Today I offer an old essay from my uni days, it is an overview of postmodernism, taking a closer analytical look at deconstruction as part of the postmodernist movement. In particular I address the work of Jaques Derrida, how it has developed, is applied and its continuing contributions to the postmodernism. I put forth a brief definition of modernism, as I saw it then, as a kind of historical background and finish up with some reflections of my own.
What is modernism? The Collins English Dictionary defines modernism as,”…a 20th-century divergence in the arts from previous traditions…” Modernism was a move away from traditional styles. It represented a break from the assumptions, authoritative systems, values and thoughts characterised by earlier movements in literature and art, and focused on abstraction and experimentation. Modernism analysed past theories and made a shift from them, creating new forms, expressions and theories. It saw the birth in art of Cubism, Surrealism, and Futurism, which offered a perception of the world as fragmented and random. Modernism can appear ego-centric and introverted, involving reflection on the creative process, ownership/authorship of intellectual property, and an interest in the production and circulation of knowledge. “It values the individual and the inner being over the social human being…”
No one movement begins just as another ends, and this is demonstrated with the development of postmodernism. It surfaced amidst the modernism movement, not in opposition to, or as an extension of modernist theories, although perhaps it is a response to these theories. Postmodernism is defined as “…a style and school of thought that rejects the dogma and practices of any form of modernism…”, hence there are as many forms of postmodernism, as many as there are forms of modernism. In its move away from modernism, postmodernism also moves away from theory more generally, in the sense that the postmodernist analyses current and past theories, but does not replace them with new theories as the modernist would do. Postmodernism is if you like, an open ended kind of theory. Theorists assert that postmodernism involves an intertextuality which, in literature, sees a mixing of genres. As I will show later with deconstruction, postmodernist theories challenge traditional views of reality, truth and knowledge. By decentralising and demystifying the processes of knowledge formation and circulation, postmodernists aim to broaden social perceptions of the boundaries of the more traditional and structural thinking found in theories such as enlightenment theories, modernism and structuralism.
I feel it would be of little value to analyse postmodernism using modernist tools such as identifying and defining according to opposition, for this would be (as I explore later through the work of Derrida) a kind of oxymoron. Modernism, as with other enclosed and complete theories, offers unifying methods of analysis in terms of universal systems of understanding. Postmodernism is, by its nature, open-ended and interested in inter-relatedness, and so I have tried to view it in terms of these key features. It therefore does not stand in opposition to other theories, but shows their inadequacies and extends on their foundations. As with Lyotard’s rejection of ‘grand theories’, postmodernism aims to displace major systems and theories which underlie institutions and discourses; ie: major religions, social and cultural ideas, educational and psychiatric practices, political and capitalist movements, media generation and circulation, etc. I hope to demonstrate that postmodernism does not strive to destroy these narratives, but to understand their production and thus expand their limitations and broaden their focus.
As I hope to demonstrate with Derrida’s theories, postmodernism is difficult to describe in its own right without becoming confused. Postmodernism is often described through something else, whether this be another body of work or theory, or in relation to some past movement. Primarily I feel this is because postmodernism is, by its very nature, a relational theory. It is not focused on founding a new theory or on opposing an old theory and so therefore, cannot be described in these terms, but is interested in how it relates to other theories, in contexts of continuity. Postmodernism does not have a unifying principle in the same way that modernism, colonialism or structuralism have, for example. There are a variety of theories that come under the banner of postmodernism, for example: poststructuralism, deconstruction, new historicism, queer theory, etc. All forms of postmodernism are interested in subversive discourses, they have an aversion to oppositional hierarchies and theories more generally, and have a tendency to be more open-ended than traditional theories.
I will focus here on deconstruction, in particular the work of Derrida and more specifically his responses to Saussure’s theories of signification and concepts of opposition such as logocentricism. Postmodernism has opened up new forms of understanding in not only literary studies, but all other forms of knowledge production, circulation and discourse, including politics, cultural studies, anthropology, education, etc. I feel deconstruction has been inspirational for all other forms of postmodernism. It is directly challenging to our previous thoughts and assumptions and has paved the way for new kinds of understanding to occur. Deconstruction offers us methods of research that take us beyond the realm of the ‘norm’ to show us what are outdated modes of perception, and point us in new directions.
Jacques Derrida is a French philosopher who was born at the height of the modernist movement in 1930. While his work is incredibly difficult to define, it finds its grounding in a questioning of rationality, critical theory, and literary criticism. The epitome of postmodernism, Derrida’s theories are not defined in their own right, but rather, are developed and discovered through the process of analysing other theorists, such as the work of French philosopher and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.
Derrida has become best known for his ‘deconstruction’ theory. Deconstruction is defined as, “…a technique of literary analysis that regards meaning as resulting from differences between words rather than their reference to the things they stand for. Different meanings are discovered by taking apart the structure of the language used and exposing the assumption that words have a fixed reference point beyond themselves.” So rather than focusing on the meaning and perception behind the words, Derrida looks at their relationships and context. “To ‘deconstruct’ a theory or body of writing is to bring to light the considerations contrary to its view of things which it presupposes and yet effaces and marginalizes as a condition of its existence.” Similar to other theories or bodies of work, Caputo uses the idea of a nutshell to describe traditional theories, “Nutshells enclose and encapsulate, shelter and protect, reduce and simplify, while everything in deconstruction is turned toward opening, exposure, expansion, and complexification…towards releasing unheard-of, undreamt-of possibilities to come, toward cracking nutshells wherever they appear.” Deconstruction is thus a theory which aims to open up and expand other theories.
Saussure’s theory of the signifier (relating to a word itself), and the signified (relating to the meaning of the word or signifier), is another example of a structuralist theory that relies upon a dichotomous interpretation of communication. The Collins English Dictionary describes structuralism as, “…an approach to linguistics that analyses and describes the structure of language, as distinguished from its comparative and historical aspects.” Structuralists create theories based on rules of language and linguistics, Derrida aims not just to question what these theorist are saying, but also what he/she is not saying. “Structure can be methodically threatened in order to be comprehended more clearly and to reveal not only its supports but also that secret place in which it is neither construction nor ruin but lability.” Saussure’s theory defines things by their opposites, for example: ‘man’ is defined by standing in opposition to ‘woman’. Derrida’s theories highlight the inadequacy of this model because they blur the boundaries and expose the logic that this opposition is based on. In this particular hierarchical opposition there is a long history of subordination, and a deep sense of the ‘Other’ as being apart form and opposed to the self. Here the parallels between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ can never be reconciled, for their very meaning is based firmly on this opposition and the distance that this opposition creates.
By deconstructing Saussure’s theories from within the theory itself, the inherent instability of the relationship between the signifier and the signified is uncovered, for as soon as we find the signified (or meaning), we immediately find more signifiers. In other words, as soon as we find meaning, we find more words of which to find their meaning. “…the dictionary confirms only the relentless deferment of meaning: not only do we find for every signifier several signifieds…but each of the signifieds becomes yet another signifier which can be traced in the dictionary with its own array of signifieds…The process continues interminably as the signifiers lead a chameleon-like existence, changing their colours with each new context.” Here we see that the theory of signifieds and signifiers lead us in circles that is only broken when we find contextual meaning. In the case of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, the dictionary leads us to similarities of ‘adult human being’, the only difference here being the sex of the adult human being. Upon exploring the nature of the sexes further, we are led to the discovery that the male produces ‘gamets’ and the female produces ‘ova’. We could continue down this track of finding more signifiers and signifieds, but as we do so, it can take us further away from the contextual perceptions in which meaning can be found.
The practice of logocentricism is a hierarchical system of oppositions whereby one concept is privileged over another. ‘Man’/’woman’ is one such conceptual heirarchy. Through applying the process of deconstruction, Derrida exposes and identifies privileged concepts in assumptions such as that of speech being prior to writing. His aim here is to analyse the dichotomous relationship between speech and writing that is imposed by conservative traditions. In the course of this exploration, Derrida looks at the origins of writing itself and how these assumptions were formed. As Johnson explains, “Whereas speech is habitually associated with reason and rationality…and the voice is perceived as being closer to the inner ‘truth’ of individual consciousness, writing is considered to be a secondary extension or supplement to the voice…Speech is the guarantor of presence and of authenticity, whereas writing represents artifice and absence, the alienation and deferment of presence.” Traditional Western and Enlightenment thought, historically perceives speech as inhabiting the ‘internal’, and thus associates it with the ‘pure’, for it appears to come directly from the soul of the individual and through impressionless air. Writing is perceived to be removed and alienated from this pure state, and is therefore contextually defined as corrupt and tainted because it inhabits the “…external, corporeal realm of matter”, and leaves traces and residues of its existence. Writing is in this case, a deferred form of speech, a supplement.
While logocentricism ascribes to a dichotomous logic and sets up these oppositions, such as that of writing to speech, Derrida argues that writing is essential to the existence and persistence of speech, that both speech and writing are reliant on, not opposed to, each other. “Writing, difference, violence, are not something that happens to a previously pure and intact system, they are not something that supervenes from without. To use Derrida’s own formulation, writing, difference, violence are always already there, at the origin, from the origin, which means in effect that there is no (pure) origin.” Derrida thus takes the issue of purity out of the equation. Thus neither writing nor speech is subordinate to the other. By discovering how both speech and writing are related, we can begin to deconstruct this traditional ontological hierarchy. Derrida goes on to show therefore, that “The very possibility of supplementation exposes an essential lack at the heart of the supposedly autonomous and self-sufficient system.” If speech is a pure utterance of the soul, why then is it subject to the same misinterpretations as writing, and how therefore can it be subordinate to or a supplement of speech? One can write something that one feels is quite clear and concise, and yet discover that the inscription was understood and perceived in a completely different way as intended, the same can occur with speech. The verbal use of language is thus subject to the same misinterpretations as the written.
Derrida’s theories of writing and speech, expose and destabilise the hierarchical oppositions set up by conservative Western forms of thought. “The liberty that this critical…disengagement assures us of, therefore, is a solicitude for and an opening into totality.” The aim of deconstruction therefore, is not to destroy any theory or institution, but to broaden its frame of reference by discovering the underlying concepts and exposing them as constructs which are reliant on traditional ontological and epistemological discourses. A construct is an assemblage, “…a work governed by a unifying principle…” For Derrida the unifying principle is that of continuity. Derrida says of himself, “I love institutions and I spent a lot of time participating in new institutions, which sometimes do not work. At the same time, I try to dismantle not institutions but some structures in given institutions which are too rigid or are dogmatic or which work as an obstacle to future research.” Derrida’s theories offer us a way to get into and question internal structures and traditional oppositions, uncovering and displacing contradictions in literature and art, in our representations of ourselves in the world.
Derrida’s theories describe writing and meaning as existing contextually in a continuum, “…extending from the ‘biological’ to the ‘human’ to the ‘technological’.” , as a process in which difference occurs in one sense but is also reversed, assumptions are formed but then rebuked, opening up our understanding and knowledge beyond the initial intention, showing us alternate ways of seeing. Take our concepts of space, we talk about personal space, outer space, emotional space, psychic space, all forms of internal and external spaces. To simply look at the meaning of space will give us a limited picture of what is perhaps intended that can be found by looking at the context and further into our social perceptions of meaning. The concept of cyberspace comes to mind, a relatively new form of space which requires a revisiting of the whole concept of space to fully understand what the implications of a technological form of space may be.
Derrida thus questions what things are, as above he questions at what writing is, looking at the ‘how, when and where’ of writing’s origins. In doing so, he questions theories that censor knowledge production and circulation. This we can apply to all preconceived conceptons such as that of ‘space’.
According to Johnson, Derrida’s approach to writing focuses on coding as a process, “…an alteration of a hitherto undifferentiated ‘space’…the inscription of a surface, the violent incision and separation of a medium…” Hence his theories of ‘inscriptions’ and ‘space’ are applicable whether they be marks etched into wood or stone, ink on paper, or characters on a computer screen. According to Derrida, writing occurs in an already impure and violent situation, that this impurity and violence are symptoms of human interaction that find their way into other systems, and not of writing itself.
While Derrida is often classified as a deconstructionist or poststructuralist theorist, he is also postmodern in the way he challenges traditional views of reality, truth and knowledge, and decentralises the process of knowledge formation. He applies an interdisciplinary approaches to literature, philosophy, sociology and anthropology without offering a complete or closed theory. To define his theories too narrowly places him in the situation of being limited by the very oppositions that he argues against, for example: to position modernism as opposed to postmodernism. Derrida’s theory is very much an open ended theory in which there is consistency not in oppositions but in the constant movement and shifting context. Therefore I feel it is important to keep Derrida’s theories themselves in this context of a continuum and not fall into the trap of describing his theories by the very assumptions he argues against.
Derrida’s theories of deconstruction are open to criticism by others as being destructive to conservative and traditional theories. I hope I have demonstrated that deconstruction is not a destruction, but a displacement that allows an opening up and a broadening of other theories. In true postmodernist style, deconstruction is also open to the same kind of analysis that it uses on other theories. To set up a process that takes apart theories, leaves the door open to it being taken apart itself. This helps keep deconstruction honest, if you like, open to facing the same kind of rigours it subjects other theories to. Deconstruction is stating that it is not a theory in the traditional sense of the word, but is a process, and as such is always in movement, always open to being questioned, inviting itself to be challenged to scrutinise it’s own methods, and hoping that it can itself have its focus broadened.
As I hope I have demonstrated, knowledge according to Derrida is interdependent on, but not defined by, ignorance. Knowledge and ignorance here are validated by analysing the assumptions behind these terms, and therefore broadening their frame of reference. In a structuralist, context these terms would be limited by the discourses surrounding them and keeping them held as binary opposites. For example, ‘ignorance’ (historically being associated with ‘bad’), is opposed to ‘knowledge’ (historically being associated with ‘good’); therefore ignorance is equated with bad, and knowledge is equated with good. There is no consideration to what knowledge is and who decides this, the type of knowledge involved, who is assessing the knowledge and how, etc. Derrida’s theories of deconstruction offer the researcher valuable methods of critically analysing socially charged, but often taken for granted, concepts, theories, institutions, contexts and discourses.
With this page I write this essay, onto this blank space I leave my marks. I speak to you through with these words, but will you understand what I have meant to say? Does a blank page contain the purity of interpretation? I fill my page with the scrawl of my learnedness, and you read them with the eyes of your perceptions and position. Do I think you will understand my position? A blank page – what does it mean? Is there nothing to say? Is there fear? Is there arrogance, not privileging the page with the comprehension within my grasp? Is there minimalism or mystery? A blank page, so open to misinterpretation, and you will make of it something of your own. You will take what I have written and judge them, make sense of them, find meaning in them according to your perceptions, not mine; as I have done with the words I have read. I read something and made it mine, you will take what I have written and make it yours. Each of us can analyse the words and look beyond to the production of our perceptions. There is no opposition, just a continual moving.
Barry, P., Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Manchester University Press, New York, 1995.
Caputo, J., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, Fordham University Press, USA, 1997.
Collin English Dictionary, HaprerCollins Publishers, Glasgow, UK, 1994.
Culler, J., Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1997.
Derrida, J., Writing and Difference, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, London, UK, 1981.
Harvey, D., The Condition of Postmodernity, Basil Blackwell Ltd., Oxford, UK, 1990.
Holman, H., A Handbook to Literature, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., USA, 1993.
Johnson, C., Derrida, A Phoenix Paperback, Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London, UK, 1997.
Mautner, T. (Ed.), Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, Penguin Books, London, UK, 1997.
McGowan, J., Postmodernism and its Critics, Cornell University Press, New York, USA, 1991.
Rivkin, J. and Ryan, M.(eds), Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell Publishers Inc., Massachusetts, USA, 1998.
Waugh, P., Postmodernism: A Reader, Edward Arnold, Suffolk, UK, 1992.