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On literary deconstruction

Discussion in 'General Book Discussion' started by tZar, Aug 1, 2008.

  1. tZar

    tZar New Member

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    As I was reading Sitarams response on HOW to get into the novel, in the thread 'Unravelling themes, symbolism and other such literary stuff', it struck me that there was not information on HAW to do it. ’Just’ a lot of examples on what can be accomplished when doing it. I thought it would be a good idea to create a thread about HOW to do literary interpretations. I hope you will join in and comment and add to what I am writing...

    I myself have not majored in anything, and am in fact a maths teacher which does not make me an authority in literature :) Anyhow, I would like to give a few hints on how I try to get into the deeper levels of a novella, poem or short story.
    If you are not interested in the history of deconstruction, please scroll through the next post in the thread and I will get straight to how to deconstruct a text…
    First of all a lot is talking about ’deconstructing’ the book. The ’art’ of deconstruction is in fact a literary theory, which originates from Darrida (or at least he is the mastermind of deconstruction). The aim of deconstruction is not just getting into the text, it is in fact a revolt against the structuralism, who dominated the study of language at that time (1930’ties). It is a philosophy and later adopted by students and professors at Yale (Paul de Man) in the 80’ties to go against the ’new critic’ theory.
    Darrida was of the opinion that language is self-referential, which means that there are no first word. All words is placed in a great big lot with no centre. He provoked by saying that there are nothing outside the text! Also he said that the western culture is marked by ethnocentrism and logo centrism, which means that we see every phenomenon’s from our own premises which leads us to suppress all the values and cultural expressions that does not fit into our culture. Our culture is marked by reason and rationality and thereby suppresses everything, which are not: Feelings, spontaneity, differences etc. Our culture has a hieratic of contrasts like: good-evil, light-darkness, white-black, culture-nature etc. These contrasts or extremes are not logical, but an indication on how we value things and through that how we arrange them. Darrida took this basis and reread philosophical masterpieces, which he made crack by the way he read them. They showed themselves as self-contradictions. His point was to destroy the western metaphysic i.e. our fundamental idea of the world and language.
    Paul de Man took this and made it into a literary theory. The object is still the same: Showing that the text is fundamentally self-contradicting! This is done by finding the texts linguistic point – meaning the point where the text reveals itself as language. From there the task is to make the text break down or show that it is saying something else then what the new criticism got out of it.
    The deconstructionists are convinced that the text is heteronomous. There is no whole, just a compilation of text elements. These elements are kept together by text conventions and reader expectations. The task is then to break down what keeps the text together thereby breaking down the entire text. Deconstruction is not interested in WHAT the text is saying, but HOW the text is saying something. Therefore deconstruction becomes a search for what the text is not saying. A text wants us to believe that it is about something outside the text, but that is an impossibility, says the deconstructors. Texts are made up from staging’s of different phenomenon’s, which can bee seen as contrasts, which again are valued and put hierarchies. By showing that the text says that ‘good/light/etc.’ (positive) side of the contrasts is just as valid as the ‘negative’ side, we have shown that the text is self contradicting, and thereby the text breaks down and looses validity.

    In My next post I will try to give a little demonstration of this and some guidelines on how to deconstruct texts. But keep in mind that everything I write isn’t true, as truth is just a position in a false hierarchy ;)
     
  2. tZar

    tZar New Member

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    Hello there

    I am going to be deconstructing the fairytale of H. C. Andersen called ‘the teapot’, which can be found at: Hans Christian Andersen : The Teapot :: www.andersen.sdu.dk :: The Hans Christian Andersen Center
    Please read the text before going on - its short, so I am sure you will manage ☺
    First of all, when we wish to deconstruct a text (and I cannot find one good argument for doing this ☺ ), we need to find the linguistic point, where the text reveals itself as a text. We need to show that the text is trying to convince us that it is about something outside the text! The text is not outside the text – it is all language and that is all it is!
    To be very banal: The first observation should be that we cannot drink or serve tea form the word ‘teapot’! This shows us that the text is a complete linguistic construction. - Did you see that we just exposed the text for what it is: a linguistig construction, nothing outside that!
    The text presents some romantic favourite conceptions, which are staged throughout the text. These can be coined in contrasts, which are all valued:
    Pride – Modesty
    Wealth – poverty
    Tasteless water – Tea
    Broken – Whole
    Death – Life
    Disablement – Fertility
    Narcissism – Charity
    Adventure – Memories
    All words on the right side is valued positive in the text, and the text thereby tries to convince the reader that these qualities are true and good.
    The text does not refer to any reel reality; everything in the text is artificial. The only human the text refers to is mentioned metonymic “It stood on the table that was prepared for tea and it was lifted up by the most delicate hand. But that most delicate hand was very awkward.” - As a part for the whole. But there is no ‘body’ behind the hand: it is in fact a linguistic trick (the authors hand in the text). The omniscient narrator points out the artificial nature through the “There was” in preference to “There once was” (the fairytale opening). By using this stylistic configuration he both refers to the fairytale and distances himself from it at the same time. Further on in the text the authenticity is undermined by the wording “the lid is not worth talking about; enough has been said about that.” Here the text states itself as being a text. A text constructed to create intimacy to the reader, but which in reality is an absence, because all we are reading does not exist (as anything then language). Also the implicit narrator is undermined by the crucial sentence: “…said the Teapot, when later on it talked to itself about its past life.” NO! It did not say that to itself, first and foremost it said that to the reader, secondly it was said as a linguistic function to create intimacy and the notion of an inner (which is valued as essential) and an outer (which is valued as vain, narcissistic, etc.).
    The Teapot is made up from several linguistic manoeuvres that refers to a romantic philosophy of unity, which the text tries to manipulate us to see. As such the text is everything it tries to diminish: superficial, narcissistic, manipulative, malicious towards the teapot, which it breaks and so on. In brief, we can say that the fairytale in reality is an allegory that tells us about the good, truth and beauty, but as text says something completely different.
    To make this as short as possible, we can see from this that the text is a self-contradiction. It cannot say anything which is true, when it itself is false. It cannot say anything about goodness through being malicious. The text is breaking down and becomes a statement of it own incoherence.

    Maybe deconstruction isn’t the best way to begin a series of threads about literary theory, as it basically breaks down the notion that texts can say anything about anything outside the text. The simple way to put it is that all texts becomes allegories and that all texts are connected with other texts. And language can only refer to language.
    The positive side of deconstruction, is our ability afterward to be aware of rhetoric and our culturally constructed hierarchies of value.
    I truly hope someone have found this interesting. Shortly I will return with a new theme. I think the obvious subject would be new criticism, which also holds greater value when it comes to getting into texts.

    -tZar
     
  3. sparkchaser

    sparkchaser Administrator and Stuntman Staff Member

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    Very interesting.
     
  4. Peder

    Peder Well-Known Member

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    That's as clear as I have seen Derrida explained so far.
    But does it have a point or is it the negation of meaningful, i.e. pointless?
    BTW, glad to see that thread picked up. :)
     
  5. silverseason

    silverseason New Member

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    I too appreciate the clear explanations of deconstruction.

    It does nothing for me, however, or why or how I read. I took a lot of literature courses in college and we did take things apart. I feel I learned something from those various exercises.

    In my more mature (later?) years, I have settled for the folk wisdom that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. If you ride any single "literary theory" then you don't see other possibilities. I like to approach a text - and especially a difficult one - with a tool kit. Try the different tools and see which ones seem to work.
     
  6. Peder

    Peder Well-Known Member

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    tZar, silverseason
    I too have been looking for the tools that silverseason mentions and have not had the benefit of being a lit major, or even an arts major, in school. So I pick up bits and scraps here and there, a jimmy here, a wedge there, a misshapen hammer and so on, and have come across Derrida.
    So, I've been scratching the attic of my brain since my last post, and I seem to think that Derrida began a trend of looking for the hidden meaning beneath the words in the texts that we write, not only to expose contradiction, but also to serve social or political agendas in criticism. Thus there have come to be feminist criticism, post-colonial criticism, gay criticism and so on. And at the roots of them have been the fundamental oppositions that you mention.
    For example. if I write the simple word "I" meaning myself, there are many more ways to be not myself than there are just the one of me. Billions of ways, in fact, at the current size of world population. So I thought that Derrida's message focussed more on the not-I aspect of my statement, to atribute a hidden meaning in my stating not who I was, but instead distinguishing who I was not. Specifically, when I say "I," grammatically I don't mean 'you,' whoever you may be. And critics following Derrida might morph that easily into further interpretation that sounds like 'I am I, and you are not.' And then further morph it into 'I am I, and I have no regard for you.' And then further morph it into 'I am I, and I dislike you.' And then further into "I am I, and you are nothing to me.' Finally ending up with 'I am I, and you are nothing.'
    I may have it wrong in connecting this way of cleaving a text with Derrida, although it sounds like it might fit, but there certainly are such agendas in modern literary criticism which try to ferret out the anti-feminine, the pro-colonial, and the anti-gay in what we say and how we say it, while talking presumably about other things. The 'male world,' for a final example, may shine through even when we (males) don't think we are talking about it.
    Your thoughts re any Derrida connections?
     
  7. tZar

    tZar New Member

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    @Peder:

    I am not quite sure that is what he wanted. As deconstruction was developed as a (anti)theory of knowledge it it not really about the text as such (the critiques say). If we want to utilise the 'theory', we have to analyse a text, and then return to the text, and look for the aspects we suppressed in the text. This will open up the text, so that there are no longer ONE theme, motif, etc. but many. Also in our rereading the texts, we will expose our own cultures hierarchies of values.
    If we shortly return to the teapot, we see that in an ordinary analysis (I usually use a cross between new criticism and narrative reading - more on that later) we surppress the way the story is told, so that we can accept the contrasts I mentioned. If we do not surppress the way it is told, the text becomes incoherent. On the other hand, if we look at how the message is being told, we find a new 'truth' in the text. This is not better of worse then the other, but equal in value (this is a more constructive view on deconstruction), thereby giving the text a new level of interpretation.
    As a theory of knowledge, the deconstruction of the text, have then shown us the shallowness of our cultures heirarcies of values. Also it gives us the opportunity to find the beauty in what others would call shallow, narcissistic etc.

    Al in all the deconstruction of a text, is a way of reading the text 'on the edge' of the text. It gives life to what is not in focus or marginalised, thereby turning the text upside down.
    We cannot destroy the text, as this would imply us being outside the text, which is an illusion. When we read we are in the text, and nothing is outside the text. Therefore it is not about destroying the text, but about how we can let go of the idea of ONE correct answer.
    Furthermore, we are not looking for a text behind the text, or a hidden meaning. The point is that it is all there. The notion of a hidden meaning would imply us being able to step out of the text, and remove the 'top layer', but this is again an illusion. What we are looking for isn't hidden, it is just marginalised and suppressed.

    Again the point is that there is no single interpretation of a text, there are a multitude of different themes and interpretations which all can be found in the text, and can lead us to realising our own prejudice and in a greater perspective, our cultures prejudice.

    You could say that there is a connection to other reading methods. The main difference is that other readings suppress meaning as well. Deconstruction is the only one, which acknowledge that it is suppressing. We know we do this, and we have to do this, as texts are heteronomous. They are incoherent as a whole, but deconstruction lest us see how we as readers (culture) violates the text to make it coherent and a whole.

    -tZar
     
  8. silverseason

    silverseason New Member

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    I'm not sure that it is the only method which acknowledges the suppression of meaning. The best critics have always done that nor have they insisted on one answer. The word answer itself implies the exiistence of a question. Maybe there is no question. Maybe the poem may not mean but be.

    Nor is all meaning hidden or suppressed, some is just not obvious or not easy to understand. Can you read Shakespeare intelligibly with no knowledge or his times and the theater of his times? The refusal to look outside the text for whatever our other knowledge might contribute may be ideologically pure but is not a service to the reader.
     
  9. Peder

    Peder Well-Known Member

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    We will either expose our hierarchy of values and prejudices, or perhaps the critic may be exposing his/hers?
     
  10. pontalba

    pontalba Well-Known Member

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    Now that would expose the prejudices or at least preconceived notions of the critic, but also the reader of the criticism, yes?
    The author writes the words with one or more intention, the reader has their own ideas about that intention, the critic has his, but when the reader reads the critics pov, it adds one more lens through which to either distort or clarify the author's words.

    phew!
     
  11. bookworm fellow

    bookworm fellow Member

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    Very interesting post tZar, I'd like to ask you about something concerning this subject. As you said,

    So, as far as I can understand, the text is not self-sufficient in content because its meaning must be complemented with the reader's values. The values you exposed in your example (pride – modesty; wealth – poverty; tasteless water – tea; etc) are inserted in a hierarchy that is not real because the positions of each one of these values in this hierarchy will depend on the reader's values.

    See, I studied a little Sociology in my first year at the Law university. So I'd say that any text may be interpreted according to the reader's socialization. Socialization is a values assimilating process that every human being faces since the day he/she is born. When we were young children, we learned to eat using a fork and a knife; other cultures, for example the Japanese, teaches their children that the right thing is to eat with those small sticks; in the Occident we say a woman must be skinny to be attractive, but in some far islands of Oceania attractive women are supposed to be larger. In other words, a given value (eat with knife and fork – eat with small sticks; skinny woman – larger woman) is placed as good or bad in the values hierarchy according to the current cultural configuration or socialization processes in a society.

    So–correct if I'm wrong–,the different Christian religions (Catholicism, Protestantism, etc) may be explained by the fact that the Holly Bible–a non self-sufficient text as any other text, according to this deconstruction theory–was interpreted differently by each people due to its different culture and values. What you think about it?
     
  12. Peder

    Peder Well-Known Member

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    This is rapidly going over my head, so I'll be satisfied that the answer to my orignal question is apparently "no" and say 'thank you' for it. Much appreciated. :)
     
  13. gonewiththewind

    gonewiththewind Member

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    This seems to be a complex way of saying that we each bring what we are (who we are - the things and events that shaped us to the thing we are) to each thing we read whether it is a story, novel, newspaper article or poem, etc. It further says that there are as many interpretations to each written thing as there number of people on the planet at any givin time. It would seem that "deconstructing" is another form of beating a dead horse. An excercise in futility in that even what we say is an interpretation has many interpretations. Not sure I really understand the point of it unless the whole thing is to keep an open mind...
     
  14. Peder

    Peder Well-Known Member

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    If the end result of deconstruction depends on the background of the deconstructor then what you say seems absolutely so.
    On the other hand, if the end result of deconstruction is supposed to be the same no matter who does the deconstructing, then that is entirely different, and would seem to give the deconstructed product some kind of universal legitimacy as a property of the text and not of the deconstructor.
    I've never seen those two possibilities addressed, but then again it is not my field and I haven't seen much addressed anyway.
     
  15. gonewiththewind

    gonewiththewind Member

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    How about it tzar? Or any others of you who may be more versed on deconstructing than I am (it would not take a lot to be more versed than I). Does the perspective of the "deconstructor" enter into the end result or is deconstruction a product of the text itself and has "universal legitimacy"? Interesting point Peder. I really have never learned about deconstruction so this is all new to me and interesting. A new way to look at literature. I was aware, of course, of looking at the hidden meaning behind stories like Animal Farm and the politics behind the story. But taking the actual words apart and analysing them for meaning as opposed to the use of themes as motivations is something I have never done. I guess you would have to know a lot about linguistics? hmmmmm......
     
  16. Peder

    Peder Well-Known Member

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    GWTW, Many thanks for your comment; I wan't sure if my convoluted phrasing would be understandable -- or any more understandable than deconstruction itself. I have taken the liberty of bolding a phrase of yours because it uses the words 'hidden meaning' in about the same way of ordinary English that I also used them.

    It seems, however, that the deconstructionsists would say, and did say above, no not 'hidden' just 'not obvious.' To me the semantic difference, if any, is minimal, but I think it does illustrate that, when talking about deconstruction, a more specialized set of meanings is attached to words than their usual meanings, which makes the conversation difficult to follow for those of us who are not in the know.

    Any difficult field needs its own 'specialized' or 'technical' vocabulary to talk with clarity and precision about the objects under discussion, but that doesn't make it any easier for the uninitiated among us to follow the discussion. And that's where I fog out. End of slight tangent. And an implicit plea for clarity.
     
  17. tZar

    tZar New Member

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    First of all - sorry for the rather long break. I have been busy and a lot of other lame excuses...

    I will try to answer some question which have been posted in the following messages.

    NO - These hierarchies are not dependant on the reader. We can by reading the text determine which things are valued higher then others. The text shows us what it thinks about pride, as opposed to modesty. It is the texts values we are looking at. In the end the text will show values and hierarchies, which mirrors the culture in which it was written!
    Reading older texts we will notice that these hierarchies have not changed much over time - and again others have changed a lot...

    NO - when we put our own answers (values) into the 'empty spaces' in the text. That means that whenever the text is not telling us EVERYTHING we ourselves fill in the blanks. This is closely related to Eco's literary theory and the new reader response theory. We could have a dialogue on those later.
    So it is not according to a theory of deconstruction, but your point is valid, and could be explained, or backed up by other theories...


    -tZar
     
  18. tZar

    tZar New Member

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    Again no, it is not saying that we bring all this into the text. It is about revealing the text for what it is - a cultural thing, with no absolute TRUTH. It is about what we can get OUT of the text, not what we put INTO the text. The text is not really interested in our biases, but we can reveal our own biases by discovering them in other peoples texts, and we can reveal the bias of the author and on a larger scale the culture in which the text was written.

    -tZar
     
  19. Peder

    Peder Well-Known Member

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    Ah, it rears its head! 'Reader response theory,' my favorite theory -- so far.
     
  20. tZar

    tZar New Member

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    First of all: It does not have a universal legitimacy - but not for the reasons you mention - it has to do with a philosophical point, that there is no absolute truth, whereby it follows that you cannot achieve that.

    Secondly: It does get a bit complicated, as the answer to the question: "Does the perspective of the "deconstructor" enter into the end result?"
    YES, it does. Because I cannot FULLY read the text, so my abilities does come into account when trying to deconstruct something. I have limits - the text does not!
    NO, it does not. As I as a deconstructor does not bring anything into the text which is not already there. It is not a method to put into the text your own perspectives on life, culture, society, religion, etc.. It is a way of revealing the texts positive perspectives on that - and then reveal that an opposing positive perspective is also within the text, thereby making the the first perspective relative. Showing that the text contradicts itself.
    But all these aspects must be within the text, and cannot be legitimised if I as a reader contributes them to the text, based on my experience, belief etc.
     

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