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Jim Powell lives in Santa Barbara, California where he enjoys surfing, writing, playing piano, and painting. His other books include Mandalas: The Dynamics of Vedic Symbolism, Energy and Eros, The Tao of Symbolism, Eastern Philosophy For Beginners, Derrida For Beginners, and Postmodernism For Beginners. Jim has a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Sanskrit and Indology. His thesis was on Vedic mythology. He also holds a Master’s Degree in English Literature and wrote a thesis on Mark Twain’s relationship with the Mississippi River.
If Derrida has managed to turn much of Western thought on its head, he has done so only by standing on the shoulders of Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Saussure.
But Westerners don't tolerate voids very well. Traditionally we don't pray to holes in the wall, devoutly mumbling "O sacred hole!" Unlike Taoists and Buddhists, we are inheritors and inhabitants of a worldview esteeming presence over absence—icon over non-existence—wholes over holes. We relish the look, taste, texture and fragrance of pomegranates and posies—of things. And we like even our non-things substantial—our Word to become flesh, our Vishnu to incarnate voluptuously as Krishna and his lovers, our vacuums and voids vinaigrette. Thus we have tried to fill in this void in various ways, have tried to establish a new center: with Modernist art, with myth, with music, with poetry, with dream archetypes, by chanting Hare Krishna or worshipping Kahuna, with scientific certainty, with structuralism.
With Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the originator of psychoanalysis, Derrida questions the unity of the human psyche, which, always haunted by subconscious traces of past experience, always differs from itself—is always marked by difference.
The word "deconstruction" comes from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger's (18891976) concept of Destruktion, his call for the loosening up of the old tradition of ontology— the study of ultimate Rock Bottom Reality—through an exposure of its internal development. Also, Derrida borrowed from Heidegger the practice of crossing out terms after he has written them. Just as Heidegger marked an "X" through Being, Derrida followed suit with "is," allowing cafe-goers now to ask if the table.
Why? We'll get to that.
Ferdinand de Saussure was the Swiss linguist whose structural linguistics formed the basis for structuralism in disciplines such as literature, semiotics, folklore, and anthropology. Saussure thought there is an abstract structure that determines all language's concrete manifestations, like the rules of chess that determine all the concrete moves one can make in the game. Similarly, structural anthropologists believe there are abstract structures at the basis of cultural forms such as myth, kinship, etc. This led to structural analyses of such various "texts" as: striptease, boxing, myths, political campaigns, religious rituals, and even traffic signals.
In such analyses the meaning of the parts is not so important as the relationship between the parts. For instance the meaning of the red, yellow, and green lights in a system of traffic lights is not based on the greenness of green or the yellowness of yellow. The meaning of the lights is based upon their relationship to each other as parts of a system. They could be replaced by any other colors and the system would still have the same meaning. A purple light could just as well mean
Structuralism promised to provide anthropology, literary criticism, and other fields with a scientific basis, but before it could ever make its mark in America, Derrida, the final speaker at the Johns Hopkins Seminar heralding the promise of structuralism, exposed its weaknesses. For structuralism depends upon structures, and structures depend upon centers—and Derrida called into question the very idea of a stable center. The era of poststructuralism had been ushered in.
Poststructuralism is a movement associated with a wave of French thinkers: Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Michel Foucault. Poststructuralists tend to see all knowledge—history, anthropology, literature, psychology, etc. as textual. This means that knowledge is not composed just of concepts, but of words.
What is Deconstruction?
Well, defining deconstruction is an activity that goes against the whole thrust of Derrida's thought. Actually, Derrida has said that any statement such as "deconstruction is 'X'" automatically misses the point. But deconstruction often involves a way of reading that concerns itself with decentering—with unmasking the problematic nature of all centers.
Decentering? Centers? What is a center? What is problematic about one? Why would one need to be decentered?
Well, Derrida, when he is not deconstructing a text of some difficult philosopher such as Nietszche or Heidegger, writes about centers in such abstract language that I will offer you some concrete examples. According to Derrida, all Western thought is based on the idea of a center—an origin, a Truth, an Ideal Form, a Fixed Point, an Immovable Mover, an Essence, a God, a Presence, which is usually capitalized, and guarantees all meaning.
For instance for 2000 years much of Western culture has been centered on the idea of Christianity and Christ.
And it is the same in other cultures as well. They all have their own central symbols.
The problem with centers, for Derrida, is that they attempt to exclude. In doing so they ignore, repress or marginalize others (which become the Other). In male-dominated societies, man is central (and woman is the marginalized Other, repressed, ignored, pushed to the margins).
If you have a culture which has Christ in the center of its icons, then Christians will be central to that culture, and Buddhists, Muslims, Jews—anybody different—will be in the margins—marginalized—pushed to the outside. (We must remember that Derrida was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Algiers, growing up as a member of a marginalized, dispossessed culture).
So the longing for a center spawns binary opposites, with one term of the opposition central and the other marginal. Furthermore, centers want to fix, or freeze the play of binary opposites.
Freeze the play of binary opposites? What does that mean?
Well, the opposition man/woman is just one binary opposite. Others are spirit/matter; nature/culture; Caucasian/Black; Christian/pagan. According to Derrida we have no access to reality except through concepts, codes and categories, and the human mind functions by forming conceptual pairs such as these. You see how one member of the pair, (here the left), is privileged. The right-hand term then becomes marginalized. Icons with Christ or Buddha or whatever in the center try to tell us that what is in the center is the only reality. All other views are repressed. Drawing such an icon is an attempt to freeze the play of opposites between, for example, Christian/Jew or Christian/pagan. The Jew and the pagan are not even represented in such art. But icons are just one of the social practices that try to freeze the play of opposites—there are many more—such as advertising, social codes, taboos, conventions, categories, rituals, etc. But reality and language are not as simple and singular as icons with a central, exclusive image in their middle—they are more like ambiguous figures.
The interesting thing about such figures is that at first we see only one possibility. One possibility is "central" for a moment. For a moment the figure signifies two faces, but then, because the play of the system is not arrested, the other view dawns, and the same figure signifies a candle.
But suppose a group seizes power, a group called the Face-ists. (I have deliberately made this sound like "Fascists"). They might draw eyes on the faces. This would be an attempt to freeze or arrest the free play of differences. But—the figure, in reality, signifies both faces and a candle.
In such a situation, Candle-ists would be marginalized, repressed and even oppressed or persecuted. The image of the faces becomes the privileged member of die original pair. In other words a violent hierarchy is formed in which the centralized member of the pair, the face, becomes instituted as the Real and the Good.
Derrida says that all of Western thought behaves in the same way, forming pairs of binary opposites in which one member of the pair is privileged, freezing the play of the system, and marginalizing the other member of the pair.
Yes, but how does this apply to language, to literature, to reading?
Deconstruction is a tactic of decentering, a way of reading, which first makes us aware of the centrality of the central term.
Then it attempts to subvert the central term so that the marginalized term can become central.
The marginalized term temporarily overthrows the hierarchy.
Suppose you have a poem such as the following haiku:
How mournfully the wind of
Upon the mountainside as day
And suppose that for thousands of years the only correct way of reading the poem is to read "pines" as a verb—like pining for one's lost love.
O.K. But what about the other meaning. "Pines," in the context of the second line, can switch over and become a noun: "Pines upon the mountainside."
Yes, that's right. That would be the second move in deconstructing a piece of literature—to subvert the privileged term by revealing how the repressed, marginalized meaning can just as well be central.
But what good does that do? Doesn't this just institute a new center? Instead of pines the verb we have pines the noun. Or instead of Face-ists we now have Candle-ists in power?
Exactly. Derrida claims that deconstruction is a political practice, and that one must not pass over and neutralize this phase of subversion too quickly. For this phase of reversal is needed in order to subvert the original hierarchy of the first term over the second. But eventually, one must realize that this new hierarchy is equally unstable, and surrender to the complete free play of the binary opposites in a nonhierarchical way. Then you can see that both readings, and many others, are equally possible
So you can see the possibilities. If the text were the Communist Manifesto or the Torah or the Koran or the Bible or the Constitution, you could deconstruct any fixed, authoritarian, dogmatic, or orthodox reading. Of course, such texts are much more complex than our haiku. They are more multifaceted, like the drawing below.
If you have a system of triangles such as this, then you will notice that if you stare at it, a series of configurations of triangles presents itself to your vision—one after the other. But each so-called present configuration, each group of triangles which seems to be momentarily present, has emerged out of a prior configuration and is already dissolving into a future configuration. And this play goes on endlessly. There is no central configuration that attempts to freeze the play of the system, no marginal one, no privileged one, no repressed one. According to Derrida all language and all texts are, when deconstructed, like this, and so is human thought, which is always made up of language. He says we should continuously attempt to see this free play in all our language and texts—which otherwise will tend toward fixity, institutionalization, centralization, totalitarianism. For out of anxiety we always feel a need to construct new centers, to associate ourselves with them, and marginalize those who are different from their central values.
I see, then. Deconstruction first focuses on the binary oppositions within a text—like man/woman. Next it shows how these opposites are related, how one is central, natural and privileged, the other ignored, repressed and marginalized. Next it temporarily undoes or subverts the hierarchy to make the text mean the opposite of what it originally appeared to mean. Then in the last step both terms of the opposition are seen dancing in a free play of non-hierarchical, non-stable meanings.
Yes, and now you can see why Derrida's lecture "Structure, Sign and the Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," caused such a stir. In this lecture Derrida asserted that all of Western thought since Plato, and even the work of scientists such as the contemporary French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, is infected with a yearning for a center. Derrida points out that this created a dilemma for Lévi-Strauss. After all, structuralists believe that all things have underlying structures. Every language, for instance, has a structure: its rules of grammar.
RULE: In English we put the adjectives before the noun. Big red apple.
RULE: In French we put the adjectives after the noun. La Pomme grosse et rouge.
Lévi-Strauss felt that myths have a structure, too. In The Raw and the Cooked, the famous anthropologist set out to write a "grammar" of all Bororo myth—but was forced to admit that he could find no central rules nor ever a central myth.
Derrida's classic, Of Grammatology, is his most influential work in North America. It is the story of how—in the West—speech is central and natural and writing is marginal and unnatural.
Q: So this is the binary opposition? Speech/writing?
A: Yes, then Derrida shows how this binary opposition between speech and writing deconstructs itself.
Q: But who has said that writing is unnatural. Doesn't just about everyone write?
A: Well, yes. But for Derrida the entire Western tradition of thought—from the ancient philosophy of Plato to the Romantic philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and even the modern linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss—favors speech, the spoken word over writing, the written word.
A: Yes. Logocentrism comes from "logos," the Greek word that means word, truth, reason and law. The ancient Greeks thought of logos as a cosmic principle hidden deep within human beings, within speech and within the natural universe. If you are Logocentric you believe that TRUTH is the voice, the word, or the expression of a central, original and absolute Cause or Origin.
For instance, in the New Testament the Word is God.
God is the Word. he is a God-Word, a Word-God A Super-Word.
"In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God,"
declares the Gospel of St. John. And as Western philosophy proceeded down through the centuries everything in the universe was seen as the effect of this one transcendent cause—this transcendental signified.
Transcendental signified? What's that?
Well, in order to know what a transcendental signified is, you must know what a signified is. You can see that the word "signified" contains the word "sign."
A "sign" is a word. The sign "cow" is made up of the sound "cow"—which is the signifier—and the concept or meaning of "cow," which is the signified. (The actual animal is called the referent).
A transcendental signified is a meaning that lies beyond everything in the whole universe. After all, transcendent simply means that which is beyond everything else. For instance, the logos, the God-Word, supposedly lies beyond the entire universe. But though the God-Word dwells beyond the structure of the universe, the God-Word is thought of as centering and limiting the free play of the universe! He makes sure that cows never turn into cantelopes. He makes the rules. He makes good and evil. Yet, though he makes the rules, the God-Word is beyond the rules. He just sits down there—up beyond the rules, making the rules. Though He is beyond the structure of the world, He is its Center. He centers it.
During the long history of philosophy, other names have stood for an inner transcendental signified—names such as the Ideal, the World Spirit, Mind, the Divine Will, Consciousness, etc. (Such terms are usually capitalized). In Western philosophy these inner principles and the words or expressions which express them are central and involve a metaphysics of presence.
Excerpted from DERRIDA FOR BEGINNERS by JIM POWELL, VAN HOWELL. Copyright © 1997 Jim Powell. Excerpted by permission of For Beginners LLC.
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Posted March 6, 2000