Archives For Barthes

Broadly speaking and to get straight to the point, Derrida rejects the traditional project of philosophy. He seeks not a continuation of philosophy by other means, but a continuation of philosophy’s means for other ends. This could be thought about as the direct decendancy of the Heideggerian tradition in which Heidegger sees Nietzsche as the end of the old, metaphysical philosophical tradition. That tradition being defined by, in Heidegger’s terms, the essentia and the existentia. Heidegger’s discussion prompts the question of the direction of philosophical research given that the metaphysical outlook was condemned by Nietzsche but not surpassed.

“Derrida is centripetal, relentlessly dissecting the body of failed philosophical knowledge.” (p289)

Derrida’s project of continuing philosophy’s means for another end involves looking back on, and employing philosophy’s paradigmatic questions and approaches to knowledge. So what does Derrida do? For convenience I am going to try to frame him in terms of interpretation, and link him to the tradition of Hermeneutics, though he himself would reject this. This will be the subject of a later discussion on the meeting between Derrida and Gadamer.

“Derrida maintained that although traditional philosophical issues are undecidable in principle, they are also ineliminable from our thought and in some sense require our constant attention. As a result, Derrida’s writings, unlike Foucault’s, are a constant and explicit probing of traditional philosophical concepts.” (p290)

In one sense Derrida could be thought of as critic or reader of philosophy, rather than practitioner. This is key to understanding Derrida’s foundations in structuralism and the critical engagement in literary as well as philosophical texts. His work leans more towards the writerly than the readerly in terms of Bathes’ spectrum.

“Derrida employs a variety of writing styles, most of which have little to do with the analytic philosopher’s efforts to clarify and refine our common-sense intuitions. He will, for example, play with language through puns, bizarre associations, or perverse self-referentiality, simple to effect a disorientation of our ordinary conceptual categories.” (p290)

For Derrida, writing itself was the subject matter that would reveal the essential peculiarities and limitations of human thought. Issues of authorship, attempts to bracket the text (Barthes) and the forever unresolved elusiveness of meaning and interpretation (hermeneutic basis for Derrida) all become sites of Derrida’s onslaught to excavate the experience of human consciousness. Linguistic formulation itself, even in the mind of the speaker, is limited and inaccurate. Writing may be the main material study, but the implication is to the very act of language at its source.

“It would seem that perfect adequacy is achieved only in the immediate, pre-linguistic presence of my thought to itself. But Derrida argues that there is no such pure presence of thoughts to the self. All thought is mediated through language and can never attain such total clarity.” (p292)

Perhaps an appropriate time for a discussion on Plato’s ideals? Gaze and ways of seeing?

“Derrida’s philosophical project is an unending extrapolation of the reader’s inability to master a text.” (p292)

Derrida closes the gap between speaking and writing. In the same that Plato thought of speaking as a “kind of writing inscribed in the soul,” Derrida defines a fundamental form or act of writing – archi-writing – of which speech itself is an instance.

To summarize A basic structuralist approach:

“First, the basic elements of thought and language are pairs of opposing concepts, such as presence/absence, truth/falsity, being/nothingness, same/other, one/many, male/female, hot/cold. This we can call the principle of opposition. Next, the opposing pairs are regarded as exclusive logical alternatives, governed by the principles of identity (A=A) and non-contradiction (Nothing is both A and not-A). This we can call the principle of logical exclusion. For example, being present excludes being absent; the present is simply what it is (present) and is in no way what it is not (absent). Finally, each fundamental pair is asymmetrical in the sense that one term has in some crucial sense priority over the other (e.g. is more fundamental, more real, morally better than the other). This is the principle of priority.” (p294)

Derrida challenges such logical models and seeks to reveal the extent to which a given text does not fit these models. thought for later…compare linguistic vagueness in logic to Derrida…where do the two crossover or conflict When Derrida is able to unmask in a text it’s own undermining of itself, or rather, that its system of binary opposition cannot be sustained and so such a system falls down on the very text that formulates it, he gives the name deconstruction to this technique.

“Deconstruction shows how texts based on binary oppositions themselves violate both the principle of exclusion and the principle of priority.” (p294)

Derrida’s technique and vision cast a long shadow. He does not simply interrogate texts to put on display the disfunction of language, he manages to apply his technique across consequential historical texts:

“The general project of deconstructing the fundamental dichotomies built into thought yields a critique of logocentrism. The dominant terms of the standard polar oppositions always correspond to some sort of presence, a reality that is positive, complete, simple, independent, and fundamental (Plato’s forms, Aristotle’s substances, Aquinas’s God, Hegel’s absolute). This presence is always understood as the polar opposite of something that is negative, incomplete, complex, dependent, and derivative (matter, creatures, appearance, etc.). Derrida’s deconstructive analyses show, however, that the purity and priority of presence is never sustained in the texts of the great metaphysicians. For example, Plato discovers that the forms participate in non-being, Christians think of God as somehow humanly incarnate, and so on. The result is a critique of metaphysical presence.” (p294)

Further to this deconstruction of metaphysics, is a deconstruction of epistemological foundationalism.

“Foundationalists assert something present and immediate (to the mind, in experience) that opposes and overcomes what is absent and derivative, for example, opinions received from others, unjustified inferences, interpretations that go beyond the given facts. Deconstruction, however, shows that the foundational elements themselves are tainted by the very epistemological limitations they are designed to overcome. Thus, entirely clear and hence infallible intellectual insights are found to contain questionable hidden assumptions, allegedly pure sense data turn out to embody culturally relative interpretative frameworks and so on.” (p295)

Derrida is probing philosophies own presuppositions about itself and in this sense continuing the Socratic project: to question assumptions and interrogate dialectic structures.

To relate back to Heidegger and the change in direction of the philosophical project, and the hermeneutic evolution:

“All so-called books are ‘entirely consumed by the reading of other texts’: a text can be understood only by the reading of other texts, from which it draws its problems, concepts, vocabulary. ‘Other texts’ also includes other parts of the given text.” (p296)

This sounds resonant of Heidegger’s free-to-hand and ready-to-hand, that an object is perceived in terms of its relationship to other things. Derrida is asserting that there is no grand unity of a text or of anything. So beyond structuralism that asserts the elements or atomising of a text, Derrida goes on to disassemble any concept of unity at all.

Re-visit page 297 of text

Reference: Structuralism and Beyond (1960 – 1990)

* Gutting, G., French Philosophy in the twentieth century, New York 2001, chap. 10, “Derrida”


In the 1960’s Barthes set out to establish a structural account of narratives. This project plays out in the realm of literary criticism and involves a debate between conservative and avant-garde forms of criticism. This boils down essentially to the impact of semiology and structuralism on literary criticism: essentially an interrogation of the very nature of the act of reading and writing. Psychoanalysis also comes to play a role. This type of interpretation is styled by Barthes as interpretive. As criticism it openly displays its attachment to ideological positions (Marxist, Existentialist, Psychoanalytic). It reflects on itself, its own language and its own modes of thinking. This is a contrast to what Barthes calls academic criticism which sees itself as outside ideology; as objective. Academic criticism also searches for text meaning in the author and in other external contexts.

First key text for articulation of this literary criticism interpretive style: Criticism and Truth (1966)

Barthes ‘new criticism’ is concerned with language itself rather than critical evaluation. In particular this new form of analysis shatters the traditional role or rule of verisimilitude in texts. A key point for Barthes on this matter is that by asserting an emphasis on clarity (to be found in verisimilitude) the old form of criticism is allowing itself to label as ‘jargon’ any critical discourse it dislikes.

“Barthes’s engagement with the structural analysis of narratives is a key moment in his life long critique of the bourgeois ideal of literary realism, a critique we have already observed in his work, Writing Degree Zero. The modern novel uses functions and indices of character and atmosphere to generate the illusion of ‘reality’. As Barthes frequently notes, in bourgeois Literature that which is detailed (in terms of description) is always associated with ‘reality’, with ‘realism’. Barthes engagement with the structural analysis of narratives continues, therefore, his demystification of bourgeois Literature by demonstrating the systematic (formal) rather than realistic basis of modern narratives.” (Graham Allen; Roland Barthes, Routledge Critical Thinkers)

Essentially this new criticism is about a structural understanding of general systems of signification: “it is because society, any society, is concerned immediately to structure reality that structural analysis is necessary.” (Barthes, Sociology and Socio-Logic; essay 1962)

“Yet the idea of an author as the source of a narratives signs runs directly against structural analysis, in that it suggests that a narrative’s form and meaning stems from an original human consciousness. THe idea of the author, in other words, suggests that narratives are not mediated but rather are unique expressions of unique authorial consciousnesses. As Barthes’s famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968) reiterates, structural analysis must dispense with the author completely, reading the signs of narration and of reading purely within the system of narrative itself.” (Graham Allen; Roland Barthes, Routledge Critical Thinkers)

Post Structuralism

The late 1960’s to the early 1970’s; this period in France dominated by the May 1968 near-revolution. These radical political events are matched by radical ideas emerging from philosophers and theorists such as Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva, Foucault and Baudrillard.

Barthes characterizes his work up to 1968 as obsessed with creating categories and classifications. He is assigning himself the same credentials as three authors he studies in his 1971 book ‘Sade, Fourier, Loyola”, in which he argues that all three very different authors share an obsession with ‘systematics: classifications and categorizations. Post-structuralism is a move from the demystification of signification to the demystification of the sign itself: “initially, we sought the destruction of the (ideological) signified; now we seek the destruction of the sign.” This is the notion to change the object itself. Barthes now equates the sign with the very thing (bourgeois society) which it (the sign) formerly allowed him to critique. (Graham Allen)

Post-structuralism moves its critique from French society (local) to Western civilization itself. The connection between Plato and Greek philosophy and contemporary mass communication and culture is recognized and therein the sign is perceived as involved in a system of meaning at the very bedrock of Western thought.

In 1967, Derrida published three influential texts which became the basis of deconstruction: Speech and Phenomenon, Writing and Difference, and Of Grammatology. At the root of deconstruction is the assertion that all ideas of structure depend upon the notion of a centre, an origin or foundation from which meaning flows. For Derrida there is an implicit contradiction:

“the centre…closes off the play it opens up and makes possible. As centre, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements or terms is no longer possible… Thus it has always been thought that the centre, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the centre is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it. The centre is at the centre of the totality, and yet, since the centre does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its centre elsewhere. The centre is not the centre. The concept of centered structre – although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the episteme as philosophy or science – is contradictorily coherent.” (Derrida, 1981, Writing and Difference, p271)

Saussere’s definition of the sign means that meaning can never be contained in the sign. Meaning therefore emerges from the relational difference and similarity between signs. Derrida expands on what Saussere only suggested. Meaning is purely relational and cannot be pinned down. To halt the play of meaning (relational movement of signifieds becoming signifiers ad infinitum) we would need to find a transcendental signified; a sign which does not depend on on other signs for its meaning. This is essentially impossible and has radical deconstructive effects on all discourses (religion, politics, philosophy, science etc.)

The author, traditionally, is a transcendental signified, standing behind the work as God is thought to stand behind the material universe. The author gives stability and order to the work. The author is associated with capitalist or commercialized ideas of reading as it allows for a model in which works can be successfully interpreted, mastered, deciphered, tamed. The capitalist association here is related to the suppression of difference and the promotion of consumption. What makes The Death of the Author post-structuralist is its introduction of the theory of the text and intertextuality.