Within many English departments around the country today, radical claims about the nature of language have entered into discussions about literary texts. Bred out of the modern critical theory of Deconstruction, these discussions question if the true “meaning” of language can ever be determined. As a mode of literary analysis, Deconstruction essentially asserts that meaning within texts is at best indeterminate and arbitrary, as the language in which they are written is said to “fail,” to be “self-contradictory.”
In many corners, this type of thinking has developed into a more general trend which, in light of the theory’s conclusions about language, further disclaims that any notion of absolute authority exists or ever did. Thus, in the present post-structuralist, post-modern world of literary criticism, this trend becomes manifest as an attitude–a “mindset,” if you will–that maintains that all knowledge, or any sense of “Truth,” is relative too. This suggestion stands directly against the heritage of Christianity, as well as other religious traditions that are scripturally inspired.
Because the precepts underlying this modern “scholastic” attitude have their “foundations” in Deconstruction, this essay will term the mental posture embracing these larger claims about knowledge and truth as the “deconstructive mindset,” for it is important to recognize that such skepticism is willfully adopted and maintained. At least in democratic societies, no one forces an individual to choose how he or she views the world.
The aim of this glossary is not to set in concrete words that are constantly changing and evolving, but rather to help students develop the critical tools and vocabulary with which to understand and talk about poetry. Since poets themselves often disagree about the meaning and importance of terms such as free verse, rhythm, lyric, structure, and the prose poem, and since control of literary ...
One danger of Deconstruction, however, or any other highly theoretical system of inquiry that is not self-critical, is that of too quickly accepting the products of its analyses without questioning the assumptions involved. Those espousing the deconstructive mindset are no exception, as the very “center” of deconstructive reasoning operates on the presupposition that there is no “center” or “ultimate signification.” Instead, only a fluctuation and suspension of “disseminated” meaning are said to exist in all things, in any discussion of knowledge that we might have.
Thus rooted in such “logic,” the deconstructive mindset closes off the possibility that anything exists outside of or beyond itself, and this “eclipse” eventually reaches its end in an act of generalization. To put it more concretely, because language is said to “subvert” its own meaning, to be arbitrary, and because humanity records and expresses knowledge via language, “Truth” likewise is said to be subverted, to be arbitrary itself.
In response to these assertions, this essay will explore some of the ways in which the deconstructive mindset, as well as its conclusions, “fails” itself to see beyond its own self-affirming arguments, to question of itself. Moreover, it will attempt to suggest the existence of other possibilities about knowledge, language, and human reality that should be considered alongside this that Deconstruction suggests.
To begin, the essay will take a brief look at the underlying premises and terminology of Deconstruction. Then it will move on to the actual statements of two leading deconstructionists, J. Hillis Miller and Jacques Derrida. Having set the tenor of the thinking behind Deconstruction, the exploration will then open up into a larger, broader philosophical discussion of the implications of such thought. Specifically, the essay will look to see how the conclusions of the literary theory-made-ethos stand in light of Walker Percy’s understanding of modern science, C.S. Lewis’ notion of the “New Man,” Eric Voegelin’s conception of “Second Reality,” and finally the Apostle Paul’s vision of human knowledge.
'The Study of Language is really the study of Meaning', Discuss. It is generally accepted that language is one of the key attributes that distinguishes humans from other species. Although other animals possess at times very sophisticated methods of communication, none match the cognitive capabilities of human language. The terms communication, speech, language and vocalisation should not be used ...
The “Free Play” of the Sign
At the base of the argument of Deconstruction is the notion that there is an inevitable slippage or “interplay of signification” within and between linguistic “signs.” A linguistic “sign” can be defined as any written or oral utterance that we use to communicate an idea; that is, the “sign” is the actual vehicle (i.e., language) we use to express ideas or thoughts to others. Furthermore, as such a mediator between our thoughts and the actual referent of our thoughts, the sign is understood to be composed of two parts, the “signifier” and the “signified.”
The “signifier” is what might be described as the sound-image or word that we use to represent a concept in the abstract. This abstract concept is in turn the “signified,” existing either inside our minds (i.e., a mental representation of a “bird”) or in the tangible world (i.e., an actual “bird” in a tree).
Thus, any linguistic utterance, whether verbal (sound) or graphic (image), is split between that which is the conveyor (the sound-image/signifier) and that which is conveyed (the concept/signified). This split is what is so important to Deconstruction, as it opens up the opportunity for impurities of meaning to infiltrate, as well as for “misreadings” to occur.
Next, because of its dual-natured structure, the sign is said always to have other “traces” of hidden meaning, traces which, even though not fully present, are built into the very mechanics of the sign. As Spivak, translator of Derrida’s Of Grammatology, suggests, “the structure of the sign is determined by the trace or track of that other which is forever absent. This other is of course never to be found in its full meaning.” Put in other terms, the signs of language are said to have meaning only when considered in relationship to other signs, which through their very absence are said to be present. For instance, the sign “bird” is said to derive meaning by existing in distinction against other signs such as “third,” and “heard,” which offer contrast to it. The meaning of one word thus is said to be contingent upon that of other words by a process of difference and division. This notion of “difference” is fundamental to Deconstruction, for it allows for the “free play” of the sign.
Language is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, and a language is any specific example of such a system. The scientific study of language is called linguistics. Estimates of the number of languages in the world vary between 6,000 and 7,000. However, any precise estimate depends on a partly arbitrary distinction between languages and dialects. Natural ...
To illustrate this connection between one sign and other signs further, Spivak continues with the example that “even such empirical events as answering a child’s question or consulting the dictionary proclaim [that] one sign leads to another and so on indefinitely.” Consequently, the sign is said to be in a “crisis.” Because these traces are understood to exist within and amidst a network of other endless chains of signification, no “origin,” or LOGOS, is said to exist, only a never ending circular pattern leading from one signifier to another. Deconstruction thus is an attempt to reveal the trace-structure of language, a questioning of the origin of meaning via the hidden “trace.”
But as Derrida suggests, “a meditation upon the trace should undoubtedly teach us that there is no origin,” because the trace is fundamentally illusive as an absent presence, paradoxical though that may sound. For by the very fact that the trace is said to be absent, it is said to be present. In other words, the meaning of any given sign is said to be simultaneously both “here” and “there,” because one cannot have a “here” without a “there.”
Thus, not only does the sign contain a place of “difference” between its two parts, the signifier and the signified, but also there is a necessary “difference” between itself and other signs as well. These points of difference both “inside” and “outside” of the sign thus serve as a domain in which uncertain meaning can find its niche, a domain in which the “free play” of indeterminacy can reign triumphant. In deconstructive thinking, then, neither a true one-to-one relationship between the sign’s two parts or between a given sign and the other contexts in which it appears is admissible as a possibility.
To have a more concrete, though none less radical, example of the extension of this thought, one need only consider the theory’s “erasure” of dichotomous terms. Deconstruction makes the suggestion that no absolute dichotomy exists between such “structuralist” oppositions as Right/Wrong, Good/Evil, or Truth/Falsity. Following the same argument of “difference,” the identity of one term is said to be dependent upon the “exclusion” of the other. This very exclusion, however, in the thinking of deconstructionists, is what connects the two, since neither could be said to exist without its antonym for contrast.
People sometimes play games with words. People may also recite or memorise lists of words, for example when trying to learn the words of another language or to remember technical terms. And they may occasionally leaf through a dictionary looking at words more or less randomly. These are legitimate activities, enjoyable or useful as they may be. But they are not typical uses of words. Typically, ...
One term of the binary opposition thus is said to have within it traces of the other term opposing it. The symbiotic relationship “between” the two antonyms consequently is said to force an implosion that overturns any notion of hierarchy between them, for when properly exposed, neither can be “privileged” over the other. Instead, they are mutually interdependent.
In short sum, then, whether discussed through the means of the “difference” between signifier and signified or the symbiotic nature of language and its “traces,” Deconstruction seeks to overthrow the notion that language–or any text for that matter–is self-contained, or self-supporting. As Derrida admits of his grammatology, its “fundamental condition” is the “undoing” of “logocentrism,” logocentrism being the notion that language has an ultimate authority resting in itself as connected to a transcendent signified, or ultimate origin.
Because of the inherent fluctuations of meaning that it maintains to be present within all of language, Deconstruction subsequently understands all linguistic signs to be arbitrary (i.e., word meaning can never be absolute).
Meaning in language to the deconstructionist, therefore, is more of an absence than a presence. This notion of the arbitrary nature of language, in a nutshell, is the underlying premise of all deconstructive analysis.