“For me, writing means to withdraw myself, even if one appears when one writes because publishing means appearing in a certain way. But I didn’t want my appearance to be framed by the contemporary uses of photography where they show the author writing or in a head shot. So I thought it was very important to exclude all forms of photography and all public images of myself.”—Derrida on his reluctance to be photographed and his insistence that no image of himself would appear on his book covers.
(With apology to Derrida)
Alice C. Linsley
Postmodernism is characterized by a proliferation of philosophical developments that seek to destabilize traditional views, interpretations and values. The “new thought” goes against the notion that words and narratives have a fixed meaning. One of the most important philosophers of Postmodernism was the French Algerian Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida sought to uncover and lift up the underbelly of meaning in myths and texts. He enjoyed making fun of traditional interpretations, yet as he developed his "ontotheology" he concluded that there was something fixed at the metaphysical center. He developed this in his lectures at Villanova University.
Deconstruction reveals a “presence” that has been called by different names throughout history: logos, nous, arche, God, the metaphysical center, etc. However, for Derrida the fixed presence is not a being, but rather a necessary function by which we are able to discover meaning. Here Derrida borrows from Wittgenstein’s idea of a word as a function and Heidegger’s development of Dasein.
Derrida’s deconstruction reveals great complexities of meaning in written texts, ideas, myths and human customs. He explored the “metaphysics of presence.” He wants to know what dominates and blocks what seems not to be present. He ascribes to subordinate objects a more substantial existence than the shadow they cast, or their “trace.” Derrida wrote: "Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition, and a general displacement of the system. It is on that condition alone that deconstruction will provide the means of intervening in the field of oppositions it criticizes" (Metaphysics).
Derrida explores the hidden presence. In so doing, deeper and/or unfamiliar meanings emerge. His method involves neutralizing the shouting voice in order to hear resonances of underlying voices. He looks for Plato behind Aristotle, for mystery behind logic, and for the metaphysical behind the physical. His reversals are a strategic intervention to free western philosophy from the constraints of empiricism, materialism, and linear logic.
Derrida was a master when it came to identifying binary distinctions, such as dominance and subservience, and reversals. In the case of binary oppositions, each component of the binary set means something, and the relationship of the oppositions means something, and the hierarchy exhibited by the set means something. The reversal of the oppositions also means something. The reversal of the subordinated term of an opposition is a significant aspect of Derrida's strategy. In examining a binary opposition and reversals, deconstruction brings to light traces of meaning that cannot be said to be present, but which must have metaphysical existence.
Derrida borrowed the term “deconstruction” from Martin Heidegger. Heidegger exposed the fundamental problem of existence (ontology) or Being as Being (Dasein). He believed the individual’s moral duty is to face one’s non-existence, what he called “negation.” Life involves a dread of death because it means the negation of self or ego. Heidegger believed that authentic being is possible only when the individual faces death as extinction.
While a student, a priest in his Catholic school gave Heidegger a copy of Franz Brentano’s dissertation, titled, On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle. Heidegger said it was, “the chief help and guide of my first awkward attempts to penetrate into philosophy.” He recognized, as did Brentano, that “the question of being captivated Aristotle as the single most important question.”
The significance of Heidegger’s work was overlooked by many who viewed him as a Nazi sympathizer because he failed to speak against the Nazi regime. In developing his version of atheistic existentialism, Heidegger drew on Nietzsche’s view that man decides his own values.
Related reading: Jacques Derrida, Villanova Conversations; Derrida's Opposition to Phonocentrism; Divide Opinion as Derrida Did; Levi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary Oppositions; Genesis and Jacques Derrida; Derrida's Style of Writing