While theory presents an opportunity to look at the world through a new and different lens, a strong tendency also exists to reinforce beliefs I have always held. By examining the writing I have produced throughout the semester, a core theme is revealed time and time again. The only truth is that there is no absolute truth. For this reason I cannot label nor limit myself as one type of theorist, or even a combination of several. Because theory opens a window into the era when it was produced, I find value in every one whether or not I agree with every aspect it presents at present. Of all the theorists, Derrida, Fanon, Rubin, and Haraway have captured my interest most within my blog, yet all call to me as they reveal the social constructs of reality.
When I first encountered Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, I found the text incredibly dense. Deciphering which ideas were his and which belonged to philosopher Levi-Strauss proved difficult. In my frustration, I italicized and quoted every instance of Derrida’s name as if it were a curse word. In my confusion I was prone to believe that:
Derrida uses the term ‘bricolage’ to admirably describe Levi-Strauss’ method of study. He likes that Levi, a jack-of-all-trades, finds no central set of rules with which to study his myths but uses the known aspects at hand like tools.
I later learned that Derrida was not applauding this method of crafting theory. Bricolage was Derrida’s way of deflating Levi-Strauss’ absolute definition of metaphysics. From what I understand now of Derrida’s opinion, no allusion to cursing required, the function of bricolage is neither good nor bad. It simply is what it is. Bricolage allows for no absolute center, no one truth, but instead “can always be completed or invalidated by new information” (Derrida 922) much like Levi’s essays themselves. I fully appreciate that we must move forward using what we have at our disposal. At the same time, we must also allow for the understanding that truth is relevant only until supplemented by new information, essentially creating a new center.
If I label myself a post-colonialist, although I prefer not to, this would explain my affinity with this theory. The intellectual event that created a shift from a European center was the culmination of World War I, the holocaust, scientific discovery and modernism as a new art movement (Barry 67). These details are less evident in the language of Derrida’s essay, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” It is mentioned most directly where he says, “ethnology could have been born as a science only at the moment when European culture . . . had been dislocated . . . forced to stop considering itself as the culture of reference'” (Derrida 918). This ideas becomes far more obvious through the explanation in Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory where he says:
in modern times a particular intellectual “event” which constitutes a radical break from past ways of thought “man as the Renaissance slogan had it, was the measure of all other things in the universe: Western norms of dress, behavior, architecture, intellectual outlook, and so on, provided a firm center against which deviations, aberrations, variations could be detected and identified as “Other” and marginal. In the twentieth century however, these centers were destroyed and eroded. In the resulting universe there are no absolutes or fixed points, so that the universe we live in is “decentred” or inherently relativistic. Instead of movement or deviation from a known center, all we have is “free play.” (Barry 66-67)
As I have learned in Modern Poetry, distrust of language as a center, particularly since it had been used as harmful propaganda, spurred literary works such as Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Language, the broken tool, is reordered and thus newly centered. Creativity also experienced a new freedom of personal and political expression in the forms of painting, sculpting, performance and poetry. Painters Dali, Picasso, and Loy broke free from their identity as painters by writing poems and as poets they painted, freeing themselves as a total being. This idea can also be applied to the limitation of our national borders. As I see it, under control of the Bush Administration, America today is in dire need of a similar decentring away from the Empirical. Like the bumper sticker says, “I love my country but I think we should start seeing other people.” We must allow for decentralization in order to stop the oppression in places like Darfur. As this cycle begins once more, Derrida appears to be a theorist for all time.
Interestingly, decentralization is something that I had latched onto prior to reading Derrida. On January 23rd I wrote, “rather than the traditional approach of unifying the diversity in art, something Bakhtin obviously abhors, he prefers that we celebrate our creative differences.” Bakhtin knocked criticism of authorship off its center by supplementing the idea of heteroglossia within a text. This created a new consideration for both the author and the voices of the characters simultaneously. On February 2rd in regard to the value of language I questioned:
Although this seems to prove that Saussure’s value system is a good place to start, is societal value so absolute? What if value shifts slightly between the process of expression and interpretation, dependant upon the individual’s world of reference.
Granted, while these ideas are not fully formed, they positively hint at shifting centers. By the time Derrida’s assignment appeared on the syllabus for February 3rd, I was well on my way to requiring a well structured theoretical argument to articulate my own point of view.
Once I grasped Derrida, his theory began to appear in every day application. At the end of my initial post I wrote, “This is MY hypothesis, and it too will either be verified or invalidated by new information in class.” Interestingly, while parts of my first interpretation were incorrect, I had grasped the greater message. There is no absolute truth because new information will always combine with the old to form a new center. On February 5th, in a test post practicing the inclusion of video, I used the concept in jest:
In my Saussure post, I unfairly present my cat, Kringle, as a flesh eating monster. I now offer you his softer side, “Derrida Style.” Decentralizing that singular murderous aspect, allowing for supplemental information, you can now arrive at a more accurate truth.
Truth may not have been the best word choice for Kringle’s totality, yet the idea of supplementary information changing the initial understanding is poignant.
I recognized these ideas in other theorists as well, particularly in regard to identity. Gayle Rubin in “The Traffic of Women” quotes Derrida. “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” (Rubin 1678) On February 6th, in relation to this statement, I noted that:
Rubin made me understand Derrida much better. I saw the cultural baggage we unintentionally carry in conjunction with examination of the role women occupy in society. This was profound for me. I was suddenly struck by how I’ve lived both theories without knowing.
In my analysis, I had studied fathers giving away their daughters at weddings. I suddenly became aware of my inability to create new meaning in a failed attempt at bridal liberation during my own wedding. To call for liberation recognizes the ownership from which liberation is necessary. Through theory, the external constructs of my reality had been revealed and my understanding shifted. As a woman, I was other, woman and property in a way I hadn’t considered. Betraying my own self, I was complicit in reinforcing the fact through a presence-absence dichotomy.
While Rubin helped me to understand Derrida, both helped me to understand Fanon. On March 13th I wrote of Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, ?Lurie?s sense of being is fixed, set. Recall Fanon. The mind, in conjunction with the body, is being. This is not to be mistaken with identity. Identity is imposed in relation to and as supplement of “other.” Being is who you are before that happens. Fanon says of his own realization in a quote I used in my post:
I analyzed my heredity, I made a complete audit of my ailment. I wanted to be typically Negro it was no longer possible. I wanted to be white that was a joke. And when I tried, on the level of ideas and intellectual activity, to reclaim my negritude, it was snatched away from me. Proof was present that my effort was only a term of the dialectic. (Fanon 132)
To revisit the Derrida quote Rubin chose above, I see that Fanon too has difficulty escaping the stereotypical center of racism. I had noted on March 18th that “Negritude embraces both the French meaning of black and derogatory Martinique meaning of ‘nigger.’ Those who accept this inclusive definition empower themselves to redefine their own meaning.” Although the concept is an admirable attempt at reclaiming identity, even this falls short for Fanon. As he speaks of black or white, the sense of “other” is continually called into being by way of a binary dichotomy.
I had initially used the concept behind Negritude to defend Lucy’s behavior in Disgrace. While offering a way for her to redefine who she is on her own terms, I said:
Lucy also embraces the duality of her being, encompassing who she was before as well as who she is after transgressions were committed against her. This provides no comfort in the face of being violated, as Fanon too experiences, but to relinquish that sense of being, to retreat and accept the identity of victim as imposed by another, would allow only for absolute defeat.
I have just now become aware of Lucy’s reason for silence. Unlike the Negritude movement, where black men actively and vocally sought to claim a new identity, Lucy does the opposite. If she never breathes a word of her victimization, neither will she speak into existence the horrific domination and violation that has scarred her soul.
I could continue on about each and every additional instance where Derrida appears in the rest of my posts, but I find it important to shift gears before I wrap up. If Derrida says that to speak against something is to, at the same time, call it into existence, then Haraway introduces a fascinating escape from this repetitious system of binary oppositions. I say in my last blog post on April 21st:
Because cyborgs have no origin story, no dominating patriarchal tradition or otherwise, there exists possibility for freedom from these Western dualisms: “Self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man” (Haraway 2296). This is brilliant and beautifully Utopian. I love it. I love Haraway.
According to Haraway, communication systems and technologies are the tools necessary to recraft our selves, to disassemble and reassemble, to recode who we are. This provides an opportunity to exist somewhere within the gray areas between black and white, the genderlessness between male and female, etc. We are all cyborg. We all have the ability to slip through our confines.
The combination of Derrida’s “decentring” and “supplement,” along side the questions of true identity as discussed by Rubin, Fanon, Haraway and others have already helped to interpret texts and life events I have encountered. I will carry these and many other concepts with me throughout my career and my life. I have always recognized the fact that I thrive best in gray areas and what I have been seeking, although unaware of my own quest until now, is how to break free from the confines of Western duality. I have consistently incorporated theory into my arsenal of proof for what I already believed true, that this duality is an unjust system of binding categorization. The difference is that now I am aware of what cultural apparatuses are in place to confine us within our binary systems, and my conceptual skills better articulate my displeasure in concrete terms. This has been the process by which I have learned to use theory instead of letting theory use me.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. New York: Manchester University Press, 2002
Clune, Kim. Brain Drain: I Think Its Sprained.?05 May 2007. <http://atticfox.wordpress.com>.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. 914-926.
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1952
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 2269-2299.
Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women.” Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin?s Press, 1989. 1663-1683.