Back with Jacques (Derrida, that is).

The theater is born in its own disappearance, and the offspring of this movement has a name: man. The theater of cruelty is to be born by separating death from birth and erasing the name of man. The theater has always been made to do that for which it was not made: “The last word on man has not been said….The theater was never made to describe man and what he does…. (WD, 231)

It’s funny how things turn out sometimes.

My initial research when considering thesis topics back in second year invlved a lot of reading: besides working my way through Jonson’s plays and poetry (and a few of his masques), I read the work of his dramatic contemporaries and followers (particularly the work of Richard Brome*), critical and philosophical contemporaries (this included anti-theatrical pamphlets, sermons, and poetic statements like that of Sidney’s Defense of Poesy), as well as current examinations of early modern culture (Gurr’s Playgoing and Constance Jordan’s Renaissance Feminism). I also read classical works on which Jonson had modelled his poetry: Horace, Martial, and (theoretically) Juvenal, and even tried my hand at (very poor) translations from Horace’s Art of Poetry. Finally, since I had never taken any in a formal class, I studied literary theory, and Prof. Martin and I practiced applying this theory to the drama we read, using Andy Mousely’s Renaissance Drama and Contemporary Theory (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000) as a discussion guide.

The third chapter of Mousely’s book concerned Poststructuralism, a school which I found both fascinating, and bewildering. Mousely’s text offers examples culled from the works of the major theorists in each school, but, because there are no complete essays, it can be difficult to understand the context and full implications of some of the ideas presented within these examples. Consequently, I found myself attempting one of Jacques Derrida’s smaller books, Limited Inc, which includes “Signature Event Context” (SEC), a response to the speech act theory of JL Austin*, and “Limited Inc a b c,” a text he wrote in response to the theorist John Searle’s own response to SEC.[i]

Derrida, the “father of deconstruction” (the literary method which he founded), would likely have appreciated my difficulties with reading fragments of his work out of context in Mousely’s book. One of the main tenets of Derrida’s theories of deconstruction and differance is that context matters:

A written sign, in the current meaning of this word, is a mark that subsists, one which does not exhaust itself in the moment of inscription and which can give rise to an iteration in the absence and beyond the presence of the empirically determined subject who, in a given context, has emitted or produced it. (“Signature Event Context,” 9)

Derrida here is responding to the theories of structuralists like Ferdinand de Saussure* who claim that words function within closed systems of meaning: while syntactical context alters, somewhat, the nuanced meaning a word possesses, that meaning can always be fully understood by any reader, no matter who the writer of the words.[ii] Words can be understood by all readers because their meaning is conventionally agreed upon, as are the grammatical systems in which the word operates.[iii] For Derrida, words do bear conventionally agreed-upon meanings, but every repeated utterance (“iteration”) alters, and thus adds one more memory to the word’s collective “meaning”. Conversely:

At the same time, a written sign carries with it a force that breaks with its context, that is, with the collectivity of presences organising the moment of its inscription. This breaking force [force de rupture] is not an accidental predicate but the very structure of the written text. […] This force of rupture is tied to the spacing [espacement] that constitutes the written sign: spacing which separates it from other elements of the internal contextual chain (the always open possibility of its disengagement and graft), but also from all forms of present reference[.] (SEC, 9)

If specific context adds to the history of collected meanings of any given word, then those collected meanings/uses also haunt each successive use of the word. Context, then, both matters and does not matter. [iv] In an effort to demonstrate how words can operate without even grammatical context, Derrida offers Husserl’s example of “the green is either” (SEC, 12), a phrase for which we can create contexts – especially poetical contexts – even though grammatically, it appears nonsense: this is because the individual words themselves still carry meaning, even when placed in the wrong order in the syntactical system.

Not only can the signifier* function without conventional grammatical contexts, but even when it functions within these contexts, the “mark” (signifier) carries a “nonpresent remainder” (SEC, 10): meaning that is “nonpresent” because it is not indicated by the specific context in which the signifier is used, yet remains present, nonetheless, capable of being employed at any moment, in any other hypothetical context.

Further, Derrida emphasises in “Limited Inc a b c…”, his follow-up essay to “Signature Event Context,” the importance of rupture and absence – the rupture created by the written marks of the text (the physical spaces between words on the page), the rupture of words from context and conventional grammar, and finally, the rupture of the text or of the reader/audience from the writer (through physical, ontological, and temporal absence). This absence allows the opportunity of mistranslation, misinterpretation, misunderstanding – it allows the “remainder” of the mark to enter into play:

This re-move [of author and intention from writing] makes its [the remainder’s] movement possible. Which is another way of saying that if this remove is its condition of possibility, it is not an eventuality, something that befalls it here and there, by accident. Intention is a priori (at once) differante: differing and deferring, in its inception. (LI, 56)

For Derrida, it is impossible to understand the full meaning of any word: not only are we always understanding the meaning of every word based on how it “differs” from related words (as Saussure proposed),[v] but we are always also comparing each word use to how that same word was used “differently” in the past. Too, accounting for the countless potential misunderstandings and mistakes in word usage, we see how meaning easily slips, or defers, from our understanding.

Derrida is an odd reading experience: his prose is renowned for being difficult to untangle (it usually involves the OED, hopefully the one with eytmologies as well as biographical entries to look up all the philosophers/poets/apologists to whom Derrida responds). Yet painstakingly re-reading each sentence a few times often reveals an idea that seems breath-takingly simple: until he starts to play with it, that is.

Play* is an important word for Derrida’s writings: frustrating and opaque as they may sometimes be, understanding Derrida’s concept of differance and the non-existence of complete systematic meaning begins to allow the reader insight into why Derrida so frequently employs double entendres, and long, winding sentences, delves into philosophical terms or untranslateable French, or simply makes up words: his work attempts to demonstrate the very theories it proposes. Too, Derrida’s method provided the model on which many contemporary post-structuralist and postmodern counter-hegemonic theories are built. [vi]

This long over-view of Derrida’s work is not without purpose. Derrida, being the first theorist I studied in any serious and extended manner, has obviously had an impact on my critical methodology. I had originally planned to use Derrida in my thesis, but as my reasearch developed, his work became less obviously relevant. It’s been more than six months since I last read him outside of a syllabus.

All that’s about to change, however, as I’m currently working on an examination of the relationship between bodies and words in Jonson’s theatre for the third, and final chapter of the thesis. I’m reading “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation” in JD’s Writing and Difference, and, I confess, even if I’m out of practice, and amazingly frustrated with the piece, it’s brilliant, as I’m “shutting up […] [my] circle” [vii] to find myself returning to my theoretical “root(lessnes)s” in the form of Jacques’s work.

End Notes:

[i] SEC. Limited Inc is a good text to begin reading Derrida, not only because of its relative shortness, but because it is also rather funny, including a running satire of Searle whom Derrida renames “Sarl,” and uses in all his examples throughout the second essay. Though Searle’s “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida” is not included in Graff’s edition, Graff himself reminds us that it is almost unnecessary given “Derrida’s comprehensive quotation of Searle’s “Reply” (Forward, vii), which is an understated way of reminding us that Derrida republishes almost the entirety of Searle’s work in the form of “quotations.”

[ii] the reader. Saussure distinguishes between speech (which, because of tone, accent, and the complexity of muscle movements necessary to produce speech-sounds, cannot be easily systematised by visual code) and language (which can be systematised). For Derrida, speech and hearing are critical factors in language and (mis)communication.

[iii] the word operates. An example of this would be that in Latin, words are usually strung together in the order of Subject-Object-Verb.

[iv] and does not matter. It became a running joke in lit. theory, whenever we encountered a difficult problem, to pull the Derrida card: “it is, and it isn’t”. Oh, how we laughed. Right before we shook our heads at the sad little people we were.

[v] how it “differs”. The best concrete example of this theory is simply to open the dictionary: a single word is defined by multiple words, each of which are then defined by yet more words in an endless fragmenting process that never allows one to stop reading.

[vi] counter-hegemonic theories. For Derrida, as for most post-structuralists, physical conflict and persecution only occurs where dialogue between opposing parties ends. The possibility for endless deferral of words, then, suggests an alternative to violence. This theory has significant implications for political conflict as well as for feminist, marxist, post-colonial, and queer theorists.

[vii] [my] circle. The Magnetic Lady (Induction, 507)

Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context” and “Limited Inc a b c…” Limited Inc. Ed. Gerald Graff. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation.” Writing and Difference. Transl. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978. 232-250.

Jonson, Ben. The Magnetic Lady. Ben Jonson: The Complete Plays. Vol. 2. Ed. Felix Schelling. London: JM Dent, 1973. 505-572.

20 June 2008 ~ St. Catharines

Glossary of Terms:

Edmund Husserl. n. nom. Early twentieth-century German philosopher and the father of “phenomenology,” a school which involves the examination of conscious/material experience as a means of reaching the metaphysical/non-material. I’m not too certain about Husserl (having only read about him, but Hegel, in the same school, proposes that words are a material form that allows the reader to approach that which is beyond materiality).

Ferdinand de Saussure. n. nom. A literary structuralist. His most famous work is the Course in General Linguistics, a text which was compiled by his colleagues from student notes after Saussure’s death in 1913. I draw from this text in order to summarise Saussure’s theories but, for brevity, do not cite it directly.

Jonathan Langshaw Austin. n. nom. A structuralist following Saussure. His How to Do Things with Words examines the social conventions that make certain utterances “performatives” (that is, affecting reality: these are phrases which “do” things, for example, marriage vows, or the christening of a boat).

Play. n. (lit.) In Philosophy and literary theory, “play” is usually referred to as jouissance, as in Barthes’s essay “From Work to Text.” The French feminist Hélène Cixous also uses it to discuss the experience/communion of the feminine.

Richard Brome. n. nom. One of the tribe of Ben, and Jonson’s former servant as well as his main dramatic “heir.”

Signifier. n. (lit.). The physical representation (the word) of a concept. Saussure’s famous example is the word “t-r-e-e”. The “signified,”then, would be the actual concept behind the word, that is, the tree itself.

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4 thoughts on “Back with Jacques (Derrida, that is).

  1. I’m glad to see Derrida pop up here, and I wouldn’t have expected it. But I completely agree that some of his works (later, shorter ones) can be much more fruitful (for most of us, anyway). When he gave up on being overly verbose and complex on purpose. I love “On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness” (two essays), and “The Work of Grieving” and “The Gift of Death” are also quite wonderful.

  2. Excellent. I am no longer a one-theorist woman. I’ve been intentionally keeping JD out of my work in fears that my (over) enthusiasm might become redundant. (Obviously I have no fear of a similar redundancy with Ben.)

    Whenever I think “SEC” is difficult, I open “Violence and Metaphysics,” the essay which broke my resolve to get through Writing and Difference. You’re right, the essays in that work are indeed “verbose.” “Theatre of Cruelty” wasn’t too bad once I made it past the first four pages which were full of his contradictory aphorisms (“Life is the non-re-presentable origin of representation,” 234; or “this affirmation has not yet begun to exist.’ It is still to be born. Now a necessary affirmation can be born only by being reborn to itself” 232).

    Dr. Martin has also suggested once or twice that Gift of Death is a fun and critical (ha ha) read, and it’s sitting on shelf at this very moment. I’m thinking of making that my next theory read (tho’ grieving also sounds interesting…)Thanks for the recommends!

  3. Jonathan Langshaw Austin. n. nom. A structuralist following Saussure. His How to Do Things with Words . . .’ (above). Jonathan? A structuralist? Fllowing Saussure? If this is a joke, I don’t get it. Of course, “Jonathan” means “Gift of God” (“Nathan, for “gift” and the “yodh” for Jahweh) . . .

    • Not a joke. It’s the name of a structuralist theorist. His book is called How to Do Things With Words, and is a reply to Ferdinand de Saussure and other structuralists.

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