Derrida, Authorial Intention and the Hermeneutics of Charity (drafted 8/6/05)
What follows is a purely wannabee amateur philosopher’s attempt to explain the work of Jacques Derrida, motivated by the sheer enjoyment of reading about his work. A secondary motive is to make it at least partially clear that Derrida cannot and should not be summarily dismissed, ignored, left unread or ascribed whatever meaning one chooses, as a result of his alleged denial of authorial intention (see here for an example of such a treatment of Derrida). This essay is broken into three sections:
· Derrida’s Views of Texts, Authors, Truth, etc.
A) Derrida’s Views of Texts, Authors, Truth etc.
I don’t pretend to have fully understood Derrida (not sure anyone can) but I hope this brief sampling below will give a good working definition/grasp of what the man ‘intended’ to convey through his writings (smile).
1. Derrida’s View of Texts
The following quotes illustrate the transitory, quasi-real moment-by-moment nature of texts. They appear only to fade away because of its inherent and inseparable connection with another signifier, an infinite chain of condemned symbols which cannot live without each other but dies the moment the other appears. Derrida has glimpsed into the abyss of textual signifiers and has concluded that there’s ‘no way out’ i.e. we cannot get from the signifiers to the signified (see Grenz’s quote below, “There is no signified apart from the signifier”). Textual reference, therefore, becomes complicated. Not impossible[!], just complicated (see the quotes below about an ‘other’ beyond language):
“A text is no longer a finished corpus of writing, some context enclosed in a book or its margins, but a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces.” (Derrida, Of Grammatology, quoted in Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, p.104).
Note this implies that a piece of work, A, always ‘leads on’ to another piece of work, B, and so on.
“For Derrida…texts are an endless series of ‘traces’ or ‘tracks’; they are traces in the sense of being products of previous traces, and tracks in the sense of moving ‘on the way to’ other traces. If language is like a chessboard, Derrida uses the metaphor of the ‘bottomless chessboard’: there is no underlying ground to support it, and play has no meaning beyond itself…Because the sign is a trace or a mark, it needs to be left intact. But because the sign is a trace in the sense of a track that encourages onward movement, the mark also needs to be erased. It stands both as a fleeting presence, and as that which must be ‘under erasure’. Thus Derrida will write a word, cross it out because it is not accurate, and print both the word and its deletion because, in his judgment, both are necessary.” (Thiselton, p.108)
A sign will always lead to another sign. Thus, a language is a chain of signifiers referring to other signifiers, in which each signifier in turn becomes what is signified by another signifier. And because the textual location (the immediate context in which they appear) in which a signifier is embedded constantly changes, its meaning can never be fully determined…meaning is never static, never given once-for-all. Instead, meaning changes over time and with changing contexts. For this reason, we must continually ‘defer’ or postpone our tendency to attribute meaning.” (Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, p.144)
“There is no signified that exists apart from the signifier – no mental concept that exists apart from the word that we attach to that thought…The meaning of writing arises from an inter-play between presence and absence. Meaning occurs because of the presence of a ‘trace’ of a now-absent reality or a trace of its former connections to other elements.” (Grenz, p.145).
This encourages readers to look for hidden or ‘absent’ meanings in texts as part of the exercise of deconstruction whereby one resists/undermines dominant (or ‘totalitarian’) voices, seeking to discover and expose repressed themes. Presumably, this ought to reveal the ‘true’ meaning of whatever it is we’re deconstructing. The paradox is, when/if this ‘true’ meaning can be discovered it is itself vulnerable to deconstruction ad infinitum! (Note: There’s nothing here about attributing nonsense to whomever we please.)
2. Derrida’s View of Authors
Derrida’s view of authors reflect his influence by Nietzche and Freud, both of whom, “exercised hermeneutical suspicious of all conscious articulation, on the ground that this may reflect disguises thrown by unconscious forces” (Thilselton, p.111). Although Grenz felt that Derrida contains the metaphysical implication that there is no authorial self ‘behind’ a text (see below), further reading suggests that Derrida did not deny the presence of an author. He merely denied the permanency or all-domineering strength of that author’s influence on the text.
“Both meaning and consciousness are dependent on language. There is no signified that exists apart from the signifier – no mental concept that exists apart from the word that we attach to that thought. The concept implies that there is no self standing beneath or preceding linguistic activity.” (Grenz, p.145)
“Deconstruction wants to trouble the expression ‘reference’ as an excessively subjectivistic term which overestimates the ego cogito of the speaking subject while underestimating the power of the systems within which the speaker operates…Every claim to the ‘things themselves’ is a claim made within and by means of the resources of certain semi-systems, linguistic and otherwise, situated within the framework of a complex set of contextual presupposition which can never be saturated. (John Caputo, Prayers & Tears of Jacques Derrida, p.17).
“(The) belief that Derrida has no concern with authorial intentions is itself a misreading of his typical concern to play off such intentions against structural constraints that both limit and subvert authorial meaning. This is very clear in his early readings of Husserl, Saussure and Rousseau, and continues throughout his negotiations with Heidegger.” (David Wood, Introduction to Derrida: A Critical Reader, p.2) (emphasis mine)
“The effects or structure of a text are not reducible to its ‘truth’, to the intended meaning of its presumed author.” (Derrida, Otobiographies, quoted in Thiselton, New Horizons, p.111)
Again, notice that Derrida doesn’t deny that an author intended something. He says that whatever was intended cannot be the ‘fixed’ meaning of said author. He held that we tend to put too much weight on our subjective intentions, our autonomy, our power as authors. We fail to perceive that we’re in our society’s clutches, unknowingly perpetuating its preferences, discriminations, power-plays, etc.
Derrida seems to me to be saying that as authors, whilst we continue to write with full intention and meaning, the moment our words leave us they virtually cease to become ‘ours’, they join the play of semiotics and signifiers and their reference become a function of what society decides they will mean. In this way, the meaning of texts transcends their originating author, ricocheting back onto him, ‘writing’ him in the ultimate paradox of inversion.
A quick example of how texts may transcend the author could be the writings of the Old Testament Prophets whose precise/complete connotations may have eluded even them (e.g. Isaiah’s prophecy of the birth of Christ, the Suffering Servant, etc.), whose meaning, significance and application have grown far beyond what they imagined. Another way to illustrate this would be to see how modern authors are always explaining what they really meant by a particular phrase or quote, or how they’re always ‘adding on’ explanations after explanations about what they wrote, what their motives were and how they were misunderstood, how they ‘saw’ certain pieces evidence, how these influenced their thought-patterns and why they shouldn’t be blamed for drawing a certain conclusion and so on. It appears that not only is meaning at least hardly ever static, hardly given once-for-all, it seems that authors have far less autonomy than we may initially feel they do.
3. Derrida’s View of Truth
Does Derrida deny truth? Well, on one hand in 1979, he wrote:
“There is no such thing either as the truth of Nietzsche, or of Nietzsche’s text…Indeed there is no such thing as a truth in itself. But only a surfeit of it. Even if it should be for me, about me, truth is plural.” (Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, p.103)
On the other, a few years later:
“(It) goes without saying that in no case is it a question of a discourse against truth or against science. (This is impossible and absurd, as is every heated accusation on this subject)…I repeat…we must have truth.” (Derrida, Positions, p.105)
“Those who venture along this path (of deconstruction), it seems to me, need not set themselves up in opposition to the principle of reason, nor need they give way to ‘irrationalism’” (Derrida, The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils)
David Couzens Hoy, one of Derrida’s more balanced interpreters, provides some clarity here:
“(Derrida’s nuanced view suggests that) truth is a trivial notion, in that there are many statements that are true (e.g. “the grass is green”, “the sky is blue”, etc.). The question is why some statements are taken to be not only true, but more significant than others. Truths only ever appear in a context of interpretation, and interpretations select subsets of truths.” (David Couzens Hoy, Splitting the Difference in Working Through Derrida, p.242)
Derrida, on this view, seems to be saying that there are more important areas to think about than ‘whether or not truth exists’. He seems to want to take the philosophical game to a higher level, at the risk of being misunderstood to deny rationality and reason. He probably feels that truth is over-rated, given the glut of truth-claims available to justify the equal glut of oppression in society.
I’m reminded here of the scene in the Gospel of John when Jesus was questioned by Pilate, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered with another question, “Is that your own idea or did others talk to you about me?” (John 18:33-34) Jesus sought to probe not merely Pilate’s intellectual grasp of reality, but his heart’s response to it. In other words, intent was more important than content. How we respond to truth, what we do with it, how we show it, how we embody or live it, is what catches God’s eye. Not our mere understanding of it.
Likewise, perhaps Derrida sought to undermine and cause havoc to rationality, reason, systematization of thought and truth in order that we may be shaken out of our complacency and forced to reconsider ideas we have suppressed, to rethink the possibilities of contradictions, inappropriate domineering tendencies and outright prejudices in our positions.
“Even Derrida does not wish to destroy systematic thought, but only its claims to finality and totality at the expense and repression of other ideas (thus, I believe that Gadamer’s reference to the inexhaustibility of meaning is preferable to undecidability, which tends to be misunderstood).” (Patrick Franklin, Deconstruction: Prophetic Theology?)
“The critique of
logo-centrism is above all else the
search for the ‘other’ and the ‘other of language’”(Derrida, quoted in
“I totally refuse the label of nihilism…Deconstruction is not an enclosure in nothingness, but an openness towards the other.” (Derrida, Moscou)
In a word/trace(?), we ‘wake up’ amidst a pre-given system of thought/language/textuality outside of which ‘reference’ cannot penetrate, behind which ‘authors’ are minimized/irrelevant at best and lost at worst, within which (or as a result of which) ‘meaning’ is in never-ending flux. We, readers and writers alike, cannot escape this Matrix-like condition (hence his infamous “There is nothing beyond the text.”) All that is spoken/written/read within this system of existence is influenced by the system’s prejudices, the culture’s ideologies and biases.
Deconstruction may be seen as a tool for revolt, the search for meaning, the pounding away at ‘presenting’ realities, a catalyst to encourage alterity or contrary perspectives, challenging the status quo and any notion that we can ‘represent Reality’ accurately, a notion also known as logo-centrism (“The critique of logo-centrism is above all else the search for the ‘other’ and the ‘other of language’”).
Yet, deconstruction was always an instrument birthed, and therefore tragically constrained, within the system itself. And, till his death, Derrida always believed in an Other ‘beyond’ the system (see his obituary by Caputo) but an Other inaccessible apart from, and therefore forever elusive as a result of, the system.
Any “denial of authorial intent” can take at least three forms:
1. There is no author
2. An author exists, but he has no intentions whatsoever for his text i.e. he refuses to ascribe any meaning to his work.
3. An author exists and he has an intention for the text but this meaning is rendered inexhaustible (or ‘undescribable’) given the place of the author and text within a symbolic system with more influence than both, causing the text to take on a life of its own.
I hope it’s been shown in the previous section that Derrida’s view best approximates no.3 which simply does not justify EITHER a) ignoring what an author originally meant in his writing, OR b) putting nonsensical words in an author’s mouth.
Assume that Bernard wrote/said, “The pigeons have flown” and somehow the passage, via the intricacies and methods of the social system vis-à-vis deconstruction, finally ‘obtains’ the meaning, “The politicians have cheated the country.” If this was the case, it still wouldn’t justify ignoring what Bernard originally wrote. Neither would it make sense to say that Bernard wrote, “The pigs have faked their death.” The best one could do was to say that what Bernard wrote could end up meaning something like, “The pigs have faked their death”, yet even then one cannot nonchalantly put words in Bernard’s mouth.
Also, note that had Derrida adopted position 1 and/or 2, this still wouldn’t justify fancifully ascribing gibberish to Derrida! In the first case, there is no author, so saying “The author said/meant XYZ” is false. In the second case, the author denies intentions altogether, so the phrase, “The author said/meant/intended XYZ” is also false and inapplicable.
Am I therefore saying that Derrida is immune to the charge of self-stultification? No. In fact, as any philosophy enthusiast can easily show, Derrida’s view - that the meaning of texts continually fluctuate – can be applied back on itself, thereby rendering it self-contradictory and incoherent as a statement of reality. Unsurprisingly, Derrida accepts this reduction ad absurdum; he goes against totalitarianism of all kinds and one can imagine he wouldn’t want his theories to be exempt either. Deconstruction is not immune to deconstruction. Still, he would most likely urge his readers and de-constructors to move on, to not stop with his philosophy but carry on the task of finding the ‘absent meanings’ in the ‘presence’ of logo-centric texts wherever they are found.
On a final - and more serious note, IMO - it’s troubling that my friend didn’t bother checking up on what Derrida actually said before virtually dismissing him. My friend felt he didn’t need to because, in his words, “Derrida wasn’t big on clear communication.” I find this to be true as well. Still, the issues raised above notwithstanding, I think we should be reminded that as Christians we ought to care about what authors meant regardless of what they write. My friend should’ve proceeded with verifying Derrida’s actual works and some of his apologists AS PART OF his Christian responsibility to be fair and respectful to others, even/especially opponents (not to mention with a huge influence on society). Because by the same logic, it would seem that Christians are justified in killing anyone who denied the sanctity of life, even his own (since the guy isn’t “big on life”?).
Jesus’ dictum was to “love our enemies”, not “sin like they do”. We are not to stoop to our enemies’ level, but to demonstrate that we care about being clear and truthful even if they don’t.
If God is essentially relational, then I believe our discourse has to reflect this concern for relationships as well. A hermeneutics of charity (something I’ve been ‘pushing’ and am glad/inspired that the Emergent Church Network embodies this spirit most effectively) involves:
If even half of the above are applied, it’s more likely to we will gain a more credible place in their minds of seekers, pre-Christians and even anti-Christians alike. Needless to say, triumphalism, pride, sarcasm and rhetoric should have no place in Christian discourse, especially towards those for whom you, the Christian thinker/writer, may be the only conduit of Christ’s warmth and presence they know.
Finally, I’d like to highlight examples of deconstruction’s value for Christian faith and thought. This is an area I’m only beginning, yet eager, to explore. Reading recommendations would include Patrick Franklin’s article (also a very good introduction to Derrida’s thought) and John Caputo’s Prayers & Tears of Jacques Derrida (complicated, like Derrida himself, no doubt).
Deconstruction helps question the ‘finality’ of any particular interpretation of Biblical texts. Thilselton cites positively the deconstructive work of John Dominic Crossan (in particularly his writings on parable, aphrisms and inter-textual traditions) and David Clines whose study of Job revealed otherwise unnoticed features in the text.
“Mere interpretations of texts can themselves take on the status of controlling paradigms in our lives, which, when they become both all-powerfully directive and unchallengeably ‘for-ever fixed’ begin to assume a quasi-idolatrous role, as securities in which we place absolute trust. Illusions need to be dispelled…The metaphor of the text as movement or as growing texture, rather than a fixed and static entity, calls attention to the capacity of biblical texts to lead us ever further on; not to let us rest in the illusion that by once reading them we have completed a finished journey, as if we had ‘mastered’ them.” (Thilselton, p.124)
“Deconstruction gives old texts new readings, old traditions new twists… Deconstruction exposes them to the trauma of something unexpected, something to come, of the tout autre (‘the other’) which remains ever on the margins of texts and traditions, which eludes and elicits our discourse, which shakes and solicits our institutions. Deconstruction warns against letting a discursive tradition close over or shut down, silence or exclude.” (Caputo, p.18)
“We do not in some deep way know who we are or what the world is. That is not nihilism but a quasi-religious confession, the beginning of wisdom, the onset of faith and compassion. Derrida
exposes the doubt that does not merely insinuate itself into faith but that in fact constitutes faith, for faith is faith precisely in the face of doubt and uncertainty, the passion of non-knowing. Violence on the other hand arises from having a low tolerance for uncertainty so that Derrida shows us why religious violence is bad faith.” (Caputo, Jacques Derrida: An Obituary)
Deconstruction humbles us in our quest to know and
talk about God. It reminds us that our knowledge of God remains provisional,
even as it grows in truth, clarity and consistency (
“By inscribing theology within the trace, by describing faith as always and already marked by the trace, by différance and undecidability, deconstruction demonstrates that faith is always faith, and this in virtue of one of the best descriptions of faith we possess, which is that faith is always ‘through a glas darkly’.” (Caputo, Prayers & Tears, p.6)
In closing, perhaps
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor 13:12-13)
8th June 2005