Sunday, 5 March 2017

Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida’s Stunning Adventure in Literature

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 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.” 


Another philosopher, Peggy Kamuf, describes Derrida’s work as: “one of the most stunning adventures in philosophical thought.”


Derrida’s undermining of Western philosophical thought


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 terms


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 deconstruction


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. 

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