Daring to Do Derrida



The following is a simplified map or overview of the method of reading which Derrida employs in deconstructing the argument of a text. Deconstruction is simply a special method of reading practiced by poststructuralists such as Derrida, in order to uncover the latent contradictions inherent in any text. The figurative nature of language, its fundamental basis in metaphor, means that any statement is always shot through with implications and possibilities which strain away from the simple, declarative meaning.

I got this five-part schema from Hugh Wilder, a philosophy professor at the University of Charleston, while working in an NEH summer seminar on Critical Theory at Stanford. Since Hugh is friends with Gayatri Spivak (who translated Of Grammatology and is a leading proponent/explicator of deconstruction), I feel this scheme stands less than the usual chance of being oversimplified. -- E.K. Sparks
 


Whatever text, discipline, subject, author, Derrida chooses to study, he always goes through the same five basic steps:

1. SHOW THAT THERE IS AN OPPOSITION BETWEEN TWO OF THE FUNDAMENTAL TERMS IN THE ARGUMENT.

It is not always obvious that these dichotomies exist. Oppositions which Derrida often explores include: speech vs. writing, presence vs. absence, soul vs. body, being vs. non-being, truth vs. lies. Feminists like the idea that the idea of man involves a repressed (hidden, erased) opposition between man and woman. On a metaphysical level, the prevalence of the idea of presence involves a repression of the awareness of absence. We privilege the immediate directness and sense of an intentional presence in speech, not realizing that it is implicitly contrasted to the displaced permanence of writing. 2. SHOW THAT ONE SIDE OF THE DICHOTOMY IS PRIVILEGED AND THAT THE OTHER SIDE IS COMMONLY SEEN TO BE INFERIOR -- PARASITICAL AND SUPPLEMENTAL. Phonocentrism:: Speech is always seen as being prior to writing; somehow more natural, closer to the presence of the speaking subject. Writing is described as the derivative and degraded form, cut off from the reality of an immediate, direct, and literal meaning. (Think of how as writing teachers we often tell our students to find their own "voice." What we are doing in that moment is telling them to get rid of their prejudice against writing by trying to make their writing into speech.)

Phallocentrism:: Male is taken as normative; female is defined as deviant. Cf. Freud and penis envy; Kohlberg scale of moral development.

Logocentrism:: Presence of the logos, unitary state of being is privileged over absence of meaning, multiple states of becoming.

3. PUT THE DOMINANT TERM "UNDER ERASURE"; TRY REVERSING THE HIERARCHY; SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN OTHER TERM IS SEEN TO BE SUPERIOR, FULLER, MORE COMPLETE. This is done on a provisional level. What would happen if:

We privileged writing over speech? Female over male? (This is the experiment performed in many woman-only worlds or female dominated societies in science fiction.) What happens to philosophy when we privilege absence over presence? (This, by the way, is why Nietzsche is so important to deconstructors, because he provided just such a deconstructive account of the history of Western philosophy.) NB: This is not the end of the process; its purpose is not merely to be perverse.

4. REALIZE THAT THE TWO TERMS ARE MUTUALLY PARASITICAL (SYMBIOTIC/ COMPLEMENTARY): THE TRUE "LOGIC OF THE SUPPLEMENT" What was seen to be merely supplementary, to be just an addition or a completion or the complement to a plenitude, turns out (after we've done the reversal in step 3) to be a replacement that is always excessive. The dishonored term actually already contains its opposite and even makes its existence possible.

Phonocentrism:: Writing turns out to be more prior than speech (see Norris , DC: T&P, pp. 28-9), turns out to be the precondition of all language, including speech. (Remember the specialized definitions of speech and writing. Speech is not oral language but all unitary, direct language which is assumed to be a transparent expression of the thoughts present in the speaker's mind. Writing is not just marks on paper, but all language which functions by means of its interconnections with the previous forms of language, all language which is conscious of itself as text.)

Metaphor:: is a good, clear example here also. Metaphor not only supplements the meaning of the original term but also replaces that original, literal meaning with the addition of a whole chain of possible difference in signifiers.

Logocentrism :: (I got this out of my notes on Culler's essay about Derrida in Sturrock.) Our language and thinking is so suffused with the metaphysics of presence that we seem to only have this alternative: Either something is present or it is absent.

The idea of differance comes in here as a way to resist limiting the discussion to this opposition. In language, differance means that meaning is both present and absent at the same time. The signifier (the word that stands for the concept) keeps slip-sliding away from the signified (the concept or idea). There was no unitary, beginning moment when "bed" was identical with the thing it named. Instead, "bed" only creates its meaning in the context of its differences from other signifiers in the language system such as "bad" or "dead." The idea of differance is tied into the logic of the supplement because both offer new alternatives to the Hegelian dialectic. What was thesis and antithesis is deconstructed so that the interdependence of the two terms is seen and the hierarchy and the opposition are destroyed.

5.THEREBY BEGIN AN "ARCHEOLOGY" OF THE DISCOURSE WHICH IS CAPABLE OF EXCAVATING THE REPRESSED PRESUPPOSITIONS AND ASSUMPTIONS WHICH MANIPULATE POWER FROM BEHIND THE WINGS OF METAPHOR. I.E. -- SHOW THAT THERE IS THAT WITHIN THE TEXT WHICH UNDERMINES IT FROM WITHIN AND THUS FREE THE TEXT FROM DETERMINATE MEANING AND OPEN IT UP TO MULTIPLICITY. Here it becomes obvious that Derridean deconstruction is not much interested in interpreting texts, in the sense of revealing their meaning. Instead it is primarily interested in proving, again and again, that any one meaning can be disseminated (germinated) into the seeds of its own destruction. It is a method of unscrewing the text so as to find its (k)not-(w)holes.