Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology

The Johns Hopkins University Press of Baltimore and London releases a corrected edition of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology in 1997.  The original, or “uncorrected” version, came out in 1976.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak translates this work, presumably in 1974, from the French text De la Grammatologie, which was published by Les Editions de Minuit in 1967.  Spivak provides a very long “Translator’s Preface” that spans seventy-eight pages before the reader reaches Derrida’s work.  There are extensive notes covering obscure sources and commentary and a minimal index.  Surprisingly, there is no bibliography.

Of Grammatology is a hefty book discussing the theoretical beginnings of speech, language, and writing as sciences.  Derrida discusses the debate that philosophers have had regarding which came first.  Many believe that language came before writing; writing was just a second thought that was considered inferior to speech.  However, Derrida believes speech and writing appeared spontaneously and simultaneously, and he analyzes the logic of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to come to this conclusion.  These philosophers or social scientists, Derrida explains, were working within a system that could not reveal to them the complete field that they were investigating.  Moreover, they were innocently ignorant of this circumstance.  Derrida then gives a new type of analysis that showcases the ambiguities and conflicting dualisms, which is later called “deconstruction.”  Deconstruction, as I understand it, is a way to interpret literary texts according to their binary oppositions and relationships.  It is like taking apart a structure piece by piece—as opposed to destroying it—to understand how each component works and fits in the structure in the hopes of putting it back together again.  That is the theory anyway.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak describes it differently and writes that “structuralism is an attempt to isolate the general structures of human activity.  Thus the structuralism I speak of is largely the study of literature, linguistics, anthropology, history, socio-economics, psychology.  A structure is a unit composed of a few elements that are invariably found in the same relationship within the ‘activity’ being described.  The unit cannot be broken down into its single elements, for the unity of the structure is defined not so much by the substantive nature of the elements as by their relationship” (lv).

It is probably easier to understand deconstruction while reading Derrida’s essays, because he uses the method differently in each case; he does not spell it out explicitly like a formula.  (It also helps to know a few of the following terminology: oneirism, arche-writing, ousia, parousia, epigenetism, and semanteme.)  Even though he does not spell it out, readers can follow his train of thought as long as they keep in mind that no one can go outside language to find answers.  This leads us to Derrida’s most quoted line: “There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte]” (158, emphasis in original).

To use another example, Derrida states, “There is no music before language.  Music is born of voice and not of sound.  No prelinguistic sonority can, according to Rousseau, open the time of music.  In the beginning is the song” (195).  In order to have a society or a culture, it must have language.  It does not matter if speech is superior to writing, or vice versa, because both are structures of signs that create other signs for meaning to evolve and operate.  “It is the status of the sign that is marked by the same ambiguity.  Signifier imitates signified.  Art is woven with signs” (204, emphasis in original).

Signs in language also have this knack of making signs of signs, producing more levels or layers of meaning that change over time or never reach their possible future meanings.  Deconstruction shows how people try to intend a meaning when they see an intimidating figure for the first time. “The idea ‘giant’ is at once the literal sign of the representer of the passion, the metaphoric sign of the object (man) and the metaphoric sign of the affect (fear).  That sign is metaphoric because it is false with regard to the object; it is metaphoric because it is indirect with regard to the affect: it is the sign of a sign, it expresses emotion only through another sign, through the representer of fear, namely through the false sign.  It represents the affect literally only through representing a false representer” (277, emphases in original).

Deconstruction asserts that the meaning of a term always splits when scrutinized.  How do we know for sure that the definition of a certain word is the true meaning?  Well, we don’t.  Like dictionary entries that use other words to define a word, they offer definitions to those words that define the first and so on into infinity.  Each sign defers to another sign and so forth.

Deconstruction is not the only concept discussed in this book, the topics of which I cannot fit here.  The reading is challenging.  I wish that I had read this book earlier so that I could have enjoyed the discussions with my colleagues more.  Even though it is challenging, one should never be intimidated by it.  What I did not like about the book was Spivak’s long “Translator’s Preface.”  It may have been necessary for experts in structuralism, but the effort to read it is tedious and distracting.  The “Translator’s Preface” is like an opening act before the concert of your favorite band starts: you want them to get off the stage.

Andrew

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