Of Grammatology: The De(con)struction of Phonocentrism

Of Grammatology does not seem to be a particularly 'massive tome' to me. The English translation by Gayatri Spivak, minus her introduction, runs at about 350 or so pages. That seems about average length for a book (I mean, its no Summa Theologica or anything...). Perhaps what makes it seem so 'massive' is the very (necessarily) dense nature of Derrida's writing.

The 'necessarily' I wrote above is not superfluous. Explicating why Derrida is hard to read is pretty much an explication of what I think Of Grammatology is all about. The book seems to me to be a statement of Derrida's early approach to philosophy, literature and phonocentrism through intensive re-readings of a number of philosophical works, most thoroughly some of Jean Jacques Rousseau's. I say early, because his approach changes/evolves in his later (around and after Limited Inc) work.

I see the "message" of Of Grammatology as this: the entire Western Tradition (in philosophy, and literature) is based around the model of phonocentrism. Which is to say, it is centred around the structure of a sort of self-present speech. What Derrida wants to argue is that this sort of model is misleading, and that now (in the aftermath of structuralism, and the age of the New Novel) this sort of self-presence is no longer unproblematic.

The problem with approaching the idea of phonocentrism is a difficult one is that to do so one must either invent an alternative model, or risk falling into the same trap that everyone from Plato to Heidegger has fallen into, according to Derrida. This new model seems to be emerging at the time that Derrida writes, it is one based on writing rather than speech (Derrida calls it graphocentrism).

So...to get to the meat of the importance of the book... what exactly does graphocentrism entail, and how does it differ from phonocentrism?

A quote:

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. By a hardly perceptible necessity, it seems as though the concept of writing-- no longer indicating a particular, derivative, auxiliary form of language in general (whether understood as communication, relation, expression, signification, constitution of meaning or thought, etc.), no longer designating the exterior surface, the insubstantial double of a major signifier, the signifier of the signifier-- is beginning to go beyond the extension of language. In all senses of the word, writing thus comprehends language (Of Grammatology 6-7).

Thus, graphocentrism can 'comprehend' (that is: encompass or, more fully understand) language than can writing. Why? Because, unlike the phonocentrism, a writing based model does not assume some magical sort of self presence of meaning, as does the misleading speech model. When we are speaking, we assume that the meaning of our words is completely enclosed within the instance that those words are uttered in. Derrida contends that this sort of self-presence is a myth, and that our words always already mean something other than what we intend by them when we speak them. (This is a little rudimentary, but see my writeup on Limited Inc for some of the detail on why Derrida thinks this is so for all language). Writing, however, has been treated throughout the Western tradition as a system of re-representation, that is: of signifiers representing other signifiers. Thus, within the system of writing, there has not been this insistence on the self-presence of meaning. In fact, people like Plato (through Socrates) insist that writing is in fact misrepresenting. That people like the Sophists can pervert writing so that words can seem to mean their opposite. This is what graphocentrism is about. Derrida contends that things like tape recording and hypertext (much later, obviously) show us that meaning can never be simply exhausted (because of the always present possibility of grafting a particular word, or group of words into a new and radically different context). He further contends that this does not only apply to tape-recorded speech, and strange new novels and hypertexts, but that it applies to all meaning, and all uses of language. This is for a number of reasons (which are, really, the subject of the entire book, and impossible to exhaust here without rewriting the book). One of the most important reasons (I think at least) is that words and meaning do not rely entirely on human thought for their meaning.

Derrida contends (not altogether unconvincingly...) that words relate to each other in ways that create meanings that aren't strictly determined by human thought. That is to say: intentionality is not the limit of meaning, though it plays a part. For instance, the cosmetic appearance of words (ostensibly an arbitrary phenomenon) has for Derrida a semantic importance. His work (and many others before, and after him)is riddled with puns and odd textual arrangements that play on this very notion: that the way words LOOK can have an impact on what they MEAN. Personally, I don't find Of Grammatology to be THAT verbose (especially compared to some of Derrida's other texts) but that verbosity is, as I explained above, a part of his argument. If you are interested in this sort of argument, I'd suggest reading his later stuff, because as he writes more and more, Derrida becomes more comfortable with pun, jokes, etc. etc. as both cosmetic features and vehicles of meaning (check out The Post Card, for example, or Cinders).

Disclaimer:This writeup is a pretty rudimentary recapitulation of what I think Derrida says in Of Grammatology. When I read it again (I got it from the library today) I'll come back and edit what seems wrong to me...but, I think that most of what I said here can be traced back to the book, and isn't just a product of my imagination!

Around the same time Derrida started publishing, Foucault had a pretty interesting essay about Rene Magritte that put across a bunch of the same sort of ideas that Derrida would go on to develop in much greater detail later, here's the reference:

Michel Foucault, "This Is Not A Pipe" pp. 187-204 in The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, vol. 2, translated by James Harkness(The New Press, New York 1998). (Originally published in Les Cahiers Du Chemin 2 (15 January 1968) in an issue dedicated to Magritte after his death)

Of Grammatology Reference:

Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Spivak (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1974).

Of Technology in Of Grammatology

(You would never again think of your self as you had : you would no longer think, but recite yourself. You would be dazzled and you would be nauseated, you would be profound. You would recognize, in writing, power.
* Derrida, Jacques. De la Grammataologie. Les Editions de Minuit, 1967.
* Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Johns Hopkins Universitiy Press, 1974, corrected edition 1997.)

At the end of the first part of Of Grammatology Jacques Derrida boldly asserts the very extent to which writing, and not yet speech, is constitutive of and distributed over the vast network of human activity. It is not just that writing is part and parcel of human activity in general (for this is almost a truism)—-Derrida more radically asserts that writing is always a horizon of every human enterprise:

The fact that access to the written sign assures the sacred power of keeping existence operative within the trace and of knowing the general structure of the universe;
that all clergies, exercising political power or not, were constituted at the same time as writing and by the disposition of graphic power;
that strategy, ballistics, diplomacy, agriculture, fiscality, and penal law are linked in their history and in their structure to the constitution of writing;
that the origin assigned to writing had been-—according to the chains and mythemes-—always analogous in the most diverse cultures and that it communicated in a complex but regulated manner with the distribution of political power as with familial structure;
that the possibility of capitalization and politico-administrative organization had always passed through the hands of scribes who laid down the terms of many wars and whose function was always irreducible, whoever the contending parties might be;
that through discrepancies, inequalities of development, the play of permanencies, of delays, of diffusions, etc., the solidarity among ideological, religious, scientific-technical systems, and the systems of writing which were therefore more and other than “means of communication” or vehicles of the signified, remains indestructible;
that the very sense of power and effectiveness in general, which could appear as such, as meaning and mastery (by idealization), only with so-called “symbolic” power, was always linked with the disposition of writing;
that economy, monetary or pre-monetary, and graphic calculation were co-originary, that there could be no law without the possibility of trace,
all this refers to a common and radical possibility that no determined science, no abstract discipline can think as such
(OG, 92-93).

Much is whispered here: Derrida would agree that it is not fully appreciable today. Focusing now: most important to Derrida within the context of this book is the very fact that writing is also therefore constitutive of any science, in fact of the very notion and practice of ‘science’ in general. That Saussure proposed to form a science of language that accounts for writing as derivative, would already have been a derivation of writing itself. The very field in which Saussure could produce a science of writing would have always already confronted the multiple horizons and limits that writing imposes. These horizons and limits are under constant displacement, to be sure, but they, Derrida believes, delimit the field of, among other things, scientific inquiry.

In Of Grammatology, I find it unfortunate that Derrida does no more than suggest (in the quoted paragraph in fact) the practical horizonal functions of writing. There is, in other words, and this is I believe typical of much of Derrida’s earlier work, an insistence on an abstract horizon constitutive of human activity without a corresponding typology or description of the practical functions and effects of this limiting. One important horizon that Derrida's conception of writing imposes, I believe, is technological. Preliminarily, let me speak to a remark of Derrida’s that may cause a few objections to this claim. Now we are at the beginning of Of Grammatology, Part I. Derrida objects to the classical characterization of writing as ‘technics in the service of language’. This seemingly refutes my proposition that writing, as technology, imposes some kind of broad limit to human activity. However, Derrida’s explanation does not counter the project I here propose:

I believe that a certain sort of question about the meaning and origin of writing precedes, or at least merges with, a certain type of question about the meaning and origin of technics. That is why the notion of technique can never simply clarify the notion of writing. It is therefore as if what we call language could have been in its origin and in its end only a moment, an essential but determined mode, a phenomenon, an aspect, a species of writing (8).

Writing, then, is not explained as a technology, or reduced to one form of technology among other. Rather, the question of the origin of writing is also the question of the origin of technologies. The question concerning technology is, in fact, the question concerning writing. Writing is constitutive of technology in general. There could be no technology that could not be written or symbolized.

Following and expanding Derrida, then: human pursuits, in almost all their shapes, are rigorously limited by the impositions of technologies of writing. This does not imply that these technological limits cannot alter, for they do alter on an almost daily basis. Such change occurs, for example, in art. What it does imply is the thorough domination of the human being by the forces that issue from writing.

In this scenario, writing is at once a primary medium of power, a source of power, and the limits of power itself. As the limits of power, as I understand that word, writing is power. The copula is not an equality, but an isomorphism. Writing and power are always already simultaneous. Power is the very limit of writing. It is not a contingent fact that both are in constant motion and exchange, for they both are. Yet, where the one moves, so must the other, at least is a possibility. What I saying is: there could be no exchange of power where there would not also be a corresponding exchange in writing, and vice versa. This is witnessed, for example, by our legal procedures, which always must be accompanied by an endless chain of documentation and signatures. One is never imprisoned, for example, without a document bearing that imprisonment. Nor, for that matter, is a prison built without a document citing its building. Nor, that matter, is the concept of justice or retribution, violence even, conceivable without conceiving first of an isomorphism in writing that would be that justice. There could never have been an imprisonment that wasn’t symbolized. “The very sense of power and effectiveness in general … was always linked with the disposition of writing” (93).

(Between the parentheses, I here note the connection between the notion that writing and power are isomorphic and the description of this in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, in which a seemingly inconsequential flow of ‘symbolic’ documents haunts Joseph K.. That these documents are, ultimately, not inconsequential is the very subject of the text. Joseph K. is constantly hounded by the power these documents enact in regard to him. He would like to defend himself, but such defense is impossible. The documents are ambiguous and so is the power engulfing him. Yet, he is, certainly, engulfed. That his freedom seems so difficult to determine is not an expression of the irrelevance of the documents, but rather an expression of their very ambiguity, which gives rise to the ambiguous power which is exercised on him. I believe the same sort of scenario could also be found within Before the Law.)

In order to fully divulge my claim that writing always already limits human activity insofar as it imposes technological limits on our activity, one would not only demand a thorough reading of Of Grammatology and a research into the word ‘power’ which I am here using in a roughly Foucauldian sense1, but also an investigation of writing as a technology, of the technology of writing, and the limits it does, in practice, impose.


1On this see cletus the foetus and anthropod on Michel Foucault and cletus the foetus on power. More situation is provided within A Conversation Regarding the Work of Michel Foucault, especially in jderrida's writeup in that node.

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