Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Binary Oppositions: Good or Bad?

Until he was recently deconstructed by his own death (10/8/2004), Jaques Derrida worked assiduously for the deconstruction of binary oppositions.

What are are binary oppositions, and how are they to be deconstructed? According to the entry on deconstruction in Wikipedia:

"One typical procedure of deconstruction is its critique of binary oppositions. A central deconstructive argument holds that, in all the classic dualities of Western thought, one term is privileged or 'central' over the other . . . . Examples include: . . . presence over absence, . . . fullness over emptiness, meaning over meaninglessness, . . . life over death."

I could quibble about the strange construction "to be 'central' over" -- or I could edit it out, thereby deconstructing it and thus privileging "privilege over." But I understand what's meant here, so let it pass. Reading further:

"Derrida argues in Of Grammatology . . . that, in each such case, the first term is classically conceived as original, authentic, and superior, while the second is thought of as secondary, derivative, or even 'parasitic.'"

Okay, got it.

"These binary oppositions, and others of their form, he argues, must be deconstructed."

Why? The Wikipedia article doesn't immediately say why, but skimming further ahead, we find the implication that deconstruction will reveal "the true richness and complexity of the world."

Shouldn't this say "the true richness and complexity of the text"? Either way, who would oppose such a thing? Let's do it! So, how's it done?

"This deconstruction is effected in stages. First, Derrida suggests, the opposition must be inverted, and the second, traditionally subordinate term must be privileged."

Are these really two distinct steps? Doesn't inversion implicitly privilege the formerly subordinate term? Anyway, it sounds pretty easy, so let's invert the binary oppositions already cited: absence over presence, emptiness over fullness, meaninglessness over meaning, and death over life. Or nonbeing over being?

If everything has gone according to plan, then presence, fullness, meaning, and life should all be "secondary, derivative, or even 'parasitic'" with respect to absence, emptiness, meaninglessness, and death . . .

Hmmm . . . this doesn't quite seem to be happening. What about with nonbeing over being? Is there any way in which being could derive from nonbeing? Not according to the principle ex nihilo nihil fit (i.e., from nothing comes nothing). Except . . . if there were utterly nothing, absolutely total nonbeing, then this principle itself would not exist to prevent nonbeing from giving rise to being. In which case: ex nihilo res fit. From nothing comes something.

Hey, I think that I'm getting the hang of this deconstruction stuff. Let's see the score:

Being over Nonbeing: Bad
Nonbeing over being: Good

Conclusion: The second binary opposition of these two binary oppositions is the good binary opposition, but the first binary opposition of these two binary oppositions is the bad binary opposition.

"[T]he next project of deconstruction would be to develop concepts which fall under neither one term of these oppositions nor the other."

What?! Still more to do? Not me -- I've done enough. Let ex nihilo take care of this next project . . . .


At 5:57 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

In Derridean thought, the first element in a pair of terms is usually the privileged one. E.g., "man/woman."

But I think one can find examples of where this breaks down. The most obvious one:


Blacks wouldn't argue that the history of Western thought "privileges" them or their blackness. But according to Derrida's schema, this isn't so: "black" is privileged.

I tend to think Derrida didn't know what he was talking about. Deconstruction, even when restricted to the narrow field of literary criticism, doesn't seem able to provide much in the way of meaningful, coherent analysis.

A deconstructionist might argue that I'm unfairly privileging meaningfulness and coherence, but I challenge the deconstructionist to make any claim without attempting to be meaningful or coherent.

By the way, I've written a few posts on Derrida. They're linked on my sidebar.

How's the arm?


At 5:58 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

By the way, I liked the joke hidden in the title of your post.


At 8:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Kevin, for the extra information. I still have a lot to learn about Derrida and his 'ideas,' but I don't want to expend too much time and energy for diminishing returns.

The arm is still in a splint and continues to hurt if I move it wrong, but I'm no longer in constant pain (though I'm still lefthanded).

At 6:27 PM, Blogger june cho said...

I didn’t expect to see that somebody was brave enough to post on Derrida. And I am glad that I ran into this one. (As long as I understand him) What Derrida and other postmodern folks try to do is to deconstruct our conceptual way of doing philosophy. They are against idealism and metaphysics. They attempt to find or discover non-conceptual side of thing like non-being or non-identity.

Instead of “good or bad” (postmodernism intends to get over this dualistic scheme of thought), I would say that it’s a matter between difference and identity (or sameness). Heidegger could be a precursor for this debate between difference and identity. So basically, postmodernists attempt to see more difference than identity, which they believe becomes the principle of the totalitarian idealism in the Western world.

Derrida’s Of Grammatolgy (one of the most difficult books that I’ve ever read) is basically to deconstruct the totalitarian scheme of language and reduce it to the rules of grammars. In other words, our language doesn’t include any meaning. A good example of meaningless side of our language is “god,” which is just a sign or signifier and has nothing to do with signified, I mean, the real god, although Derrida may deny the substance of god either.

Anyway, I may misunderstand Derrida, since I am more a Foucauldian. But Derrida’s deconstruction of language seems to locate him as one of the greatest postmodern thinkers, I believe. His deconstruction is his way of bringing a justice to our language.

Thanks for reading my postmodern rumblings!

At 5:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, June, for the response. You know far more about Derrida than I do.

I would accept a limited sort of deconstruction -- say, the kind that undid those structuralist analyses that imagined that they had found universal hermeneutical keys.

But a deconstructionism that turns itself upon language itself encounters problems. I agree with Saussure that the signifier is arbitrary -- in an abstract sense. But I don't think that there need be an intrinsic link of signifier to signified for a language to be used in nonarbitrary ways. A language is more than the total of its words.

Sorry not to say more, but my lefthanded typing is timeconsuming and tiring.

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

The practical effect of Derridean thinking, unfortunately, isn't a move beyond dualism: Derrida himself was content to remain at play in the dynamic field of signifiers, a sort of semiotic ping-pong in which meaning is vibration between the antipodes we create. Far from transcending dualism, this amounts to wallowing in it.

I tend to view Derridean metaphysics (such as it is, anyway) as a kind of badly rehashed Buddhism: the famous critique of the "metaphysics of presence" in the "Structure, Sign and Play" chapter of Writing and Difference, despite sharing a thematic similarity to Buddhist nonessentialism, isn't really all that revolutionary, nor does it truly target Western thinking in the way Derrida intended.

Having met Derrida very briefly in 1999 at a Religion and Postmodernism conference at Villanova, I can vouch that he seemed like a nice enough gent in person, and his keynote address that day, while extremely dense to my then-inexperienced ears, was humble, humorous, and self-deprecatory. Chalk up a point for Derrida.

Derrida also famously backed away from the full metaphysical implications of "il n'y a pas de hors-texte," which was a smart move on his part, because that phrase is bunkum. Most of our everyday experiences are pre-linguistic: try explaining the taste of orange juice to someone who's never tried it. The explanation is no substitute for the actual experience.

But Derrida's movement, i.e., deconstruction in its various forms, bothers me for what it represents-- a clunky modern Western attempt at nonessentialistic, nondualistic thinking that (1) was already done better in certain aspects of Greek thought and (2) was certainly better presented in religious traditions like Buddhism, or in the often-subversive thought of a classic like the Chuang Tzu.

My two cents, anyway. Having had to do a bit of (admittedly superficial) work in PoMo thinking as part of my MA at Catholic U (got a large snootful of PoMo in a scriptural hermeneutics course), I think I spent a few months brainwashed by what I'd been through. Then I came out the other side and, like Ching Yuen, realized "mountains were again mountains; rivers were again rivers." What Derridean thought utterly lacks is any sense of suchness-- a quality that can be "found" by taking the nondualistic, nonessentialistic route.

Or so I believe, anyway. Heh.

Rock on,


Here's a hilarious link originally from the Onion:

Grad Student Deconstructs Take-Out Menu

Unfortunately, you can't see the Onion article directly anymore; you have to subscribe to their premium service to see older archived material. The above link contains the full text, however. Enjoy!


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