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Post-Structuralism: Deconstruction. Theory and Practice. Outline . -- Q & A -- Jacque Derrida: 1. Prologue: Instability of Meaning 2. Writing as Différance 3. Transcendental Signified and Binarism 4. Deconstruction: Literary Practice

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-- Q & A

-- Jacque Derrida:

1. Prologue: Instability of Meaning

2. Writing as Différance

3. Transcendental Signified and Binarism

4. Deconstruction: Literary Practice

5. Derrida in Context: structuralism, Foucault, etc.


Q & A
  • What is Différance? What is Transcendental Signified?
  • How is Western Metaphysics challenged?
  • How do we do deconstruction in literary criticism? Is deconstruction similar to destruction?
Q & A

Is deconstruction similar to destruction?

Literary Deconstruction:

--show the hidden gaps in a text’s meaning. Textual unity

-- Reverse the “hierarchical” binaries, and allow the latter to supplement the formers.

-- de-stabilize, de-center, but not destroy.

which of the following statements are not ambiguous
Which of the following statements are not ambiguous?
  • I am 40 years old.
  • The Republic of China was born on Oct. 10, 1911.
  • I love you till the end of the world.
  • 多吃蔬菜﹐有益健康。
  • 中國人生性刻苦耐勞。
  • 你要做和事佬﹐真是吹縐一池春水。
  • The experience of the earthquake yesterday was quite uncanny.
which of the following statements are not ambiguous6
Which of the following statements are not ambiguous?
  • I am 40 years old. Who is this “I”?
  • The Republic of China was born on Oct. 10, 1911. born?
  • I love you till the end of the world (Apocalypse Now現代啟示錄)

 love?

  • 多吃蔬菜﹐有益健康。 insecticide? Vegi with blue cheese?
  • 中國人生性刻苦耐勞。 中國人?
language literature as an enclosed system with two axes
Language/Literature as an enclosed system with two Axes


  • Syntagmatic/Combination
  • (narrative structure:
  • roles + actions);
  • metonymy

Thematic structure: Motifs, mythemes, metaphors, etc.

language literature as an enclosed system with two axes8
Language/Literature as an enclosed system with two Axes



  • Syntagmatic/Combination

+ more stereotypical descriptions, or a father’s advice to his son, etc.



why is language ambiguous
Why is language ambiguous?
  • Why are meanings undecidable & slippery?

1. Polysemy:Traces of other signs, other meanings. (e.g. national “birthday”; 干卿底事; the uncanny)

2. Multiple Context; Reference Undecidable. (e.g. “The end of the world” )

3. Meaning is not “present” in language; it happens“in between”signifiers. (e.g. 十八層公寓)

4. (intention and the unconscious)


Male poet and

Waiting woman.

  • 謁金門 馮延巳





  • 中主李璟很欣賞這首詞,便對馮延巳說:「吹皺一池春水,干卿底事?」馮延巳答道:「怎及你的細雨夢回雞塞遠,小樓吹徹玉笙寒呢?」


random samples from internet
吹縐一池春水(random samples from Internet﹚
  • 東元聲寶合併 吹縐一池春水. 中時電子報 03:59
  • 免費下載音樂軟體是否侵犯智財權, NAPSTER吹縐一池春水, 受質疑.
  • 她愛笑,笑得很野,有時不經意的把眉輕鎖,落在河表哥心中,就如吹縐一池春水 (source)

Traces of other usages

freud s the uncanny
Freud’s “the Uncanny”
  • = unheimlich, both “homely” and “unhomely”; or both familiar and strange.
  • According to Freud's description, the uncanny "derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but--on the contrary--from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it" (Morris; source).
  • e.g. the Gothic tradition, nightmare, castration fear.
  • Movement from one Signifier to another

十八層公寓— by 相聲瓦社

-- polysemy: cultural connotations of 十八層地獄, 很持久﹐etc.

-- spacing: Meaning changed when the context is further revealed.

  • Comic effects: old traces vs. newly defined meanings.
  • The traces of the old meanings are both present and absent.
writing and diff rance
Writing and Différance

Language a system of difference  of Différance.

* While structualists had treated binary oppositions as stable terms in a formal structure, Derrida sees them as organized in unstable disequilibrium. because of the presence/absence of traces

* Derrida sees the signified’s also in a relation of difference, and they are turned into signifiers floating signifiers.

(Textbook: p. 123; 28)

writing and diff rance 2
Writing and Différance (2)


  • To differ;

A sign is defined by its binary opposition to another sign.

2. To defer.

The signifier (black) that is distinguished from the other one (white) is not completely erased; it is only deferred, bracketed or merely “put under erasure.”It can subvert the fixed meaning of the sign.

writing and diff rance16
Writing and Différance

The chain of signification:

(1) symbolization or mythologizing

writing and diff rance chain of signification 1

Manifest Destiny

White Man’s Burden


Writing and Différance: chain of signification (1)
  • Signifier Signified 2 Signified 3

Asian People


Exotic (Evil or Weak)

Other Racial Features

What they did

Other Skin colors

Innocent, Strong

and Civilized


White Americans

The other Americans

writing and diff rance chain of signification 2
Writing and Différance: Chain of Signification (2)

Re-contextualization; traces kept. e.g.

1. Pharmakon: 1). poison, 2). Pharmacy

2. 〈幌馬車之歌〉;吹皺一池春水

3. Creole; “Madame Butterfly” in M. Butterfly and in the characters of Song first and then Gallimard; the other parodies.

chain of signification 3 floating signifier
Chain of Signification 3: floating Signifier


 象/言﹐意/象

夏宇︰象 – signs; both present and absent, empty and variously defined.

  • Do you agree that meaning is always uncertain and slippery? What does Derrida’s views of language shed light on our communication?
the transcendental signified and binaries
The Transcendental Signified and Binaries
  • The “unmoved mover” e.g.

God (transcendental signified)

The Bible (transcendental signifier)

  • (Textbook: p. 124) source/closure of meaning and center of existence. e.g. being, unity, truth, the good, reason, progress, identity, continuity, meaning, subjectivity, authenticity, etc. = foundations
the transcendental signified and binaries22
The Transcendental Signified and Binaries

They are the upper terms in hierarchical binaries: e.g.

critique of metaphysics logocentrism phallogocentrism
Critique of Metaphysics: logocentrism, & phallogocentrism
  • Traditional binaries are hierarchical. Should be reversed or questioned.
  • Logocentrism: Logo as center, source, or founding presence of knowledge and human beings.
  • Phallogocentrism: Man/Woman= sun/moon, reason/emotion, Subject/Object, etc.
ways of questioning the hierarchical binaries
Ways of Questioning the Hierarchical Binaries
  • The two termsare actually mutually determinant. e.g. The West has to define itself by having/rejecting an “Other” which is different.

2. The weak term is not really weak.

3. Mutually implicated: One term implies its opposite term. examples

deconstruction practices
Deconstruction: practices

(textbook p. 131)

1. Open texts  A text that deconstructs its own unity or “author.” (examples; also M. Butterfly, its ending)

2. Reverse the text’s binaries or expose its undecidability or multiple meanings (example M. Butterfly Madame Butterfly; another);

3. Study the process of signification of a sign or a text and find out what it tries to erase. (e.g. Scarlet Letter; Barthesian studies of commercials)

deconstruction practices 2
Deconstruction: practices (2)

4. Find where the text differs from itself. (critical difference) ambiguity and undecidability (example)

5. Radical contextualization  to find out its intertextual references and thus undecidability of meanings.


Reasons for the Disappearance of the river:

-- My departure; growth

-- The cartographer; urban development

-- The river itself;  Nature is betrayed and then changes itself;

-- “Nobody’s fault.”

-- “是童年/把我記錯”-- Why?


The original hierarchy subverted by the last line


deconstruction of binary opposition example
Deconstruction of Binary Opposition: Example

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Society vs. Nature, with Huck in between

undecidability example 1
Billy Budd innocent) vs. Claggart (evil)

B. Claggart accuses B of planning mutiny.  B’s blow

B killer vs.

C victim

Undecidability: example 1

Billy Budd: Billy Budd (a young sailor), Claggart (master-at-arms), Vere (the captain).

Vere responsible and just 

Allows an innocent man to be hanged.

undecidability example 2
Undecidability: example 2

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.


No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

(William Wordsworth )

undecidability example 232


the human




the cosmic

peacefulness and regularity

Undecidability: example 2

“A slumber did my spirit seal” -- Contradictions between

Gap: What happened in between the present and the past?

Whose peacefulness is it? Whose death and when?

derridian deconstruction in context
Derridian Deconstruction in Context

1. Anti-Foundationalist & de-centering;

2. Like New Critics, deconstructionists read closely to find out the contradictions and gaps in a text, but without reconstructing them back to a unity.

3. Like Foucault, D thinks that we are in language and are conditioned by its structure, polysemy and fluidity.

derridian deconstruction in context 2
Derridian Deconstruction in Context (2)

4. Other usages of “différance”: desired object in unattainable, constantly deferred and replaced; colonial mimicry disseminate/de-center colonial authority.

5. “différance” and temporary closure.

  • "The Blind Man"

2. Review “The Purloined Letter”

3. Review the whole unit and bring with you at least one question.