on April 1, 2000
In the context of Derrida's early project - to provide a critique of the foundational human science - linguistics - Of Grammatology is an essential book. In it he develops ideas about "writing" and about the "trace", ideas which illuminate much about the modern science of linguistics. His work is an astringent when applied to other more "analytical" philosophers of language (e.g. John Searle).
Derrida's writing style may seem difficult at first, until one realizes that it embodies two other important ideas - play and undecideability. Of Grammatology is not exactly a book of philosophy, and not exactly a book on linguistics, and not exactly a literary work but one which rests uneasily among these three disciplines. By not drawing conclusions, by keeping in play many concepts at once, Derrida manages to provide provocative ideas on mental representations while at the same time instantiating these ideas in the ebb and flow of the work itself.
Because of its kalidescopic style, the book can be read for the pure enjoyment of a rambunctious entertainment, and as an important philosophical text, and as a satire, and as profoundly serious.
As the academic furor over "decontruction" dies down, Derrida's work perhaps can begun to be read for its human importance. Those who value an insistent questioning will find a champion here.
on April 22, 2011
I was unable to figure out what this book meant. I kept reading, hoping things would get clearer, but I got the impression that the language just kept on going round in self referential circles, not actually talking about anything clear that I could grasp. It's like, just when I thought it was about to come out and say something that made sense, it seemed to end up saying something else instead. Infuriating. Can someone please sum up what Derrida was trying to say here?
on March 27, 2012
First, the translation is not so much of a translation at all. We know that many French words were borrowed into English. But their usage in English is very different from French. Even if the word looks similar or the same, you cannot just leave it in your translation without translating it. For example, "exergue" means "a space on a coin, token, or medal usually on the reverse below the central part of the design" according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. But in French, in addition to this meaning, it can also mean "citation placée hors-texte, à droite en début d'ouvrage, d'article ou de chapitre, qui illustre le propos du texte." (i.e. "citation placed on a seperate page outside the text on the right at the beginning of a work, of an article, or of a chapter to illustrate the point of the text". In fact the exergue is quite easily understandable in French. But if you put it directly into English, it is much less understandable. What does it have to do with a coin? Thus a good translator would use a normal English word to convey the same meaning. It is obvious that Spivak is a great scholar who knows a lot. It is probably not a problem for her to use "exergue" in the French way in an English text, since she understands the word and it it not a problem for her and also it might sound more impressive than an ordinary English word. Sometimes scholars try to use big words to just sound erudite. I have no objection to using big words as long as the usage is justified. But using big words to sound more impressive is just pretentious. Thus in this translation there are many problems with this kind of lack of translation by using the original French term. Derrida is difficult to read. But he is much better in French. It is only in this English translation that Derrida becomes impossible to read. I am comparing the original French with the English translation. I find that the original French is much more understandable. In addition to using French words in this English translation, the translator also uses a lot of French syntax. Many sentences in the translation sound very "fragmented". If I were to translate this text, I would definitely change the words around to make the English more flowing.
On the other hand, I find Derrida very abstract and repetitive. His ideas are not exactly that difficult to understand. The central points are pretty straightfoward. But I have to say that although textual analysis is a nice technique, Derrida himself didn't provide lucid textual analyses with ample citations in this work. We would have to read long pages without any citation although he keeps referring to the works and authors he is going to cite. Also I have no objection to using big words. But Derrida uses really abstract words to refer to something that's quite easy to understand if said in plain "French" or English. I also find the constant use of the "A of B or B of A" pattern very annoying. After reading "le temps de la ligne" and "la ligne du temps", we keep encountering similar play of words. What's the point, other than trying to sound cute? I do think Derrida has a point, but he keeps tantalizing us with the ultimate promise of a point without making it.
on April 3, 2004
This volume is central to Derrida's project and is, perhaps, his single most important work. In it, one finds the essentail contentions that inform his other essays. Whether one views, from the analytic tradition, these concepts as indulgent rubish or as culmination of a pre-Socratic force hidden under the ubiquitous effects of Plato and Aristotle, they are critical in understanding the disjunctions of philosophy.
While Derrida's writing may be difficult because it is both dense and playful, allusive and iconoclastic,these presentational "quirks" are not empty but tied to the basic structures of his argumentation.
Since its publication, popular characterizations of this book have attributed to it positions it does not hold. Derrida is, among his other gifts, a scholar of the first order and behind his statements are close readings of many of the philosphical greats that preceded his effort. This is not the babbling of the manic mind but a huge encounter with the dominant tradition of interpretation.
Such a gigantic target cannot be exhausted in one volume, but even if one wishes to affirm the analytic tradition, this volume should be read with the respect and care one gives a worthy enemy.
I first read this in the eighties, before I was ready. If you want to understand deconstruction, I was told, "Of Grammatology" is the singlemost important text. Then I read the excellent introduction by Christopher Norris, went back and re-read Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," went back and read Plato's "Phaedrus," which Pirsig deconstructs in "Zen." Finally, the pieces came together and it became possible to appreciate Derrida for the genuine philosopher/philologist/phenomenologist/existential thinker that he is.
In reading Derrida I find it useful to keep in mind several key ideas: first, language, spoken or written, is subject to the movement of "real" time. Any "now"utterance is necessarily a past "trace" and a hypothetical future. 2nd, language is not the expression of thought; rather, language "is" pure consciousness. All ideas are words, all words are "interpretations," meanings made by human minds. Hence, there is no escaping the "text." We can "know" nothing beyond the interpretations of the thinking (language-using/meaning-making) human subject. 3rd, the text, while "intranscendable," is necessarily inexhaustible, since every signified must in turn become a signifier. Hence, the awesome (dis)play of language by a thinking subject such as "Shakespeare," whose metaphors never attempt to posit a reality beyond the human world of language (there are no "truth claims" in Shakespeare's sonnets: every meaning can be "proven" by the words which create it. 4th, any "opposition" is more a trick/trope of language than an actual "event." Speaking vs. writing. male vs. female, white vs. black, life vs. death, ideal vs. mundane, the center vs. the margin are all "provisional" metaphors, more complementary than exclusive: the one term always depends upon the other for completion of its meaning.
Finally, just as it is unwise to conflate Christian and biblical understandings about anything, it's mistaken to confuse Derrida with the "liberal, radical fringe" often accused of dismantling the canons and foundations of Western civilization. In fact, Derrida's respect for language has more in common with more "traditional" critics such as Bloom and Kermode than it does with the academic activists, political reformers, socialist zealots who have attached themselves to "positions," alliances, causes. These latter groupings violate the very nature of language and thought. (Unfortunately, the American public frequently vote for candidates on the basis of their "positions"--guns, taxes, abortion, etc.--rather than a candidate's ability to think and use language.)
Frankly, I now find it curious that I once regarded Derrida with suspicion. His work belongs in the mainstream of philosophy and semantics.
on August 13, 2013
This is one of the great books of western philosophy of the twentieth century. Deconstruction used to get a bad rap for being "elitist" and impossible to understand or read. Then, a bit later, it was bad because it was apolitical. Neither was ever true.
Derrida's writing, in this crucial translation, is always playful, imaginative, fearless, and also very basic. He is always more interested in asking questions than in answering them. If more people would think that way, and just stay with that for awhile before moving on to hold any theoretical, political, or religious position (if ever), we as a contentious pressure cooker of cultures might be doing a lot better.
Read it for pleasure.
on March 19, 2000
Having spent many frustrating hours looking for the substance in Derrida's many labyrinthine works, I make this suggestion to others: `Of Grammatology' is the thread text to start your wonderings through the rest of Derrida's thought.
on April 6, 2014
HATED, DESPISED, TOLERATED; MASTERPIECE BY DERRIDA:
This manuscript shares a place in history with Hegel's "Phenomenology", as one of the most despised manuscripts of philosophy. And they are both despised for similar reasons; their inaccessibility.
Hegel assumed his readers were already familiar with his entire system, prior to even approaching his "Phenomenology". Derrida does the same. They both wrote for their colleagues. In Derrida's case; he assumes the reader has passed through the following presuppositions: 1. they already understand the structure of phenomenology. 2. They have an understanding of Hegel through the eyes of Heidegger. 3. They already have an understanding of his mentor Paul Ricoeur and even Jean Luc Nancy, who also offered him the "singular-plural". He assumes too much.
Therefore, I strongly recommend reading a prefatory commentary on Derrida first; but then, of course, attacking this original work. My current recommendation is to offer Dr. Christina Howells' book on Derrida. It is extremely well done.
Having said his; I can tell you that the reviews of this manuscript of "Grammatology" will probably reflect "5-stars" or "1-star"; with very few in the middle. This is the writer who gathers the love-hate relationships unto himself. He does gather in 5-star ratings because, as Ricoeur once said, "This is a seminal work" of great importance. No individual can go around Hegel today in the field of philosophy (even if only to disagree); and the same will hold true for "Grammatology" in a few years. No individual will be able to go around this presentation of post-modern "deconstruction & re-elaboration".
This a review and not a commentary, but I will give you the "10" moments of Derrida's deconstruction process. But please consider Howells' book. The "10" moments are:
1. Phonological voice. 2. Deconstruction. 3. Psychic-turn-inward. 4. Auto-affection. 5. Dokounta threshold of "refinery". 6. Transcendental "arche". 7. Hinge pivot-point of true subjectivity. 8. Ecriture. 9. Logos- redefined. 10. Composition threshold and return to mystic body-state.
It took "9 "years for this manuscript to make to America. It will be a few years before Derrida becomes essential reading for American philosophy; but it will happen. I am one of those who "loved" the work done by Derrida, and I give it 5-stars, with a recommendation to enjoin the reading with the help of Howells. Good luck on your research.
on May 9, 2016
To say this book was enjoyable is an understatement. Indeed, it has been often said that Derrida's style is beyond comprehension, but I must say that, the faster one wishes to attain a concise meaning of what Derrida wishes to say, the faster you'll want to burn the book. The obscurity is intermittent; lucid moments become the coherence that everyone wished was alive in the first chapter. Derrida's avoidance of the "formula" of writing is what, for the most part, kept me interested. As for "unintelligibility," I must confess that, contrary to the normal Derridean defenses, just *read* it. Do NOT try to understand it immediately; that is to say, his goal is vague, indeed, but by simply reading it, you are planting a seed in your mind that'll grow by the time you finish it.
on April 15, 2015
When I first read it about 20 years ago I found it to be incredibly opaque. What is this French gentleman going on about? I thought it might be some predilection of the French to be obscure, since I had also tried and failed to understand Lacan. Gradually it seems to me that Derrida is deliberately opaque (as are Freud and Lacan) since they do not feel it appropriate to explain what "thought," as self-speech, is directly, in plain words, either because it is too disgusting, or because by saying it straight it makes it more difficult to cease. Please do not read on if you do not want to be disgusted, or consider it possible that plain-speak can have negative consequences. What follows is my interpretation of what Derrida is saying in this book and since he does not say it straight, the below remains very much an interpretation.
Whether Derrida refrains from being explicit because he does not want to lose his job, or because he finds what he is saying too disgusting himself, I am not sure, but this book seems to need to be read between the lines, like innuendo. It also helps to have a copy of "Voice and Phenomenon" (which has a better intro than Speech and Phenomenon) Derrida's simplest book, and also "The Postcard", which is an allegory of the same thing in a very direct way.
Derrida seems to have been directly influenced by Freud. Derrida is a post Freudian. Derrida is applying Freud's theory of the "acoustic cap," or "hieroglyphic bonnet", by means of which we give up on our original love object, to, as it were psycholanyse, Rousseau, Levi-Strauss, Plato, Husserl and others. What both Freud and Derrida seem to be hinting is that, while Western philosophers would have it that words in mind are the nice clear expression of ideas in mind - that there is a spatial, two-layered procession of phonemes and ideas going through mind, in fact (as Freud says in his mystic writing pad essay) there is a saying then rubbing out, or a writing then *rubbing out*, involving a timed discussion with someone that we are not quite aware of -- our "other hand". Why do we engage in mental writing, send these "postcards" or memos to ourselves? It is not as if we could have forgotten the content of what we are saying in the space time it takes to say it (as Derrida points out in "Positions").
Others such as Mead and Bakhtin say that speech has meaning when it is understood as part of an act of communication so thus we need to simulate the ear of the other to understand self-speech. The former, Mead, at least argues that we internalise an other in order to understand self speech as others understand it. He points out that threats (or growls, and indeed all speech acts ) need to be understood from the point of view of another for their import to be understood. A tiger does not scare herself with her roar. But humans do, to a degree, understand their threats, and hear and fear them, because they strive for self-understanding, by means of the generalised other.
Derrida turns this on its head (not that he mentions Mead) and argues, obscurely, that we *do not internalise the other to understand our speech, but speak to ourselves in order to internalise an other*. And we do this as Freud hints, so that we can have a libidinal, that is to say sexual, relationship with the original other, or mother. In other words, in plain English, self-speech is less some high-level, philosophical, cognitive activity but "mourning" the loss of mummy, by engaging in a masturbatory, homosexual (since we are only one sex), transsexual (since we pretending to be two), paedo (intergenerational) incestuous sexting with ourselves.
"The Postcard" - a series of homoerotic love letters that are surely self-addressed - is the postal allegory of the mental event. No wonder Derrida is obscure. He never makes himself plain since this situation is so unpleasant. These voices in my mind, my thoughts, myselfing, are thus a particularly nasty, pornographic radio play script, that create my false sense of self.
Once one appreciates what Derrida is hinting at, then this book becomes a lot clearer but it still pretty obscure, innuendo. I give this book 5 stars (or more) because there are few other works that seem even to be aware of the horror.