Footpaths Towards Deconstruction - Part 8

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By 2017-02-12

By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake

In previous columns I discussed how practitioners of deconstruction read poems and what their preferred modes of analysis are.

Today's column focuses on some leading theorists and critics associated with deconstruction as a form of literary analysis, most notably Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man and J.Hillis Miller. There are many other commentators such as Geoffrey Hartman, Jonathan Culler, Christopher Norris, Gayatri Spivak and Barbara Johnson but for now let's focus on three.

First Jacques Derrida, who can be justifiably described as the originator of deconstruction. His name, without any doubt, is the closest associated with this philosophical-literary critical movement and for good reason. He created a mode of textual reading and analysis that has had a deep and profound impact on both the humanities and the social sciences. As Mark C Taylor, a philosopher who has interpreted Derrida's writings with great insight said, 'No thinker in the last 100 years has had a greater impact on people in more fields and different disciplines than he.' The fields and disciplines include philosophy, literature, anthropology, history, cultural studies, media studies, language studies, education, law, art and architecture.


Jacques Derrida was born in Algiers in 1930 to a Jewish family. He was the third of five children. In school, he was subjected to various forms of discrimination because anti-Semitism was widespread at the time. At the age of nineteen he left Algeria in order to pursue higher studies in Paris. Initially, he was attracted towards Phenomenology. By his own admission, the writings of Edmund Husserl, Marin Heidegger and Emanuel Levinas had a great impact on him. In fact, in later years, he offered critical commentaries on all three of them which were most astute. During this period he was also involved with the left-leaning journal Tel Quel


In 1967 Derrida published three books, Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference that were to have a far-reaching impact in the literary world. They highlight the idea of deconstruction in a philosophically grounded and interesting way. Even now, half a century after their publication, they are pointedly relevant to current discussions on language, philosophy, literature and deconstruction.

Derrida went on to write such books as 'After Dissemination', 'Gals' , 'The Postcard', 'The Gift of Death', and 'Spectre of Marx', that indicated a widening of his academic interests. He became increasingly interested in issues of ethics and politics. With regard to ethics he was greatly influenced by Levinas' writings on the 'Other'. In the meantime, he held important teaching positions in the Sorbonne as well as prestigious American universities such as Johns Hopkins, Yale and University of California at Irvine.

Derrida by now had achieved international recognition for his work. Wherever he travelled in the world to give lectures he attracted large crowds. I remember attending one of his lectures at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; the hall was packed with enthusiastic students and professors. Conversely, he had, to be sure, his share of virulent critics both inside and outside of France. Some attacked him viciously calling him an obscurantist, trivial, nihilistic, antirationalistic and an intellectual joke. In 1992 when Cambridge University attempted to confer on him an honorary doctorate, it raised a storm of protest; some of the leading philosophers of the time such as Quine coming forward to register their protest. The degree was eventually conferred posthumously in 2004. He had died in 2001 of pancreatic cancer.

There is no doubt that Derrida to this day, continues to exercise a profound influence on the world of literary criticism.

Deconstruction, which started off as an investigation in philosophy, quickly became a mode of literary analysis thanks in large to the work of the Tale School, Paul de Man and Hillis Mille in particular. It came to dominate English departments in North America and elsewhere. While being attracted to the innovative writings of Derrida, many including his ardent admirers, complained that he was gratuitously difficult, even obscure. There are several reasons for the undoubted difficulty he presents. First, his syntax is unusual and offers formidable challenges. Second, his frame of reference is wide tending to draw on a variety of intellectual sources. Third, his expositions are compressed and have to be unpacked carefully, making difficult and unstated connections.

Fourth, he creates various neologisms such as logo-centrism and phono-centrism that readers need to get used to. Fifth, he is often playful in his language giving pride of place to puns and strange juxtapositions, especially in his later writings. Finally, his style of argument is different from the normal rules of philosophical investigation. These features of his texts serve to make them dense and at times apparently incomprehensible.

On the basis of what I have said so far, there is an interesting conjunction in his writings between philosophy and literature .He started off as a philosopher but subsequently gained international recognition as a literary theorist. This is the heart of his intellectual project. Philosophy, as traditionally conceived, aims to present truths that are anterior to language while literature seeks to create truths through language. So there is a significant difference between the two. However, as Derrida has pointed out, language is of the utmost importance in both these endeavors.


Derrida believes that language is haunted by absence, loss and the powers of self-dissemination. It runs the risk of unmeaning, and this risk is shared by all forms of writing including philosophy. Hence the apparent distance between literature and philosophy, as conventionally understood, is lessened. Philosophy vainly tries to control the dissemination of its own meaning; it goes against the grain of language by seeking to uncover a prior truth and transmit it transparently. Literature, on the other hand, happily displays its own fickleness and yields to the inescapable play of language. What Derrida and other deconstructionists have sought to do is to underline the fact that both philosophy and literature are forms of writing that are subject to the same characteristics of language. It is impossible to think of philosophy outside of the sphere of textuality. This is indeed the central point that Derrida repeatedly has stressed.

Traditionally, philosophers have sought to separate literature from philosophy; philosophy was seen as an endeavor that was committed to the pursuit of truth, a privileged form of inquiry that was above the dynamics of writing. The attempt to establish a wide gap between philosophy and literature is doomed to failure due to the realities of the textual systems and dynamics of communication. As a result of this line of thinking, certain critics have argued that Derrida is anti-philosophy and he is trying to undermine it. In reply to this line of thinking he said the following. 'I have attempted more and more systematically to find a non-site, or a non-philosophical site from which to question philosophy. But the search for a non-philosophical site does not bespeak an anti-philosophical attitude. My central question is, 'how can philosophy as such appear to itself as other than itself, so that it can interrogate and reflect upon itself in an original manner.' In fact, by focusing on this self-interrogatory aspect, Derrida's efforts strengthen philosophy as a mode of human inquiry. For example, he has deconstructed important texts such as Plato's Phaedrus with remarkable acumen. He has examined philosophical texts as if they were literary texts. It is the way in which he sought to analyze philosophical texts as if they were literary texts that inspired the Yale critics such as de Man and Hillis Miller.

In examining Plato's dialogue, 'Phaedrus', Derrida points out how the play of language, the power of figurality, the authority of tropes undermine any attempt to come up with a clear-cut logic of sense. He also demonstrates the ways in which Plato finds himself at the center of self-contradictions. As Christopher Norris has pointed out, following Derrida, 'Plato is unable to define what should count as the good (philosophical) employment of language, memory, reason and so forth, without falling back, by a strange compulsion, upon metaphors drawn from writing. These metaphors are present even in the passages where Socrates speaks with maximum force against the dangers of writing as a thing that contaminates the wellsprings of wisdom and truth.'
Similarly, while reading Rousseau's texts, especially 'An Essay on the Origin of Language', Derrida demonstrates how Rousseau openly contradicts himself; he seeks to establish his idea that speech is the origin of language only to affirm the priority of writing. To phrase it differently, the text endorses what it seeks to deny. The kind of close, rigorous and literary reading that Derrida brought to the analysis of philosophical texts has inspired many literary scholars, especially in the United States.
(to be continued )

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