Saturday, 21 March 2015

Deconstruction and Derrida

Jacques Derrida:
Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences
(from The Structuralist Controversy, ed. Richard Macksey and Donato E. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Uni Press 1970)

Define deconstruction:
Deconstruction, as applied in the criticism of literature, designates a theory and practice of reading which questions and claims to "subvert" or "undermine" the assumption that the system of language provides grounds that are adequate to establish the boundaries, the coherence or unity, and the determinate meanings of a literary text. Typically, a deconstructive reading sets out to show that conflicting forces within the text itself serve to dissipate the seeming definiteness of its structure and meanings into an indefinite array of incompatible and undecidable possibilities.

Q. Expound Derrida’s concept of decentering centre and suplimentarity.
Q. Discuss how Derrida asserts the inexhaustibility of the text and thus keeps it perpetually open to new discoveries.
Q. Comment upon the post-structuralist view that there is no ‘a-textual origin’ of text.
Q. The Post Structuralist critic 'read the text against itself so as to expose what might be thought of as the 'textual subconscious', where meanings are expressed which may be directly contrary to the surface meaning.
Deconstruction: In the criticism of literature, Deconstruction is a theory and practice of reading which questions and claims to ‘subvert’ or ‘undermine’ the assumption that the system of language provides grounds that are adequate to establish the boundaries, the coherence or unity, and the determinate meaning of a literary text. Typically, a deconstructive reading sets out to show the conflicting forces within the text itself to dissipate the seeming definiteness of its structure and meaning into indefinite array of incompatibility and undecidable possibilities.
Derrida was the most influential philosopher in 70s and 80s of last century. His philosophy is the further extension of structuralism and is better called as Post-Structuralism. He carries this structuralist movement to its logical extreme and his reasoning is original and startling. We have seen in this movement that as in New Criticism, the attention was shifted from the writer to the work of literary text; consequently textual analysis became more important than extra textual information. Further, the author disappeared and only the text remained. This is what we called the stylistic and structuralist position. The meaning as it emerges from the text (the illocutionary force) alone counted. In this process the importance of the reader and his understanding increased, and the Reader Response or Reception Theory came into being. Derrida gives the same process a further and final push according to which what matters is the reading and not the writing of the text. At times one feels, though not quite justifiably, that, in Derrida even the text disappears and what is left behind is an individual’s reader response to it. Now the reader rules the supreme, and the validity of his reading can not be challenged. However, the structure of each reading has to be coherent and convincing.

Decentering the Centre
Derrida deconstructs the metaphysics of presence. That is to say that according to Derrida there is no presence or truth apart from language. He seeks to prove that the structurality of the structure does not indicate a presence above its free play of signs. This presence was earlier supposed to be the centre of the structure which was paradoxically thought to be within, and outside this structure, it was truth and within, it was intelligibility. But Derrida contends that, ‘the centre could not be thought in the form of a being-presence’, and that in any given text, there is only a free play of an infinite number of sign substitutions. A word is explained by another word which is only a word not an existence. Thus a text is all words which are just words, not indicative of any presence beyond them. In the words of John Sturrock, “The resort to language or sign entails, we know the loss of all uniqueness and immediacy. The sign is not the thing in itself”. It is utteractive or repeatable. A sign which was uttered only once would be not sign. It is the types of which each utterance is token.
There is no a-textual origin of a text. The author’s plan of a book is a text. His realization of the same book is another text. Its summary is third text. A text kindles a text and there is no truth beyond the text that the text seeks to represent or explain. There is no reality other than textuality. The textuality is the free play of signifiers. There is no signified that is not itself a signifier.
In the words of John Sturrock, Derrida seeks to undermine “a prevailing and generally unconscious ‘idealism’, which asserts that language does not create meanings but reveals them, thereby implying that meanings, pre-exists their expression”. This for Derrida is nonsense. For him there can be no meaning which is not formulated, we cannot reach outside language.

The concept of supplementarity follows from decentrring the centre. A literary text is a work of language and language as such according to Derrida, is like time, ever in a state of flux. Just as time has no origin, so also the origin of language is inconceivable. All that we can say is that it came into being fully, not bit by bit along with the emergence of man, and will disappear along with man. Derrida quotes and approves Levi-Strauss who writes: “Whatever may have been the moment and the circumstances of its appearance in the scale of animal life, language could only have been born in one full swoop (all at a time). Things could not have set about signifying progressively. Following a transformation the study of which is not the concern of the social sciences, but rather of biology and psychology, a crossing over came about from a stage where nothing had a meaning to another where everything possessed it”.
But language being a flux is not ever the same. It is always gaining in new elements and loosing the older ones. “The totality of the myths of a people”, Derrida quotes Levi-Strauss again, “is of the order of the discourse. Provided that these people do not become physically or morally extinct, this totality is never extinct. Such a criticism would therefore be equivalent to re-approaching a linguist with writing the grammar of a language without having recorded the totality of the words which have been uttered since that language came into existence and without knowing the verbal exchanges which will take place as long as the language continues to exist.” Totalisation is thus useless and impossible. The language paradoxically comes into being as a quest of imaginary truth apart from language and continues to realize the lack of truth in the words that it employs. The freeplay of signifiers, “a field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ‘ensemble’ permitted by the lack. The absence of centre of a origin is the movement of supplimentarity. The super abundance of the signifier, its supplementary character, is thus the result of a finitude, that is to say, the result of a lack which must be supplemented. The process of supplementarity has no end. Because positive & concrete definition is impossible for any term, every term necessarily requires a supplement or supplements, something or some things which help(s) it exist and be understood. Yet, at the same time, the object(s) which the supplement is (are) supplementing is (are) (a) supplements itself. Extend this web in all directions and the relationship between bricolage, play, and the supplementary begins to make sense.

The same applied to any literary text. We look for the truth of the text which in fact is only language, and create in our quest another text through our criticism to supplement the lack of the original text. Supplement the lack of the original text - reading is reactivating the expressivity of the text with the help of its indicative signs. But in the words of John Sturrock, “the meanings that are read into it may or may not coincide with the meanings which the author believes he or she has invested it with. A reasonable view is that a large number of these meanings will coincide depending on how far separable author and reader are in time, space and culture; but that a large number of other meanings will not coincide. For language have powers of generating meanings irrespective of the wishes of those of who use it.”
Of course, the discussion here barely begins to scratch the surface of the implications made by Derrida, for within not even a full fourteen pages of text, has established the foundation of one of the most significant revolutions in the history of thought. Of course, saying that Derrida demonstrated how the history of thought contradicted itself and in so doing imploded the foundation of Western philosophy. Yet, there is scant little chance of denying that Derrida himself holds some special place in this development: if not as its father then at least as its catalyst.

Deconstruction, not critique

Traditional Western metaphysics advances on the basis of critique. You find the weakness in your antagonist's argument, and by this means show it to be false. In the tradition of Pope and Swift, you
may then ridicule the argument, thereby persuading your reader to take your side against your antagonist. You go on to replace the previous position with your own views, which are then subject to
critique in their turn. Deconstruction, however, is not critique. Derrida treats LeviStrauss with respect, and his project is not to persuade us to repudiate Saussure, still less to ridicule him (though there are moments of comedy in his account of the sermon against the sin of writing delivered by the moralist from Geneva). Instead, he points out that Saussure's own book does not sustain the opposition between speech and writing it takes for granted and reiterates. On the contrary, the Course records (as an outrage) the invasion of the rejected writing into speech itself. Spelling, Saussure declares with horror, is changing pronunciation.

Let us conclude with M.H.Abram’s observation in ‘How to do things with texts?’: - “Derrida emphasizes that to deconstruct is not to destroy; that his task is to “dismantle the metaphysical and rhetorical structures” operative in a text “not in order to reject or discard them, but to reconstitute them in another way”; - that he puts into question the “search for the signified not annul it, but to understand it within a system to which such a reading is blind.”  

What post-structuralist critics do

1. They 'read the text against itself so as to expose what might be thought of as the 'textual
subconscious', where meanings are expressed which may be directly contrary to the surface meaning.
2. They fix upon the surface features of the words - similarities in sound, the root meanings of words, a 'dead' (or dying) metaphor and bring these to the foreground, so that they become crucial to the overall meaning.
3. They seek to show that the text is characterised by disunity rather than unity.
4. They concentrate on a single passage and analyse it so intensively that it becomes impossible to
sustain a 'univocal' reading and the language explodes into 'multiplicities of meaning'.
5. They look for shifts and breaks of various kinds in the text and see these as evidence of what is
repressed or glossed over or passsed over in silence by the text. These discontinuities are sometimes called 'fault-lines', a geological metaphor referring to the breaks in rock formations which give evidence of previous activity and movement.

Barry, Peter. An introduction to literary and cultural theory

Deconstruction and Literary Studies: 

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* Activities:

* What do you understand by 'Deconstruction'? (Remember: if you think you understand Deconstruction, you don't. :)). 
* Read an ad or TV serial or Film or literary text as post-structuralist critic. Be brief, precise and to the point.
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