[Reader-list] Derrida through Newspapers

avinash jha kalisaroj at rediffmail.com
Mon Dec 13 17:49:38 IST 2004

Derrida through Newspapers


“He insisted that the act of reading extends from literary texts to films, to works of art, to popular culture, to political scenarios, and to philosophy itself. The practice of "reading" insists that our ability to understand relies on our capacity to interpret signs.  It also presupposes that signs come to signify in ways that no particular author or speaker can constrain in advance through intention.  This does not mean that our language always confounds our intentions, but only that our intentions do not fully govern everything we end up meaning by what we say and write.  [Butler]

 Derrida’s groundbreaking approach to conventional theories of textuality deserve a special mention. This applies to our understanding of the very nature of ‘meaning’ itself. Usually ‘discourse’ or knowledge refers to a ‘centre’ because a) it provides a focus for knowledge to be organized and b) it thereby allows that particular truth or revelation to be presented as absolute. This delimits the meaning(s), restricting its proliferation or free-play. The process of logocentrism allows meanings to exist prior to language and therefore beyond a text. Derrida overthrows this belief by his landmark statement – “
 there is nothing outside the text.”  [Paul]

“Derrida's starting point was his rejection of a common model of knowledge and language, according to which understanding something requires acquaintance with its meaning, ideally a kind of acquaintance in which this meaning is directly present to consciousness. For him, this model involved "the myth of presence", the supposition that we gain our best understanding of something when it - and it alone - is present to consciousness. 

He argued that understanding something requires a grasp of the ways in which it relates to other things, and a capacity to recognise it on other occasions and in different contexts - which can never be exhaustively predicted. He coined the term "differance" ( différance in French, combining the meanings of difference and deferral) to characterise these aspects of understanding, and proposed that differance is the ur-phenomenon lying at the heart of language and thought, at work in all meaningful activities in a necessarily elusive and provisional way. 

Deconstruction and Differance:

The demonstration that this is so largely constituted the work of deconstruction, in which writers who laid claim to purity or transparency or universality - and this would include most of the significant figures in the philosophical tradition - could be shown, by close and careful reading, to be undoing those very claims in the act of making them by their implicit recognition of the ongoing work of differance. 

 it was De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology) that created the greatest stir. After an introductory discussion in which he argued that "grammatology", the theory of written signs, can point the way to an understanding of language freed from the myth of presence and open to the work of differance, he entered upon a brilliant deconstruction of the accounts of language given by Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Rousseau and others. 

Derrida gives most attention to Rousseau, and connects the priority Rousseau gives to speech over writing with the priority he gives to nature over culture, to melody over harmony, and to coitus over masturbation. Derrida noted that, in each case, Rousseau uses the word "supplement" to designate the relationship between the second term and the first. The word suggests that the second term is inessential, merely adding to the first term, which is primary, full, self-sufficient. 

Yet a secondary meaning of the word "supplement" seemed to Derrida to be playing around all Rousseau's uses of it: as the supplement to a dictionary supplies its missing terms, so writing, culture, harmony and masturbation all make up for deficiencies in what was supposed to be the perfect and complete entity to which they are in an ancillary relation. 

The second entity, not quite under the author's control, comes to set the terms which make possible the first entity. "Supplementarity", thus understood, is a manifestation of differance; and other manifestations are explored in Derrida's discussions of the Greek terms pharmakon (both medicine and poison) and hymen (both separation and marriage) in his next major work La Dissémination (Dissemination, 1972).  

[Attridge and Baldwin]

“To conceptualise the way meaning works, Derrida coined the term “differance”. Linguistically speaking we know that a word has a particular reference because it is that thing and not something else (viz. a dog is a dog because it is not a cat). Derrida exposed this belief by propounding the problematic view that meaning, instead of being stable, is rather always in a state of contention and flux. Hence when we think of a dog we also think of what it is not, viz. a cat, a mouse, or a hog! We either negate or silence those different and opposing meanings. This kind of fracture (“aporia”) reveals the otherness of meaning that we may sideline but can never deny. Further, Derrida showed that meaning is never completely defined because it is endlessly “deferred”. Institutions like interpretive schools constantly try to limit the ways in which a text can be read to facilitate their own convenience. However, as Derrida points out, the more they attempt at a particular closure, the more other meanings which are excluded demand to be heard.”


“When responsibly understood, the implications of deconstruction are quite different from the misleading clichés often used to describe a process of dismantling or taking things apart. The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure – be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious – that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.

These exclusive structures can become repressive – and that repression comes with consequences. In a manner reminiscent of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that what is repressed does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems. 
.”   [Taylor]


“Over the years, he delivered a series of moving eulogies, a collection of which was published in 2001 as The Work Of Mourning, but whose French title is even more apt: Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde (Each time unique, the end of the world).”

[Attridge and Baldwin]

“He writes, "There come moments when, as mourning demands (deuil oblige), one feels
obligated to declare one's debts.  We feel it our duty to say what we owe to the friend." He cautions against "saying" the debt and imagining that one might then be done with the debt that way. He acknowledges instead the "incalculable debt" that one that he does not
want to pay: "I am conscious of this and want it thus."  He ends his essay on Lyotard with a direct address: "there it is, Jean Francois, this is what, I tell myself, I today would have wanted to try and tell you."  There is in that attempt, that essai, a longing that cannot
reach the one to whom it is addressed, but does not for that reason forfeit itself as longing. The act of mourning thus becomes a continued way of "speaking to" the other who is gone, even though the other is gone, in spite of the fact that the other is gone, precisely because that other is  gone.”   [Butler]

“Post-modernism in its renunciation of reason, power and truth identifies itself as a process of endless mourning, lamenting the loss of securities which, on its own argument, were none such. Yet this everlasting melancholia accurately monitors the refusal to let go, which I express in the phrase describing post-modernism as ‘despairing rationalism without reason’. One recent ironic aphorism for this static condition between desire for presence and acceptance of absence occurs in an interview by Derrida: ‘I mourn therefore I am.”  [Rose}

“``With him, France has given the world one of its greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures of intellectual life of our time,'' resident Jacques Chirac said in a statement, calling Derrida a ``citizen of the world.''

French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres called Derrida ``profoundly humanist,'' saying the philosopher spent his final years working for the ``values of hospitality,'' particularly between Europe and the Mediterranean ``He wanted to build an open idea of Europe,'' a ministry statement said.  {Ganley]

Butler: Judith Butler’s obituary
Paul: Subhadeep Paul in Statesman [Resisting Closure] October 17 2004
Attridge and Baldwin: Guardian 11th October
Taylor: Mark C. Taylor in Asian Age 16 October 2004 [NYT article]
Rose: Mourning Becomes the Law, Cambridge University Press.
Ganley: Associated Press, Saturday October 9, 2004 9:01 PM

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