Derrida


Derrida is seen as a 'pioneer' in the field of deconstruction, and his work Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences (1966/trans. 1978) is marked as the beginning of 'poststructuralism' as a movement. According to Derrida we can never transcend language/culture, and any word/concept contains not only a positive but also its opposite. Western thinking, Derrida says, has been founded upon the 'logic' of binary oppositions, such as mind/body, rational/emotional, freedom/determinism, man/woman , nature/culture and one term is always given a more privileged position than its opposite, in a way typical of ideologies.

This view has been brought into psychology by Billig (1988, 1990), and in his view of the nature of ideology one is 'persuaded' by the rhetorical force of 'common-sense' and 'lived' ideology such that the privileging of one side of the dichotomy is seen as 'natural' and 'the way things are'. Yet there is no inherent 'logic' to this 'either/or' dualism, says Derrida, because neither part of the binary opposition can exist without the other since both are interdependent and related:

to give anything an identity, to say what it is, is necessarily also to say what it is not. In this sense, presence contains absence. That is, to say that a quality is present depends upon implying what is absent (Burr, 1995, p. 107).

This, therefore, implies a 'both/and' logic. To oppose one side of a binary will result in merely a reversal of the system rather than a revolution of it. Deconstruction is not a replacement theory but a disruptive one which may challenge the orthodoxy of dominant belief systems and set in motion another shift in thinking that was not permitted before dislodging the 'giveness' of the fixed sign. Derrida argues that the notion of structure, in theories like structuralism, presuppose a 'centre' or 'transcendental signified' which is fallacious (see Lodge, 1988, pp. 108-123). Derrida (in Lodge, 1988) argues against classical structuralism, as well as traditional humanism and empiricism. All such theories imply they are based on some secure ground, yet Derrida claims these are no more than philosophical fictions (based upon metaphors and metonymies that are 'read' as 'real'). The search for an 'essential reality' or 'origin' or 'truth' is futile, because

language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique, deconstructive criticism aims to show that any text inevitably undermines its own claims to have a determinate meaning, and licences the reader to produce his own meanings out of it by an activity of semantic 'freeplay' (Derrida, 1978, in Lodge, 1988, p. 108).

The written word, in Derrida's view, relies upon its meaning via the context in which it is embedded. Both signified and signifier, though, are related in such a way that

there is, with respect to the very structure of language, no proper context to provide proof of a final meaning' [there is a process of continual deferral] (Lechte, 1994, p. 109).

therefore making any claim to 'truth' an impossibility; 'truth' is both relative and plural. This is part of Derrida's contribution to critiquing not only Saussureian linguistics but 'deconstructing' the basis of 'western dualistic thinking', such that he 'deposes' philosophy from its centre and instead focuses upon 'a grammatology of difference' (see Lechte, 1994, pp. 105-9; Lodge, 1988; and Norris, 1982, for summaries of Derrida's influence).

To illustrate part of this critique I will utilize a simple example from Burr (1995):

Saussure had claimed that, though [the] relationship [between the signifier and the signified] was arbitrary, the signifier (for example, the word 'tree') and that which it signifies, its meaning (our idea of a tree), are bound together. The meaning becomes 'fixed' to the signified. The word 'tree' therefore has attached to it all the 'treeness' qualities we think of when we think of the real object (leafy, tall, shady and so on). But Derrida ...questioned the idea meaning could ever be present in the signifier in this way ... The meaning of 'tree' is ... to be found in all the things that are absent from it. Tree is not shrub, not flower, not animal and so on. But of course we are not conscious of this when we use words, and mistakenly believe that the meaning of a word is fully present in the word alone ... meaning is always both dependent upon a signifier's difference from other signifiers and constantly deferred from one signifier to another in an endless chain. ... We are therefore always implicitly referring to what these things are not, to what is absent from them. These absences are repressed ... 'deconstruction' involves very closely reading a piece of text with an eye to showing up how its construction relies upon such unstated absences (p. 105-6; my emphasis).

Deconstruction is further defined as:

to peel away like an onion the layers of constructed meanings ... a strategy for revealing the underlayers of meanings 'in' a text that were suppressed or assumed in order for it to take its actual form - in particular the assumptions of 'presence' (the hidden representations of guaranteed certainty ) [referred to as logocentrism] ... [And] Any meaning or identity (including our own) is provisional and relative, because it is never exhaustive, it can always be traced further back to a prior network of differences, and further back again...(Appignanesi and Garrat, 1995, pp. 79-80)

According to Weedon (1987), Derrida questions

Saussure's logocentrism in which signs have an already fixed meaning recognized by the self-consciousness of the rational speaking subject. ... The effect of representation, in which meaning is apparently fixed, is but a temporary retrospective fixing. Signifiers are always located in a discursive context and the temporary fixing of meaning in a specific reading of a signifier depends on this discursive context (p. 25).

For example, the meaning of the signifier 'woman' varies from ideal to victim to object of sexual desire, according to its context. This meaning, says Weedon, is always open to challenge and redefinition with shifts in its discursive context. Thus the meaning of 'woman' is subject to change, depending upon how social and historical practices contribute to the construction of possible 'subject positions'. This introduces the notion of how 'subjectivity' is discursively constructed and located in the text. Weedon defines 'subjectivity' as the term used to "refer to the conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, her sense of herself and her ways of understanding her relation to the world" (Weedon, 1987, pp. 32-5; and section on subject positions). Even within a particular culture there will be competing and conflicting discourses; therefore both the signified (concept) and signifier (sound or written image) are open to constant rereading and reinterpretation.

The implications for a feminist poststructuralism using Derrida's notion of deconstruction have not yet been fully articulated, and although Weedon (1987) hints at the contribution of his ideas, Derrida remains on the margins in 'discourse analysis' texts. It is beyond the scope of this thesis to develop this theorising. Deconstruction, according to Weedon (1987) though, does not, as an approach, adequately spell out the social power relations within which texts are located and it is Foucault to whom we should turn for a clearer elaboration of this.


Jenny Pinkus, August 1996