JACQUES DERRIDA’S OF GRAMMATOLOGY famously announces “the end of the book,” but it is hard not to think of it as quite a book, and especially perhaps in the Anglo-American context, as Derrida’s magnum opus. Although another of Derrida’s three 1967 books had already appeared in English,1 the Grammatology translation in 1976 — with its somewhat manifesto-like quality, its focus on apparently less specialized and more broadly familiar material (Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau), and its 100-page preface by a then relatively unknown Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — became the book to have read across the humanities. It launched “deconstruction” in America.
Derrida makes a startling claim in the Grammatology: to focus on the apparently marginal and secondary issue of writing raises problems serious enough to overrun all the conceptual resources of the then triumphant “human sciences” (and their model of scientificity provided by structural linguistics), in addition to those of history in general and indeed philosophy itself. All these disciplines share presuppositions that a hard look at the question of writing radically unsettles.
Like other seismic events of thought, Derrida’s insight is quite simple, yet in its very simplicity hard to grasp. Identities in general (of whatever kind, at whatever level) arise out of difference, but difference is not itself any identity or indeed any thing at all. It is not that there are first things, and then differences and relations between them: the “things” emerge only from the differences and relations, which have an absolute priority, and that emergence is never complete. It’s that insight that led to the neologism différance. In the beginning is différance, which means that there is no simple beginning or origin. And the différance never ends, which means that there is no simple end. Derrida’s simple claim, then, is that nowhere ever is there anything simple.
For many readers at the time, the most accessible way into this thinking was Derrida’s account of Saussure, and more especially his radicalization of Saussure’s own insight that “language is a system of differences without positive terms.” On this view of language, objects and meanings do not come first, only subsequently to be named and referred to via some conventional linguistic means. Rather, they are from the start involved in the play of difference which alone affords them any kind of identifiability and identity. Things are what they are only by bearing the trace of what they are not. It flows from this insight that thinking itself is always caught up in webs or weaves of traces, and that it needs to engage with those traces if it is going to be able to think at all. That engagement involves, Derrida makes clear, alongside a question of language, a question of temporality and a question of the relation to the other. For short, we can say that this means thinking proceeds essentially by reading. But just because of the trace-structure, reading can no longer be conceived as retrieving a content (a signified, in the structuralist jargon) from the text being read, and must be thought of quite differently. The Grammatology is also a meticulous ongoing “methodological” reflection on what it is doing as it reads in this different way.
By thinking and reading in this way, we are always transgressing the limits of language itself. Once signifieds and referents are identifiable only through the trace-structure, then language has neither inside nor outside: everything in general is what it is only through indefinite referrals to other “things,” which themselves refer on again. Experience in general is differential, made possible by the trace that cannot itself be directly experienced. Being is trace-being. This is not a claim merely about language, however important language remains. It would be tempting to say it is an ontological claim, except that the trace, being no thing or object at all, cannot be held within the terms of ontology (something that has been conveniently forgotten by many more recent “realisms”), whence Derrida’s later half-serious proposal of a hauntology.
Derrida’s simple insight, with its almost unimaginably, fractally complex implications, is difficult to stay with, and, especially since his death in 2004, intellectual fashion has tended to bypass its complexity and settle back into the more familiar terms of science, ontology, and, especially, history, as though the mere passage of time could make it go away. This new, “40th anniversary edition” of the translation of Derrida’s perceived magnum opus is, then, extremely timely in its untimeliness, and, we might hope, has a chance of shaking up our disciplinary habits all over again.