23 December 2009

MCT: Jacques Derrida

Derrida is another of those "crazy frogs" who had a revolutionary but possibly already diminishing impact on critical theory. One thing I'm finding out is that in some cases, the impact was greater in America than in Britain, and it would be interesting to speculate why. I suspect the adoption of French theories may have remained "cool" in American intellectual circles longer. In Britain, it's now always America that's considered cool, and also maybe the practical criticism tradition is more robust. That's for another day. Today, I'm looking at Derrida's "Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences", taken from his book Writing and Difference.

Derrida starts from the structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and finds that the aim of describing all anthropology in terms of structure is doomed to fail because the structures must have a reference point, which is not itself structural. Lévi-Strauss is said to have acknowledged this, but to have ignored it for the sake of the argument. Because Derrida is treating the question philosophically, rather than empirically, he can't be content with that. In fact, he suggests that this philosophical flaw causes the most obvious failing of Lévi-Strauss's view: the treatment of the incest taboo in the classification of natural v cultural. Lévi-Strauss says that we can consider as natural all behaviours which arise from human behaviour independently of laws or local norms; while cultural behaviours are those which result from social restrictions. But incest is a universal taboo in humanity (which makes it natural) but the restrictions that enforce the taboo are social (which makes it cultural).

One thing I want to say here is that I'd need to be convinced that the distinction between natural and cultural ever was solid. Another crazy frog - now hugely unfashionable - argued that it's impossible to think of a human outside of society: all our behaviour is social, therefore cultural. Never mind that, for now.

Derrida's view is that this weakness undermines any attempt to view human sciences structurally, and so, according to the editors' introduction, post-structuralism and deconstructionism were born. The fixed point, to which everything else relates, does not exist, so instead in a society or in a text there is choice of structures (I'd be inclined to call them networks) of which none has any special truth or value.

At least, that's how it's developed, and that's why it's been blamed for an absolutely relativistic approach to literature. I suspect it's an exaggeration and a misapplication of the original point. But this is a tough one, and I'll have to spend more time on Derrida and on those who developed (to put it neutrally) his insight.

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