“Of Grammatology” a Signifier of a Signifier of a Signifier of Signifieds

Phil 6958: The Uncertain Boundaries of the Subject


Short Paper on Of Grammatology

“‘Signifier of the signifier’ describes on the contrary the movement of language: in its origin, to be sure, but one can already suspect that an origin whose structure can be expressed as ‘signifier of the signifier’ conceals and erases itself in its own production. There the signified always already functions as a signifier” (7).  Since all words are signifiers for specific signifieds, language is to be identified or defined as a signifier of the signifiers. Writing as a signifier though is a dilemma so far as it is representative of language: writing must be a signifier of the signifier (language) of the signifiers (words) of signifieds (things). Is a signifier of the signifier a dilemma? Perhaps not, but Derrida’s further point is that as writing took precedence over language, it could manipulate the linguistic signifieds without ever touching them (so to speak). It used to be the case that the problem encountered in the language-writing relationship was forming sensible spoken (linguistic/dialogical) things into abstract written symbols that preserved them for exact recovery in language later. Now the greater problem is forming the sensible written things into abstract spoken language. While the ancients focused on a problem of interpretation as a textual error, we focus on it as an exegetical error. For us, the text is held aloft as the source of the truth of a matter at hand. Thus in antiquity a problem may be “cleared up” by discussing it. In the modern day a problem is the result of discussion.

Speaking of matters at hand, or should I say writing, is there something overlooked here by Derrida? Is there a way in which writing has not overtaken spoken language? Throughout our writings to one another, formal or not, we continually use fundamentally spoken language. We continue to say “speaking of” rather than “writing of” (which sounds just ridiculous). We write the word “we” even though, I, as the writer, have no idea who is currently reading my writing. For me to say/write “we know that…” is to fundamentally characterize my supposed reader as someone intelligible to me, e.g. an English speaker familiar with philosophy, a curious undergraduate student picking up this paper dropped on the floor, or a wise Belgian professor. Furthermore, what is often forgotten—maybe because of the predominance of writing in fact—is that reading is an act of speaking to oneself. Bakhtin wrote/said that while the idea that man is conscious of and conceptualizes reality through language is basically correct, it must be added that this happens in the form of “utterances.” Comprehension of ink markings on a leaf of paper is a dynamic process that involves speaking the words to oneself, among other acts. The marks mean nothing until the written words (recognized as such) are resuscitated in uttering them, if not aloud than in the reader’s mind.

Of course Derrida is quite right to assert a prejudice in modernity for writing over language generally. In The Academy it is written texts that are the source of knowledge and the indication of intellectual rigorousness. Can we imagine a philosophy paper with a high grade that does not contain a single written text in its “works cited?” What if its works cited included: “a conversation with Marion” and “personal intuition?” Writing is the mode of recognition for all of the humanities and sciences. In the case of the sciences, a scientist is only as good as her research, and as recognized, as her published works are known. What may be perpetuated in The Academy is only good writing without a care for good speaking or class instruction. Who has received tenure based only on speaking?

Writing has a way of setting things in stone and in their “proper place.” Language meanwhile becomes slippery, prone to error, and susceptible to environmental problems like speaking and hearing over noises. But Derrida also points out that writing can undermine itself, language, and the signifieds: “The advent of writing is the advent of this play; today such a play is coming into its own, effacing the limit starting from which one had thought to regulate the circulation of signs” (7). His example is Heidegger’s being. Writing has some advantages over language and when those are exploited a new movement of meaning is at work. Rather than signified->signifier->signifier we have signified<-signifier<-signifier. If one sought to set language in stone through writing, one will be sorely disappointed. The stone has a life of its own.

About C.P.

Collin is a professional writer and scholar. He holds an MA in Philosophy and a BA in English literature. His philosophical work has appeared in print published by Wiley/Blackwell and Open Court. More of his writings, philosophical, literary, comic, and just plain nonsensical are available online. He currently lives in Seattle where he is writing science fiction, dressing up for Cons, and wreaking havoc on his opponents (npcs and tabletop humans alike).
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