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Essay Exam on Theory: Questions & Answers (2009), 1  

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    Take-Home Essay Exam on Theory: Questions & Answers (2009),  Part 1

Barzilai, “Borders of Language: Kristeva’s Critique of Lacan.”

1.      Define “abjection.” Why is it a borderline condition?

2.      How does Barzilai use “construction,” “displacement,” and “condensation” to explain Kristeva’s theory?

3.      Why does Kristeva argue that “Lacan’s linguistic conceptualization of unconscious processes (‘The unconscious is structured like a language’) restricts access to essential and hidden elements of experience”?

4.      What does Kristeva mean when she “cautions those who would apply Lacanian formulations indiscriminately that ‘a reductiveness of this sort amounts to a true castration of the Freudian discovery”?

5.      Comment on the following quote: “no longer silent onlookers at the brother’s banquet, we come up to the table. And we are hungry.” What does it mean?

Final Exam (Take-home)

Student Essay

Recreating the Maternal Space

While Jacques Lacan sweeps the world with his theory on the omnipotent symbolic order that confounds real human agency with the dominant force of the paternal law, feminists feel confined and repressed in the phallocentric world presented by Lacan. In Barzilai’s essay entitled “Borders of Language, Kristeva’s Critique of Lacan”, the author discusses Kristeva’s challenge to Lacan’s symbolic order which is dominated by the “paternal law”[1], and illustrates Kristeva’s key terms such as “abjection”, “the semiotic” and “construction & condensation”. This paper’s reading of Barzilai’s “reading of Kristeva’s reading of Lacan’s reading of Freud” (Barzilai 304) aims to clarify lineage among them and Kristeva’s central concerns.

Firstly, to prove the limitations of the symbolic order, Kristeva raises the example of borderline patients whose discourses are alogical, chaotic and incomprehensible. The omnipotent language seems to lose its effect, while something irreducible to language emerges, resulting from the outbreak of abjection. What is abject draws us “towards the place where meaning collapses” (Kristeva 2). Kristeva’s theory of abjection strikingly opposes the Lacanian theory of the dominant paternal law of the symbolic. For a better understanding of Kristeva’s theoretical revolt against Lacan, the essential knowledge of abjection is required.

What is abjection? In a dictionary, “ab” means “away,” and “ject” means “to throw,” but abjection is a very complicated term in Kristeva’s theory. The original form of abjection is positioned in the period between the child’s birth and the mirror stage. After the birth, the child is intimately connected with the mother’s body. Under the strong archaic impulse of establishing itself as a subject, the future subject rejects the mother’s body instinctively in order to draw a border between self and the (m)other. However, abjection is never a peaceful process, “it is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling” (Kristeva 13), which is to say that the border is fragile, warmth of the mother constantly calling us back to the primitive chaos.

After the establishment of subjectivity, Kristeva states that abjection is not completely repressed and it is still ever ready to take effect. In this stage, abjection refers to people’s horrified or disgusted reaction to the threatening collapse in meaning/order caused by the blurring or loss of distinction/border. For instance, people’s disgusted reaction towards the corpse is effectively exercised in the body, which implies “visceral reaction as a representation of what is happening in the psyche.” (Smith 33) On the one hand, human beings have to make a distinction between the “I” (a living being) and the “other” (death) in order to stay in the symbolic order. On the other, people can not deny the fact of man’s mortality and corporeality. Through abjection, the border is established, but only temporarily so because abjection “does not respect borders” and is ever ready to disrupt or dissolve them (Kristeva 4). Elizabeth Grosz describes abjection in the symbolic order as “excessive residue left untapped by the symbolic function” (87), which means that abjection is situated in the blind areas of the symbolic, the pre-meaning areas.

The above two paragraphs elaborated on two situations of abjection. In the former, abjection is situated in an absence of the border, whereas in the latter, abjection is situated in a blurring or collapse of the border. In both cases, abjection is a borderline condition, as Kristeva puts it: “abjection is above all ambiguity” (Kristeva 9).

Simply speaking, because of the outbreak of abjection, the borderline patients experience the collapse of the border between “I” and the world and lose subjectivity. In the treatment of the borderline patients, Barzilai introduces Kristeva’s approach of “construction & condensation”. Construction is compared to “thematic reading” in literature, referring to the attempt to “repair the paternal function” (Barzilai 301). Condensation is only roughly compared to deconstruction[2], referring to the maternal approach that reactivates the patients’ pre-symbolic condition. In the condensation approach, the analyst imitates borderline patients’ nonsensical, alogical play of words in order to activate the more binding effect of the maternal transference. It is worth noting that Kristeva emphasizes that both construction and condensation are important; we cannot exclude any one of them, but deploy them together. Barzilai poses Kristeva’s maternal psychoanalytic approach of condensation against Lacan’s paternal approach of displacement. Lacan’s displacement means a third party, the paternal law, replacing the child’s intimate relationship with the mother. Through acquiring language, the child is irretraceably transferred to the next stage—the symbolic stage. Lacan’s approach of displacement doesn’t work for these borderline patients for whom the language gives up. In contrast to Lacan’s displacement, Kristeva’s condensation means the child’s union with the mother. Through the fusion with the mother, the patient is able to be reimmersed in the pre-symbolic infantile stage where abjection is taking effect for the patient to abject the mother to gain subjectivity. Barzilai interprets it metaphorically: by experiencing of “death-in-the-mother” (Barzilai 302), the patient gains a chance of “a second birth” where they can reestablish their subjectivity, a precondition for the symbolic stage. The treatment of borderline patients testifies to the limitations of Lacan’s phallocentric approach of displacement. Kristeva’s dialectic approach combined with both the paternal of construction and the maternal of condensation proves highly effective.

This borderline condition, according to Kristeva, is not only a pathological entity. Barzilai informs that, the title of Kristeva’s title—“Within the Microcosm” suggests that it is a pervasive aspect in human life. Kristeva criticizes Lacan for having made all elements into a homologous structure[3] at the expense of ignoring the heterogeneous elements. This heterogeneity can also be traced in poetic language: sound, rhythm, image and even the muscle movements which belong to the non-verbal category, are participating in the process of creation of meaning and neglected in Lacan’s S/s algorithm.

Heterogeneity is closely related to Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic. Unlike the “classical semiotics,” the semiotic is not a static mode of articulation, but it is dominated by the pre-meaning infantile drives that are fluid and multi-directional. Therefore, if the subject is to become socialized in the world, those libidinal drives need to be regulated “as if it were chopped up” into “stable terms”. However the repression is not complete, “for the semiotic can still be discerned as a kind of pulsional pressure within language itself, in tone, rhythm, the bodily and material qualities of language, but also in contradiction, meaninglessness, disruption, silence and absence” (Eagleton 163).

Kristeva maintains that “signification” is composed of two essential parts, the symbolic and the semiotic. On the one hand, associated with meaning, the symbolic is a Lacanian model of the paternal law, which is structural and conventional. On the other, associated with pre-meaning, the semiotic is Kristeva’s theory of the maternal, which is multi-directional and unspeakable. Linguistically speaking, while the former is about the structure or grammar that governs the language system, the latter is about unregulated libidinal drives manifested in rhythms, tones, etc. that are unsignifiable yet an essential part of language. Without the symbolic, the semiotic would be meaningless; without the semiotic, there would be no source and energy for the symbolic: “Bodily movements, process and energies provide the semiotic impetus and raw materials out of which the symbolic is formed” (Grosz 100). The semiotic is both an integral part and a disruptive force in the language system. By aligning the symbolic with the semiotic, Kristeva does not mean a simple combination of the two. Rather, it is a signifying process that can result in heterogeneity. “Lacan’s linguistic conceptualization of unconscious processes restricts access to essential and hidden elements of experience” (Barzilai 296), and Kristeva reopens this access by the theory of semiotic.

As regards the heterogeneous elements, Barzilai retypes the key dense footnote in Kristeva’s “Microcosm”, in which Kristeva reminds us of the “incredible complexity of Freud’s notion of ‘sign’” (Barzilai 297) that Lacan fails to take in. Freud’s theory of “sign” acknowledges the heterogeneous elements, because it not only contains Lacan’s static rules in the S/s algorithm but also involves the speaking subject’s bodily elements that produce speech, such as the physiological aspects in sound and the muscle movements. Despite his claim—“Return to Freud”—Lacan, by oversimplifying Freud, apparently deprives Freud of his much more complex and original conception of “sign”. Therefore, Kristeva warns against indiscriminate application of Lacan’s formulation that this oversimplification would result in the true castration of Freud’s original discovery.

In the process of civilization, women are repressed by the male-dominated society and forced to be mute and invisible. The effective challenge of feminists should achieve not only in ostensible political rights of women in society as the first-wave feminists did, but also more importantly in the intellectual transformation of the phallocentric thinking. Kristeva’s contribution resides in her critique of Lacan’s repressive symbolic order and her establishment of the metaphysical space for maternal discourse. Hence, Barzilai’s writes in the end of her essay: “No longer silent onlookers at the brother’s banquet, we come up to the table. And we are hungry” (Barzilai 304).

Works Cited

Barzilai, Shuli. “Borders of Language: Kristeva’s Critique of Lacan”. PMLA 106.2 (1991): 294-305.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Researching Press, 2004.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “The Body of Signification.” Abjection, Melancholia, and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. New York: Routledge, 1990. 80-103.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Smith, Anne-Marie. Julia Kristeva : Speaking the Unspeakable. London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press. 1998.




[1]  According to Lacan, when the infant is born, he can’t tell the difference between himself and the world; that is to say, a subject hasn’t been built up yet. The infant in this phase enjoys a perfect combination with his mother’s body, being content to be an appendage to his mother, and wishing to be mother’s “phallus” (desire object). Unfortunately, father appears at this time, he breaks the child’s fantasy and forces him to separate with his mother and take an appropriate place in the society. Then, under the pressure of father’s law, the infant is forced to register himself into the given social structure which consists of different identities and roles. This structure, termed as the symbolic order by Lacan, is constructed by language based on his S/s algorithm.

[2] Barzilai makes it clear that condensation is analogous but not identical to deconstruction, because psychoanalyst is bound by the duty of alleviating the pain of the suffering patients while for deconstructionists “the question must be maintained” (Barzilai 301), and the stark polarization between construction and condensation is what Kristeva would never concede.

[3] As Barzilai has pointed out, according to Kristeva, despite Lacan’s “fundamental refinement” in his theorization of la langue towards his early statement—“The unconscious is structured like language”—Lacan still fails to account for the heterogeneous elements.

 

Zerilli, “A Process without a Subject: Simone de Beauvoir and Julia

Kristeva on Maternity.”

1.      What are similarities and differences between Beauvoir’s and Kristeva’s theory on maternity?

2.      Define “chora” and “abjection” in Kristeva’s theory. What is the purpose of discussing “abjection” in the essay?

3.      What does Zerilli say about Beauvoir’s “biologism”?

4.      What does Zerilli mean by “displacement” and “defamiliarization”? Elaborate with details from the essay.

5.      What does the essay tell us about maternal space and paternal time?

Final Exam (Take-home)

Student Essay

A Complementary Interpretation of Maternity by Beauvoir and Kristeva

The Second Sex by Simon de Beauvoir has attracted a lot of critical attention since its publication. It is a monumental book in that it marks a new age for feminist studies. Many feminist theorists and critics find the ideas expressed in this book worthy of attention. One of them is Julia Kristeva, a representative of postmodern feminism. She is very critical of Beauvoir, which is shown in her essay titled “Women’s Time” (1986). Despite the disagreement Kristeva holds with Beauvoir, Zerilli thinks that Beauvior and Kristeva actually complement each other in their interpretations of maternity.

Kristeva accuses Beauvoir of rejecting “the attributes traditionally considered feminine or maternal” and of pursuing an “identity between the two sexes” (193, 195). She thinks that by rejecting maternity, Beauvoir and the first generation of feminists have foreclosed the question of what the desire for motherhood corresponds to. But Zerilli points out that Beauvoir does not foreclose the question but makes it possible by “creating an alternative space” in which to consider the problem (115). She thinks that what Beauvoir suggests is not a rejection of motherhood, but a rejection of the beautified image imposed by patriarchal society on mothers. In other words, Beauvoir is using a new discursive strategy to unsettle the traditional image of the mother, or rather, the female.

This discursive strategy refers to the idea that we can use patriarchal language to reinterpret what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a female. In patriarchal society, female desire is wholly equated with maternal desire. And men impose this ideology on women to silence their complex and diverse experiences and feelings. For example, pregnancy is seen by many as “a blissful coexistence between the fetus and the mother-to-be” (Zerilli 119). They think it’s a “normal process” that is “not harmful” but “beneficial” to the mother (Beauvoir 33). This is what patriarchal society takes it to be. But Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, gives us a horrific picture of the maternal body. She describes that the fetus is like “a parasitic body” residing in the mother-to-be (Beauvoir 25-26). Her unconventional description is quite bold and astounding to the proponents of patriarchal society. By speaking of pregnancy in a different way, Beauvoir marks the once familiar idea of maternal desire unfamiliar. The once natural function of the female is now spoken of as unnatural. This process is what Zerilli calls “defamiliarization” and denaturalization (112). By doing so, Beauvoir questions and subverts the conventional patriarchal views. She has also shown the complexity of maternal desire which was unknown to us before. It is not the singular and unified masculinist values of maternity that matter but the diversity of female experiences that should be taken into account.

However, Kristeva disagrees in that she thinks women cannot use patriarchal language to describe her fluid, rhythmic and diverse desires. She sees the maternal space as the preconscious womb or chora, defining it as a “matrix space, nourishing, unnameable, anterior to the One, to God and, consequently defying metaphysics” (862). In other words, chora represents a state of chaos, which can not be described by the rational, unified and systematic patriarchal language. Such a space is prelinguistic, heterogeneous and unsignifiable. Since women dwell in such a chaotic and unsystematic “maternal space beyond paternal time” (Zerilli 131), Kristeva thinks the dominant discourse, that is, patriarchal language, cannot be used to describe the complex female experience. Although Beauvoir agrees with Kristeva that the maternal body is a place where there is no clear distinction between the subject and the other, nor any sense of clear identity, yet Beauvoir does not reduce women to the silence of chora. For Beauvoir, reducing women to silence means depriving her of the right as a speaking subject. Instead, she thinks one can set up a conceptual space within the maternal body and use the language “deviously” to voice female desire in “its social and psychic complexity”(Zerilli 115). By placing oneself in another space rather than the mute maternal space, one can use paternal language to offer alternative interpretations of maternity. This is what Zerilli calls “displacement,” which she thinks Beauvoir is suggesting women to adopt in order to subvert the maternal image distorted by patriarchal society (Zerilli 113).

Beauvoir has also been accused of her “naive acceptance of biological facts” (Seigfried 308). She is charged with this because she adopts the authoritative scientific discourse to talk about female biology. Zerilli finds Beauvoir mimicking this scientific language only to expose how absurd it is to deduce “the reproductive function of the woman from that of the female, the passivity of the female from the egg” (118). It is not biological determinism that Beauvoir advocates. She merely uses it to let people see how ridiculous it is to say female destiny is determined by her biology. She is using the dominant discourse to disrupt the socially constructed view that female desire is equated with maternal desire.

Then where does this monolithic view of maternity come from? Why does society show us the image of sacred mother who is nurturing and comforting? These questions can be best explained by Kristeva’s theory of abjection and Beauvoir’s horror of the maternal body combined. According to Elizabeth Grosz, “abjection is a reaction to the recognition of the impossible but necessary transcendence of the subject’s corporeality, and the impure, defiling elements of its uncontrollable materiality” (Fletcher 87). In other words, the maternal body reminds men of their animal ties, their mortality and the impure elements in them. In order to be completely separated from this undesirable and dirty part of them, men project it onto the (m)other. Seeing women as the other, they get the delusion that they come into the world by themselves. They are autonomous and independent beings, who are immortal and not subject to the contingencies of the flesh. However, the very other is still in every man. Actually, both men and women have their animal ties and many repressed undersides. By projecting these undesirable qualities onto women, men think they have discarded them. However, men can not deny the fact that they come from the womb and are psychologically attached to it. As Zerilli points out: “Beauvoir shows that man’s dread of the female body is at bottom a terror of the maternal body that menaces his claims to self-generation and autonomy, a terror he masks with the ideology of sacred maternity” (126). That is to say, in order to see themselves as ideal, as the absolute spirit instead of body, men have to regard mother as pure and sacred instead of profane and carnal. The menace of maternal body is so horrific that they have to veil this terror with eulogy.

In order to debunk this kind of masculinist values of maternity, Beauvoir helps us find a space from which women can show us the diverse sides of what it feels to be a woman. However, Kristeva thinks that since women exist in such a chaotic and heterogeneous maternal space, it is impossible to describe it in paternal time which is characterized by order, system and logic. In this case, Zerilli sides with Beauvoir and thinks that women can not become subjects not because of their position in unnamable space, but because they are constrained by patriarchal ideology. Thus only when women come to know the trap society has set for them and realize they can use language as a weapon to fight back, can they become a speaking subject.

Therefore, Zerilli writes this paper to clarify that Beauvoir is not a spokesperson of masculinist ideas who upholds rationality and logic but a daring rebel who subverts the patriarchal myth of maternity. She thinks the discursive strategy proposed by Beauvoir and Kristeva’s theory of abjection is complementary. Thus only with these two feminists’ interpretations can we come to a better and more comprehensive understanding of maternity and female experience.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Ed. and trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books, 1974 [1949].

Fletcher, John, and Andrew Benjamin, ed. Abjection, Melancholia and Love: the Work of Julia Kristeva. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “The Body of Signification.” Abjection, Melancholia and Love: the Work of Julia Kristeva. Ed. John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin. New York: Routledge, 1990. 80-103.

Kristeva, Julia. “Women’s Time.” Feminism: an Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997. 860-79.

 

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. “Second Sex: Second Thoughts.” Hypatia Reborn. Ed. Azizah Y. Al-Hibri and Margaret A. Simons. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 305-22.

Zerilli, Linda M.G. “A Process without a Subject.” In Signs 18.1 (1992): 111-35.

 

Nealon, “The Discipline of Deconstruction.”

1.      Why does Nealon say that deconstruction has been “murdered” by New Historicism?

2.      What does Derrida mean by “double writing”?

3.      How does Culler explicate this concept, despite Nealon’s misquotation?

4.      In what sense does Nealon confuse neutralization with undecidability?

5.      Choose one concept from the following list to indicate where Nealon may have misunderstood the major deconstructionists:

1)        De Man’s concept of unreadability or

2)        Miller’s notion of undecidability or

3)        Hartman’s and Norris’ discussion of figurative or metaphorical language (philosophical vs. literary or reflective vs. figural)

Final Exam (Take-home)

Student Essay

Reading and Misreading Deconstruction

In his essay “The Discipline of Deconstruction,” Jeffrey T. Nealon endeavors to defend Derrida’s deconstruction, distinguishing it from various misunderstandings by American critics—though Nealon himself seems to be a practitioner of misreading here, and suspiciously, on purpose.

At the very beginning of this essay, Nealon declares that after a “short, happy life in American literature departments” (1266), deconstruction has already died, which is approved by many critics. Two sets of explanation are offered here: the suicide theory and the murder theory. The suicide theory claims that apart from its inevitable fall into self-cancellation, deconstruction turns out to be nothing more than another version of New Criticism in trying to surpass it, the sole difference being “New Critics hunt for themes and ironies” (1267), while deconstructionists “hunt for self-canceling binary oppositions”(1267). The murder theory believes that deconstruction, in its attempt to speak free from ideology  as Romanticists do, is murdered by new historicists. According to Nealon, the “simple textual self-cancellation” and the “reactionary and nihilistic textual undecidability” of deconstruction lead to “the generous political despair … to passive acceptance” (1267); to impair this defect, new-historicists call for “rehistoricizing and re-contextualizing” (1266). Thus deconstruction is murdered at their hands.

The above accusations of deconstruction are not justified, however, Nealon later claims, for the reason that deconstructive literary theory is not a legitimate representation of Derrida’s theory of deconstruction. Derrida’s deconstruction, Nealon argues, includes two steps; it is a double gesture, a double writing. The overturning, i.e. the neutralization, of the classical opposition is merely the first step. If deconstruction stops here, it would no doubt fall into the “meaningless self-cancellation” and “deadlocked aporia of meaning” (1269) as mentioned above. The second step of deconstructive double writing is “a general displacement of the system” (1269), a “wholesale displacement of the systematics of binary opposition and the reinsciption of opposition within a larger field – a ‘textual’ field that can account for nonpresence as other than the lack of presence” (1269), and it is only in this step that deconstruction disturbs the field of oppositions. In other words, deconstruction does not simply mean the reversal of the binary oppositions, putting the originally unprivileged term in the privileged place; rather, it is a blurring of the borderline between binary oppositions, because the self in each term inevitably contains the “otherness” (1274) in itself. In this sense, the neutralization step by no means declares the end, but rather the beginning; it only puts an end to the traditional totalizing way of reading, the customary hunt for a definite meaning and a mastery over the text. Reading does not end here, Derrida suggests; rather, it is an ever-moving motion open to endless possibilities of interpretation.

While deconstructive criticism, in Nealon’s opinion, suffers inadequacy because “Derrida’s thought has been grossly misrepresented by its American disciples” and “there has never been a properly deconstructive criticism in America” (1267). In order to “commodify” deconstruction, to make it a “discipline” and easily applied in literary criticism, critics simplify deconstruction into “how-to books” (1269). Nealon then quotes from Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction and Christopher Norris’s Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, among others, to show how the two major deconstructionists have failed to notice the second step, limiting deconstruction merely to neutralization. We have to say here that Nealon does not do justice to Culler and Norris.

Soon after the publication of  “The Discipline of Deconstruction,” Culler writes to the editor of PMLA to protest that the chapter of his book from which Nealon quotes is not talking about deconstruction at all. In fact, Culler does fully appreciate Derrida’s double writing. Just a few pages after Nealon’s quotation in On Deconstruction, Culler writes: “This [to reverse the hierarchy] is an essential step, but only a step. Deconstruction must, Derrida continues, ‘through a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, put into practice a reversal of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system…’” (Culler 85-6). If Nealon has read this book, it is almost impossible for him not to notice this passage. Here we can’t help wondering whether Nealon misunderstands Culler or he just carefully selects, or even garbles some quotations for the sake of his own argument. He can hardly escape the suspicion of deliberately neglecting the crucial pages in Culler. So Culler does not do him wrong to accuse him as one of the “young critics to distort their precursors to gain a hearing” (“Forum” 534).

But still, there might be a difference in their interpretation of Derrida’s double writing. In his rebuttal, Culler describes this disagreement as “whether the operations of reversal and displacement are always separable, … or whether, in some cases, an effective inversion is not already a displacement and reinscription” (“Forum” 534), the latter being Culler’s suggestion.

Nealon finds the misunderstanding of Derrida’s notion of “undecidability” as the cause of American deconstructionists’ failure to notice the second step. In Nealon’s argument, deconstructive critics, out of a deeply-rooted inclination to gain a mastery over the text, find “undecidability” or “unreadability” as the final conclusion--the definite meaning from the totalizing way of reading, thus “making undecidability quite decidable” (1270). Undecidability is the end of the totalizing way of reading as well as the beginning of a new way of reading: a reading open to all possibilities and interpretations, a reading that is always set in motion. Undecidability starts from the neutralization of the binary opposition and puts an end to the totalizing way of reading; its significance lies in the shift of the focus towards the second step of the double gesture, while neutralization, as we discussed earlier, denotes the first step of deconstruction. However, Nealon himself sometimes confuses these two concepts. For example, when introducing Derrida’s double writing and arguing that American deconstructionists have neglected the second gesture, Nealon says: “Rather, this deadlock, this undecidability, this unreadability, is only the first gesture in a double reading, the “overturning gesture” that points to the untenability of the “classical oppositions” (1269). Here Nealon mixes “undecidability” or “unreadability” with “deadlock.”  “Undecidability” mentioned here is considered “neutralization.” Another obvious confusion can be discerned in the following sentence: “For Derrida, undecidability—the neutralization of oppositions within a generalizing system—entails a distinctly ethical imperative to rethink decision carefully and complexly” (1271). With the application of the dash to introduce the explanatory element, the confusion of the two concepts here is so evident that it may hardly pass unnoticed.

And Nealon’s confusion does not stop here. In his essay, Norris seems to us someone who has watered down Derrida’s work. Nealon quotes from Norris’ Deconstruction: Theory and Practice and judges it as characterizing “a turn to the irreducible richness of metaphoric or figurative language (against the univocality of literal language, against philosophy) as the thrust of Derrida’s work”(1274). However, this cannot be taken readily as Norris’ full range of understanding. In another book of his, Derrida (1987), Norris presents us with an attitude quite the opposite to Nealon’s inadequate summary here. This can be evidently seen in the opening chapter titled “Philosophy/Literature.” Through an observation of Derrida’s essay on Valéry in his Margins of Philosophy, Norris demonstrates that he fully appreciates what Derrida terms as “a double gesture.” While Valéry intends to view philosophy as “a particular branch of literature” and emphasizes “the pervasiveness of figural language in philosophy,” Derrida refuses to simply reverse the binary opposition by reducing philosophy as the unprivileged. “For this is nothing more than a notional gesture, a reversal that leaves the opposition still very much in place without beginning to shift the conceptual ground wherein its foundations are securely laid”(Norris 24). 

Some critics of Derrida view deconstruction “as literature’s revenge upon philosophy” (Norris 23). This, too, is Nealon’s accusation upon Norris. But obviously Norris sees beyond this. He notes: “there can be no doubt that Derrida is turning philosophy’s conceptual resources back against a premature move to annul them in the name of a thoroughgoing ‘literary’ formalism”(25). Valéry’s insight that literature, or figurative language, has its power always penetrated into philosophy, that “philosophic concepts … are often found to rest on buried or forgotten metaphors” (Norris 22-3) certainly serves to blur the philosophy/literature opposition. This is to “explore their mutual crossings and involvements” (Norris 24) so as to “displace” or to “reinscribe,” in line with Derrida’s argument that philosophy, in return, also has its deep influence upon literature. There are  “various ‘philosophemes’, or ways of thinking which by now have impressed themselves so deeply on our language [in literature] that we take them as commonsense truths and forget their specific (philosophical) prehistory”(Norris 26). In other words, just like philosophers, who unconsciously keep applying the dead metaphors to the language used in their writings, poets and novelists can’t help, also unconsciously, relying on “philosophemes” which are just as essential to philosophy as metaphor is to literature. In this sense, there is no point at all if we simply stop at reversing the traditional binary opposition: the new privilege is just as inadequate. Writing, Derrida believes, is intertextual. This notion, after the de-grounding of the binary opposition, is the ground of his reinscription/displacement step.

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. “Forum: The Discipline of Deconstruction.” PMLA 108. 3. (1993): 533-540.

---. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. London and Henley: Routledge&Kegan Paul, 1983.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. “The Discipline of Deconstruction.” PMLA 107.5 (1992): 1266-1279.

Norris, Christophor. Derrida. London: Fontana Press, 1987.

 

 

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