It is evident from the beginning of Writing and Difference that the misinterpretations of Derrida’s work that still absurdly and doggedly remain in place, framed by the frankly moronic utterances of certain “philosophers, as well as literary critics” who believe it conveys the notion that “just anything is possible”, that Derridean philosophy is “a license for arbitrary freeplay in flagrant disregard of all established rules of...the interpretative communities” are founded on nothing but misreading, wilful or not. As Derrida himself has clearly stated, “A written sign, in the usual sense of the word, is a mark which remains...in a given context” [my italics] – context, not text, as many have claimed, including Derrida’s former teacher, Michel Foucault, who, frustrated by the flaws he perceived in Derrida’s essay ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’ in relation to his (Foucault’s) own work, reinforced this misconception, dismissing deconstruction as a “historically well-determined little pedagogy...which teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text”. Not only is this a patent fallacy, as the short reading of it I will offer should show, one that is exposed as so by even the most cursory close reading, but Derrida himself contradicts many of the accusations which have been flung his way in the first essay of the collection. After arguing that “to dream of reducing it [in this case structuralism, but essentially anything that can be read as a ‘text’] to a sign of the times is to dream of violence”, he writes:
By keeping to the legitimate intention of protecting the internal truth and meaning of the work from historicism, biographism or psychologism...one risks losing any attentiveness to the internal historicity of the work itself, in its relationship to a subjective origin that is not simply psychological or mental...one risks overlooking another history, more difficult to conceive: the history of the meaning of the work itself, its operation. (WD, 15)
This is not stating that the only way of reading a text is by reading the text, ignoring its historical context; it is opening up the deconstruction of the absolutism of a historicist (or any ideological) approach to interpretation. Simply, history (or whichever discourse from which one works) is discourse, not fact. It is text, and subject to the same rules as any other text. His philosophy is not anti-history, it is against the blind assumption of a priori truth. Evidence for this appears throughout Writing and Difference, not least in the essay Foucault took offence to, in which it is explicitly stated that one can never escape historicity – “one can protest it [the logocentric view of history and Reason] only from within it”(WD, 42).
The early essays in the collection situate Derrida’s thought very much within historical discourse, I would say irrefutably so, before shifting their attention towards a deconstructive approach to reading and meaning. Also from the above quoted essay: “Philosophy is perhaps the reassurance given against the anguish of being mad at the point of greatest proximity to madness”(WD, 72). Madness, in Writing and Difference, stands for what a logocentric system, transdiscourse, has refused to confront “by virtue of the historical enunciation” through which’s absolutist lens “philosophy tranquilises itself and excludes madness [and] also betrays itself...enters into a crisis and a forgetting of itself that are an essential and necessary period of its movement”. Derrida’s philosophy refuses to tranquilise itself, refuses to be put off by the “other light” of ‘madness’, from a logocentric viewpoint seemingly “black and hardly natural”; it (in both senses of the word) admits play, deferral (differance) and shows it to be the truest position from which to think, to be: “I philosophise only in terror, but in the confessed terror of going mad”(WD, 75-6).
The key essay is, of course, the much-anthologised ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, in which, via a masterful reading of Levi-Strauss, Derrida outlines the ‘two interpretations of interpretation’:
1) The first interpretation seeks to decipher, “dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile”(WD, 369).
2) The other disregards the notion of true origin, “affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism”, man being he who “has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and end of play”(WD, 370).
Why the need for to look at interpretation rather than simply interpreting? Because, much as pre-Heidegger the notion of Being was always simply assumed, and “the question of the meaning of Being” was held “to be superfluous” due to the assumed obviousness of the ‘answer’, interpretation and the act of reading, what it is to derive meaning from a system of signs, has been “neutralised or reduced” by its being given “a centre or [by] referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin” – “to orient, balance and organise”. All of which served to limit the “play of the structure”, gave it a “total form”(WD, 352) . Derrida deconstructs this idea, drawing on the “Nietzschean critique of metaphysics [and] concepts of Being and truth”, the “Freudian critique of self-presence” and the “Heideggerian destruction [destructuring] of metaphysics, of onto-theology, of the determination of Being as presence”(WD, 354), to expose the centre as a myth, to decentre it, as this centre was never “anything which had somehow existed before it” was defined as the centre: merely a “process of signification which orders the displacements and substitutions for this law of central presence”, “not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” – no longer can we think of it as a “present being”(WD, 353-4) . Because in language there is no transcendental signified, because language is a system of differences and binaries, deconstruction works so effortlessly: “language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique” [my italics][WD, 358]. Thus, the two interpretations of interpretation.
It is worth looking more closely at the two interpretations, for they are very much key to understanding what Derrida’s work is doing throughout his career. The first interpretation aims to “question systematically and rigorously the history” of discourse, to concern itself with “the founding concepts of the entire history of philosophy” – “probably the most daring way of making a step outside of philosophy” – which is “much more difficult to conceive than is generally imagined” and tends to result in being “swallowed up in metaphysics” never actually “disengaging from it”(WD, 358-9) .
The second interpretation, which, beneficially, may “avoid the possibly sterilising effects of the first one” involves accepting the need but inadequacy of the discourses we have, conserving them while “here and there denouncing their limits, treating them as tools which can still be used.” We remove from them their “truth value” and are ready to “abandon them” should “other instruments appear more useful” – this “is how the language of the social sciences criticises itself”.
Of course, Derrida never sets this up as an absolutist binary – “there is no question of any choosing” between the two interpretations. Instead, ideally for Derrida and, in my opinion, for all discourse, one accepts the enlightened pragmatism of the second interpretation as a kind of default position (while obviously not ceasing to question and deconstruct said position) while working towards and believing in the first, difficulty or even impossibility aside. This is deconstruction – not a systematic negation, wanton nihilism, but a truth-seeking tool; not an end in itself, nor anything in itself, but a way of seeing as clearly as one can see from an essentially postlapsarian state.
So far, so explicatory. I am not interested in merely pointing out what Derrida is doing; it’s been done before, far better than I could hope to. What I am interested in is using deconstruction authentically, in both the Heideggerian sense of the term and in relation to the context (i.e. Derrida’s philosophy) from which I’ve taken it, and there is one very small part of Writing and Difference that offers the beginning of a framework towards doing this. It is a very simple statement from early in the book relating to the ‘silence of madness’, the neglected state otherness – the unknowableness of the ‘essence’ of things outside of language, away from their names – was, and still is, consigned to by an essentially logocentric society:
to state the difficulty, to state the difficulty of stating, is not yet to surmount it – quite the contrary. (WD, 44)
It is not enough, especially now, to merely point out that there is no absolute, no transcendental signified, no way of accessing ‘essence’, the pre-sign; now we must do something towards it, we must move forwards, we must approach the borders, the “walls which all discourse runs up against”, and not simply stop. We must bang our fists against them and swell in the sound, and look for the flakes that may or may not crumble from it. This is what I want to begin to work towards in my dissertation, and what I will work towards in my life, be it academically or otherwise. It is this exhausted, damaging logocentric and essentially capitalistic prohibition of ‘madness’, of otherness, of whatever word you want to give it, that is the reason for the pitiful state of our society, or at least for our education system, which, improved, would stand a chance at actually making a difference in changing our society for the better. For opening up learning, and allowing it to be for its own sake, not simply as preparation for a job. Not simply because that’s just what you do: school, exams, gap year posing with little black children (photos taken on a camera the money you paid for which could probably, for a short while at least, radically improve their lives), university and light alcoholism, job marriage kids. Again, this isn’t a novel proposal, is barely different, as far as I’m aware, from what Derrida and Foucault and many others have been arguing for years. But I consider it important, valid and valuable in that it’s an area that is neglected by universities at an undergrad level. Surely we should be better teaching students to think for themselves, and exposing them to the work that can enable them to do so, that can provide them with the necessary tools. I would like to be a part of working towards this.
1. Rodolphe Gasché, "Infrastructures and Systematicity," in Deconstruction and Philosophy, ed. John Sallis (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987), pp. 3-4
2. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), p. 317
3. Michel Foucault, History of Madness, trans. J. Murphy and J. Khalfa (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 573
4. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Oxon: Routledge, 2008), p. 2
5. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, J. Glenn Gray and David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 8
6. George Steiner, Errata: An Examined Life (London: Phoenix, 1998) p. 64