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“Language is much more slippery and ambiguous than we realize.

” – Lois Tyson

“Literature as well as criticism – the difference between them being delusive – is

condemned (or privileged) to be forever the most rigorous and, consequently, the

most unreliable language in terms of which man names and transforms himself.”

- Paul de Man (1979: 19)

“Language is not the reliable tool of communication we believe it to be, but rather a

fluid, ambiguous domain of complex experience in which ideologies program us

without our being aware of them”

- Jacques Derrida
DECONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM
Jacques Derrida inaugurated the theory of deconstruction in the late 1960s and
it became a major influence on literary studies during the late 1970s. Many critics
have misperceived deconstruction as a superficial analysis of wordplay that destroys
our appreciation of literature and our ability to interpret it meaningfully. One reason
for this is that the writing by some of the major users (like Jacques Derrida, Luce
Irigaray, Geoffrey Hartman) of this theory offered explanations that attempt to
summarize the work of these thinkers, frequently employ such unusual language and
organizational principles that they seem to defy our understanding and acceptance.
In Europe, on the other hand, deconstruction was understood as a response to
structuralism; it is therefore sometimes referred to as a “poststructuralist” approach to
literary analysis. Structuralism argued that individual thought was shaped by linguistic
structures. It therefore denied or vehemently deemphasized the relative autonomy of
subjects in determining cultural meanings; indeed, it seemed virtually to dissolve the
subject into the larger forces of culture. Deconstruction attacked the assumption that
these structures of meaning were stable, universal, or a historical. However, it did not
challenge structuralism's views about the cultural construction of human subjects.
Despite the above, deconstruction can improve our ability to think critically
and to see more readily the ways in which our experience is determined by ideologies
of which we are unaware because they are “built into” our language. Thus,
deconstruction can be a very useful tool for Marxism, feminism, and other theories
that attempt to make us aware of the oppressive role ideology can play in our lives. In
order to have a better understanding of how deconstruction reveals the hidden work of
ideology in our daily experience of our world, and ourselves we must first understand
deconstruction’s view of language. This is because, according to Derrida, “language is
not the reliable tool of communication we believe it to be, but rather a fluid,
ambiguous domain of complex experience in which ideologies program us without
our being aware of them.”
Derrida and Miller reveal the complex nature of not only deconstruction but
also of language itself. Derrida says in Deconstruction and the Other (pg 124):
I am not sure that deconstruction can function as a literary method
as such. I am wary of the idea of methods of reading. The laws of
reading are determined by that particular text that is being read. This
does not mean that we should simply abandon ourselves to the text, or
represent or repeat it in a purely passive manner. It means that we must
remain faithful, even if it implies a certain violence, to the injunctions of
the text. These injunctions will differ from one text to the next so that
one cannot prescribe one general method or reading. In this sense
deconstruction is not a method.

J. H. Miller also said in Theory Now and Then (pg 231) that
Sentences of the form ‘Deconstruction is so and so’ are a contradiction
in terms. Deconstruction cannot by definition be defined, since it
presupposes the definability or, more properly, ‘undecidability’ of all
conceptual or generalizing terms. Deconstruction, like any method of
interpretation, can only be exemplified, and the examples will of course
all differ.
These quotes testify to the contradictory responses of critics and theorists
concerning the nature of deconstruction itself. The quotes seem to also suggest that the
different perspectives deconstruction may elicit. Unable to make up his mind about the
nature of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida comes to the conclusion that deconstruction
is not a method of textual reading. Similarly, Miller suggests that deconstruction
cannot be defined simply because it is undecidable. He agrees, however, that
deconstruction is “a method of interpretation”, or textual interpretation.
In deconstructing life itself, we argue that everyday of our lives, language can
be seen as the line drawn between the living and the dead. Thus, human beings’ being
able to use language for communication is evident that they are still living beings.
Deconstruction as a theory is built on the belief that language is much more slippery
and ambiguous than we realize. Hence, without changing a word, a single sentence
can have several meanings that is, language isn’t as stable and reliable as we generally
assume it is. As an instance, the sentence “The lecturer says the students do not have
to attend his classes” can have several interpretations. These interpretations are
usually dependent on which word is stressed or paid more attention to.
1. The lecturer says the students do not have to attend his classes (to mean that the

lecturer is lying).
2. The lecturer says the students do not have to attend his classes (to mean that

he’s correcting a false rumour)


3. The lecturer says the students do not have to attend his classes (to mean that
someone said the students have to attend his class).
4. The lecturer says the students do not have to attend his classes (to mean that
another important person (e.g. HOD) has suggested that the students should
attend the lecturer’s class).
This shows that language is not as stable and reliable as we assume it to be.
In discussing deconstruction, language is dynamic, ambiguous, and unstable,
continually disseminating possible meanings; existence has no centre, no stable
meaning and no fixed ground; and thirdly, human beings are fragmented battlefields
for competing ideologies whose only “identities” are the ones we invent and choose to
believe. The major focus here is unstable. So, it is no longer new to learn that, for
deconstruction, literature is as dynamic, ambiguous, and unstable as the language of
which it is composed. Meaning is not a stable element residing in the text for us to
uncover or passively consume. Meaning is created by the reader in the act of reading.
Since deconstruction is an extension of structuralism, as said earlier, which is
the reason it is called “post-structuralism”, then certain concepts of structuralism are
also used in an extensive style.
Structuralists and semioticians use the word sign to denote a basic element of
communication, and they define sign by this formula.

Sign = signifier + signified


(sound, image, (concept to which gesture, etc.)
the signifier refers)
Words are linguistic signs. For example, if the sign is the word rose, then the
signifier is the group of letters written or pronounced as a unit <r-o-s-e>, and the
signified is the rose you picture in your mind as either “red rose” or “purple rose.”
From above, a phrase consisting of the signifiers “This tree is big” will spur
several questions to examine the sentence’s ambiguities, even when the sentence
seems to be clear and specific. When a lady says, for instance, that: “This tree is big,”
we can ask questions like: Is she comparing the tree to herself? Or to another tree? If
yes, what other tree? Is she surprised by the size of the tree? Or is she merely
informing us that the tree is big? Is she informing us so that we will know something
about the tree or so that we will understand something about the word big? What must
she think of us if she believes we need such information? Does she think we are just
learning to speak English? Or is she being sarcastic? If so, why? This string of
questions may seem to push the point a bit far, but it does illustrate that human
utterances are rarely, if ever, as clear and simple as the structuralist formula signifier
+ signified seems to imply. As we have seen, any given signifier can refer to any
number of signifieds at any given moment. And although context often helps us to
limit the range of possible signifieds for some signifiers, it simultaneously increases
the range of possible signifieds for others. This is why communication is such a
complicated and uncertain thing.

CONCEPTS IN DECONSTRUCTION
Multiplicity: This has to do with multiple meanings to deconstruct the system set in
place by structuralism. In simple terms, it has to do with multiple meanings for
deconstructing a text. There are multiple meanings for everything, so there's no
essence behind a meaning and a gap between the signified and signifier as they are
both arbitrary.

Free-Floating Signifiers: In deconstruction, seemingly singular or stable meanings


give way to a ceaseless play of language that multiplies meanings

Dissemination: This shows how meaning scatters, spreads, and multiples and how, in
the process of accumulating, meanings can be lost.
Supplement: Derrida takes this term from Rousseau, who saw a supplement as “an
inessential extra added to something complete in itself.” Derrida argues that what is
complete in itself cannot be added to, and so a supplement can only occur where there
is a lack. In any binary set of terms, the second can be argued to exist in order to fill in
a lack in the first. This will then suggest that in deconstruction, there may be a surplus
of meaning and rhetoric.

Decentering: This is based on the belief that there is no central meaning in and within
a text, everything is multiple, unstable, and without unified meaning.

Transcendental Signified: This is a reference upon which one may build a concept or
a philosophy, which provides ultimate meaning since it is the origin. However, for this
to be true, it would have to be understood without comparing it to other signified or
signifiers (impossible since we understand everything through comparison).

Logocentrism: This is the attitude that logos (the Greek term for speech, thought, law,
or reason) is the central principle of language and philosophy. Logocentrism is the
view that speech, and not writing, is central to language. The need or desire for a
centre that can serve as a basis for all thoughts and actions. Logocentrist theory claims
that speech is the original signifier of meaning, and that written word is derived from
the spoken word. The written word is, thus, a representation of the spoken word.

Différance: This is from two French words. They are: “to defer” and “to differ”. To
Derrida, this is the only name language can have; that is, Language can defer and
differ. Derrida uses the term “difference” to describe the origin of presence and
absence. Differance is indefinable, and cannot be explained by the “metaphysics of
presence.” A critical question can be raised that “why use language when we are not
sure of it?” A deconstructionist answer will be that language is used only because it is
the tool at our disposal and because there is no other one. So, while doing this, words
that are being used are put under erasure, that is, crossing words out to show that the
word is being used in a new way. Derrida's example is that you can't privilege speech
over writing because two spoken words may sound the same and have different
meanings.
Binary oppositions: This is a system of conceptual oppositions or hierarchies that
Western beliefs are base on, where one side of the binary is given more privileged or
power over the other according to Derrida. To Ferdinand De Saussure the binary
opposition was the “means by which the units of language have value or meaning;
each unit is defined against what it is not.” With this categorization, terms and
concepts tend to be associated with a positive or negative. For example, Reason and
Passion, Man and Woman, Inside and Outside, Presence and Absence, Speech and
Writing, etc. Derrida argued that these oppositions were arbitrary and inherently
unstable. And also, they can be used to detect one’s cultural ideology. Deconstruction
rejects most of the assumptions of structuralism and more vehemently “binary
opposition” on the grounds that such oppositions always privilege one term over the
other, that is, signified privileged over the signifier.

Double Reading: This is the use of two part reading process by deconstructionists to
interpret literature. In the first reading, a singular interpretation of the text is
developed without multiplicity or deconstruction. In the second reading, a
deconstructionist interpretation of the problem is developed, which flips the given
binary and undermines the structure of the text.

Mental Trace: In deconstruction, there is no signified but the ones we can get are the
ones we are able to create in our minds. These will generate a chain of signified and
not signifier. Signifier consists of and produces more signifiers in a never-ending
deferral of meaning: we seek meaning that is solid and stable, but we can never really
find it because we can never get beyond the play of signifiers that is language. In
Derrida’s words, what we take to be meaning is really only the mental trace left
behind by the play of signifiers. And that trace consists of the differences by which we
define a word.
Undecidability: The free play of the text's signifiers goes beyond the capacity of the
system to confine it to one meaning or a set or meanings. This shows that the there is
no unified meaning that can be attached to a particular text. There are several
meanings and the text is in between selecting one.

Phonocentrism: Derrida's belief that Western Culture privileges speech over writing.
Derrida and other deconstructionists argue that writing came before speech.

Simulacra: This is the simulation or imitation of the real grows more real than actual
reality. For instance, in our world today, Social Media and TV have constructed a
simulated reality more real than real life. Nothing has happened until TV or social
media say it has happened. So, stimulation is that thing that makes the reality become
more real even more than the reality itself.
Deconstructive criticism can be applied to language, our world, the human
identity and literature, itself since its vehicle is language, through the use of the
concepts that are highlighted and discussed above.
Not all concepts may be said to be present in a literary text but the following
concepts will be used in analyzing William Blake’s “Sick Rose” and John Donne’s
“The Flea” for the purpose of showing the undecidability of the text. These concepts
are multiplicity, free-floating signifiers, dissemination, supplement, decentering, and
logocentrism.
There are generally two main purposes for deconstructing a literary text, and
we may see either or both at work in any given deconstructive reading: They are:
1. to reveal the text’s undecidability

2. to reveal the complex operations of the ideologies of which the text is


constructed.
To reveal a text’s undecidability is to show that the “meaning” of the text is
really an indefinite, undecidable, plural, conflicting array of possible meanings and
that the text, therefore, has no meaning, of its own.
Undecidability does not mean that the reader is unable to choose among
possible interpretations. And it does not mean that the text cannot “make up its mind”
as to what it wants to say. Rather, ‘undecidability’ means that the reader and text are
inextricably bound within language’s dissemination of meanings.
The other purpose for deconstructing a literary text is to see what the text can
show us about the ideologies of which it is constructed. This endeavor usually shows
us something about the ways in which ideologies operate in our own view of the
world as well. In deconstructing a text for this second reason, enough New Critical
(i.e. from New Criticism) principles are still needed to make that approach fairly
familiar because a New Critical reading can serve as the first step in the
deconstruction of a text. As you may recall, New Criticism seeks to reveal how the
text works as a unified whole by showing how its main theme is established by the
text’s formal, or stylistic, elements: imagery, symbolism, tone, rhyme, meter, plot,
characterization, setting, point of view, and so forth. First, the New Critic identifies
the central tension operating in the text, for example, the struggle between good and
evil or the conflict between science and religion. Then the New Critic shows how that
tension is resolved in the text’s advancement of its main theme—for example, that
good and evil exist in all of us or that science becomes dangerous when it becomes a
religion. While New Critics appreciate tension, irony, ambiguity, and paradox in a
literary text, all of these qualities must serve the unifying purpose of supporting the
text’s main theme. Any conflicting meanings that seem to appear in the text must be
shown to serve some function for the main theme so that the whole text can be seen to
achieve its artistic purpose smoothly and completely.
For deconstruction, this means that the New Critic is in collusion with the text
to hide the self-contradictions that reveal the limitations of its ideological framework.
To find that ideological framework and understand its limitations, a deconstructive
critic looks for meanings in the text that conflict with its main theme, focusing on self-
contradictions of which the text seems unaware.

Applying Deconstruction to William Blake’s “Sick Rose”


Multiplicity in William Blake’s sick rose would suggest that there are several
meanings that can be attached to a text. This is shown in the paragraphs below.
First, A rose, literally, is as an object that is attractive which is used for
domestic, medicinal, food and other purposes.
The title of the poem ‘Sick Rose’ seems to symbolize the cycle of man, that is,
the way man grows from young to old and eventually dies which is inevitable. It can
as well have other interpretations. Thus, the rose may represents beauty, youthfulness
and innocence, Power, Chastity, Feminity, intensity of romantic love, blood of Christ
and in Christianity Eve in the garden of Eden and even the Virgin Mary. It also means
that a rose has actually being blooming and it is suddenly eaten away by a worm
which is invisible and, thus, the rose is ruined forever.
The ‘invisible worm’ can be said to represents corruption, decay and old age.
As corruption, it can be said to be a cankerworm which goes into the fabric of a
society which is the rose and it eats deep into the fabric.
A religious interpretation of sick rose will suggest that ‘the invisible worm’
represents the devil; that is, the serpent that tempted Eve and later Adam to eat from
the tree of knowledge of good and evil. ‘The rose’ could represent the innocence of
Adam and Eve at the Garden of Eden. They were deceived by the worm and their joy
of having a paradise which can be said to be ‘the bed of crimson joy’ is taken away as
stated in the poem that ‘thy life destroy’ through the dark secret love put forward by
the worm. In fact the invisibility of the worm seems to support the ideas of deceit of
the devil as portrayed in the garden.
Death can be seen as a feature of human beings. The word ‘rose’ means our
youthful age where we are in charge of good things that keep us fit. Rose can also
mean good things such as wealth, beauty, money, which are the pursuit of many
youths today. The rose is sick. This symbolizes the diminishing nature of man which
is inevitable and brings one closer to death. ‘The invisible worm’ can be said to be
man’s age or the reason for man’s fall. ‘The invisible worm/that flies in the night/in
the howling storm’ can be said to indicate the struggles of man before death. These
struggles can be said to be represented by ‘the howling storm’ and thus, life is seen as
a storm, war, race, battle that should be won by every man before death comes
knocking. ‘the dark secret love’ seems to suggest the enticements of the world to the
youths. And when ‘life destroy’ seem to represent the time for man to experience
death which is usually at old age. That is, at the end of one’s lifecycle.
Stanza two could also suggest the victory of death over mankind. Death has
found a place to stay in the life of man. “And his dark secret love” could mean that
death uses man’s weak point or flaws to get closer to him which makes it easy for
death to invade man’s life.
The ‘rose’ can also be said to represent ‘woman’, while ‘the worm’ represents a
man, whose love is ‘dark’ and ‘secret’ and then destroys her. The ‘dark love’ could
represent an ‘unrequited love’. She cannot see what the worm is doing to her because
the worm is invisible and/or that love has blinded her. The poem could be said
therefore to be discussing the loss of love. Thy bed/ crimson joy prove that this
relationship is sexual and the woman is both joyful and shamed by this act.
From the multiple interpretations given above, the concept of multiplicity can
be said to have been achieved. Thus, the other concepts will be deduced as well.
The free-floating signifiers in the poem are: ‘Rose’, ‘Sick’, ‘Worm’, ‘Bed’,
‘Life’, ‘invisible’, ‘night’, ‘howling storm’, ‘bed’ and ‘ dark secret love’. These are so
called because these words can have several signified as shown above in the analysis
above. In the analysis, ‘Rose’ is seen as a cycle of man’s life, as a woman, as the
innocence of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as wealth, as beauty, as
youthfulness and Power, Chastity, Feminity, intensity of romantic love, blood of
Christ and even the Virgin Mary.
The ‘invisible worm’ is viewed as a man, the serpent, as man’s age or the
reason for man’s fall, as corruption, decay and old age. ‘Bed’ can be seen as life, as
secrets, as the society, as the garden and also as the bed for sexual acts.
The howling storm is portrayed as the battles and struggles of life, war, race
and battle.
Another concept to be extracted from this work is dissemination.
Dissemination shows how meaning scatters and spreads thereby giving multiples of
meanings. The multiple meanings given to this text are: the poem is viewed from a
religious perspective, as the life of youths, as the life of man on earth and even as a
woman facing challenges of men in relation to loss of virginity. So, to a larger extent,
the meaning in this poem is lost.
Supplement in the text will show that several meanings have been drawn from
the poem. So far, we have seen that there is a surplus of meanings and this leads us to
another concept which is decentralisation which shows that the meaning in the text is
unstable. And as such, there is not central meaning in the text.
We may ask if the text lacks a central meaning from our analysis so far. It must
be stated that deconstruction also tries to find the central meaning which is
logocentricism but it must be known as well that our attempt to give a central meaning
is as a result of our mental trace which is caused by the several siginifier that we
create in our minds.

The following two questions summarize the two deconstructive approaches


discussed above.
1. How can we use the various conflicting interpretations a text produces (the “play of
meanings”) or find the various ways in which the text doesn’t answer the questions it
seems to answer, to demonstrate the instability of language and the undecidability of
meaning? (Remember that deconstruction uses the word undecidability in a special
way).

2. What ideology does the text seem to promote—what is its main theme—and how
does conflicting evidence in the text show the limitations of that ideology? We can
usually discover a text’s overt ideological project by finding the binary opposition(s)
that structures the text’s main theme(s).
Before we start to look at the different meanings it is important to understand what a flea is. A flea is
a wingless parastic insect which feeds on blood of mammals it sometimes trasmits diseases through
its bite. The fleas are always found in hot spots where a potential host animal spends alot of its time.
These areas are usually warm,shady and humid and therefore usually indoor in a region with cooler
climate.

Central meaning- a Flea is described as a small wingless insect that consumes/ sucks blood of their
host. It is strong and feeds on humans and warm blooded animals

Sub meanings- The Flea could mean the following:

Sexual role/ intercourse,

disturbing desire,

urge,

union.