Ten Weeks of Derrida, Week 2: The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing

Of Grammatology is divided into two parts: Writing before the Letter and Nature, Culture, Writing. Here we begin the first part of the first part, The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing, a 24 page section subdivided into three parts: The Program (5 pages), The Signifier and Truth (9 pages), and The Written Being/The being Written (9 pages).

Before the program, a paragraph considering the problem of language.

“This crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historic-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon” (OG 6).

Consider the title of the chapter: The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing. A book is a discrete physical object, with a finite set of words arranged on a finite number of pages. The experience of reading a book, however, is infinite and unique for each individual. And what do all of those words mean with regards to “reality?” For Derrida, this is the final question of our historic-metaphysical epoch. The words in a book extend infinitely inward into the mind of the reader, and infinitely outward as the book is cited, written about, and smeared across the rest of human existence. Language (and the idea of writing), unlike a book, have no boundaries.

“It must do so… because… language itself is menaced in its very life… when it ceases to be self-assured, contained, and guaranteed by the infinite signified which seems to exceed it” (OG 6).

You’re just going to have to trust that the above quote is true to Derrida’s intention, as if that were anything other than opaque. His favorite trick is to tell you “not only” is this what he’s writing about, and then leave you at the end without a clear formulation. Fortunately, after his “not only,” he ends with the above long subordinate(?) clause.

Can an infinite language, with infinite signified, do anything but devolve into meaninglessness? Does Derrida have the answer? Only in “not only’s” and “is not’s”. We can’t say what is, but we can what is not, and this oppositional defining underlies all of language. That’s not what the quote says, but that’s his answer to this problem.

The Program

“To affirm in this way that the concept of writing excedes and comprehends that of language, presupposes of course a certain definition of language and writing.” (OG 9).

In our world, writing is slowly overtaking speech (parole)—for what reason is not really important—as the nexus of meaning.

Language: “action, movement, thought, reflection, consciousness, unconsciousness, experience, affectivity, etc.” By this he means, the language of action, movement, thought, etc. They are different, non-phonetic systems that can be interpreted in the same way as the spoken word, that they have their existence and consequences outside of English, French, etc. Here the previous idea of language (defined above) is put under erasure, which we’ll get to later.

Writing: “[all of language and more], all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural ‘writing’. One might also speak of athletic writing… of military or political writing” (OG 9).

You can write with more than a pen. Any representation of human experience falls under Derrida’s blanket of writing.

“All of this to describe not only the system of notation secondarily connected with these activities but the essence and the content of these activities themselves” (OG 9).

The translator of Of Grammatology, Gayatri Spivak, wrote about 9/11 in terms of Derrida’s writing, that “Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means will get through.” This is what she was talking about. It might seem to be an odd definition of writing, but I’m going to roll with Derrida to let him make his point. The destruction of World Trade Centers One and Two and Seven were the physical inscription of the ideology of Al-Qaeda. This is why speech isn’t enough; Derrida is trying to approach human experience without the limitations of previous metaphysics, which is hampered by the limitations of speech. Science does the same through math, but Derrida is trying instead to broaden the horizons of language rather than math’s narrowing of them.

Spivak caused quite a stir saying that, by the way. Somebody, somewhere out there still cares about the beliefs of this (Derrida) discredited theorist.

The Signifier and Truth

Here we first see that famous Derridian word, de-construction.

“The ‘rationality’… which governs a writing thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in that of the logos. Particularly the signification of truth” (OG 10).

The core belief of relativism: there is no transcendental truth, and any such belief is based on superstitious ideas stemming from a belief in the supernatural (e.g. God or a soul). Metaphysics up to Derrida has been (mostly) unable to escape this idea, and for that reason ideas of logos are bunk. Except for Nietzsche.

Ideas of logos necessitate an already existent truth to which all words can only refer to, what Derrida calls “the exteriority of the signifier,” which is also “the exteriority of writing in general” (OG 14). There is no truth for a signifier to refer to to begin with, according to Derrida. Meaning is created and altered on the fly.

This section argues the above. If you can accept this we can continue. If you belief this is false, Of Grammatology has no more to offer you. Let’s skip ahead.

The Written Being/ The Being Written

“The sign is(x) that ill-named thing(x), the only one, that escapes the instituting question of philosophy: ‘what is…?’” (OG 19).

Philosophy needs to get around the question of what is in order to describe the sign.

How does it do that? Derrida refers us to Nietzsche: “Nietzsche, far from remaining simply within metaphysics, contributed a great deal to the liberation of the signifier from its dependence or derivation with respect to the logos and the related concept of truth or the primary signified… Reading, and therefore writing, the text were for Nietzsche “originary” operations” (OG 19).

In the reading and, according to Derrida, in the writing, is where meaning is to be found. Not in a transcendental truth forever barely out of reach that is subordinate to writing. The truth in writing is forever out of reach for Derrida (as we’ll see later), but more so because transcendental truth does not exist than for any reasons of subordination.

Following this, there is a discussion of Heidegger way over my head. I’ve never read a page.

But from what I understand Derrida is arguing about Being (with regards to Being and Time).

“Heidegger reminds us constantly that the sense of being is neither the word ‘being’ nor the concept of being” (OG 21).

Heidegger seems to believe that the idea of being cannot be captured by language, that the (signifier) word being does not correspond to the noumenon of being. Derrida believes there is no difference between the signifier and signified.

Then some Hegel, which I’ve also not read (not this Hegelian stuff). Hegel seems to dislike speech and also alphabetic writing which reproduces that speech. There is no thought involved in speech, just a kind of mimicking, and alphabetic writing is worse than that. Hieroglyphic writing is okay because it forces you to think through the meaning behind a non-phonetic symbol.

Here’s the conclusion of the chapter and his thoughts on Hegel:

“Yet, all that Hegel thought within this horizon, all, that is, except eschatology, may be reread as a mediation on writing. Hegel is also the think of irreducible difference. He rehabilitated thought as the memory productive of signs. And he reintroduced, as I shall try to show elsewhere, the essential necessity of the written trace in a philosophical—that is to say Socratic—discourse that had always believed it possible to do without it; the last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing” (OG 26).

So for Hegel, meaning was created in the interpretation of signs rather than signs striving for transcendental truth. I think. I doubt I’ll ever read Being and Time or Enzyklopädie der philosphischen Wissenschaften in Grundrisse.

Language (langue) is our, and only, first vocab word of this chapter. We will define it, loosely, as “that which encompasses all signifiers, along with the rules for deriving their meaning. Language is abstracted a level above speech, it exists on the same abstract plane as writing.”

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  1. I think twitter (and Phantogram) sent me over here. I’ve visited before but never seen the serious philosophical posts. I love it. I never thought I would find a music blogger who knew who Derrida was much less was willing to write about his work. Outstanding. Thanks, Rube

  2. As much as I’d like to take credit for the Derrida series, it’s deconstructionapplied’s baby. We’re a two-headed blog…I do all the music stuff (and twitter), and he does the non-music posts. Click either of our names on the sidebar to see what we’ve written.

    I read A-List, by the way. One of my favorite local blogs…we’ve had you on the sidebar for awhile.

  3. Thanks for a great resource on Derrida and Grammatology — I hope the rest is coming still?

    • Lora
    • February 16th, 2016

    Thanks for this! It was incredibly useful, and I appreciate the way you pulled out the actual quotations.

  1. September 28th, 2010

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