Ten Weeks of Derrida Part One: Exergue

The Exergue is short, barely crossing the two page mark.

According to thefreedictionary.com, exergue means, “A space on the reverse of a coin or medal, usually below the central design and often giving the date and place of engraving.

This is probably not the correct meaning for the term here, as my Webster’s also has it as a French literary term, meaning “that which is out of the work,” so I believe we can safely categorize Of Grammatology’s exergue as a variation on the preface or abstract.

We start with brief quotes.

From a Babylonian scribe:

“The one who will shine in the science of writing will shine like the sun.”

“O Samas (sun-god), by your light you scan the totality of lands as if they were cuneiform signs.”


“These three ways of writing correspond almost exactly to three different stages according to which one can consider man gathered into a nation. The depicting of objects is appropriate to a savage people; signs of words and of propositions, to a barbaric people; and the alphabet to civilized people.”


“Alphabetic script is in itself and for itself the most intelligent.”

Derrida’s reasons for choosing the Rousseau and Hegel quotes are easy; they are symptoms of ethnocentrism, the belief that Western civilization is superior and that many of its cultural aspects are inextricable from this superiority. In this case, specifically the idea of an alphabet, which is a writing system based on written phonemes. An alphabetic system, unlike say Chinese pictographs, is derived directly from speech.

The Babylonian quotes are more ambiguous, as cuneiform is the oldest discovered writing system in the world, and although it is not alphabetic, it evolved from a pictographic system of writing to one based on symbols that represented sounds of speech.

The first quote is pure glibness. Derrida takes aim later in the exergue at the science of writing, but there is no way the Babylonian concept of science corresponded to that of the Western world of Rousseau onward.

The second quote, I believe, is supposed to indicate an ancient metaphor where writing is chosen (instead of speech) as being linked to divine knowledge (for reasons we’ll get into next week).

Major points to be made in the exergue:

In this book we are dealing with issues of ethnocentrism. But Derrida quickly tells us that’s not all we’re dealing with.

We are also dealing with logocentrism. Derrida believes the spoken word has a privileged place in Western history, and this privileged place is undeserved. Logocentrism controls the concept of writing, the concept of metaphysics, and the concept of of science.

The first one is short.

“[It controls] the concept of writing in a world where the phoneticization of writing must dissimulate its own history as it is produced” (OG 3).

Straightforward, except for how to interpret “dissimulate.” According to my Webster’s, dissimulate imeans “to hide by pretense.”

So it becomes, “It controls the concept of writing in a world where the phoneticization of writing must hide by pretense it’s own history as it is produced.” Not much better, and these are the kind of sentences that drive people to claim Derrida is gibberish.

I am faithful, however, that actually reading Of Grammatology will better illuminate the meaning of this claim. I believe, however, he is claiming that alphabetic writing is the furthest removed from truth. That primitive man started with speech, moved on to a non-phonetic writing, and then moved on to phonetic writing. So while claiming phonetic writing is the most advanced might be true, a step must be skipped to equate it to speech. E.g. Children first learn to recognize a dog, then say the word dog, then learn to read the word dog.

“[It controls] the history of metaphysics” (OG 3). “The history of truth, of the truth of truth, has always been… the debasement of writing and its repression outside “full speech” (OG 3). Socrates to Heidegger have dismissed writing as secondary compared to speech.

“[It controls] the history of science or the scientificity of science” (OG 3). This has to do with logos, which is the root word of logic, which governs the scientific process. The idea of science is, according to Derrida, rooted in philosophical ideas of logic, math notwithstanding (math has its own logic unrelated to the metaphysics of Aristotle and Socrates). This sounds like bullshit to me, honestly, as he tries to wriggle around math (which is nonphonetic) and put science in the camp of philosophy. I guess we’ll see in later chapters how well he defends this.

Other points:

We are in a historic-metaphysical epoch of logocentrism that is reaching closure because of math’s encroachment of science, among other things. Closure is a vocab word, but hasn’t been defined yet. Why is this important? No idea.

The final sentences:

“[The future] is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity.For that future world and for that within it which will have put into questions the value of sign, word, and writing, for that which guides our future anterior, there is as yet no exergue.”

This is easy to translate, and shows the cleverness of writing an exergue. Derrida is presenting us with his idea of the future, one where grammatology replaces logocentrism. It will look nothing like our world. “As of yet, there is no exergue,” is a clever way of saying, in the world I am proposing, nothing exists outside of the text.

That is the exergue, ladies and gentlemen. I will probably do an excerpt part two once I’m done, as a lot of what he writes I am guessing at what he means. Or maybe I’ll be guessing the entire way through the book, who knows?

Phoneme: Taken straight from Wikipedia: the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances[1].

Logocentrism: The Wikipedia term is gobbedlygook. This one is central to Of Grammatology.

1.”The metaphysics of phonetic writing… which was fundamentally… nothing but the most original and powerful ethnocentrism” (OG 3).

2. A focus on Logos as the avenue to truth. This makes writing subordinate to speech in Western philosophy. Derrida believes this is wrong and bad.

Logos: see wikipedia Briefly, a philosophical term that conflates vocal speech and divine knowledge, i.e. Speech is closer to transcendental truth (an atheistic way of saying divine knowledge) than writing is. It’s a loaded term,

Grammatology: the science of writing, specifically one that overtakes the idea of logocentrism.

  1. Thanks for the blog posts on Of Grammatology. I’m taking my first English grad class this summer, but I’m really an English education major. I thought I understood Derrida as an undergrad, but apparently not. Anyway, the explications are appreciated.

    • Marguerite
    • November 16th, 2011

    Thank you, I’m reading him in french, so this is really helping me to penetrate the language. kudos on your hard work.

  1. September 20th, 2010

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