Some General Characteristics of Deconstructive Readings:
-opposites are already united; they depend on each other integrally, thus,
no presence without absence, etc.
-difference and deferral is inherent in language itself; each word mobilizes
the play of language.
-deconstruction sees conflicting readings of a text as reenactments of
conflict within the text. Each reading would be an attempt to simplify
the interplay of meanings within the text.
-deconstructive readings argue that texts deconstruct themselves, but that
does not mean that the text is bad or meaningless. Rather, a thoughtful
deconstructive reading tries to show the ways that literary writing, which
is self-conscious about words and meaning, might have much to tell us about
our fragmented reality, which is always already in language itself.
1. Signs only mean by difference.
You have heard this before from deSausssure. He worked through the concept
of the sign, he argued that relationship between signifier and signified
is arbitrary, and showed that signs only mean in relation to each other
(remember "muton" and "sheep"?) Derrida quotes deSaussure, who wrote
"in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference
generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up;
but in language there are only differences without positive terms." Derrida
re-emphasizes the point that meaning isn't in the signifier itself, but
that it only exists in a network, in relation to other things. Différance
comes before being. This throws the idea of "origin," of true original
meaning, into radical question.
2. At the heart of existence is not "essence" but différance.
With the idea of origin in question, Derrida pushes further than deSaussure
did to claim that there is no absolute identity, nothing that "is itself"
by virtue of its being. Thus transhistorical truth is now only truth by
virtue of difference: nothing stands outside the system of differences.
Derrida encourages us to think of this in terms of "play," by which he
means both a kind of game where winning and losing happen in turn (as opposed
to thinking this problem as the absolute loss of meaning) AND as something
which has some "play" in it, like an "articulated" joint, another favorite
3. Différance calls into question time and space.
The header of this section should serve as a warning: this stuff is dense.
Différance is a word Derrida made up to point out the following:
a) Writing is not secondary to speech. The "a" which Derrida puts
into the term can only be read: it sound just the same as the "e"
would in this word in French. He claims that it is merely a comforting
illusion to think that speech and writing are separate, and that writing
is a fallen version of speech. He will proceed to argue that speech as
the prototype and more perfect version of writing tries to deny the radical
insight of deSaussure.
b) Différance is not: it has neither existence or essence.
c) It comes from both "defer," to put off, which is what happens
to meaning in language in a relational system where signs themselves do
not have essential meanings, and from "differ," to be unlike, not identical.
The "ance" gerund form of the word puts it somewhere between passive and
active, like "resonance" or "dissonance."
d) He joins the sense of différance as time (defer) and différance
as space (unlike, distinction between proximate things) to make the point
that an idea of "being" and/or "presence" that has been so central to Western
culture is not so authoritative. If meaning is not "present" within the
sign, and if signs instead signify in relation to one another only, haven't
we been hanging on to an idea of presence-as-authoritative meaning that
has led us to privilege speech over writing? He turns "presence" into a
philosophical security blanket. The instability of "presence" as being
extends to consciousness, which is the idea of self-presence.
4. The trace is the after-effect of différance.
Although we don't get a terribly good definition of the trace in this section,
it is important to Derrida's thought and will be important in Lacan as
well. He discusses the trace as both the mark of the future and the
past in a present moment which is neither. The idea of our present
(a meaning-full present) depends on this trace, which is an effect of writing.
He asserts that the concept of the trace is inseparable from the concept
of difference. He also refers (defers?) to Freud's definition of the trace
as an effort of life to protect itself by deferring the dangerous investment,
by constituting a reserve. We will discuss this phenomenon in the context
of psychoanalysis at greater length. Derrida tackles Heidegger's use of
the trace and, as he does with deSaussure, pushes it further to suggest
that the trace is the "essence of Being" that haunts language.