Tag Archives: deconstruction

God/Word/Saussure

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (St John, Ch. 1, v. 1)

Perhaps this is the genius of the writer of these words. God is language. End of story.

But if we take Saussure to his word then words are just a system of difference. We can conclude that God is what everything else it is not. The word God must be empty, must be a container holding meaning only inasmuch as it is a concept, never to fully have presence, eternally is God marked with absence.

The philosophy of Jacque Derrida

It has been a while since I have looked at philosophy, Derrida or deconstruction. So having found that by The School of Life is a refreshing reminder of just how important and still relevant Derrida is.

Most early biographies of Derrida almost alway focus on his philosophy and never talk about his life. I did not know about his marginalisation in Algeria (though I could have guessed). And I did not know he was a football fan as well as an exemplary snooker player.

Three terms were focused upon in this video – deconstruction, aporia, and logocentrism. Deconstruction is the rigorous dismantling of our common sense ideas. Things not privileged (the opposite of the privileged binary) need to be looked at and shown for its equal importance and value. The Greek word Aporia means impasse or puzzlement, a term Derrida revived to describe our need to not be afraid of not knowing or be confused but that this is the true state of things. Postmodern philosophy has embraced this idea and run with it in various guises including fuzzy logic and language games. And logocentrism again is about the privileging of language and clear terms and ideas over inexpressible feelings and emotions which are part of the human experience.

What is theory?

Theory (or postmodern theory) will only make sense when we look at the definitions of Modernity, Modernism and Postmodernism because theory can be said to be interchangeable with the term “postmodernism”.

Modernity (also the Modern) is the development of Western history of, say, the last five centuries. Characterized by the rise of capitalism, science and technology, and rational thought, it challenged traditional authority, that of the Christian Church and legitimacy of political power. It can be seen as the beginning of liberalism. But from it also came even more brutal forms of power, like the absolutism of Louis XIV, XV and XVI. And countries such as England and the Netherlands saw political instability but saw the gains through capitalism and Imperial expansionism. And during the Enlightenment the very notion of “Modernity” becomes self-aware, defining itself against previous traditional ways of lifes, Christian dogma and superstition. So by the 19th century transformation and upheaval was seen as the rule.

Modernity can be seen as beginning of the ideas of progress and evolution, and of ideas as different as capitalism and communism. And even today the technological progress is still a place of much of our misplaced hopes. Modernity is now no longer something we celebrate but rather it is something to which we feel we are condemned.

Modernism (also Modernist) which moved on from the novelty, the “scandal and challenge”, of Modernity is a constellation of intellectual and artistic Western ideals from the mid-nineteenth century. And it is a late development of Modernity. Modernism is an awareness of Modernity’s conflict and upheaval. But it also thoroughly believed, perhaps more than Modernity, in progress and evolution. And it had hoped to solve problems brought about by Modernity with more radical and absolute forms of Modernity, creating even more absolute answers. An example of Modernism in politics is Marxism. And Expression, Symbolism, Cubism, Futurism and Art Nouveau are further examples of Modernist art movements.

Postmodernism (also, Postmodernity, the Postmodern and Postmodernist) can be defined as the dismantling of the ideas and beliefs of Modernism, and does not replace the latter. Postmodernism maintains a relationship with and relativism to Modernism. It returns with rigour to older ideals but in renewed fashion. In art and literature figure painting and realism respectively becomes important once again. Irony and pastiche – rather than metaphysics and parody – become the main vehicles for expression. And with its borrowing of styles it becomes clear that Postmodernism is both anti-authoritarian and anti-foundational in outlook.

Examples of Postmodernism are Deconstruction, Psychoanalytic Criticism, New Historicism, Cultural Materialism, Feminist Criticism, Queer Theory, Poststructualism, Neo-Marxist Criticism, Post-colonial Theory, Reader Response Theory, Postmodernism (as a self-aware position), New Pragmatism, etc. Names associated with Postmodernism are Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Kristeva, Said, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, Deleuze, Lacan, etc.

Differance, No-self and ecological interconnectedness

In Buddhism, the understanding is that there is no-self (anatman), or rather, what we believe as the self is not what it seems to be. Put in another way, there is no concept of Soul as in the Western sense. And also because there is no belief in a soul there is no final resting place like Heaven. Life just extinguishes (nirvana). The Buddha came to this conclusion through thorough analysis of the conditions of life.

But if there is no Soul and Heaven then who or what is it that gives us our identity and purpose? It is a loaded assumption, of course, that there needs to be either or both in order to exist, much like the meaning of a word.

Jacques Derrida, that Deconstructionist, in his study of the structural linguistics of Saussure came up with the concept of differance. The spelling is not a mistake but an invented word to describe something which had no construction until then (Deconstructionists will tell you it is a non-concept). It is pronounced (in French at least) the same as ‘difference’, the word it relates, but also differs, to it at the same time. It is also related to ‘defer’ in meaning. Playful was this man.

Saussure had brought to light two important properties of language. First, is that a word (signifier) and the thing it represents (signified) are completely arbitrary (see sign). There is no reason why any word should represent any object. If that be the case then the name of an object would be same in all languages. But there is no such determination in language. Some may argue that certain words are imitations of the object or concept (eg. gong, bang) but even then this does not determine that it will be the same across languages.

The second property is that a word gains its identity from its difference to other words. A symbol, therefore, only means something because it is in a system of signs. So, for example, to add an extra letter to English alphabet would mean nothing unless it plays a role within the system of the English language. Similarly to introduce a new word into a language doesn’t guarantee its use. That can only be done through agreement by at least two people of the language in question.

What Derrida did with this structural linguistic concept was to take it to its logical conclusion. So if there is nothing but differences within the system, it must necessarily mean that they do not have an inherit meaning or definition. And this is what is meant by Derrida when he says meaning is ‘deferred’, that words cannot come to full and independent meaning. He says words are forever partially marked by absence.

But, as far as I can tell, the Derrida’s concept of differance was only limited to the study of signifiers, or words. It seems logical, to me, to extent this also to the entire system of signifieds, to see meaning as created from the difference between all objects.

And so, if we extend this to the concept of No-self and see it is like the concept of differance, we will see they are similar in that they both believe that no internal meaning is possible. Or to go by the deconstruction logic, what we call the self relies on everything else for its definition.

And in a similar vein interconnectedness in ecology works in the same way, that nothing independently exists, but that everything is part of the intricate web of life. All three areas of thought seem to have a commonality. They dif(f)er only by their choice of words or path to the conclusion.