Derrida and Deconstruction


John Phillips


Beginning With the Parasite

Derrida’s mode of questioning begins with a question about an apparently simple and trivial phenomenon—the written word, or to use a general term, literature, but more especially, the apparent ideality of literature, an ideality that only the written word makes possible.  The question emerges as to why in so many places in the western philosophical tradition, documented with painstaking care by Derrida throughout the late 1950s and 60s, does writing get described or figured as some kind of parasite, in many cases explicitly but nearly always as dependent and derivative.  What is a parasite?  Here are some entries from the Oxford English Dictionary:


1. One who eats at the table or at the expense of another; always with opprobrious application: ‘One that frequents rich tables and earns his welcome by flattery’ (J.); one who obtains the hospitality, patronage, or favour of the wealthy or powerful by obsequiousness and flattery; a hanger-on from interested motives; a ‘toady’.


2. a. Biol. An animal or plant which lives in or upon another organism (technically called its host) and draws its nutriment directly from it. Also extended to animals or plants that live as tenants of others, but not at their expense (strictly called commensal or symbiotic); also to those which depend on others in various ways for sustenance, as the cuckoo, the skua-gull, etc.


So a parasite is a dependent, a kind of outsider that preys on the goods of a host.  How does writing come to be cast in this role?  In some ways, and certainly at first glance, writing would seem to be a kind of addition to spoken language.  After all children learn to speak first and then they learn to write.  Primitive cultures often seem not to have writing, at least in the ordinary sense, and we tend to use writing when face- to-face speech is not possible.  These points are easy to contest from quite ordinary empirical perspectives, of course, but that is not really the issue here.  So speech comes first and then writing comes along and preys on its valuable communicative virtues.  There is an ambivalence throughout the tradition, of course, as there are certain things that just could not happen if it wasn’t for writing, and by extension now electronic tele-technologies.  But it’s the tele- aspects too that seem to cause the problems, incurring the distrust and opprobrious labels like parasite and dependent.  Once you’ve got a little distance, whether spatial or temporal, things are in danger of going awry—the phenomenon of “flaming” on some misunderstood but well intended e mail message in discussion lines is an obvious current example.  But these are the aspects of writing that writing shares with every kind of communication, every kind of discourse whatsoever, including speech.  So what is described as exterior (to language as speech) as parasitical (on spoken language) and dependent (on spoken language) always turns out to be in its consistently observed essential characteristics, intrinsic to spoken language too.  Speech is just another kind of writing.  This disclosure in itself would hardly have created the stir that Derrida’s works have in fact created in the intellectual world over the last 30 or 40 years, making him arguably—and plausible so—one of the most important philosophers of his generation.  What has caused the stir is the next logical step in the process of questioning.  If writing has all this time been regarded as a parasitical dependent upon speech but turns out after all to share its most essential characteristics and conditions with speech, what then is the relationship of speech to the meaning, the concepts, ideas, intentions and attitudes that it has always been said to transport and/or express (more faithfully than writing at least)?  To cut a long and elaborate argument down to size for a moment, Derrida’s generalization of the predicates and necessary conditions of possibility, always uncontroversially identified with writing, takes in not only every other linguistic system including speech, and in effect every system of communication, but also the functioning of institutions and generally the whole field of perception.   Many philosophers from before Plato and beyond Derrida’s own contemporaries, implicitly at least in search of the supreme value of presence, and being in the present, seem convinced that the word, when spoken, coincides promptly with its sense, while the written word is always in danger of departing from the sense that it mechanically repeats. 
On one level, Derrida provides a series of analyses that demonstrate the conditions on which there can be writing—what needs to be the case before writing as we know it and experience it couold exist?  Writing as repeatable mark necessarily entails the possibility of repetitions ad infinitum, generating a potentially endless and incalculable series of different contexts, random indetermined addressees, the death of the one who writes and the death also of any particular reader.  After Derrida it is no longer possible to answer the question “When?” of a written text.  None of this, as I have suggested, would be controversial but for the fact that these analyses extend way beyond writing in the ordinary sense to infect all philosophical concepts with the double logic of the parasite, according to which the host is revealed to be parasitic on the parasite in a logic that discloses the conditions on which two previously opposed terms turn out to be repetitions of each other.


Some Negations and Positions after 33 years of Anglo-American Reception (but not much responsibility)


Deconstruction is neither: a school nor a method(ology) nor a toolkit nor a doctrine nor a philosophy nor a kind of literature.  Deconstruction is, according to Derrida, “nothing by itself.”  Therefore, he adds, “the only thing it can do is apply, to be applied, to something else … Deconstruction cannot be applied and cannot not be applied.  So we have to deal with this aporia, and this is what deconstruction is about” (Derrida).  So What Is Deconstruction?


First Deconstruction is a kind of word—an old one when translated from the French Déconstruire, Déconstruction—and an old one in the English language even before being used to translate the French one.  Reform, in legal discourse, begins with “deconstruction.”  Derrida proposed to use the French one as one of his differential words in a chain of such words, which include the words supplement, hymen, écriture, same, différance, text, trace, arché-écriture.  To say that these words are differential is to say that they mean nothing on their own but emerge according to the contingency of particular readings of particular texts, usually those of the western tradition of metaphysics, but also those of linguistics, psychoanalysis and sometimes literature.  These words form part of a series of what Derrida has called “non-synonymous substitutions.”  What that means is that they perform similar functions in Derrida’s readings (and can therefore supplement each other) even though they do not share the same meaning and serve different purposes for different readings.  None of these terms can ever attain the status of a master concept for they are all marked with the contingency and the singularity of the texts that suggested them.  Deconstruction is thus just one of these terms.  How Do the “Non-Synonymous Substitutions” Work?


Each of these terms (supplement, hymen, écriture, same, différance, text, trace, arché-écriture) operates to expose and to demonstrate the way in which a privileged concept serves as a principle or idea that grounds a more or less stable structure (like a text, a philosophical system or an institution—even a nation).  Such concepts remain unexamined within the structure or system to which they properly belong (property being one such concept), but are supposed to guarantee both the value and the identity of their structure.  A non-synonymous substitution can help reveal the concept’s dependence upon its own functioning structure, from which it has been dogmatically separated and elevated.  The concept of structure itself succumbs to its own deconstruction, as Derrida shows in his rather too famous “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”  There he shows that the concept of structure has always neutralised what he calls, rather awkwardly (but there’s little alternative here until we get to the non-synonymous substitutions) the structurality (the being structural) of a structure.  There he pointed out that:


Structure—or rather the structurality of structure—although it has always been at work, has always been neutralised or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or of referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin.  The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure … but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure. (1978, 278).


So even the concept of structure, in this case in the hands of structural anthropology, becomes a center or point of presence, which neutralises the structurality of the structure (in this case the human sciences).  Structure itself can thus be shown to be a concept in a series of metaphysical concepts, which include God, Mind, idea, concept, spirit (and many others), and which can thus be shown, in e.g., deconstruction, to operate in the same way—as referring to a point of presence, a fixed origin or determination, that functions to neutralise or reduce the destabilizing effects of structurality itself.  Presence is the key value (or concept) here and, in this, Derrida follows Heidegger in arguing that Western philosophy—insofar as it identifies itself as a tradition—is dominated by the value of presence. 



Introduction to Derrida:










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