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Sep 29, 2014

Reference

Source:
http://mindfulpleasures.blogspot.in/2013/04/literary-criticism-and-theory-lightly.html

Ranging from journalistic reviews to the turbocharged abstrusiosities of poststructuralism, here's a list of the critical works to which my mind returns again and again.


Walter Pater. Selected Writings of Walter Pater. (Edited by Harold Bloom.) Pater's The Renaissance is one of my secular scriptures, and this selection of the literary Pater (with a good intro by Bloom) is also worth re-reading.

D. H. Lawrence. Studies in Classic American Literature. Despite its occasional crankiness and flashes of stupidity, this deceptively thin, wildly suggestive, iconoclastic, iconogenic volume remains the single most essential book ever written about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literature. There is much to be found in these pages; Leslie Fiedler found his entire career here.

Edmund Wilson. Literary Essays and Reviews... (Library of America, 2 vols.) Collecting four decades of Wilson's critical books and reviews, including Axel's Castle, The Wound and the Bow and The Triple Thinkers, these two volumes are an amazing artifact of that long-ago, nearly mythical time when America actually had 'men of letters' (and women too).

Peter Brooks. Reading For The Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. One of the best works of literary criticism of the past 40 years, this is a compelling and surprisingly readable melange of Freud and narratology, with interesting and enlightening examinations of works as diverse as Eugene Sue'sLes Mysteres de Paris and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

Walter A. Davis. Get The Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama and the Audience. Anyone interested in modern theater should own this book. Contains extraordinary close readings of The Iceman Cometh, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day's Journey Into Night, andWho's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward W. Said. Culture and Imperialism. Orientalism is probably still the Said book most often mentioned and cited, butCulture and Imperialism is the man's masterpiece. Contrapuntal readings of Mansfield Park, Kim and Aida are highpoints. No matter how much you think you know, this book will teach you something.

Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom's endlessly suggestive prose-poetic meditation on influence deserves its position as an instant classic. Bloom's theory of influence is one of the rare litcrit constructs that can be usefully applied to fields outside literature.

Harold Bloom. The Western Canon. Ignore Bloom's too-predictable diatribes against academic fashion and enjoy his incomparable essays on Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Freud, Proust, Kafka, et al. The appended book lists (which Bloom subsequently regretted) are filled with great suggestions for several lifetimes' reading.

Ross Posnock. Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity. A great, essential work of American literary criticism that should be on the bookshelf of everyone who reads Roth. Indeed, it deserves a place on the shelves of anyone who reads.

George Steiner. Language and Silence. Contains some of the most ethically challenging and emotionally moving literary criticism I have ever read. "A Kind of Survivor" and "Postscript" are absolutely essential statements of post-Shoah consciousness.

William H. Gass. Fiction and the Figures of Life. All of Gass's essay collections are worth reading, worth pondering, worth arguing with. I prefer his essays to his fictions and find the best passages in his novel The Tunnel to be the most Gasseously essayistic. Every word of this first collection is meant to be thought about, every sentence written to be read aloud. This is literary criticism as avant-garde music.

Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. A stunningly intelligent, beautifully lucid, single-volume literary education, this is one of the greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century. Brilliant considerations of Homer, the New Testament, Rabelais, Flaubert, Woolf, etc., etc.

Cleanth Brooks. The Well-Wrought Urn. The paradigmatic New Critical text is still impressive after all these paradigm shifts. Brooks's criticism cuts to the capillaries of texts while employing a critical language that doesn't try to alienate the uninitiated. If only that last aspect were still paradigmatic...

Gore Vidal. United States: Essays, 1952-1992. Vidal's most barbed work of literary criticism was surely Myra Breckinridge, a killing parody of the French 'new novel' and nascent American postmodernism (l'ecole de Barthes-Barth), but the Greatest Gore is much wittier (and often funnier) in the literary essays collected here.

Rene Girard. Deceit, Desire and the Novel. Girard is a monomaniac, an Archilochean hedgehog (see Isaiah Berlin's essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox" if you don't get the reference), a monk of one idea. That's all true, and I might add that his work has a maddeningly monotonous quality reminiscent of the voices of people at pre-9/11 airports who used to approach you and ask if you've accepted Jesus as your personal savior. But none of this nullifies the value of his single idea. The "one big thing" Girard knows (mimetic desire, not God--God is something St. Girard only thinks he knows) is still a powerful critical concept, as this book repeatedly demonstrates. Once you understand mimetic desire, you'll read it everywhere. Which is exactly Rene Girard's problem...

Salman Rushdie. Imaginary Homelands. Rushdie is a very engaging critic, and this collection of pre-fatwa nonfiction will send you to Amazon looking for copies of some of the more obscure books he mentions. The essay on Terry Gilliam's filmBrazil is simply brilliant.

Martin Amis. The War Against Cliche. We all know Martin Amis has an ego the size of the Eurasian landmass and that he thinks he's the son of Bellow, the reincarnation of Flaubert, and the Tolstoy of our time. If only his work lived up to his self-esteem...but that's an impossible standard. It says nothing good about the state of his fiction that his best works since Time's Arrow have been the memoir Experience and this highly readable, often perceptive collection of nonfiction. Given Amis's heady estimation of himself, it's probably necessary to remark that the 'war' of the title is the one fought by Joyce in Ulysses, subject of one of this book's better essays. Also hidden in this book is a remark about violence that just might save your life:

In the moments leading up to violence, the nonviolent enter a world drenched with unfamiliar revulsions. The violent know this. Essentially they are taking you to where they feel at home. You are leaving your place and going over to their place.

Something to keep in mind the next time you encounter a belligerent asshole.


Alberto Manguel. Into The Looking-Glass Wood. Like the Amis collection, this is a good bedside book, one to keep on the nightstand and dip into from time to time. Manguel's memoir of Borges and his consideration of Vargas Llosa are highpoints, but everything here is worth reading.

Italo Calvino. Why Read The Classics? A collection of Calvino's review essays that will send you back to the texts under discussion--the best thing criticism can do. Another good nightstand book.

Camille Paglia. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. The kind of ambitiously synthetic work that most critics consider impossible today,Sexual Personae is perhaps most valuable for shining a spotlight on decadence, a concept Paglia absolutely owns. The chapters on Spenser, Sade, Coleridge, Balzac, Decadent Art and Emily Dickinson are especially impressive.

William H. Gass. A Temple of Texts. More flashes of brilliance from the fiery Gass. The title piece is a collection of micro-essays that will send you to Plato's Timaeus and the novellas of Katherine Anne Porter, among many other places. Reading Gass is the best way I know to tune your mind to the music of prose.

James Wood. The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief. I fundamentally disagree with James Wood and find his valorizations of Jane Austen and free indirect style unhelpfully ahistorical, but he's often a thoughtful and thought-provoking critic. His slim How Fiction Works is also (big surprise) a re-readable little book--even if it is mis-titled.

Milan Kundera. Testaments Betrayed. Kundera (whom Carlos Fuentes complimented with the title 'the other K') has written several short and quite similar nonfiction books in recent years. The Curtain is also quite good, but this is the best of them.

W. G. Sebald. On The Natural History of Destruction. Sebald lifts literary criticism to the level of art in this book that stands alongside his great fictions and shares many of their themes and techniques. 

M. H. Abrams. Natural Supernaturalism. An Auerbachian embarrassment of riches, this is one of the monuments of the criticism of Romanticism. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how readable it all is--and how fresh it still seems. It's a book so good the gods rewarded its author with immortality: he turns 101 this year.

Jacques Derrida. Writing and Difference. I know, I know... Derrida is abstract, abstruse, impenetrable, obscurantist--and that's his good side. If there is, however, a single essential essay by Derrida that functions as a painless portal into the labyrinth of his thought, it's the piece that begins this collection, "Force and Signification." Read it, and you might be encouraged to read further. I'm rather surprised that anthologists and professors haven't yet caught onto this fact and persist in inflicting the impenetrable essay "Differance" upon their students as an introductory text.
Jacques Derrida. Sovereignties In Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan. A near-perfect match of critic and poet. Some of the pieces collected here might even be considered 'accessible'--a rarity in the Derridean oeuvre.

Carlos Fuentes. Myself With Others: Selected Essays. The star attraction here is Fuentes' essential essay on Don Quixote, "Cervantes, or The Critique of Reading."

Paul de Man. Blindness and Insight. The author was a Nazi collaborator and his whole life was a lie (for the extremely low lowdown, see David Lehman's Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man), but that doesn't change the fact that he was a microscopically close reader whose work encourages us to read more closely than we've ever read before.

Paul de Man. Allegories of Reading. In exemplary deconstructive readings of Rilke, Nietszche, Proust and Rousseau, de Man shows (repeatedly) how the rhetoric of a text (specifically, its figural language) can be at odds with its ostensible meaning. De Man himself is so diabolically effective a rhetorician that I can only disagree with him a few days afterreading him.

J. Hillis Miller. Ariadne's Thread. Miller, the 'Yale critic' who wrote the best introduction to 'classic' deconstruction ("The Critic As Host" in Deconstruction and Criticism), here pretty much invents Deconstructive Narratology. Miller is by far the most readable deconstructionist ever to paper a pen.

Gregory Woods. A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition. An essential, exemplary work of critical literary history. Even extremely well-read readers will probably discover new writers in these pages.

Susan Sontag. Against Interpretation. Sontag's first and most important book (Under The Sign of Saturn is a close second). The title essay issues a challenge still worth taking up. Peter Brooks' Reading For The Plot explicitly positions itself in response to Sontag's call for an erotics of art.

Malcolm Bowie. Proust Among The Stars. Marvelous. A superlatively intelligent, well-written, highly readable, critical examination of the major themes of Proust's insanely sane Seine of a novel, with chapters on Self, Time, Art, Politics, Morality, Sex, and Death. What more could a Proustian desire?

Sep 23, 2014

Alberuni's India

Source: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/lr/2002/09/01/stories/2002090100300400.htm
The Hindu

ALberuni's India

REPRINTS of classics are always welcome, and publishers who undertake these are to be applauded. Unfortunately, they often do not understand that reprints need as much editorial care as a new manuscript. The book under review is a case in point. One is delighted to welcome back this timeless classic — But:

1. The cover has a sketch of the five-storeyed Qutab Minar, with two gentlemen in shawls and turbans gazing out from the foreground. Alberuni and friend? Not possible. Al Hind was written in 1030, the Qutab attained its full height in the 1360s. We can now expect to see Bernier's Travels in the Mughal Empire AD 1656-68 with a view of Correa's LIC building on the cover;

2. Sachau's translation, published in 1910, was reproduced by a Delhi printer in 1983. It was entitled Alberuni's India, an accurate description of all categories of Hindu thought, as well those which are admissible as those which must be rejected. The present edition has reduced this to Alberuni's India, as will (sic!)those which are admissible as those which must be rejected!
In the text, all marginal subheads have been inexplicably deleted. There are irritating abbreviations (e.g. "On Mount Meru according to the belief of the authors of the Puranas" has become "On Mount Meru according to the belife (sic!)";

3. And this is really a disaster — over 150 pages which are unusable (p.165-320, "Annotations"). The 1910 edition was in two volumes, each paginated separately. The present edition has been typeset afresh, withcontinuous pagination. Result: Section II, p.3 corresponds to page 407, but the Annotations' page references have not been changed accordingly! Maybe the publishers could sell the book at Rs. 75 less than the marked price?

Alberuni was a polyglot, as was his translator, fluent in Arabic, Farsi, and Sanskrit. Sachau translated Al Hind into German in 1884 and later into English. It is a sad commentary on Indian scholarship that there has been no new edition, no attempt to compare Alberuni's interpretation with the Sanskrit texts he used. This was a landmark manuscript, the first international encyclopaedia of the philosophical texts and scientific treatises of early medieval India.

Alberuni, an astronomer-mathematician of Khiva, north of Afghanistan, was brought to Ghazni in 1017 as a prisoner of war. At the court of Ghazni he met poets and scholars, among whom was Firdausi, the greatest Farsi poet of all time. As one tries to visualise that world, where the hazards of travel and the vagaries of war did not constrict scholarship, one realises how inadequate it is to study South Asian history in isolation, how necessary it is to read it in conjunction with that of other regions, to appreciate the arts and knowledge-banks sans frontiers that flourished in a world of changing political frontiers.

What for others would be a lifetime's work was achieved by Alberuni in 13 years. Europeans would call him a "Renaissance man." Curious not only about mathematics and astronomy, but also folklore, languages and geography, he was part of that tradition of transmitting South Asian scholarship to Europe via Baghdad. Thirty-seven chapters in Al Hindare devoted to astronomy and astrology. "The Hindus do not consider it wearisome to reckon with large numbers, but rather enjoy it" (p.405). Nine chapters are on aspects of religion, with sections on theRamayana, the Mahabharata, the Gita and the Puranas. Two describe, with some impatience, rather bizarre superstitions, concluding tolerantly "but tricks of this kind are common to all nations" (p.183).

The 10 chapters on geography are inevitably all about north India. On Kashmir, he reports "(The inhabitants) used to allow one or two foreigners to enter their country, particularly Jews, but at present they do not allow any Hindu whom they do not know personally to enter, much less other people" (p.194). Twenty-one chapters are rich in sociological details. He sees the Varna system as something common to most societies. "The kings of antiquity — spent most of their care on the division of their subjects on different classes and order" (p.83). "Most of the Hindu festivals are celebrated by women and children only" (p.588). On Dipavali "people dress festively and give each other presents of betel leaves and areca nuts... (and) light a great number of lamps" (p.592).

About Sati, "If a woman loses her husband, she cannot marry another man... she has either to remain a widow or to burn herself" (p.563). Beef eating had once been prevalent, but was now prohibited (p.560). After listing explanations for this, he himself inclines to an "economical reason" (the cow as provider of milk, the uses of dung, their use as draught animals) and is reminded of a similar prohibition in Babylonia.

A compelling read, despite loads of awesome astronomical calculations. To end this review, the most well-known quote (p.6), "The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no religion like theirs... If they travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is." Jet-setting ministers, are you listening?

Alberuni's India, Edward C. Sachau, Trobner & Co., London, 1888, Rupa & Co., 2002, p.820, Rs. 395.

Sep 16, 2014

The Ethics of Absolute Freedom

Source: http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/sartrelecture.htm

SECOND YEAR - SECOND SEMESTER
Unit 11 – Sartre
1/91
Lecture 2

The Ethics of Absolute Freedom
David Banach

I. Individuality, Freedom, and Ethics.

The modern conception of man is characterized, more than anything else, by individualism.  Existentialism can be seen as a rigorous attempt to work out the implications of this individualism.  The purpose of this lecture is to makes sense of the Existentialist conception of individuality and the answers it gives to these three questions: (1) What is human freedom? What can the absolute freedom of absolute individuals mean? (2) What is human flourishing or human happiness? What general ethic or way of life emerges when we take our individuality seriously? (3) What ought we to do? What ethics or code of action can emerge from a position that takes our individuality seriously.  Although I am sure you will want to take a critical look at the assumptions from which Existentialism arises in your seminars, I will be attempting, sympathetically, to see what follows if one takes these assumptions seriously.

Let's begin by seeing what it could mean to say we are absolute individuals.  When you think of it, each of us is alone in the world.  Only we feel our pains, our pleasures, our hopes, and our fears immediately, subjectively, from the inside.  Other people only see us from the outside, objectively, and, hard as we may try, we can only see them from the outside.  No one else can feel what we feel, and we cannot feel what is going on in any one else's mind.

Actually, when you think of it, the only thing we ever perceive immediately and directly is ourselves and the images and experiences in our mind.  When we look at another person or object, we don't see it directly as it is; we see it only as it is represented in our own experience.  When you feel the seat under your rear-end, do you really feel the seat itself or do you merely feel the sensations transmitted to you by nerve endings in your posterior?.  When you look at the person next to you (contemplating how their rear-end feels), do you really see them as they are on the inside or feel what they feel? You see only the image of them that is presented to your mind through your senses.  This is easily demonstrated by considering how our senses deceive us in optical illusions, but one simple example will have to suffice here. [split image demonstration] It seems, then, that we are minds trapped in bodies, only perceiving the images transmitted to us through our bodies and their senses.

Each of us is trapped within our own mind, unable to feel anything but our own feelings and experiences.  It is as if each of us is trapped in a dark room with no windows.  Our only access to the outside world being a television screen on one wall on which we (with our mind's eye) perceive the images of other people, places, and things.  Thus, to be an absolute individual is to be trapped within ourselves, unable to perceive or contact anything but the images on our mental tv screen, and to be imperceptible ourselves to anyone outside of us.  In a world where science has opened up and laid bare the nature of subatomic particles, far-away planets, and the workings of our very own bodies and brains, it is to remain, ourselves, hidden from the objective view.  It is to be an island of subjectivity in an otherwise objective world.

II. The Existentialist View of Human Freedom.

What view of human nature can emerge from this view of the individual? One such view is the view of human nature identified with the name Existentialism.  Sartre says that what all existentialists, both atheistic and christian, share in common "... is that they think that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point." (EHE, p. 13) Sartre explains what this means by contrasting it with the opposite slogan: ESSENCE PRECEDES EXISTENCE.  He uses the example of a paper-cutter to explain how the old view treated human beings as artifacts, whose nature is tied to a preconceived essence and to a project outside of them, rather than as absolute individuals.  He says in Existentialism and Human Emotions:

Let us consider some object that is manufactured, for example, a book or a paper-cutter: here is an object which has been made by an artisan whose inspiration came from a concept.  He referred to the concept of what a paper-cutter is ... .  Thus, the paper-cutter is at once an object produced in a certain way and, on the other hand, one having a specific use ... .  Therefore, let us say that, for the paper-cutter, essence ... precedes existence. (EHE, pp. 13-14)

Essence Precedes Existence

Of course, the artisan in our case is God.  Sartre continues:

                        When we conceive of God as the Creator, He is generally thought of as a superior sort of artisan.  ... Thus the concept of man in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of the paper-cutter in the mind of the manufacturer... .  Thus, the individual man is the realization of a certain concept in the divine intelligence. (EHE, p. 14)

On this view, the one Sartre is attacking, we get our nature from outside of us, from a being who created us with a preconceived idea of what we were to be and what we were to be good for.  Our happiness and our fulfillment consist in our living up to the external standards that God had in mind in creating us.  Both our nature and our value come from outside of us.

According to the existentialist, however, EXISTENCE PRECEDES ESSENCE.  Sartre explains:

What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself.  ... Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence.
   Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. (EHE, p. 15)

Thus, there is no human nature which provides us with an external source of determination and value.  Sartre says:

If existence really does precede essence, there is no explaining things away by reference to a fixed and given human nature.  In other words, there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom.

Nothing outside of us can determine what we are and what we are good for; we must do it ourselves, from the inside.  What we will be and what will be good for us is a radically individual matter. If we are radical individuals, there is no place else for our nature and value to come from, except from within us.  It is this view of human nature, or the lack thereof, from which the existentialist conceptions of freedom and value flow.

We are now in a position to begin to answer the first of our three main questions: What is human freedom? What, exactly can the freedom of an absolute individual consist of? At first, it may seem clear that if we are islands of subjectivity, isolated from the forces of the outside world, we not only are capable of acting freely of outside determination, but we cannot help doing so since the only possible sources of action are internal.  The situation, however, is somewhat more complex than this.  To understand what freedom is for the Existentialist we must first see how, even though our inescapable nature is to be free, we all inevitably tend to try to escape our freedom.  We all tend to act in what Sartre calls 'bad faith'.  We attempt to deceive ourselves and act as if we weren't free, as if we were really determined by our nature, our body, or the expectations of other people.

The picture we drew earlier of the human individual trapped in a dark room perceiving the world only through our mental TV screens was too simple, for humans have a dual nature.  Among the things we find on the mental tv screen, besides objects, other people, emotions, and desires, is ourselves.  I see my body, and this thing I see is me.  The human condition, for the Existentialist is a tension, a vertiginous imbalance, between the self that watches these images, standing apart from them, and the self that appears as an image.  Just as I feel an imbalance upon walking into a department store and finding that one of the people on the video monitor is ME (caught by some unseen camera); or just as we feel a tension looking in the mirror wondering how the person in the glass can be ME if I am standing out here looking at it; so the self feels a tension between identifying itself with mind's eye behind the screen (standing apart from the give and take, the flux and flow, of our experience) and the images of us that appear as part of our experience (engaged in the world). 

Thus, we all have the tendency to act in bad faith, to identify ourselves with one of the pictures we find on our mental TV screen, and to see ourselves as determined by one of the outside influences we find pictured there: our nature, our body, the physical world, or the expectations and pictures other people have of us.  We are all familiar with the ways in which we try to excuse our actions by pretending that we are simply our bodies and are controlled by the forces that determine them.  We have all said things like:

I can't talk to people, I just don't have that kind of personality.
I can't pass this course, I'm just don't have the brain for calculus.
I can't help the fact that I was born a man (or a woman); Certain things come naturally for certain types of people.  (Says the man who can't take care of his children, or the woman who can't fix her car.)
I'm no good at this; I guess I just wasn't made to go to college.
Gee, I'm sorry about last night.  I guess my hormones just got out of control.
I'm sorry I bit your head off yesterday.  I must be premenstrual. 
I don't know what happened.  I guess the beer made me crazy.

In these cases, I am identifying myself with one of the pictures of me I find on my mental TV screen: I am my body, or my brain, or my personality, or my hormones.  In each of these cases, I am deceiving myself.  I am more than just these, and no matter how I try to avoid it, I am free.

We are also familiar with the way we all play roles, identifying ourselves, or seeing ourselves, in terms of how other people see us, letting other people determine what we are instead of deciding, ourselves, what we will be.  We all to some extent tend to make ourselves into the image other people have of us.  We are a different person with our friends than with our parents. We are a different person with a lover than with our acquaintances, and we are different still when we are in the classroom or at a job interview.  It is often easier to let someone else determine what we will be than to do it ourselves, especially when we see our value in terms of the acceptance we get from other people.  We all see little pictures of ourselves projected by other people and we often tend to try to make ourselves into these little pictures by playing roles.  We play at being college students out for a good time, at being macho men or nurturing women, at being sons or daughters, at being businesswomen, policemen, scientists.  We play at being students taking notes, and professors giving lectures.  We play the roles; we make ourselves into characters in the plays; we make ourselves into little pictures on our mental tv screen determined by the script written by the expectations of other people.

But all of this is self-deception.  We are more than any of the pictures we find on our mental tv screen.  We stand behind it, watching it, making of it what we will.  It is impossible to abdicate our freedom.  In choosing to identify ourselves with some externally determined object we are choosing none the less. We cannot escape our freedom.

One might well ask at this point, "What does this freedom consist of.  Am I free to become George Bush right now? Am I free to become a woman (without some fairly extensive and unpleasant surgery)? Am I free to fly up to the ceiling and hover above your heads? Am I free to close my eyes right now and find myself in the Bahamas when I reopen them?  Unfortunately,it appears not. How, then, can I be free when most of my external circumstances are determined by forces beyond my control, when I cannot help where I was born, what type of body I have, and what type of abilities my brain has predisposed me towards?"

The answer to these questions lies in the nature of our radical individuality.  I am not identical with any of the externally determined images on my mental TV screen.  I am forever beyond the reach of their determinations within the island of my subjectivity.[1]  Even if I were a puppet, my body and its actions completely controlled by some malevolent master, what I am, my mind's eye would still be free and untouched.  I could still be free to rebel against my master or make whatever I wished of the situation.  They can do what they want to my body, manipulate the objects or pictures of me on my mental TV screen, but they can never touch or control the real me.  The self within its island of subjectivity is radically free in virtue of its radical individuality.

Furthermore, I have control over the content of my TV screen as well.  External circumstances may determine the objects that appear, how they appear, and when they appear, but I control how these various components will be put together into a coherent picture.  Sartre compares the type of freedom we have to that of an artist (EHE, pp. 42-43).  An artist cannot control the nature of the canvas, nor of the paints that she has to work with.  Nor can she control the nature of the subjects she will paint.  But she can control how she will view them, how she will put these various elements together into a unique whole.  Likewise, we may not be able to control the various elements within our experience that come from outside us, but we can view them and combine them in any way we like.  Our experience is not any one of these; it is the way in which we combine these into a unified whole.  We have the power to edit the frames which constitute our experience into the film that is to be our life.  We all know the power of good editing, of the creative juxtaposition of determinate elements.  It can transform experience; make the ugly beautiful and the ordinary, sublime.

Our freedom is, thus, a freedom of synthesis.  It is the freedom to pull ourselves together into the type of coherent whole that we will ourselves to be.  Even if the raw materials from which we construct ourselves are determined (just as the materials of the artist are determined),  what we make of ourselves out of these materials is up to us alone (just as what the artist makes of her subject is up to her alone).  We can not make the external world determine this even if we try.  The sentence of freedom is the necessity of pulling ourselves together at each moment out of the myriad different influences imposing themselves upon us from the environment, our community,and from our own bodies.  We are required to make ourselves, to pull ourselves together, and we can make of ourselves what we will.

The answer to our first question is, then, that we can be free because (1) Our absolute individuality isolates our real self from the determining influences of the outside world; we can always rebel against its influence; and (2) Even though the raw material that makes up our experience is determined by outside influences we are free to put these elements together into a unified whole; we must make ourselves anew at each moment, and what we shall make of ourselves is up to us.  We now need to see what view of human happiness and of morality arise from this conception of human freedom.  Both of these can be summed up by the single slogan BE AUTHENTIC.  The secret of human flourishing and of moral action lies in avoiding bad faith and honoring the responsibility we have to create our own nature and values.  The Existentialist enjoins us to be ourselves and make the source of our nature and values our own internal decisions rather than the pictures of ourselves that appear in our minds from external sources.  Let us now see what view of human happiness this implies.

III. The Existentialist View of Human Happiness.

Existentialism is often associated with such themes as the absurdity of human existence and the worthlessness of our lives given our inevitable death.  One might well wonder what view of happiness could arise from such a view.  Sartre characterizes the human condition by (1) our forlorness at the loss of external values and determinants of our nature; (2) anguish at the resultant responsibility to create human nature ourselves; and (3) despair of finding value outside of ourselves and reliance upon what is under our own control.  Forlorness, anguish, and despair: Mr. Sartre, it would seem, was not a happy camper.  For another 20th century French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, however, the loss of any external source of value did not present quite such a dismal prospect.[2]

Camus compares our situation to that of the mythical figure Sisyphus.  In his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" he explains that:

The Gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.  They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. (MS, p. 88)

It is easy to see the similarity between this situation and ours according to the Existentialist.  Just as Sisyphus can find no end to his activities, no final resting place where he has finally reached his goal or lived up to some set of pre-existing standards, so we find that all of our activities lead to nowhere. There are no external values that we can live up to, no external viewpoint from which our life can be viewed to be valuable.  Our life is a series of meaningless actions culminating in death, with no possibility of external justification.  Yet, Camus will say that we must imagine Sisyphus (and ourselves) happy?  "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." (MS, p. 91)  Why?  Why would this fool be happy eternally rolling a ball up a hill, and why should we be happy rolling our ball up the hill to nowhere?

At first, when one was still expecting to get ones value from outside of oneself, all this might seem depressing.  Camus says:

When images of the earth cling to tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes to insistent, it happens that melancholy rises in man's heart:this is the rock's victory this is the rock itself.  The boundless grief is to heavy to bear.  These are our nights in Gethsemane.  But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.
..............................................
Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent.  The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.
(MS, p. 90)

As we saw before, no matter what his external circumstances, Sisyphus is always free to make of them what he will, to rebel  against them within his island of subjectivity.  No matter what the Gods make him do, he is always free to give the Gods one of these [defiant gesture].

I remember when I first read this (as a senior in high school) thinking that this was sort of a stupid response to the absurdity of the human condition.  What sense does it make to give one of these [defiant gesture] to a non-existent God whose absence is the source of the absurdity of our lives.  What are we rebelling against? There must be more to the existentialist conception of happiness than this, I thought.

And there was.  The despair and rebellion we feel at the loss of our external sources of value are the necessary price of a greater value and happiness that comes from within.  One must lose all hope of external value before seeking value within.  The theme that true happiness must come from within is one that is familiar to all of us, and it is the key to understanding the existentialist conception of happiness.

Two contemporary folk tails embody this existentialist theme well: The Wizard of Oz and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  This common theme probably does not show that these are existentialist works, but only that the American emphasis on self-reliance and internalism flows from the same individualist emphasis as Existentialism.  In the Wizard of Oz there is an external realm, somewhere over the rainbow, where everything is as it should be and all problems are solved.  There is a wizard who will give us brains, a heart, courage, and happiness.  When Dorothy got there and discovered that Oz was full of the same type of evil as Kansas, when they discovered that the Wizard was a hoax, that there was nothing outside of them that was going to make them what they wanted to be, they were understandably depressed.  But this disappointment was the necessary price of an important lesson: that the only place they could get a brain, or a heart, or courage was from within.  Dorothy learns that if she ever loses anything that cannot be found within her own back yard, it wasn't really lost at all.  There is no place like Home. (Especially if you are an island of subjectivity, for then there is no place but home.) The value one gets from within is infinitely better than the value one vainly attempts to get from outside.

The story of the Grinch shows why this is so.  At first when the Who's in Whoville woke up to find that the Grinch had stolen their Bamboozlers and Dingdangers, they were at first very disappointed. They thought that the value of Christmas was in these external things.  What they discovered, and what the grinch discovered looking out over Whoville listening for sounds of grief and hearing, instead, the sounds of joy, was that their real value came from within and was greater than any value that could come from external things since it couldn't be taken away.

A common theme in existentialist literature is the transformation that can occur in one's outlook on life when one is forced to face death.  One of the founders of Existentialism, the 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, actually had such a brush with death transform his life.  He was involved in some activities that ran afoul of the Czar and was among the people rounded up in one of the Czar's crackdowns.  He was told that he would be executed.  He was blindfolded and made to wait his turn to face death.  At the last minute, as Dostoevsky prepared to meet death, he got a reprieve.  It turned out that he was to be sent to a labor camp instead and that this had merely been a cruel joke.  One might imagine that if one could face one's death, face the impossibility of getting any value from any external accomplishments, and still find value within oneself, that value would be invulnerable.  It could never be taken away. What else could they do to you?

If, after all sources of external value have been taken away, you can find value within yourself, you would have found what philosophers have been looking for throughout the ages: a way of achieving human happiness that is not vulnerable to the uncontrollable contingencies of the natural world.  If we find ourselves isolated from external value by our radical individuality, we can make a world of ourselves, a universe of our own experience, in which we can and must find ourselves happy.  Camus writes of Sisyphus:

The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing.  ... he knows himself to be the master of his days.  At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death.
............................................
But Sisyphus teaches a higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.  He too concludes that all is well.  This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.  Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world.  The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (MS, p.91)

     The Existentialist's secret of happiness, then,  is to get ones value from within oneself.  In doing so, one loses the promise of external value, but they find a more real happiness, one that cannot be taken away by the external forces beyond their control.

IV. The Ethics of Absolute Freedom.

This conception of happiness, however, raises our third question: How ought we act towards other people? If the source of our value and nature is wholly internal, what obligations can I have to other humans? Can I freely and authentically choose to kill my mother, as Orestes does? Can I choose to be a murderer, a thief, or an exploiter of humanity? Is it true, as some Existentialist were fond of pointing out, that if God is dead then all things are allowable? I'm sure that you will want to discuss this issue, as it arises in The Flies, in your seminars, but I would like to briefly present you with what I take to be Sartre's three-fold response to this question in Existentialism and Human Emotions.

(1) First, in choosing our own human nature, according to Sartre, we choose human nature for all humans.  Hence, we must choose courses of action that we would wish all humans to take. In choosing for ourselves, we choose for all men.  This must be the case because, in order to act freely, I cannot allow myself to be affected by my peculiar circumstances, desires, or goals. This would be to act in bad faith, to try to identify myself with my desires, or my plans, or my circumstances, and these are all merely pictures on my mental TV screen.  When I act freely, the only things that can affect my action must be things that I share with all free agents.  Thus, I must choose in the same way I would want others to choose.  To say that one must act authentically is to say that one must act in a way that ignores the differences between oneself and other people.  After all, these differences are merely external and do not affect our identity as free agents, within our islands of subjectivity.  To be free, then, I must follow the golden rule and act only as I would have others act.

(2) Sartre also argues that in order to be free, we must desire the freedom of all men.  It is self-defeating to attempt to use other humans as objects to satisfy our desires, or to protect our freedom at the cost of enslaving others.  If I attempt to enslave others or use them as objects, I make myself a slave and an object.  The person who attempts to dominate other people finds himself a slave to his dependence on the attention and approval of the people he tries to enslave.  Think of the tough guy leader of a clique of teenagers.  He defines himself in terms of the expectations of his peers to keep their approval and admiration.  He makes himself into a character controlled by the very slaves of whom he takes himself to be the master.  The person who uses other people as objects to satisfy his desires makes himself an object.  He can see other people only through his desires, and ultimately sees himself only as his desire.  The manipulator, who attempts to buy and sell other people for his own ends, finds that he has sold his own soul as well by seeing himself merely as his desires.  To see others as slaves of our desire is to make ourselves a slave of desire.  To be free, we must desire the freedom of all men.

(3) Third, the free decisions that we make are not merely arbitrary.  As we saw earlier, freedom does not mean just being    able to do anything.  The artist is free to create; she does not follow any explicit rules.  Yet her action is constrained by the requirement that her creation must be coherent.  In order to be her creation, she must pull the various disparate elements that go into the painting into one unified whole.  Her freedom is a freedom of synthesis constrained by the material she has to work with and the requirement that she make some one unified thing out of it.  In the same way, our actions must unify the many different influences on our lives into the one life that is to be ours.  In pulling ourselves together, we cannot ignore the relationships and obligations that provide the raw materials of our lives.  We must weave them into our lives, although how we will do this is up to us.  Our actions, though free, are constrained by our situation in a community.  Orestes, as you shall see in The Flies, is not free to ignore his family, his country, and his mother's crime.  Why does he not just leave, as Zeus suggests?

The ethics of absolute freedom, it would seem, are not absolutely free.  To be free we must take on the responsibility of choosing for all men, we must desire and work for the freedom of all men, and we must create ourselves within the context of the relationships and obligations we have to other people.

Is the ethic of absolute freedom a portrait of human greatness? Human excellence often defines itself in the struggle against the forces that oppose human flourishing.  Existentialism attempts to find happiness, value, and meaning in a modern world characterized by isolation, inauthenticity, and absurdity.  It attempts to see what human excellence can consist of if we find ourselves to be islands of subjectivity in an otherwise objective world.  You will certainly want to ask if this is in fact what we find ourselves to be, but can it be doubted that the Existentialist attempt to find meaning in  the face of absurdity exemplifies the basic drive that all portraits of human excellence must embody.

References

(MS)  Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (trans. by Justin O'Brien). New York: Vintage, 1955.

(EHE) Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions (Trans. by Bernard Frechtman). New York: Philosophical Library, 1957.



[1]  Think of how Zeus is powerless against Orestes, once he recognizes his freedom. 
[2]  Sartre, himself, is not a pessimistic as the above passage makes him sound.

© 2006 David Banach 

Sep 13, 2014

Sign, Structure and Play: Derria

Source: http://survivingbaenglish.wordpress.com/derrida-structure-sign-and-play-in-the-discourse-of-human-sciences/

“Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences”
by Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida first read his paper “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences (1966)” at the John Hopkins International Colloquium on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” in October 1966 articulating for the first time a post structuralist theoretical paradigm. This conference was described by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donata to be “the first time in United States when structuralism had been thought of as an interdisciplinary phenomenon”. However, even before the conclusion of the conference there were clear signs that the ruling trans-disciplinary paradigm of structuralism had been superseded, by the importance of Derrida’s “radical appraisals of our assumptions”

Derrida begins the essay by referring to ‘an event’ which has ‘perhaps’ occurred in the history of the concept of structure, that is also a ‘redoubling’. The event which the essay documents is that of a definitive epistemological break with structuralist thought, of the ushering in of post-structuralism as a movement critically engaging with structuralism and also with traditional humanism and empiricism. It turns the logic of structuralism against itself insisting that the “structurality of structure” itself had been repressed in structuralism.

Derrida starts this essay by putting into question the basic metaphysical assumptions of Western philosophy since Plato which has always principally positioned itself with a fixed immutable centre, a static presence. The notion of structure, even in structuralist theory has always presupposed a centre of meaning of sorts. Derrida terms this desire for a centre as “logocentrism” in his seminal work “Of Grammatology (1966)”. ‘Logos’, is a Greek word for ‘word’ which carries the greatest possible concentration of presence. As Terry Eagleton explains in “Literary Theory: An Introduction (1996)”,“Western Philosophy…. has also been in a broader sense, ‘logocentric’, committed to a belief in some ultimate ‘word’, presence, essence, truth or reality which will act as the foundation for all our thought, language and experience. It has yearned for the sign which will give meaning to all others, – ‘the transcendental signifier’ – and for the anchoring, unquestioning meaning to which all our signs can be seen to point (the transcendental signified’).”

Derrida argues that this centre thereby limits the “free play that it makes possible”, as it stands outside it, is axiomatic – “the Centre is not really the centre”. Under a centered structure, free play is based on a fundamental ground of the immobility and indisputability of the centre, on what Derrida refers to “as the metaphysics of presence”. Derrida’s critique of structuralism bases itself on this idea of a center.  A structure assumes a centre which orders the structure and gives meanings to its components, and the permissible interactions between them, i.e. limits play. Derrida in his critique looks at structures diachronically, i.e., historically, and synchronically, i.e. as a freeze frame at a particular juncture. Synchronically, the centre cannot be substituted: “It is the point at which substitution of contents, elements and terms is no longer possible.” (Structuralism thus stands in tension with history as Derrida argues towards the end of the essay.) But historically, one centre gets substituted for another to form an epistemological shift: “the entire history of the concept of structure must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center.” Thus, at a given point of time, the centre of the structure cannot be substituted by other elements, but historically, the point that defines play within a structure has changed. The history of human sciences has thereby been a process of substitution, replacement and transformation of this centre through which all meaning is to be sought – God, the Idea, the World Spirit, the Renaissance Man, the Self, substance, matter, Family, Democracy, Independence, Authority and so on. Since each of these concepts is to found our whole system of thought and language, it must itself be beyond that system, untainted by its play of linguistic differences. It cannot be implicated in the very languages and system it attempts to order and anchor: it must be somehow anterior to these discourses. The problem of centers for Derrida was thereby that they attempt to exclude. In doing so, they ignore, repress or marginalize others (which become the Other). This longing for centers spawns binary opposites, with one term of the opposition central and the other marginal. Terry Eagleton calls these binary opposition with which classical structuralism tends to function as a way of seeing typical of ideologies, which thereby becomes exclusionary. To quote him,“Ideologies like to draw rigid boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not”.

Derrida insists that with the ‘rupture’ it has become “necessary to begin to think that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a being-present, that the center had no natural locus….a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play.” Derrida attributes this initiation of the process of decentering “to the totality of our era”. As Peter Barry argues in “Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural (1995)” that in the twentieth century, through a complex process of various historico-political events, scientific and technological shifts, “these centers were destroyed or eroded”. For instance, the First World War destroyed the illusion of steady material progress; the Holocaust destroyed the notion of Europe as the source and centre of human civilization. Scientific discoveries – such as the way the notion of relativity destroyed the ideas of time and space as fixed and central absolutes. Then there were intellectual and artistic movements like modernism in the arts which in the first thirty years of the century rejected such central absolutes as harmony in music, chronological sequence in narrative, and the representation of the visual world in art. This ‘decentering’ of  structure, of the ‘transcendental signified’ and of the sovereign subject, Derrida suggests – naming his sources of inspiration – can be found in the Nietzchean critique of metaphysics, and especially of the concepts of Being and Truth, in the Freudian critique of self-presence, as he says, “a critique of consciousness, of the subject, of self-identity, and of the self-proximity or self-possession”, and more radically in the Heideggerean destruction of metaphysics, “of the determination of Being as Presence”.

Derrida argues that all these attempts at ‘decentering’ were however, “trapped in a sort of circle”. Structuralism, which in his day was taken as a profound questioning of traditional Western thought, is taken by Derrida to be in support of just those ways of thought. This is true, according to deconstructive thought, for almost all critique of Western thought that arises from within western thought: it would inevitably be bound up with that which it questions – “We have no language-no syntax and no lexicon-which is alien to this history; we cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.” Semiotics and Phenomenology are similarly compromised. Semiotics stresses the fundamental connection of language to speech in a way that it undermines its insistence on the inherently arbitrary nature of sign. Phenomenology rejects metaphysical truths in the favor of phenomena and appearance, only to insist for truth to be discovered in human consciousness and lived experience. To an extent Derrida seems to see this as inevitable, “There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to attack metaphysics”; however, the awareness of this process is important for him – “Here it is a question of a critical relationship to the language of the human sciences and a question of a critical responsibility of the discourse. It is a question of putting expressly and systematically the problem of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary of that heritage itself.” It is important to note that Derrida does not assert the possibility of thinking outside such terms; any attempt to undo a particular concept is likely to become caught up in the terms which the concept depends on. For instance: if we try to undo the centering concept of ‘consciousness’ by asserting the disruptive counterforce of the ‘unconscious’, we are in danger of introducing a new center. All we can do is refuse to allow either pole in a system to become the center and guarantor of presence.

In validate this argument, Derrida takes up the example of Saussure’s description of sign. In Saussure, the ‘metaphysics of presence’ is affirmed by his insistence on the fact that a sign has two components – the signifier and the signified, the signified which the mental and psychological. This would imply that the meaning of a sign is present to the speaker when he uses in, in defiance of the fact that meaning is constituted by a system of differences. That is also why Saussure insists on the primacy of speaking. As soon as language is written down, a distance between the subject and his words is created, causing meaning to become unanchored. Derrida however critiques this ‘phonocentrism’ and argues that the distance between the subject and his words exist in any case, even while speaking – that the meaning of sign is always unanchored. Sign has no innate or transcendental truth. Thus, the signified never has any immediate self-present meaning. It is itself only a sign that derives its meaning from other signs. Hence a signified can be a signifier and vice versa. Such a viewpoint entails that sign thus be stripped off its signified component. Meaning is never present at face-value; we cannot escape the process of interpretation. While Saussure still sees language as a closed system where every word has its place and consequently its meaning, Derrida wants to argue for language as an open system. In denying the metaphysics of presence the distances between inside and outside are also problematized. There is no place outside of language from where meaning can be generated.

Derrida next considers the theme of decentering with respect to French structuralist Levi Strauss’s ethnology. Ethnology too demonstrates how although it sets out as a denouncement of Eurocentrism, its practices and methodologies get premised on ethnocentricism in its study and research of the ‘Other’ – “the ethnologist accepts into his discourse the premises of ethnocentrism at the very moment when he is employed in denouncing them This necessity is irreducible; it is not a historical contingency”. Derrida uses the classical debate on the opposition between nature and culture with respect to Levi Strauss’s work. In his work, Elementary Structures, Strauss starts with the working definition of nature as the universal and spontaneous, not belonging to any other culture or any determinate norm. Culture, on the other hand, depends on a system of norms regulating society and is therefore capable of varying from one social structure to another. But Strauss encountered a ‘scandal’ challenging this binary opposition – incest prohibition. It is natural in the sense that is it almost universally present across most communities and hence is natural. However, it is also a prohibition, which makes it a part of the system of norms and customs and thereby cultural. Derrida argues that this disputation of Strauss’s theory is not really a scandal, as it the pre-assumed binary opposition that makes it a scandal, the system which sanctions the difference between nature and culture. To quote him, “It could perhaps be said that the whole of philosophical conceptualization, systematically relating itself to the nature/culture opposition, is designed to leave in the domain of the unthinkable the very thing that makes this conceptualization possible: the origin of the prohibition of incest.”

This leads Derrida to his theory of the bricoleur inspired from Levi Strauss. He argues that it is very difficult to arrive at a conceptual position “outside of philosophy”, to not be absorbed to some extent into the very theory that one seeks to critique. He therefore insists on Strauss’s idea of a bricolage“the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.” It is thereby important to use these ‘tools at hand’ through intricate mechanisms and networks of subversion. For instance, although Strauss discovered the scandal, he continued to use sometimes the binary opposition of nature and culture as a methodological tool and to preserve as an instrument that those truth value he criticizes, “The opposition between nature and culture which I have previously insisted on seems today to offer a value which is above all methodological.” Strauss discusses bricolage not only as an intellectual exercise, but also as “mythopoetical activity”. He attempts to work out a structured study of myths, but realizes this is not a possibility, and instead creates what he calls his own myth of the mythologies, a ‘third order code’. Derrida points out how his ‘reference myth’ of the Bororo myth, does not hold in terms of its functionality as a reference, as this choice becomes arbitrary and also instead of being dependent on typical character, it derives from irregularity and hence concludes, “that violence which consists in centering a language which is describing an acentric structure must be avoided”.

Derrida still building on Strauss’s work, introduces the concept of totalization –“Totalization is…. at one time as useless, at another time as impossible”. In traditional conceptualization, totalization cannot happen as there is always too much one can say and even more that exists which needs to be talked/written about.  However, Derrida argues that non-totalization needs to conceptualized not the basis of finitude of discourse incapable of mastering an infinite richness, but along the concept of free-play – “If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infinity of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field-that is, language and a finite language-excludes totalization.” It is finite language which excludes totalization as language is made up of infinite signifier and signified functioning inter-changeably and arbitrarily, thereby opening up possibilities for infinite play and substitution. The field of language is limiting, however, there cannot be a finite discourse limiting that field.

Derrida explains the possibility of this free play through the concept of “supplementality” – “this movement of the free play, permitted by the lack, the absence of a center or origin, is the movement of supplementarily. One cannot determine the center, the sign which supplements it, which takes its place in its absence-because this sign adds itself, occurs in addition, over and above, comes as a supplement”. Supplementality is thus involves infinite substitutions of the centre which is an absence which leads to the movement of play. This becomes possible because of the lack in the signified. There is always an overabundance of the signifier to the signified. So a supplement would hence be an addition to what the signified means for already. Derrida also introduces the concept of how this meaning is always deferred (difference), how signifier and signified are inter-changeable in a complex network of free-play.

This concept of free-play Derrida believes also stands in tension with history. Although history was thought as a critique of the philosophy of presence, as a kind of shift; it has paradoxically become complicitous “with a teleological and eschatological metaphysics.” Free-play also stands in conflict with presence. Play is disruption of presence. Free play is always interplay of presence and absence. However, Derrida argues that a radical approach would not be the taking of presence or absence as ground for play. Instead the possibility of play should be the premise for presence or absence.

Derrida concludes this seminal work which is often regarded as the post-structuralist manifesto with the hope that we proceed towards an “interpretation of interpretation”where one “is no longer turned towards the origin, affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism”. He says that we need to borrow Nietzsche’s idea of affirmation to stop seeing play as limiting and negative. Nietzsche pronouncement “God is dead” need not be read as a destruction of a cohesive structure, but can be seen as a chance that opens up a possibility of diverse plurality and multiplicity.


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