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Jacques Derrida: Structuralism/Poststructuralism

Structuralism is appealing to some critics because it adds a certain objectivity, a SCIENTIFIC objectivity, to the realm of literary studies (which have often been criticized as purely subjective/impressionistic). This scientific objectivity is achieved by subordinating “parole” to “langue;” actual usage is abandoned in favor of studying the structure of a system in the abstract. Thus structuralist readings ignore the specificity of actual texts and treat them as if they were like the patterns produced by iron filings moved by magnetic force–the result of some impersonal force or power, not the result of human effort.

In structuralism, the individuality of the text disappears in favor of looking at patterns, systems, and structures. Some structuralists (and a related school of critics, called the Russian Formalists) propose that ALL narratives can be charted as variations on certain basic universal narrative patterns.

In this way of looking at narratives, the author is canceled out, since the text is a function of a system, not of an individual. The Romantic humanist model holds that the author is the origin of the text, its creator, and hence is the starting point or progenitor of the text. Structuralism argues that any piece of writing, or any signifying system, has no origin, and that authors merely inhabit pre-existing structures (langue) that enable them to make any particular sentence (or story)–any parole. Hence the idea that “language speaks us,” rather than that we speak language. We don’t originate language; we inhabit a structure that enables us to speak; what we (mis)perceive as our originality is simply our recombination of some of the elements in the pre-existing system. Hence every text, and every sentence we speak or write, is made up of the “already written.”

By focusing on the system itself, in a synchronic analysis, structuralists cancel out history. Most insist, as Levi-Strauss does, that structures are universal, therefore timeless. Structuralists can’t account for change or development; they are uninterested, for example, in how literary forms may have changed over time. They are not interested in a text’s production or reception/consumption, but only in the structures that shape it.

In erasing the author, the individual text, the reader, and history, structuralism represented a major challenge to what we now call the “liberal humanist” tradition in literary criticism.

The HUMANIST model presupposed:

1.) That there is a real world out there that we can understand with our rational minds.

2.) That language is capable of (more or less) accurately depicting that real world..

3.) That language is a product of the individual writer’s mind or free will, meaning that we determine what we say, and what we mean when we say it; that language thus expresses the essence of our individual beings (and that there is such a thing as an essential unique individual “self”).

4.) the SELF–also known as the “subject,” since that’s how we represent the idea of a self in language, by saying I, which is the subject of a sentence–or the individual (or the mind or the free will) is the center of all meaning and truth; words mean what I say they mean, and truth is what I perceive as truth. I create my own sentences out of my own individual experiences and need for individual expression.

The STRUCTURALIST model argues

1.) that the structure of language itself produces “reality”–that we can think only through language, and therefore our perceptions of reality are all framed by and determined by the structure of language.

2.) That language speaks us; that the source of meaning is not an individual’s experience or being, but the sets of oppositions and operations, the signs and grammars that govern language. Meaning doesn’t come from individuals, but from the system that governs what any individual can do within it.

3.) Rather than seeing the individual as the center of meaning, structuralism places THE STRUCTURE at the center–it’s the structure that originates or produces meaning, not the individual self. Language in particular is the center of self and meaning; I can only say “I” because I inhabit a system of language in which the position of subject is marked by the first personal pronoun, hence my identity is the product of the linguistic system I occupy.

This is also where deconstruction starts to come in. The leading figure in deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, looks at philosophy (Western metaphysics) to see that any system necessarily posits a CENTER, a point from which everything comes, and to which everything refers or returns. Sometimes it’s God, sometimes it’s the human self, the mind, sometimes it’s the unconscious, depending on what philosophical system (or set of beliefs) one is talking about.

There are two key points to the idea of deconstruction. First is that we’re still going to look at systems or structures, rather than at individual concrete practices, and that all systems or structures have a CENTER, the point of origin, the thing that created the system in the first place. Second is that all systems or structures are created of binary pairs or oppositions, of two terms placed in some sort of relation to each.

Derrida says that such systems are always built of the basic units structuralism analyzes–the binary opposition or pair–and that within these systems one part of that binary pair is always more important than the other, that one term is “marked” as positive and the other as negative. Hence in the binary pair good/evil, good is what Western philosophy values, and evil is subordinated to good. Derrida argues that all binary pairs work this way–light/dark, masculine/feminine, right/left; in Western culture, the first term is always valued over the second.

In his most famous work, Of Grammatology, Derrida looks particularly at the opposition speech/writing, saying that speech is always seen as more important than writing. This may not be as self-evident as the example of good/evil, but it’s true in terms of linguistic theories, where speech is posited as the first or primary form of language, and writing is just the transcription of speech. Derrida says speech gets privileged because speech is associated with presence–for there to be spoken language, somebody has to be there to be speaking.

No, he doesn’t take into account tape recordings and things like that. Remember, a lot of what these guys are talking about has roots in philosophic and linguistic traditions that predate modern technology–so that Derrida is responding to an opposition (speech/writing) that Plato set up, long before there were tape recorders. Just like poor old Levi-Strauss talks about how, in order to map all the dimensions of a myth, he’d have to have “punch cards and an IBM machine,” when all he’d need now is a home computer.

Anyway, the idea is that the spoken word guarantees the existence of somebody doing the speaking–thus it reinforces all those great humanist ideas, like that there’s a real self that is the origin of what’s being said. Derrida calls this idea of the self that has to be there to speak part of the metaphysics of PRESENCE; the idea of being, or presence, is central to all systems of Western philosophy, from Plato through Descartes (up to Derrida himself). Presence is part of a binary opposition presence/absence, in which presence is always favored over absence. Speech gets associated with presence, and both are favored over writing and absence; this privileging of speech and presence is what Derrida calls LOGOCENTRISM.

You might think here about the Biblical phrase “Let there be light” as an example. The statement insures that there is a God (the thing doing the speaking), and that God is present (because speech=presence); the present God is the origin of all things (because God creates the world by speaking), and what God creates is binary oppositions (starting with light/dark). You might also think about other binary oppositions or pairs, including being/nothingness, reason/madness, word/silence, culture/nature, mind/body. Each term has meaning only in reference to the other (light is what is not dark, and vice-versa), just as, in Saussure’s view, signifiers only have meaning–or negative value–in relation to other signifiers. These binary pairs are the “structures,” or fundamental opposing ideas, that Derrida is concerned with in Western philosophy.

Because of the favoring of presence over absence, speech is favored over writing (and, as we’ll see with Freud, masculine is favored over feminine because the penis is defined as a presence, whereas the female genitals are defined as absence).

It’s because of this favoring of presence over absence that every system (I’m referring here mostly to philosophical systems, but the idea works for signifying systems as well) posits a CENTER, a place from which the whole system comes, and which guarantees its meaning–this center guarantees being as presence. Think of your entire self as a kind of system–everything you do, think, feel, etc. is part of that system. At the core or center of your mental and physical life is a notion of SELF, of an “I”, of an identity that is stable and unified and coherent, the part of you that knows who you mean when you say “I”. This core self or “I” is thus the CENTER of the “system”, the “langue” of your being, and every other part of you (each individual act) is part of the “parole”. The “I” is the origin of all you say and do, and it guarantees the idea of your presence, your being.

Western thought has a whole bunch of terms that serve as centers to systems –being, essence, substance, truth, form, consciousness, man, god, etc. What Derrida tells us is that each of these terms designating the center of a system serves two purposes: it’s the thing that created the system, that originated it and guarantees that all the parts of the system interrelate, and it’s also something beyond the system, not governed by the rules of the system. This is what he talks about as a “scandal” discovered by Levi-Strauss in Levi-Strauss’s thoughts about kinship systems. (This will be covered in detail in the next lecture).

What Derrida does is to look at how a binary opposition–the fundamental unit of the structures or systems we’ve been looking at, and of the philosophical systems he refers to–functions within a system. He points out that a binary opposition is algebraic (a=~b, a equals not-b), and that two terms can’t exist without reference to the other–light (as presence) is defined as the absence of darkness, goodness the absence of evil, etc. He doesn’t seek to reverse the hierarchies implied in binary pairs–to make evil favored over good, unconscious over consciousness, feminine over masculine. Rather, deconstruction wants to erase the boundaries (the slash) between oppositions, hence to show that the values and order implied by the opposition are also not rigid.

Here’s the basic method of deconstruction: find a binary opposition. Show how each term, rather than being polar opposite of its paired term, is actually part of it. Then the structure or opposition which kept them apart collapses, as we see with the terms nature and culture in Derrida’s essay. Ultimately, you can’t tell which is which, and the idea of binary opposites loses meaning, or is put into “play” (more on this in the next lecture). This method is called “Deconstruction” because it is a combination of construction/destruction–the idea is that you don’t simply construct new system of binaries, with the previously subordinated term on top, nor do you destroy the old system–rather, you deconstruct the old system by showing how its basic units of structuration (binary pairs and the rules for their combination) contradict their own logic.

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