“Of Grammatology” The Writing Meme and Its Lost History

Phil 6958: The Uncertain Boundaries of the Subject

10/3/11

Short Paper on Of Grammatology Part 2

I first had a lot of difficulty grasping Derrida’s meaning in this reading. It was in researching the history of language (online) that I came to understand Derrida’s project. The terms: ideogram, pictogram, grapheme, logograph, and phonograph, are all central to the study of the history of writing. It is clear that the origin of writing is something which entirely depends on one’s definition of writing. While writing in one sense started around 8,000 to 6,000 BCE, writing in another sense can be dated to 40,000 BCE! There are even older “forms” of writing that are classified as “proto-writing.” When one starts researching the history of writing, one understand why Derrida finds it impossible to give it a scientific origin. Do we call pictograms writing or do we need discrete symbols that can theoretically communicate any morpheme? I particularly liked his reference to the fact that the origin of myths implies a myth of origins (92). We can see that the sciences often propound the necessity of causal origin (the necessity of causation) but one wonders if this has better ground as a foundational supposition than any other myth of origin from ancient religions.

Another great insight from Derrida in this reading was his point that writing gave birth to pretty much everything you can now get a degree in: “that all clergies, exercising political power or not, were constituted at the same time as writing and by the disposition of graphic power; that strategy, ballistics, diplomacy, agriculture, fiscality, and penal law are linked in their history and in their structure to the constitution of writing” (92). In fact those examples of proto-writing that we have are mostly counting systems for agricultural purposes. Although I think the greatest support for Derrida’s position (against the possibility for a scientific origin of writing) would be scholars who identify epistemological shifts between predominately oral cultures and writing cultures. Gerald L. Bruns identifies this distinguished contrast in the hermeneutics of Thucydides (Ch. 2, “Thucydides, Plato, and the Historicality of Truth,” Hermeneutics Ancient & Modern, Yale U. Press, 1992).  He argues that Thucydides’ hermeneutics was new and different because he conceived of his audience as a reader rather than a listener.

Particularly insightful was the way Derrida points to writing and power. Those who write were always those in power or at the mercy of those in power. Writing was first developed not a means of communication for the sake of ease, but as a means of extending the power of institutions/systems of taxation, war, fear and thought control. There is also a sudden explosion of writing after its scattered invention. In memetics, it would be referred to as a new meme system that “infected” people like a contagion. It was Pandora’s box. But, we cannot judge its ills because we are inside its grasp. As an aside, I did not understand the reference to Labat on page 89.

I was most interested in Derrida’s insistence that a “cultural graphology” would require an analysis of the tools of writing and their cultural meaning and significance (87). How often we completely disregard the form of the text which is so often utterly unlike its original. Fortunately professors at Marquette have usually been clear about whether a text was composed from fragments of notes, hastily scrawled manuscripts, etc.—this is more often exposed by teachers today since the growth of New Historicism in literary theory. I wonder about some scholars who wrote massively for a short period of time like Nietzsche versus scholars who spent many years on one work like perhaps Kant with his Critique of Pure Reason; there are probably much better examples. I have heard that Nietzsche’s deteriorating eyesight and investment in a typewriter influenced his shift to aphorisms. Some scholars have even pointed out noticeable changes in their scholarship since their adoption of a computer. We think of a genius as being born but Derrida highlights the relative cultural influences which undergird the identity of one as a genius—i.e. that there are necessary cultural characteristics that must be met and that they are unconscious or outside the reach of logical inquiry at the time.

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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