Get a good night's sleep. Have a hearty meal. Turn off your cell phone. Trust us—it's about to get real. Studying Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) isn't for those prone to easy irritation, unwilling to wallow in confusion, or likely to get welty skin rashes by having to pay close attention. Translation: Derrida is confusing.
Is it on purpose? Is it because he's French? Or is he just so freakin' smart that we can only hope to glimpse his brilliant and philosophically revolutionizing insights? No matter the reason, Derrida usually provokes one of two responses: total hysteria or full-blown hero worship. Either way, he is the closest thing 20th-century philosophy has ever had to a celebrity, so he's worth a few minutes of your attention. After all, Derrida—who called himself a historian and not a theorist (God forbid) or even a philosopher—aimed to achieve nothing short of challenging every belief that upholds and sustains Western philosophical tradition… and pretty much Western culture as a whole.
So yeah, let's baby step on this one.
Step 1: deconstruction. Derrida is the deconstructionist. His book Of Grammatology is basically the Bible of the movement. Okay, let's define: deconstruction is a way of reading and understanding a "text" with the full acceptance that it's a big messy contradiction in the first place. Surrender! But here's the thing: according to our beloved (or not so) French thinker, everything is a text. And no author—not even Derrida himself—can ever determine one truth, absolute meaning, or stability in any text.
Still with us?
Let's deconstruct a text so you can see that it doesn't hurt much more than a tetanus shot. There's this little book called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—you may have heard it. When we first think of Twain's masterpiece, we think of it as a critique of racism and slavery, the story of young Huck's moral education and eventual realization of the harsh conditions of Jim's life as a black man in the Confederate South. That Huck is such a swell guy! But wait—not so fast. Fast forward to the end of the book. Along comes that sneaky Tom Sawyer, and he and Huck, knowing that Jim has been freed, orchestrate a game that involves imprisoning and starving Jim for fun and games. So Huck is just as immoral as any given slave owner. And hey, maybe even worse, given that he previously showed a glimmer of recognition that slavery is wrong. That Huck is such a villain! Boom. Now you have two very different, even oppositional interpretations. We'd give you a third, but we're short on time.
Derrida would never explain it that clearly, of course. In fact, unless you have working familiarity with the writing of Rousseau, Foucault, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Hegel, and the rest of the gang, just accept that you probably won't get all of his references. (We sure don't.)
So if we can't understand half of what he writes, what's the point? Great question. Let's talk about what Derrida did that might just put a little skip in your step.
Here's what we know so far: Derrida rejected absolutes and adamantly believed (in that cool French way)that a text could uphold many possibilities at the same time. (Huck as hero/Huck as villain, right?). This is where différance comes in. Derrida coined this word—baller, right?—and for all your Francophiles, it's kind of a fun mashup of the words defer and differ.
The différance, for Derrida, means you cannot ever reconcile the multiple meanings held in a text. So just learn to deal with the endless possible meanings; and of course, remember that no one meaning is better than the other. Seeing both the defer and the differ now?
Ultimately, deconstruction isn't just about finding multiple meanings; it's about peeling back the onion on all of those covert ethical and political ideas sneaking around in those meanings. Activist of feminism, gay rights, and third-world causes embrace deconstruction, enlisting it to reveal all of the undisclosed prejudices in works by Plato, Aristotle, and even Shakespeare. (That's right, even the Immortal Bard himself.) The catchy titles of Derrida's books can only help his cause: Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce, anyone? No clue what it means, but we kind of want to read it.
So was this charismatic, tailored-suit wearing dude a messiah of complex, pioneering, hyper-intellectual thought or a villain who opposed all clear thinking? Embarrassment to the humanities, or demi-God of post structuralism? The jury's still out.
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A Position On Derrida
Nazenin Ruso explains where and why he agrees with Derrida’s approach to texts.
Jacques Derrida was the best-known French philosopher of the 80s and 90s, yet many find it difficult to grasp his ideas. He asked complex philosophical questions about texts and textuality. He invented deconstructionism, which emphasizes the necessary incompleteness of texts. That is to say, “Deconstruction is used to show that a work does not adequately address something.” (Faulconer, Deconstruction, p.4) Derrida argued that there are many possible interpretations of any given text, and readers can play with texts as if playing with toys. According to Derrida, “what we get when we read a text is not an objective account of logos or even what the author really meant, but our present interpretation or understanding of the text itself. This understanding becomes so to speak, our own [text] of the text.” (quoted by Ozmone & Craver in the Philosophical Foundations of Education, p368.) So Derrida disputed the idea that the meaning of a text does not change. Moreover, he challenged the author’s intentions, and shows that there may be numerous reasonable interpretations of a text. I agree with Derrida about these things. This is where the idea of ‘the author is dead’ arises: once the text is written, the author’s input loses its significance.
So as a deconstructionist, Derrida believed that there are absences within any text. He’s quoted by Faulconer: “The point of deconstruction is to show where something has been omitted, not because of the blindness of the author, not because the critic is smarter or better, but because that is the way things are. There are always things I don’t know, though in a real way that I don’t know them is part of what I know.” (ibid p5.) Derrida also said that “it is evident that the writing can be nothing but black, a shadow-writing, writing for protection” (Esperons, Les Styles de Nietzsche, p21). He further argued about writing that “Its clarity derives from that which it excludes, that which is withdrawn, removed, outside of it, which is separate. This is meaning and truth.” (ibid.) Thus, truth does not lie in the printed words, and writing does not say anything definite, because readers create a further text while making their own interpretation. I agree with Derrida in the sense that there are a lot of things a text does not explicitly include, since each reader’s interpretation of a text is a unique experience. If this wasn’t the case, what would be the value of studying literature? I am a graduate of English language and literature, and one of the reasons why I loved literature was that I was able to use my creativity to make comments on novels and poems. If a text wasn’t subjective, as Derrida says, then how could we end up with completely different analyses and presentations to our classmates on the same novel?
Derrida explained his process of analysis in terms of discovering ‘difference’. He used the word différance and made ‘difference’ a lot different from what it usually is. It’s about the meaning of words and phrases not being fixed, instead being defined in terms of their difference from each other in a linguistic network. J.C. Carrigan in Jacques Derrida, Deconstructionism & Post Modernism states that “difference was a term Derrida coined presumably to make the point that no referent stood in the metaphysical realm for it.” [ie there’s no fixed meaning for ‘différance’ either – Ed.] Carrigan further argues that “Derrida might have written about truth by writing about error, or he might have written about theology by writing about atheology.” (p5.) I would also agree with this point, because so many times in our lives we say things although we mean just the opposite. Let me give you a simple example from my own experience. A student who had a presentation last week wore torn, dirty blue jeans for it, and I said to her “You look very presentable today. Is it because of your presentation?” Another example is the popular movie scene where the girl is in love with the boy but because she is disappointed she cries to her boyfriend, “I hate you and I don’t want to see you again!” although she still loves him and does want to see him again. Texts also reflect such oppositions. The author might write “how good for you” to mean “how bad for you,” but the reader can interpret it in both ways, as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Derrida was one of the philosophers who argued that writing was prior to speech and accordingly more important. He wrote “there is no linguistic sign before writing” (in Carrigan, p.4). I agree with Derrida here because I believe that even during the caveman period, mankind started to communicate with a kind of writing. Of course they didn’t have the lettered alphabets we have today, but rather symbols that referred to objects: the symbol of a fish was drawn on the cave wall to show Mrs Caveman that her husband had gone fishing.
Derrida’s approach to writing was not systematic and structured, and he usually doesn’t say what he’s trying to prove. His essays lack thesis statement, introduction and conclusion, because he wants the reader to anticipate these things. Carrigan claims that “this strategy left the reader to explore the meaning of the words in his text in the absence of context and structure. The final word, or the defining statement about something, could never be written about anything.” (p.3)
So Derrida was not concerned with his readers or structure while writing. He asserted that structured texts are meaningless. As Carrigan argues, Derrida also wrote without regard for truth, “Since the text was all there was, Derrida wrote for Derrida, who wrote for Derrida, who wrote for Derrida…” (p6.) Derrida’s writing is amusing: the way he used words could stretch the most rigid mind, but “If the investigator’s purpose for reading Derrida... was to understand, or to apprehend a final word, or discover some truthful proposition, then the reader would have been very disappointed.” (Carrigan, p7.) I totally agree with Derrida on this approach, as I believe that education should promote learners’ creativity, and educators should guide their students to question everything. We need ways to let our students use their imagination and find their own ways, to their own truth.
Arguments Against Jacques Derrida
Derrida was much influenced by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), but Husserl would probably have disagreed with Derrida’s approach, since Husserl claimed that discourse always transports interior thought to the outside, so that the meaning flows from the text and when expressed logically, everything about the text can be said objectively. There’s a consistent transparency between the intention of the writer and the text. So for Husserl absolute truth can appear in a text: that is to say, a text can be a pure reflection of the writer’s consciousness. Derrida reacted against this, as he believed in the subjectivity of texts.
J.D. Kneale has criticised Derrida on the grounds that that if language and consciousness are structured by difference, then there is no authority: “everything can be put in question, viewed as arbitrary, free-floating elements in a closed system of writing.” (‘Deconstruction’, in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.) According to Kneale, meaning is destroyed or radically shaken in Derrida’s difference motifs in texts. Furthermore, Kneale argues that the Derridean world view continues to infest popular culture, so that “Popular culture is likely to become increasingly uncertain about absolute truth.” (p7) But uncertainty seems a fact of life; so I do not understand why we should be as worried about it as Kneale.
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) would also have disagreed with Derrida, since “Saussure advocated the importance of speech over writing…” (Nuncio, Language Debate in Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction, p.5.) Whereas Derrida argued for the priority of writing, Saussure says that speech is authentic, the meaning created by the speaker in the moment of speaking, while writing is secondary, a copy of speech.
My Response To Husserl, Kneale & Saussure
I don’t agree with Husserl because I don’t believe that our consciousness and emotions can be exactly reflected within a text. I sometimes read an essay I’d written in my undergraduate years and even question myself, trying to remember why I wrote certain things the way I did. The circumstances, the conditions I was involved in during that time were a lot different, so it’s not surprising not to have the same intuitions now.
I don’t agree with Kneale’s idea that we should fear uncertainty and so shouldn’t question everything. I reject this because I believe that one of the best abilities we have as humans is the art of asking probing questions. Accepting everything offered to us is not rationality at all, and we all know that one of the aims of education is to promote rationality. Although Kneale says that meaning is destroyed through (Derridean) questioning, I claim that the meaning of something becomes stronger and more permanent for a person through the use of critical consciousness. To be uncertain about absolute truth is quite normal as well, if only because ‘truth’, like ‘good’, is a concept with many connotations. Also, what I find true my friend may find completely wrong. It’s not the end of the world!
Finally Saussure, who argues for the priority of speech and demotes the importance of writing. I don’t deny the importance of speech as a means of communication, but I also suggest that sometimes communication can be easier through writing, as people often find it easier to write their feelings rather than speak them. A simple example of this can be a boy sending a message to his girlfriend reading “I am in love with you,” but his being unable to say the same thing when they are together.
I would guess you’ve started to look at writing from a different perspective, because after studying Derrida I myself started to be much more critical with writing than I was before. Questions might have arisen in your minds such as: “Doesn’t writing really convey the original ideas of the writer? If it doesn’t, why should we read it? If it doesn’t, why do we prepare these articles for publication, since the readers will not grasp our intention or our point of view?” These questions arose in my mind. But I am happy to have all these questions in my mind, because this is philosophy. Philosophy offers a serious and imperturbable inquiry into ideas and thinking. If people approach philosophy to find absolute answers concerning such arguments as Derrida’s, it shows those people are not aware of the meaning or nature of philosophy. My own understanding from philosophy is – never arriving at absolute truth!
I would like to conclude with a quotation from Derrida. When Derrida was asked to explain the direction of his thinking, his reply was, “If I clearly saw ahead of time where I was going, I really don’t believe that I should take another step to get there.” (Trifonas, Jacques Derrida as a Philosopher of Education, p.6) I’ll stop at this point and leave the rest to your own interpretations!
© Nazenin Ruso 2007
Nazenin Ruso is a Senior Instructor in the Modern Languages Division of Eastern Mediterranean University, Northern Cyprus.
Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was born and raised in Algeria, while it was still ruled by France. He taught at the École Normale Superieure in Paris. Derrida became famous for deconstruction, a method of analysis which has become hugely influential in many areas of study, not just philosophy,
According to the people who should know best, deconstructionism is very difficult to define. Jacques Derrida himself was far happier explaining what deconstruction is not rather than explaining exactly what it is. Still, rushing in where Derrida feared to tread, here is a rough idea of what it is about.
Derrida argued that every text bears the mark of numerous hidden assumptions and values belonging to its author. Moreover,these various hidden assumptions will often contradict one another. He therefore set out to develop a range of techniques for textual analysis which could bring these assumptions to the surface, making their contradictions explicit – a process which he called deconstruction. Derrida claimed deconstruction shows that meaning is unstable and indeterminate.
One particular kind of deconstruction is a critique of binary oppositions. According to Derrida, there are many such oppositions in Western thought: for example life/death, presence/absence and so on. Derrida says that in each opposition one of the pair is privileged over the other. The privileged one is the one most associated with the phallus or else with the logos(which is what he called speech-thought). However, the other one of the pair is always essential to the first: without death there is no life, and so on. Deconstruction aims to unpick the historical power imbalances in these oppositions by examining the importance within the text of the subsidiary half of each opposition.
So far, one might think that deconstruction is simply a rather useful technique for analysing literary or philosophical writings. However Derrida went much further. In Of Grammatology he wrote “Il n’y a pas de hors texte,” which is usually translated as “there is nothing outside of the text.” This became almost a slogan for some of his followers, meaning that everything is in some sense a text – not just pieces of writing. Therefore the techniques of deconstruction can in principle be applied to everything from the writing on a cereal packet to the narrative of a person’s life, to the nature of society or reality itself. The word deconstruction in this sense has started to penetrate popular culture; one of Woody Allen’s films from the late 1990s was called Deconstructing Harry.