Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Derrida and the Ethics of Reading

  • Peter Pericles Trifonas
  • Susan Jagger
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_29



Jacques Derrida attacks the claim that writing is a progressive extenuation of presence. This notion of presence is derived from a classical, metaphysical necessity, a logocentric ideal, and it is this idea of a stable presence in communication that Derrida deconstructs. Indeed, logocentrism and exclusively verbal communication are argued against in edusemiotics. Derrida refers to how writing is assumed to be a means of communication extending the possibilities of locutionary and gestural communication. The issues concerning the hierarchy of speech over writing play a major part in Derrida’s writing. This entry outlines the movement away from Saussure’s structuralism and toward difference and arbitrariness to unveil a greater uncertainty and undecidability in language and subject through the notion of trace as all signs bear the traces of other signs from which they are differentiated so that be meaningful. The idea of the trace points toward a kind of ambiguity and uncertainty in the origin of meaning as the production of difference. The text becomes a chain of signs. By tracing and exploring Derrida’s idea of difference and différance in a dialogue with his important texts, the entry engages the parameters of how an overall sense of ambiguity, arbitrariness, a definite uncertainty, or undecidability is intrinsic, even necessary, for language to function as an ethics of reading and textuality. This uncertainty strikes at the heart of logocentric Western metaphysics and enables Derrida to ground deconstruction in relation to the exclusion of writing in the history of philosophy and a new ethics of reading so important for education.

Table 1

Derrida intimates on deconstruction as a possible offspring of structuralism at the end of his famous lecture at Yale University, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966). What is it that play does to the sign that is evident in the semiotics of signification: the structural necessity of its repeatability, or reiteration, beyond a single, unitary point of expression. The broader and more radical conceptualization that encompasses every kind of expression, communication, and coding (phonic, graphic, artistic) leading to a poststructural ethic of reading “can be called gram or différance” (Derrida 1981, p. 26). A sign can signify only through the force of repetition, the consequences of différance rendering signs relational rather than being a priori identical entities, and bringing indication in line with expression to undo the Husserlian idea of a “pre-expressive intentionality” of pure consciousness and the reading of signs. The subject thus is decentered as brought out of the shell of self-centered Cartesian Cogito. The Other is effaced to the point where an inner monologue with one’s “Self” is not really an instance of transmissibility, but the self-deceptive verification of the desire for auto-affection or an attempt at the reduction of différance. In order to ascertain the existence of itself and read the empiricism of consciousness, a subject must refer outside of itself to the world of signs using the resources of what does not begin within itself, therefore striving to refrain from obliterating itself just as it seems to have authenticated the uniqueness of its (own) existence. It is this relational aspect that brings an ethical grounding of reading the signs of the other in différance by referring to the constitutive function of the sign trace of the Other in reading the Other: the deferring difference between presence and repetition, self and nonself, reveals itself as uncertainty and ambiguity at the proliferative core of identity.

Returning to the text of the lecture, Derrida suggests that différance is, or can stand for, “the juncture – rather than the summation – of what has been most decisively inscribed in the thought of what is conveniently called our ‘epoch’” (Derrida 1973, p. 130). A poststructural age of the irreducible play of the sign marks the delimitation of onto-theology, the decline of the inherited metaphysics of presence (phono-logocentrism), and the possibility of an ethical opening of the subject toward the difference of the Other. But we must remember, however, the role of tradition in the formation of new thought. The following philosophical notions are given by Derrida as examples of difference that led to différance: “the difference of forces in Nietzsche, Saussure’s principle of semiological difference, differing as the possibility of [neuron] facilitation, impression and delayed effect in Freud, difference as the irreducibility of the trace of the other in Levinas, and the ontic-ontological difference in Heidegger” (Derrida 1973, p. 130). All of these individuals have no doubt figured greatly in the elaboration of the working of deconstruction, but more importantly the list displays the “discoveries” or “inventions” of varying fields from the history of philosophy to theology, linguistics, and psychoanalysis, that have changed or altered perceptions of the ethics according to Western metaphysics, the cognizing subject, and pedagogy in their refusal to be subdued or dominated by the dizzying substitutions of master signs within its self-enclosed system of truth and meaning. As such, différance is not only “irreducible to every ontological or theological – onto-theological – reappropriation, but it opens up the very space in which onto-theology – philosophy – produces its system and its history. It thus encompasses and irrevocably surpasses onto-theology and philosophy” (Derrida 1973, p. 135) and, importantly, elicits a new ethics of reading the signs of the other. The alogicality of its structure also prevents an afore-planned linearity within the reading of the writing of signs, for example, the ordering of a “reason” of strategy or of finality of purpose, a tacticality toward teleology, “philosophical-logical discourse” (Derrida 1973, p. 135), and its symmetrical opposite, “logico-empirical speech” (1973, p. 135). The alternative to these more or less traditional discourses of epistemological fortitude and the basis of a theory of reading and the Other is the semiotics of the play of difference as différance.

Indeed, the pragmatological plane of philosophy, the reading of the signs of the Other and its constitution, is of keen interest to Derrida especially in relation to the problem of the ethics of reading stemming from deconstruction and the reconfiguration of writing. “What links writing to violence?” (Derrida 1974, p. 101): it is the radical materiality or exteriority of the sign (that as such partakes of the radical rationality of edusemiotics). In its expansion or reduction, writing is the stuff of violence itself, but so is the reading of signs. Language is customarily an oriented structuring, a principal manifestation of hierarchization that ranks, classifies, and separates according to a system of differences or polarities by the subjective placing of value to objectify entities according to binary coding. Writing is a deconstructive metaphor for violence performed in reading. This dyad is a hermeneutic expression of supplementarity for the attribution of cultural value that creates hierarchies perpetuating all forms of social inequality or reinforcing situations of power and domination. Writing is the means for a system of representation that makes the attempt at the community of speech and logocentric communication impossible for the reason of the ordering of “the space of its possibility, the violence of the arche-writing, [and] the violence of difference” (Derrida 1974, p. 110). The desire to escape violence and repression of meaning by examining the edusemiotic dimension of reading is to endeavor to think the unthinkable outside of the sign of writing. For what comes before language and representation, speech and phenomena are always already unreachable. It is a hermeneutical violence that permits the only ethical possibility of deconstruction as the recognition of différance.

As such, the “text” and “textuality” of writing is a chaining of signs, not simply sign functions standing in for a cultural center of mediated meaning but “everywhere, differences and traces of traces” (Derrida 1981, p. 26), within which the gram would come to be the most general sign and semiology would be therefore reconstituted as grammatology and a new ethics of reading.

It is as différance that the grammatological transformation of semiology takes place via deconstruction. But, there are some crucial sticking points: on the basis of the above function, différance is incompatible “with the static, synchronic, taxonomic, ahistorical motifs in the concept of structure” (Derrida 1981, p. 27), and yet, contrastingly, it is not “astructural” because the “systematic and regulated transformations” (p. 28) in the specificity of its general workings are able to develop “the most legitimate principled exigencies of ‘structuralism’” (p. 27). It cannot be said that some “present and in-different being” (Derrida 1981, p. 28) in any shape or form “precedes différance or spacing” (Derrida 1981, p. 28), for example, a subject “who would be the agent, author, and master of différance” (Derrida 1981, p. 28), or upon whom différance would impose itself. To Derrida, “Subjectivity – like objectivity – is an effect of différance, an effect inscribed within a system of différance” (Derrida 1981, p. 28).

The grammatological reconstitution of Saussure’s semiology enables the rethinking of reading and draws attention to the historicity of the deferred traces of writing the difference of the Other. Deconstruction contends for an ethics of reading that is beyond the cognitive limits of the teleological trajectory of the subject of metaphysics. “How do we conceive of the outside of a text?” (Derrida 1973, p. 158). We can reply to this essentially unanswerable question with another: how do we conceive of the inside of a text? And to some extent, the thinking of différance broaches an impossible answer to the radical opening of the ethics of both of these aporias of reading and writing all along.

Derrida asserts that if the signifier is uncoupled from the signified and the word is released from its precise definition or a preexistent concept, the signifier would move freely while the signified becomes yet another signifier. Any attempt at mapping discourse to a preceding codified framework of interpretive intensions and extensions represents an act of power. The poststructuralist dissemination of meaning, its splitting open, undermines the fundamental hermeneutics of semiological assumptions.

First, dispersal considers the linguistic determination of a sign value in relation to, and in difference from, other signs. However, when the production of meaning is traced in this way, the act of interpretation presents itself only through recourse to yet another series of signs, each again defined by its relation to, and difference from, existing and generated signs. This chain of attempts to make meaning of the writing of signs continues indefinitely through reading; thus, a teleological end or precise definition is never reached. Meaning is never fixed outside of its relation to the process of sign production within a written text or spoken discourse. It is always uncertain while remaining determined in the textual concatenation of signifiers and the deferral of meaning from the repetition and difference of signs.

Second, deferral of meaning relates closely to dispersal. Following the chain of dispersed meaning through the production of signs composed of words and semantic units of sense and so on defers interpretive teleology in semiotic multiplicity. It is not until a representational endpoint of reading is reached that the possibilities of meaning in signification can be adduced. The deferral of meaning then is infinite because there is always a wait for prerequisite meanings. And so, meaning is both dispersed along endless chains of signifiers and deferred until the ends of these chains are reached and open up the possibility of interpretation. Meaning then is forever caught within the infinite play between signifiers.

Derrida’s arguments for dispersal and deferral make it impossible for a definitive meaning to be reached with certainty. The meaning of a signifier, the signified, is always referred to its prior usage in previous discourses, and this meaning is always deferred. It is therefore not feasible to speak of a transcendental signified or transcendental semantic meaning as meaning is not centered or fixed but, as Derrida (1974) reminds us, is caught up in a play of relations and difference between signifiers and signifieds. It is this denial of a fixed center that ultimately undermines meaning in a structural sense and gives rise to the term poststructuralism. Meaning is never present but comes from what the sign is not, from what is absent, and from relations to other signs. Present too exists in relation to the past and to the future: thus paradoxically stays present in its absence. The subject too is not present but is a consequence of language via this fluid and undecidable play that is the power of différance. Différance reflects Derrida’s arguments of dispersal and deferral as it encompasses both the meanings of to differ and to defer allowing for deconstruction to work. Deconstruction provides a way of reading texts and discourses that allows for themes and assumptions which appear to be “at war” with each other to be realized and recognized; it “liberates the repressed contradictions always already present within the constitution of the texts on the subject referred to, using the selected terms of their expressions and expressivity to interrogate” (Trifonas 2000, p. 274). Derrida notes that within traditional philosophy, binary oppositions (e.g., culture and nature, man and woman, etc.) are situated within “a violent hierarchy. One of the terms dominates the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), occupies the commanding position. To deconstruct the opposition is above all, at a particular moment, to reverse the hierarchy” (Derrida 2004, p. 39). Derrida asserts that deconstruction “must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system” (Derrida 1982, p. 329). This action of deconstruction within discourse identifies the operations in the text that form arguments, concepts, or premises, in turn illuminating how hierarchical oppositions as well as stable philosophical foundations can undermine themselves.

By carefully opening texts and discourses to release the voice of the Other and freeing meanings from rigid and unquestioned boundaries of Western metaphysics, deconstruction also becomes, importantly, an ethical action. It requires a close and mindful understanding and also a respect for the subtleties of the text or discourse:

To “deconstruct” philosophy, thus, would be to think – in the most faithful, interior way – the structured genealogy of philosophy’s concepts, but at the same time to determine – from a certain exterior that is unqualifiable or unnameable by philosophy –what this history has been able to dissimulate or forbid, making itself into a history by means of this somewhere motivated repression (Derrida 2004, p. 5).

Deconstruction makes possible the opening of an inclusive space “without barriers or boundaries, though not without obligation and the danger of failure” (Trifonas 2000, p. 279). It does not take down the existing structure of a text or discourse but rather locates within it a more neutral site from which to question and reverse oppositions:

. . . it is [this] non-ground between presence and absence [that] deconstruction breaks-into, slowly making it possible to imaginatively empathize or ‘fill-up’ the openness of the abyss of this excluded space, the space of the writing/teaching of the Other, to re-approach the responsibility of the horizon of inter-subjective violence, and the teleologicality of the cultural politics of the sign (Trifonas 2000, p. 276).

Deconstruction refuses to anchor epistemology in any authoritative foundation, and it does not propose a “better” theory of truth but instead allows for the illumination of those impasses that surface in our attempts to reveal truth. As a way of reading and writing and of analysis and criticism, deconstruction focuses its critique upon the text. It does so not by attempting to escape the metaphysics of language but by highlighting and subverting its very character (Peters and Trifonas 2005). Deconstruction fills the void where “‘a change of style’ is needed, one that will ‘speak several languages and produce several texts at once’” (Peters and Trifonas 2005, p. 6). Thus, it is not possible to reduce deconstruction to a method that is distinct from the political and institutional; it always interrogates the structures and discourses upon which it stands. Because of this, deconstruction holds destabilization as a central theme. Deconstruction “signifies not the demolition of what is constructing itself, but rather what remains to be thought beyond the constructivist or deconstructionist scheme” (Derrida 1988, p. 147). Deconstruction, though, does not lead to indeterminacy but rather undecidability as “always a determinate oscillation between possibilities . . . These possibilities are themselves highly determined in strictly defined situations” (Derrida 1988, p. 148). For Derrida, undecidability allows for the examination of relations, differences of force made possible by play, nonidentity, and différance. Indecision exists “between determined (semantic, ethical, political) poles, which are upon occasion terribly necessary and always irreplaceably singular” (Derrida 1988, p. 148); for this reason, deconstruction must not result in extreme relativism or any indeterminacy. It displays a subtle radical, even if paradoxical, rationality – such as the one displayed by edusemiotics (Semetsky 2013; Stables and Semetsky 2015) as the educational theory inseparable from the ethical practice of reading signs that suspend the presupposed centrality of the a priori conscious and certain of itself subject and defy logocentrism.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Curriculum, Teaching, and LearningOntario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, OISE/UTTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Ryerson UniversityTorontoCanada