E. D. Hirsch, in his recent best-selling book, “Cultural Literacy,” codifies 5,000 items one must know to be culturally literate. Jacques Derrida, one of the most important theoretical thinkers of the last two decades, should certainly figure on this list. But neither he, nor the philosophical position “deconstruction” associated with his name, are included. This absence, however, is not surprising, since deconstruction challenges the very assumptions that underlie Hirsch’s or any other attempt to codify and universalize knowledge. Hirsch’s list presupposes distinctions between the central and the marginal, the essential and the inessential. Deconstruction works to show that what had previously been thought marginal may be seen as central, when viewed from another position. But this reversal, attributing importance to the marginal, does not lead simply to the reconstitution of a new center, but to the subversion of such distinctions between essential and inessential, universal and particular. What is a center, if the marginal can become central?
The tremendous impact of Derrida’s writing on contemporary thought began in France in 1967 with the simultaneous publication of three major philosophical works, all subsequently translated into English, “Speech and Phenomena,” “Writing and Difference” and “Of Grammatology.” In 1980, he wrote “The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond,” which is now available in an excellent English translation. The titles seem odd at first, remote from the central concepts of traditional philosophical inquiry. Writing and grammar do not have the same ring as being and nothingness . And a book about the post card? A book about an artifact situated on the margins of the already marginalized epistolary arts? How dare one juxtapose such ephemera to the enduring weightiness of the philosophical and psychological traditions as represented by their most solid pillars, Socrates and Sigmund Freud? This unconventional marriage of the “marginal” and the “central” is typical of Derrida’s deconstructive strategy.
Deconstruction, following Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche, seeks to alter and displace the central questions that structure our pursuit of truth and knowledge. As variants of the grounding question, “What is it?” stand the questions “What is truth?” or “What is the meaning of this text?” Claiming that such questions determine their answer, Derrida asks that we question these very questions. What assumptions do such questions presuppose? According to Derrida, they presuppose that truth and meaning exist as an object, a self-contained essence immune from the subjective process of its pursuit. Truth and meaning, such questions assume, will be revealed through the systematic peeling away of layers of fiction to uncover an origin that lies behind the work and serves as a center controlling its structure. According to Derrida, this truth/fiction opposition fits into a parallel series of dichotomies that govern Western thought: central/marginal; presence/absence; thought/language; nature/convention; reality/image; objective/subjective; masculine/feminine; soul/body; identity/difference. Both terms of the polarity, he says, are organized into a hierarchical structure that privileges the first term and devalues the second. What determines the respective value attributed to each term is its relation to an idealized notion of an origin. The first term is privileged because it supposedly exists in a relation of unity, identity or immediacy with the origin, whereas the second term, derived from the first, is distant and different from the origin, which it dissimulates.
Derrida would deconstruct the metaphysical underpinnings of Western thought by undoing these hierarchical oppositions themselves so that no term can be shown to merit priority over the other, each then existing only by virtue of its relation to the other. For example, the terms masculine/feminine would then not be defined by their ability to imitate an idealized or essentialized notion of masculinity or femininity, an origin that lies outside the system these terms inhabit. Rather each term would be defined by its difference from the other: the masculine as that which is not feminine, the feminine as that which is not masculine. In this way, each would be determined by its difference from the other terms within a given system of meaning. The differential structure that determines meaning being invisible, the words in a given system may appear to correspond to an essential and universal meaning outside the system, Derrida maintains. But in fact, on his view, no meaning exists outside the system.
If meaning is created not by the subordination of the second term in a hierarchy to the first, but by the difference between the two, no single thought structure can claim to represent the totality of a given text. A deconstructive reading thus seeks to unveil the competing thought structures at work within any given text.
Derrida does not ask, “What is the meaning of this text?” Rather, he asks, “From what position does meaning appear to be made present?” Such a question brings out the political dimension implicit in the need to maintain a hierarchical reading, one that privileges the logic corresponding to the dominant ideology.
Derrida speaks from a position on the margins of several intersecting cultures. Born in Algiers in 1930 of Sephardic Jewish parents, educated in France and using French, his second language, he continues to situate himself between several cultural systems, for he currently teaches partly at the University of California, Irvine and partly at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. This position of marginality has sensitized Derrida to the repressed or marginalized logic of any given cultural system.
Not surprisingly, it has been the study of fiction, one of the most marginalized of disciplines, that has been the most receptive to Derrida’s writings. Confined to a discipline said to be easily dazzled by fictions and fads, deconstruction was at first dismissed as a passing trend. But despite the many criticisms of Derrida’s marginality and nihilism, the influence of his work has spread beyond the realm of fiction to philosophy, the social sciences, architecture and legal studies.
The appeal of Derrida’s writing is that it challenges the authoritarian, hierarchical structure of meaning, thus allowing the repressed voices of minority cultures to be heard. Ironically, Derrida’s writing--in “The Post Card” as well as in all his texts--reinstates a difficult, elitist thought structure, by using obscure language and referring to arcane philosophic texts.
For someone without a strong philosophical or literary background, “The Post Card” will undoubtedly produce confusion since it employs a highly unusual analytic strategy by which a series of essays discussing the psychoanalytic writings of Freud and Jacques Lacan is preceded by a long preface consisting of pseudo-fictional, pseudo-autobiographical letters by Derrida.
This preface hinges on a post card depicting Plato dictating behind the back of a writing Socrates. This post card, which reverses the usual sequence of Plato coming after Socrates, who never writes, puts into question the traditional sequences which order our understanding. Derrida asks how one can decide which of a post card’s two sides, recto or verso, is the most important one? Which side should come first?
Derrida’s own discourse in “The Post Card” refuses to follow the usual linear sequence that structures traditional philosophical thinking. Many readers may feel angered by his refusal to state directly what he means. But the difficulty of reading Derrida is perhaps unavoidable. Consistent with his deconstructive strategy, he is always deconstructing his own text, revealing the shadowy underside of his more explicit statements, so that a final, definitive meaning is continually deferred. Derrida frustrates our most fundamental desire for fixed, easily digestible meanings.