Of ‘Grammatology’ and Writing

Amatoritsero Ede

Against all first appearances, my concern is not directly with that seminal work titled Of Grammatology – Jacques Derrida’s 1967 structuralist tome, which is at the intersection of his subsequent deconstructive analyses. Incidentally that critique has to do with the idea of ‘writing’ vis-à-vis speech as a subject of philosophical enquiry, rather than – of interest here – with writing as compositional praxis. However, an important link can be established between both approaches, namely that the breath of Derrida’s philosophical enquiry can be perceived in, and is therefore necessarily transposable, unto the utilitarian and earthy subject of writing as praxis.

For my purposes, writing is synonymous with meaning, or thought and its explication as text, as ‘writing’ – the combination of words in sentences to express a simple or complex idea within the rules of traditional grammar. The goal is neither to give writing (as discourse) primacy over speech – as Derrida accuses ethnocentric Western philosophy of having done towards the dismissal of oral cultures – nor is it to make writing a ‘direct’ translation of ‘thought’. It is more a ‘transliteration’; hence the necessary idea of writing as ‘work’ in the process of that transliteration towards arriving at an approximation of what is being thought. That is all quite simple enough, apparently – but not really, if we bring Derrida’s basic but complicating logic to bear on that easy equation.

For the deconstructionist the meaning of a word, which is already an arbitrary convention, is not a static category residing in that particular word but derives from the relative differences between that word and other words; that is, meaning derives from the interplay of differences between word after word after word ad infinitum. It is from this interplay of differences that coherence is bestowed upon the objective world because it helps in delimiting objects or ideas from one another. Such differences occur, of course, at different levels of any one languages’ grammar: for example at the primary levels of letters of the alphabets, vowels, morphemes, syllables and punctuational particles like commas, the period etc and the ‘unrepresentable’ – absent signs such as ellipses. The lexical unit, the word (at a secondary level), is the most visible or immediate moment and realisation of such differentiation and meaningfulness. To use words in ‘writing’, to form thoughts and be coherent one has to be aware of the law, or ‘grammar’ guiding differences at the primary and secondary levels; hence the idea of a ‘grammatology’, a system of grammar literally and metaphorically, a grammar of signs, which understands the rules and negotiates the differences that results in meaning.

'Signs’, here, are not just the words of a language but all other components required to textualise and express thoughts, including graphemes. All of these are brought into a mathematical permutation and combination, which results in textual representation of thought, becomes meaning. The manner of achieving that, once more, is through the recognition of the differences between those items and the rules necessary for negotiating those differences, and their proliferation. Again, that system is what I refer to as grammatology. What makes such a system functional is a good understanding and dexterous command and manipulation of the differences within it. It is much like the command a conductor has over and above an orchestra, where the differences in the type of musical instruments and the interplay of their different sounds result in symphonic coherence and harmony. It is clear that such a grammatology needs to be learnt from its most rudimentary level to its most complex for a mastery of the skills towards its application in (and) as writing – a system of arbitrary graphemes or signs whose meaningfulness is always deferred and never present in those signs themselves but as a collocation of all their differences.

As such it is mystifying that – from all evidences – Canadian schools do not teach rudimentary grammar how much less its systematisation as ‘grammatology.’ It is scary that school curricula in English are built around the idea that a native speaker has some almighty linguistic instinct, which eschews the need to teach or learn traditional grammar. That is underscored by the North American fallacy of referring to ‘pupils’ as students!, where the latter term insinuates the absence of real instruction. ‘Student’ gives the illusion that there is not much learning needed by those so designated, and when they leave high school they are, hyperbolically, high school ‘graduates’ – conveniently so as to perpetuate the illusion of accomplishment further, even if teachers have not done their job but have limply held these so-called students’ limp hands for several fruitless and limp years.

This pedagogic philosophy is one that subscribes to the learning of language ‘in use.’ Such ‘use’ is expected to transfer into writing, in lieu of the rules of differentiation, of grammatology. In other words, Canadian schools give speech primacy over writing as ‘system’. This is the other extreme of what Derrida accuses Western epistemology of doing – giving writing primacy over speech. In both cases the result is the misconception that neither writing nor speech – especially as it relates to orality and oral societies – is worthy of study as a system nor has any systematicity. There is the suspicion that Canadian teachers refuse to teach the rules of writing or do not know how to teach it anymore since that tradition of learning was broken several school generations before their own training began or was completed. The devastating import is that a large percentage of the teachers themselves have no knowledge of grammatology or how to impart it to their ‘pupils’. It is obvious from the writing skills of the average first year student at the university level that he or she has been abused with the idea of learning language as ‘usage’, of ‘language in use’ as the only preparation for writing. The shortfall is that schools turn out functional illiterates. Concern here is particularly with the English language.

To equate speech with writing as schools do is to short-circuit the process of private reflection, and self-immersion in the rules of grammatology that results in good and coherent writing. While the intention is not to suggest the prescriptive in matters of its acquisition, there is still a need to understand the basic workings of a language. Suggestions to the contrary are nothing but bad faith and result in grammatical anarchy –the haphazard and unsystematic deployment of words, fragments, slang and the generally colloquial by the university undergraduate native speaker to whom the grammatology of the mother tongue becomes unfamiliar or vaguely familiar. The result is incoherence, inarticulacy and frustration for the student, who does not anymore have the high school safety of the five-paragraph essay, and frustration for the classroom and the instructor.

At this point it is useful to note that grammatology in its original coinage by Ignace Gelb – from whom Derrida borrowed the term – had nothing to do with deconstruction or ‘differance’ but pointed to physical properties of language as a system of scripts, their typology and the relationship between written and spoken language. Nevertheless and importantly here, Gelb’s original ideas have come to include a study of literacy, and the significance of writing for knowledge production from philosophy to religion or the hard sciences, and for social organisation. ‘Social organisation’ is important because knowledge production – in how it influences and shapes societal progress – can be seen as a form of it. Based on their social engineering significance, such knowledges and the societies that produce them relative to others are unwittingly hierarchised. It becomes urgent for the ‘pupil’ and the ‘student’, in their gradual socialisation, to be able to write in order to be able to absorb, produce or disseminate knowledge, and affect society progressively. Derrida nods at and emphasises the importance – first inspired by Gelb’s work – of the relationship between writing and science – that is, knowledges of all kinds.

That grammatology, the system of the grammar of a language and its application in writing and hence discourse, has overarching ramifications for science, philosophy and knowledge generally should not be surprising. The reason is not too far-fetched. Language, and its successful manipulation, allows us to give name to things, and differentiate between them. As such the concepts for describing any kind of phenomena has to be expressed in language – be it even the language of mathematics. The same basic principle of naming and differentiation leading to meaningfulness and conceptual frameworks is at work. Derrida actually places writing as being at the beginning of all science.

The import of this is that a student who does not have a basic mastery of grammatology – in terms of the rules of the combination and permutation of traditional grammar and its complexities – becomes handicapped in knowledge acquisition or dissemination since he or she cannot articulate thoughts with perspicacity. The more complex the thoughts the more inarticulate a student or speaker of a particular language becomes. This, more or less, turns otherwise impressionable and brilliant young minds towards a wall of fog and perplexity. This is likely to affect their comprehension of other texts too since the lack of familiarity with the depth of grammatology means they might not be able to quickly decipher the rules at work in a text, which rules and their differentiations are pointers to comprehension. It affects performance in school and at the university.

It is the case that (especially) ‘pupils’ at the primary school level are quickly labelled by teachers, who themselves need teaching, as having learning disabilities – slow reading, attention deficit, laziness, lack of zeal etc. The psychological dimension of a grammatological lack goes so far as to perpetuate a cycle of low self-esteem, ignorance and poverty – where pupils are forever labelled, become ‘institutionalised’, and do not improve themselves further or beyond the artificial limitations imposed by the institution symbolised in the lazy, undiscerning teacher.

The results of lapses in grammatology are crippling for speakers of the language in daily communication situations beyond the classroom, especially when thoughts have to be written down, say, for example, in the simple form of a common letter. The more specialized writing gets the more ineffective the speaker who has not internalised the rules of grammatology becomes. So the essay, formal or informal, becomes a headache, and so do other more sophisticated and specialised kinds of writing.

In the absence of grammatology the import of all this for creative writing can be devastating since the ‘extra-linguistic’ creativity, which an internalisation of grammatology imbues, would be absent. Creative writing would require a familiarity with grammatology as a ‘paradigm.’ Otherwise poetry, novels, the essay, and creative non-fiction become dull versions of what they could be. There is a particular manner in which that could happen.

Apart from the primary level of the alphabet, the vowel, the phoneme, and the secondary level of words, clauses, sentences, phrases etc, there is also the less obvious but equally valid syntagmatic and paradigmatic levels of grammatology. Here the play of differences inheres within syntactical differentiation and coherence and, amongst different genres, styles, and themes. At this level linguistic competence at the primary and secondary levels of grammatology are not enough for creativity. A familiarity with the canon of writing from around the world is useful. It is the same as an awareness and mastery of the primary and secondary levels of grammatology – in terms of a play of differences. This explains the truism that it is only a poor writer who has written more than he has read. As such a ‘writer’ competent at the primary and secondary level of grammatology, might not be so as a ‘creative writer’ at the syntagmatic and paradigmatic levels, which chief requirement is an unusual level of ‘creative’ as opposed to ‘linguistic’ competence alone.

Syntagma may relate to the internal logic of a literary text, both technical and creative – syntax for example, theme, plot, and the “moral universe” (to borrow from Chinua Achebe) of the work and the meaning these generate in and amongst themselves in their differences. And the paradigm is marked by the uniqueness of such works and their inter- and intra-genre play of differences within the canon of national or global literature.

On a grammatological level of the syntagma and within the paradigm of poetry for example, one finds a lot of contemporary Canadian, and indeed, North American writing rather aping prose. To disarm the critic such poetry is quickly presented as ‘prose poetry.’ It is not to say there could not be some innovative and sincere form of that kind. But with the examples out there such (oxy) morons as ‘prose poetry’ leave the structure of the syntagmatic and try to jump unto the paradigmatic axis; that is, their syntax is that of prose, even though the intended paradigm is poetry. But at the same time they do not fit into the paradigm of fiction. Such a grammatological weakness can be found in various forms in other genres of creative writing. Reading widely and selectively can be a useful way to avoid such traps of literary writing.

Reading widely, which, at the syntagmatic and paradigmatic levels, stands in for the more basic morphological kind of grammatology as in the school essay, does not merely refer to the reading of literature in whatever genre only, it also points to the reading of cultures generally, of which literature is only an aspect. It is in this sense that Canadian writing sometimes becomes provincial (pun intended), with its tendency for the hyper-narcissistic, and ultra micro-nisation – ‘New Brunswick writing’, ‘Albertan writing’ and other such stringent compartmentalising. Such writing completely ignores the marrying of the local and the national, or the national and the global. Its themes, plots and narrative strategies completely eschew the grammatological impetus of the global. This is not to say that writing ‘deliberately’ set to emphasise the local is not valid, but that making it the goal and sole purpose of national literature is a bit extreme.

Canadian literature needs not be ‘a literature of the provinces’; it should dialogue more with each other across the Rockies and the prairies; interact with other writing from across North America and the globe. Fortunately Canada, irrespective of its near total geographical isolation except for the USA as neighbour, still has a rich cultural advantage in a population that is at once local and global. Canadians come from all corners of the earth and bring their imagination with them. Nevertheless for Canadian literature to exploit the possibilities in differences towards a rich literary and cultural diversity, it has to shed some of it provinciality, shun a tendency towards elitism and be more open for an influx of new, replenishing blood. The literary world is right here in Canada and the country’s literary self-constitution can only be strengthened by immigrant difference. To enable that, the teaching of grammatology has to be taken up again as a serious project by schools. This is necessary for practical language lesson on the one hand; and on the other for life-changing lessons in a philosophy of differences, which is already a cherished Canadian value, and the very essence of Canadian socio-political life. An emphasis on that philosophy can only prepare new generations of Canadian writers, and secure the future of Canadian literature in a global cultural arena and knowledge circuit.

About the Managing Editor


(Photo: John W. Macdonald)

Amatoritsero Ede is a peripatetic, internationally award-winning poet and ex-Hindu monk born in Nigeria. He has been a Book Editor, was Editor-in-Chief of Sentinel Online Poetry Journal from 2005-2007, and Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University’s English Department from 2005-2006, where he is now a Doctoral Candidate.

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