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Reading between the Lines: Derrida and the Deconstructive project.

Jonathan Culler has pointed out in On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, that "a distinction between literature and philosophy is essential to deconstruction's power of intervention". The suggestion that we should consider two senses of Deconstruction is a valuable one, for one aspect of the Deconstructive project, as undertaken by Jacques Derrida is an attempt to break down the distinction between philosophy and literature, after Nietzsche and Heidegger. The other sense of deconstruction is that adopted by Paul de Mann and the Yale School. Here the term refers to a method of reading texts. The second sense should probably not be attributed to Derrida, since he shares Nietzsche's contempt for 'method', which for him represents a logocentric obfuscation of essentialism, an implicit agreement on "the way things should be done'

Derrida's project is aimed at breaking down the Heideggerian metaphysics of presence; the myth of the Logos and the Nous which present both philosophy and language as structured and centred; by inserting 'absence'. Derrida derides 'the repressive logic of presence"which determines western philosophy, and locates it in the definition of the sign, which "disposes us to act as if the thing signified were present", and which therefore works to exclude , and to hide those concepts which might undermine the "structured genealogy" of philosophy's concepts. Thus

The history of Metaphysics has never ceased to impose upon semiology the search for a transcendental signified

Derrida wants to do away with these concepts, to reveal them to be as empty of meaning as all binary opposites, right up to that between God and Man, and to locate interpretation somewhere between them. Onto theology is the driving force behind the search for ultimate meaning; it is man's attempt to fill the empty spaces in his soul. Yet for Derrida, even more than for the existentialists, this absence is fundamental in the progression of consciousness.

Only pure absence - not the absence of this or that, but the absence of everything in which all presence is announced - can inspire, in other words can work and then make one work. He thus replaces the binary notion of difference as the driving force behind signification with DiffÈrance (with its combined connotations of deferral and difference) to make all interpretation contingent, and to emancipate meaning. In the same way as Nietzsche used his polymorphic styles to avoid dogmatism, Derrida is attempting to restore the polysemantic nature of words, and the concepts which underlie them. He is examining the presupposition of construing certain words or ideas as the source of the play of diffÈrance implied in linguistic multivalence - in other words replacing 'source' with 'trace'. If there is no source of 'being', then being must be understood as a game, in terms of 'play': that is, only as a function of itself, rather than a function of some onto theological reality.

Language thus becomes pure fiction, the "book about nothing that Flaubert dreamed of - a grey, negative dream, the origin of the total book that haunted other imaginations" Humans, since they are self constructions of language, the expressions of texts that are 'always already' rewriting themselves are also a fiction, rather then being stable and unified entities. They constitute themselves through their 'will to power', the strength of the fiction they create in themselves, the reification of their self-constructions. Consciousness, for Derrida, represents a sort of non-locus, in which "an infinite number of significations come into play"

The Derridean critique of metaphysics works from within the structure, within the subject, to decenter them by revealing the false logocentrism of their concepts. As with Nietzsche, Derrida realises that an attempt to come up with a new language is merely to replace one logocentric system with another. The only way to decenter language, or metaphysics, is to play with it - hence his image in Economimesis of God "Playing with himself". "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God" places God in a fictional concept of self-creation, and inevitably self-deconstruction, where 'play' incorporates the metaphor of orgasm and the temporary death of consciousness. Poetry too "plays with illusion, which it produces at pleasure, but without being deceived by it, for it declares its exercise to be mere play." Just as there is no Kantian a priori synthetic judgement, so there is no a priori language. Language too plays with itself, just as Derrida plays with language: "To make enigmatic what one thinks one understands by the words "proximity","immediacy","presence", is my final intention in this book" It is only by playing with language that it is possible to debunk it, and through it to debunk the metaphysics of presence, for as Derrida points out in commenting on Nietzsche: There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics. We have no language - no syntax and no lexicon - which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest ... it is a question of explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself"

According to Derrida, just as metaphysics bears within itself the necessity of its own critique, through such oppositions as nature and culture, so the play of signifier and signified forces language to radically re-examine its own concepts. There are two ways in which this can happen: Either we can attempt to disengage philosophy, or language, from the founding concepts which underlie it - which leaves us precisely - nowhere - since we have no other concepts. Or we can employ the old concepts as tools (rather than accepting them as truths) which can destroy the old machinery to which they belong, and which can be discarded when they are no longer useful: "to separate 'method' from 'truth'; the instruments of method and the objective significations envisaged by it."The second method is described as Bricolage, which is the necessity of borrowing one's concepts from the text of a heritage which is already more or less incoherent or ruined. The virtue of the mythopoetical bricolage , the critical search for a new status of discourse, is the stated abandonment of all reference to a centre, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin, to an absolute archia, beginning or telos. Derrida is thus replacing the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis with a new self-deconstructing dialectic: thesis, antithesis, aporia - deconstructing the nous, and the noetic/noematic distinction.

There is then probably no choice to be made between two lines of thought; our task is rather to reflect on the circularity which makes one pass into the other indefinitely. And by strictly repeating this circle in its own historical possibility, we allow the production of some elliptical change of site, within the difference involved in repetition; this displacement is no doubt deficient, but with a deficiency that is not yet, or is already no longer, absence, negativity, non-being, lack, silence."

Thus for Derrida, Deconstruction is not the mere reversal of binary oppositions, nor the debunking of one logocentric philosphy in order to replace it with another. It is rather an attempt to read, and write, between the lines, assigning meaning to a non-locus, a genuine rupture with the binary opposition of sense and meaning which he criticises in Speech and Phenomena. For Derrida, nothing is 'bracketed out', and "the Subject ... is inscribed in language". The problem arises when this is taken too far, when Deconstruction becomes "the worship of the dark goddess, absence", the kind of worship which Rorty criticises in De Man, and in the work of the early Derrida. Rorty sees deconstruction as prioritising literature to the degree that it occupies the same altar as "religion, or the old logos", and attributes this to the self-referencing nature of the concept of 'textuality'. Yet is this a problem with Derrida's work or merely with that of his 'followers'? Derrida himself wants to look at all systems, including science, computing, history, philosophy, in a playful way, to undermine so-called rational discourse through his mockery of readability and univocal meaning. But the work of De Man and the Yale school does not reflect this - De Man for example aims at clarity, and believes in 'insight', which suggests rational meaning. For De Man, aporia "led to what could legitimately be called insight"

A literary text is not a phenomenal event that can be granted any form of positive existence, whether as a fact of nature or as an act of mind. It leads to no transcendental perception, intuition or knowledge, but merely solicits an understanding that has to remain immanent because it poses the problem of its intelligibility in its own terms...Criticism is a metaphor for the act of reading, and this act is itself inexhaustible"

Although De Man's approach to criticism is ostensibly deconstructive, his application is essentially structuralist - he can thus talk about Derrida 'misreading' Rousseau, while defining that misreading in terms of 'blindness' and 'insight': terms which attempt to capture the essence of the text while arguing that they really think that the text is always 'immanent'. De Man may not believe in God, but he does believe in criticism. Derrida may not subscribe to philosophy, but he practices the Cabala. All they have achieved is alienation from language, from meaning, from writing, and ultimately from text. And it is an alienation that is more profound than that which Marx described.


'Force and Signification':Writing and Difference
 Structure, Sign, and Play
 Richard Rorty argues in Deconstruction and circumvention that Derrida's attempt to be a 'postphilosopher' has failed, because his terms are already becoming reified: "early Derrida is falling back into a kind of negative theology that merely replaces one set of absolutes (truth, meaning, clear and distinct ideas) with another (trace, diffÈrance, and other such deconstructive key terms)." pp113.
 Of Grammatology p.70
 Structure, Sign, and Play
 Cf LevÓ-Strauss:The Savage Mind
 'Form and Meaning': Speech and Phenomena
 Blindness and Insight: 'The Rhetoric of Blindness'


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Written in 1995