The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Derrida and Writing

In a number of the readings for this course the philosopher Derrida has been mentioned, along his “graphocentric” view that writing is a more primary type of communication than speech. He is a difficult philosopher to understand, but I’ve studied his thought somewhat in the past and I’d like to try to clarify his ideas about writing as far as I understand them.

The background that Derrida was coming from, and reacting against, was structuralism. According to structuralism, words have their meaning by how they relate to other words in a whole system of language. Proponents of structuralism thus draw a distinction between language (the whole system that gives words their meaning) and speech (the things we actually say). The distinction is discussed by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in this comedy sketch

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A related distinction made by structuralists was that between the signified and the signifier. The signified is the place a word takes in the whole system of language and the signifier is the spoken sound of the word or written mark of the word.

Derrida rejected the idea of a fixed system of language giving meaning to everything written and spoken, and rejected the idea that there is a signified that gives meaning to the signifier. He believed that language should be understood in terms of the signifiers only, which in turn are to be understood as dependent on acts of signifying. These acts of signifying have meaning, he thought, only in relation to all other acts of signifying. With new acts of signifying, these relations could change, and so meanings are never fixed but are open to change, their meaning being constantly “deferred”. His method of “deconstruction” is an attempt to change received meanings and received interpretations, using methods such as reversing the received view about what is important and what is unimportant in a text.

Derrida believed that the notion that speech is primary and writing secondary was based on the mistaken view that, with speech, the meaning of our words is something “present”. According to this view, the person who speaks has mastered the system of language to some extent and is an authority on what he or she means. For instance, when you speak to me I am able to respond to your questions and reply, “No, what I meant was…” The written word, in contrast, is something whose meaning is more elusive, for it depends on what the writer meant when he or she wrote it, and the writer may be absent and might even be dead when we read it.

Although he acknowledged that from a historical point of view speech appeared before writing, Derrida thought that writing revealed the nature of language more fully than speech did, for it reflected the way in which the meanings of what we say are not within our control and are constantly open to revision and reinterpretation.

The clearest introduction to Derrida’s views on writing that I have come across is in Richard Harland’s book Superstructuralism. You can see some of it here.

There’s also a movie about Derrida on google video, which is not too bad


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