Dissertation > Literature > Literary Theory > Literary criticism,literature appreciation

A Study of Derrida's Deconstructive Reading Theory

Author LuJing
Tutor ZhangXiKun
School Jilin University
Course Literature and Art
Keywords Derrida Deconstructive Reading Criticism
Type PhD thesis
Year 2013
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Deconstruction has involved itself in constant disputes since its occurrence in thelatter half of20thcentury. However, its influence has also been extended in both thedisputes between deconstructionists and those against it and even the disputes withindeconstructionists. When it’s studied as a philosophical thought and a literarycriticism theory, it has always been accused of being nihilistic, antihuman, antihistoric,new New Criticism etc. But when we discuss it as a reading theory, we put aside theaccusations temporarily and our focus now is whether deconstruction can accomplishthe task of reading, which is the question that this paper tries to answer.Apart from Introduction and Conclusion, the paper consists of five chapters. Thefirst two chapters give an introduction to Derrida’s views on reading and the otherthree chapters criticize it from different perspectives.In Introduction, it’s made clear first the importance of reading to Derrida’sdeconstructive theoretical construction. Almost all of Derrida’s important views areput forward in reading others’ works which include both philosophical and literaryworks. In the process of reading, on one hand, Derrida directly lays out his views onreading and on the other hand, he reveals deconstructive reading operation with hisown reading practice. In the definitions given by several experts from both home andabroad, this reading theory is portrayed as follows: it’s a text analysis approach whichis to expose the contradictions and conflicts in binary oppositions and at last todeconstruct western metaphysics through the analysis of the relationships amongdifferent meanings in the text. It highlights the oppressed and ignored side intraditional readings to overturn the dominance of the leading side and finally subvertclassical binary oppositions.Chapter One aims to analyze the basic characteristics of deconstructive readingfrom the perspective of “what to read”,“how to read”,“why to read” and “if the purpose can be achieved”. First, what Derrida reads is text but not works. Since text isclosely related to signs, Derrida’s views on text and signs are the basis of his views onreading. His views on text are fully reflected in the assertion “There is nothing outsideof the text.” which reveals both his emphasis on intertextuality, the labyrinthinebackground of a text, the unsaturated context and finally undecidable meaning and histext imitation views which holds that a text is the imitation to other texts but not theimitation of a certain truth, spirit or a transcendental signified. Derrida’s views onsigns are reflected in his deconstruction to Saussure’s views on signs. He absorbs thelatter’s idea about the differences of signs but arrives at an opposite conclusion thatthe signifier isn’t linked to a signified and signs don’t have definite meanings and isthus contrary to Saussure’s view that meanings are formed by the differences amongsigns. The signifier isn’t linked to a signified but to other signifiers and therefore hasno definite meaning; accordingly, the text constituted by signs isn’t linked to truth,spirit or things in the outside world but to other texts. A text is not a complete wholewith definite meanings any more but is weaved and permeated with other texts andany text is the absorption and transformation of other texts which are linked further torather more other texts and consequently the meaning of the text can never be decided.Secondly, about “how to read”, Derrida adopts “double reading” in which a leading orauthoritative meaning is first obtained through traditional reading and then the binaryopposition within the text is overturned and displaced in deconstructive reading. Thespecific strategies include: to deconstruct an object from its inside and with its ownmaterials; to reverse the superior and inferior sides to overturn original text and createa new text by attaching importance to the oppressed side; to find thoseself-contradictions in the text. The “iterability” of signs makes the meaning of a textneither completely decidable nor completely undecidable. The “différance” and“dissemination” of signs leave meanings permanently absent and delayed. Moreover,dissemination of meanings in all directions makes it impossible for readers to get onedominant meaning which can cover all possible meanings. Since meaning isundecidable, the task of reading is not to find and explain meaning but to createmeaning through incessant weaving games of signifiers, which makes meaning a kind of text construction. In terms of making meanings of a text open, deconstruction putsemphasis on reading itself, rather than interpretation.Chapter Two illustrates Derrida’s views on text interpretation through thecomparison of his and Gadamer’s views. First the dispute between Derrida andGadamer which happened in1981in Paris is chosen as the starting point to reveal thegeneral differences between their views, ie., Gadamer bases his views on the premiseof mutual understanding and acknowledges the similarities between them but Derridaalways highlights differences and refuses understanding. As for text, Gadamerbelieves that although there are no ultimate meaning and absolute truth in a text, thereare truths that are maintained by different interpreters and thus vary from person toperson; Derrida, however, holds that there’s no truth in a text. Gadamer also believesthat a text is a unified whole and this unity functions as the criteria to evaluate theinterpretations of the parts of it; Derrida, on the contrary, regards a text as an opensystem full of differences and contradictions with no center or unity. As for meaning,Gadamer thinks that there are definite meanings in a text which are the products of“fusion of horizon” between text and readers although there isn’t an only and ultimatemeaning in a text, but Derrida believes that there’s no definite meaning in a text.About history and tradition, Gadamer believes that on one hand they determine ourunderstanding in an irresistible way and on the other hand we revise tradition withnew conditions in our times. In other words, we are both influenced by history andcreate new history. Derrida’s view towards history and tradition is that since historycan by no means be eliminated, we must overturn it within itself and with its ownmaterials. To sum up, through the comparison of their views on text, meaning, historyand tradition, we find that the purpose of Derrida’s deconstructive reading is not tofind and interpret meanings of a text but to create new meanings and this is whatDerrida means by saying “reading is writing”.Chapter Three aims to criticize deconstructive reading. For one thing, it has someproblems in its own theoretical opinions. First, it goes to extremes by denying anytruth and meaning just because there’s no ultimate truth and meaning. In doing so, itspremise is that only absolute truth is truth and therefore its denial to meaning and truth exactly reflects its dependence on absolute truth and ultimate meaning and regardsthem as indispensable basis and premise of its claims. Second, its logic of “both A andNot-A” sometimes and “neither A nor Not-A” some other times makes any attempt torationalize it in vain at last. For another, the deconstructionists’ reading practice oftenreveals some contradiction to their assertions. In reading Austin’s and Searle’s articles,they read them deconstructively by silencing authors’ voice and dismissing anythingrelated to authors’ intentions and context which is a good demonstration of theirasserted theoretical stand. But when they read the articles written by de Man for apro-Nazi newspaper during the Second Word War, they revived the author andcompletely referred to the context of the time and authors’ intentions to defend himand thus in fact departed from their long-held stand. Therefore, based on the twopoints mentioned above, we believe that deconstructive reading is not suitable forreading practice. Its emphasis on difference and undecidability makes it impossiblefor us to get any definite knowledge of a text. Its overreliance on signs totallyeliminates readers’ humanity by ignoring the fact that reading is an activity involvedby man. However, despite its various problems, deconstructive reading exertstremendous influence on literary criticism in the latter half of20thcentury. It provesthe possibility and necessity to read a text in a different way and consequently makesreading a more open activity.Chapter Four explores the relationship between deconstructive reading andliterature. Through the analysis of Derrida’s views towards the essence of literature,the relationship between literature and philosophy, the relationship between literatureand criticism and his denial to literary esthetic judgment, it draws the conclusion thatdeconstruction and literature are incompatible but coexistent. Derrida’s literaryreadings don’t have the interpretation and criticism of literature as purpose, but todeconstruct the text. He is talking about literature on the surface but his real intentionis to reveal the philosophical basis within it. Derrida states categorically that literatureis only the elements and means of his philosophical arguments and serves his finalphilosophical ends. His readings of literary works are therefore not literary criticism.The Yale School in America,however,misunderstands the essence of Derrida’s deconstructive reading by applying it into literary criticism. They target the view thatsees a text as a unified whole held by New Criticism and what they deconstruct is therhetorical structure of literary works while Derrida targets the violent hierarchyhidden in western metaphysics and what he wants to deconstruct finally is theoppressive structure of logocentrism. Just because he sets the unequal hierarchy as itstarget, Derrida’s deconstruction means both destruction and construction. Moreover, itmakes us rethink the various truth and knowledge systems in human society and seethose aspects that we’ve never seen before and consequently helps us get a brand-newunderstanding of things and the world. This dramatically differs from the YaleSchool’s total ignorance of human life and concentrating on literature alone. Thisdifference takes its root in the different cultural background in which they are formedand developed respectively. In view of the differences in the whole social andacademic background in France and America, it’s no wonder that Derrida develops aphilosophical deconstruction and the Yale School a literary deconstruction.Chapter Five compares deconstructive reading and other theories which alsoattach importance to readers and reading such as Reception Theory and ReaderResponse Criticism. It finds that although they are all against author-centeredmeanings, closed text and static structure and all advocate multiple meanings, opentext and dynamic structure, they have completely different views toward text,meaning, author and reader. Reception Theory and Reader Response Criticism are stillwithin the scope of the traditional four elements of literature proposed by M. H.Abrams and function as a counteraction to the romantic literary study that focuses onauthor alone and the formalistic study that focuses on text alone. What they do is justto move the focus of literary study from the world, author and works to the receptionof works––––reader and therefore still belong to traditional literary study. Butdeconstructive reading holds that reading is writing and reader is also writer, whichmeans there’s no pure and absolute author or reader. Every author is a reader thatparasitizes other works and every reader is an author that takes part in meaningproduction. The traditional four elements of literature are not applicable anymore anddeconstructive reading completely breaks away from traditional criticism paradigm. These two discourse systems coexist but can not communicate with each other.Through the analysis and criticism of Derrida’s deconstructive reading, webelieve that deconstructive ideas are not suitable to be applied to reading practice andliterary criticism. Although Derrida begins with the analysis of text and language, hisultimate goal is not to change people’s view of language, but to break down theconception system which has dominated people’s minds for thousands of years. Thereading of works and texts is not to know more about them, but to reveal thatdeconstruction exists and operates in this way. In other words, reading is means andexplaining deconstruction is ends and he achieves the ends of explainingdeconstruction by means of text reading. But if we do exactly the opposite byapplying deconstruction into text reading, making deconstruction the means and textinterpretation and criticism the ends, the only result is the dilemma of reading.

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