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Jacques Derrida’s Interpretation of Language and Literature

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‘What is deconstruction? Nothing, of course’ within Jacques Derrida Letter to a Japanese friend. For Jacques Derrida, ‘deconstruction doesn’t consist in a set of theorems, axioms, tools, rules, techniques, methods’ and language itself is unable to disclose meaning; alternatively, an individual’s understanding of a text is thought to be determined by context which relies on an array of component. Such as those who are implying a text (the author) and those who infer the text (the reader). 

A Deconstructionist’s approach towards language is not to cast our attention towards language’s inability to communicate. Rather, to relocate us from thinking that language’s only purpose is to convey meaning. Derrida and deconstructionists are not lurking to only emerge from their dark lairs to say “caught ya! You made a mistake!” but to remind us the sole purpose of language is not just to convey meaning. Though, we must not disregard language’s critical aspect, which is its structure and nature, as language’s fluidity allows us to construct a diverse range of interpretations. Derrida’s “il n’ya pas de hors texte” was often mistranslated as ‘there is no outside-the-text, was interpreted to mean something like “everything outside the actual text or texts we are considering is irrelevant and doesn’t really exist”. Whereas within Derrida’s debate it means ‘something like the opposite, that there is only text since you cannot get outside of the text’. Literary critique Harold Bloom, supports Derrida’s approach that literature cannot have just one interpretation, further stating ‘deconstruction, as it has come to be called, refuses to identify the force of literature with any of embodied meaning and shows how deeply such logocentric or incarnationist perspectives have influenced the way we think about art’. 

The term ‘logocentric’ refers to the presumption of unconditional truth that could be established via language. Although Derrida believed that this was unfounded due to the indeterminacy of language, as words could not be fixed to one exact meaning. Derrida has been allied with the movement ‘post-structuralism’ and has been referred to as a post-structuralist by occasion due to Derrida’s affiliation with linguist Ferdinand de Saussure whose work must be correctly inferred to understand Derrida’s work, such as when Derrida states “monsters cannot be announced one cannot say ‘here are our monsters’ without immediately turning the monsters into pets.” In relation to Derrida’s comment, Saussure vocalized that the idea of a ‘meaning’ within a language is created by ‘signs’ which has two parts. A signifier which is the word/ image and the signified is the idea/ meaning of that signifier and the signifier points towards a signified. Saussure concludes what allows signs meaning is the differences among them, therefore, are a fragment of a systemic network as signs points to different points signs to allow meaning. For example, try describing something without stating what it is not, you cannot. If you were trying to describe what a ‘dog’ is to someone, it is likely you will say ‘animal’, ‘four legs’, similar to a ‘cat’ and other words, other signs. Derrida declared that other signs were always, at all times present in regard to a sign’s meaning, he called this the sign’s ‘trace’ (which Post-structuralism also acknowledged and critiqued). Still, Derrida determined that ‘the trace is not presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, not place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace’. The concept of the ‘trace’ was reconstructed by Derrida to ‘différance’, which refers to that the idea that meaning impractically prevails in the aperture between signs. Derrida said in an interview ‘this spacing is simultaneously active and passive production of the intervals without which the “full” terms would not signify, would not function’. 

Derrida’s purpose is to show that language is extremely subjective, in that connotation varies from reader to reader, and changes now and again. Therefore, the idea of communal truth which can be obtained via philosophy or a single theory is unfeasible. It is believed by Derrida that a substantial amount of western philosophy tradition was assumed from binary oppositions, the idea that one concept or terminology is thought to be more ordinary, have more authenticity than the other. I will be discussing Derrida’s concept of the trace within Plato’s Phaedrus, with reference to Derrida’s Plato’s Pharmacy later in this essay. Similarly to deconstructionists, ‘poststructuralism is a style of critical reasoning that focuses on the moment of slippage in our systems of meaning as a way to identify’. Poststructuralism focuses on those times when we ‘impose meaning in a space that is no longer charaterzied by shared social agreement over the structure of meaning’. They believe that this idea of a meaning is sliding between signs, this concept was referred to as the trace by Derrida. Post-structuralism tries to explain ‘how it comes about that we fill those gaps’ that are present within our knowledge. By determining the ‘points of slippage (…) makes plain the significant role of ethical choice — by which I mean decision making that is guided by beliefs about virtue and the self, not by moral or political principle’. 

Post-Structuralist, Roland Barthes, published his essay “The Death of the Author” (1967) explaining that is: ‘this paradoxical idea refers not to the empirical or literal death of a given author, but to the fact that in a radical sense, the author is absent from the text’. Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” criticised the tendency in literary criticism to ‘explain’ a text by implementing the author’s life and presumed intentions. ‘Barthes and Michel Foucault are interested in thinking about literature in ways that do not depend on regarding the author as the origins of the meaning of a text or as the authoritative presence in the text’. Barthes, Foucault and Derrida, in reality, all are arguing for the same thing; all concerning the transparency of ‘meaning’ (from Barthes and Foucault’s point of view, an author’s meaning should not always be considered) and Derrida’s proposition is that language cannot communicate meaning only interpretations. Post-structuralist Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’ (1969) essay is similar to Barthes’ criticism towards the author, which contrues: ‘There was a time when the texts that we today call literary (narratives, stories, epics, tragedies, comedies) were accepted, put into circulation and valorized without any question about the identity of their author; their anonymity caused no difficulties since their ancientness, whether real or imagined was regarded as sufficient guarantee of their status’. Here Foucault accentuates the current fundamentals in which ‘literary authorship has been integrally bound up with changes in law and questions of copyright and ownership of texts’. 

In essence, Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’ declares the glory in ‘anti-authoritarian – energies of a writing or discourse freed of the conventional impositions of authorship’, ‘anti-authoritarian’ meaning the notion of searching beyond/no longer submissive towards the author’s intention. So, if an author is de-weaponised (the author’s weapon being their intended meaning, which now no longer attains relevancy) Derrida’s deconstruction supplements that ‘lack of meaning’ with an acknowledgement of different interpretations existing instead. Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1972) provides readers with a solid example of his concept the ‘trace’ discussing what a trace is, its purpose and how it unsettles a logocentric system. Derrida supplies readers with a close and comprehensive of Plato’s text “The Phaedrus”. Thoth is the God who introduces writing to King Thamus, explaining it will function as a ‘pharmakon’ however it’s translation in this case was translated as a remedy and will help men recollect memories better (to increase wisdom), King Thamus is fearful about his dismissal of Thoth’s offer of writing, as he knows writing will eradicate the oral folklore, thus, posing a danger to the logocentric existence of speech in the meta-physics of presence and the analogous of signifier and the subconscious. However Thamus declines and states its real purpose, which was to erase and erode memory, resulting in people to cease their ability to remember things resulting in the venture to become reliant on writing, which grants the illusion of wisdom, so people will be conceited and will seem to be full of intelligence. Derrida’s focal point is the Greek word that is in the text, the word “pharmakon” which is a Derridean undecidable that carries opposite meanings, both remedy and poison. To which the translator must decide the meaning of “pharmakon” which the translator choose to render it as ‘remedy’ in this instance. Thus, is the basis for the correction to be made ensuring that it is in fact a poison. 

Derrida is attempting to show us that at the beginning of the whole meta-physical tradition of the West, that writing is viewed as purely supplemental compared to speech, ‘Derrida’s critique of Western metaphysics focuses on its privileging of the spoken word over the written word’ much like Rousseau’s attitudes within his work ‘Confession’ (1782-89) as he states: “languages are made to be spoken; writing serves only as a supplement to speech.” Within Derrida’s (1972) work he also uses the heavily used technique by Post-structuralist, ‘discourse analysis’ as he studies God Thoth’s role within Ancient Egypt, as Derrida informs us that Thoth was the inventor/God of writing but also that Thoth acts almost as Derrida’s concept the trace. Derrida expresses ‘It is not in any reality foreign to the ‘play of words’ that Thoth also frequently participates in plots, perfidious intrigues, conspiracies to usurp the throne’. Because Thoth has so many identities, ‘he had a power of calculation- added the five epagomenic days – and other functions’, that he cannot be appointed to a fixed space. 

To conclude, Egyptian mythology (Thoth’s duties) is analogous to pharmakon’s function in Phaedrus, as both encapsulating the role of a ‘floating signifier’ which floats through the structure as a trace. Derrida adds ‘Thoth also imitates it, becomes its sign and representative, obeys it and conforms to it’. Thus, establishing the différance of definitions.

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