Interpretation, Deconstruction, and Ideology: An Introduction to Some Current Issues in Literary Theory

By Christopher Butler | Go to book overview

5.1 Deconstruction and Scepticism

Nearly all the problems that deconstruction poses for criticism can be seen in outline in the work of Jacques Derrida. However, it should be said at the outset that the relatively firm positions which I (and others) will attribute to him in what follows, are in fact alien to his own method, which is 'slippery' and in a perpetual movement of self-qualification. My justification can only be that we thus see more clearly how Derrida can be 'used' (even if inevitably misinterpreted) in the common practice of literary interpretation. Derrida's critique was initially applied to philosophical texts in the main, but the difficulties (aporias or self-engendered paradoxes) he finds in them are found also in literature. According to him, philosophy can be seen as an infinitely extensible line of texts, all of which attempt to point out contradictions within their predecessors: but which will themselves be prone to internal contradiction. This is because they are themselves impossibly involved in a logocentric 'metaphysic of presence' as they perpetually and falsely imply or state (as literary texts can) their own satisfactory relationship to the external world.

This attack has two aspects which are worth distinguishing. Firstly Derrida believes, correctly, that most philosophers hitherto have proceeded on the assumption that they could fit language to the world: that there can be a satisfactory word-thing relationship. This confidence Derrida wishes to deny and supplant, by turning it upside down. We do not start with a reliable' language or an immediate relationship between word and thing ('presence') or indeed with knowledge at all. These are all things we aim at, and fail to attain. Philosophy expresses a perpetually deferred desire for mastery. This mode of attack (which is not essentially new) is now invading traditional Anglo-American philosophy. Thus Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature produces a number of arguments consistent with Derrida's which urge that any such search for epistemological certainty in philosophy is doomed to failure. All the foundations upon which we may wish to base it will let us down. There never can be a single over-all theory of anything, and hermeneutics, in looking critically at the language in which such arguments are framed, helps us to show this:

The notion that there is a permanent neutral framework whose 'structure' philosophy can display is the notion that the objects to be confronted by the

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