In Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida’s prose functions as a deadly siren call; he appeals to the contradictions of language, summoning the reader to see in his thought a new system of thought never before brought before man. Just as with the Homeric sirens, however, following Derrida’s thought leads to destruction.
Of Grammatology, by Jacques Derrida (560 pages, John Hopkins University Press, 2016)
Of Grammatology is an important work, due in part to the influence of Derrida’s technique of deconstruction. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls him “one of the most well known twentieth century philosophers,” and deconstruction has become a significant concept for both philosophical and literary studies. While the first part of Of Grammatology does not define deconstruction, it does describe the philosophical structure within which deconstruction functions. At the same time, Of Grammatology reveals the inherent flaws and illogicality of Derrida’s thought. By rejecting logic and words as necessary for meaning, Derrida removes the possibility of clear writing from his prose. He fulfills the promise contained in his premise, and writes one of the least comprehensible works of illogic celebrated by the postmodern academy.
The significance and radicality of Derrida’s work is indicated by the level of rigor given in the prefatory matter. Judith Butler writes a brief “introduction,” followed by a 114 page “translator’s preface.” Butler explains the history of the current text: Published first in 1976, the current edition is translated again by the same translator in 2016. Butler explains that Derrida’s work in translation faced two essential questions: “(1) Could he be read, given the challenges he delivered to conventional protocols of reading?, and (2) Could he be read, given that the English version failed to capture in every detail the key terms and transitions of the original French?” (vii). While all translations face the second question, Derrida’s work is particularly prone to a negative answer to the first question.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Translator’s Preface” explores the space outlined by Butler. She surveys key Derridean vocabulary: differance, trace, the practice of putting certain terms “under erasure” (sous rature), and her interaction with the history of metaphysics. Dr. Spivak pivots from analyzing Derrida’s vocabulary to exploring his relationship with Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger; she also explores the antagonistic relationship Derrida had with Foucault. By the conclusion of the introduction, the reader is prepared to understand the following sentences: “Denying the uniqueness of words, their substantiality, their transferability, their repeatability, Of Grammatology denies the possibility of translation… It is now time to admit that his [Derrida’s] theory would likewise admit—as it does—translation, by questioning the absolute privilege of the original. Any act of reading is besieged and delivered by the precariousness of intertextuality. And translation is, after all, one version of intertextuality” (cx). Dr. Spivak’s introduction adequately prepares the reader to encounter Derrida through extensive foreshadowing of key vocabulary and philosophical concepts; Derrida is, however, easier to read than his translator’s comments about her.
Derrida’s philosophy develops a unique vocabulary, and the best way to summarize Part One of Of Grammatology involves an attempt to explain his vocabulary. In doing so, this review runs the risk of systematizing an author who maintains that systems are inherently problematic. Derrida’s thought begins with the claim that from Plato onwards, all of Western thought has accepted the primacy of the logos as the necessary ground of truth (76); he refers to this assumption as the “onto-theological” grounding of Western thought (47). This assumption gives a primacy to the spoken word as the location whereby truth will be found. Derrida’s project is to attempt to develop a philosophical paradigm which is outside the logos (56). He admits that his project may itself be self-defeating, since he must develop his philosophical paradigm using words (which seem contingently dependant upon the logos), but he proceeds regardless of this potential contradiction. Derrida develops an idea he calls the “trace,” which all words possess. Each word contains meaning formed through the differance between what is present and what is absent; the “logocentric” approach to philosophy and meaning causes people to focus on what is present in the word. Derrida wants to invert this pattern—the truly important part of a word is what is present through its absence (50-51). In discovering this absence, Derrida contends, we make an attempt to move beyond the logos in metaphysics. Derrida distinguishes between “writing in the narrow sense” (what we typically think of as writing, the enscribing of words on paper or some other substance) and “writing” generally. This general sense is his term for all language and communication that works through the principle of differance, where meaning is contained in the trace of the absent (68). Because of this differance, Derrida contends, all language is contained within writing. With extensive focus on Saussure’s formalism, Derrida attempts to shift the study of writing from an historical question of linguistic development to one of psychoanalysis (that he promises to develop in Part 2). The task of deconstruction, according to Derrida, is to reveal the trace and differance within all texts; deconstruction involves “decentering” the West from its “ethnocentric and logocentric” patterns of thought, life, and communication (3). By chapter three, Derrida attempts to show that his system of thought (grammatology) is a “positive science” (80-81). This reviewer remains unclear of how this method is supposed to produce or affirm anything. Deconstruction, by the end of Part One, appears to be only a negative science.
Derrida’s project suffers from many internal flaws. His commitment to rejecting the inherent connection between words and meaning leads to terrible prose. Derrida’s style is convoluted, utilizing sentences that ignore traditional grammatical structure. Derrida’s convictions obscure his meaning, making it difficult for a reader to understand his ideas. For example, Derrida writes, “To see to it that the beyond does not return to the short-of is to recognize in the contortion the necessity of a trail” (66). This is Derrida’s attempt to describe the idea he is trying to track, but his convoluted style obscures his meaning. He later describes the trace, writing, “Articulating the living upon the nonliving in general, origin of all repetition, origin of ideality, the trace is not more ideal than real, not more intelligible than sensible, not more a transparent signification than an opaque energy and no concept of metaphysics can describe it” (70). Following Derrida’s example leads only to the multiplication of confusing prose.
Beyond this critique, it is worth noting that Walter Ong spent his academic career developing the research necessary to disprove Derrida’s ideas on historical grounds. In Orality and Literacy, Ong builds on the work of twentieth century linguistic scholars to show that, contrary to Derrida’s insistence, all languages develop orally first and then some languages develop writing as a culturally transformative technology. Derrida insists that writing is the primary grounds of language, and Ong shows that he is wrong.
For all his philosophical verve and creativity, Derrida also violates essential laws of logic. As Peter Kreeft explains in Socratic Logic, the laws of logic are not constructed by anyone; they are universal laws emanating from the structure of thought itself. One of these laws is the Law of Identity—“A thing is what it is.” This law is complemented by the Laws of Non-contradiction and Excluded Middle: “A thing is not what it is not.” “A thing is X or ~X, but not both at the same time.” Derrida holds, through his concept of trace, that things are both present and not-present at the same time; that which is not is becoming-being.
In places, Derrida’s prose functions as a deadly siren call; he appeals to the contradictions of language, summoning the reader to see in his thought a new system of thought never before brought before man. Just as with the Homeric sirens, however, following Derrida’s thought leads to destruction. Rejecting meaning, logic, and history are stepping stones to madness.
In terms of scholarship, Derrida sets a poor example. Scholarship done well, as Orwell argues in “Politics and the English Language,” persuades readers through clear communication. Through his vocabulary and syntax, Derrida obscures his meaning. He opens himself to accusations of either authorial incompetence (perhaps his prose is that bad?) or devious deception (does he seek to hide the extent of his argument through obscure prose?). Those who follow Derrida’s model fail to bring clarity to their writing. If Derrida is intentionally hiding a lack of meaning behind his fecundity of words, then he stands with the sophists of old who failed to deliver substantive arguments. And because of that failure, a page of Plato outweighs a tome of Derrida.
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1 Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy (Routledge, 2002).
2 Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2014), 187-188.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo of Jacques Derrida.