Derrida, Jacques (Vol. 24)
Jacques Derrida 1930–
French critic and philosopher.
Derrida is one of France's most innovative philosophers. He is considered a revolutionary literary critic because his method involves a radical critique of Western metaphysics and a revision of the traditional concept of language.
The fact that there is distance between writer, text, and reader and that different interpretations of texts evolve over time causes metaphysicians to have less faith in writing as a reliable form of discourse. Derrida rejects the Western metaphysical insistence on the preeminence of the spoken word over the written word. Calling this "logocentrism," Derrida dismisses the belief that written language is less natural or direct than speech. He finds naive the assumption that the lack of spatial and temporal distance between speaker and listener in some way guarantees moments of perfect understanding between the two.
Derrida calls himself a "deconstructionist"; as a reader, he feels that he must reduce a text to its most self-referential point because language in itself conveys no true meaning. Derrida's famous expression "il n'y a pas de hors-texte" ("there is nothing outside the text") sums up his approach. He studies literature by concentrating solely on the language of a text, dismissing the influence of outside factors. For Derrida, words do not need to represent. This opposes the traditional critical view that the study of literature is the search for meaning, ideas, and truths in the text, based on preconceptions of authorial intention. Instead, Derrida advocates a study of the associations of words in their purely linguistic, rather than representational, function. Through this investigation Derrida reduces language by pointing out its uncertainty.
However diverse have been the styles of philosophizing of the past half century, their practitioners have agreed on one thing: we need a new beginning. Even if, like Heidegger, they tell us to try to relive the first beginning of Western thought, that very repetition would be a renewal, and so new. In a number of these adjurations to a fresh start, moreover, reflection on the traditional interpretation of language has had a central place. I want here to compare two such language-focused enterprises, which look—and are—very different, yet feel—and are—somehow related, if only in the glaring diversity of their ways of dealing with one problem. What I am trying to do, I suppose, is take Wittgenstein (Investigations period) as more familiar to most of my readers …, consider some characteristics of his method for letting the fly out of the fly bottle, and compare these with Derrida's techniques for showing that, in fact, the fly can never get in. (p. 142)
[Wittgenstein and Derrida both believe that the traditional conception of language immobilizes thought]. Somehow this rigidity, this one-track thinking, must be overcome. But they differ both in their diagnosis of the pathology and in their prescription for treatment. (Neither, I should say at once, expects a quick cure!)
First, the diagnosis. Let's start from the Augustinian account with which the Investigations opens. Strangely for...
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Derrida's name for his method of reading, when it tackles the long conspiracy which Derrida sees in Western thought, is deconstruction. He doesn't deconstruct his texts, he asks them to help him in the deconstruction of the philosophy in which they are implicated.
Deconstruction has one or two rather lurid strategies … but its principal feature, as Derrida practices it, is a patient and intelligent suspicion, which falls less on the meanings and definitions of words than on their associations and affiliations, notably their complicity in the vast metaphysical plot running from Plato to Hegel, or, taking an even wider arc, from the pre-Socratics to Heidegger. The plot is a doctrine of presence, a faith holding that immediacy is value and indirection is evil, and Derrida uncovers it not only in all the predictable places (notions of an immanent God, self-consciousness as the guarantee of identity) but even in the unlikely region of linguistic philosophy, whose ideas of "context" and "ordinary language" conceal "behind a certain amount of confusion, very specific philosophical presuppositions." There are obvious virtues in a plot you can find everywhere, especially if you enjoy your suspicions, but Derrida's thinking does at times remind me of those Hollywood movies which insisted on confronting nothing less than the whole human condition.
Derrida attacks the great metaphysical conspiracy through what he calls...
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Edward W. Said
Derrida's entire procedure is to show, either in the pretended rapport between critical and original texts or in the representation of a problem by a text, that far from criticism being able to account for everything by a doubling or duplicating representation, there is always something that escapes. Because writing itself is a form of escape from every scheme designed either to shut it down, hold it in, frame it, or parallel it prefectly, any attempt to show writing as capable in some way or the other of being secondary is also an attempt to prove that writing is not original. The military operation involved in deconstruction therefore is in one respect an attack on a party of colonialists who have tried to make the land and its inhabitants over into a realization of their plans, an attack in turn partly to release prisoners and partly to free land held forcibly. What Derrida shows over and over is that writing (écriture)—and here we must note that whether he admits it openly or not, Derrida does introduce oppositions, themes, definitions, and hierarchies between different sorts of writing, for there are, after all is said and done, various sorts of writing, some better than others—what Derrida shows is that écriture is not so much only a process of production and effacement, tracing and retracing, but essentially a process of excess, overflowing, of bursting through, just as his own work itself attempts to burst...
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To understand Derrida, one must see his work as the latest development in [the] non-Kantian, dialectical tradition—the latest attempt of the dialecticians to shatter the Kantians' ingenuous image of themselves as accurately representing how things really are. Derrida talks a lot about language, and it is tempting to view him as a "philosopher of language" whose work one might usefully compare with other inquiries concerning the relations between words and the world. But it would be less misleading to say that his writing about language is an attempt to show why there should be no philosophy of language. On his view, language is the last refuge of the Kantian tradition, of the notion that there is something eternally present to man's gaze (the structure of the universe, the moral law, the nature of language) which philosophy can let us see more clearly. The reason why the notion of "philosophy of language" is an illusion is the same reason why philosophy—Kantian philosophy, philosophy as more than a kind of writing—is an illusion. The twentieth-century attempt to purify Kant's general theory about the relation between representations and their objects by turning it into philosophy of language is, for Derrida, to be countered by making philosophy even more impure—more unprofessional, funnier, more allusive, sexier, and above all, more "written." Thus, insofar as he has an attitude towards, for example, the mini-tradition which stretches...
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Joseph N. Riddel
Foucault and Derrida have been disseminated and transcribed in this country for several years now, most often as the common discourse of an analytic addressed against humanism, against the subject, and therefore against the very privilege of "literature" and "humanism." We are still averse to a criticism that opens up literature to other discourses, that entangles it in quasi-scientific methods alien to its self-referential, holistic, or "emotive" space, that "reduces" it, as it were, to philosophy, history, politics, economics (or as Derrida might say, simply to écriture), to the discursive. Yet Foucault and, especially, Derrida signify more than a threat of literature's other, the threat of the discursive to the imaginary. They question the hierarchical division itself, the division on which the very ground of literature's privilege has been erected and maintained. What is called "deconstruction," a term identified with Derrida if not with Foucault, challenges the "whole shebang" (Stevens' metaphor) of hermeneutics, and not simply literary criticism, by not only inverting the priority of literature to analysis, or performative to cognitive language, but by radically shuffling the whole house of cards, by refusing the ontological margin between the two, or, better, by situating both in the same abysmal margin. By reducing their difference to différance. (p. 238)
Foucault's contribution to literary criticism consists...
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No one has demonstrated more effectively than Derrida the degree to which the "symbolic systems" of structuralism are dependent on traditional metaphysical assumptions; and no one has argued more forcefully against the narrow, deterministic closures and the rigid, a priori laws such systems would impose on a reading of literary texts. The advantages of Derrida's own critical method, moreover, are enormous. Rarely, in our tradition, has there been a more logically rigorous method of reading so admirably suited to the complexities and the contradictions of literary texts.
Derrida offers the possibility of a criticism that would depend neither on the immanent transcendental "Geist" of the Hegelian tradition, nor, equally important, on the kind of negative theology that characterizes the Heideggerean-existentialist-structuralist tradition (represented today, in France, by Lacanian psychoanalysis). And it is, for that reason, one of the rare modes of criticism able to cope with the radically ambiguous, undecidable meanings and with the open-ended, decentered structures that our tradition—in its contemporary, as well as ancient guises—has always attempted to ignore, deny, reduce, center, limit, subsume or transcend.
Traditional modes of literary criticism—including structuralism—have been based, almost without exception, on the assumptions of classical logic: the law of the excluded middle, the law against...
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Donald G. Marshall
After inconclusive battles over structuralism, academic critics are now fighting about "deconstruction."… A Nietzschean edition of ancient skepticism, [deconstruction] holds that language does not convey meaning, but complicates and ultimately cancels it. Words lead only to other words, not to a speaking "self" nor a world or ideas spoken about. What then is language like? Derrida recalls a graffito, "Don't read this." The sentence performs the act of commanding, and so does not refer to anything. In order to grasp the order and obey it, you must already have disobeyed it. Deconstructors have shown considerable ingenuity in inventing an analytic rhetoric that can reduce every text to just such a self-canceling, self-referential paradox. In [Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles], Derrida muses for a dozen pages over a scrap found among Nietzsche's papers, on which was written, "I have forgotten my umbrella," in quotation marks. Was this a quotation from a book? A report of an overheard conversation? An example to be used in some argument? Perhaps Nietzsche really had forgotten his umbrella. The scrap is undated and unsigned, so we cannot be absolutely sure where or when it was written nor even whether Nietzsche wrote it. Perhaps, Derrida ponders, Nietzsche's whole works are just like this: you can question them endlessly, but never decide anything.
Deconstruction's conception of language and literature are, I think, wrong. De Man and...
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Derrida has described his work as "a general strategy of deconstruction which would avoid both simply neutralizing the binary oppositions of metaphysics and simply residing, while upholding it, in the closed sphere of these oppositions." But it would be misleading to say that he is trying to bring metaphysics to an end. He would certainly prefer if it had never begun, but, having happened, it is not open to the question of beginning, middle, or end. Besides, it would be lonelier without the loneliness. Like any honest heretic, Derrida has to retain what he attacks if only to pervert it. He does not claim to have stepped beyond metaphysics but to have read the metaphysicians in a spirit of suspicion. If we were speaking naively within the philosophic terms, we would say that he is a skeptic, but that term has meaning only within a naive relation between mind and concept. Derrida's spirit is more properly called ironic. Irony smiles upon contradiction and speaks blithely of catastrophe: it dislikes residence and offers itself as a philosophy for nomads. Derrida tries to circumvent residence by resorting to the idiom of play, of le jeu as an act logically prior to the possibility of presence or absence. The intention of De la grammatologie is "to make enigmatic what one thinks or understands by the words 'proximity,' 'immediacy,' and 'presence.'" Could any stated aim express the spirit of irony more precisely? Not to clarify, to divide, to...
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Geoffrey H. Hartman
The house that Jack has built, while not a pack of cards, will infuriate those who think books should be solidly constructed, unified, and with an intellectual space defined by clear and resolute boundaries. Perhaps Glas has all these qualities of real estate. But like art of a certain caliber, it begins by confusing and even estranging us, and the difficult question is how long this estrangement should last, how genuine it is. Not since Finnegans Wake has there been such a deliberate and curious work: less original (but what does "original" mean to Derrida?) and mosaic than the Wake, even flushed and overreaching, but as intriguingly, wearyingly allusive. It is hard, at the same time, to shake off a feeling that high seriousness is mixed here with high frivolity, and that we may wake up from the beautiful strangeness of Glas into a handful of provocative epigrams and strongly contextual ruminations. What form does this book have? It is a book at all?
Derrida has said that traditionally the idea of a book sends us back to a totality that claims to be founded in nature … and that this claim is a theological and bookish defense against the "aphoristic energy" of writing itself. It is precisely this energy which makes me want to call Glas an epigrammatology…. And because of the way things are "glued" together by the "aleatory" method, we find ourselves in a maze of texts or fragments of texts that at...
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Of the essays collected and excellently translated in Dissemination, the best example of Derrida's own practice of the deconstructive criticism he fathered is 'Plato's Pharmacy'. Here he pursues his question why the metaphysical tradition from Plato to the present subordinates writing to speech. Derrida is not claiming to reverse Plato and to subordinate speech acts to écriture, intentions to texts. His suggestion is rather that the attempt throughout the history of philosophy to think about the relations of language, truth and reality is continually biased by the misguided oppositions between writing and speech, signifier and signified, the metaphorical and the literal, presence and absence, sense and intellect, nature and culture, or even male and female. For Derrida these dichotomies are set up not rationally, but with an implicit preference for one side or the other. His procedure for showing the prior exclusion of the other side is to study not the logic but the rhetoric used in such cases as Plato's attack on writing, especially the metaphors and myths in the Phaedrus.
In particular, Derrida draws our attention to Plato's frequent presentation of writing as a drug, a pharmakon. Words can be drugs, and like a drug the one word pharmakon can be taken to mean either cure or poison. Hemlock, for instance, poisons Socrates, but Socrates employs both rhetoric and metaphysics to argue that he is...
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