I was invited by Indulgencezine to write a short article on how Jacques Derrida’s book Of Grammatology has changed the way I saw our current moments of society. In order to keep it short and simple for general audience, I had to avoid complex concepts. Here, I would like to expand on the ideas from this article. To do this, I shall simply select specific passages and elaborate on them. This post is lengthy and somewhat complex, but it will explain every single sentence of the article. You don’t have to read my “notes” (in grey) if you don’t want to.
The Beginning of Writing
While it only took me a few hours to write this piece for Indulegencezine, I had to be very careful. This is because the notion of “writing” is the subject that Derrida tries to caution us in. Yet, Derrida recognizes how writing is a necessary tool for communication and that even his own writing cannot escape this fact. The difficulty here lies on how Derrida’s thoughts on writing does not privilege anything – not even his own writing. This is more or less why his works (especially his earlier ones) are infamous for being impenetrable.
Deconstruction is basically reading and interpretation like how you are reading this text right now. When you read Derrida, you are actually reading him read other people’s works. This is why Derrida doesn’t invent anything other than non-existent concepts like “differance”. An intentional spelling mistake to be sure, this neologism got so famous that it was added to the Oxford dictionary. Nonetheless, through deconstruction, Derrida tries to show that all writings, whether a novel, philosophical text, etc., will inevitably contradict itself regardless of how logical or convincing it appears to be. This is what many deconstructionists refers as “internal contradiction”. As a result, deconstruction remains one of the most profound contemporary movements in criticizing all forms of texts and institutional structures (ie. politics, capitalism, ideologies, education, academia, etc.).
Once again, we deconstruct as we read and interpret writings of all forms. In this way, the word “deconstruction” cannot sustain itself because you are already deconstructing the word “deconstruction” as you read it. Therefore, “deconstruction” deconstructs itself.
The following passages are the beginning and the ending of my article:
I must speak of this broadly because writing is essentially everywhere….In fact, our thoughts are often, but never in the absolute sense, controlled and limited by writing. We think only in writing. In this way, all writings are inherently political because we privilege what we write over what we do not write.
[. . .]
Therefore, perhaps the reason why my writing eludes even me—the author of this article—is because you are imagining the presence of my speech as you read it. But my writing does not speak, it is silent.
I chose to begin and end with elaborating on writing intentionally. I use the word “writing” and not “speech” or “language” for four specific reasons (which are also integral to most of my article):
1. For Derrida, speech has always been privileged over writing. He traces this all the way back to Plato‘s dialogues (most notably in Phaedrus). Speech is more authentic because it represents our thoughts (the “voice” that you hear in your head when you are thinking or reading this text) while writing simply represents speech. Imagine that I was giving a lecture and you were typing out all of my speech on your computer. Writing becomes a utensil to represent my speech. In this scenario, speech is given priority over writing.
2. One of the main goals that Derrida tried to show in Of Grammatology is to reveal how our speech is no different to the structure of writing and that writing has actually taken a parasitic role. Many philosophers (ie. Edmund Husserl and Ferdinand de Saussure) has privileged the “voice of being” (speech) because it represents our thoughts. But for Derrida, not only is the structure of writing identical to the structure of speech, writing has taken over speech – that writing is speech through supplementation.
3. However, through some very sophisticated maneuvers, Derrida reveals how while speech and writing basically shares the same structure, they are both utensils (a substance of expression) in supplementing a more “original language“. This original language is what he calls “arche-writing” (“origin-writing”). Using Danish linguists Louis Hjelmslev and H.J Uldall (Copenhagen school), Derrida isolates areas where both speech / writing are inadequate in representing each other as such. Writing cannot accurately represent accents, and speech cannot represent the spacing between words (ie. grammar). This empty gap where both speech / writing cannot represent is what Derrida famously refers to as “spacing”, “arche-writing”, “differance”, “trace” or in his later works, “pharmakon” and “aporia”. I will return to the term “differance” in a later passage.
Note: “Substance of expression” plays a multi-disciplinary role here because it is not only mentioned in Of Grammatology, but it is also a crucial term that is deconstructed in Speech and Phenomena where Derrida contrasts it (substance of expression / expression / “Bedeutung”; which were also used by Edmund Husserl) with an opposing term called, “indication”.
4. Two days later, you reread your own lecture notes and realize that my speech is gone. Yet you still hear a voice in your head as if I was speaking, why? If speech / writing is associated to the “voice of being”, then writing must also be attached to phenomenology (the study of phenomena). Writing supplements a speech which is not actually there, but conjured from our imagination (so to speak). In many passages from Of Grammatology, Derrida uses the phenomenological term “auto-affection” to describe this. Other times, he will use the words “an addition to nothing”, or “masturbation” (writing supplements real speech in the same way that masturbation supplements real sex).
To say with the least confusion, the concept of the supplement is paradoxical in the sense that whatever functions as the supplement (such as writing supplementing speech) will play the parasitic role as an “addition to nothing“. That once again, writing is not an addition to speech, but an addition to nothing because writing is speech.
Note: The concept of the supplement came from Jean-Jacques Rousseau which he referred to as “the dangerous supplement”.
…When I privilege presence, I exclude absence. And what makes all this even more paradoxical is that the word “absence” is the presence of the sense of absence. Therefore, absence is not absent. The word “absence” is inadequate in representing itself through writing.
Two important points:
1. The absence that I point out here “haunts” my entire article. For example, when one reads my writing, you are recognizing me speaking to you. This is because the reader (you) is already caught in the act of privileging the presence of my speech (via this writing) over its absence. But in truth, “my writing does not speak”. This absence will be seen when I get to the neologism of “differance” (spelt with an a).
2. I chose to simply use the word “presence” and not “metaphysics of presence” to avoid jargon. The latter is a term adapted by Derrida from Martin Heidegger, a famous German philosopher who proclaimed “the end of metaphysics”. Here, “metaphysics” should be seen as a derogatory term. Metaphysics = beyond the physical (ie. knowledge, language, etc. because we cannot physically hold onto them). Heidegger criticized how the entire history of philosophy is dominated by metaphysics (which helped established much of our most profound subjects today). Basically, Heidegger thinks we have taken the wrong path since the beginning of humanity. This ultimately led him to develop a new form of philosophy and bring back fundamental thoughts on our long “forgotten Being”. But for Derrida, writing is in itself metaphysical (Heidegger recognizes this as well). The fact that Heidegger tried to develop his new thoughts through writing which sought to challenge metaphysics is therefore problematic (hence he invented Sous rature). From this, Derrida would try to escape metaphysics once and for all with “deconstruction” which takes me to the next passage.
Through Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, the left is possible because it is constituted by the difference of what it isn’t, which is that of the right. In the same way, presence is only possible because of absence. Derrida shows us that what establishes a privileged writing, idea or thought as such, is only possible through the opposite order of what we do not privilege. We see this in all “binary oppositions”: presence/absence, speech/writing, man/woman, left/right, masculine/feminine, humanity/animality, society/nature, etc.
In this article, I chose to use some of the most basic and fundamental binary oppositions. I also missed out on other important oppositions such as life/death and good/evil. For Derrida, the meaning of words are established as such through the difference of what the word is not (this idea actually came from linguist Ferdinand de Saussure). A “dog” is a dog because it is not a “cat”, “table”, etc., all of which can more or less be considered as oppositions. The point is that through differences, one never actually arrives at a stable meaning. If a “dog” is a dog because it is not a “cat”, then when do we talk about the “cat”, which is as such only because it is not a “table”, “dog”, and to infinity? Through differences, meaning is always deferred. The moment we say that a cat is a “cat”, we are excluding the differences that constitutes the “cat” as such (which is everything other than the cat). Thus, the word “deconstruction”
is everything other than the word “deconstruction”:
I am writing everything other than what I am writing here.
To be sure, I used the term “difference” and not “differance” (spelt with an a) because I had to save word space in my article. Since “difference” (with an e) is in itself a writing, we can simply say that what constitutes this difference is the neologism of “differance”(with an a). The “e” and the “a” are constantly being differed (I will soon show this). However, the spelling mistake of “differance” (with an a) was done intentionally for several other important reasons and discourses (some of which are too laborious to explain; even I am not familiar with them). Nonetheless, it is important we keep in mind that “differance” (with an a) is not a word, and therefore not something where the concept of speech / writing can represent (one must question why “differance” should even be added into the Oxford dictionary).
Three important propositions:
1. In French language, the articulation of “différence” and “différance” (with an a) sounds the same. Their differences can only be distinguished through the graphic form of writing. This idea was pointed out by Derrida in his essay / lecture titled, Différance.
2. The “a” within “différance” cannot be articulated and understood within speech except through the proper word of “différence” (with an e). When I speak the word “différance” (with an a), one would make the mistake of hearing it as the real word “différence” that is more familiar to us via the structure of writing. The articulation of “différence” (with an e) will inevitably carry the inarticulation / difference (absence) of “différance” (with an a) which is beyond what the structure of speech / writing can represent.
3. Part of the point above (#2) is to show that there are sounds, such as the “a” in “différance” where speech, which is also writing, cannot represent. Simply put, there are always sounds that we cannot articulate through the structure of speech / writing. Here, we not only begin to see the limits of speech / writing, but that there are two types of speech / writing. The first is the speech / writing which we use all the time, such as this text – it controls articulation and intelligibility. The second is a speech / writing which we cannot represent with the former concept of writing, it is an arche-writing (so to speak; it is also why Derrida calls for the study of grammatology). In Of Grammatology, this irreconcilability was explained through semiotic / linguistic jargon between “signifier” and “signified”. Différance (with an a) therefore, falls along the lines of “arche-writing” where both speech / writing (that we come to know) cannot fully represent. But above all else, différance is beyond metaphysics because it does not exist. Différance is not a word.
Note: This reading is verified in Speech and Phenomena when Derrida addresses Husserl’s heterogeneous concepts between (substance of) “expression” and “indication”. Expressions are signs that carries meanings (linguistic value), and indications are signs that are empty without meaning – it does not consist of any sense (“Sinn”).
For example, Derrida intentionally avoids translating the German word “Bedeutung” keeping it incomprehensible until fifteen pages into the book. As an English reader who does not know the German language, one would read this word without knowing what it means. Therefore, “Bedeutung” functions as an indication (without sense) instead of having an expression of meaning. Only later does Derrida reveal that Bedeutung actually means “about something”, a “subject that ‘wants-to-say'” (intentionality), and “a sense of an expression that means”. Here, you see Derrida using his writing as examples for his own arguments.
Thus, I do not proclaim…I am neither present or absent, a feminist or anti-feminist.
At this point, I am not sure if it is whether language as a whole, or if it is the construction of meaning that is patriarchal (I think the latter is correct). But I think this idea has to do with how writing self-proclaims as authentic language. As I quote Derrida, writing “produces truth instead of recording it”. Hence, I sometimes find many discourses that claims how their ideas (writing) are “universal” to be problematic (possible exceptions are contemporary thinkers like Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, and Francois Laruelle).
Of course, I speak of this enslaved writing not just within deconstruction, but also in other contexts of Jacques Lacan, and Jean Baudrillard, they all speak of writing as a discourse which has authority over us. This is why I think that post-structural feminists are the most profound feminists because they understand the problems of writing. Here, I am thinking of Simon de Beauvoir, Helene Cixious, Julia Kristeva, and in certain cases, Monique Wittig. I also think non post-structural contemporaries like Adriana Cavarero makes some very creative and clever points.
Now, if you will allow me to return to Derrida and recall on “arche-writing”. This writing is what I would call as a woman’s writing. It is in fact the most authentic writing. But it is also a writing that is always a differance (with an a) – always deferred and therefore uncertain, playful, and obscure. You can find a similar approach (yet, very different) to such indetermination in de Beauvoir’s famous book Second Sex where she speaks about “the myth of the woman”.
You will now understand the following passage:
In fact, our thoughts are often, but never in the absolute sense, controlled and limited by writing. We think only in writing. [underlining added]
“And if society is the privileged home for humanity, then I must also be the homeless animal.”
One of my favorite lines. It is a passage that I borrowed from my unpublished texts. In the same way that the privileging of something will exclude the difference of what constitutes that one thing: with the proliferation of society and anthropocentrism (humans as the most important entity in existence), we exclude nature.
There are two primary oppositions seen here: humanity/animality and society (culture)/nature. I took to consider on what humans are: “the thinking human animals”. This statement is more relevant in contemporary thought than it is in older 17th-18th century Kantian or Cartesian way of thinking; this is because I am also considering 19th century Darwinism (that we are evolved from animals). If humans proclaims and privileges society as the home, then we are also animals without our actual home because we are depriving ourselves from nature. In this sense, we are all homeless while being home to society (I recall a passage where Derrida writes, “Nature denatures itself”). Whereas the real homeless are more in touch with nature than we are. A paradox to be sure, this is one of my interests right now, from real homelessness, all the way to Foucault’s thoughts on parrhesia and the homeless cynic life which is animal like; and Buddhist ideas on suffering, fear and anxiety – Buddhism was founded from homelessness.
Note: If you are interested, famous ancient philosophical Buddhist texts by Nagarjuna will have similar views (though far different when compared to Derridean thought) about “language” and “meaning” functioning as a form of delusion that causes suffering when one becomes attached to it (ie. when we become too attached to things like wealth, etc.). I am beginning to think that Asian philosophy has a better understanding of this long before 20th century Europeans (ie. Derrida).
“Writing is thus, the perfect crime…Writing is the violence which has imposed upon us without ever announcing itself.”
By now, this passage should be well understood. If speech / writing is what constitutes much of our thoughts, then everything in society must also be constituted by such structures that is metaphysical in nature. Much of these structures dominates our lives and acts as a form of exclusion (ie. ideology, capitalism, etc.). But by privileging these structures in general, we are excluding other things: animals, nature, homeless, or people who don’t “fit in” (alienation).
Writing is the perfect crime in the sense that we cannot solve such crime because we are at a point where writing is inevitable (ie. this text). This is related to thinkers like Georges Bataille and his book Literature and Evil simply because writing is inherently evil (think about films like Nocturnal Animals).
Or as Phaedrus points out: “the evil of writing comes from without”.
I tell them that unless I am trying to show how we privilege one thought over the other (which makes me a critic for the better), I would have nothing to say.
In 1967, when Derrida infamously called for “the end of the book” in his magnum opus Of Grammatology, he actually meant “the end of writing”.
What does this mean? We only wish to read what we want to read out of a particular text and we proclaim what we read as such by writing it out (such as my reading of Derrida that you just read). To be more precise, the first chapter in Of Grammatology was titled “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing”. After we finish reading a book, we write. We select specific passages and argue that this book is about x or y which would therefore exclude other possible readings of the same book. The final and absolute meaning of any particular argument of a book is impossible due to differences.
Above all else, there was never such thing as “the book” in the absolute sense. We not only use writing as a supplement for the author, but also as our self-presence (that I hear my own voice when I quietly read; that the word “I” is only a supplement of the singular self) even when writing makes no sounds. This can be most famously witnessed from Socrates, the founder of Western Philosophy 2500 years ago who never wrote any texts. Yet, his presence and speech is supplemented through the dialogues / writings from his students such as Plato. Thus for Derrida, Socrates is “the last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing”.