Deconstruction

Post-structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of French intellectuals who came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s and deflated the scientific certainties and pretensions of structuralism, making a mockery of structuralism. A key application of post-structuralism is deconstruction which defines a new kind of reading practice. Deconstruction is a form of philosophical and literary analysis, derived mainly from work begun in the 1960s by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, that questions the fundamental conceptual “oppositions,” in Western philosophy through a close examination of the language and logic of philosophical and literary texts. It was the most influential theoretical trend in literary criticism during the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1970s the term was applied to work by Derrida, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Barbara Johnson, among other scholars. In the 1980s it designated more loosely a range of radical theoretical enterprises in diverse areas of the humanities and social sciences, including law, psychoanalysis, architecture, anthropology, theology, feminism, political theory, historiography, and film theory.

Deconstruction is a critical approach or strategy of reading and analysis that seeks to dismantle, destroy and subvert any notion that a text or signifying system has any coherence, identity, stability, unity, determinate meaning, truth, or boundaries and margins. Deconstruction owes much to the theories of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida whose precursors were the German philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger who radically questioned the fundamental concepts such as ‘knowledge’, ‘truth’ and ‘identity’ – as well as Sigmund Freud whose psychoanalysis violated traditional concepts of individual consciousness.  His essay ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science’ (1966) and his books  Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference and Speech and Phenomena, began a new critical movement.

In her book, The Critical Difference (1981), Barbara Johnson clarified that “Deconstruction is not synonymous with ‘destruction’”. It is in fact much closer to the original meaning of the word ‘analysis’ itself, which etymologically means ‘to undo’ – a virtual synonym for ‘to de-construct’.”  The deconstruction of a text proceeds by identifying the conflicting forces of signification within the text itself.  If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not the text, but the claim to an unequivocal domination of one mode of signification over another. Paul de Man defines deconstruction as the undoing of assertions made in the text, by means of elements which are in the text, which frequently would be precisely structures that play off the rhetorical against grammatical elements. To Richard Rorty, the term ‘deconstruction’ refers to the way in which the accidental (incidental) features of a text can be seen as betraying, subverting its purportedly ‘essential’ message. Paul Ricoeur defines deconstruction as a way of uncovering the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition. Richard Ellmann defines ‘deconstruction’ as the systematic undoing of understanding. Hillis Miller is of the view that “deconstruction as a mode of interpretation works by a careful and circumspect entering of each textual labyrinth.” As Gayatri Spivak said, in a deconstructive reading, the text comes “undone as a structure of concealment, revealing its self-trangression, its undecidability.”

Post-structuralism makes a mockery of structuralism. According to Saussure, signifier and signified form a unified whole and there is stability in signification. Post-structuralists have prised apart the two halves of the sign and discovered the unstable nature of signification. According to them, sign is not a unit with two sides; but a momentary ‘fix’ between two moving layers. For Derrida, language is not a reliable mode of communication that we believe it is. It is fluid and slippery.  Structuralism believes that language is non-referential because it does not refer to things in the world, but only to concepts of things in the world.  Deconstruction takes it one step further when it maintains that language is non-referential, because it refers neither to things in the world nor to our concepts of things, but only to the play of signifiers of which language itself is made.

Deconstruction subverts all binary oppositions that are central to Western culture and to every other culture. The oppositions are characteristically “binary” and “hierarchical,” involving a pair of terms in which one member of the pair is assumed to be primary or fundamental, the other secondary or derivative. To “deconstruct” an opposition is to explore the tensions and contradictions between the hierarchical ordering assumed. Among the binary oppositions Light/Darkness, Good/Evil, Male/Female, West/East, Presence/Absence, Speech/Writing, among many others, the first term is favoured by Western philosophy.  Deconstruction attempts to open a text to a range of meanings and interpretations by looking at the binary oppositions within a text. Derrida observes that the neat pairing of opposites advanced by structuralism does not work. The two oppositions overlap and share some common elements. Deconstruction starts from recognizing that there is no peaceful coexistence of opposites but rather a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other or one of the two terms is dominant (speech over writing; activity over passivity; male over female; man over animal, etc). Deconstruct overturns this hierarchy at a given moment. Therefore, the “violent hierarchies” of binary oppositions that dominate the philosophical tradition and our thinking are challenged by deconstruction. It is not the final task of deconstruction to surpass all oppositions, because they are structurally necessary to produce sense.

For Derrida, the most telling opposition is the one that treats writing as secondary to speech. According to this opposition, speech is a more authentic form of language, because in speech the ideas and intentions of the speaker are immediately “present”, whereas in writing they are more remote or “absent” from the speaker or author and thus more liable to misunderstanding. We attribute a ‘presence’ to speech which we take to be lacking in writing. Writing does not need the writer’s presence. As Derrida argues, descriptions of speech in Western philosophy often rely on examples and metaphors related to writing. In effect, these texts describe speech as a form of writing, even in cases where writing is explicitly claimed to be secondary to speech. As with the opposition between nature and culture, however, the point of the deconstructive analysis is not to show that the terms of the speech/writing opposition should be inverted—that writing is really prior to speech, nor is it to show that there are no differences between speech and writing. Rather, it is to displace the opposition so as to show that neither term is primary. For Derrida, speech and writing are both forms of a more generalized “arche-writing” (archi-écriture), which encompasses not only all of natural language but any system of representation. .

In his paper ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, Derrida argues that the notion of ‘structure’, even in structuralist theory presupposes a ‘centre’ of meaning. People desire a centre because it guarantees “being as presence”.  We think of our mental and physical life as being centered on an ‘I’. Western thought has developed innumerable terms which operate as centers: being, essence, substance, truth, form, beginning, end, purpose, consciousness, man, God and so on. This desire for a centre is called ‘logocentrism’ (Derrida’s Of Grammatology). ‘Logos’ is the Greek for ‘word’, a term which in the New Testament carries the greatest possible concentration of presence (“In the beginning was the word”). Even though the Bible is written, God’s word is essentially “spoken”. A spoken word emitted from a living body appears to be closer to an originating thought than a written word. Derrida argues that this privileging of speech over writing (he calls it ‘Phonocentrism’) is a classic feature of logocentrism.  Logocentricism and phonocentrism are both governed by the human desire for a central presence.

Phonocentricism treats writing as a contaminated form of speech. Writing seems to be impure because it has a permanence – it can be interpreted and reinterpreted. Whereas, the sounds made by a speaker evaporate into the air and leave no trace (unless recorded) and therefore, do not appear to contaminate the originating thought, as in writing. This coupling of ‘writing’ and ‘speech’ is an example of what Derrida calls “violent hierarchy”. Derrida reverses the hierarchy and says that speech is a species of writing, which is the first stage of Derridean ‘deconstruction.’ He uses the term ‘supplement’ to convey the unstable relationship between couplets such as speech/writing. Writing not only supplements but also takes the place of speech because speech is always already written. When we say that ‘nature’ preceded ‘civilisation’, we are asserting another violent hierarchy. If we look closely we find that nature is always already contaminated with civilization and culture. There is no original nature. All human activity involves this supplementarity (substitution).

Derrida’s deconstruction theory also involves the term différance, meaning both a difference and an act of deferring, to characterize the way in which meaning is created through the play of differences between words. Because the meaning of a word is always a function of contrasts with the meanings of other words, and because the meanings of those words are in turn dependent on contrasts with the meanings of still other words (and so on), it follows that the meaning of a word is not something that is fully present to us; it is endlessly deferred in an infinitely long chain of meanings, each of which contains the “traces” of the meanings on which it depends. The word ‘differance’ is derived from the French verb ‘deferrer’ which means to differ and to defer. To  the deconstructionist,  it concerns the principle of the continuous postponement or deferral of meaning due to differences in the signification and value of signs. Différance is the systematic play of differences by means of which elements are related to each other. One sign differs from another and a thing is defined in relation to what is not. ‘West’ is defined by its difference from ‘East’ and ‘civilized’ is contrasted in terms of ‘savage’. The word “house” derives its meaning from how it differs from “shed”, “mansion”, “hotel”, “building”, etc. than from how the word “house” may be tied to a certain image of a traditional house (i.e. the relationship between signifier and signified).  Deferral also comes into play, as the words that occur following “house” in any expression will revise the meaning of that word, sometimes dramatically so. The same can be said about verbs:  when does “walk” become “run”? The same happens with adjectives: when does “yellow” become “orange”, or “present” become “past”? The differences between what is signified is also covered by différance. Thus, complete meaning is always “differential” and “postponed” in language; there is never a moment when meaning is complete and total. A simple example would consist of looking up a given word in a dictionary, then proceeding to look up the words found in the definition of that word, and so on.

According to Derrida, it is only the mental “trace” left behind by the signifiers that we take to be the meaning. And that “trace” is made up of differences by which we make a word. Red is called ‘red’ because it is not blue or green Derrida also uses the term ‘dissemination’ along with ‘trace’. Dissemination refers to the scattering or dispersal of meaning. Meaning is also always deferred so that a final point of stable meaning is never reached.  The incompatible or contradictory meanings are ‘undecidable’ because we lack sufficient ground for choosing between them. A moment of “undecidability” or “Aporia” springs from such inherent contradictions and tensions found in any text. According to Derrida, each text deconstructs itself in this manner. Deconstruction simply ‘happens’ in a critical reading.

In Derrida’s concept the center holds all the units of a structure in place. The center which he called the ‘transcendental signified’ keeps the structure from moving and limits ‘play’ (as the central shaft holds everything in place in a building and limits its movement). Western philosophy prefers rigidity over movement. In every Western philosophical system, some idea or concept serves as a center to hold the whole structure together. The basic idea of deconstruction is to find that center and see what happens to the structure if you take it away. Deconstruction is a way of reading that looks for places where the structure gets shaken up, where more play, more ambiguity of meaning occurs -where the binary opposites do not stay neatly on their proper side of the slash.

In literary texts, language operates loosely with lots of play. In poetic language especially, a single word can have more than one meaning. A deconstructive reading looks for meanings in the text that stand in conflict with what is held as the main theme in traditional interpretations. The text itself is not aware of these contradictions. Deconstruction does not resolve the tensions in them into a unity or harmony. Instead, it sustains and even promotes such tensions, because it is the nature of the language not to get resolved. Meanings are always disseminated and any deconstructive reading of a text catches a fleeting moment of this dissemination. Playful adaptations of this theory are the ‘dictionary novels’ which can be read either from beginning to end in a linear way, or from somewhere in the middle of the text, and moving back and forth from cross – reference to cross – reference.

Thus, “Deconstruction is not a method and cannot be transformed into one.” To talk of a method in relation to deconstruction, especially regarding its ethico-political implications, would appear to go directly against the current of Derrida’s philosophical adventure. Deconstruction holds that any attempt by traditional literary criticism to elucidate meaning by employing practical tools of comparison and analysis is a self- defeating practice. A text can be read as saying something quite different from what it appears to be saying; that it may be read as carrying a plurality of significance or as saying something which is contradictory to what may seem a single, stable ‘meaning’.  A deconstructive criticism of a text reveals that “there is nothing outside the text”—the text may have endless interpretations and readings with many different meanings. Hence  a text may ‘betray’ itself. The rhetoric of both the literary text under analysis and literary criticism is inherently unstable. Deconstruction rejects every attempt to set limits or boundaries to meaning. It  is therefore not a method in the traditional sense but is what Derrida terms “an unclosed, unenclosable, not wholly formalizable ensemble of rules for reading, interpretation and writing.”

 

 

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