Tonight’s Lecture on Of Grammatology

Deconstruction on Trial

[I didn’t expect to be here, but we can have class after all] There is a certain trial going on by many in academia and the defendants, the ones on trial, are such figures as Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard. The latest is from Areo Magazine, with an article two days ago by Helen Pluckrose titled—I’m not making this up— “How French ‘Intellectuals’ Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained,” which gives quite a power to professors teaching them, when if I’d be lucky to get them to read the books, let alone convert to this phantasm they have made of so-called “postmodernism.” She says that postermodernism began in the 1960s in writers such as Foucault, and that the term “postmodernism” was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern condition, though since it’ll be a topic tonight, one can wonder how any signified can predate its signifier. As I wrote on my website a couple of weeks ago, these trials over French writers of Derrida’s era want to say both that they are responsible for the Trumpian post-fact era and also the supposed “identity politics” found on college campuses and elsewhere. The prosecutors, as I noted, are often as fact free as the their supposed enemies. For example, Lyotard most certainly did not first coin the term “postmodern”; it was in use as early as the 1880s in discussions of French impressionism. The first witness up was Daniel Dennett, who while whining he had to think about politics at all said in an interview with the Guardian:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”

Numerous witness and media accounts have then followed (just google postmodernism and you’ll see the string of articles, including one from Jacobin by Landon Frim & Harrison Fluss, that argues that we must abandon a supposedly rampant postmodernism, which gave us today’s alt-right, for supposed Enlightenment values.) Pluckrose bases her charges against postmodernism and its meaning by quoting the Encyclopedia Brittanica—a move that we know to be the gold star of real scholarship—and never considers for an instant that Lyotard, for example, was less prescribing the postmodern in the book he later came to critique, than describing what is obvious: with what Arendt calls the “loss of authority” and Nietzsche called “the death of God,” there was a loss any “metanarratives” under which which any “we” could collect ourselves. This death of metanarratives meant for Lyotard thinking how we think through the inevitable impasses that differends between different narratives, themes that he takes up in The Differend and Just Gaming. Rather than some celebration of the loss of metanarratives, though clearly not in favor of inflating one or another narrative into one, Lyotard’s work was to think justice after this loss, a point that in these trials over postmodernism might just be important; justice is always what is at issue in a trial. Perhaps the Britannica article missed that.  At least we do get quotes from Derrida, but she then makes a mash of what those quotations mean. You can go and read her prosecutorial account yourselves and see if she is up to the rigorous hermeneutic standards she believes Lyotard et al. incapable of. Here is her closing argument of the damage Derrida has wrought:

We see in Derrida further relativity, both cultural and epistemic, and further justification for identity politics. There is an explicit denial that differences can be other than oppositional and therefore a rejection of Enlightenment liberalism’s values of overcoming differences and focusing on universal human rights and individual freedom and empowerment. We see here the basis of “ironic misandry” and the mantra “reverse racism isn’t real” and the idea that identity dictates what can be understood. We see too a rejection of the need for clarity in speech and argument and to understand the other’s point of view and avoid minterpretation (sic). The intention of the speaker is irrelevant. What matters is the impact of speech. This, along with Foucauldian ideas, underlies the current belief in the deeply damaging nature of “microaggressions” and misuse of terminology related to gender, race or sexuality.

Nevermind that Derrida, from beginning to end, and in the very text she cites and mangles (“Différance”) is a critic of the proper, the self-same, and phantasms of self-identity. It’s also astounding that these writers never bother to take up exactly where Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida, for example, discuss the Enlightenment: that evidence is never presented since it would defeat their own cases. If these thinkers are on trial, perhaps a look at the (textual) evidence would be a first step. Instead we just get told that they simply rejected the Enlightenment and a certain liberalism that came with it. Nevermind that the Enlightenment of the Auklärung and les lumières has a complicated relation to the history of liberalism predating it, and one ought not to assume such an easy “thing” as “Enlightenment liberalism.” Nevermind, too, that what Derrida often wanted to counter was the false universalisms that were an ethnocentrism under another name, a key theme in Of Grammatology. And never once is mentioned the fact that during the era of Enlightenment itself, we saw the burgeoning of the slave trade, and those involved in the supposed Enlightenment were anything but critics of its colonialisms’ horrendous practices. We are told simply, though, to return to those values, as if one can excise one from the other. What they want is the phantasm of Enlightenment, and not to deal with a world that diffused with differential forces and powers, where, as Arendt puts it well in Origins of Totalitarianism, rights always disappear the very moment they are needed. This is not to say, as Derrida argues many times, that we abandon this notion, nor that of sovereignty, as we have seen numerous times this semester. They, at points, are a necessary strategy in combatting oppression, but we cannot just presuppose that we can through out such vaunted and complicated terms, which presuppose so much and from which we Enlightened thinkers should be afraid to look to those presuppositions. For example, in these trials over postmodernism, I am taking up the strategy of the right to defend them. Could we for once, if we accuse them of such things as “relativism,” actually read what they had to say about it? Let me apologize for citing from Limited Inc. at some length (not least to my typing hands), but the defense does need to present its evidence:

This way of thinking context [key to OG, where Derrida says all thinking occurs within a context] does not, as such, amount to a relativism, with everything that is associated with it (skepticism, empiricism, even nihilism). First of all because as Husserl has shown better than anyone else, relativism, like all its derivatives, remains a philosophical position in contradiction with itself. Second because this “deconstructive” what of thinking context is neither philosophical position nor a critique of finite contexts, which it analyzes without claiming any absolute overview. Nevertheless to the extent to which it—by virtue of its discourse, its socio-institutional situation, its language, the historical inscription of its gestures, etc.— is itself rooted in a context (but, as always, in one that is differentiated and mobile), it does not renounce (it neither can nor ought to do so) the “values” that are dominant in this context (for example, that of truth. …I insisted [in a previous passage] in quotation marks … “real-history-of-the-world” in order to mark clearly that the concept of text or of context which guides me embraces and does not exclude the world, reality, history. Once again (and this probably makes a thousand times I have had to repeat this, but when will it finally be heard, why this resistance? [indeed. It is as if the resistance is psychoanalytic in its disavowal, even decades after he wrote this passage]: as I understand it…the text is not the book, its is not confined in a volume itself confined to the library. It does not suspend reference—to history, to the world, to reality, to being, and especially not to the other, since to ay of history, of the world, of reality, that they always appear in an experience, hence in a movement of interpretation which contextualizes them according to a network of differences and hence of referral to the other, is surely to recall that alterity (difference) is irreducible. Différance is a reference and vice-versa. (LI, 137)

He then goes on to say that if one wants to fix a priori the context for debate, it one wishes sovereignly to set the limits of what is to be said in the “indefinite opening of every context, an essential nontotalization,” the one refuses  to think those places where “responsibilities jell, political responsibilities in particular. That will seem surprising or disagreeable only to those for whom things are always clear, easily decipherable, calculable, and programmable: in a word, if one wanted to be polemical, to the irresponsible” (ibid.). There were things are programmable and calculable, there is no freedom: freedom is precisely calculating against the incalculable, in temporized situations that call for a decision worthy of the name. (We can note just in passing that John Searle, the opponent of sorts who comes to defend the honor of Enlightenment values against Derrida, has long been an opponent of multiculturalism and feminism, and has been charged this past week for trying to trade a GA-ship for sex and for creating a hostile work environment by watching porn in his office. But a judge would be correct to rule this “evidence” as irrelevant to the case at hand. The jury here should ignore these statements in its deliberations.)

In any event, what I want to make clear is Derrida’s attention to thinking a hauntology, a term he later used in Specters of Marx instead of ontology, where nothing is fully present, in the present, nor absent, given the temporalization that we have seen, with différance, is non-representable. What I mean by that is that while Derrida’s grammatology—a term that he thought would come to define his career—seems, with its emphasis on semiology and the grammê is through and through a text on the traces of différance and difference/deferral of any present meaning. That is to say, Of Grammatology is not about how language, as one commentary on Of Grammatology puts it [I can’t find the book to cite it at the moment], shapes the world, but rather that the world is, as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it, nothing other than the passage of sense, an infinity of referrals but always in a finite context. And Derrida links his thinking of archi-writing (archi-écriture) to temporalization. (If we have time after the trial, I would like to go to these places to make that case, that this ultimately a text concerned with time-spacing, with difference-deferral, that is, referral: OG, 47, 60, 62, 65, 66.)

Let us turn, then, for a moment to the scene of the crime, as it were, of which Derrida et al. are accused (it’s the first quotation by Derrida used in the Areo article): any defence will have to take up the facts of the case, even if it is an apologia without apology. (One is reminded—and the analogy will gobsmack Derrida’s prosecutors—of Socrates, where the charges made against him are buts rumors of rumors, which withered in the Apology under the least questioning. And since inevidably university students are mentioned, Derrida, too, has always been on trial for corrupting the youth.) Derrida’s Of Grammatology, said to give us a linguistic idealism, says, smack literally in the middle of its pages, the following:

[I]f reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it [my emphasis], toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language [my emphasis], that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above, as regards the absence of the referent or the transcendental signified. There is nothing outside of the text [il n’y a pas de hors-­texte, there is no outside-text]. And that is neither because Jean-Jacques’ life, or the existence of Mamma or Therese themselves, is not of prime interest to us, nor because we have access to their so-called ‘real’ existence only in the text and we have neither any means of altering this, nor any right to neglect this limitation [and so forth]. (OG, 158)

Here we get the deconstruction of so many readers, even perhaps a certain reader named Derrida. All is text and any referent is but another sign; any supposition otherwise would be attempting to make claims for a ‘transcendental signified’ outside the play of signs. In context, Derrida is reading Rousseau and Saussure’s claims against themselves: their semiologies argue firstly against such signifieds only to make claims for ‘nature’ and ‘consciousness’, respectively, as meaningful outside of the semiologies they proclaim.

I could quickly note that context is everything in reading, or that the place of thought is everything in thinking and writing as such, and one should not universalise, as it were, claims that are context-specific, as all readings are; the rush to use language as non-emplaced, as not context-specific—that is behind the invention of the logos and the logocentric thinking of the West that remains fifty years after Of Grammatology the hidden premise of much of its thinking. As I offer this opening statement, you will think to yourselves that any con-text returns us to the problem of non-textual referents and therefore I am merely playing on words without ever getting outside of them. The sophists were good at the law courts by providing defences against all kinds of ‘challenges’, but you know better than to be bewitched by any of my attempts at sophistics; there are the facts of reality beyond sensuous signs and you will be judging me (and the dead philosopher I speak for and hence betray) on whether I can give you these extra-textual facts. You will want me to get real already, to abandon obscure rhetoric, and speak to the thing itself. Hic et nunc.

Let me then turn to several important pages in Of Grammatology almost wholly neglected in its reception, and certainly in the summary judgments of Derrida’s new prosecutors (they seem too busy to give time for the defence present its case). The pages concern Charles Sanders Peirce, who Derrida takes up before turning to Saussure. As Derrida notes, logic for Peirce is itself a theory of signs, and so is any given ontology. Derrida writes, in passages usually taken as merely bringing in Peirce as a witness to the unmotivated-ness of the sign (that is, unmotivated by anything to which it refers, including a transcending reality), the following:

Peirce goes very far in the direction that I have called the de-construction of the transcendental signified, which, at one time or another, would place a reassuring end [my emphasis, we will come back below to witness another writer wanting the salve, the saving, of this reassuring end] to the reference from sign to sign. I have identified logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence as the exigent, powerful, systematic, and irrepressible desire for such a signified. [That is as clear a definition of this term as one will find.] Now Peirce considers the indefiniteness of reference as the criterion that allows us to recognize that we are dealing with a system of signs. What broaches the movement of signification is what makes its interruption impossible. The thing itself is a sign. [The emphasis is by Derrida]. … According to the ‘phaneoroscopy’ or ‘phenomenology’ of Peirce, manifestation itself does not reveal a presence, it makes a sign. One may read in [Peirce’s] Principles of Phenomenology that the ‘idea of manifestation is the idea of the sign.’ Thus there is no phenomenality reducing the sign or the representer so that the thing signified may be allowed to glow finally in the luminosity of presence. The so-called ‘thing itself’ is always already a representamen shielded from the simplicity of intuitive evidence. The representamen functions only by giving rise to an interpretant that itself becomes a sign and so on to infinity. (OG, 49)

My apologies for this long quote. When putting on a defence to a challenge, sometimes the witnesses do go on for a bit. As is well known, Peirce argued in his pre-1904 work for an infinite semiology. Each sign, that is, thing, was itself a signifier-object-interpretant in a chain of other signifiers-objects-interpretants, with no final or first sign, since any first sign could not be an object for another sign and so forth. For Peirce that passage of sense was not something extrinsic to the movement of the real, but was the real itself. Derrida takes this less in the direction of a debate over reference than towards a consideration of Peirce’s view that the traditional notion of intuition (which Peirce thought to be a holdover of Cartesianism) is one not determined by a previous cognition, which is rendered impossible given infinite semiosis. This would of course come to inform Derrida’s readings of Husserl and other phenomenological thinkers.

But let us pause before that point in the paragraph: what does it mean to think that ‘the thing itself is a sign’? The point is crucial, since all manner of the prosecutors’ efforts hinge on the supposedly shared view that the sign locks us away from the real, justifying the charge of linguistic idealism one often hears about—though one should worry more these days, I would aver, about linguistic naiveté. One reading of the above would be that, as Derrida himself put it, “there is no thinking outside of language,” that is, outside of signs. But it would also mean thinking that there is not something extrinsic or transcending linguistic systems or conceptual schemes, since the things are signs and vice-versa. Thinking language only in the first way is to posit a transcendental signified and this must be excluded on Derrida’s account, since the whole sign system itself (which would then itself be a sign) would refer to an unnameable outside as transcendental signified, and thus we would have doubled down on Platonism in a linguistic register (the appearance of signs and the reality of what is irreducible to appearance). That is, the whole sign system would refer to an outside, a view of language that Derrida works to deconstruct as it is beholden to a metaphysics of presence, one that is rewritten line by line in the descriptions of language by the new realists. Derrida’s insight was to see Platonist dualism as informing a long line of semiological thinking from Plato to Saussure in terms of the difference of the material signifier and a signified whose form transcends this materialit]—a view Peirce came the closest to ‘deconstructing’ according to Derrida.

No doubt there are other important places in the history of philosophy where a counter-history of the sign is possible. Two important moments I have in mind are Heidegger’s post-WWII writings on language, which are often said to be mystical (which is correct inasmuch as it was certain mystical traditions that held open a thinking otherwise of the sign, as performative and inseparable from the real) and Schelling’s notion of the tautegorial On the latter, Tyler Tritten notes: ‘Schelling views the history of mythology as the deployment of Being itself, i.e. as an ontogony or as onto-genesis. Mythic saying is the “tautegorical”—as opposed to allegorical—saying of Being, which says nothing but its own configuration, its own propriety. Myths do not represent a prior meaning which would exist in advance of the myth as the condition of its mythic expression; for, that would be a lapse into transcendentalism. … Poseidon, for example, would not be an allegorical manner of depicting the sea, but Poseidon rather is the sea’. There is thus an irreducible performativity to language, irreducible to any supposed nominalism, a point I cannot take up for now, since I must return to the case at hand.

The question, then, is can we think the thing itself as a sign? This does not mean dodging the real—we will valiantly face our fears, as Short calls them—but facing up to the fact of the sign as real, not just in its materiality, as marked out on our pages and so on, but also not as simply one side in the human/nature divide. As Derrida surmised in the largely speculative opening of Of Grammatology, such a thinking is the happening of science in terms of DNA, computing, post-Set theory mathematics, and so on, to all the so-called information sciences, which rely on another thinking of the sign. Can a post-deconstructive realism be aligned to such a thinking? Derrida demonstrates that it is not a matter of having social constructivism on one side and reality on the other—something that typically leads to the Maurizio Ferraris dodge, as I will call it after the Italian philosopher repeating such commonsensical notions as the following, in a supposedly critical, philosophical register: maleness, identity, and other cultural names are socially constructed (how could it be otherwise?) whereas the sciences avail us of a non-constructible reality (even if we must recognise each theory’s falsifiability). On the one side discursivity, deferral, and difference; on the other, an outside availed to us empirically and denoted (but not reducible to that denotation) by the scientist. We all know the consequences said to result by thinking otherwise about the latter, a political moralism that replaces blackmail for thought, which undergirds all the trials over deconstruction: without the Enlightenment, to put a twist on Dostoevsky, everything is permitted. To take an appropriate witness given the above, here is T. J. Short discussing Derrida in Peirce’s Theory of Signs (2009):

[T]he denial of an unambiguous reference is a perfect cover for someone fearful of facing reality [one must always adore the psychologising of philosophical differences; it’s a mark of much of the prosecutorial work, for example: one doesn’t have a philosophical position but is merely afraid, like a child, over against the brave realist philosopher fully instantiated in adulthood and Enlightened maturity], and that the idea that there is only play invites totalitarianism [!]. For if there is no reality, then there is no reason why one should not impose his vision on the rest of us: ‘One view is as good as another, so I’m going to make you accept mine!’ Truth’s denial leaves a vacuum: the will to power fills it. (T. J. Short in Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009], 45.)

This, of course, is less an argument than an emotional appeal, though expected in the prosecutorial tone challenging and thus falsely accusing Derrida, et al. But it is helpful in delineating a given thinking of the real that any future realism—including a realism of and about the future and the to-come of time never presentable as such—must supersede: the real is unambiguous; knowledge of it saves us from totalitarianism (never mind that never has a philosophical knowledge of the absolute saved anyone from anything); and the real is the referent of language—and even in a book on Peirce would therefore be non-linguistic. Let me cite more evidence from Derrida, given that Short doesn’t bother to do so:

The deconstruction of logocentrism, of linguisticism, of economism (of the proper, of the at-home [chez-soi], oikos, of the same), etc., as well as the affirmation of the impossible are always put forward in the name of the real, of the irreducible reality of the real—not of the real as the attribute of the objective, present, perceptible or intelligible thing (res), but of the real as the coming or event of the other, where the other resists all reappropriation. … The real is this non-negative impossible, this impossible coming or invention of the event the thinking of which is not an onto-phenomenology . It is a thinking of the event (singularity of the other, in its unanticipatable coming, hic et nunc) that resists reappropriation by an ontology or a phenomenology of presence as such. … Nothing is more ‘realist,’ in this sense, than a deconstruction. (‘As If It Were Possible, “Within Such Limits”…,’ in Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 367)

This is also a good place to begin to think the problematic politics of a given realist politics. No doubt, it was the fear of ‘realising’ or naturalising political categories that still marks a hesitancy in some quarters with regard to the new realisms. Of course, one should not work backward from a given political position to an ontology just as one should not presume an easy movement from the latter to the former. Philosophy has no doubt always faced the trial of the real, to explain ‘what is’ irrespective of parochial, all-too-political concerns. But let’s get real and recognise that any future realism must think language otherwise and must pass through a certain thinking of language as temporalization, as the becoming-time of space and the becoming space of time, found in Derrida. Of course any final meaning of Derrida’s corpus, and thus any real judgment of it, will always be deferred, and thus the case may never be closed, though a certain thinking of time, I’ve suggested, is on our side.


  1. A nice (and humorous) post. It’s very weird to see these ‘trials’ all over again. But in any case, it’s good to see some good reading modeled as an antidote. The early pages of ch.2 that you draw on are some of my favourites in OG. Great comments on “world” by the way.

    On things as signs. It seems to me that a discussion of hieroglyphics (which takes place in Part 2, as you know), is useful here, and, too, of the references to language being gestural, embodied, and a feature of a specific configuration of bodily parts. Once we bust our thinking about language out of the idea of interiority, we see how language is far less something under our control and in no way some sort of prison or limiting sphere.

    1. Agreed with all of this. It’s why I bothered to use that article as a jumping off point.

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