Jacques Derrida’s theoretical writings – always articulated through the reading of philosophical, literary, critical, political or intellectual texts – have given a unique character to the last third of the twentieth century, and particularly with respect to the development of postmodern thought. He is most commonly associated with the textual practice of deconstruction. With Derrida, philosophers, critics, and theorists have learned a whole new set of strategies for reading texts, for thinking the role and significance of texts, and for establishing how texts constitute the textures of the cotemporary critical and theoretical scene. He constantly upholds the need to understand the internal logic of a textual system by dint of close reading, respect for a text’s details and much patience.
A Biographical Sketch of Derrida
Derrida was born to a Jewish
family in El-Biar, near
Major Works of Derrida
In 1967 Derrida published three books—Speech and Phenomena: Introduction to the Sign in Husserl’s Phenomenology; Of Grammatology; and Writing and Difference—in which he introduces the deconstructive approach to reading texts. In 1968 he published “The Ends Of Man”. In 1972 he published three other notable works: Margins of Philosophy, Dissemination, and Positions. Another important work is The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1980). In 1993, he published Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt the Work of Mourning, and New International. The ever increasing need to address political and ethical issues pushed him to publish such works like, “The Other Heading” (1991), “The Force of the Law” (1992), and “The Politics of Friendship” (1994).
Ideological Background of Derrida
Derrida’s writings have not appeared in a vacuum. They clearly arise out of at least three different intellectual traditions. They are phenomenology, structuralism, and psychoanalysis.
The phenomenological tradition which runs from
Edmund Hussel to Heidegger which offers a philosophy of description, accounting
of human experience, and the objects of that experience. Based on the premise
that we can achieve a pure, transcendental, immanent description of our
experience of things, offered in a rigorous and presuppositionless fashion,
Husserl claims that the transcendental subject can reflect upon the contents of
an experimental consciousness and achieve both necessary and apodictic
knowledge of the meaning of what is experienced.
While this phenomenology was crucial for the existentialism and hermeneutics
that followed in both
Structuralism is rooted in the semiology of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Structuralism is an attempt to isolate the general structure of human activity. A structure is a unit composed of a few elements that are invariably found in the same relationship within the “activity” being described. The structure cannot be broken down into its single elements, for the unity of the structure is defined not so much by the substantive nature of the elements as by their relationship.
Saussurean semiology, the general science of signs, was reinvented some thirty years later in 1940s by the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Where Levi-Strauss sought to build connections anthropology and linguistic, he also wanted to show that elementary structures of kinship, of myth, of totems and taboos are not matters for primitive alone., but rather that they are fully distributed throughout different societies and cultures—by virtue of some specifiable transformations, they constitute different version of the same structure. But according to Derrida there is no centered self or subject located within or behind any of these versions of human structure. Structures repeat, recur in multiple context, but they have no centered transcendal subject. This notion of self-decentering became a fundamental tenet of Derridean deconstruction.
Psychoanalysis, spawned in the early twentieth century by another contemporary of Husserl and Saussure, namely Sigmund Freud, raises the question of the subject in terms of psychic realm of id, ego and superego. Here the centered subject is split—always the ever-present reality of repression and the inaccessibility of the unconscious life. This split marks a gap, a break, a screen, a mystic writing pad, which both separates and brings together the conscious and the unconscious. Memory traces are inscribed on this screen, traces of experiences which are in principle inaccessible to the conscious life. This place of difference between the conscious and unconscious is where the period of erasure leaves its mark or traces constituting of locus of Freudian analysis, a kind of performance of the “scene of writing.”
Derrida follows Nietzsche and Heidegger in elaborating a critique of “western metaphysics.” Western thought says Derrida, has always been structured in terms of dichotomies or polarities: good vs. evil, being vs. nothingness, presence vs. absence, truth vs. error, identity vs. difference, mind vs. matter, man vs. women, soul vs. body life vs. death, nature v. culture, speech vs. writing. These polar opposites do not, however, stand as independent and equal entities. The second term in each part is considered the negative, corrupt, undesirable version of the first, a fall away from it. Hence absence is the lack of presence, evil is the fall from good, error is a distortion of the truth, etc. In other words, the two terms are not simply opposed in their meaning, but are arranged in a hierarchical order which gives the first term priority, in both the temporal and qualitative sense of the word. Derrida holds a linguistic, idealistic view of the world: we have no access to past or even present reality, we are stuck in language, we have only signs which relay us to other signs, and on ad infinitum.
Important Concepts and Methods of Derrida
‘Structure, Sign, and Play’ marks the moment at which ‘post-structuralism’ as a movement begins, opposing itself to classical structuralism as well as traditional humanism and empiricism: the moment when ‘the structurality of structure had to begin to be thought.’ Classical Structuralism based on Saussure’s linguistic, held out the hope of achieving a ‘scientific’ account of culture by identifying the system that underlines the infinite manifestation of any form of cultural production. The structural anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss tried to do this form for myth. But, says Derrida, all such analyses imply that they are based on some secure ground ‘centre’ or ‘transcendental signified’, that outside the system under investigation and guarantees its intelligibility. There is, however, no such secure ground, according to Derrida—it is a philosophical fiction. He sees Levi-Strauss as making this disconcerting discovery in the course of his researches, and then retreating from a full recognition of its implication. Levi-Strauss renounces the hope of totalizing scientific explanation of culture phenomena, but on equivocal grounds - sometimes because it is impossible (new data will always require modification of a systematic model) and sometimes because it is useless (discourse is a field not of finite meaning but of infinite play).
Deconstruction is not a form of textual vandalism designed to prove that meaning is impossible. The word “de-construction” is closely related not to the word “destruction” but the word “analysis,” which etymologically means “to undo”—a virtual synonym for “to de-construct.” The deconstruction of a text does not proceed by random doubt or generalized skepticism, but by the careful teasing out of warring forces signification within the text itself. If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not meaning but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over other. This, of course, implies that a text signifies in more than one way, and to varying degree of explicitness. Sometimes the discrepancy is produced by a double-edged word, which serves as a hinge that both articulates and breaks open the explicit statement being made. Sometime it is engendered when the figurative level of a statement is at odds with the literal level. And sometimes it occurs when the so-called starting point of an argument is based on presuppositions that render its conclusion problematic or circular. Therefore, according to Derrida, “the reading must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer, between what he commands and what he does not command of the patterns of the language that he uses. His relationship is not a certain quantitative distribution of shadow and light, of weakness or of force, but a signifying structure that the critical reading should produce.”
“Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the centre receives different forms of names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the west, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix … is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the centre have always designated an invariable presence—essence, existence substance, subject, truth, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man and so on.”
Each of these centers hopes to rule over the system of thought by belonging to itself, in such a way that it remains spatially and temporally self-present and self-identical. Deconstruction begins by identifying the center of a system or the privileged term in a violent conceptual hierarchy, and represents an intervention to make that system or hierarchy tremble.
c) Difference and Meaning
Derrida departs from the traditional philosophical, and everyday, view of language and reason as essentially unified and unifying forces. In his view, language and rationality operate on the basis of discontinuity. One way to understand Derrida’s view of meaning is see it as modification of Saussure’s theory of linguistic meaning. For Saussure, to be schematic in the extreme, linguistic meaning is produced by difference, by the interaction of opposite –the meaning of ‘night’ only having value in relation to ‘day’. Derrida pushes at the logic of Saussure’s basic insight. For Derrida, meaning is indeed differential, but is produced by the interaction of a potentially limitless number of terms, not just by the difference between two. In other words, difference between words are not to be found in any one place, but are, rather, both scattered across the network of language and bound up with the unique instance of articulation. In order to arrive at a provisional understanding of a word, we rifle through our private mental, and shared cultural, archive of words, checking sounds and concepts against each other. Because we carry out this process so rapidly and so automatically, we forget that this play between the same and the different underlies all meaning. But meaning is not simply given in advance in the system of language; meaning is actively produced in the linguistic utterance which must draw on the system (the structure) but which will always produced singularities.
In effect, Derrida challenges the conception of texts as having fixed centers of meaning. It also challenges the prioritizing of stable meanings and the sort of thinking e.g. that requires a locatable centre to a text; an idea, a philosophy or a religion - the sort of thinking that requires stability or that fears the unknown. Derrida argues that meaning is best understood in terms of the relationship (the play) between the known and the unknown, the presence and absence, the stable and the unstable. This is not anarchic: he doesn’t suggest that the unstable should take over from the stable. If that happened then this would merely create a new centre, another form of meaning based on stability. His argument is that the constant deferring of presence means that the centre is never fixed. Hence a single, fixed meaning can never be determined; it is constantly postponed and deferred.
d) Writing, Speech and Logocentrism
From Plato through to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Saussure, speech in the western tradition is assigned the values of spontaneity, immediacy, authenticity, originality, and self-presence. Writing, in contrast, is considered secondary, derivative, impersonal, the produce of technique, contrivance and machination. Speech is nature and writing artifice. Writing is that dangerous supplement that always threatens to carry my meaning off to a place where I will not be able to exercise control over it.
Derrida is also a philosopher of ethics, on the concept of responsibility, which is tied to the idea of the aporia. Aporia (from the Greek) designates a difficult, impracticable, or indeed impossible, passage, the experience of a non-passage. Its English translation “undecidablility”, does not fully explain its force. Derrida uses the word aporia to name the point in argumentation where one appears to arrive at the place of contradiction or paradox from which no simple exit is possible. In The Gift of Death he attempts to disturb the Kantian foundation of ethics at the heart of which lies the notion of the absolute duty or responsibility, formalized as universal law, which all citizens have to respect and to which they must respond. For Derrida, aporia on the one hand, a responsible decision can only be taken in the light of knowledge; on the other hand, if decision-making amounts merely to following a body of knowledge given in advance, then it is irresponsible. In other words, responsibility demands that one be responsible (follow the guidance offered by knowledge) and irresponsible (not always follow that guidelines) at the same time.
“The concepts of
responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are contaminated a priori to paradox,
scandal, and aporia. Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other
than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual thinking at its limit, at its
death and finitude. As soon as I enter into a relation with other … I know that
I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever
obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the
other … I don’t need to raise my knife over my son on Mount Moriah for that.
Day and night, at every instant, on all the
The question of truth, the question of women, the question of style all are interrelated here in a reading of Nietzsche’s famous statement that “truth is a women.” Heidegger’s account of truth as aletheia is that this Greek word (a-LETHE-ia, where Lethe was the mythical river of forgetfulness) means not-hiddenness, non-concealedness, and disclosure. Derrida reads this notion of truth as a metaphor for woman’s genitalia, disclosing and hiding or concealing. He contrasts the vaginal; with the penal; (the long oblong object, like a pen, writing instrument, stylus). The stylus is associated with style, with writing, while the vaginal is associated with truth, with openness, with dis-closure. The word “truth” in German (die wahrheit), French (la verite), Italian (la verita), Spanish (la verdad) etc. is feminine. Truth is female. Style is male. Writing the truth happens with style and with question of truth.
All of Derrida’s work takes place on and at the border. For Derrida, what is outside the text is marked by what is inside the text, and what is outside the text is inscribed by its exclusion in the text. The text would have no status without the question of the border, margin, edge of the text which has no status without the opposition between the inside and outside. Derrida’s practice of reading tries, rather, to demonstrate that, in their etymological or philosophical origins, and in their historical development and contemporary resonance, words and concepts disturb oppositional reasoning, spilling over into each other to form a knotted fabric of associations.
Evaluation and Conclusion
The criticism leveled at him by Jurgen Habermas is that, despite his engagement with enlightenment philosophy, Derrida follows Nietzsche’s lead in seeking to overturn the age-old privilege accorded by philosophy to logic over rhetoric. By dissolving all of the foundation stones of intersubjective communicative rationality, Derrida’s work finds its home firmly in the relativist tradition which extends directly, from the Nietzsche to French postmodernists. Steven Plaut calls Derrida as the father of the pseudo-philosophy of “Deconstructionism” and a philosopher who has contributed to human confusion rather than to enlightenment. John R. Searle critics Derrida for his lack of seriousness and unwillingness to respect the traditional and commonly accepted coinage of the debate on linguistic communication. Hans G. Gadamer argues similarly that the success of philosophical dialogue depends on the willingness of interlocutors to allow a text to say what it means in a gesture of mutual understanding.
Apart from the
influence on the contemporaries like Roland Barthes and on a younger generation
of philosophers (most notably Jean-Luc Nancy), Derrida’s influence in
It is difficult to assess at this stage whether such a dispersal is salubrious or deleterious, but what is evident is the fact that deconstruction has spread all over as a deductively desired commodity which is bought more for its appeal than for its consumption, more for its exchange value than for its use value.
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Derrida, Writing and …, 20.
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 Derrida, Dissemi…, viii – ix.
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