Adam's Reviews > Of Grammatology

Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida
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John Searle on deconstruction:
"One sometimes gets the impression that deconstruction is a kind of game that anyone can play. One could, for example, invent a deconstruction of deconstructionism as follows: In the hierarchical opposition, deconstruction/logocentrism (phono-phallo-logocentrism), the privileged term "deconstruction" is in fact subordinate to the devalued term "logocentrism," for, in order to establish the hierarchical superiority of deconstruction, the deconstructionist is forced to attempt to represent its superiority, its axiological primacy, by argument and persuasion, by appealing to the logocentric values he tries to devalue. But his efforts to do this are doomed to failure because of the internal inconsistency in the concept of deconstructionism itself, because of its very self-referential dependence on the authority of a prior logic. By an aporetical Aufhebung, deconstruction deconstructs itself."

For more of Searle's badass takedown of Derrida and his silliness, see
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message 1: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 06, 2011 07:26PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio "With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, "He says so and so," he always says, "You misunderstood me." But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, "What the hell do you mean by that?" And he said, "He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.' That’s the terrorism part." And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes."
― John R. Searle

"It [writing] has enormous meta-cognitive implications. The power is this: That you cannot only think in ways that you could not possibly think if you did not have the written word, but you can now think about the thinking that you do with the written word. There is danger in this, and the danger is that the enormous expressive and self-referential capacities of the written word, that is, the capacities to keep referring to referring to referring, will reach a point where you lose contact with the real world. And this, believe me, is very common in universities. There's a technical name for it, I don't know if we can use it on television, it's called "bullshit." But this is very common in academic life, where people just get a form of self-referentiality of the language, where the language is talking about the language, which is talking about the language, and in the end, it's hot air. That's another name for the same phenomenon." ― John R. Searle

Tyler Searle willfully misreads Derrida, or at the very least, doesn't take the time to understand his theory properly. The supposed limitation of deconstruction, the idea "that deconstruction deconstructs itself," is a "limitation" that Derrida was certainly aware of, and in fact, is not a limitation at all. Deconstruction must deconstruct itself. If it did not, it could not be articulated or exist in language. If deconstruction was not privy to the very process it describes, it would itself become the very sort of notion that it condemns and says is impossible, the idea of something "absolutely present outside of a system of differences." Every word/concept capable of being articulated and understood in language can only be understood in a system of differences. This means, essentially, that a word never has a positive meaning derived from itself, but rather, we can only understand the meaning of a word by the way in which it differs from other words. We must essentially rule out everything it is not (to the extent which are finite language system allows) in order to articulate what it "is." The idea of deconstruction is essential an expansion of this concept. For example, good is privileged over evil, however, good can only be truly understood in the context of evil, by the way in which it differs from evil. If there was no evil, there could be no good, or at least "good" in a sense that we can understand because it would have nothing to compare itself to. It must exist in a system of difference--good "differing and deferred" from evil. In this same way, deconstruction must be dependent on the very thing it critiques in order to exist at all. It's paradoxical thinking, but it has to be. Deconstruction needs logocentrism to exist, and vice versa. The flaw is not in deconstruction, but in our language, and our radical distinction between true and false. Our society privileges truth over falsity (and rightly so), and so, in order for deconstruction to be believed in, it must be said to be true, which immediately makes it privileged, which in turn makes it false, because there can be no privileging. It is neither true nor false, presence nor absence, "but exceeds them both." If deconstruction did not deconstruct itself, it would become something "absolutely present outside a system of differences," the very sort of thing Derrida condemns as being dependent on a sort of creationist theology, something absolutely present outside the system, whose meaning and existence is self-contained and self-referential, only coming from itself.

As for Derrida's writing, I personally "like" it, but I won't defend it. He is willfully obscure (although not entirely without a purpose), but that doesn't undermine the validity or importance of what he's saying. To a degree, it was necessary for his writing, at least regarding deconstruction, to be thorough, "repetitive," and obscure, otherwise, people's understanding of it would be too simplistic and reductive. In fact, this tendency to reduce deconstruction to a formula (which is so prevalent among the majority literary criticism that cites Derrida), is the every sort of thing Derrida was trying to avoid. Again, his writing is frustrating, but it is completely understandable if you're willing to either read very slowly, or go through one or two readings.

And just so you know, I'm not one of those people who enjoys obscurity for the sake of obscurity or to make myself feel intelligent, I find some of the other french writers to be completely full of hot air, using opacity to cover up either faulty scholarship or to boost their egos (Lacan and Kristeva come to mind). I will also add that I can't stand most people's (ab)use of Derrida, I think he ranks up there with Freud in terms of willful misapplication (although, if I'm being honest, I'm not much of a Freudian). I understand people's hostility to Derrida, on Searle's part, I think it was a bit of jealousy regarding Derrida's "rock-star" status in academia, and for others, I think it stems from the ways in which they see Derrida being misused.

In short, read him patiently and with an open mind and then decide from there. He's by no means incomprehensible.

message 3: by Adam (last edited Jun 05, 2012 09:54PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Adam I really don't like Derrida, and I have read a lot of his writing, in multiple contexts. I did go in with an open mind, and I'm not particularly averse, considering that a lot of my background is in analytic philosophy and the ensuing tradition(s), to this sort of thing. I like Barthes a fair bit, for instance, and Blanchot very much. Baudrillard too, though he's in a somewhat different crowd.

I understand that Searle's take on Derrida is not perfect. I also understand quite well that Derrida understood that deconstruction must deconstruct itself, but am not especially taken with the logic that is used to support the contention that this paradoxical thinking is necessary.

To be fair, I like a lot of Searle's other points better than the one I quoted for the review. Like him, I was being a bit of a smartass on that point. I don't think Searle, overall, misses much of the point re: Derrida; it's just that he's not convinced of the basic points of deconstruction, or the sorta-arguments used to support these basic points. A lot of literary theory in the 20th century was built on talk of 'privileging,' which under scrutiny turns out to be usually vague and with a whole lot of presuppositions surrounding its use.

I don't like Derrida because I don't think he does right by his ideas; I think he articulates poorly. Moreover, I don't think Derridean deconstruction is all that original and interesting. Most of what I've read of Derrida, which admittedly is not anything like all of Derrida, tends to be based around ideas and patterns of thought that were present in both the analytic and continental traditions and their precursors for quite some time. Blanchot's writings on nothingness deal with similar issues but with a hell of a lot more clarity and without anywhere near as much hot air. Borges wrote many stories that reflect deconstruction before it was 'theorized' by Derrida. Even Wittgenstein points to issues of language that become focal for Derridean deconstruction. Nothing Derrida talks about is new; he just invents a ton of jargon and writes ridiculously.

Derrida is certainly less full of shit than Lacan and Kristeva, among others, and probably less full of shit than most philosophers in either tradition. But his work is filled, as far as I can tell, with examples of intellectual laziness and pointless obscurity. He is the poster boy for the ultra-pretentious and obfuscatory. I pick on Derrida more than I do the people who write these absolutely heinous psychoanalytic readings of Film Noir that you come across occasionally in obscure journals, but I only do so because people are still listening to Derrida, and I cannot understand why he is interesting to people. And like I said in my original review, I think Derrida is silly more than offensively off-target or anything. Intellectually, he sure likes leaping to conclusions, making something of nothing (or vice versa), and the like. As a writer, he is insufferable.

Searle and I agree that much of this everpopular use and abuse of Derrida stems from his writing itself. It's awfully hard to really abuse J.L. Austin or John Searle. It's even hard to abuse someone like the later Wittgenstein, though everyone sure has given that a shot. It's not hard to abuse Derrida. Talk to three lit profs and you'll get three entirely incompatible takes on what Derrida really means. His writing lends itself to that sort of thing. The quote-and-run etc.

message 4: by Tyler (last edited Jun 05, 2012 11:38PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tyler I do agree that Derrida's ideas for deconstruction aren't breath-takingly original, although I do think he laid out its fundamental principles more explicitly and freed them up for use more easily than those he may or may not have borrowed them from. The ghosts of Derrida's particular brand of deconstruction are more than evident in Being and Time, most obviously, for me at least, in Heidegger's dismantling of the distinction between object and subject, man/world, here/there etc. Also Derrida's idea that every word/concept has inscribed within itself its own past/future always seemed pretty Heideggerean to me as well (although I think he admits this himself near the end of "Differance."). I especially agree with you regarding Wittgenstein, I've only read the Philosophical Investigations, but a lot of precursors to Derridean thought are there, as well as larger ideas central to post-modernism in general (I've always thought the beetle-in-the-box idea seemed particularly relevant to modern takes on the relationship between author and text, i.e., the internal sensations of the author and his intentions don't prohibit the text from being interpreted/used/understood/placed in context--although I'm sure your grasp of analytic philosophy is superior to mine, I've only read Wittgenstein and a bit of Austin).

Anyway, to get back to the point, it's not that I think Derrida's the messiah or the most original philosopher of the century, but I do think he does an excellent job of synthesizing these previous thoughts and making their universal applicability more "clear," and most importantly, emphasizing their relation to language (which Heidegger never really outlined and Wittgenstein never took to complete conclusion (although I suspect he didn't really care to?)).

Again, I'm not big on defending his writing itself, I personally enjoy reading him, and as an English major, I find him and what he has to say relevant to my interests (mainly modernism/Joyce studies), however, like I said earlier, he's probably more often willfully and unwillfully misused than any other theorist. I'm currently a undergraduate student, and some of things I've heard attributed to him (by students and professors) in classes are beyond absurd, which I'm willing to concede is partly due to his writing, which does tend to give people a lot of creative license. He is also overwhelmingly over applied and often used as filler to lend intellectual backbone to an otherwise limp topic. However, I do maintain that when he's relevant (and not obviously, painfully relevant as is so often the case), he really puts things into perspective and allows a text to be uncovered in a novel way.

By the way, thanks for the civility of your response, fights have a tendency to break out needlessly when it comes to Derrida.

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