26 August 2003

some history

Deconstructionism, in particular, has its roots in structuralism (e.g., Levi-Strauss, Saussure) and post-structuralism (e.g., Barthes, early Foucault).

"Structuralism" refers to a number of analogously related methods of analysis stemming originally mostly from the work of Ferdinand Saussure in linguistics and Levi-Strauss in anthropology. It was later re-applied in various ways to the study of literary texts (Roland Barthes), the functioning of scientific theories (Georges Canguilhem), psychology (Jacques Lacan), political theory (Louis Althusser), and so on.

Saussure's basic insight was to study language synchronically (how it actually exists as a particular moment) rather than using the diachronic (etymology and history of language) method that was dominant. He argued that the basic meaning of terms within a language was a function of precisely what that term did differently within that language from any other term (this latter point is developed in deconstructionist ideas of "differance" and the like).

Through difference signifiers achieve reference to the signified, though the relation of a particular word to a particular object is more or less arbitrary. Moreover, meaning is not primarily "in the head" or somehow in the intentions of the language user (leading to the later "death of the author" theme in literary theory). And the focus of linguistic study should be upon langue (the objective social fact of a shared language) rather than parole (the particular utterances of individuals).

Through the careful analysis of the "difference" in function that a particular sign has from every other sign within a langue, certain aspects of the how that sign functions (and the signified it refers to) may be uncovered and made visible in a way they previously were not given how the workings of language so often occur "below the surface". Thus structuralism is interested in finding the underlying rules that organize phenomena into a social system and doing so in a way that is objective, coherent, rigorous, and scientific.

Post-structuralists (Barthes, early Foucault, Kristeva, etc.) in turn critique many of the premises of structuralist thought. In particular post-structuralism attacks structuralism's supposed neutrality and scientific objectivity as complicit within the modernist project of providing foundationalist knowledge that grants a final truth, systematicity, and certainty. Part of the post-structural project is a re-historicization of structuralism (a la Hegel and Nietzsche's genealogical method), taking the objects which structuralism explores (language, identities, ritual, political systems, consciousness, etc.) as themselves constructed and thus not able to serve as settled foundations for structuralist analysis.

In this critique of structuralism the emphasis falls upon the signifier rather than the signified with the emphasis on how language produces the objects of which it speaks through the articulation of difference, but also how that difference (seen most prominently in various kinds of oppositions) is inherently unstable—what Derrida calls "dissemination," so that in the play of signifiers any final, absolute arrival of meaning is continually deferred. This kind of analysis can be seen also, e.g., in the early works of Foucault.

Post-structuralism, through the events of May 1968 in Paris and other forces in the 1970's, became increasingly radical, eventually growing into what we think of as "deconstruction", most prominently outlined by Derrida, but also evident in the later writings of Foucault on "power/knowledge," Deleuze, Guattari, and Lyotard on desire, Irigary and Spivak on gender, etc. In Derrida's thought, the oppositions embedded within language prevent the possibility of a "metaphysics of presence" (i.e., an unmediated apprehension of reality), instead working to create binary oppositions in which the one element is privileged over the other: reality over appearance, speech over writing, men over women, etc.

As a result, deconstruction is very suspicious of any attempt to ground all thinking and speaking in some ultimate and perfect language (as the early Wittgenstein perhaps attempted with his notion of "language as picture" in the Tractatus). With this suspicion about any kind of "transcendental signifier" there is also a suspicion of any kind of "transcendental signified" in which to ground our knowledge, whether that object be God, a Platonic Form, the Cartesian cogito, or whatever. This is not to say that deconstruction is inherently anti-theistic, but that God cannot appear merely to serve the need to legitimate a philosophical system, providing certainty and transparency. Rather, God would have to be conceived as a plentitude who always infinitely exceeds our ability render absolutely present in language.