Derrida for Dummies

Derrida; the closest a literary critic ever came to being a movie star

It’s a firm belief of mine that no matter how complex an idea, you can explain it if you pick your examples carefully. Jacques Derrida taxes this belief to the limit, but I thought it would be entertaining to try, particularly after reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Marriage Plot, which draws in its early sections on the literary theory that was a big feature of university courses in the eighties. Being reminded of theory and also of the way that it’s fallen into disrepute these days as a sort of laughable super-refinement of thinking, I felt I ought to point out at the very least how close to lived reality theory was. Derrida’s philosophy founded the practice of deconstruction, a way of reading that did tend, I quite accept, to be presented with a lot of textual voodoo. But deconstruction is something that people do frequently, energetically and willingly, even if they don’t know that they’re doing it.

Think back to the last argument you had in a relationship. When a couple fights, they are practising deconstruction like the best of them. There’s a French phrase for the inevitable imbalance in relationships – il y a toujours un qui baise et un qui tend la joue – which means there’s always one person doing the kissing and the other offering their cheek. Well, similarly in rows, there is one person deconstructing while the other presents the text, usually in a defensive, stonewalling kind of way. The upset person, the reader in this instance, tackles the text they’ve been given with a manic pernickety attention, picking away at the words or phrases used, pouncing on sly little omissions, tying the other’s words up in knots with the full intention of proving that their discourse is flawed through and through, that they mean the opposite of what they say, or that at the very least, there is no coherent and credible position beneath the surface offering. Just about anything is open for attack – the way the other person is standing, the shifty look they’re giving, the nervous jangling of loose change in pocket. It’s all ripe for deconstruction. There’s only one way this can end: with one person’s argument in tatters, as far as the other person is concerned. And that, my friends, is theory in practice.

The reason we can do this at all is down to the odd way that language is both rigid and flexible at the same time. Derrida talked about ‘difference’ a lot, and the way that language is founded on it. What this means is that, if you had half a sentence, you couldn’t necessarily finish it. You might well speculate on what would come next, but unless you had the back end of it, you couldn’t know what it means. This is because every word we add to a sentence will subtly alter the meaning of those that precede it. You can scale this up to a book, and think of the way that if you were missing the final two pages of a book, you still might not be sure how it ends. Anything could happen in those last two pages to change the meaning of what came before. So, from thinking about this, Derrida concluded that language was an endless signifying chain – unless there is a definitive end point, you can never be sure what a text means. Words are relative; meaning is a feature of that relativity. No matter how hard we try to say something plainly and simply, someone can always come along and mistake our meaning, or at least, believe sincerely that we said something different to what we thought we did. That’s because words have this inner fullness and flexibility – they are always ready to be bent in all sorts of different directions, to carry all sorts of meanings, so there is always a sort of bubbling undercurrent of excess in the language we use, and we can’t get rid of it.

One of Derrida’s ways of talking about this is the idea of the ‘trace’. Let’s go back to our arguing couple and suppose that, horror of horror, the ‘other woman’ has been invoked in the row. Two simple little words, ‘other’ and ‘woman’, no big deal. But to speak of the ‘other woman’ is to conjure a ghost up in the room. She is not there, and the very fact of referencing her makes it plain she’s absent (and of course she might not exist at all). But the words contain the trace of her, the imagined projection of a living, breathing person reduced here to a ghostly shadow. What makes the concept so vibrant and tingly, in fact, is this odd status of absent-presence, and Derrida suggests that all words have this capacity of evocation. But at the same time, for the angry partner who speaks them, they have taken on a life of their own and become The Other Woman, a concept bristling with all sorts of fears and fantasies, other mixed up traces drawn from literature and personal history and the ceaseless work of the imagination. So you see how the same principle keeps asserting itself: language is so full, so busy, so mixed up, and it tends to negate the reality behind it in favour of its own sprawling associations. It’s no wonder that we can always find enough in language for it to betray itself.

‘Betray’ is an apposite term here. Deconstruction and psychoanalysis are very similar in spirit. Both believe that there is an inevitable underside to what gets said where other, hidden meanings lurk.  But those meanings are not necessarily random. Have you ever experienced how hard it is to write a letter when you feel guilty about something, and to prevent that guilt from seeping into the wording? In our arguing couple, the partner who offers the text for deconstruction will probably be trying very hard to give nothing away, to put together a simple story and stick to it. But the chances are that he or she will be betrayed, somewhere along the line, by an awkward turn of phrase or a slip of the tongue. Or it may be a gesture or a look that does the damage – il n’y a pas de hors texte, Derrida also famously said: there is nothing outside or beyond the text. Gestures and looks are part of a language too, also based on relativity. We read them in just the same way we read words. And in this kind of circumstance, when we feel sure that someone is not saying what they mean, and we believe they mean more than they say, we can read ‘against the grain’, or take their language apart, deconstruct it, to find enough evidence of an alternative story underneath.

So you see? Derrida and deconstruction are easy. We all do it naturally anyway. All you do is transplant the processes of argument from two people in a kitchen to an author and a reader over the pages of a book. Where of course it’s much more fun as the author can’t answer you back or stomp off in a huff, and very little is at stake  (although the real deconstructionists would drum me out of town for such sacrilege). Never fear theory; it can be your friend.

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32 thoughts on “Derrida for Dummies

  1. Litlove, where were you when I was in college? I have never read such a wonderful explanation of deconstructionism, so simple and jargon-free! I bet your students love you. I know I sure would have!

    • Oh bless you, you are so kind! I’m not sure I would have got away with teaching Derrida like this in college (and I had to teach him sometimes and felt very unequal to the task) but it was a lot of fun to write. I always loved the ideas, but was never quite anal enough to master all the complications, and so it was the ideas I always focused upon. More fun now with a blog when I can tackle them any way I like!

      • Question, did you mean persnickety, as opposed to pernickety, a word I’ve never heard.
        I also would like to know if you have a good source for me on Derrida’s thoughts on the kinds of words used to ‘deconstruct’.
        Like, why would one say ‘sad’ rather than ‘unhappy’, or something like that.

  2. Very rich and instructive post! Deconstruction is sounding to me a lot like software debugging. The language on the face seems to be talking about one thing but on execution things are different. Then you have to take each line apart and think of other influencing factors and previous events to get to the actual meaning of the problem.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

    • Nivedita – yes! The way you describe debugging sounds very similar indeed to the process of deconstruction – and it sounds quite fascinating. I have never given software debugging a though until I read your comment so thank you for the enlightenment.

  3. GREAT post, Litlove!

    I’ve only read the smallest smattering of Derrida, but I find these ideas pretty fascinating, especially when/if they can be applied in a spirit of engaged curiosity rather than outright hostility toward the text being deconstructed. I love, love, love this sentence:

    That’s because words have this inner fullness and flexibility – they are always ready to be bent in all sorts of different directions, to carry all sorts of meanings, so there is always a sort of bubbling undercurrent of excess in the language we use, and we can’t get rid of it.

    I totally buy into that, and it’s one of the things that makes language so exciting to me. And the idea of the ghostly presences conjured up by our attempts at communication—there are passages in Virginia Woolf that explicitly address that, and they’re among my favorites. Thanks so much for this.

    • It’s funny, deconstruction always sounds like this aggressive process, and whilst some of it was undertaken by alpha-male antler-clashing academics and was a bit hostile, I think it’s essentially the sheer pickiness of its methods and the anal attention to detail that make it seem worse than it is. Have you ever read any criticism by Barbara Johnson? I used to think she was splendid. And I am right behind you when it comes to being interested in the vagaries of language. I loved all that myself. Thank you for your lovely comment!

  4. As an avowed member of the loyal opposition (see here), I just need to throw in my two cents, not directed at any of you but at Derrida himself. I think this is a really lovely explanation of some of the ideas at work, and my only issue is with them being attributed to Derrida himself! Because indeed, such dialogic and semantic ideas occurred to many (in often better form) prior to Derrida.

    One of my favorite examples is Laura Riding’s brilliant essay “Jocasta,” which takes an incisive, “deconstructive” approach to Wyndham Lewis and Oswald Spengler in 1928!

    Unfortunately, Derrida’s relentless self-mythologizing (with assists from de Man, Miller, and others) and arrogance have resulted in him being credited with ideas that one can frequently find in Biblical hermeneutics and philosophy at least as far back as the 18th century. And Derrida often presents these ideas in a less flattering light than they deserve. He frequently slips into an absolutist hyperrelativism which doesn’t leave room for us being able to understand one another in the first place, as well as dismissing any and all opponents as falling prey to the “metaphysics of presence,” whatever those may be.

    Having read my share of Derrida, I am fairly convinced that he had little new to offer to the theoretical discourse, even apart from what appears to be an extremely unpleasant personality.

    The dogmatism of Derrida and his followers has made it too easy for literalists and right-wingers to tar all theory and relativism/pluralism with the same brush, by taking Derrida’s excesses as representative of entire fields of criticism and philosophy. I think he has been incredibly harmful to the reputation of literary theory.

    So I would say again that Litlove’s points are wonderful, but that the moves described are not deconstructive moves per se: they are critical and interpretive ones.

    • David – thank you for your eye-opening comment! I readily admit that I know next to nothing – well, we can really term it nothing – about proper philosophy and I know you have an impressively broad knowledge of it. I know you speak from excellent authority! And I can see why it was so easy for me to play with the processes in this way, because after all, they are general interpretative moves. May I also say how much I appreciated your careful separation of the way I’d presented the ideas from your own critique of Derrida. Many people wouldn’t have been so thoughtful and precise. I certainly agree that all too often literary theory and Derrida are synonymous, which is very far indeed from being the case. I do encourage readers and commenters here to follow through on David’s links.

  5. Great post Litlove. Thanks for explaining something I never really “got” in such a brilliant and yet clear way. Will you please address Modernism and Postmodernism in literature in future posts? I need to be educated! :) It does amaze me (especially after reading Ella Minnow Pea) that we use only 26 symbols to express so very much.

    • Ruthiella – thank you! I um, did write on postmodernism, a long time ago, but you can read the post here if you like:

      https://litlove.wordpress.com/2007/08/05/what-is-postmodernism/

      I had fun for a while going over the theory courses I used to teach. There are probably still people I’ve never written about here, but they are types like Deleuze and Guattari, who I only ever had the faintest grasp of! Did you like Ella Minnow Pea? I enjoyed it very much, although I had some trouble reconciling the fantastic aspects of it with the realism. But that to one side (and it’s a quibble) it’s a very intriguing novel.

  6. I understood everything, a miracle in itself, so thanks. Here are my scattered thoughts:

    - In French, when you do something complicated without noticing it, we refer to M. Jourdain “qui fait de la prose sans le savoir” He’s the main character in Molière’s play, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Have you read it? It’s funny and spot on.

    - When I was reading, I was wondering if you’d take non-verbal language into account. We betray a lot with our bodies and it really makes a large part of our communication. I’ve followed management classes and they teach you to pay attention to attitudes to better understand the motivations of the person in front of you. But it’s not applicable to books, unless they are audio books.

    - And then there’s our personal history, words convey images and cultural references. Haven’t you noticed that it’s easier to say certain things in a foreign language? The words don’t have the same emotional weight, the same educational strings. Nobody taught me not to say “shit” but I was taught not to say “merde”, so “merde” doesn’t have the same weight as “shit” for me. Same thing with “private” words for sex or feelings. You’re more self-conscious in your native language than in a foreign language.

    - I wondered about German in the passage about not knowing what a sentence means until you’ve heard it all. In French and English, verbs come after the subject. In German, you have to wait until the end of the sentence to hear one of the most important words of the phrase. Does Derrida deal with such differences in grammar ? I’m thinking about Latin too. They used to have a lot of liberty regarding the order of the words in sentences. When you learn Latin, you learn to “desconstruct” sentences to translate them and understand what the author meant. It’s a jigsaw sometimes.

    - Of course, I have a Romain Gary quote to share. It comes from Adieu Gary Cooper, a novel which deals a lot with vocabulary and communication. Lenny, the main character says: “C’est un drôle de truc, le vocabulaire. C’est toujours un autre qui parle, même quand c’est vous”. It’s also an important issue in Gros Câlin.

    • Emma – these are very pertinent thoughts! I particularly love the one about German, because I have such vivid memories of listening comprehension exams, waiting for the end of the sentence so I could finally get the verbs I needed to have some idea of what had been said. I honestly don’t know how Germans do it. All that manic rearranging, whilst trying to listen to the start of the next sentence at the same time. I don’t know Latin, although I used to help my son in the very early days (very!) and I do remember him complaining about the word order. I know just what you mean about not having a weight of association burdening a second language. You do learn it in a purer way; I know that I felt I read much better as a literary critic in French than in English because I engaged with the text very straightforwardly. I never felt like making value judgements, because my experience in the French language wasn’t encumbered by them. It’s interesting you should say that because I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but I can see that’s true. I thought I just liked the cultural distance French offered, but it’s deeper than that, in fact. I haven’t read the Moliere you mention, although I have read others by him – love the quote, though, and the quote from Gary, of course. That’s wonderful.

  7. I have to bookmark this… the title is great, just right for me. This also leads me to think of Roland Barthes’ notion of the death of the author. I await a ‘Barthes for Dummies’ post. I’m also curious to know more about Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Marriage Plot. From what I gather, it may well be one of the best books of 2011. Have you reviewed it?

    • Arti – if all goes okay and I get through my jobs, I should be reviewing the Eugenides tomorrow. Such an interesting novel! I did enjoy it a lot. I felt a bit unsure about the title after I’d posted it – I meant it simply as a joke and in the style of all those computer books ‘for Dummies’. But the bloggers who visit here are so far from being dummies I did hope no one would be offended. I really like Barthes – I think he was probably my favourite of all the critics I studied (so useful in his concepts). I once gave a paper at a conference on Barthes and Duras and photography, and the slide I put up in the background was a photo of Barthes looking bored witless at a conference (he hated them). It made me laugh every time I looked at it.

  8. Happy holidays! Though I may sound breathless, it’s actually just contentment and excitement at having a timeout to “comment” and sip some coffee before the household wakes. (fortunately, they are late sleepers on saturdays whereas I have somehow lost the art of “going back to sleep”).

    Loved this entry about Derrida and didn’t realize I knew exactly who he was ’til studying the photo. And oh I had such fun reading through this and thinking laterally about it as I read and yes, to this and yes to that – how true all of it! I never thought of myself as a decontructionist in a conversation (oh, indeed I can be!) and as to the point about a book changing direction within the last two pages, I was so very much counting on that in a book I just finished but it did not happen thus…disappointment.

    All this is to say that I love reading this, “studying it” as it were and your last line just made me chuckle (although i never imagine women as chucklers – I leave that to the men – what better describes are soft laughs of delight? I dunno) anyway, “never fear theory; it can be your friend” is just wonderful.

    And now you have me wanting to jump into my bookstack and look at this and that and enjoying them for the work and the what if’s, not just the story…

    Also, I so enjoyed your entry on SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. I wonder sometimes why we write about books that have been around for so long. But how good and rich to hear another’s take on it, or retake, and then ponder it. Actually, I have not seen the film, but have read the book and listened to it several times (books on tape) en route to work and am now fascinated to know that the Colonel is played by my fave Alan Rickman. Must see!

    • Oh – I do love your comments! They are always so rich. But most of all, I must say, oh yes, DO go and watch the movie of Sense and Sensibility. If you are an Alan Rickman fan you will love him in this – he is at his most velvety and charming. Happy holidays to you too – I do like the image of you up and reading literary theory while the rest of your family sleeps on. I’m so sorry about the ending of your most recent read – Mister Litlove gets very mad at books if they do not end right. And we are all deconstructionists at times – as David so rightly points out, this is because the process is a general one, and not necessarily just Derrida’s province. I hope you got to jump into your bookstack – nothing makes me happier than that!

  9. So lucid, as usual. Your academic work must be a marvel.

    The problem I’ve always had with Derrida is not so much the ideas as the style – the impenetrable, labyrithine, almost malevolent inelegance of it. It’s so damn hard to read (in English, that is), so oblique, so knotted, that I can never quite justify the effort of untangling it. Oddly enough, I think Derrida’s popularity was in actual fact more down to style than substance; intelligent people used the time they spent trying to decode his writing to examine the pattern and processes of their own reading. Reading some theory is like opening a window onto new things; Derrida’s functions more like a mirror.

    And then – O the horror! – everyone started copying it. Lit crit has yet to recover.

    Barthes is so much more incisive, and so much more beautiful.

    • Oh thank you! I found that the density of academic prose is horribly contagious. I began writing very plainly, but as I spent more years as an academic, so I found my sentences grew longer and my ideas more and more complex. I could see it happening, but not do anything about it, which felt very odd and unpleasant. But I did always try to write about things that felt real and urgent. I think what you say about Derrida and style over substance is spot on; also, brilliant observation that Derrida has a mirroring function. As for lit crit, you are so right and I do hope that things will change, and literature studies will return to writing for a general reader in a way that is accessible and important. And I love Barthes. He manages to combine utility, style and insight in a way I really admire.

  10. A belated comment here… I really enjoyed this post, and all the other comments, especially David’s, which came as a shock to me! I had a vague idea about Derrida but understand much better now. Thank you!

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  14. Thanks for this simple explanation of Deconstruction. I have to write a research essay (on Heart of Darkness) for my Introduction to Literature class, and I have been wracking my brain trying to understand the terminology. My instructor is great, but I’ve gotten lost in the wordiness of the terminology. (I mean, binary opposition, really?)

    Again, thank you.

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  16. Thanks so much for this. My son is expected to deconstruct a portion of a text at school (we’re talking high school English here!) and couldn’t get a handle on what deconstruction was. He turned to me for help. Wrong move – the more I read about deconstruction, the more confused I became. And then I happened upon your post which does indeed give credence to your belief that complex ideas can be explained with carefully chosen examples. Your brilliant!
    Thanks again,
    Mom in Toronto

    • Oh thank you! Your comment makes all the occasional slog of running a blog worthwhile. You’ve made my day. And Derrida is so very difficult to understand – I remember very well the immense struggles I had myself to make any sense of him! Good luck to your son, tell him just to go for it, pull it to pieces and have some fun.

  17. Here was my attempt to explain the Derridean ‘supplément’. Think of the magazine in a Sunday paper, often called the Sunday supplement. It’s a lot of extra verbiage, some of it quite scurrilous, and not really very newsworthy. However, without it, the experience of reading a newspaper on a Sunday would not be complete. So it is the very extra, the thing that *exceeds* the notion of the ‘newspaper’, that turns it INTO a newspaper (at least on a Sunday).

    And that’s what Derrida means when he talks about the ‘supplément’ — the extra, pushed-out, excess meaning in words and texts that demands to be heard, and without which the surface, the dominant, meaning can’t make sense.

    Think of the rowing couple reading their Sunday paper in silence, their brains still fizzing with the injustice of it all, seeing Other Women on every page of the magazine….

  18. thank you victoria for simplifying a bit derrida the sorcerer. you’ve made him more approachable to me. this is the first time I feel I understand deconstruction, at least in the basic level. thank you from Israel

  19. Thank you for this – so clear and helpful. I have just been reading “Differance” – I thought I understood the main points, but really couldn’t be sure! This piece clarifies it beautifully.

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