Derrida’s ‘Of Grammatology’ and the Birth of Deconstruction

In Derrida: A Biography, the first in-depth account of the life of the iconoclastic French postmodern philosopher, Benoît Peeters looks at the dawn of a semiotic analysis that would dominate Western thought for the second half of the 20th century.

For Derrida, in 1965, as often, the start of the summer was rather glum. He had stayed in Fresnes by himself, while his wife Marguerite and his son Pierre were in Charente, and he felt that his work was making little progress. “I have the impression that I can see pearls out of reach, like a fisherman afraid of the water even though he’s a connoisseur of pearls,” he wrote to Louis Althusser. But “this little text on writing” that he finished with difficulty at the end of August before sending it to Critique would soon be considered one of his major works.

Jacques and Marguerite agreed for once to take a real holiday and spent the whole of September in Venice, at the Lido. They went with Pierre, just turned 2, and also with Leïla Sebbar, an Algerian student who was, so to speak, his official babysitter. A few years later, she became a respected writer. This was Derrida’s first trip to Italy, one of the countries he would love the most, and one of the few to which he would often return for nonprofessional reasons.

On his return, he found a letter from Michel Deguy saying how much he had enjoyed the article “Writing Before the Letter.” A few days later, Jean Piel confirmed that he wished to publish this “extremely dense, rich, and novel study” in Critique, even though its length meant that it would need to be published in two parts, in the issues of December 1965 and January 1966. As Derrida frequently acknowledged, this article, a sketch of the first part of the book Of Grammatology, was the “matrix” that would govern the rest of his work.

Following the prevailing rule at Critique, the text presented itself to begin with as a review of three works: The Debate on Writing Systems and Hieroglyphics in the 17th and 18th Centuries by M.-V. David, Gesture and Speech by André Leroi-Gourhan, and the conference proceedings Writing and the Psychology of Peoples. But the questions discussed in “Writing Before the Letter” went much further. Derrida evoked in premonitory terms “the end of the book,” before introducing the concept of “grammatology,” or the science of writing.

In particular, the article proposes a minute analysis of the presuppositions behind Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics, a major reference point for all structuralist thinking. While Derrida endorses the central idea of difference as the source of linguistic value, he considers Saussure’s thought as still too dominated by logocentrism, that “metaphysics of phonetic writing” which has for too long forced writing into a subsidiary role. But the ambition announced in these pages is not limited to questions of linguistics or anthropology. Derrida extends the methods of Martin Heidegger, leading to the “undermining of an ontology which, in its innermost course, has determined the meaning of being as presence and the meaning of language as the full continuity of speech,” and working “to make enigmatic what one thinks one understands by the words ‘proximity,’ ‘immediacy,’ ‘presence.’”

One major concept, the one by which Derrida’s thought will often be designated, also appears in the article: that of deconstruction. It is in his “Letter to a Japanese Friend”—a friend who could not find a satisfactory equivalent in his own language—that Derrida gave the clearest explanation for his choice of word:

When I chose this word, or when it imposed itself upon me … I little thought it would be credited with such a central role in the discourse that interested me at the time. Among other things I wished to translate and adapt to my own ends the Heideggerean words Destruktion or Abbau. Both words signified in this context an operation bearing on the structure or traditional architecture of the fundamental concepts of ontology or of Western metaphysics. But in French the term “destruction” too obviously implied an annihilation or a negative reduction much closer perhaps to Nietzschean “demolition” than to the Heideggerean interpretation or to the type of reading I was proposing. So I ruled that out. I remember having looked to see if the word déconstruction (which came to me it seemed quite spontaneously) was good French. I found it in Littré. The grammatical, linguistic, or rhetorical senses [portées] were, I found, bound up with a “mechanical” sense [portée “machinique”]. This association appeared very fortunate …

Contrasting works of a very different level and style, attentive to their least details, Derrida proposed a new type of reading, which might be likened to the free-floating attention of psychoanalytical listening.

(Here is the definition of the word “deconstruct” (déconstruire) in the Littré French dictionary: “1. To disassemble the parts of a whole. Deconstruct a machine so as to transport it elsewhere. 2. Grammatical term. To carry out a deconstruction. To deconstruct lines of poetry, suppressing meter so as to make them similar to prose … 3. To deconstruct oneself. To lose one’s structure. ‘Modern erudition attests that, in a region of the ancient Orient, a language that had reached its perfection had deconstructed and deformed itself by the sole law of change, a law natural to the human mind.’—Villemain, Preface to the Dictionary of the French Academy.”)

On a more anecdotal level, we may note that the verb “to deconstruct” had not been entirely forgotten when Derrida started to give it new life. In 1960, it was used in a popular song by Gilbert Bécaud, “The Absent One,” to words by Louis Armade, a poet and high-ranking official:

How heavy it is to bear the absence of a friend
The friend who every evening came to this table
And who will never return, death is miserable
As it stabs you in the heart and deconstructs you.

On the publication of its first part in Critique, “Writing Before the Letter” created a real stir in intellectual circles. Michel Foucault expressed his enthusiasm for “such a liberating text”: “In the order of contemporary thought, it is the most radical text I have ever read.” Emmanuel Levinas assured Derrida that he too had been “captivated by these incandescent, arborescent pages”: “In spite of all your loyalty to Heidegger, the vigor of your point of departure announces the first new book since his own works.”

According to François Dosse, the author of a monumental History of Structuralism, 1966 marked the high tide of this new paradigm. It was the year of The Order of Things by Foucault—an unexpected bestseller—of the violent polemic between Roland Barthes and Raymond Picard on the Nouvelle Critique, and of the huge volume of the Écrits in which Jacques Lacan brought together texts hitherto dispersed. While Derrida did not publish a book that year, and was still unknown to the public at large, several articles and lectures confirmed that he was a highly significant figure, one of the “great minds of the century,” as François Châtelet was so bold as to say in Le Nouvel Observateur.

In 1967, Marguerite and Jacques returned to Fresnes at the start of August to await the birth of their second child. Jean-Louis Emmanuel Derrida was born on Sept. 4, 1967, a little earlier than expected, which did not stop him from seeming healthy and tranquil. The choice of these three first names was no coincidence: Jean was Genet’s first name, Louis that of Althusser’s, Emmanuel that of Levinas’s. During the days following the birth, Derrida had to take over domestic responsibilities, something to which he was not used to. With two children, the Fresnes apartment was becoming really cramped. Jacques and Marguerite started to think about buying a new house. Even though the state of their finances was soon to improve, thanks to the seminar that Derrida started giving a small group of American students, they soon realized that they would need to move a bit further away from Paris.

1967 was definitely a year of births, for two new books by Derrida were published in the autumn.

Speech and Phenomena was published by Presses Universitaires de France, in Jean Hyppolite’s series. This short work presented itself as a mere “introduction to the problem of the sign in Husserl’s phenomenology.” But in actual fact, the book developed the questions discussed in Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology, focusing, in another way, on the privilege granted to presence and voice throughout the history of the West. As Derrida explains in the introduction:

"We have thus a prescription for the most general form of our question: do not phenomenological necessity, the rigor and subtlety of Husserl’s analysis, the exigencies to which is responds and which we must first recognize, nonetheless conceal a metaphysical presupposition? …

What is at issue, then, in the privileged example of the concept of sign, is to see the phenomenological critique of metaphysics betray itself as a moment within the history of metaphysical assurance. Better still, our intention is to begin to confirm that the recourse to phenomenological critique is metaphysics itself, restored to its original purity in its historical achievement."

The problem, in Derrida’s view, is in short the deepest ambition driving Edmund Husserl’s investigations: the desire to liberate an “original” lived experience and reach “the thing itself,” in its “pure presence.” In Speech and Phenomena he endeavors to bring out the philosophical implications “of the interdependency that one must accept between what is called thinking and a certain interplay of signs, marks or traces.”

In the eyes of several philosophers, Speech and Phenomena is one of Derrida’s major works. Georges Canguilhem and Élisabeth de Fontenay expressed their admiration to him on their first reading. The great Belgian phenomenologist Jacques Taminiaux has also professed a passion for this work, placing it on the same level as Levinas’s Totality and Infinity. And Jean-Luc Nancy considers it even today as one of the peaks of Derrida’s oeuvre:

Speech and Phenomena remains in my view the most magisterial and in many respects the most exciting of his books, since it contains the heart of his whole operation: moving away from self-presence; and différance with an “a” in its difficult relation between infinite and finite. For me this is really the heart, the driving force, the energy of his thinking.

Of Derrida’s 1967 works, however, it was Of Grammatology that was to remain the most famous. In particular, it was through this work that he thought he would start to make a name for himself in the United States. On Derrida’s own admission, the book is, however, composed of “two heterogeneous passages put together somewhat artificially.” The first part, “Writing Before the Letter,” was an enlarged version of the article published in Critique: it was here that the fundamental concepts were put in place. The second, “Nature, Culture, Writing,” began with an analysis as patient as it was implacable of a chapter in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, with “The Writing Lesson” showing the stratagems used by the author to link the appearance of violence among the Nambikwara with that of writing.

Subjecting Lévi-Strauss’s ethnological discourse to critique just after questioning Saussure’s linguistics was a deliberate move on Derrida’s part. They were the two pillars of structuralist discourse, a discourse which Derrida judged to be at the time dominant in the field of Western thought, but which was in his view trapped “by an entire layer, sometimes the most fecund, of its stratification, in the metaphysics—logocentrism—which at the same time one claims rather precipitately to have ‘gone beyond.’”

Lévi-Strauss made no attempt to conceal his irritation. Shortly after the first publication of this chapter in the fourth issue of the Cahiers pour l’analyse, he sent a caustic letter to the review’s editors:

"Do I need to tell you how grateful I was for the interest shown me in your recent publication? And yet I can’t shake off an awkward feeling: aren’t you playing a philosophical farce by scrutinizing my texts with a care that would be more justified if they had been written by Spinoza, Descartes or Kant? Frankly, I don’t think that what I write is worth so much fuss, especially Tristes Tropiques, in which I didn’t claim to be setting out any truths, merely the daydreams of an ethnographer in the field—I’d be the last to say there is any coherence in them.

So I can’t avoid the impression that, by dissecting these clouds, M. Derrida is handling the excluded middle with all the delicacy of a bear… In short, I’m surprised that minds as agile as yours, supposing they have deigned to read the pages of my books, didn’t ask themselves why I make such a casual use of philosophy, instead of rebuking me for so doing."

But Lévi-Strauss occupied only one chapter of the book. The crucial section of the second part of Of Grammatology was devoted to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, especially the Essay on the Origin of Languages, a short and at the time almost forgotten work that Derrida boldly linked to certain passages of the Confessions. Contrasting works of a very different level and style, attentive to their least details, Derrida proposed a new type of reading, which might be likened to the free-floating attention of psychoanalytical listening. Following the traces of the word “supplement,” often associated with the adjective “dangerous,” Derrida showed how Rousseau linked it sometimes to writing and sometimes to masturbation, for both of which he showed a fascinated mistrust.

Reading of the kind Derrida practices “must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer, between what he commands and what he does not command of the schemata of the language that he uses.” It is a “signifying structure that reading must produce,” even when the work pretends to efface itself behind the signified contents that it transmits. At the polar opposite of the academic tradition, the discourse of philosophy or of the human sciences is approached as a text in the full sense of the word.

The publication of Of Grammatology more than confirmed the interest aroused by the double article in Critique. On Oct. 31, in La Quinzaine littéraire, François Châtelet reviewed it, devoting an enthusiastic full page to it under the title “Death of the book?” On Nov. 18, Jean Lacroix, in charge of the philosophical coverage in Le Monde since 1944, devoted an entire article to Derrida, half a page long. The first lines were a real accolade:

"Philosophy is in crisis. This crisis is also a renewal. In France, a whole constellation of (relatively) young thinkers are transforming it: Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, etc. We now need to add to these names that of Jacques Derrida. Known to a small group of enthusiastic normaliens, he has just revealed his talent to a wider public by publishing three books in six months, including Of Grammatology. Through the attention he brings to bear on the problem of language, he seems close to the 'structuralists.' He does them justice and acknowledges that thinking, across the world, has been given a formidable impetus by a sense of disquiet over language, which can only be a disquiet of language and within language. He distances himself from this tendency, however, insofar as—like the iconoclast he is—far from deriving inspiration from a scientific model, he is still in thrall to the philosophical demon… Derrida’s aim is not the destruction, but the 'deconstruction' of metaphysics. The foundational concepts of philosophy enclose the logos, and reason, within a sort of 'closure.' This 'closure' needs to be smashed, we need to attempt a break-out."

The concept of “différance” was also introduced in this reliable, positive analysis, as were those of “gramme” and “trace.” Jean Lacroix underlined the crucial link between Derrida’s philosophy and those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, while avoiding several of the misunderstandings that would later come about. “Derrida,” he emphasized, “does not want to privilege writing at the expense of speech.”

Three days previously, in La Tribune de Genève, Alain Penel had enthusiastically hailed an author who “questions Western thought.” This time, the emphasis was on Writing and Difference. The praise was unreserved and sometimes uncritical:

After him, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, Saussure, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, etc, appear dull. This is because Derrida shows himself to be more radical than they are, insofar as his thinking puts all others to the test, aiming successfully to be a reflection on contemporary reflection. By showing thereby that metaphysics continues to poison Western thought, Jacques Derrida makes his mark as the boldest contemporary thinker. His works cannot fail to constitute a new, superior field for the reflections of all those—critics, philosophers, teachers, students—who are interested by developments in our culture.

The book had been eagerly awaited and brought its author a huge postbag. Philippe Sollers, who had already read the complete manuscript in the summer, had immediately called it “a quite brilliant text.” Julia Kristeva was very touched to have received a signed copy of the book, as a “sign of complicity”: she thanked Derrida for all that she already owed to his work and for all that she would continue to draw from it. She would soon be sending him a series of questions, which he would answer at length in writing, under the title “Semiology and Grammatology.” As for Barthes, he was in Baltimore when he thanked Derrida warmly: Of Grammatology was, in this place, “like a book by Galileo in the land of the Inquisition, or more simply a civilized book in Barbary!” A judgment which, in retrospect, seems quite piquant.

For it was also from the United States that another warm letter arrived, announcing an equally fruitful relationship: that in which Paul de Man told Derrida how much he had been “thrilled and interested” by Of Grammatology. He expected this work to help in the “clarification and progression of [his] own thinking,” something which Derrida’s Baltimore paper, and their first conversations, had already suggested. As they talked over the breakfast table at the conference the previous year, the two men had realized that they were both interested in their different ways in the Essay on the Origin of Languages. This was the origin of a friendship which became deep and enduring: after this first encounter, Derrida would say, nothing ever separated them, “not even a hint of disagreement.”

From the book Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters. Excerpted by arrangement with Polity. Copyright © 2012 Benoît Peeters.