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Written in Water:
Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology

[1]3,716 words

In 1951, Simone de Beauvoir published the first part of a two-part essay entitled “Faut il Brûler Sade?” or “Must We Burn Sade?” in which she attempted to extract something from the texts of the notorious Marquis other than violent pornography. Roland Barthes would attempt a similar exercise two years later in Le degré zéro de l’écriture (Writing Degree Zero), as would another French writer who, in our ideologically divided age, arouses as much horror in certain quarters as de Sade did more generally in his own time: Jacques Derrida. But perhaps here is a heretic for whom we must pause at the stake and ask, must we burn Derrida?

Now that we are long familiar with the deleterious and infectious influence on Western culture exerted by various interlinked schools of thought which flowered in the 1960s — viruses such as post-structuralism, the work of Antonio Gramsci, and the theories of the Frankfurt School –, the cultural Right often accuses two main scapegoats, both writers mentioned unfailingly when the subject is the decline of Western culture and the laissez faire version of reason shown by today’s dominant ideologies: Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Foucault I know only through two or three major works read a long time ago. He was explicitly misanthropic and well-suited in his debauched personal life to be woke avant la lettre. His public image, as much as anything, makes him a symbol of the chaotic new rebellion. I enjoyed his approach to history, looking at details and the political effects they have or exemplify, but I can more easily see why he is one of our brace of whipping-boys. Derrida is, I think, a very different case.

I’ll be clear on my knowledge of Derrida. I am only familiar with the early and more purely philosophical work, that being the books and essay collections published over about a decade from 1967, beginning with The Origin of Geometry and Speech and Phenomena, which study the sign in the work of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, and extending to Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. I did review Glas, a study of Hegel, for The British Journal of Aesthetics, but Derrida was beginning to lose me by that time, and I have a rooted antipathy to Hegel I can’t seem to get over.

Deconstruction was in fashion when I first went to university in 1981, but I crept carefully around it until my doctoral thesis, first getting a reasonable grounding in the Western tradition which you require in any case to read Derrida. Post-structuralism had an air of revolution about it, slashing away at grand narratives and rooting out ethnocentricities. As with Nietzsche, Derrida was too tempting for a young man to keep away from, and my Ph.D. supervisor was Professor Geoff Bennington, a translator and friend of Derrida’s. My thesis was written too much under the spell of Derrida, although years later I am still greatly influenced by the style in which Derrida approaches texts and fragments of texts, and particularly his recognition of the importance of metaphor within philosophical discourse.

This will not be concerned with Derrida’s political affiliations or pronouncements. That Derrida wrote an essay entitled Specters of Marx and had an interest in theoretical Marxism seems to provide an unrealistic amount of ammunition for some critics to use against Derrida. But what of it? Even if Derrida was the most rabid of Marxists in his personal life, it still would not do to disapprove of all his works because he was of that affiliation. Martin Heidegger — another target for some on the cultural Right — was demonstrably and for a crucial part of his academic career a card-carrying Nazi. But had Heidegger been a frontline member of the SS for his entire career, had he invented Zyklon B, it would not change a single word of Being and Time or lessen its dark genius.

The first misunderstanding of Derrida’s work is to claim him as a critical theorist and not a philosopher. Critical theory, of course, is what people do when they find themselves all thumbs with philosophy. Far simpler to hold forth on the racial semiotics of the soap opera once you reach the grim realization that 600 pages of Spinoza is a lot trickier than your teachers had you believe. Derrida was not a critical theorist; he was as rigorous a philosopher as the late twentieth century saw.

And as for Derrida’s culpability for the carnival of woke, it is a case of by his works shall ye not know him — at least that range I am considering –, as it is doubtful that the ideological Gauleiters of the current academic jamboree have read much Derrida. It is difficult to believe that local authority commissars, trade union agitators, community organizers, diversity officers, and liberal-Left journalists set aside their lunch breaks to plough cackling through Derrida’s Plato’s Pharmacy or Note on a Note from Being and Time before returning to their Gramsciian long march through the institutions. It is not Derrida who is the godfather of postmodernism, but the thousand Chinese whispers between his books and the public space.

There is one particular aspect of Derrida’s reputation where, for his critics, the shoe really pinches: the idea that texts have no intrinsic meaning and can thus be imbued with any the reader wishes. Daniel J. Flynn finds Derrida at the head of “a gang of literary critics that exhorts connoisseurs of the written word to read into texts any meaning desired, regardless of the author’s intent.” Stephen Hicks charges that “Derrida deconstructs language and turns it into a vehicle of aesthetic play.” Melanie Phillips accuses the French-Algerian-born philosophy professor of writing “that texts had no meaning — and [writing] so in a text.”

Now, in the age of Wiki-journalism, there are many critics whose references to Derrida’s work reek of someone who has read someone who has read something about deconstruction. If these tourists were to engage with the original texts and concepts, and given that they had either escaped or outgrown the modern Western education system, they might make some important discoveries.


You can buy Greg Johnson’s Graduate School with Heidegger here [3]

Derrida notoriously came up with the dread pastime which gets so many among our cultural commentariat into such a frenzy: deconstruction. The very word is guaranteed to excite the cultural Left, with its echoes of the destruction and dismantling of a despised old order — they are very reactionary — whether that order actually exists or not. Deconstruction summons up images of the barricades, tinkering with and revising the past, the reduction of cherished — and ultimately white — concepts to a uniform and egalitarian nullity. Journalists, of course, adore the phrase. How much more arch to write about “deconstructing” a film or book or artwork rather than simply enjoying or disliking it, attempting to understand why, and communicating the experience to your readers. Deconstruction; what a whiff of Gallic brimstone the word exudes.

Derrida himself, to the enragement of critics suckled on the milk of the Enlightenment, resisted rigid definitions of his own creation. Augustine’s comment comes to mind, that we understand time perfectly until someone asks us to explain it (Hume makes a similar point in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding). Deconstruction certainly seeks to lessen certainty in the realm of the philosophical — Derrida is in the skeptical tradition — and might be seen as having parallels with the judicial process of declaring a conviction unsafe.

But it is difficult to programmatize a methodology when it is used to assess writers as different as Edmund Husserl, Philippe Sollers, and Paul Valéry, and whatever Derrida is doing, it is rigorously applied. Whatever deconstruction is or might be, the idea that Derrida’s readings of the Western canon lead straight to the Montessori playroom of cultural relativism is facile.

With all this in mind, I want to look at one of Derrida’s early texts, Of Grammatology. I’m going to avoid going too far down the rabbit hole of textual interpretation, as Derrida resembles Heidegger in that he has his own specialist lexicon. I am also aware that problems of translation from French to English are apparently particularly acute in the case of Derrida, as he plays with French meanings and roots, and I imagine that, to a reader of French, English translations would be rather clunky as a result. So this is the description of a firework display rather than the chemical analysis of a firework.

Set into its classical tradition, Of Grammatology questions what Derrida views as the “metaphysics of presence” that has dominated thinking from the Classical age. Derrida has a very specific set of strategies with which he approaches a text, carrying with him still the toolkit of structuralism, and his work is always metaphilosophical — philosophy about philosophy. Derrida will alight on a small part of a work, a textual moment at which he intervenes. Then, he often treats what would usually be incidental fragments of texts — metaphor, marginalia, footnotes, or some textual aside — and makes them speak for wider and sometimes grandiose philosophical concerns. Derrida famously considers Nietzsche’s marginal reminder to himself — “I have forgotten my umbrella” — as worthy of examination. Paul Klée once described drawing as “taking a line for a walk,” and Derrida does just this with an idea.

In Of Grammatology, Derrida sets up a worldly opposition, a binary arrangement, between speech and writing. As I say, I want to avoid the labyrinth of Derridean meaning, but the following gives a fair idea of Derrida’s thought of what writing is or might be:

Writing being thoroughly historical, it is at once natural and surprising that the scientific interest in writing always takes the form of a history of writing. But science also required that a theory of writing should guide the pure description of facts, taking for granted that this last expression has a sense.

Writing is far more, for Derrida, than mere transcription, a second-order activity which only ever supports and confirms the superiority of speech. Writing is not simply the Recording Angel, but rather already “built in” to language, enabling the possibility of language itself: “The system of writing in general is not exterior to the system of language in general.”

Derrida traces a tradition whereby speech is originary, linked directly to being, the living soul, and productive of genuine presence, whereas writing is secondary, derivative, linked to the body and death, and represents an absence. The writers on whom he concentrates are structural anthropologist Emmanuel Lévi Strauss, polymath Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, although Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Hegel are never far from Derrida’s work.

Of Grammatology has two sections: Writing before the Letter and Nature, Culture Writing, and the case for the historical repression of writing by the dominant role of speech is made. Derrida’s claim is that speech itself — and the presence it produces — is brought forth and its structure dictated by a type of ur-writing (Derrida will call it “arche-writing”) which makes speech — and therefore the whole metaphysics of presence — possible at all.

As noted, there are many words in the Derridean glossary: Jouissance, supplementarity, the trace, articulation, la brisure (the hinge). But the neologistic word for which he is perhaps best known is différance.

A play on a French verb, différer (to defer/differ from), différance is a key term which Derrida, with arch Parisian showmanship, says is not definable, but rather at the heart of definition itself. It is also exemplary of the grandiose excursions of Derrida’s writing in which we can go from mundane considerations of Rousseau’s textual and publishing alterations to the following description of différance, which

. . . in its active movement . . . is what not only precedes metaphysics but also extends beyond the thought of being. The latter speaks nothing other than metaphysics, even if it exceeds it and thinks it as what it is within its closure.

This seems to be quite a claim, that Derrida has uncovered a conceptual trope which will take us beyond being itself. Derrida may limit his textual analysis to fragments and margins, but this does not prevent him, as it were, reaching for the stars. Metaphysics itself is the complicated home and even the result of “the play of différance”:

Originary differance [in English here although usually printed in French] is supplementary as structure. Here structure means the irreducible complexity with which one can only shape or shift the play of presence or absence: that within which metaphysics can be produced but which metaphysics cannot think.

Différance could be compared with the “dark matter” of the physicists, a phenomenon which is only detectable by its range of effects, and so is deemed to exist by the appearance of that which it produces. Derrida often uses Freud’s model of the unconscious (quite brilliantly in the essay Notes on the Mystic Writing Pad) as an example of différance, whereby the “text” of the conscious mind has as its originary source the unconscious, a producer of signs which is not itself open to inspection, once again, except by its range of effects.

The only example I can think of to help illustrate Derridean différance is the binary coding used in programming computers. This is a curious scriptive language, alphabetical (although it could be argued that its signs can be interpreted hieroglyphically or ideographically) and consisting of just two signifiers: one (1) and zero (0). What is singular about this truncated alphabet is that each notation is defined as much as by what it is not as by what it is. So a sequence reading 1111 has the effect it has precisely because it is not 1110, 1100, 0111, and so on. We detect something akin to Derridean différance built in to the function of the notations because, in binary, 1 = (not 0) and 0 = (not 1), just as a light switch is in the “on” position because it is not in the “off” position. Binary is the pure form of the law of excluded middle, and that which is absent serves to define that which is present (summoning up the ghost of Sir Philip Sidney and his “absent presence” in the first line of Astrophil and Stella), as well as channeling Derrida’s notions of deferral and difference.

The word “supplement” is, as noted, regularly employed by Derrida, and it serves as an example of perhaps one way in which Derrida might be commissioned by the new Left by virtue of the fact that its textual freeplay lends itself to the surreal metamorphoses we see all around us today, both in conceptual and gender terms.

Derrida takes a concept — here, that of the supplementary — and tracks it down metaphorically. Thus, Rousseau’s subjugation of writing to speech in the Essay Concerning Languages sees writing as a necessary supplement to speech. Derrida also reads into Rousseau’s Confessions the attempt by Rousseau to replace (or “supplement”) the role of his mother in his choice of lovers. Once you have a simple concept such as “supplementarity,” you can find it anywhere, and to conjure a metaphysical Da Vinci Code from something so simple could be construed as methodological whimsy and freeplay. But you still have to do it.

Derrida sternly opposes such an epistemological free-for-all on numerous occasions, insisting on a kind of rigidity to the formation of presence and metaphysics which would not be subject to what spooks the horses among Derrida’s under-read and casual critics, the ascription of any meaning one likes to a given text.

What Derrida is proposing, or positioning within the context of what he calls the metaphysics of presence, is a role for writing which is not subsidiary, but originary — what he calls “arche-writing.” Thus, speech is in a way already writing: “It is as if the Western concept of language . . . were revealed today as the guise of a primary writing.”

But there is nothing to suggest a textual freeplay. The relationship between speech and writing has produced both, but not according to whim:

These disguises have produced contingencies that one might admire or regret. Their movement was necessary, with a necessity which cannot be judged by any other tribunal.

These Derridean “things” may be beyond the reach of human reason (except, again, as the range of their effects), but their mysterious “presence” at the heart of metaphysics will continue to elude except by allusion: “The supplement is neither a presence or an absence. No ontology can think its operation.”


You can buy Greg Johnson’s From Plato to Postmodernism here [5]

Of Grammatology is a conundrum about conundrums, but as an introduction to Derrida it contains all his major themes and terminology — something which, rather bizarrely, makes me think of Derrida’s writing as a magic trick performed by a failed magician. Tommy Cooper was famous in Britain for being just that: a tall, ungainly man who had based his comic act on getting magic tricks wrong, or adding some absurd element to them. One such trick involved a bottle and a glass. He set them on a table and covered them with cardboard cylinders. He pointed at each cylinder and said: Bottle, glass! Glass, bottle! He then tapped the cylinders with a magic wand and pronounced some ridiculous and supposedly arcane word. Then he pointed at the cylinders in the same order, and said: Glass, bottle! Bottle, glass! The glass and bottle, he claimed, had swapped places, but instead of revealing them both, Cooper tapped the cylinders and repeated the magic word, saying: And back again! He then revealed the bottle and glass still in their original positions.

A silly gag, but I couldn’t shake the strange feeling that the bottle and glass could have changed places. There was a Schrödinger-like lack of ultimate certainty as to whether or not the trick really did happen. That is how reading Derrida makes me feel that something strange and remarkable has taken place, but I am not allowed to see it. Keats famously had engraved on his tombstone, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” That is the way I feel about Of Grammatology. If it is a philosophical solution, a key to metaphysics, it is one written in water.

Derrida can almost read as though his texts were a philosophical update of the Narratio fabulosa, the twelfth-century essay style which was often an exercise model for monks and students and which interwove fantastical religious and philosophical narratives (which the student would have to keep going, to maintain in its grotesque absurdity) taking place both on Earth and in other realms. Mutandis mutandis, there is something of this, something Rabelaisian about some of Derrida’s wilder flights.

I struggle with Derrida. Of Grammatology is, like his other books and essays, a route march. Pages pass during which I have something clear to grasp, Ariadne’s thread which leads Theseus out of the labyrinth built by Daedalus, father of Icarus. This moment of clarity will be followed by a section in which I haven’t really got much of a clue what is going on. Sometimes I find a book difficult to read due to its lush, overpowering style — see Carlyle’s The French Revolution — but with Derrida in translation, style is not so much an issue. It is more that the rush of concepts, ideas, inferences, analogies, metaphors, non-sequiturs, examination of metaphors, texts, and authors are like storm-winds battering an old set of shutters. There is also another consideration, since we are in Paris and making a show is everything, not least within French academia.

Derrida’s writing is not simply for the enlightened public or posterity. It is “double-coded,” in the sense that Charles Jencks coined the term to describe a practice within architecture. Buildings were often, wrote Jencks, double-coded; that is, they exist as functional dwellings or work spaces, but they are also a postmodern statement, a representative vignette intended for the eye of other architects. Thus, Derrida’s style is a peacock’s preen before his professional colleagues as well as an examination of metaphysics and, in Of Grammatology, what can only be described as postmodern linguistics. But is Derrida as poisonous as we on the Right are led to believe?

Of course there are writers and pronouncements among the postmodern which help fund what passes for critical thought in today’s academies. Think of the sheer science fiction of Baudrillard’s claim that the first Gulf War took place in some non-Euclidean space. But Derrida is operating on a plane far removed from frivolity and freeplay, although jouissance is one of the words in Derrida’s lexicon, and he did little to discourage the band of academic merry pranksters he tended to attract.

So, burn Derrida’s books by all means, but read them first. The Left won’t, and the media obviously haven’t; but then the Left don’t really read much as far as I can ascertain and most of them, like casual Marxist Albert Camus, will not even have opened Capital. Derrida is operating at the limits of metaphysics. It is hard to see that being molded into an incontrovertible argument for transgender rights.

Derrida often remarks that the irruption of writing into a metaphysical scene dominated by speech is a type of originary violence, which reminds me of a story with which to finish. Professor Bennington occasionally opened up seminars to a topic of interest, and one of my fellows suggested violence and pain on the broad principle that he knew a man who probably knew something about those things, and had expressed an interest in philosophy. He duly arrived at the seminar with his friend, English boxer Chris Eubank.

The topic of the seminar was violence and pain, and Mr. Eubank gave us an insight into just that. He has an urbane, slightly comic persona, often dressing as an English country squire, monocle compris, and with a lisping English Home Counties accent to go with it. He was a charming man genuinely interested by where he was and what he was doing. He thoroughly enjoyed himself, as did we. Sitting outside the bar with the boxer afterwards, he was presented with a copy of Margins of Philosophy, one of Derrida’s essay collections, by Prof. Bennington. Eubank was thrilled, and I would make a bet that he made more of an attempt to read and understand the book than any of the journalists mentioned earlier. When he shook hands with us all, I noted the difference — différance? — between his gentle handshake and the colossal forearm muscles which delivered it. I searched hard for a metaphor for Derridean deconstruction, but with no luck. Sometimes, there just isn’t one.

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