Deconstruction: The Double Edged Weapon

A popular song these days goes like this, ‘jo bhi mein…  kahna chahoon… barbad kare alfas mere’ (my words spoil my meaning). Interestingly, this is an out and out deconstructionist statement. This philosophy attracts a lot. ‘Deconstruct everything, spoil everything, and dismantle all that has been built over the ages’. It is what in our common Hindi we call, ‘kutark’. It begins from the negative end. It does not lead anywhere. Yet, it is an important philosophy. 
"Deconstruction" needs to be constructed. It needs to be constructed properly and carefully. One has to be very careful regarding this technique as it affects and redefines all disciplines of knowledge as well as life. Howsoever hard Derrida may argue; the deconstructionist approach towards deconstruction will lead to destruction. Lawlessness, valueless-ness, anarchy and lack of coherence cannot be the objectives of any organized society. Deconstruction is a double-edged weapon; it creates as it destroys. 
Deconstruction is desirable in so far as it instills lack of self complacence. It shakes. It reduces the bombastic covering of confidence. It creates uncertainty. It questions all set patterns of power and authority. It is good as it opens new vistas, accommodates the marginalized and destabilizes the thick-skinned system. Dismantling the foundations of philosophy and knowledge brings impetus to academic effort. 

Deconstruction is a way of reading a text as well as a powerful way of perceiving the world. It is an appropriate response to the abuses of power. Deconstruction has a very practical and purposeful role to play. Everyone knows and accepts that an individual's or an institution's account of itself is not always authentic. Deconstruction is "the other" view. This otherness adds to the completeness of an idea or phenomenon. It makes an idea more reliable and more acceptable. 

Derrida questions the notion of purity. It is as though he is averse to the very remotest reference to purity. 'Nothing is/can be pure,’ he seems to say. Whether it is religion, philosophy, politics or human body, everything and everyone is an amalgamation of elements; everything comes from something else. To claim originality is to run away from truth. Penelope Deutscher writes- a pure body would be a drug-free body. Derrida encourages us to interrogate and scrutinize the coherence of this ideal. 

We might conclude that the pure body which is imagined as an ideal doesn't exist. Or bodies never have an organic and original naturalness. (page2) 

If we accept that bodily purity does not exist, there can be absolute chaos at the moral front in the society. It is here deconstruction needs a careful construction. If the society goes on to accept that there is nothing like purity or chastity or goodness, life will become almost impossible to live. Deconstruction is desirable in so far as it assimilates the in-capacitated, the handicapped, the victims etc. into the mainstream. It is good as far as it accepts the so perceived marginalized. But it is negative, harmful and destructive if it dismantles the cherished ideals of truthfulness, solidarity, chastity and so on and so forth. We cannot say that since there is nothing like 'true' truth, let us all become liars, and cheats. The spirit of deconstruction is for a constructive purpose. Derrida can be the devil's spokesperson if not read and followed properly. And if his intentions are properly followed he can be the messiah of the marginalized. 

'Language and communication are an inherently risky business.'(12) This shaking up of our presumed and assumed ideas is very good as it forces fruitful reading. As Derrida has claimed time and again that deconstruction is neither neutral nor passive reading. It intervenes. It changes the text. It forces new and newer patterns of meaning. This active reading creates new meanings. 

The basic tone of Derrida is anti-establishment. '....the master does not possess exclusively and naturally, what he calls his language, because whatever he wants or does, he cannot maintain any relations of property or identity that are natural, national, congenital or ontological, with it, because he can give substance to and articulate this appropriation only in the course of an unnatural process of politico-phantasm tic constructions, because language is not his natural possession, he can thank to that very fact, pretend historically, through the rape of a cultural usurpation, which means always essentially colonial to appropriate it in order to impose it as his own.' That is his belief: he wishes to make others share it through the use of force or cunning.' ( 15- 16) 

The obvious criticism that Derrida faces for his methods is that by such methods, one can prove anything. One can prove that rich are really poor, the truth is really false, etc. 'Why would one take the trouble to do so, or to question the tautology that white is white?'( l6)

In fact, such objections arise from fear of losing authority and supremacy. The white is white, must be white, must be accepted as white- this is the presumption. I remember the popular line: 

'One sees with keen sight
Black's not so black, nor white.'

When one sees colors in a spectrum, one realizes that white and black are part of one series and the difference is that of shades and degrees. When one starts seeing things in this light, the authority to assert becomes less and less. This is the impact of Derrida. If concepts of dignity and propriety are used to oppress and humiliate others, they need deconstructive tools. But if deconstruction is used for promotion of anarchy and vulgarity because of its claim that nothing is proper or dignified, then deconstruction itself needs to be discarded. That is why, it has been called a double-edged weapon. It creates new orders but it also destroys whatever is cherished and loved and respected. The psychological question is that a person with a deconstructionist eye cannot rest, cannot be happy simply because s/he has nothing to fall back upon. There is no point in anything for a deconstructionist. This is the reason why deconstruction ought to be used with care. 

The beauty of the idea of deconstruction is there only in so far where it is used to dismantle politics of caste and otherness and other such flimsy barriers. Derrida questions the authority of language by using language only. Often, he has been called self contradictory. Derrida discourages such statements as 'I am alienated' or 'I am unhappy' because it implies that some are not alienated or some are happy. 'Derrida's aim is not to level all differences but to challenge self-created authority...' (19). One must remember this basic spirit of the philosopher and his utterances. 

‘Deconstruction can prompt changes in perceptions in politics and culture. It calls for a critique of ideas sometimes taken for granted…’(20)

Deconstruction dismantles the notion that an individual is a simplistic thing. It acknowledges plurality within all states of existence. Once we accept the plurality of identity, all ethnic violence at once becomes meaningless. Derrida says-......the people who fight for their identity must pay attention to the fact that identity . . .implies a difference within identity. (22) 

Flexibility is the key word. Inclusion of otherness and gradual finish of the feeling of otherness is the desired mental state. The concept of 'I' comes only when 'other' or 'others' have been defined. It implies that the other factor is crucial for formation of 'I' because 'I' is dependant on others. Deconstruction changes the text as well as the context. Past takes a new shape. The burdens of past vanish. Slowly, a sensibility dawns that respects imperfection. Derrida says that degradation, insult, contempt for other and self glorification are nothing but forms of violence. 

The basic task that deconstruction performs is that it resists all forms of exclusion. Successful deconstruction changes a text...Deconstruction offers a means of changing our understanding of the ideas we inherit from the past... Third, a deconstructive reading offers new ways of conceiving the onus of responsibility. . . (24)

Lastly, Derrida throws up a number of ideals which are an impossible reality. We are at times, unnecessarily dazzled by concepts of justice, chastity, original culture and democracy etc. By reading Derrida, we feel less burdened by tradition. The constant strain in the Derridian discourse is non-idealization of the pure, the natural or the original. 

The purpose of reading a text is to find out its inherent parameters. The mental set up that makes a writer create a text is to be uncovered. Everyone sees the declared text; only a critic goes to the undeclared text. In this sense, it is inferred that meaning is not present in the text. The sudden articulation, 'the text has no meaning' evokes violent responses but if placed in the proper context, the statement becomes significantly meaningful. Not only writing, but all kinds of texts (printing, miming, acting, gesturing etc.) are signs of signs. They are indicators of something other than themselves. Therefore, they are neither true nor authentic. The meaning is multi-layered and the 'ultimate' or the 'correct' meaning is a myth. 

Derrida talks at length about practical affairs. One area that catches attention is the idea of 'supplement.' Dictionaries, encyclopedia and other reference books have supplements. A supplement is considered secondary to the main body. But Derrida says that the very existence of a supplement certifies that the main body is incomplete and insufficient. If the supplement is an attachment to the main body; the main body is also not complete without the supplement. 

Derrida's views help one in developing a world view that is endlessly flexible. He resists domination of the marginalized as well- 'I resist this movement that tends towards a narcissism of minorities that is developing everywhere- including within feminist movements.' (47) In fact Derrida warns against ills of reverse-racism. Derrida has clearly stated that institutionalized feminism tends to be as authoritative and suffocating as patriarchy. He has questioned the polar concepts of masculinity and femininity. One is exactly how one looks at oneself. It is good to dislodge inherited ideas like identity, culture, patriarchy etc. But it is not good to replace them with other authoritarian views.

There is a need to read Derrida positively. If deconstruction is not constructed properly, it can work havoc. A positive approach is needed while applying deconstructive techniques to texts and situations.

All the references have been taken from ‘How to Read Derrida’ by Penelope Deutscher 2005, London: Granta Books.


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Comment I think Derrida has been hoisted by his own petard, for whatever is deconstructed becomes a construction that can in turn be deconstructed - oddly enough, to affirm what was the original construction. On one occasion, he was asked, 'Do you believe in love?' 'What is love?' was his sage reply. Was it love of oneself, or love of the other? etc. ad nauseam. From this single example, you could see that his deconstructive approach was in over-analysis of statements, like 'I love you', which are actually perfectly understood by persons when simply stated. Such is the nature of exchange between human beings. Another example is his view on forgiveness, which was that it was impossible to forgive! Yet, we both forgive and ask for forgiveness, without analysing further what must in any case be irrelevant. Irrelevance is the domain of deconstruction, which states there is no fixed truth - and does itself the same injustice. Derrida has been debunked. Deconstruction was just another manifestation of postmodernism, the theory, in a nut shell, that there are no fixed standards in art or society - recently found to have been but a trend itself that has outlived its usefulness as people demand an assertion of standards, public and private, to guide their lives in society.

22-Jan-2012 20:30 PM

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