What are binary oppositions and how are they important to deconstruction


For example, in an entire chapter of his Course in General Linguistics , Ferdinand de Saussure tries to restrict the science of linguistics to the phonetic and audible word only In the course of his inquiry, Saussure goes as far as to argue that "language and writing are two distinct systems of signs: Language, Saussure insists, has an oral tradition that is independent of writing, and it is this independence that makes a pure science of speech possible.

Derrida vehemently disagrees with this hierarchy and instead argues that all that can be claimed of writing - eg. But as well as criticising such a position for certain unjustifiable presuppositions, including the idea that we are self-identical with ourselves in 'hearing' ourselves think, Derrida also makes explicit the manner in which such a hierarchy is rendered untenable from within Saussure's own text.

Most famously, Saussure is the proponent of the thesis that is commonly referred to as "the arbitrariness of the sign", and this asserts, to simplify matters considerably, that the signifier bears no necessary relationship to that which is signified. Saussure derives numerous consequences from this position, but as Derrida points out, this notion of arbitrariness and of "unmotivated institutions" of signs, would seem to deny the possibility of any natural attachment OG After all, if the sign is arbitrary and eschews any foundational reference to reality, it would seem that a certain type of sign ie.

However, it is precisely this idea of a natural attachment that Saussure relies upon to argue for our "natural bond" with sound 25 , and his suggestion that sounds are more intimately related to our thoughts than the written word hence runs counter to his fundamental principle regarding the arbitrariness of the sign.

In Of Grammatology and elsewhere, Derrida argues that signification, broadly conceived, always refers to other signs, and that one can never reach a sign that refers only to itself. He suggests that "writing is not a sign of a sign, except if one says it of all signs, which would be more profoundly true" OG 43 , and this process of infinite referral, of never arriving at meaning itself, is the notion of 'writing' that he wants to emphasise.

This is not writing narrowly conceived, as in a literal inscription upon a page, but what he terms 'arche-writing'. Arche-writing refers to a more generalised notion of writing that insists that the breach that the written introduces between what is intended to be conveyed and what is actually conveyed, is typical of an originary breach that afflicts everything one might wish to keep sacrosanct, including the notion of self-presence.

This originary breach that arche-writing refers to can be separated out to reveal two claims regarding spatial differing and temporal deferring. To explicate the first of these claims, Derrida's emphasis upon how writing differs from itself is simply to suggest that writing, and by extension all repetition, is split differed by the absence that makes it necessary.

One example of this might be that we write something down because we may soon forget it, or to communicate something to someone who is not with us. According to Derrida, all writing, in order to be what it is, must be able to function in the absence of every empirically determined addressee M Derrida also considers deferral to be typical of the written and this is to reinforce that the meaning of a certain text is never present, never entirely captured by a critic's attempt to pin it down.

The meaning of a text is constantly subject to the whims of the future, but when that so-called future is itself 'present' if we try and circumscribe the future by reference to a specific date or event its meaning is equally not realised, but subject to yet another future that can also never be present.

The key to a text is never even present to the author themselves, for the written always defers its meaning. As a consequence we cannot simply ask Derrida to explain exactly what he meant by propounding that enigmatic sentiment that has been translated as "there is nothing outside of the text" OG Any explanatory words that Derrida may offer would themselves require further explanation.

So, Derrida's more generalised notion of writing, arche-writing, refers to the way in which the written is possible only on account of this 'originary' deferral of meaning that ensures that meaning can never be definitively present. In conjunction with the differing aspect that we have already seen him associate with, and then extend beyond the traditional confines of writing, he will come to describe these two overlapping processes via that most famous of neologisms: This problematises efforts like Saussure's, which as well as attempting to keep speech and writing apart, also suggest that writing is an almost unnecessary addition to speech.

If the spoken word requires the written to function properly, then the spoken is itself always at a distance from any supposed clarity of consciousness. The widespread conviction that the sign literally represents something, which even if not actually present, could be potentially present, is rendered impossible by arche-writing, which insists that signs always refer to yet more signs ad infinitum , and that there is no ultimate referent or foundation.

This reversal of the subordinated term of an opposition accomplishes the first of deconstruction's dual strategic intents. Rather than being criticised for being derivative or secondary, for Derrida, writing, or at least the processes that characterise writing ie. Just as a piece of writing has no self-present subject to explain what every particular word means and this ensures that what is written must partly elude any individual's attempt to control it , this is equally typical of the spoken.

Utilising the same structure of repetition, nothing guarantees that another person will endow the words I use with the particular meaning that I attribute to them. Even the conception of an internal monologue and the idea that we can intimately 'hear' our own thoughts in a non-contingent way is misguided, as it ignores the way that arche-writing privileges difference and a non-coincidence with oneself SP In this respect, it needs to be pointed out that all of deconstruction's reversals arche-writing included are partly captured by the edifice that they seek to overthrow.

For Derrida, "one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it" OG 24 , and it is important to recognise that the mere reversal of an existing metaphysical opposition might not also challenge the governing framework and presuppositions that are attempting to be reversed WD Deconstruction hence cannot rest content with merely prioritising writing over speech, but must also accomplish the second major aspect of deconstruction's dual strategies, that being to corrupt and contaminate the opposition itself.

Derrida must highlight that the categories that sustain and safeguard any dualism are always already disrupted and displaced. To effect this second aspect of deconstruction's strategic intents, Derrida usually coins a new term, or reworks an old one, to permanently disrupt the structure into which he has intervened - examples of this include his discussion of the pharmakon in Plato drug or tincture, salutary or maleficent , and the supplement in Rousseau, which will be considered towards the end of this section.

To phrase the problem in slightly different terms, Derrida's argument is that in examining a binary opposition, deconstruction manages to expose a trace. This is not a trace of the oppositions that have since been deconstructed - on the contrary, the trace is a rupture within metaphysics, a pattern of incongruities where the metaphysical rubs up against the non-metaphysical, that it is deconstruction's job to juxtapose as best as it can.

The trace does not appear as such OG 65 , but the logic of its path in a text can be mimed by a deconstructive intervention and hence brought to the fore. The logic of the supplement is also an important aspect of Of Grammatology. Writing is itself an example of this structure, for as Derrida points out, "if supplementarity is a necessarily indefinite process, writing is the supplement par excellence since it proposes itself as the supplement of the supplement, sign of a sign, taking the place of a speech already significant" OG Another example of the supplement might be masturbation, as Derrida suggests OG , or even the use of birth control precautions.

What is notable about both of these examples is an ambiguity that ensures that what is supplementary can always be interpreted in two ways. For example, our society's use of birth control precautions might be interpreted as suggesting that our natural way is lacking and that the contraceptive pill, or condom, etc.

On the other hand, it might also be argued that such precautions merely add on to, and enrich our natural way.

It is always ambiguous, or more accurately 'undecidable', whether the supplement adds itself and "is a plenitude enriching another plenitude, the fullest measure of presence", or whether "the supplement supplements… adds only to replace… represents and makes an image… its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness" OG Ultimately, Derrida suggests that the supplement is both of these things, accretion and substitution OG , which means that the supplement is "not a signified more than a signifier, a representer than a presence, a writing than a speech" OG It comes before all such modalities.

This is not just some rhetorical suggestion that has no concrete significance in deconstruction. Indeed, while Rousseau consistently laments the frequency of his masturbation in his book, The Confessions , Derrida argues that "it has never been possible to desire the presence 'in person', before this play of substitution and the symbolic experience of auto-affection" OG By this, Derrida means that this supplementary masturbation that 'plays' between presence and absence eg.

In a sense, masturbation is 'originary', and according to Derrida, this situation applies to all sexual relations. All erotic relations have their own supplementary aspect in which we are never present to some ephemeral 'meaning' of sexual relations, but always involved in some form of representation.

Even if this does not literally take the form of imagining another in the place of, or supplementing the 'presence' that is currently with us, and even if we are not always acting out a certain role, or faking certain pleasures, for Derrida, such representations and images are the very conditions of desire and of enjoyment OG Despite this complexity, two main aspects of Derrida's thinking regarding phenomenology remain clear.

Firstly, he thinks that the phenomenological emphasis upon the immediacy of experience is the new transcendental illusion, and secondly, he argues that despite its best intents, phenomenology cannot be anything other than a metaphysics SP 75, In this context, Derrida defines metaphysics as the science of presence, as for him as for Heidegger , all metaphysics privileges presence, or that which is. While they are presented schematically here, these inter-related claims constitute Derrida's major arguments against phenomenology.

According to Derrida, phenomenology is a metaphysics of presence because it unwittingly relies upon the notion of an indivisible self-presence, or in the case of Husserl, the possibility of an exact internal adequation with oneself SP In various texts, Derrida contests this valorisation of an undivided subjectivity, as well as the primacy that such a position accords to the 'now', or to some other kind of temporal immediacy.

For instance, in Speech and Phenomena , Derrida argues that if a 'now' moment is conceived of as exhausting itself in that experience, it could not actually be experienced, for there would be nothing to juxtapose itself against in order to illuminate that very 'now'. Phenomenology is hence envisaged as nostalgically seeking the impossible: Following this refutation of Husserlian temporality, Derrida remarks that "in the last analysis, what is at stake is Instead of emphasising the presence of a subject to themselves ie.

John Caputo expresses Derrida's point succinctly when he claims that Derrida's criticisms of Husserlian temporality in Speech and Phenomena involve an attempt to convey that: Every time you try to stabilise the meaning of a thing, try to fix it in its missionary position, the thing itself, if there is anything at all to it, slips away" cf. SP , Caputo DN To put Derrida's point simplistically, it might be suggested that the meaning of a particular object, or a particular word, is never stable, but always in the process of change eg.

Moreover, the significance of that past change can only be appreciated from the future and, of course, that 'future' is itself implicated in a similar process of transformation were it ever to be capable of becoming 'present'.

The future that Derrida is referring to is hence not just a future that will become present, but the future that makes all 'presence' possible and also impossible. For Derrida, there can be no presence-to-self, or self-contained identity, because the 'nature' of our temporal existence is for this type of experience to elude us. Our predominant mode of being is what he will eventually term the messianic see Section 6 , in that experience is about the wait, or more aptly, experience is only when it is deferred.

Derrida's work offers many important temporal contributions of this quasi-transcendental variety. In its first and most famous instantiation, undecidability is one of Derrida's most important attempts to trouble dualisms, or more accurately, to reveal how they are always already troubled. An undecidable, and there are many of them in deconstruction eg. For example, the figure of a ghost seems to neither present or absent, or alternatively it is both present and absent at the same time SM.

However, Derrida has a recurring tendency to resuscitate terms in different contexts, and the term undecidability also returns in later deconstruction. Indeed, to complicate matters, undecidability returns in two discernible forms. In his recent work, Derrida often insists that the condition of the possibility of mourning, giving, forgiving, and hospitality, to cite some of his most famous examples, is at once also the condition of their impossibility see section 7.

In his explorations of these "possible-impossible" aporias, it becomes undecidable whether genuine giving, for example, is either a possible or an impossible ideal. Derrida's later philosophy is also united by his analysis of a similar type of undecidability that is involved in the concept of the decision itself. In this respect, Derrida regularly suggests that a decision cannot be wise, or posed even more provocatively, that the instant of the decision must actually be mad DPJ 26, GD Drawing on Kierkegaard, Derrida tells us that a decision requires an undecidable leap beyond all prior preparations for that decision GD 77 , and according to him, this applies to all decisions and not just those regarding the conversion to religious faith that preoccupies Kierkegaard.

To pose the problem in inverse fashion, it might be suggested that for Derrida, all decisions are a faith and a tenuous faith at that, since were faith and the decision not tenuous, they would cease to be a faith or a decision at all cf.

This description of the decision as a moment of madness that must move beyond rationality and calculative reasoning may seem paradoxical, but it might nevertheless be agreed that a decision requires a 'leap of faith' beyond the sum total of the facts.

A theory of the subject is incapable of accounting for the slightest decision PF , because, as he rhetorically asks, "would we not be justified in seeing here the unfolding of an egological immanence, the autonomic and automatic deployment of predicates or possibilities proper to a subject, without the tearing rupture that should occur in every decision we call free?

In other words, if a decision is envisaged as simply following from certain character attributes, then it would not genuinely be a decision.

Derrida is hence once more insisting upon the necessity of a leap beyond calculative reasoning, and beyond the resources of some self-contained subject reflecting upon the matter at hand. A decision must invoke that which is outside of the subject's control. If a decision is an example of a concept that is simultaneously impossible within its own internal logic and yet nevertheless necessary, then not only is our reticence to decide rendered philosophically cogent, but it is perhaps even privileged.

Moreover, in his early essay "Violence and Metaphysics", Derrida also suggests that a successful deconstructive reading is conditional upon the suspension of choice: The problem of undecidability is also evident in more recent texts including The Gift of Death.

In this text, Derrida seems to support the sacrificing of a certain notion of ethics and universality for a conception of radical singularity not unlike that evinced by the "hyper-ethical" sacrifice that Abraham makes of his son upon Mt Moriah, according to both the Judaic and Christian religions alike GD To represent Derrida's position more precisely, true responsibility consists in oscillating between the demands of that which is wholly other in Abraham's case, God, but also any particular other and the more general demands of a community see Section 6.

Responsibility is enduring this trial of the undecidable decision, where attending to the call of a particular other will inevitably demand an estrangement from the "other others" and their communal needs. Whatever decision one may take, according to Derrida, it can never be wholly justified GD Of course, Derrida's emphasis upon the undecidability inherent in all decision-making does not want to convey inactivity or a quietism of despair, and he has insisted that the madness of the decision also demands urgency and precipitation DPJ Nevertheless, what is undergone is described as the "trial of undecidability" LI and what is involved in enduring this trial would seem to be a relatively anguished being.

In an interview with Richard Beardsworth, Derrida characterises the problem of undecidability as follows: Otherwise, there is no responsibility. In this sense not only must the person taking the decision not know everything This suggestion that the decision cannot anticipate the future is undoubtedly somewhat counter-intuitive, but Derrida's rejection of anticipation is not only a rejection of the traditional idea of deciding on the basis of weighing-up and internally representing certain options.

By suggesting that anticipation is not possible, he means to make the more general point that no matter how we may anticipate any decision must always rupture those anticipatory frameworks. A decision must be fundamentally different from any prior preparations for it. As Derrida suggests in Politics of Friendship , the decision must "surprise the very subjectivity of the subject" PF 68 , and it is in making this leap away from calculative reasoning that Derrida argues that responsibility consists PF Perhaps the most obvious aspect of Derrida's later philosophy is his advocation of the tout autre , the wholly other, and The Gift of Death will be our main focus in explaining what this exaltation of the wholly other might mean.

Any attempt to sum up this short but difficult text would have to involve the recognition of a certain incommensurability between the particular and the universal, and the dual demands placed upon anybody intending to behave responsibly.

For Derrida, the paradox of responsible behaviour means that there is always a question of being responsible before a singular other eg. Derrida insists that this type of aporia, or problem, is too often ignored by the "knights of responsibility" who presume that accountability and responsibility in all aspects of life - whether that be guilt before the human law, or even before the divine will of God - is quite easily established GD These are the same people who insist that concrete ethical guidelines should be provided by any philosopher worth his or her 'salt' GD 67 and who ignore the difficulties involved in a notion like responsibility, which demands something importantly different from merely behaving dutifully GD In places, Derrida even verges on suggesting that this more common notion of responsibility, which insists that one should behave according to a general principle that is capable of being rationally validated and justified in the public realm GD 60 , should be replaced with something closer to an Abrahamian individuality where the demands of a singular other eg.

God are importantly distinct from the ethical demands of our society GD 61, Derrida equivocates regarding just how far he wants to endorse such a conception of responsibility, and also on the entire issue of whether Abraham's willingness to murder is an act of faith, or simply an unforgivable transgression.

As he says, "Abraham is at the same time, the most moral and the most immoral, the most responsible and the most irresponsible" GD This equivocation is, of course, a defining trait of deconstruction, which has been variously pilloried and praised for this refusal to propound anything that the tradition could deem to be a thesis.

Nevertheless, it is relatively clear that in The Gift of Death , Derrida intends to free us from the common assumption that responsibility is to be associated with behaviour that accords with general principles capable of justification in the public realm ie. In opposition to such an account, he emphasises the "radical singularity" of the demands placed upon Abraham by God GD 60, 68, 79 and those that might be placed on us by our own loved ones.

Ethics, with its dependence upon generality, must be continually sacrificed as an inevitable aspect of the human condition and its aporetic demand to decide GD As Derrida points out, in writing about one particular cause rather than another, in pursuing one profession over another, in spending time with one's family rather than at work, one inevitably ignores the "other others" GD 69 , and this is a condition of any and every existence.

For Derrida, it seems that the Buddhist desire to have attachment to nobody and equal compassion for everybody is an unattainable ideal. He does, in fact, suggest that a universal community that excludes no one is a contradiction in terms.

According to him, this is because: And I can never justify this sacrifice; I must always hold my peace about it What binds me to this one or that one, remains finally unjustifiable" GD Derrida hence implies that responsibility to any particular individual is only possible by being irresponsible to the "other others", that is, to the other people and possibilities that haunt any and every existence.

This brings us to a term that Derrida has resuscitated from its association with Walter Benjamin and the Judaic tradition more generally. That term is the messianic and it relies upon a distinction with messianism.

According to Derrida, the term messianism refers predominantly to the religions of the Messiahs - ie. Derrida concludes that the signified concept is never present in itself in an adequate presence that would refer only to itself. To begin his critique, Derrida asks us to think of the "system" of language as a structure, within which there is only the freeplay [play] of differences between signifiers. To control this play to produce meaning, we would have to posit some origin or center to the structure that could serve as its organizing principle.

But this unique center would govern or control the play of difference only by virtue of the fact that the center itself was not structured, that it must somehow remain outside the structure of language and beyond the play of difference. One way of thinking of this center is through the terms "presence" and the "signified.

Drawing upon the work of Merleau-Ponty, Derrida enables us to note that our experience of reading often seems incomplete, as if the text intended to say something more but couldn't or the corollary experience that we are somehow inadequate interpreters. This is an experience of something in excess of the signifier the signifying , a feeling that the signified is surpassing the signifier.

But might this experience of excess, perceived in terms of gaps or silences in the text, be a function of the signifier or the play of language creating or revealing a lack in itself? The idea of this lack created by the signifier and the presence or supplementary meaning we tend to posit and to substitute to fill the lack as existing outside the system or play of signifiers is Derrida's point of attack and departure from Merleau-Ponty.

Presence is never present but always deferred. The experience that there is too much, more than one can say, is not due, argues Derrida, to the empirical impossibility of knowing language in its totality. Barbara Johnson, sounding like Derrida, puts it this way: Once deconstructed, literal and figurative can exchange properties, so that the prioritizing between them is erased. Who, then, depends on whom? Turn of the Screw Derrida argues that because words in their differential relations are detached from the world, there is no stable anchoring connection that fixes meaning in relation to some real absolute point of reference.

Binary opposition originated in Saussurean structuralist theory. It is not a contradictory relation but a structural, complementary one. Typically, one of the two opposites assumes a role of dominance over the other. The categorization of binary oppositions is "often value-laden and ethnocentric", with an illusory order and superficial meaning.

As an example, the concepts hero and villain involve secondary binaries: A classic example of a binary opposition is the presence-absence dichotomy. In much of Western thought, including structuralism , distinguishing between presence and absence, viewed as polar opposites, is a fundamental element of thought in many cultures.

In addition, according to post-structuralist criticisms, presence occupies a position of dominance in Western thought over absence , because absence is traditionally seen as what you get when you take away presence. Had absence been dominant, presence might have most naturally been seen as what you get when you take away an absence. For example, we give superiority to life rather than death. This might imply that readers might unconsciously take side with one concept of binary opposition, and Derrida traces this reaction as a cultural phenomenon.

An example of a binary opposition is the male-female dichotomy. A post-structuralist view is that male can be seen, according to traditional Western thought, as dominant over female because male is the presence of a phallus, while the vagina is an absence or loss. John Searle has suggested that the concept of binary oppositions—as taught and practiced by postmodernists and poststructuralist—is specious and lacking in rigor.

Post-structural criticism of binary oppositions is not simply the reversal of the opposition, but its deconstruction , which is described as apolitical—that is, not intrinsically favoring one arm of a binary opposition over the other. Deconstruction is the "event" or "moment" at which a binary opposition is thought to contradict itself, and undermine its own authority.

Deconstruction assumes that all binary oppositions need to be analyzed and criticized in all their manifestations; the function of both logical and axiological oppositions must be studied in all discourses that provide meaning and values.