The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 13, 2002

Rejecting cultural certainties
Shelley Walia

Derrida for Beginners
by Jim Powell. Writers and Readers. Pages 186. $7.99.

Derrida for BeginnersBUCKING the tide of established values and taking a stand by being avant-garde: this has been the intellectual scenario in the cafes of Paris where you do not have to look over your shoulder with self-consciousness on engaging in any radical experiment in art or philosophy or linguistics, taking reading and writing as nothing but subversive political acts.

In the wake of such developments in French literary theory, especially the impact of the Tel Quel, an ultra-Left journal which celebrated Maoism, surrealism and the material qualities of language, the last few decades have witnessed many radical changes in our social and political existence, with traditional ideas and ways of living increasingly being called into question. We are prisoners of our perspectives, which need to be reversed and interrogated. The unity of the human psyche is marked by difference. This has lead to a crisis of authority that goes under the general name of ‘deconstruction’ as coined by Heidegger and made popular by Derrida. The gaps, the inconsistencies and incoherence that deconstruction exposes within the myth of ‘coherence’ and ‘rock bottom reality’ in the systemic and systemic values advocated by the ruling ideology indicate the rituals and discourses of institutions endeavouring to remain at the centre.


Therefore, in a general sense, Derrida’s view as projected in this book is the rejection of most of the cultural certainties on which life in the West has been structured ever since the Enlightenment. This "Enlightenment project" now stands under scrutiny and suspicion as what it promised in the areas of emancipation of mankind from economic want and political oppression has miserably failed. Lyotard, Braudillard, Foucault join hands with Derrida and Jameson in demolishing this project, laudable though it may have been at one time, but instead came to oppress mankind.

One of the major concerns of contemporary theory, according to Derrida, has been the question of language. Language here is taken to have no fixity or correspondence with reality. Everything is a linguistic construct that conditions and predetermines what we see, giving rise to infinite webs of meaning. The view that the sign is not a unit and that the nature of signification is essentially unstable brought into the debate the questioning of all overarching truths. This view of ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ is one way of politically disrupting the governing ideas of our culture by showing how they have been constructed and how certain facts, views or contrary opinions have been left out, pushed aside or marginalised.

This anti-essentialism was the result of the fluid nature of all basic givens of our gender identity, our individual selfhood and all notions of literature. Stereotyping and the view that there are fixed and reliable essences in the construction of the ‘other’ in areas of race, class and gender now stand challenged as all these are taken to be contingent categories denoting a status which is temporary, provisional and circumstance-dependent. To deny this is to put one’s position beyond scrutiny. Jim Powell, the author of the book, gives a comprehensive survey of these radical shifts in human thought and cultural perspective through an easily understandable explanation of Derridian concepts such as phallogocentrism, intertextuality, hymen and arch-writing.

He explains how Derrida’s mode of reading a text with full attention to its multiple meanings remains at the foundations of the deconstructive unknotting of the inbuilt instability in all linguistic structures. Rather than attempting to find a true meaning or a unified message in a given work, a deconstructive reading carefully teases out, to use Barbara Johnson’s words, ‘the warring forces of signification’.

Such a critical practice is, therefore, politically interventionist and far from dead, as many maintain these days, especially because of the urge to reject anything that becomes popular or known to the common critic. A deconstructive reading turns a textlogic against itself thereby showing the inconsistencies and contradictions between what the author intends and what the language actually ends up doing. The text often glosses over or ignores the inequalities or hierarchies which are silently or ‘absently’ present anyway. For instance, centres of power are often difficult to name, because they are so integral to our culture. But Derrida argues that we can locate these centres by looking at the hierarchies so clear in the binary oppositions of male over female, nature over culture, game over play.

The privileging of one term over and above the other reveals the preference for one term and always works at the expense or exclusion of the other, subordinated term. For instance, feminists not only question the position of women vis-à-vis men or Westerners vis-à-vis the subaltern, but deconstruct the very system of conceptual opposition which has enabled, and still perpetuates, such metaphysical and ideological values in Western society. Deconstruction is one method of exposing, reversing and dismantling the binary oppositions with their hierarchies of values. Western thinking pitches one term against another but fails to see that each term both differs from and defers to the other term (Derrida’s differance captures both senses of this movement simultaneously) and thus also fails to acknowledge that even though ‘good’, for example, is distinct from ‘evil’, the privileged term ‘good’ also depends for its meaning on its association with its subordinate opposite ‘evil’. Therefore, some degree of contamination between opposite terms cannot be ignored; each is a trace of the other and clear demarcations are not possible. The obvious corollary to this is the idea of the unstable nature of meaning. The unmasking of the problematic nature of centres by Derrida only indicates how these centres endeavour to freeze the free play of binary oppositions.