The article considers the problem of logocentrism, the presence of Derrida and interpreting deconstruction. Before reading this post you may wish to refer back to my writings of 24 July – Photography – a Philosophical Dimension – Jacques Derrida https://www.wildreflections.photography/uncategorised/photography-a-philosophical-dimension-jacques-derrida.
Hilary Lawson (1985) the English philosopher said that:
“Our ‘certainties’ are expressed through texts, through language, through sign systems, which are no longer seen to be neutral. It appears therefore, in principle there can be no arena of certainty.”
Similarly, Derrida was at pains to avoid making statements relying upon the fixed meaning of words or on assumptions made elsewhere.
Sutton refers to one of Derrida’s early work Of Grammatology (1967) which he believes provides the key to his subsequent writing. Derrida argues that all words must derive their meaning by searching for other words to provide a definition. These may be words with similar meanings, or we might use different words to emphasise how it differs from something else – such as triangle and square. What Derrida was suggesting is that there is no absolute meaning or definition. We can only engage in a process of infinite referral. So, in order the learn the meaning of words we must learn the practice or norm built up over time and that continues to evolve. Furthermore, the signifier (ie the word) and the signified (the conceptual meaning) are independent of each other and there is no single fixed meaning – thus there can be more than one interpretation of texts or writings.
Derrida argues that many of us engage in a desire for the ultimate definition – which he terms logocentrism – or true knowledge.
However, logocentrism, inevitably preferences present circumstances and certainties. Of Grammatology introduces the concept of ‘the metaphysics of presence’. We all seek some certainty in our lives and Western Philosophy has pursued an objective truth and in doing this relies entirely on an indubitable link between signifier and signified – but, as already discussed above, there is no gold standard for the meaning of words. But, if meanings of words change over time then the interpretation of a metaphysical text will also change over time. As Sutton puts it:
“Derrida’s thesis is further that metaphysics seeks not only to impose an interpretation in the present, but also seeks transcendental signifieds – concepts which overarch past and future, near and far, similar and dissimilar. Such metaphysical concepts are incoherent, a prioritising of presence and similarity at the expense of change and difference. We would like, here and now, to define God, the good, our Being, and many other impossible-to-define things, all with certainty, simply, with as few words as possible. But we can’t.”
Deconstruction is a process intended to identify hidden meanings in texts not necessarily intended by the author or as Derrida explained in Of Grammatology deconstruction aims to:
“designate the crevice through which the yet unnameable glimmer beyond the closure can be glimpsed.” (Derrida 1967: 14).
It is not a method, nor is there a clearly defined process, rather it is a way of reading texts by continually testing whether there are alternative meanings. These intended or unintended meanings, that Derrida refers to, may take the form of metaphor or metonyms.
Sutton talks about pairs of words that are defined by their opposite such as left and right and male and female. The path or trace to the meaning of a word invariably refers to what it is not as well as what it is. All signifiers have a history, meaning they may change over time but coming to an understanding of a word or concept always remains in the present. Derrida saw the issue of binaries as a prevailing problem for metaphysicians such as Plato, Descartes and Husserl, in that they always consider the positive before the negative. So good is before evil, simple before complex and so on.
The process of differing and deferring words leads to meanings of words and concepts changing over time, changing because of contextual differences, changing on re-reading and differing with different readers.
For me the most interesting part of the article is the quotation from Derrida himself above. I wonder, is my search for the ephemeral hiddenness of Skye an effort to designate the crevice through which the essence emerges and am I seeking to capture that unnameable glimmer? And is this glimmer the rapid transition between emergence and withdrawal? Derrida certainly knew his Kant and his Heidegger, however what is fascinating is his idea that being is hidden not behind presence but behind a network of signification. The camera is, I suggest, a deconstructive instrument – it has the power to deconstruct the visual array of signification and just occasionally catch what Derrida was searching for – the unnameable glimmer of reality as it speaks its name.
DERRIDA, Jacques. 1967. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
LAWSON, Hilary. 1985. Reflexivity: The Post-Modern Predicament. Chicago: Open Court Publishing.
SUTTON, Mike. 2018. What is Derrida Saying to Us. Philosophy Now, Issue 127.
Thank you for this article. I’m pleased you found my original so interesting from your own point of view.
Your article was very helpful in formulating my ideas as I started my PhD. Thank you.