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
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 (pp. 114-5).
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 Derridean term (pp
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 (109).
b) Différance is
not: it has neither existence or essence (111).
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 (114). The instability of "presence" as being extends
to consciousness, which is the idea of self-presence (119).
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. On p. 116,
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. On p. 121,
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 on p. 126 and, as he does with deSaussure, pushes it further
to suggest that the trace is the "essence of Being" that haunts language.