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Deconstructing Deconstruction PDF Print E-mail


given by Lisa Thatcher

Deconstructing Deconstruction

Jacques Derrida and an introduction to Deconstruction


Hi everyone and welcome to a wonderfully exciting night.

Tonight we are going to open our hearts and minds to the idea of deconstruction.

This next fifteen to twenty minutes is going to be very challenging.

The idea of deconstruction theory is enormous and I intend to cover a very small part of it tonight. This will be an enticement and we will call it an introduction.

I will use examples that Derrida used himself to explain deconstruction, and I will also use examples taken from physics. Deconstruction theory is usually associated with literature, the arts, politics, architecture and most importantly philosophy. I have decided to use examples from physics as well because; of all the sciences physics is the most rooted in observations relevant to the philosophical discourse. And the conversations of both these worlds are overlapping at the moment.

I have been reading Derrida for about two years and other philosophers dealing with the subject of deconstruction, primarily through linguistics. I do not at all claim to be knowledgeable let alone any sort of expert on the subject, but I know enough to bring a small part of it here tonight and to send you off with excellent prospect for further reading if you are enticed as I have been.

A brief word first about the controversy surrounding Derrida. Derrida’s writing is a radical critique of philosophy. It questions the usual notions of truth and knowledge. It disrupts traditional ideas about procedure and presentation. And it questions the authority of philosophy. This currently brands Derrida’s deconstruction theory as radical and subversive in some parts of the academic philosophical world. But we will not go into that in any depth tonight. Just be aware that these ideas are currently hotly contested.


So, what IS deconstruction?

The best way to explain this is to explain the importance of “undecidables”.

One of the very foundations of our knowledge is opposition. The terms “life” and “death” form a binary opposition, that is a pair of contrasted terms, each of which depends on the other for its meaning. There are many such oppositions and they’re all governed by the distinction either / or.

Some examples are:

High / Low

True / False

Right / Left

West / East

Male / Female

Mind / Body

Inside / Outside

Positive / Negative

Present / Past

Alive / Dead

If we accept this, it establishes conceptual order. Binary oppositions classify and organise the objects, events and relations of the world. They make decision possible. And they govern thinking in every day life, as well as philosophy, theory and the sciences.

Undecidables disrupt this oppositional logic. They slip across both sides of an opposition but don’t properly fit either. They are more than the opposition can allow. And because of that, they question the very principle of “opposition.”

The Zombie.

An example that Derrida liked to use was the cinematic portrayal of “the Zombie”. This is a creature that is horrific because it is neither dead nor alive. They show the failure of the “life / death” opposition. They are a myth created out of voodoo. White science meets black magic. Lots of binary oppositions are challenged in the notion of the Zombie. What happens to “white / black” and “master / servant” and “civilized / primitive” when white colonialists can also be the zombie slaves of black voodoo power? How certain is the opposition “inside / outside” if the zombies internal soul is extracted and an external force becomes its inside? Is there any security in opposing “masculine” to “feminine” and “good” to “evil” when the zombie is usually de-sexualised and has no power of decision?

This is why the Zombie is fascinating and also horrific. And like all undecidables, it ought to be returned to order. The resolution seems to be in killing the zombie, but of course you can’t because it is already dead. So what you have to do is remove its undecidability. That is you have to enforce its place on one side of the binary opposition. It must be ONLY alive or dead. It has to become a proper corpse or a living being. At that point the familiar concepts of life and death can rule again, untroubled. This is the restoration of conceptual order.

Perhaps you can already get a taste for where I am going in this dialogue. While everything fits neatly into some place in its binary opposition, conceptual order remains. But what if something does not fit into a point in its binary opposition? And what if in order to experience the comfort of conceptual order, we enforce a place in the opposition that is not necessarily accurate?

Derrida’s primary question was always “What if the comfort of order is not to be restored? What if we insist on undecideablity? The ceaseless play or either / or, neither / nor, ….. both?

While Derrida is asking us to consider the possibility of some sort of life outside of the binary oppositions, Physics is asking us to consider the undiscovered / unobserved reality, which I will attempt to explain quickly. I bring the example of Schrodingers Cat in at this point to illustrate the importance of getting our minds around the existence of an unobserved and as yet unexplained reality. This links us to the importance of the observation, as well as the recognition of the act of observation. Then I will come back to Derrida and we will see how we document the observation, and from there, hopefully, you will have a good idea of the importance of Deconstruction.

Schrodinger’s Cat

Erwin Schrodinger was a Nobel winning German physicist who died in 1961. The cat was part of a thought experiment he devised to explain one of the fundamental ideas of modern physics: Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.The Uncertainty Principle says something very simple: the act of measuring something changes the result of that measurement. Heisenberg showed that simultaneously determining both the position of an electron and the speed at which it is moving is impossible. If you can measure its speed accurately, that measurement will itself make its location wildly uncertain. And vice versa.Put another way, measurement decides the state of the electron.Let me give an example that clarifies this. Imagine an anthropologist visiting a remote tribal village to study its inhabitants. His very presence disturbs the villagers, who will behave differently with this stranger in their midst. So by simply observing, the anthropologist affects what he wants to observe; and thus can never hope to get a true picture of life there.

This is all very well with tiny particles nobody can see anyway, and maybe also with distant tribals. But what about everyday objects around us? What about, say, cats?

Well, that very question occurred to Schrodinger. His famous thought experiment goes something like this.

Let's say we have a sealed box with a cat in it. Also in the box is a device that can randomly emit marbles. In the course of a minute, the chances are exactly 50-50 that it emits one. If it does, the marble breaks a vial and releases a poisonous gas into the box. The cat will die. Otherwise, nothing happens.We put the box somewhere far away, where we have no way to tell what's going on inside it. Suppose we turn on the device for exactly one minute. Question: what happens to the cat?It must seem like a trivial question. The answer is that we don't know. We cannot predict whether a marble was actually emitted. So we don't know if the cat is alive or dead.But if we walk up to the box and open it to hear -- let's hope -- the loud miaow of a very puzzled cat, only then do we actually know that it has survived its uncertain ordeal.Before then, the best we can say about the cat is the non-sequitur that it is either alive or dead. But that's not really such a non-sequitur. It is entirely consistent with the laws of physics to think of the cat, before we open its box, as being both alive and dead, with a probability of 50 per cent for each state. Here's the point of the experiment: our act of opening the box and observing the cat -- taking a measurement, in other words -- is what puts the cat definitely into one of those states.Cat, alive.So what's the point, you want to know. What's so earth-shaking about this cat shut in a box?

There are many points, but probably the deepest and yet simplest point is this interesting view of the world: reality takes shape only when, precisely when, we sense it. Until then, it's uncertain. That's the Principle.

The anthropologist gets a picture of tribal behaviour only when he actually observes them, even if that changes the way they behave. We really know the fate of that poor cat only when we open Schrodinger's box.

All of us have wondered on these lines. Is my image in a mirror really there if I cannot see the mirror -- if I've turned my back to it, for example? Does a tree falling in a forest make a sound, if nobody is there to hear it?

Is there reality without observation, existence without consciousness?

Schrodinger's cat showed that the laws of physics might answer that last question with "no". That may be too extreme a view for most people's tastes, people who believe reality surrounds them without needing to be looked at. Then again, Schrodinger's cat wasn't real himself.

The Signifier.

So how does this relate to Derrida?

Derrida argues that at the crucial point of observation, that is at the point that a thing becomes identifiable for us, we label it. That is, we think and we observe in words. In a language even. If you open the box, the way you identify your reality is through your binary opposition – alive / dead.

Derrida’s problem with this is that the label, or the signifier exists before the observed thing. That means, when you open the box, you impose an existing knowledge on what you will find in the box. This is fine if you open the box to find an alive cat or a dead cat. But what if you opened the box to find a thing that we have no word to describe. A thing that we did not know even existed?

The Problem with the Signifier.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Let’s say while I am standing here talking to you, a creature walks up that looks exactly like me. Just as I am standing here, it looks identical.

It walks up the aisle there and stands next to me and grins at you all, enjoying its own joke.

In our observations, someone yells out “My god. There is an exact replica of Lisa.” Suddenly you have a biological problem. You ask questions like “Is that a clone of Lisa?” or “What kind of creature is that?”

Imagine instead, if someone yelled out, “My god! There is a Quark 17!” Immediately you have a whole other set of questions. “What is a quark 17? What is it doing here? How do we recognise it as that?”

This is a very simplified version of what I am talking about, but you can see that the signifier can determine at a crucial point the way a thing is investigated.

Derrida asks us to question the signifyer, and to start to ask questions about the reality of forcing everything into its binary opposition. He wants us to examine the words that we use to describe the fundamental basics of our existance and to recognise the impact they have had on the way that we have observed whatever it is that we are observing. This has profound implications for science, for sociology, for politics and most of all for philosophy. When we look at anything, Derrida asks us to include in our examinations, all the things that we do not think exist about it as well as the history of the signifyer in order to be closer to accuracy in our observations. “Deconstruction” is the act of including every thing in the observation and not making any assumptions about the language that we are using to determine the project in front of us, wether that project be the examination of Quarks or the definition of masculinity or the roots of comunism or the very nature of a thing called “truth”. If reality only exists once we have observd it, and if its properties are governed by what we call it when we first discover it, Derrida’s request that we recognise we are doing this, as we do it, is a valid one. We have to do this when we examine anything that we have forced into a binary opposition. And ultimately, that includes everything we have named or observed to date. Thank you.

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