Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 4: Derrida

This series hasn’t been as rough as I’ve expected this far. The first few parts showed some of the classic postmodernists to be clearer and more prescient than many give them credit for. This changes all that. Derrida is rough going. I chose his most famous work, Differance, for today.

I couldn’t remember if I had read this before, and then I read the first paragraph. Oh, boy. It all came flooding back. Not only had I read this, I’d watched a whole lecture or two on it as well. I’m not sure it’s fair to be super critical of lack of clarity when reading a translation, but in this case, I think it’s warranted (more on that later).

The article begins by Derrida making up a new word: differance. It is phonetically related to “defer,” meaning to be displaced in time, and it is phonetically related to “differ,” meaning to not be identical.

So what is differance? Here’s the clearest explanation I’ve come up with after reading the opening paragraphs many, many times. Derrida wants to say that two things can only differ if there is a relationship between them for comparison. Anything that has such a relationship must have something in common. So:

We provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical.

Derrida then starts dancing around what he means. I don’t say this to be demeaning. His whole point is that language can’t describe the thing he is getting at, so he must dance around it to give you some idea about what he wants differance to mean.

To defer makes use of time, but differance is outside time. Differance produces the differences between the differences. It isn’t a word. It isn’t a concept. I’m going to describe differance as a “tool” or even “thought experiment” to get at Derrida’s particular form of deconstruction even though he doesn’t exactly say that.

Now I’m supposed to be doing “critical” readings of these texts, so I’ll admit this type of thing makes me feel a little funny. On the one hand, I’m okay with being a bit loose on definitions if the only point is to perform a thought experiment. On the other hand, I fear there will be a switch at some point where we start attributing a bunch of unknowable things without argument to a term that has such nonsensical properties as “being outside time.” So I want to carefully keep track of that.

Derrida moves on to the relationship between spoken and written language. In French, “differance” and “difference” have the same pronunciation. He spends far too long talking about how difficult it will be to talk about this, since he’ll have to indicate verbally “with an a” each time (this paper was originally a talk given to the Societe Francaise de Philosophie).

He next spends quite a bit of time explaining some very precise etymological concerns about the word differance:

But while bringing us closer to the infinitive and active core of differing, “differance” with an a neutralizes what the infinitive denotes as simply active, in the same way that “parlance” does not signify the simple fact of speaking, of speaking to or being spoken to.

This type of thing is a pretty silly game. He freaking made the word up! There is no etymology or historical context to analyze. It’s a pure fiction about the word. I hear the Derrida defenders here saying that this is precisely the point, because every word is made up and we play an etymological game to understand them. Maybe, but I don’t really see what’s gained by presenting that idea in this way.

Derrida then recaps some of Saussure’s structuralist ideas about language: the signifyer / signified distinction. The word “chair” is a mere symbol that signifies an actual chair. The connection is arbitrary. We could easily make up a word like “cuilhseitornf” and have it symbolize the exact same thing. (All that was the Saussure recap).

Derrida wants to now say that actually it’s not so simple as Saussure thinks. Words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to things (concepts, etc). In fact, meaning comes from being in a linguistic system, and the meaning of a word comes from understanding what the other words are not signifying. He wants to call this negative space “differance.” Again, I’m worried about how much we’re loading into this one made up word.

But overall, if I clarify this point to a degree Derrida would probably hate, I’m somewhat sold on the concept. Think about removing the word “chair” from the English language (i.e. a linguistic system). If you think about something that is different from all the remaining words, you’ll probably get something close to “chair,” because it’s partly defined by the differences between it and all the other words in the system. This seems an okay statement to make, if a little confusing as to its importance to theory.

Derrida introduces the concept of “trace” to make the above point. Basically the trace of a signifyer is the collection of all the sameness and differance left on it by the other words in the linguistic system.

Overall, I don’t get what real contribution this paper makes. To me, it is essentially a reiteration of Wittgenstein’s ideas about words in linguistic systems/games with a single, seemingly unnecessary, mystical layer that comes through the meta-concept of “differance.” Maybe if I were to read some of Derrida’s later work, it will become clearer why he needs this, but at this point I don’t get it.

Derrida is less confusing than I remember. He’s not hard to read because of obscurity or complex sentences or big words. He’s hard to read because he just meanders too much. There are entire pages that can be thrown out with nothing lost, because they are pure reiteration of minor tangential points.

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On Validity in Interpretation

I have two volumes of critical theory, and an excerpt that appears in both of them is a selection from E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validy in Interpretation. I just got the full book, because I’m fascinated by the argument. This is one of those things where I’ve made a complete reversal of opinion over the course of this blog. Let’s start at the beginning.

If you’re unfamiliar academic literary criticism, there was a period of time starting around the early 40’s (still kind of going on) where literary theorists thought a text could stand on its own. It began with Wimsatt and Beardsley’s The Intentional Fallacy, which argued that the intention of the author shouldn’t matter when interpreting a text. The text would make you feel something. The symbols and themes would mean something to you. And that was how it should be, since you were the one doing the interpreting.

That description is an oversimplification, because these were complicated academic papers making these arguments. The nail in the coffin of the author came a bit later with Barthe’s Death of the Author. This school of thought was roughly associated with something called “New Criticism.” The New Critics argued for doing close readings of a text, and this came to dominate the scene so much that we were all taught this as the only way to analyze literature.

It is extremely difficult to get out of this mode of thinking, because we were taught to think this way in school. When talking about literature, we are told there are no wrong answers. We can come up with a theory of what the book is about and then find passages to support it. We get an A if we do this successfully. What is interesting is that despite the fact that this is what people will publicly espouse, everyone secretly believes that there are wrong answers.

The whole point of this post was to point out that we recognize some interpretations as nonsense even if they are well-supported. But we’ve been taught this New Criticism stuff so thoroughly that it becomes impossible to call someone out on it. This is because most people aren’t familiar with a philosophy of literature that allows you to talk about valid versus invalid interpretations. Isn’t the whole point of an interpretation that it is personal and can change from person to person? I say no. If a text can mean anything to anyone, then it doesn’t really mean anything.

Hirsch gives us a way out of this bind with Validity in Interpretation, published in 1967. The excerpt I’ve read is the first chapter, and it is brilliant. Before going on to describe a positive theory of validity, he first goes through and dispels the common objections to a notion of validity for interpretation. That’s what the rest of this post will be. Note that Hirsch’s argument is a whole chapter of a book, so I can’t do it justice here. I just want to give an overview.

Counterargument 1: The meaning of the text changes (throughout time), even to the author. Thus, the original intention of the author should be irrelevant.

This is obviously nonsense. The example used to support this is of authors that reject their old work. But it isn’t the meaning of the text that has changed, but the author’s attitudes or opinions. If the meaning had changed with the author, then the author would have no need to reject it. In this example, the changed author still recognizes the original meaning as the meaning.

Counterargument 2: It doesn’t matter what the author means, only what the text says.

To expand on this argument a bit, it often appears in a different form: an author may intend something, but not have the technique to effectively convey that meaning. This is part of the argument in The Intentionally Fallacy. A text must be evaluated on what it does and not on what the author intends it to do.

We must pull apart a few distinct concepts here. If the point is evaluation, then the intention is important. We can’t evaluate whether the author effectively conveyed their meaning without first knowing their intended meaning. The other concept is meaning.

The only way to successfully argue that authorial intent doesn’t matter is to find examples where there is a consensus that a text meant one thing and the author intended something different. The New Critics use this example as a thought experiment, but in reality no such example exists. Even if these examples were abundant, then we wouldn’t need to have a theory of interpretation at all, because everyone would agree to the valid interpretation confirming the fact of validity in interpretation.

Counterargument 3: We can never truly know what the author meant, because we are not the author.

Implicitly, this argument is asking: why bother trying something that is an impossibility? First, we don’t have to be the author to claim that a certain proposed meaning is highly improbable. To take Beardsley’s own example, a poem in 1744 in reference to God, “He raised his plastic arm.” We know beyond all doubt that “plastic” was not intended to mean the material that wasn’t invented yet.

All a theory of validity involving authorial intent is trying to do is bring up a range of possible valid meanings. There can be interpretations that hit every part of the spectrum from highly likely to literally impossible (as the above example). We get around the problem of knowledge of the author’s internal states by using probabilities.

One more thing. Certainty is also impossible in science, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile to try to understand what is happening in the universe around us. Similarly, being certain of what the author intended is impossible, but it is still worthwhile to try to reconstruct the possible intentions.

Counterargument 4: The author often doesn’t even know what they mean.

The example given is that Kant claimed to understand Plato better than Plato himself. This is a subject/meaning confusion. Kant doesn’t understand what Plato meant better than Plato. He better understands the subject matter.

The other example is where someone makes a compelling case that an author had an unconscious meaning that came out in the artistic process, but was not intended. Hirsch beautifully counters by asking, “How can an author mean something he did not mean?” In other words, things that come out from subconscious processes are still part of the author’s meaning.

That’s it. All common objections to authorial intent and validity in interpretation have been dealt with. Hirsch can proceed to constructing the theory. I’m quite excited to read it!