Dismantling Deconstruction & Post-Structuralist Theories of Literature Through The Application Of Superstructure
Deconstruction of language and meaning is rooted in the concepts of postmodernism and post-structuralism and can be most simply defined as being without meaning. The deconstruction of language invalidates concepts of concrete meaning and consistency in language and literature. Deconstruction makes the claim that language and literature are inconsistent and that the true meaning of the work is not rooted in what the author wrote, but instead is rooted in the reader’s own ideologies. Taken to their logical conclusions post-modernism and deconstruction theory can not stand up to scrutiny, they tumble like a house of cards in a summer’s breeze. Deconstruction exists as a flawed philosophy as it invalidates the consistent definition of words. It is a fundamental necessity of society that words remain consistent in meaning, otherwise, language fails, and it is a fundamental necessity of society that language remains consistent, or society will fail:
Used sensibly, deconstruction can be a useful analytical tool. But, continues Scholes, deconstruction theory ventures into philosophical absurdity when it insists that words do not refer to concrete facts and when it overlooks the fact that language operates on a system, a network of meaning, not as a jumble of unconnected words.
(F.A.T.Z., Pp. 50)
Deconstruction can only exist intelligently as a tool for examination, not for the reader’s ideology as reader-response theory suggests, but for the ideology that the author either hols or wishes to examine.
A deconstruction or post-structuralist advocate might counter the above argument with the claim that: “deconstruction offers a playful alternative to traditional scholarships” (Ragussis, S.L., Pp 305). This argument is based on Derrida’s critical theories of the signifier and the signified, which are adopted by Micheal Ragussis in his examination of The Scarlet Letter:
Derrida reminds us that the association of speech with present, obvious and ideal meaning in writing with absent, merely pictured, and therefore less reliable meaning is suspect, to say the least (…) words are not the things they name and, indeed, they are only arbitrarily associated with those things (…). In a sense the meaning escapes from the spaces between them.
(Ragussis, S.L., Pp. 306)
Even though Ragussis embraces Derrida’s concept of words being meaningless and arbitrary he is unable to examine The Scarlet Letter without relying on the consistent and traditional meanings of words, nor can Ragussis accomplish his task without introducing the outside ideologies and social practices of the time into his examination of The Scarlet Letter. Ragussis fails to uphold the concept that all meaning is found within the text and not through outside ideologies.
“It was argued, for instance, by the later Barthes, by the recent Derrida, and by Kristeva, that the signification is to be located exclusively in the text” (Eco, C.M.S., Pp. 609). Derrida contends that the image of the concept, which is the signified, dictates the meaning of the signifier in the text:
Besides the tension of freeplay with history, there is also is also the tension of freeplay with presence. Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system ofdifferences of the movement of a chain.
(Derrida, C.M.S., Pp. 508)
Derrida contends that the text defines the words, and then through the reader’s interpretation of the words the ideology of the text is formed. It is only at this point that Derrida allows the concepts of the work to interact intellectually with the ideological notions which may, or may not, have already existed in society. It is not surprising that Ragussis failed to deconstruct The Scarlet Letter since Derrida’s theories are unable to stand on their own merit. If Derrida is to be examined to the end of his ambitious claims one would discover that literature, and literacy, are impossible under Derrida since words cannot be assigned meaning until after they have been read and connected with others words which also do not yet possess definitions or meaning. Even if a method of circumventing the problem of the ambiguity found in Derrida’s work were possible, it could still not solve the problem that deconstruction presents to literature since all of the words in a text would be given different meanings by each reader the text encounters. The words in the text could therefore never represent anything concrete. Deconstruction as a solution would create literary anarchy, and anyone writing a dictionary would be put out of work.
Derrida fails to live up to his own criteria within his critical work Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, which states: “The centre is at the centre of the totality, and yet the centre does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its own centre elsewhere. The centre is not the centre” (Derrida, C.M.S., Pp. 495). Derrida’s own argument requires that the reader have the same definition of centre and totality as Derrida himself possesses prior to reading the text. This creates a paradox since the ideology of the author becomes paramount to the understanding of the reader. To save Derrida’s argument from failure there must be a concrete definition given to the term “author” which excludes Derrida and other writers, but again contradicts the principles of deconstruction by assigning words concrete meanings and definitions.
Deconstruction and post-structuralism attempt to invalidate or discredit the role of the author:
A private letter may well have a signer- it does not have an author, a contract may well have a guarantor- it does not have an author. An anonymous text posted on a wall probably has a writer- but not an author. The author’s function is therefore characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning discourses within a society.
(Foucault, C.M.S., Pp. 549)
These distinctions attempt to invalidate the role of the author by defining what an author is not. The attempt here is to avoid a concrete definition of the term author, but since this technique does, in fact, define the term “author” in concrete terms of what ana author is not, the term “author” is actually given a concrete meaning and causes deconstruction and post-structuralist theories to fail. Deconstruction and reader-response, as with all aspects of post-structuralist criticism, do not allow for the author to construct any meaning in a work while writing a text, nor do these theories recognize the author’s role in the creative process of the work. These theories simply thank the author for holding the pen and then go on to give all creative responsibilities to the reader. This is insulting to authors since it transforms them from artists to tools. Reader-response criticism also causes one to question the purpose of writing a text since everyone else has more to do with the creative process of the text than the author.
Deconstruction and post-modern theories ultimately fail because they claim the works are devoid of structured meaning, yet go one to seek out a structured formula that readers then apply to a text to discover meaning. This paradoxical contradiction is self-destructive and creates a platform for literary anarchy. Literature must, therefore, go in the opposite direction, works of literature must have meaning and structure.
“Every writer is individually placed in society, responding to a general history from his own particular standpoint, making sense of his own concrete terms” (Eagleton, C.M.S., Pp. 529). Terry Eagleton uses a Marxist perspective to examine literature. Eagleton informs readers that literature is the proponent of a shared history or heritage, that the meaning of a work is encoded within the ideologies of the author as they pertain to the author’s place in history.
Like a society, literature must have a base and a superstructure. The base comes from the concrete meaning of language formed throughout history. The superstructure of literature is the examination of the ideologies present in the text. For the ideologies to be explored language must have concrete and definite meaning: “Literature may be part of our superstructure, but it is not merely a passive reflection of the economic base” (Eagleton, C.M.S., Pp. 530). For Eagleton, the base in literature is the concrete meaning of words and language; only through the existence of such a base can authors examine ideologies or create literature. In Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Also Rises, Hemmingway explores various social issues in post-world war one society. The novel only makes sense in so far as language and words possess a concrete base for meaning. It is only with an understanding of this base that a reader can examine the social issues and changing ideologies that Hemmingway tackles through his manipulation of words within the text. The concrete meanings of the words remain consistent. It is the places in the text that Hemmingway uses them that create meaning in the work and allow for ideological examination. Without concrete meaning, language could not be manipulated to the author’s purpose, and without this same concrete meaning the work would not be worth reading or examining; once again it would simply be literary anarchy.
In the end, post-structuralist theories, such as deconstruction and reader-response, collapse upon themselves and cause the reader to return to a modernist perspective where words and language have meaning. This is not to say deconstruction does not have a place in critical theory, but it is to say that deconstruction is at best a tool. Deconstruction can be used by a reader attempting to gain insight into the ideologies the author is exploring within the text. Deconstruction is ultimately just a means of attack, a starting place for an examination. Deconstruction is not, however, a complete form of literary examination.
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Derrida, Jaques. Structure, Sign, and play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. Criticism: Major Statements 4th ed. Ed Charles Kaplan. William Davis Anderson. Bedford/St Martins: 200
Echo, Umberto. The Deconstruction of the Linguistic Sign: From Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Criticism: Major Statements 4th ed. Ed Charles Kaplan. William Davis Anderson. Bedford/St Martins: 200
Foucault, Micheal. What is an Author?. Criticism: Major Statements 4th ed. Ed Charles Kaplan. William Davis Anderson. Bedford/St Martins: 200
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: Case Studies In Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Ross C. Murfin. Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press: 1991
Hemingway Ernest. The Sun Also Rises, Scribner Paperback Fiction. Simon & Shuster. New York, New York: 1995
Morner, Kathleen. From Absurd To Zeitgeist: The Compact Guide To Literary Terms. Ed. Kathleen Morner. Ralph Rausch. NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group. Lincolnwood Chicago: 1997