Constructive Deconstruction: The Derridean Ethics of Pluralism

In 2009 I wrote a 10,000 word thesis about Jaques Derrida and the inherent ethical system in his early work on linguistics to finish my degree in Philosophy from the Honors College at Western Carolina University. As far as long essays on linguistics and ethics go, I think it’s pretty snazzy.


Constructive Deconstruction:

The Derridean Ethics of Pluralism

by Michael O’Shea


Jacques Derrida’s views on ethics have been misunderstood by many of his readers. Many critics, who may or may not have been diligent readers, often fall into the trap of lumping his philosophical outlook together with Friedrich Nietzsche’s as “nihilistic.” Deconstruction often takes on a connotation of destruction for theorists and the lay reader, and many critics conflate these two concepts as being synonymous—with deconstruction understood as a philosophical method by which the destruction of objective meaning is undertaken. To these critics, Nietzsche and Derrida’s philosophical projects culminate in an announcement of the death of God and absolute meaning, respectively. This results in a lack of foundations on which to build theoretical critiques stemming from their seemingly radically subjective nihilism in which there is no objective morality, truth, meaning, etc., i.e. all those things that philosophy traditionally has held dear. Critics, such as Jürgen Habermas, argue that the lack of foundations within Nietzsche and Derrida’s projects eradicates the possibility of a socio-political critique and real-world application of any sort of ethical system.

However, I will argue that this represents a less productive reading of these two philosophical figures than is possible. To read deconstruction as a destructive philosophy is to fundamentally misunderstand the telos of Derrida’s project and to go against many plausible and productive readings of his texts. In fact, Derrida’s project has no end—the goal is quite the opposite. Rather, deconstruction is constantly seeking a new beginning(s), perpetually deferred, opening up the horizons of possibility to what Derrida calls “the possibility of the impossible,” by which he means that deconstruction shatters the horizons of possibility in order to make room for that which was previously thought impossible. It seeks to examine texts with a powerful microscope, closely reading them and examining their possible interpretations in order to find the unities of meaning that are constructed from texts and to examine the ways in which the inherent cracks in those structures break themselves apart and reveal the hitherto unexpected interpretation. It is not a destruction imposed from the outside, but an opening up and a loosening of constricting structures of interpretation from within.

This initially happens at the level of the sign and within texts in Derrida’s earlier works. The interpretative structures he references are those of the constitution of a “definitive” meaning within a reading of a text. While still working within structures, as is necessary to do any sort of theoretical work, he seeks to bring light to the fact that these structures are inherently constructed and are not founded on any sort of objective, absolute transcendental. In which case, his project is to loosen this construction in order to allow for a pluralism of readings of a text rather than trying to impose an absolute unity of meaning on an interpretive structure that is inherently contingent. In his later work, however, this process is explicitly applied at the ethical level, opening up constricting socio-political and ethical structures in order to make room for the Other—that is, those who have been forgotten, marginalized or repressed precisely by the prevailing social structures. Whether at the level of the sign or of socio-political issues, deconstruction is a method by which these constructed systems are challenged indefinitely, never allowing them to set and concretize into something overly solid and thus exclusionary. I will ground my reading of Derrida’s work in John Caputo’s, insofar as I take the early work as inherently concerned with the socio-political and ethical. Whereas Derrida only later explicitly delineates how deconstruction applies in these areas, the deconstructive perspective is established already in his early work at the level of the sign, and I contend that the ethical application of this perspective lay there as a latent blueprint, waiting for the reader to apply it to other fields as a theoretical critique, something Derrida explicitly does himself in his later work.

Derrida and Nietzsche do not herald the end of meaning per se, but rather an end to the sense of meaning that philosophers have traditionally held as an ideal—that of an absolute, univocal meaning that can be pulled/mined from a work or the mind of its author, a meaning that constricts a text’s pluralism of possibility into a singular definite. Deconstruction does not carry the usual notion of meaning that a philosopher in the modern tradition would hold, lamenting meaning as being devalued by its subjectivity. Deconstruction looks beyond any sort of nostalgia for a univocal meaning, as it is only within this façade of the possibility of there being that kind of meaning that one could even begin to value it as such—for deconstruction, there was never a possibility for absolute meaning. Whereas philosophers have historically been concerned with reading texts in order to find the meaning, the definitive meaning, Derrida is concerned with finding how the text itself lends itself to a multitude of readings, all with their own contextually defined meanings. Metaphorically speaking, Derrida’s project is to let a thousand flowers bloom rather than cutting down the whole field of buds to make way for a singular flower. Deconstruction is only destructive to meaning insofar as it challenges the notion of a singular meaning—it challenges a meaning’s singularity, not meaning itself. It is “not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the deconstruction” (Of Grammatology 10) of a constrictive absolute, univocal meaning. And in doing so, it opens the door to pluralism and the “possibility of the impossible.” It shatters the limiting horizons of possibility and makes room for the other, the wholly other, the tout autre. John Caputo writes that deconstruction is “a shocking of the horizons, a passage to the limits, a jarring loose of the same, an opening up of enclosing surroundings” (Prayers and Tears 24). In this way, deconstruction is an affirmation, a radical way to say “yes” to possibilities of interpretation and to the Other.

I contend that it is actually the philosophical outlooks that seek a singularity in meaning that are the destructive ones, for they must hack away at the inherent multitude of possibilities to artificially create a singular meaning through a kind of philosophical violence. In asking “what did the author mean when they wrote the text?” or “what does the text mean?” there is an inherent exclusionary process happening when the intent is to find what the text means definitively. They must clear away the field of multifarious subjective, perspectival meanings to get at this singular, objective meaning—that can only exist within a constructed system that is rife with hairline cracks and fissures. Due to the nature of sign systems, there will always be an alternative way to read a text, questions concerning the meaning of a text as forced exclusions and absurd. Deconstruction does not ask “what does the text mean?” but rather asks “what is going on in this text and what kinds of readings are possible within this text?” It affirms these possible readings and explores them. Caputo writes that deconstruction is “affirmation at the limits, a limitless affirmation of the impossible, tout autre” (Prayers and Tears 26). Where deconstruction says “yes, I affirm that too,” an absolute meaning requires one to say “no, no, no” ad infinitum until there is only one left (or at least until there is some sort of belief in this artificially created singular). Deconstruction seeks to keep the door open to an alternative reading, to an ever-expanding collection of alternative readings. It is in this way that deconstruction allows texts to continue to breathe and continue to speak to successive generations.

Deconstruction’s affirmative nature actually translates from the method for reading texts in Derrida’s early work into an ethical system that, above all, values pluralism and making room for the Other. Examining the ethical applications of Derrida’s project in his own later works and via John Caputo’s work in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, Derrida’s thought begins to bear a striking resemblance to the Jewish prophetic tradition and, above all, it can be seen as a call for an opening up to make room for the Other. Whereas Caputo grounds his work mainly in the later Derrida, as that is where the ethical applications of deconstruction become more explicit, both he and I hold that the early work on language, particularly Of Grammatology, still has direct ethical applications. Whereas these become explicit later on, my reading is that the ethical is implicit in the earlier work, and I ground my application of deconstruction as an affirmative ethical position mainly in his early work on semiotics in Of Grammatology.

In this paper I will first situate Derrida within a historical context in philosophy and linguistics. Then I will explore how Derrida’s thought is a challenge to traditional concept of an absolute, univocal meaning. I will examine the challenges and critiques of deconstruction that contend that it is a nihilistic philosophical system, the same category of criticisms laid against Nietzsche. I will demonstrate that deconstruction is an inherently affirmative philosophy at its core, not merely in Derrida’s later works, but from his early texts on. I will show how James Joyce offers a beautiful illustration of deconstruction at work in the literary tradition and how Friedrich Nietzsche offers an example of the kind of pluralistic philosophical method that Derrida lauds, as well as how Derrida’s work can be seen as a kind of intellectual heir to Nietzsche’s project of perspectivism. And lastly I will show that this affirmative perspective creates an ethical system of pluralistic acceptance, opening up constrictive systems to make room for the pluralistic Other.


The Linguistic Turn in Philosophy

Much of philosophy in the twentieth century, early on in the Anglo-American tradition and later in the Continental, has been dominated by the motif of language. Philosophers and literary theorists have concerned themselves with the inner structural workings of language, sharing a fundamental belief in the importance of understanding language in order to better understand human thought, how that affects our understanding of the world, being, meaning and so on. A popular line of thought has been that philosophy, at its root, deals with language and, regardless of what philosophical position is being espoused, it is always through the medium of language. Simon Glendinning discusses the importance of language to twentieth century philosophy in his book Understanding Derrida:

It is a commonplace today to suppose that the characteristic feature of Anglo-American philosophy in the twentieth century was that it made a decisive ‘linguistic turn’. This meant that philosophical problems…came to be regarded as fundamentally problems about language, or at least problems whose solution was fundamentally dependent upon a correct analysis of language. (Glendinning 5)

As a written or spoken form, philosophy cannot escape its medium, and, if we are to better think through some of life’s most puzzling questions, we ought to understand the medium through which we think. And to truly understand contemporary philosophy, one must have an understanding of the historical turn to language in philosophy and literary theory.

If philosophy in the twentieth century has hosted a myriad of views on the structure and workings of language, the work of French philosopher and literary theorist Jacques Derrida constitutes the concretization of language’s central importance to the Continental tradition, following the earlier turn of the Anglo-American tradition. Glendinning writes, “With the appearance of structuralism and then Derrida’s studies of the structure of signs in the late 1960s, the situation on the continent appeared to be changing. There too, it seemed, language was starting to take centre-stage as the most fundamental object of philosophical investigation” (Glendinning 5). Derrida himself writes that “this inflation of the sign ‘language’ is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself … this crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon” (Of Grammatology 6). And to understand Derrida’s presence within this movement, we must situate him in the historical context, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century when Bertrand Russell and the logical atomists in England were trying to systematize language to find a univocal, logical language that could describe the world. Their project was founded on the belief that there existed the possibility of translating language into a logical meta-system that cleared away the obfuscation within language in order to better reason through philosophical problems. They thought that if they could comprehend this system and reduce the problems of philosophy into the language of a sort of “pure logic” they could eliminate the problems that unclear language introduced. However, Russell’s brightest student even, Ludwig Wittgenstein, eventually did not agree that language could be systematized in such a way.

Derrida’s work is heavily indebted to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, considered to be the father of structuralist linguistics. Saussure is generally credited with firmly concretizing the concept of the sign into the philosophical world and doing the first in-depth analysis of the relationship between signified and signifier. Saussure’s work established that the sign—the fundamental unit of linguistic meaning—consisted of two distinct parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the word itself, whether written or spoken, and the signified is that existing thing, whether physical or conceptual, to which the word refers. According to Saussure, the relationship of signifier to signified is completely arbitrary, but, in order for language to function, this arbitrary relationship, once established, must remain fixed in place. The signifier “Car” could just as easily refer to the signified four legged mammal we call “Cat;” what’s important is that whatever the relationship is, however arbitrary, it remains stable and fixed so that there is an agreed upon definition and linguistic communication can occur. This, however, is not how the sign gains its linguistic meaning. In order for a signifier to mean anything, it is defined by its negative space, i.e. there must exist a recognizable difference between signifiers so that tell the difference between them. When one says or writes the signifier “Cat” we know that it refers to the signified of an animal instead of an automobile because we can differentiate the T on “Cat” from the R on “Car”. “The spacing of signs from one another is what creates the phenomenon of meaning rather than any sort of essential, inherent logos. It is in the negative space and the play of signs with one another that we find meaning, not in the signs themselves” (Of Grammatology 7).  It is in this spacing between signs that we find their value as a linguistic currency. There is no positive meaning in this arbitrary space between signifier and signified. Rather, the meaning is created out of the negation, by the spacing of the sign from other signs. Through differentiation a system of language is able to establish meaning for itself (Literary and Cultural Theory, 135-142). “The development of linguistics—the scientific study of language—promised that human expression and behavior might be fully explained by using a standard set of analytical rules to uncover the basic organizing principles of language and culture” (Literary and Cultural Theory, 135). For Saussure and the structuralists, signs must be examined via their whole gamut of context with other signs. This study was synchronic, focusing on the context of signs within the present moment.

Building on Saussure’s work, the structuralists Claude Levi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson “looked especially for the ways in which meanings are made through oppositions (or binaries)” (Literary and Cultural Theory, 136). This concept was elaborated upon by John Culler in his influential book The Pursuit of Signs. In his work, he acknowledges that “no sign is ever fully understandable or capturable as one might capture a scientific specimen and place it under glass” (Literary and Cultural Theory, 136). This move by Culler acknowledged that the task of comprehending the totality of a sign’s context, even synchronically within a single moment in history, was an impossibility. Whereas Derrida agrees with Culler in the impossibility of pinning down meaning in signs, the theory for the production of meaning in language that the first structuralists held is too reductionistic for him. Regardless of how much of an intellectual debt he holds to Saussure for his pioneering work on sign structures, “Derrida’s writings are frequently regarded as a particularly radical version of the general ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy” (Glendinning 5), and Derrida represents a breaking point in philosophy of language between structuralism and poststructuralism. For him, to give a wholly accurate picture of how language functions one cannot simply examine the synchronic context of a word, however vast a subject that is. One must go further still and examine the sign diachronically as well, noting not just the context of a sign within a single moment, but also within the moment of history. The synchronic analysis that the structuralists espoused already meant that a complete analysis of meaning in language would be nigh impossible, for one cannot possibly fathom the entirety of a sign’s linguistic context. “By definition, difference is never in itself a sensible plentitude” (Of Grammatology 53). However, Derrida added a second layer to this problem by saying that the sign must be analyzed diachronically as well as synchronically, examining this context as it had progressed throughout the history of the sign. This twofold analytical system means that reaching a definitive conclusion on the meaning of a sign is utterly impossible, but it is an incomplete picture to look at meaning in only a single moment. The main differentiating aspect between structuralism and poststructuralism is this move from seeing the production of linguistic meaning as stemming from merely difference in sign systems to seeing at also being produced by a temporal deferral through history.


Absolute Meaning Is Dead, And We Have Killed Him

Derrida opts for the same sort of negative production of meaning as Saussure, but with the added acknowledgement of the diachronic aspect in the production of linguistic meaning, thereby adding the concept of deferral to the work of the structuralists. Derrida calls this phenomenon of difference and deferral by a peculiar and profoundly important term—différance. This combination of the themes of difference and deferral into one word encapsulates his theory on the production of meaning in language and the impossibility of the achievement and grasping of an absolute meaning at once. “We shall designate by the term differance the movement by which language, or any code, any system of reference in general, becomes ‘historically’ constituted as a fabric of differences” (“Differance” 141). Derrida begins his 1968 essay entitled Differance by establishing a base definition for différance:

The verb “to differ” seems to differ from itself. On the one hand, it indicates difference as distinction, inequality, or discernibility; on the other, it expresses the interposition of delay, the interval of a spacing and a temporizing that puts off until “later” what is presently denied, the possible that is presently impossible. Sometimes the different and sometimes the deferred correspond to the verb “to differ.” This correlation, however, is not simply one between act and object, cause and effect, or primordial and derived.

In the one case “to differ” signifies nonidentity; in the other case it signifies the order of the same. Yes there must be a common, although entirely different, root within the sphere that relates the two movements of differing to one another. We provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical: by the silent writing of its a, it has the desired advantage of referring to differing, both as spacing/temporalizing and as the movement that structures every dissociation. (“Differance” 129-130)

For Derrida, getting at the “meaning” of a text is a perpetually deferred process. In this diachronic historical examination, time is a constantly moving force. As there is no end to time, there is no definite definition. Rather, history is always in motion, pushing the meaning of the sign to move with it, slowly evolving and shifting. This movement is perceived in the diachronic analysis. As all these signs shift through time, the synchronic context of these signs is always subtly shifting, as well, every new moment in history bringing a different context. Meaning cannot be reached and pinned down like a preserved insect specimen. It is always just out of reach, deferred again as each passing moment subtly shifts the totality of human experience and the linguistic context via this concept of différance (Literary and Cultural Theory 161-169).

Derrida’s concept of différance is, however, not a concept, as we understand such a thing. Nor is it, in so far as it has a being and an essence enough that we could say it “is” any sort of “thing,” in the traditional sense. “Différance is but a quasi-transcendental anteriority, not a supereminent, transcendent ulteriority” (Prayers and Tears 3). The [non-]concept of différance is a quasi-thing—that which creates the possibility and impossibility (in separate senses) of meaning, but has no inherent meaning or discernable conception itself. It is like a traditional transcendental insofar as it is the condition of the possibility of something, in this case linguistic meaning. However, it is not a hard, foundational transcendental as it is also the condition of the impossibility of any sort of stable and univocal meaning. This condition of différance hovers in the tension of the existent/nonexistent binary as a kind of spectral ghost quasi-transcendental, neither here nor there and neither present or absent. Différance navigates the waters between existence and nonexistence and is (if we could say such a thing) in a way the tension between the two states. “Différance, on the other hand, is less than real, not quite real, never gets as far as being or entity or presence, which is why it is emblematized by insubstantial quasi-beings like ashes and ghosts which flutter between existence and nonexistence, or with humble khôra, say, rather than with the prestigious Platonic sun” (Prayers and Tears 2-3). It is the spacing and play inherent to language that which creates the possibility for meaning within language. Différance is the condition of the possibility of meaning, as it is the condition of the possibility for this linguistic play. In the same movement, it is also the condition of the impossibility of a definitive, absolute meaning, as this play is what makes encapsulating the totality of a sign’s meaning impossible. Différance is the condition of the possibility of a contextually defined, subjective meaning and the condition of the impossibility of an absolute, objective meaning. The change of the “e” to an “a” in the French does not alter the pronunciation of the word “difference” one bit. It is a hidden change in speech, which is something of a subtle joke that Derrida plays to destabilize of the traditional hierarchy of speech over writing that is rampant in the logocentric Western thought, especially of the Greeks, that Derrida is attacking (his essay Plato’s Pharmacy deals explicitly with Plato’s hierarchy of speech and language and deconstructs this traditional valuing of one over the other). The destabilization of traditional hierarchies, especially in systems of binaries, is central to the work of Derrida and the deconstructive project (both in the interpretation of texts and in ethics). Différance is the closest thing in Derrida’s work that could be considered a focal point and a kind of cornerstone to his thought, and it explicitly occupies this space of tension in a binary.

The radical contextualizing of linguistic meaning that happens in deconstruction creates a new notion for meaning that has far-reaching consequences for text, both narrowly and broadly defined. Text is for Derrida a very abstract and inclusionary term. His early work deals specifically with literary and philosophical texts, that is to say text as a written form on par with the popular conception of the term. We quickly see, however, that this is not all Derrida has in mind. Rather, text is a broad and expansive term, and the understanding of “text” has consequences for our understanding of the construction of meaning itself. When Derrida famously—perhaps notoriously—said “there is nothing outside the text,” he was establishing a definite stance on the importance of context to understanding meaning. “From the moment that there is meaning there are nothing but signs. We think only in signs. Which amounts to ruining the notion of the sign at the very moment when, as in Nietzsche, its exigency is recognized in the absoluteness of its right” (Of Grammatology 50). Our interaction with the world is such that we are forced to interpret it in order to understand it and function within it. Thus we always necessarily encounter the world as already carved up by this interpretive process into some sort of meaningful whole. There simply is no un-interpreted fact of the matter, as we are always encountering the world from our unavoidably subjective pre-interpreted perspective. Simply put, there is no view from nowhere. In which case, our understanding of the world is the same process as our understanding of a text. It works through the same sign systems whose meaning, due to their very construction, is constituted by this synchronic and diachronic context. The world is thus analyzed and interpreted and given meaning by this différance, and the breakdown of an absolute, univocal meaning that is static throughout history thus happens at the level of interpretation of a text narrowly defined as well as in a metaphysical sense as text broadly defined.

Derrida attacks the metaphysical notion of logocentrism that is integral to much Western thought via this critique. The logos can be translated from its Greek to mean literally word, but can also be understood to connote speech, logic and reason. Throughout the history of Western philosophical thought, the logos has become something of an ideological deity, with many philosophers considering attaining this kind of univocal, atemporal Truth as the telos of intellectual endeavors. Reason was considered the ideal model for human thought because it was considered the sole route by which one could reach this static and absolute Truth. Much of the Greek tradition valued reason so highly for this reason, to which Derrida directly responds. Derrida does not call for an end to reason, as it is a necessary system to work through. Reason, for Derrida, is simply one mode of human thought, and a very valuable tool at that. We must necessarily use these kinds of preexisting structures to work through, the difference is that we must recognize their contingency. The trap that Derrida wishes to avoid is not reason, but the telos that reason has traditionally been used to try and attain—that of an univocal and absolute Truth. Rather than subscribe to this Western ideal of essentialism in meaning, he prescribes a contextually based pluralistic notion of meaning that destabilizes this conception of an absolute and univocal Truth. The first line of Nietzsche’s work Beyond Good and Evil establishes his metaphor of truth as a woman that Derrida explores at length in Spurs. “Supposing truth is a woman—what then? Are there not grounds for the suspicion that all philosophers, insofar as they were dogmatists, have been very inexpert about women? … What is certain is that she has not allowed herself to be won—and today every kind of dogmatism is left standing dispirited and discouraged. If it is left standing at all!” (Beyond Good and Evil 192). Nietzsche holds the same belief as Derrida that getting at a sort of univocal, absolute, transcendent Truth is impossible. Derrida continues the metaphor of truth as a woman in Spurs to reinforce he and Nietzsche’s belief in the impossibility of attaining this kind of univocal Truth:

The credulous and dogmatic philosopher who believes in the truth that is woman, who believes in truth just as he believes in woman, this philosopher has understood nothing. He has understood nothing of truth, nor anything of woman. Because, indeed, if woman is truth, she at least knows that there is no truth, that truth has no place here and that no one has a place for truth. And she is woman precisely because she herself does not believe in truth itself, because she does not believe in what she is, in what she is believed to be, in what she thus is not. (Spurs 53)

Nietzsche’s belief in perspectivism was the same kind of rejection of a transcendental foundation for absolute, objective Truth that Derrida carries out via semiotics. When Nietzsche famously proclaimed “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” (The Gay Science 95), he was proclaiming an end to the concept of their being an objective transcendental to found any kind of absolute, essentialist conception of meaning. In the same way, Derridean deconstruction calls for an end to absolute meaning and the objective, transcendent foundations that such a conception would entail, or, more accurately, explains how the idea of there ever having been this kind of absolute meaning was always illusory. Whether we say that absolute meaning is dead or that God is dead, the point remains the same for Derrida and Nietzsche—that a transcendent univocal Truth was always illusory and never really attainable. This, however, is not without controversy.


A Destructive Deconstruction?

Derrida’s heralding of the end of definite meaning is seemingly a proclamation of the end of meaning itself to some critics. Indeed, there is a popular conception of a meaning that entails a definitive totality frozen in time, an access to the essence of the logos, as the Greeks sought and as many a preceding philosopher sought. The lover of wisdom sought a singular wisdom in stasis, one that could be encapsulated and stored preserved and ageless. And in fact Derrida does proclaim an end to this kind of meaning, to this kind wisdom. But we must not fall prey to the bait, as many an unobservant critic has, of proclaiming Derridean deconstruction as a destructive system of analysis that is a nihilistic end to meaning itself. “The ‘rationality’ … which governs a writing thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in that of the logos. Particularly the signification of truth” (Of Grammatology, 10). The end of this kind of logocentric essentialist meaning that Derrida is denouncing is not an end to meaning per se, but rather the end of a hegemonic meaning. It is the fall of the dictatorial regime of the singular meaning, replaced by a democratic pluralism of meanings in which each potentiality has a voice.

Unfortunately, critics in both Derrida’s and Nietzsche’s times saw their philosophical outlooks as negative, nihilistic and destructive—they saw it to a challenge to those things they held dear. Caputo holds that deconstruction was never a challenge to these things at all and that to associate it as such is fallacious:

Deconstruction is not out to undo God or deny faith, or to mock science or make nonsense out of literature, or to break the law, or, generally, to ruin any of those hoary things at whose very mention all your muscles constrict. Deconstruction is not in the business of defaming good names but of saving them. Sauf le nom. Where would it get the authority? Who would have given it the power to wipe away the horizon, to dry up the sea, or to fill up the abyss with such a decisive, definitive result, such an unbelievable, atheistic closure? Would it mount a public campaign? Where would it get the funds? Would it expect support from the National Endowment for the Humanities? (Dream on!) Why would deconstruction want to associate itself with the prevention of the wholly other? What kind of madness would that be for something that arises from a pact with the tout autre? (Prayers and Tears 5)

The very idea of deconstruction as being destructive runs counter to the whole concept. It is not a pre-vention of the Other, but an in-vention from the French in-venire, literally “in-coming” of the Other. Destruction is not of a text from the outside by force, deconstruction is not an external force applied to a thing. First, one would say that it is never applied to a thing at all. Meaning is not a thing at all—that would imply some sort of essence. Meaning is made form the spacing and the play between concepts, and these webs of signification cannot be broken down into a cohesive “thing” in itself. Furthermore, there is no outer force being applied to meaning. It is merely an examination of how the illusion of a constituted singularity—a “thing” of meaning—unravels itself under examination. In this regard Deconstruction is absolutely benign, acting on a no-thing, in fact, not even acting, but engaging with the text and diligently observing this spacing and watching as it shifts, watching as possible meanings are uncovered and de-sedimented.

Derrida’s contemporaneous critic Jürgen Habermas leveled against him the argument that deconstruction offers no foundation on which to base a socio-political critique. Habermas’ own work is concerned with the uncovering of normative structures relative to which one may base a critique. In the realm of communication, Habermas sought a “theory of universal pragmatics as the best explanation of human communication” (“Splitting the Difference” 134) in order to have an ideal relative which he could critique the ways in which actual communication breaks down and fails to measure up to this ideal. Without these normative structures, Habermas argues that there is no valid foundation on which we can build a socio-political critique. Deconstruction is thus seen by him as an anti-foundationalist philosophy that implicitly has no grounds for socio-political critique, rendering it as useless within the public sphere. “The labor of deconstruction lets the refuse heap of interpretations, which it wants to clear away in order to get at the buried foundations, mount ever higher” (Habermas 183). Without some sort of normative ideal, Habermas argues that deconstruction merely adds interpretation upon interpretation and never gets at any sort of definitively better interpretation. Without an ideal for what makes a good interpretation, it flounders in a directionless proliferation of subjective and un-evaluable interpretations; in the same way without an ideal for what would make a good socio-political system, it flounders in a proliferation of directionless critiques of the current systems.

To Habermas’ critique, Derrida slyly responded “those who have accused me of reducing philosophy to literature or logic to rhetoric … have visibly and carefully avoided reading me” (“Is There a Philosophical Language?” 37). Derrida, unlike Habermas, sees his philosophy of deconstruction as being perfectly capable of leveling the kinds of socio-political critiques that Habermas is concerned with. “Derrida may give the impression that he rejects philosophy, truth, logic and reason altogether, and turns everything into rhetoric. However, his style is designed to ‘show’ the paradoxes following from any attempt to ‘say’ these things” (“Splitting the Difference” 135). In his essay “Splitting the Difference” in Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Moderninity, David Couzens Hoy defends Derrida’s nuanced position against Habermas’ critique:

Contrary to Habermas’s reading, then, Derrida does not deny truth reason, or the seriousness of philosophical discourse. He knows he cannot deny that there is truth … The question is why some statements are taken to be not only true, but more significant than others … Derrida therefore can question cogently whether any interpretation can claim to have captured ‘the truth’ of a given text of author, where ‘the truth’ means the single correct way in which to see all the things that are true … Similarly, Derrida denies being an enemy of reason. He may want to challenge the rationality of many established conceptual distinctions or institutional practices. (“Splitting the Difference” 135-136)

Derrida is not left with a foundationless position from which he cannot make critiques. Quite the contrary, he is in a position from which he can thoroughly examine structures and find the ways in which they agree and disagree with themselves and see the ways in which a closed system becomes exclusionary. Within Habermas’ model of an ideal normative structure, there exists the possibility for an exclusion, as is the case in all static systems that seek a definitive and singular truth. On the basis that there is an inherent plurality of possible interpretations, Derrida challenges this idea of a singularity, an idea that has the distinct possibility of being overly constrictive and closing off the possibility of the Other.


Letting A Thousand Flowers Bloom

I contend that deconstruction is the most constructive of philosophies and that the antithetical system of producing a singular meaning is in reality the most destructive. To achieve a singular, one must negate the totality of potentiality in favor of this one—one must destroy all possibilities save for the chosen one. Deconstruction these destructive systems of artificially imposed singularities in favor of plurality. It radically opens up the systems of meaning that have been constructed and de-sediments the inherent potentiality. It does not destroy meaning, but only the meaning, as defined by its singularity, in order to let a thousand flowers bloom, so to speak. Caputo writes that this affirmative process of opening up is the crux of deconstruction:

Deconstruction is never merely negative; its desire is never satisfied with “no, no.” Deconstruction is thoroughly mistrustful of discourses that prohibit this and prohibit that, that weigh us down with debts and “don’ts.” Deconstruction is so deeply and abidingly affirmative—of something new, of something coming—that it finally breaks out in a vast and sweeping amen, a great oui, ouià l’impossible, in a great burst of passion for the impossible. So over and beyond, this first, preparatory and merely negative point, deconstruction says yes, affirming what negative theology affirms whenever it says no. Deconstruction desires what negative theology desires and it shares the passion of negative theology—for the impossible. (Prayers and Tears 3)

These first flowers to bloom are various new interpretations of texts, loosening the constricting systems of interpretation that are concerned with finding the meaning of a text in order to let many possible interpretations blossom. In the later work, though implicit all along, this loosening is to allow for the possibility of the wholly other, the tout autre, the impossible to bloom. In an ethical sense and a religious sense, deconstruction is the preparation for that other, for the impossible. Whereas Habermas is more concerned with finding this normative ideal from which to base critique, Derrida is concerned with making sure that these imposed static ideals to not become constrictive of other possible interpretations—“truths”—that are potentially just as valid given a different arbitrarily decided ideal. This is, of course, not to say that anything goes in interpretation—Derrida holds on to a sense of valuation, but he recognizes there are often multitudes of possible interpretations that are just as good as the next one. The idea is to recognize that the systems of valuation are contextually defined.

For Derrida, this process of deconstruction, this opening up, is not imposed from outside of the structure. “The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it” (Of Grammatology 24). When a structure is placed under a powerful enough microscope we see that deconstruction happens automatically. The seams of the system immediately begin to unravel at the moment they are placed under scrutiny. In a roundtable discussion, Derrida once described his process of reading as one that “is not a way of commanding, repeating, or conserving… It is an analysis which tries to find out how their thinking works or does not work, to find the tensions, the contradictions, the heterogeneity within their own corpus” (Nutshell 9). The inherent play in a text stemming from this [non-]concept of différance eliminates the possibility of a single definitive reading of a text, regardless of what scholars or even the author himself says. There will simply always be a shifting context within every given moment of time and there is no temporal stability through time. However, regardless of the differed and deferred impossibility of definite meaning, “We can love this play” (Of Grammatology 42) and embrace it.

Contrary to criticism, Derrida’s method of reading is not a chaotic and haphazard—quite the contrary, Derrida stresses the importance of close reading of texts to an extreme extent. One must love this play and examine it at work under a microscope. His own analytical method is that of a fine tooth comb, going through texts until he finds a snag in the seams. He then traces out the manner in which the text deconstructs itself, he traces the seam as it opens itself before a watchful eye. In this regard, Deconstruction is not a formal, systematized method of literary analysis:

Deconstruction is something which happens and which happens inside; there is a deconstruction at work within Plato’s work, for instance. As my colleagues know, each time I study Plato I try to find some heterogeneity in his own corpus, and to see how, for instance, within the Timaeus the theme of the khôra is incompatible with this supposed system of Plato. So, to be true to Plato, and this is a sign of love and respect for Plato, I have to analyze the functioning and disfunctioning of his work. (Nutshell 9)

A formal method of reading involves a process in which there is an imposition of meaning onto a text. In order for a dynamic thing—a text—to fit inside a prescribed, circumscribed theoretical framework, it must reduce itself—the dynamic nature is thus lost in the name of the structure. This is the distinctive and foundational way in which deconstruction differs from other theories of reading—it is an expansion of the dynamic aspects of a text rather than a constriction. “‘Translating’ in deconstruction is nothing reductionistic, and that is because différance opens things up rather than barring the door closed” (Prayers and Tears 4). By examining the inherent contradictions and breakdowns of systems that exists in a text, one breathes life into the naturally pluralistic tendencies of a text instead of suffocating the play of contradictions through ignoring them and focusing on an artificially unified meaning. Texts are, by nature, dynamic, ever-shifting, slipping and malleable to play. It is this dynamic nature that Derrida wishes to preserve in his readings, rather than squash it out. He seeks to record the movements of a swarm of butterflies from observation of their dynamic lives rather than plucking one out of the sky and examining it while it is chemically preserved, dead and stabbed down by a scientific pin, set into an artificially imposed stasis.


Kindred Spirits

Derrida and Nietzsche are philosophical kindred spirits, both finding an immense affirmation in a sort of negation. Their negation of unified truth—of the logocentric yearnings of their philosophical heritage and contemporaneous peers—opened both of them up to accusations of heralding destructive, nihilistic philosophical systems. In reality, they espoused no such systems, in the traditional sense, and to even put forth that they offered any systems, per se, is a highly debatable contention. Some philosophers read Nietzsche as being a systematic philosopher and read his concept of the Will to Power as the cornerstone to his philosophical position. However, I ground my interpretation of Nietzsche in Alexander Nehamas’ readings in which the central core, if one could say such a thing, to understanding Nietzsche’s philosophy does not lie in understanding his conception of Will to Power, but in the theory of “perspectivism, Nietzsche’s famous insistence that every view is only one among many possible interpretations, his own views, particularly this very one, included” (Nehamas 1). This paradoxical and ubiquitous insistence in Nietzsche’s work creates a distinct problem to those who would read him as a systematic philosopher creating some sort of positive structure. Nehamas writes that “perspectivism presents a serious challenge to the principals according to which an interpretation that aims to proceed coherently and to attribute a coherent position to Nietzsche must be presented” (Nehamas 2). Whereas some choose to focus on the “positive” views of Nietzsche’s work, these readings are forced to overlook his focus on perspectivism in order to proceed, thus rendering them on shaky philosophical ground from their start (Nehamas 2).

Derrida’s prescription for philosophy is far more explicitly in favor of a lack of systems, i.e. of concretized, permanent, solid structures by which we ground readings. For him, rigid structures of meaning are an impossibility, doomed always to have the ground beneath them waver and send hairline fractures through the framework’s structure. The very constitution of the building materials—signs and sign systems—would never allow the foundation to set into a concrete cornerstone. These hairline fractures in the frame’s structure—always there, yet rarely examined—are often the focus of Derrida’s examinations. Nietzsche’s writing was aimed at presenting his philosophical structures as magnified, revealing to the naked eye where the system cracked as a unified whole. Whereas most philosophers try and hide their inconsistencies, Nietzsche laid them bare and in the open for all to see under the banner of perspectivism. Thus, there is arguably an inherent impossibility in finding one meaning and one framework in Nietzsche’s work. Whereas he seems to espouse certain structures, Nehamas argues that these are always with his view of perspectivism in mind. He is self-conscious that his view is his view, one of many different possible views, and should be treated as such. Both Derrida and Nietzsche of course do not disregard structures entirely. Nietzsche must write from a perspective—the key is realizing that it is a perspective, one of many. For Derrida, this facet is, of course, a facet of any constructed meaning or framework—it is merely a question of how high powered a microscope one must use to examine a text to find where the seams unravel themselves. Derrida is explicit that we must necessarily make use of these preexisting structures, but we must understand that there is always a different structure we could work through and that no structure is absolute and static throughout time.

Derrida has an affinity for writers like Nietzsche and James Joyce for this reason: their texts present themselves fully as blown up images of themselves. A microscope is not needed to see the seams and watch them rip, thus making a deconstructive reading all the easier. All of the inconsistency and play in their language is out in the open, shifting and disrupting any sort of constructed structure unabashedly. Singularity and the logocentric truth are not extolled so much as a pluralistic truth(s). “Nietzsche has written what he has written. He has written that writing—and first of all his own—is no originarily subordinate to the logos and to truth. And that this subordination has come into being during an epoch whose meaning we must deconstruct” (Of Grammatology 19). Nietzsche unabashedly writes towards plural truths. In a historical milieu of philosophers obsessed with singularity, Nietzsche’s move away from the unified logos is radical. Of no surprise, then, is Derrida’s fascination with his intellectual ancestor of sorts, a fascination that spurs him to write an entire book on his predecessor and his particular and peculiar styles. “The ‘question of style’ is, as you have no doubt recognized, a quotation. Thus it serves to indicate that what I shall put forth here is already a part of that space which certain readings, in launching a new phase in the process of deconstructive (i.e. affirmative) interpretation, have de—marcated during the last two years” (Spurs 37). Nietzsche’s project is essentially the same project as Derrida, i.e. to challenge the presupposition of meaning as a univocal transcendental and to move towards an ethics of pluralism. Derrida’s work is differentiated as it is more self-aware and reflective. Whereas Nietzsche lived deconstruction as a writer, Derrida analyzes how philosophers and writers like Nietzsche and himself lived this deconstructive project. The projects of both philosophers are deeply affirmative, saying “yes! (yes, yes, yes…)” to a pluralism of interpretations and affirming the opening up of the constrictive aspect of any closed system and singular, univocal reading.

In this first paragraph of Spurs, his work on Nietzsche, he equates the deconstructive method of reading with an affirmative method. The wording—“Deconstructive (i.e. affirmative)”—goes so far as to directly equate the two words; for Derrida, Deconstruction is affirmation. He views both his and Nietzsche’s and Joyce’s work all as affirmative at its core, trading in the dogmatism of unified meanings for the endless play of multitudinous meanings. Writers that try to write across time and use language as if there were a possibility for univocity hold there is a way to write in which “the same words bear the same meaning across time, that later generations be able to repeat and reactivate exactly the same sense, in order thereby to allow communication and, hence, progress among generations of investigators” (Nutshell 183). This goes against deconstruction’s view of language and the method of writing employed by Derrida, Nietzsche and Joyce. Nietzsche represents this historical deconstruction before it was called as such in the field of text defined broadly, that is to say philosophy. And on the other hand, James Joyce is representative of the text defined narrowly, that is to say in literature. Joyce’s radical use of language in such works as Finnegans Wake is an example of language used with the inherent slippage and play laid bare and in the open, making a deconstructive reading possibly with the naked eye, so to speak. “‘Joyce’ is the name of one of the poles of deconstruction, the name of one of its tropics, the name of a body of texts in which the chance, the contingency, the associative powers, the mobility, the energy, and the ‘joy’ of the trace are almost perfectly summoned” (Nutshell 184). Relative to the univocal conception of writing which seeks for a perfect correlative relation in language, “The opposite conception is Joyce’s, which locates history in releasing every buried association in language, in loading every vocable, word, and sentence with the highest possible amount of associative potential, which cultivates rather than avoids plurivocity, so that history lurches forward in a labyrinth, a ‘nightmare’ of equivocation” (Nutshell 183). Writing cannot be simply a matter of pure equivocation. A kind of writing that could be said to be perfectly corollary and a pure equivocity like this would indeed be an impossibility. And in the same way one in which there is pure plurivocity would lose all referential possibility.

Faced with the impossibility of writing across time to the next generation in a univocal exchange of meaning, Joyce embraced the slippage and play, saying “yes!” to them and affirming the pluralistic tendencies of language in an extreme and radical way. “Deconstruction—as usual—situates itself in the distance between these two,” (Nutshell 183) between pure univocity and pure plurivocity. “For unbridled equivocality would breed such confusion that ‘the very text of its repetition’ would be unintelligible, even as perfect univocity, were such a thing possible, would result only in paralysis and sterility, in indefinite reiteration of the same” (Nutshell 183). Granted, Joyce is often criticized—especially in the case of Finnegans Wake—for being “unreadable.” As Derrida is quick to point out, it is not a matter of reaching a point of pure plurivocity—that would mean an unintelligible mess in which there is no system to create any sort of meaning, however subjective. “‘Joyce’ is thus, early on, a name for an operation, an energy, that is always at work in language, and, hence, in deconstruction. But it is the name of merely one operation, for deconstruction is always situated ‘between,’ in the ‘tension’ between, these Joycean and Husserlian poles” (Nutshell 184). To reach some sort of pure plurivocity would be just as paralyzing as pure univocity. We need some sort of existing structure to work through, as a system is necessary in order to have some sort of meaningful interpretation. “The aim of deconstruction is not to dissolve everything in Joycean excess and let it go up in the smoke of disseminative plurivocity. Derrida expressly warns us against mistaking this talk of the ‘play of signifiers,’ which too often results in ‘inferences’ that are facile, tedious, and naively jubilatory” (Nutshell 184). Despite criticisms to the contrary, deconstruction retains a sense of valuation in readings, making room for a pluralism of interpretations, yet still being able to sift through them in order to find some sort of line—albeit a hazy one—between better and worse interpretations. The trend that Derrida sees in philosophy is to push language towards the pole of pure equivocation. In the spirit of perpetual critique of existing structures that characterizes deconstruction, Derrida spurs us to push instead towards the pole of plurivocity. This is to say to push towards—not to reach—and to exist in that periphery of the extreme as Joyce does, still managing a kind of meaning in his work, but exploring fully the play inherent in meaning.


The Ethics of Pluralism

Both Caputo and Derrida himself argue that, whereas the early work is concerned with linguistics at face value, there was always already an implicit ethical and socio-political critique at work. The early work of Derrida establishes a deconstructive perspective of sorts, from which when one examines the areas of ethics and socio-political critique, one must stress, above all, the importance of accepting pluralism in order to not exclude other possible interpretations, the Other, the tout autre, the impossible relative to a limited horizon of possibility, the coming messianic figure of Justice. Derrida’s concern with language is not of a purely aesthetic nature and is not meant as some sort of specialized, esoteric dissertation that is divorced from any kind of practical application. When Derrida famously writes that “there is no outside the text,” he is not speaking hyperbolically or with the tunnel vision of a specialist. Rather, Glendinning writes that, for Derrida, language is the focus of much of his philosophical work because it is at the root of many philosophical problems:

The linguistic turn is regarded not as a fertile philosophical advance but as itself a symptom of sign. Language has come to the centre of every philosophical problematic because everything that seemed solidly to render its status as essentially unproblematic, everything that had assured us that it is what we thought it should be, namely the system of signification of an order of pure intelligibility (classical “meaning”), an order traditionally grasped in terms of the divine word or logos, has begun to melt into the air. (Glendinning 6)

Focusing on this foundational aspect of philosophy is immensely important for the practical application of philosophy in socio-political critiques. As shown earlier, the collapse of a conception of language as being absolute and definitive in his intellectual milieu is indicative of the collapse of the absolute, definitive nature of “meaning” for Derrida. From this perspective, his analysis of linguistic meaning transcends the traditional sense of writing and rather concerns a kind of meta-writing, analogous to a sort of ontological system—the analysis of writing for Derrida is, in a way, a metaphorical discourse on an ontology. Thus, examining linguistic meaning is to examine meaning in a broader metaphysical sense as well. The translation of linguistic philosophy to ethical philosophy is not a transition at all for Derrida—when one looks at ethics from a deconstructive perspective, there necessarily exists a certain bent in one’s view towards pluralism.

The ethical, religious and socio-political applications of a deconstructive perspective are spurred on by what he calls in his later works un-deconstructables, the most prevalent being the concept of Justice. “It is true that, although the problem of justice has been on my mind in previous texts all the time, it is only in recent years that I have addressed this problem thematically” (Nutshell16). Habermas’ main critique of Derrida is on the grounds that he has no foundation to give a critique. Habermas’ own method is teleological, the telos being his normative ideal. Derrida’s grounding for a critique is less foundational. The explicit talk of this ethical aspect of deconstruction that is towards Justice is one of the main marks between the early and later Derrida. However, my reading is such that this transition is not a transition in his philosophy, but rather in his focus while writing. As Simon Critchley writes, “The textual practice of deconstructive reading can and, moreover, should be understood as an ethical demand” (Critchley 1). I have shown that there exists this call to ethics in deconstruction and that it is present in his earlier work, albeit implicitly, a view that both Caputo and Derrida himself hold.

So what do the ethics of deconstruction look like? One thing is for sure: An ethical system from deconstruction looks different than most other ethical systems. First and foremost, it is not a system in the traditional sense of the word that connotes a solid and defined structure. Deconstruction is a kind of perspective, the application of which more resembles a quasi-method for loosening potentially exclusionary and restricting systems. Whereas most ethical systems are concerned with elaborate structures of laws to dissuade certain specific behaviors and to corral people into modes of thought and action, “Deconstruction is rather the thought, if it is a thought, of an absolute heterogeneity that unsettles all the assurances of the same within which we comfortably ensconce ourselves. That is the desire by which it is moved, which moves and impassions it, which sets it into motion, toward which it extends itself” (Prayers and Tears 5). The focus is not on constriction of a heterogeneous population towards a normative homogenous structure, but rather an expansion of horizons to include the inherent pluralism in humanity. The ethics of deconstruction are to say “yes, yes, yes!” and to affirm heterogeneity, to keep the door open for the tout autre. As open as possible at any rate—as with Joyce’s use of language, there must be some tempering to its reaching towards pluralism. An ethics of deconstruction seeks to push as far towards openness and plurivocity as is possible while still remaining within a meaningful structure. Deconstruction, once again, inhabits this tension, this space of an impossible balance. But this impossible balance is one that must be strove towards, as the alternative is a bleak state of affairs in which an artificial univocity is forced onto pluralism. As Derrida writes, “A state without plurality and a respect for plurality would be, first, a totalitarian state, and not only is this a terrible thing, but it does not work. We know that it is terrible and that it does not work” (Nutshell 15). Metaphorically speaking, one cannot push a square peg through a round hole, much less force an inherently heterogeneous population into a system of ethics that requires homogenous behavior. Given that there is an inherent plurality in the concept of truth, we must not close ourselves off to the possibility of there being perfectly valid truths that are distinct from our own. The key is not to deny truth, reason and meaning, but to accept that these are all subjective, perspectival and personal. Within both Nietzsche and Derrida we find the same urging to acknowledge this subjective nature. For both of them it is not the case that subjectivity devalues a perspective and a truth—it is only within the belief that an objective Truth ever existed that one can value it in such a way. Subjectivity is irrelevant in valuation for Derrida and the value of an interpretation, a meaning, a truth is found in a contextually determined system. We must always work through some kind of system, but we must recognize that our valuation of an interpretation of a socio-political practice is contextually determined and is subject to an inevitable slippage and change. We must perpetually critique the systems we are working through and strive towards the least restrictive system possible and always strive to make room for the radically Other. This is, of course, an impossible and never-ending process, but, as Derrida described it, deconstruction is, in a nutshell, the experience of the impossible.


Works Cited

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