamined metaphysical assumptions concerning phonetic writing in historical linguistics and on the first movements towards the dislocation of those assumptions. Like the preface, the exergue illuminates what has previously been kept hidden or obscure. An exergue, though part of the text, claims to remain outside the work (ex + ergon [work]), or more technically, it is the small space on the reverse side of a coin beneath the principal device where an inscription may be found.[5] This particular piece of writing—the portion Of Grammatology entitled ‘Exergue’ – is both outside of and part of the text.[6]

The exergue begins with three numbered quotations. The first, by way of metaphor, identifies a grammatologist with the sun and the Babylonian sun-god (Samas) with the light that illuminates the earth, making the land appear a piece of writing (Cuneiform signs), in striking similarity to the grammatological metaphors of the biblical Psalm 19. The second quotation (from Rousseau’s Essay) identifies the practice of three forms of writing with three progressive stages in the history of civilization. The final quotation (from Hegel), by an exercise in metonymy[7], makes the ethnocentrism. of Rousseau’s history explicit in its claim for the superior intelligence of alphabetic script (and by implication, those peoples who use; it). The first sentence of Derrida’s own exergue, following these quotations, identifies the quotations themselves as a “triple exergue,” the writing outside the writing that is outside the text. The witty claim here is that writing as a concept has been controlled by the kind of ethnocentricism manifested in the three quotations: religion, social history, and philosophy disguise ethnocentrism as logocentrism.[8] The word encumbered by the weight of unexamined metaphysical assumptions becomes the defining essence of god, civilization, and philosophy.

Derrida proceeds to enumerate three ways by which logocentrism as the agent of ethnocentrism imposes itself on the world. As “the concept of writing” (here distinguished from the physical process of producing signs with pen or keyboard), logocentrism generates a dissimulated history of phonetic writing even as it proceeds to inscribe its own history; as “the history of. . . metaphysics” from the pre-Socratics to Heidegger, it both identifies the origin of truth with the logos and the history of truth with the repression of writing as the concept of science[9], it both assigns language and logic central importance for the project of science and announces its dissatisfaction with phonetic writing.

The future, which Of Grammatology works to bring about by exploiting the stresses and cracks in the structure of the present historical-metaphysical age, can only be proclaimed or presented by Of Grammatology itself, because that future puts “into question the values of sign, word, and writing”[10] For the representation of that future, there is no ‘exergue, nothing legitimately outside the inscription or text of the moment. Thus, Of Grammatology is a fecund, liberating force that for the moment is bound in by traditional notions of metaphor, metaphysics, and theology. It nonetheless asserts itself in multiple and interdisciplinary ways, although it can never claim its own essentiality or toe unity of its project, given its basic distrust of all essentialisms and all easy claims of reconciling unities.[11]


[1] Of Grammatology, trans. by Spivak, Gayatri, Delhi, Motilal Banarasidas Publisgers Private Ltd. (2002), p.112

[2] Of Grammatology, p.lxxxix

[3] Of Grammatology, p. lxxxix

[4] Of Grammatology, p. xc

[5] Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, Sussex, The Harvester Press Ltd. (1986), p. 209

[6] Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, Cambridge, Blackwell: an Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Cristiva, Michal Payne, Blackwell, Cambridge (1993), p. 114

[7] In rhetoric, metonymy is the use of a word for a concept with which the original concept behind this word is associated. In cognitive linguistics, metonymy refers to the use of a single characteristic to identify a more complex entity and is one of the basic characteristics of cognition. It is common for people to take one well-understood or easy-to-perceive aspect of something and use that aspect to stand either for the thing as a whole or for some other aspect or part of it.

[8] It has been italicized to drive home the nuances of the exerge.

[9] Of Grammatology, p. 115

[10] Of Of Grammatology, p. 5

[11] Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, p. 115