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Sunday, 5 March 2017
Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida’s Stunning Adventure in Literature
The French philosopher, Jacques
Derrida, was born in 1930 in Algeria and in 1952 he studied at the Ecole
Normale Superieure in Paris.
In 1966, he presented a paper, “Structure, Sign
and Play” which inaugurated his new philosophy – the beginning of a long and
prolific writing career. Three books followed, Speech and Phenomena, Of
Grammatology and Writing and Difference.
Through his revolutionary ideas,
Derrida originated the theory of deconstruction, which he claimed exposed the
instability of the traditional metaphysical assumptions of the Western
philosophical tradition. According to Derrida,
his theory could be applied not only to literature and language, but also to
philosophy, law and architecture. His main focus is on ways of thinking about
language. He challenges and attempts to subvert language by questioning the
nature of texts.
The complexities of Derrida’s theory have attracted praise,
fierce criticism and hostility. It is not difficult to understand why,
considering comments such as the following, by Richard Rorty:
“Once again, I
would want to insist that you cannot have it both ways. You cannot see these
leaps in the dark as the magnificent poetic acts they are and still talk about
“philosophical rigor.” Rigor just does not come into it.”
Peggy Kamuf, describes Derrida’s work as: “one of the most stunning adventures
in philosophical thought.”
Derrida’s undermining of Western
Derrida appropriates from other
philosophers the language he requires to explain his theory. “Derrida’s
starting-point in in Saussurean linguistics and the notion of the arbitrariness of the signifier,” says
Stuart Sim. Saussure’s work is fundamentally vital to the movement of
Structuralism, and Derrida uses Saussurean terms to attack Western
philosophical thought. Saussure, who developed the important concept of
signifier, signified and sign, is a vital inspiration for Derrida. Despite
their differences, Saussure provides Derrida with a logical basis from which to
develop his ideas.
Having appropriated the language
required for his arguments, Derrida attempts to undermine Western thought, as
far back as the ancient Greeks. From the beginning, the early Western
metaphysical tradition regarded writing as being: “…parasitic: a non-essential
element in the production and determination of meaning and truth, and a mere
“vehicle” for thought,” says Peter Sedgewick.
Plato valued the spoken word over
the written word as the only authentic means of using language. Writing he
considered a secondary manner of communication, derivative and lifeless.
According to Plato, the written word is subservient to speech because the
former is merely a representation of the latter.
Derrida disagrees with the Platonic
view and argues that the superiority accorded to speech over writing is not an
accident or a choice made because there is no other option. He deconstructs the
ancient Greeks’ entrenched beliefs about the superiority of speech over
writing, turning Plato’s idea around. He says: “Writing… has an equal or even
primordial role in the production of meaning and also philosophical discourse,”
and so, Derrida dramatically announces “the death of speech” as the foundation
of meaning because: “Writing exceeds and comprehends that of language.”
Logocentrism and the privileging of
In his attack on logocentrism, a
concept which has always dogged Western philosophy and which is the desire for
a centre, Derrida says that this concept demands the privileging of one term
over another. The deconstructor must challenge this “phonocentrism” and upset
the hierarchy. This is not the same as reversing the hierarchy, for it is the
exchange of properties between the two oppositions that undermines the
statement. Deconstruction must critically destabilise the existing hierarchy by
attacking the opposition that the statement depends on.
The indeterminacy resulting from this
process, leads to the French term “difference.” The word “differance” means
both “difference” and “deferral of meaning.” Difference operates in both space
and time, because writing is seen as existing in space, while speech is
considered as existing primarily in time (deferral.) Difference occurs more
strongly and meaningfully in writing than in speech, since speech, by its nature,
is more immediate. The gap is the time is takes for the mind to reflect upon
the concept and process it into meaning.
A useful and specific example of
"differance" might be the word “reader.” There are two ways in which
this word might be understood. It might be perceived as “someone who reads,” or
alternatively, it could be understood as “a collection of texts.”
“Differance” also operates in
modernist and post-modernist poetry, with its fragmentary, disjointed verse,
for example, the indeterminate I in poems such as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock
and Ezra Pounds Hugh
Selwyn Mauberley. The instability of the pronouns, I, we, us and
you in Eliot’s The Waste Land provides another example of
differance. The point Derrida makes is that pronouns are a replacement and,
therefore, a displacement, producing spacing which, in turn, creates
possibilities for doubt or uncertainty.
The validity of the theory of
One of the main objections of
Derrida’s theory is that he freely employs the system of logic on which the
Western philosophical tradition has depended to develop his arguments –
arguments which seeks to deconstruct the very structure on which they rely.
“The deconstructive critical enterprise is, therefore, very much open to attack
on the basis of its grounding theory’s validity,” says Stuart Sim.
Yet Derrida has presented us with a
highly original method of experimenting with language, of becoming more aware,
of being creative, of enriching our literary experience and, most importantly,
of challenging long-held assumptions which may be false.
In Rorty’s pragmatist
view, we should be looking at Derrida to see how he can be useful, rather than
how he can be right. Derrida has helped to prevent Western thought from sinking
into complacency and possibly even stagnation.
“Is Derrida a Transcendental Philosopher?”
Essays on Heidegger and Others, Richard Rorty, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1991.Descartes to Derrida, Peter Sedgewick,
Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2001. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism,
Stuart Sim, Philosophical Aesthetics, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford,
1992.Semiology and Grammatology,
Positions, Jacques Derrida Translation: Alan Bass, The University of Chicago
Press, Chicago, 1972.100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood,
Quercus Philosophy, London, 2010.