In Defense of Deconstruction Julia Roberts As She Sees Herself?
According to a well-known deconstructive tenet all reading is misreading. This is, of course, the kind of common-sense defying assertion that has always already given deconstruction a bad name in certain circles. But did you know (of course, you couldn’t possibly have) that in one of my writing classes I am constantly trying to persuade my students that all writing is miswriting? I raise the question of misreading/miswriting not just because I have to begin somewhere (for according to deconstruction there is no such thing as a “proper” beginning, there are only starts) but because the question in question leads me to an explanation of the (main) title of my presentation tonight.
Just a few weeks ago I was reading (or rather continuing to read) Richard Harland’s Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism in which I came upon the following passage (and I am not going to play fair now because I am going to deliberately miswrite [and misread] the passage which I – at the time – had merely misread by what common sense would call a mistake). The passage in question, then, (mis)reads as follows:
[Julia] Kristeva and [Roland] Barthes . . . separate out two distinct levels of language: a level of ‘significance’ or creative transgressive meaning, and a level of ‘signification’ or socially instituted socially controlled meaning. . . . Whereas the ‘signification’ of a word is held fixed and self-identical within a system, the ‘significance’ of a word opens out centrifugally. As Kristeva puts it, ‘it is necessary . . . to decompose [the sign] and to open up within its interior a new outside, a new space of malleable and combinatory sites, the space of significance.’
I am now playing doubly unfair. You see, by the time I came upon that last “significance” I had noticed that something was wrong. It was with a mixture of horror and delight that I noticed that a “c” was missing from the word. Knowing that most books contain typographical errors, I was glad to see one in a book not written by me. Yet as I stared at the word with the missing “c” in it (which is itself a strange thing to say: how can the missing “c” be in it?) I suddenly realized that instead of a typographical error I was staring at a masterful coinage here. So I quickly went back to the beginning of the paragraph and read it over again, this time without mis/reading it:
Kristeva and Barthes . . . separate out two distinct levels of language: a level of ‘signifiance’ [of course!] or creative transgressive meaning, and a level of ‘signification’ or socially instititued socially controlled meaning. . . . Whereas the ‘signification’ of a word is held fixed and self-identical within a system, the ‘signifiance’ [of course!] of a word opens out centrifugally. As Kristeva puts it, ‘it is necessary . . . to decompose [the sign] and to open up within its interior a new outside, a new space of malleable and combinatory sites, the space of signifiance’ [of course!]. (168)
Of course, we are not through with (potentially deconstructive) ironies here, for Harland goes on to say (in the very next paragraph) that “‘signifiance’ [of course!] opens out in two ways. One way is the way of what Kristeva calls ‘intertextuality.’ ‘Intertextuality’ depends upon the notion that ‘in the space of a given text, several utterances taken from other texts intersect and neutralize one another.’ Reading for ‘signifiance,’ we undo this neutralization and ‘run’ the threads of meaning back across all the other texts from which our given text was formed” (168). And this is precisely what is happening in my text as well, for in quoting Harland I have also been quoting his quoting of Kristeva and Barthes, so that in quoting one author I have actually been quoting three. Furthermore, since I have also been confessing to a literal (although momentary) misreading of my own here (which is not to be confused with its deconstructive counterpart) my own text so far is an uncanny maze of advertent intertextuality and inadvertent deconstruction.
Now one more quotation from Harland (which will also include an unofficial quotation – that is, a paraphrase – from Derrida) and we will be in business: “This is all very obviously analogous to Derrida’s philosophy of language. There are the same two levels of meaning, the socially controlled level versus the anti-socially creative level” (169). And these two levels correspond to what I will in due time call the language of indoctrination versus the language of education. This issue is also one of the subtexts (at times explicitly treated) in my own Pious Impostures and Unproven Words. What I aim to do here, therefore, is to re-argue the issue of the affinity between deconstruction and the “traditional” concept of a liberal arts education. My emphasis shall naturally fall on deconstruction as a strategy of “signifiance,” as a method of educative (as opposed to merely indoctrinative) undertaking. In the meantime, please note the moral in the story of my literal (if momentary) misreading: the human mind is error-prone.
Let me, then, begin (?) by de/fining deconstruction: Deconstruction disrupts “traditional habits of thought” (Culler 141); deconstruction “works within the terms of a system but in order to breach [that is, to subvert] it” (Culler 86); and (most importantly, in a sense) “deconstruction appeals to no higher logical principle or superior reason but uses the very principle it deconstructs” (Culler 87). What I would add to these characterizations at the outset (?) is that deconstruction rejects either/or in favor of and/both thinking. It is (usually) for this reason that it gets into trouble with “traditionalists” who refuse to go far enough to contradict one of the most basic foundations of our civilization, the principle of non-contradiction.
The most basic and the most readily available strategy of deconstruction can be traced back to Derrida’s deconstruction of the speaking/writing hierarchy. Bear with me for an exploration of this issue now, for there is more to it than will initially meet the eye. Derrida begins by noticing something curious in Ferdinand de Saussure’s study of language. As advanced as his thinking about linguistics is, Saussure keeps rejecting writing in favor of speaking. He claims that the proper study of linguistics is speaking, not writing. Yet, Derrida notes, every time Saussure wants to get at the very heart of language, he invokes the example of writing. Derrida claims that there is a simple albeit an extraordinarily complicated and momentous reason for this. The reason why Saussure must continually resort to writing as an example in his discussion of speaking is because – or so Derrida claims – speaking is always already a form of writing. As Derrida puts it, in his inimically complex yet paradoxically compendious style,
it is when he is not expressly dealing with writing, when he feels he has closed the parentheses on that subject, that Saussure opens the field of a general grammatology. Which would not only no longer be excluded from general linguistics, but would dominate and contain it within itself. Then one realizes that was chased off limits, the wandering outcast of linguistics, has indeed never ceased to haunt language as its primary and most intimate possibility. Then something which was never spoken and which is nothing other than writing itself as the origin of language writes itself within Saussure’s discourse. (43-44)
There you have it, your first example of deconstruction’s apparently irrational defiance of common sense. Can Derrida really claim that writing comes before speaking, that writing is the origin of language? That he does claim this is clear. And he claims it in the name of “grammatology” which he pits against “logocentrism,” one of the main (if not the main) founding illusions of our civilization. Note that the very word, “grammatology,” is a clever and masterful coinage, it itself puts writing (“grammar”) before speaking (“logos”). You may, of course, have always already detected an uncommon sense in the coinage in question as well. Let me nevertheless give you a preliminary clarification of the issue by quoting Harland’s version of it: “Derrida recognizes that the fact of writing follows from the fact of speech, but he none the less asserts that the idea of speech depends upon the idea of writing. Or to put it another way, writing is the logically fundamental condition to which language has always [already] aspired” (129, italics Harland’s).
What you have just witnessed is the basic deconstructive strategy of the reversal and the reinscription of a hierarchy. It should be clear, of course, that by the time Derrida places writing before speaking he is no longer speaking of writing in the common sense. He has, in other words, not merely reversed the speaking/writing hierarchy, he has also reinscribed its initially second term. Even if this makes sense to you (and it should), you may still wonder why Derrida feels it so important to “reason” so deconstructively, or why I claim that such reasoning may well be at the heart of a “traditional” liberal arts education. There is something crucial in this argument that I haven’t mentioned yet. The reason why our civilization has always already privileged speaking over writing is because in the act of speaking the speaker and his/her meaning seem to emerge in a simultaneous presence. Derrida claims that this “presence” is an illusion, but he does not claim that it is simply a mistake that could have been avoided. It is, in other words, a necessary illusion, but an illusion just the same. Let me remind you now of my own beginning here tonight. I started with a misreading of my own from which I have derived the following moral: the human mind is error-prone. What I would like to assert now is that the human mind is also illusion-prone. What I would also like to make clear, though, is that while some of our illusions are necessary, some of them are not. Yet we have them just the same. And we may suffer as a result of them. A deconstructive education can, of course, dismantle both kinds of illusions, the first for our greater understanding, the second for our potential improvement. In order to arrive at the second, though, I will have to more clearly show the first. I will ask you to bear with me a little while longer, then, over this speaking/writing business. In a moment you will see that there is much more to it than initially meets the eye.
What happens when I speak? With breath (the original meaning of “spirit”) and the aid of my vocal chords I make (meaningful) sounds. The sounds of my speech disappear (lapse back into silence) even as they come into being, but the meaning the sounds “make” seems to “stay.” What happens when I write? With some writing instrument I make (meaningful) marks on some appropriate surface. The marks of my writing remain on the surface onto which they have been “inscribed,” but I do not seem to “stay.” In speaking I and my meaning seem to exist in a simultaneous presence; in writing I and my meaning seem to split, the marks remain but I “remain” absent (from them).
Traditionally, writing is defined as the re/presentation of speaking. But notice the difference between speaking and writing: in the one the meaningful sound-maker is always already present, in the other he/she (the meaningful mark-maker, in this case) is always already absent. Add to this the following commonsensical observations: the spoken word is heard, not seen; the written word is seen, not heard. (In a literate culture, of course, it is always already possible to “see” the spoken word, but in a purely oral culture the idea of “visible” words is an impossible concept – at the same time, in a literate culture it is also possible to “hear” the written word, in an oral culture, of course, that’s all that’s possible.) The most important distinction between speaking/writing seems to be the presence/absence of the speaker/writer. What is present in speaking is the speaker; what is absent in writing is the writer. In the first case the speaking disappears just as it is finished, in the second the writer disappears just as soon as he or she has finished writing.
Consider also the following: for a spoken word to be meaningful it must have (simultaneously) sound/meaning; for a written word to be meaningful it must have (simultaneously) mark/meaning. In the case of the written word, of course, the mark is a re/presentation of the sound. Now consider the following question: where (in either case) does meaning reside? In the perishable sound/permanent mark, or in the mind of the language user? And perhaps it is here that we should consider the arbitrary/conventional “nature” of the word. Is the connection between any given sound/meaning or mark/meaning intrinsically necessary? That is, must the idea of a young male person, for example, necessarily be designated by the sound/mark “boy”? No, because in other languages the same idea is designated by different sound/marks – garçon, Knabe, etc. People speaking different languages, then, use different sound/marks to re/present the same meanings. In any case, the answer to the first question above (concerning the whereabouts of meaning) is: in the mind of the language user. The speaker knows which sounds “re/present” which meanings and, presumably, the hearer knows this, too. The same applies to writers/readers, except in this case we don’t need the quotation marks around the word “re/present.” This brings us back to the whole presence/absence business: in speaking the meaning is momentarily present in the perishing sound, in writing it is permanently “present” in the enduring mark. To be quite accurate, of course, one must place quotation marks around the word “present” in the last part of my last sentence. If meaning is not in the mark but in the mind of the user of the mark, then there cannot be any meaning in writing. This seems like an absurd conclusion, but it’s the conclusion to which what we have already agreed to so far inevitably leads. Perhaps we could get around this dilemma by saying that meaning is present in the mind of the writer at the time of the writing and that it comes to be present in the mind of the reader at the time of the reading. In the interim, there is no “meaning” there at all. Perhaps there is no “writing,” either. What is not being perceived might as well not exist at all; the same applies to what is not being seen (or heard, for that matter). But the fact is that the mark remains visible, just as its meaning remains discernible. This would somehow make “writing” dead-it is, of course, alive while it is being written and every time it is being read. Can we say then that writing is dead/alive? But what about speaking? Since the sound perishes even as it delivers its meaning, can we say that it remains alive? No, it would seem that speaking is the opposite of writing, it’s alive/dead. Of course, a hearer may always already remember/recall someone else’s speech, in which case what was dead is always already potentially alive again. The same applies to writing (of course). Writing is alive when it is written/read (or even when it is remembered/recalled), just as speaking is alive when it is spoken/heard (or even when it is remembered/recalled – which means that both are, in the final analysis alive/dead/alive).
Given these considerations, the question might be raised: if there is no significant difference between speaking/writing (which is precisely why Derrida argues that speaking is always already a form of writing), why the controversy? If the answer is not readily apparent (perhaps because you may have already become more deconstructive than you realize) please remember that writing has been controversial ever since its inception. Derrida has given a name to this controversy, he calls it “logocentrism.” He has also given a name to the (deconstructed-reversed and reinscribed) idea of logocentrism, he calls it “grammatology.” As you may recall, the second term puts “writing” before “speaking,” while the first makes “speaking” the center of its attention. In doing this, though, the first also tries to “put down” writing. According to Derrida this “put down” is “strange.” Especially when it becomes apparent that a careful, scrupulous, and rigorous description of writing turns out to be a description of language (both spoken/written) as such.
Why does Derrida, then, finally claim that logocentrism is not a mistake that could have been avoided? Again, please pay close attention to what the issue is: in speaking the sound is important only to the extent to which it delivers meaning; it is the meaning that’s all important. In writing the mark seems to take on a perverse importance of its own. The mark, which should “merely” “re/present” the “sound,” seems to be pretty uppity. It sticks around. It may even continue to function in the absence of its originator. Of course, it is (by then) no longer in the control of its originator. Thus, it seems to become even more uppity than it always already has been. It may even support meanings that its originator did not intend. Thus, it is also dangerous. It may even betray its originator (who no longer has control over it, remember?) Thus, it may also become a traitor. Yet it is clear that we didn’t know any of this until after the invention of writing. In other words, the privilege attributed to speaking comes about as a result of writing. This “privilege” seems strange to me. Just as it seems strange to me that when the talkies first came into being people who were accustomed to silent movies thought that “speaking” movies were somehow “unnatural.” The crux of the problem is that speaking doesn’t seem to involve an external “technology.” Perhaps that’s why it seems natural and real. But this is, finally, an illusion. Speech has its “technology,” too: breath (spirit) and the vibration it produces on the vocal chords. The invention of audio-visual media has, of course, made it totally technological (it was, in fact, the technology of speech which made the silent movies real in comparison with the talkies). Why, then, does speaking seem so utterly real in contradistinction to writing? Because the illusion of the simultaneous presence of a speaker and his/her meaning is necessary for us to have the concept of the autonomous self that we do in fact have and without which we would simply not be the human beings that we are. Derrida’s point is that the evidence or proof of our concept of the self, of our concept of our selves, is (finally) nothing of the sort. What we take to be evidence is no evidence, what we take to be proof is no proof in the final analysis. Which is not to deny the reality of our concept of the self, or the reality of our selves.
Good, but here is where problems really begin. As I stated earlier, not all of our illusions are necessary. Yet we have them anyway. And we may even suffer as a result of them. Allow me, then, to illustrate the workings of deconstruction by means of another example. This one is not a necessary illusion but certainly a highly educative one. What I aim to do here is nothing short of the dismantling of the illusion of male chauvinism. But because male chauvinism has a long history, perhaps it will simplify matters if we concentrated on its Freudian manifestation. Remember, though, the basic definition of deconstruction I have given you earlier: deconstruction disrupts “traditional habits of thought,” it “works within the terms of a system but in order to breach [or subvert] it,” and it does not claim to be using a logic superior to the logic of its target.
Here, then, is the deconstruction of the man/woman hierarchy à la Freud: Freud defines the little girl as a little boy without a penis. It seems that the presence of the penis makes all the difference in the world. From the point of view of the little boy the absence of the penis in the little girl is traumatic; it tells him that the penis may be cut off, giving rise to what Freud calls “castration anxiety.” From the point of view of the little girl the presence of the penis in the little boy is also traumatic; she instantly recognizes it as superior to her own genitalia. You realize, of course, that this definition of the woman as, in some sense, the negation of man has been rampant in the male chauvinist economy of our civilization. Yet this man/woman hierarchy is typical of illusions which are not necessary (which is not to say that they have not been altogether too real throughout history).
There is, of course, a blind spot in Freud’s version of the man/woman hierarchy. It is, in other words, not necessary to invoke a different logic in order to deconstruct it. You see Freud himself says that the clitoris is the female equivalent of the penis. In addition to the clitoris the female, of course, also possesses the vagina. If it is safe to say that the clitoris is a small penis and, by the same token, that the penis is a large clitoris-do you, by the way, detect some wishful thinking along (no pun intended) these lines?-and if it is also safe to say that the clitoris never comes without a vagina (no pun intended, I am sure) but that the penis forever wishes it could, would it not make more sense (according to Freud’s own logic, mind you) to see the female as the primary sex of which the male is a mere negation?
Please note the way in which traditional (that is to say, habitual) male chauvinist thought has been disrupted here. Please note also that the subversion of male chauvinism did not require a logic superior to the logic being disrupted. But please note also that reversing the man/woman hierarchy also reinscribes its initially second term. It seems that man comes from woman rather than the other way around (though no one is, of course, denying that it takes two to tango [?]). This is, by the way, borne out (no pun intended) by biology according to which we all start out as women, it is, as it were, only as a result of a deviation from the “norm” that men become men.
Speaking of Freud, may we not say, then, that the man/woman hierarchy entails a suppression? Which comes close to saying that male chauvinism is an illusion that, like the speaking/writing hierarchy, is yet not a mistake that could have been avoided. In some sense, then, this illusion, too, has seemed historically necessary (without it, in other words, it would have been impossible to uphold the masculine status quo). Yet I would maintain that it is not a necessary illusion, not in the same sense, at least, in which the privileging of speaking over writing appears to have been. The question of suppression, therefore, persists. What exactly is it that the “traditional” man/woman hierarchy suppresses? Obviously it suppresses the radical bisexuality of the female as opposed to the equally radical monosexuality of the male. Interestingly enough the terms of bi- and monosexuality have been present all along, it’s just that their significance has remained in want of an act of signifiance.
The Bible may well come to mind. We all remember the story in Genesis where God shapes the form of man out of earth and then breathes life into it. We also remember how, subsequent to this, God (in a curious act of midwifery – or could we call God an OB-GYN in this case) puts man to sleep to take woman out of man, thus “proving” that though man comes out of woman, the first woman came out of man. What significance is being suppressed here? What is in want of an act of signifiance in this case? It so happens that in the original Hebrew Adam, adamah, means “earth” or “dirt” while Eve, hawwah, means “life” and comes from a verb meaning “to be.” It also happens that Adam’s name is a “masculine variant (or a miswriting) of the feminine form adamah” (Bible Dictionary 12, italics mine). Furthermore, the “story of Eve is also the story of the displacing of the Goddess [the original concept of the Creator] whose name is taken from the Hebrew verb ‘to be’ by the masculine God, Yahweh, whose name has the same derivation” (Phillips 3, italics mine). It seems to me then that the key terms of the original Hebrew present us with ample linguistic evidence for the potential disruption or deconstruction of the male chauvinist economy otherwise and nevertheless still operative in the Bible. It seems that the logic supplied by this subversive linguistic evidence is both allowed and suppressed in the genetic story of our Judeo-Christian inheritance.
Both the Bible and Freud, then, try to suppress woman, but (finally) to no avail. Inherent in the logic of each is the potential undoing of the logic of each by the same logic. Which brings me back to the relationship between deconstruction and the “traditional” concept of a liberal arts education. Etymologically “education” means “out/leading.” As such, it is the opposite of indoctrination. While education liberates (and that’s what the word “liberal” is doing in liberal arts), indoctrination enslaves. Contemporary institutions of higher learning are always already paying lip service to education, but isn’t much of what’s taking place in these same institutions really indoctrination rather than education?
In my own Pious Impostures and Unproven Words I deal with this issue at some length, paying particular attention to the reversal and reinscription of the fact/fiction and the truth/lie hierarchies. All I can do here is briefly outline the main contours of my argument. In his Secular Scripture Northrop Frye says that “[s]ociety . . . makes a special and nonliterary use of myth, which causes it to from a mythology and eventually a mythological universe. Such mythology surrounds us on all sides, and on several levels” (166). Later on Frye claims that “[o]ne of the things that the study of literature should do is to help the student become aware of his [or her] own mythological conditioning, especially on the more passive and critically unexamined levels. It is, of course, unlikely to do this as long as the teachers are unconscious victims of the same conditioning” (167).
Frye is alluding here to the fact that many of our valued texts question and perhaps even subvert the values of the social/political/religious orders in which and for the sake of which they are produced. But, as our foregoing analysis of certain examples of deconstruction clearly indicates, the human mind is not merely error-prone, it is also highly illusion-prone. No text, no matter how brilliant and/or subversive of questionable values it may be, can therefore do more for a reader than the reader is willing to do for it. Thus, the question of the quality of reading must also be faced. Careless and cursory reading will simply not do; even careful and attentive reading (preferably painstakingly slow) may not be good enough. “In an age of manipulation,” says Robert Scholes in his Textual Power – and what age is not manipulative? – “when our students are in dire need of critical strength to resist the continuing assaults of all the media, the worst thing we can do is foster in them an attitude of reverence before texts . . . [W]hat is needed is a judicious attitude: scrupulous to understand, alert to probe for blind spots and hidden agendas, and, finally, critical, questioning, skeptical” (16).
It is clear that the kind of pedagogy Scholes offers here is indebted to deconstruction and to the significant contribution deconstruction may make to a potentially deconstructive revival of liberal arts:
If the text were a vehicle of eternal truth, then the teacher’s function would be to guide the student toward the correct interpretation of the text, so that the truth might stand revealed. But if the text is understood as necessarily partial, its truth value various in relation to historical changes in human situations, then this sort of interpretation . . . will not suffice. We will need a ‘negative hermeneutic’ as well; that is, we will have to restore the judgmental dimension to criticism, not in the trivial sense (discredited by Frye and others) of ranking literary texts, but in the most serious sense of questioning the values proffered by the texts we study. If wisdom . . . is to be the end of our endeavors, we shall have to see it not as something transmitted from the text to the student but as something developed in the student by questioning the text. (13-14)
It seems to me that deconstruction is a par excellence companion to education as opposed to indoctrination. Yet, though it is fairly widespread in academia by now, it is still controversial. Perhaps that’s as it should be, but then allow me to add that education as such should always already be controversial, too. It may be that there will never be an end to the conflict between indoctrination and education, because, as Barbara Johnson puts it, there will always already be those who will “stop reading” as soon as the “text stops saying what it ought to have said” (140), but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from disrupting or deconstructing our own error- and/or illusion-prone habits of thought. The question we must keep asking is, where does the truth lie, for (if history has taught us anything, it has taught us that) the truth may lie anywhere and everywhere.
Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1982.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976.
Harland, Richard. Superstructuralism: Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Johnson, Barbara. “Teaching Deconstructively.” Writing and Reading Differently: Deconstruction and the Teaching of Composition and Literature. Ed. G. Douglas Atkins and Michael L. Johnson. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1985. 140-148.
Kselman, John S. “adamah,” Harper’s Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.
Phillips, John A. Eve: The History of an Idea. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
Scholes, Robert. Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.
*This artcle is written by Steven C Scheer
*The writer notes: Deconstruction has been controversial from its inception. By now the word has entered everyday parlance and has even been entered into up-to-date dictionaries, usually defined in a way that belies it. It is not “nihilistic,” nor does it say that “anything goes,” nor that there are no “great books,” or that “words can mean anything you may wish them to mean.”
So I offer this lecture of mine here as a positive assessment. It explores what I might call “classic” deconstruction. I hope it will make you think better of this highly maligned and at times inappropriately promoted attempt to interpret our world and what it means.
This paper was originally an invited Liberal Arts Forum lecture given at the University of Southern Indiana on March 7, 1990.
For the deconstruction of the man/woman hierarchy that comes up later in the essay, I am indebted to Culler’s more or less free paraphrase of Freud and various feminist critics, including Sarah Kofman, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray (See, Culler 165-75).
For different versions of the deconstruction of Genesis, see my Pious Impostures and Unproven Words: The Romance of Deconstruction in Nineteenth-Century America (Lanham, New York, London: University Press of America, 1990), 1-8, and my “Obliterate Inscriptions and Cunning Alphabets,” a Review Article of Kevin Hart’s The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology, and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), in Semiotica 90-3/4 (1992), 279-293. Send e-mail to: