Derrida and Grammatology

Graham and Levi are up with posts on Derrida. Since I’m spending part of the day reading Levi’s recent paper on time and Derrida, let me make a couple of notes:

1. It’s true that Of Grammatology is not your go-to source on Derrida and realism. But it’s also not your go-to source on directions for your fridge or how to light a fireplace properly (two other themes of my day, come to think of it). It’s an immanent reading of Saussure on language and, I think, knock-down. Let’s not confuse issues here about the metaphysics of presence. Here’s what Derrida does: he notes that Saussure argues that all signs (thus the coupling signifiers and signifieds) are nothing but the differences from other signs, which are also embedded in different socio-cultural languages such as French.

But Saussure then says, that’s all true, but it’s also the case that there is consciousness, which is outside of any particular language group and whose presence to the spoken word gives it its vitality (thus the langue/parole distinction). But Derrida notes, isn’t “consciousness” another sign? And “speaking”? How can Saussure make this exception for two signifieds, when he has said this is true of all signs? Well, it happens, Derrida notes, that this meets up with a notion of unmediated self-presence one finds elsewhere in the Western tradition.

Does anyone disagree with this reading? Does anyone disagree that Saussure is forcing an argument and in fact, by his own logic, proves the historicity of concepts that he wants to put out of play?

Also, this talk of “metaphysics of presence” confuses things: I don’t think Graham or Levi believe in the unmediated access of self-to-self, which is the avowed discussion of the first part of Of Grammatology. This is the theme of Derrida’s reading of Husserl in Speech and Phenomena of the same year, and it’s true that Derrida doesn’t issue a program there, à la Zizek or Badiou, since deconstruction for him parasitically works through the forced contradictions inherent in texts that try to prove one thing (unmediated self-presence) and end up proving another (helpless mediated through difference/deferral).

I just reread Of Grammatology to teach it last week and I, too, as someone arguing for the realism of time in relation to Derrida can find it …well not helpful. But that’s a tick of conflating what’s he demonstrating (the unworking of self-presence in Saussure and Rousseau) with what it’s not (realism, etc.). Unless one wants to say the real is unmediated self-presence—the most powerful example is the God of onto-theology–then I don’t see the problem.

2. Derrida, though, is also offering a political text through and through, as Levi notes. And here is where I find Derrida’s work really good–thus the reason I discuss it at length in The State of Sovereignty. Rousseau doesn’t just argue for self-presence but, to put it very simply, for a natural self underlying the tricks and appearances of civil society, which also includes the institution of writing. Levi rightly notes the use of “nature” as a political cudgel, and here Derrida identifies the use of nature as a political category that premises an outside that is produced from within a society–something Rousseau himself warns about but can’t help but repeat.

Does anyone want to follow Rousseau in identifying reality with a modernist conception of nature? I take it Graham and Levi and especially Tim Morton don’t. And does anyone want to repeat Levi-Strauss’s and Rousseau’s ethnocentric accounts about so-called natural beings corrupted by language?

So again, what’s the problem?

This isn’t to defend Derrida just for the sake of defending Derrida, but it’s to point out that if one wants to critique correlationism (the idea that what is real must be indexed back to the conscious subject, an argument that entails the correlate that what is most real is the consciousness of self, since in the self relation there is not even the distance of a correlation) or the political effects of an idea of nature, well Of Grammatology is a good place to begin.

(As for Derrida’s reading of Aristotle, his respect for Aristotle on his own thinking of time is noted in “Ousia and Grammê” among other places, which is more telling on these points than jokes made in “White Mythology.”)

(Also, thanks to Levi for sending me his article…a helpful read, where he nicely lays out the multiple directions of his work.)


  1. I’m not up on all the recent Derrida-realist arguments about time, but I’m basically with you, here (having just taught a piece of this work earlier this semester). Of course, there are all sorts of conflicting definitions of “realism” that one could appeal to, but the one that makes most sense to me is independence from knowledge/consciousness — and it seems clear that differance and the trace, etc., satisfy that criterion, as they are quite clearly said (here and in _Speech and Phenomena_) structurally to precede knowledge/consciousness (I think Braver gets this wrong, too).

  2. I agree. But this plagues a lot realism/anti-realism in Anglo American philosophy, too–lot’s of mixing up of “natural,” “mind-independent,” “language independent” in talking about the “real.” It’s why I find, though I guess I’m writing a book on the reality of time, the word “real” unhelpful.

  3. I’ve not read all the recent discussion of realism but it seems to me that the ultimate issue is whether the term is misleading. I don’t think anyone is arguing Derrida is a traditional realist such as one finds in the debates between the realists and idealists in early 20th cenutry American philosophy (which was somewhat cut off from what was going on in Europe)

    My belief is that if one reads On Grammatology through a pragmatic lens (and Derrida explicitly brings in Peirce) that Derrida’s later discussion of the metaphor of the text can fruitfully be compared to Peirce’s semiotic realism.

    But it sure is sounding like the debate is less about how to read Derrida than about the meaning of the word realism. As such it becomes a rather less interesting semantic debate.

Comments are closed.