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Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Michel Foucault (1926–1984) is one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century.  Plenty of information about his life and works is available on the internet. However, this write-up provides a simplified overview of his complex and yet extremely exciting ideas, which might help a beginner to start reading his dense texts.

( For his biography click here.  Two websites and are very useful. Stanford Encyclopedia entry is also useful. The documentary on his life is available online.)

Foucault who began his research in philosophy and psychopathology was intrigued by the phenomenon of madness in the western civilization. Though the west was familiar with the phenomenon of madness right from the Greek times and they were represented in the plays and other texts, the scientific and disciplinary study of the phenomenon begins only in the nineteenth century. However, before this process of objectification of mad people, the processes of their social exclusion and confinement began in the seventeenth century.

This historical observation has multiple implications:

1.0   What is considered to be universal, constant, essential and invariant like phenomenon of madness is actually historically variable one. It has not remained identical over time and it varies from culture to culture. It is actually historically discontinuous.

What was madness for the Greeks was not what madness was for the Elizabethans (famous examples of Lady Macbeth, Hamlet or King Lear comes to my mind) and it is no longer the same thing in the nineteenth century.

This implication applies to other cultural phenomenon or societal categories like ‘ literature’ ‘sexuality’ , ‘punishment’ ‘ author’ or even ‘ human body’ and ‘ man’  which are often considered invariable  and essential  ( ahistorical). Hence one of the gestures of Foucault is to demonstrate that these categories are historically variable across cultures and periods. Foucault goes on to analyze social mechanisms that brought about these shifts in meaning and functions of these categories.

Foucault’s classic essay ‘What is an Author?’ treats the whole category of ‘ author’ as a variable and constructed category whose function he goes on analyze. Apart from madness, Foucault maps these shifts and functions of other social categories like sexuality, punishment and governmentality.

1.1  This implies we need a different model for understanding history and practicing historiography.  In contrast to the linear model of history based on some idea of ‘ progress’ or ‘development’ which begins with some point of ‘origin’ and ends with ‘ contemporary’ point, we need a model of history which does not privilege the idea of origins , essences, identity and ‘ development’, in short a non-teleological model of history. Foucault turns to Nietzsche’s idea of ‘genealogy’ which underscores non-identity, discontinuity and is not based on the ideas of origin or progress. Foucault, like Nietzsche also emphasizes the role of writing history to impact the present times, i.e. the idea of “effective history”.  See his essay, "Nietzsche,Genealogy, History".  

Foucault’s treatment of the idea of author, madness or sexuality is hence, ‘genealogical’.

2.0  The emergence of the disciplines of knowledge like social sciences of psychiatry , linguistics, anthropology  and the reduction, subjugation, marginalization, domination of people as ‘ the object of study’, their ‘ othering’ (e.g colonialism)  are not two distinctive or divergent phenomenon but proverbially “ two sides of the same coin”. That is, both these phenomenon are produced by the same underlying social and historical mechanisms. Hence the task of a historian of ideas is to uncover these underlying social mechanisms or the epistemological grids, specific to the historical periods (Foucault calls such a grid ‘episteme’). Such an operation resembles structuralism. However, Foucault terms it ‘archeology of knowledge’.

The domain of knowledge and the domain of exercise of power are not seen as mutually exclusive. This brings us to the next great Nietzschean theme in Foucault’s writing of ‘Will to Truth’ being inseparable from ‘Will to Power’.  Foucault uses the term ‘discourse’ in a specialized sense to indicate a unified mechanism of producing, circulating, consuming and controlling both knowledge and power. In Foucauldian view, most of the social categories seen as universal, pre-discursive and constant by the ‘common sense’ are actually products and effects of discourses or are ‘discursive constructs’.

This means we have to radically rethink what we mean by both knowledge and power.

2.1     We cannot see knowledge as a great ‘ascetic’ renunciation of material power or something which is distant from political domain, nor can we see knowledge as inherently liberating, emancipating and benevolent.

We will also have to rethink what we mean by modernity and the Enlightenment is. We cannot think that modernity is something which is better than previous periods like the Middle Ages (as many Marxists, neo-Marxists or even progressive liberals do). This skepticism makes Foucault a ‘postmodern’ thinker who questions the very basis of progressivism.

2.2   We cannot think of power as something which is operating ‘top- down’ from the State onto people, nor can we think about it as being merely coercive or repressive (as many Marxists, neo-Marxists or even progressive liberals do).  Power is pervasive and creative. It produces knowledge, disciplines, institutions, even selves and people.

Foucault sees power as ‘actions which control and regulate other actions’. These actions may be on one owns actions or the actions of the others. One of the concerns in Foucault’s later works is to see how people use power/knowledge to shape and manufacture themselves and their lives (biopolitics) and govern themselves in contemporary times.

Influence and Criticism

Foucault’s influence in contemporary culture studies and social sciences is immense. One of the most influential and famous application of Foucault’s theorization is Edward Said’s Orientalism ( 1978) which argues the discipline of producing knowledge about the East ( Orientalism) cannot be seen independently of project of colonialism and that the whole discourse of producing knowledge about the East actually produced the East as an object to be dominated and consumed.  Said’s book inaugurated contemporary postcolonial studies.

The idea that gender and sexuality are not ‘pre-discursive’ givens or universals but are discursive constructs whose effects and functions vary historically and socially and are open to archeological and genealogical analysis which Foucault elaborates upon in his classic History of Sexuality volumes (1976-84)  are central to contemporary Gender and sexuality studies.

Many scholars have been extremely critical of Foucault.

The German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler attacks Foucault of being historically inaccurate and having tendency to oversimplify. Nancy Fraser claims that Foucault's work is a mixture of "empirical insights and normative confusions". Richard Rorty points out that Foucault's 'archaeology of knowledge' is fundamentally negative, and thus fails to adequately establish any 'new' theory of knowledge per se.

One can look for more information on Foucault- Habermas Debate and Foucault-Chomsky Debate.

Check out Foucault's  free lectures on the Openculture website.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dance of the Language: A Beginner's Guide to Reading Poetry

Paul Valery (Poetry and Abstract Thought, 1939 Lecture at Oxford)

The word ''Poetry '' comes from the Greek word ''Poetica'' which is derived from the verb ''poiein'' that means, ''to make''. Hence, ‘poetry’ is something that is ‘made’, ‘constructed’ and ‘artificial’. The poem is made from words and the ways in which a poem is made are called ‘poetic devices’.

Valery’s quote given above implies that prose, and discursive prose in particular, is largely about conveying message or information and hence is ‘goal directed’. It has to reach from the point A to B or D. It is ‘linear’ in direction. Poetry is not about giving information or conveying some message. It is not ‘goal’ directed like prose. It does not have a fixed location to reach. It may start from the point C and go E and come back to A, non-linearly like a dancer. The use of language which  have‘ twists’ and ‘turns’ are called ‘ tropes’ or ‘figures of speech’.

Let us discuss what is poetry ‘made of’ and how it ‘dances’.

slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seem'd a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

A poem is made up of a story. Though ‘narrative’ or a story is considered very different formally from poetry, poetry usually contains both fiction (imaginary worlds) and narrative (story and plot) and finding out the story the poem tells is important for understanding of the poem. Very often the speaker is one of the characters in the story which a poem tells. The speaker of the lines of the poem is commonly mistaken for the poet as the real person. In fact, the speaker in the poem can very often be a ‘mask’, a fictional character, or a voice. Hence it is a very good idea of not using, ‘the poet says.. .’ approach while discussing poetry or literature.

In the Wordsworth poem, the story is about a lover who believes he was ‘asleep’ when he thought his beloved was not mortal and hence ‘earthly’, but wakes up to find her dead and one with nature. The story of this spiritual awakening and the shock and the grief of this awakening is crucial for comprehension of the poem.

Prose is divided into paragraphs, a poem is divided into stanzas. The poem just mentioned is divided into two stanzas. Most of traditional poetry is written in ‘metre’ and ‘rhymes’. ‘Fears’, ‘Years’, ‘Sees’ and ‘Trees’ are called ‘rhymes’. The arrangement of rhymes is called the rhyme scheme.In this poem it is ‘abab cdcd’ , where ‘a’ indicates the first rhyme, ‘b’ indicates the second rhyme and so on.

The lines of the poem is ‘made of’ roughly fixed number of syllables or the part of a word that is spoken distinctly. The line ‘A-slum- ber-did my-spi- rit-seal’ has eight syllables out of which four are ‘stressed’ or pronunced with emphasis:  ‘slum’, ‘did’, ‘spi’, and ‘seal’ which are arranged alternatively. Rest of them are ‘unstressed’.
(A-slum) (ber-did) (my-spi) (rit-seal) (She-seemed) (a-thing)  (that-could) (not-feel)

A more or less fixed pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is called ‘metre. Here the lines are divided into four or five units of two syllables. These units are called ‘ feet’.The main foot here is ‘ unstressed- stressed’ foot or ‘Iambic’.

The use of rhyme and meter is often used to create music and the mood of the poem. It is a convention and a device that poets often use. The study of poetic meters is called ‘prosody’. The use of rhyme and meter is one of  many ways by which the language of poetry differs from the language of prose.

The poem is an ‘elegy’ or a literary form that conventionally mourns or laments the death of someone close to the speaker. There are many sub-forms or sub-genres of poetry like the epic, the sonnet, the ballad, the dramatic monologue and so on.

The ways in which poetry ‘dances’ or  the ways in which the language of poetry differs from ordinary language involve complex and extensive use of figurative language or figures of speech.  A figure of speech is a rhetorical device that achieves a special effect by using words in distinctive ways. Lets look at only some important figures of speech.

1.      Alliteration. In the first line of the poem, the sound ‘ s’ ( slumber, spirit, seal) is repeated and this repetition of a consonant sound is a figure of speech called ‘ alliteration’ . ‘ R’ sound in the line ‘Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course’ another example of alliteration.
2.      Metaphor and Simile. The comparison between two different contexts and things without the use of comparing words like ‘like’ or ‘as’ is called ‘metaphor’. The comparison which uses these words is called ‘simile’.  In the first line, there is a comparison between the speaker’s ignorance of his beloved’s mortal nature and ‘ sleep’ or ‘slumber’ which ‘sealed’ the speaker’s ‘spirit’. ‘The touch of earthly years’ is another metaphor in the poem. ‘Simile’ on the other hand, compares two different thing using the comparing words like ‘ as’ or ‘like’. Compare and contrast the impact of ‘ he was a lion in the batlefield’ with ‘ he was like a lion in the battlefield.’ Personification is a common kind of metaphor where the inanimate things or abstract ideas are treated as if they are animate or as if they are human.
3.      Image and Imagery.  An image is a  verbal representation of a sensory experience or of an object that can be known by one or more of the senses like sight, smell, touch and tastes.  Imagery is vivid descriptive language that appeals to one or more of the senses. The description of the speaker’s  dead beloved as being ,’ “Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course   With rocks, and stones, and trees” is an example of imagery.  The visual picture in our mind of earth revolving around the sun, and consequently the body and soul of the speaker’s beloved  revolving along with rocks, stones and trees suggests her as becoming one with Nature after her death.
4.      Irony. The speaker’s description of his beloved as  having ‘no motion or force’ and she is ‘revolving with the earth around the sun’ actually implies she is dead and the speaker cannot be one with her . This is also because the speaker, unlike his beloved, was always alienated from nature. This mismatch between what is said and what is meant is an example of irony. The speaker’s opinion that it was because of ‘the slumber’ which ‘sealed’ his spirit that he felt that his beloved was ‘ untouched’ by earthly things like mortality is ironic, because it is not really the slumber but his desire that his beloved should not be touched by death as he loves her deeply, that has made him blind to the fact.
5.      Symbol.  A symbol is an image which suggests or represents something other than itself. In poetry, a symbol represents both what it is, and additionally, a concept or an idea. The symbol of a white dove suggests "peace" and a cow in Indian culture symbolizes maternity, fertility, auspiciousness and divinity. ‘Slumber’, for instance, stands for the lack of knowing on the part of the speaker.
Now let’s look at another poem.

‘Eating Poetry by Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

The experience of reading and relishing poetry transforms the reader into something almost nonhuman like the dog into which the speaker is transformed by the end of the  poem. The irony of the poem emerges when the speaker says, ‘ I am a new man’ when actually he on his knees, licking the librarian’s knees, snarls and barks at the librarian. 

The contrast between the human being and the dog is symbolic one. Contrary to the humanist belief about literature as humanizing, the poet seems to indicate that its sorcerous power turns humans being into primitive non-human being. This ‘anti or non-humanist’ perception of art is characteristic of the postmodern literature.

How To Appreciate Poetry: Some Tips

Though there is no one fixed way of reading poetry, here are some tips for analysis , comprehension and appreciation of poetry. The best way to do it is by asking questions as we go along reading the poem. Better we get at asking questions about the poem, the better we get at reading , analyzing and enjoying poetry. The skills of asking questions to poetry come with a lot of practice and interest. Keep jotting down the questions and thoughts that come to your mind as you go along.

1)      Why is this title given to the poem? The Title of the poem often indicates the theme or the subject of the poem, e. g. ‘Eating Poetry’.  Often the first line of the poem is the title as in ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’. Very often titles are meant to arouse our curiosity rather than lead to the theme or the subject of the poem.

2)      Try to guess ‘the character’ of the speaker by reading for information about him or her. The speaker  in the first poem is the lover who has lost his beloved and the speaker in the second poem is the reader who relishes poetry.

3)      Read the poem carefully to find out the ‘story’ or ‘the plot’ of the poem by trying to guess ‘what happens’ to the speaker or some other characters.

4)       Ask yourself ‘what’ the speaker is saying and ‘how’ is he or she saying it.The speaker in the first poem is awakened by the grief due to the death of his beloved. The characters of both the speaker and his beloved are transformed. The lover realizes the mortality of his beloved and the beloved is transformed from a living human being into a spirit that is one with nature after death. The speaker in the second poem is transformed into a dog to the librarian’s horror.

5)      Ask yourself questions: is it divided into stanzas? Does it have rhymes ? If so what is its rhyme scheme? Does the poem have a fixed metrical patterning ? The first poem is written in iambic meter and has a fixed rhyme scheme. The second poem is written in ‘free verse’ and has no fixed metrical patterns.

6)       Ask yourself what is the ‘mood’ of the poem. The mood of the first poem is sad, serene and philosophical. The mood of the second poem is absurd, comical, dark and even sinister. Usually the poems use words for creating emotional impact instead of communicating any information or message.  Ask yourself how effective the poet has been in creating this impact upon you.

7)       How does the poet use the figures of speech and other devices in the poem? Look at the images, metaphors and symbols in the poem. How well does the poet use ‘irony’. Much of the impact of the poem on the reader depends on the freshness and preciseness of the images, metaphors and symbols.  Ask yourself if the poet’s use of the figurative language is effective and interesting.
8)       Very often tracing the abstract nouns can lead the reader to the theme or the subject of poetry. The use of abstract nouns like ‘spirit’, ‘earthly’ or ‘force’ in the Wordsworth poem and the abstract nouns like ‘ happiness’ , ‘ poetry’ and ‘ new man’ in the Strand poem indicate the theme of the poem. Consider the fact that both the poets use these words ironically, though in a different way.


1.      Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Understanding poetry, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976
2.      Edward Hirsch, How to read a poem: and fall in love with poetry, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000
3.      Harold Bloom, The Art of Reading Poetry, Perennial, 2005
4.      Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem, Wiley-Blackwell, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2012


Sachin Ketkar

The Problem of Defining Deconstruction.

“What deconstruction is not? Everything of course! What is deconstruction? Nothing of course!”
Jacques Derrida,
"Letter to a Japanese Friend"

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) whose name is associated with the term ‘deconstruction’ is one of the most renowned and prolific philosophers of the twentieth century. His writings are characteristically postmodern in the sense they seek to go beyond modernity. Derrida has written prolifically on various themes like translation, ethics, aesthetics, responsibility, death and mourning, politics of friendship, cosmopolitanism, Marxism, globalization, technology and terrorism. His dense and complex writings have had an enormous influence in psychology, literary theory, cultural studies, linguistics, feminism, sociology and anthropology. 

Though the term has become very popular in literary criticism and theory, its precise meaning is extremely problematic. In fact, Derrida himself in the famous "Letter to a Japanese Friend" (1983) pointed out that the term was a product of his wish,” to translate and adapt to my own ends the Heidggerian word Destruktion or Abbau. Each signified in this context an operation bearing on the structure or traditional architecture of the fundamental concepts of ontology or of Western metaphysics”. This operation on the traditional structures of western thought was not a negative one connoting destruction but, “rather than destroying, it was also necessary to understand how an "ensemble" was constituted and to reconstruct it to this end.” Derrida also reminds his Japanese friend that deconstruction is “neither an analysis nor a critique” and is not, “a method and cannot be transformed into one.” For Derrida, deconstruction is not something that you do, rather “Deconstruction takes place, it is an event that does not await the deliberation, consciousness, or organization of a subject, or even of modernity. It deconstructs itself.”  J. Hillis Miller in “Stevens' Rock and Criticism as Cure" (1976) notes, "Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock but thin air."

This leads Derrida to question,” Can deconstruction become a methodology for reading and for interpretation? Can it thus be allowed to be reappropriated and domesticated by academic institutions?” In spite of Derrida’s disclaimers and caveats, there have been innumerable attempts to explain, simplify, define or ‘package’ deconstruction for the academic malls, a tendency that Derrida protested and criticized throughout his life. The present article does not try to simplify or package Derrida’s philosophy, but offers some starting points into more serious and rigorous examination of his works.

Background to Deconstruction

Derrida and Heidegger:
 One of the essential places to start while approaching Derrida’s texts is in the works of very controversial and yet one of the most influential German philosophers Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). In Being and Time, Heidegger argued that the western thought has neglected or repressed the question of Being of beings (or entities) by failing to make the ontological difference between ‘ beings’ and Being. The metaphysical tradition of the western thought has always been concerned about ‘beings as beings’ (i.e. treating entities as entities, rather than their mode of existence) which has resulted in a deep crisis in the western civilization. Heidegger demands the destruction (Destruktion) of the Western philosophical tradition, which is not its destruction but total transformation. In his later works, Heidegger talks about the importance of the question of language in philosophy and points out that it is ‘language that speaks, not Man’ and that language is ‘the house of Being’. Heidegger’s own language is extremely dense and often very strange as if Heidegger is not just offering a critique of the language of western philosophy but reinventing it. Derrida continues – and critiques- the Heideggerian themes of radical rethinking of the very foundations of western thought by dismantling the metaphysical tradition and  raising the key question of language and reinvention of the language of western philosophy. While Heidegger argued that the neglect and repression of the question of Being of beings is a blind spot of the entire western thinking and dwelling in this question one can deconstruct the entire western tradition of philosophy, Derrida in the first book Of Grammatology (1968) argues that neglect and the repression of the question of writing in its conception of language as speech is another such blind-spot in the western thought and the rigorous pursuit of this question can similarly ‘deconstruct’ the tradition of western thinking.

Derrida and Saussure:

Another important place to approach Derrida’s works is Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857-1913) Course in General Linguistics. Saussure made an influential distinction between the signifier (the sound image of a word) and signified ( or the concept or meaning) and that the relationship between them is arbitrary, that is, there is no inner relationship,  say between the word ‘ sister’ and the person it signifies. The relation between the signifier and the signified is merely conventional and that convention can be considered as a ‘code’, which combines the signifier and the signified to make, the linguistic sign. It also implies that the signifier does not naturally lead to the entities in the world beyond the linguistic system but stays within it by pointing to other signifier. Derrida notes that the signifier does lead to some universal and stable entity or fixed and universal meaning (transcendental signified) but only to another signifier- just as what we consider as what we consider as ‘meaning’ in the dictionary are actually other words which have meanings of their own. As Derrida demonstrates the arbitrariness of the sign results in indefinite ‘deferral’ or postponement or the delay of reaching this ‘ultimate and absolute’ meaning beyond language. It is in this context one has to see his famous statements which appears in an essay on Rousseau in his book Of Grammatology (1967) that "there is nothing outside the text" (il n'y a pas de hors-texte).

 Another important point that Saussure makes is that ‘in language there are only differences without positive terms”, that is, we can recognize and understand one linguistic item – say the phoneme ‘p- only by contrasting it with everything that is ‘not-p’. Saussure goes on to say, “The entire mechanism of language, with which we shall be concerned later, is based on oppositions of this kind (e.g. between the word ‘father’ and ‘mother’) and on the phonic and conceptual differences that they imply.” Derrida shows that the same applies to the language of philosophy and the entire mechanism of this language is based on binary oppositions like ‘light’ vs. ‘dark’,  ‘ male’ vs. ‘female’, ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’, ‘speech’ vs. ‘writing’ ,‘nature’ vs. culture’ and so on. However, Derrida points out that these oppositions are not equal but hierarchic where the second term is considered either derivative or inferior to the first, the privileged one. What allows this inequality and hierarchy, according to Derrida is the tendency in the western thought to privilege ‘presence’ over ‘absence’, which Heidegger had termed as ‘metaphysics of presence’.


Derrida combines two characteristics of the language mentioned above: the arbitrariness or the tendency to defer the ultimate and final meaning, and the systemic differentiality of language and coins a new term ‘différance’ – the tendency or the force of language to defer and differ that is intrinsic to language. The new term is a pun, and is possible in French as the word différer can mean either to differ or to defer, depending on context.

 In his rigorous readings of classical western philosophical texts, Derrida overturns the binaries like ‘ nature’ and ‘ culture’ or ‘ speech’ and ‘writing’ to show that the whole idea that the first term is basic or central and the second term is derived or marginal -is actually illusionary and ‘metaphysical’. He demonstrates how the second term can also be considered ‘basic’ and ‘central’ to a philosophical system, and the philosophical text can be read to mean exactly the opposite of what it starts out to state. This results in ‘undecidability’ or ‘aporia’ regarding which reading or interpretation is the ‘true’ or ‘right’ one.  He does this to demonstrate that any act of communication or significance is a function ‘differance’ rather than some stable entity outside of language.

The tendency in the western philosophy to repress or neglect writing- or as Derrida calls it ‘phonocentricism’ is a manifestation of ‘logocentricism’ of the western metaphysics- the tendency to privilege presence over absence, which is undone due to the force of ‘difference’ within the mechanism of language. Interestingly, what differentiates ‘différance’ and ‘difference’ is inaudible, and this means that distinguishing between them actually requires that they be written.

Derrida’s assertion that ‘deconstruction’ is not something that you do, but something which ‘happens’ to texts implies that it is the force of ‘differance’ which is the part of the system of thought that brings about the production and signification of binaries and their subversion and the resultant aporia, rather than a person, school or a historical period causing it.

Structure ,   Sign, and Play

In his famous essay, ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses in Human Sciences’ which was read at the John Hopkins International Colloquium on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” in October 1966, Derrida demonstrates how structuralism as represented by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss which sets out as a criticism or rejection of science and metaphysics can be read as embodying precisely those aspects of science and metaphysics which it seeks to challenge. The essay concludes by saying, “There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of free play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from free play and from the order of the sign, and lives like an exile the necessity of interpretation. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms free play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism.” Thus, we have two diametrically opposite interpretations of structuralism, and we are unable to decide which the ‘right’ one is. This ‘aporia’ between two interpretations is due to the force of ‘difference’ intrinsic to the structure of language. The force of ‘differance’ makes language characteristically ‘centrifugal’, that is moving away from the center by ‘scattering’ of the philosophical system or by its ‘dissemination’ into multiple and conflicting interpretations. Characteristically, Derrida in this essay notes that ‘language bears within itself, the necessity of its own critique’.  The essay is considered as inauguration of ‘poststructuralism’ (going beyond structuralism) as a theoretical movement.

The Yale School of Deconstruction:

Though Derrida wrote occasionally on literature, his primary focus was on the classical texts of Western philosophical tradition starting from Plato onwards. Most of his important statements on literature are collected in the book Acts of Literature.  However, ‘deconstruction’ became popular in literary criticism largely due to the literary theorists and scholars associated with the Yale School like Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Harold Bloom ( For my entry on Harold Bloom click here) . One of the most important practitioners Paul de Man (1919–83) in ‘The Resistance to Theory’ ( For my entry on ' Resistance to Theory' click here)  says that the rhetorical and figurative dimension of language makes it an unreliable medium for communication of truths. Literary language being predominantly rhetorical and figurative, to take for granted that literature is a reliable source of information about anything but itself would be a great mistake. This gives rise to a particular crisis in literary studies because "literariness" is no longer seen as an aesthetic quality nor is it seen as a mimetic mode. As we consider language as an intuitive and transparent medium, as opposed to the material and conventional medium that it is, aesthetic effect, according to de Man, takes place because we tend to mistake the materiality of the signifier with the materiality of the signified. Mimesis, like aesthetic quality, is also an effect of the rhetorical and figurative aspects of language. The assumption of ideological and historical contexts or backgrounds to literary texts becomes problematic if language is no longer seen as a transparent and intuitive guide from the textual material to the historical situation. Consequently, the theorists who uphold an aesthetic approach to literary studies and those who uphold an historical approach both find deconstructive approach inconvenient and challenging.    De Man practiced his own variety of deconstruction in his philosophically oriented literary criticism of Romanticism, especially the writings of William Wordsworth, John Keats, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, William Butler Yeats, Friedrich Holderlin and Rainer Maria Rilke. In Blindness and Insight, de Man sought to deconstruct the privileging of symbol over allegory and metaphor over metonymy in Romantic thought. In Romantic philosophy, metaphor implied self-identity and wholeness, decomposition of self-identity implied inability of overcoming the dualism between subject and object, which Romantic metaphor sought to transcend. To compensate for this inability, de Man argued that the Romanticism constantly relies on allegory to attain the wholeness established by the totality of the symbol.

Legacy of Deconstruction:

As against the Yale School’s obsession with figurative language and the close reading of the texts, many New Historicist, Cultural Materialists, feminists, and postcolonial theorists have used deconstruction as a political weapon to expose the political, historical and the ideological biases built into the text. While feminists and gender theorists find deconstruction useful in subverting the gender binaries in literary texts, the postcolonial theorists find it a powerful tool to undermine and explode the colonizer’s master narratives from within. Cultural materialists have found Derrida’s emphasis on the materiality of language and its social and institutional context very useful to critique the idealistic modes of reading literature. New Historicists like Louis Montrose have used Derrida to formulate a new way of reading relationship between literature and history by focusing on ‘reciprocal concern about historicity of texts and textuality of history’.  Thus, deconstruction remains one of the most influential theories in literary studies till today.

An Attempt to Summarize:

Though the term’ deconstruction’ has become very popular in literary criticism and theory, its precise meaning is extremely problematic. It has had an enormous influence in psychology, literary theory, cultural studies, linguistics, feminism, sociology and anthropology. It has influenced a wide range of theoretical approaches to literary studies like feminism and gender studies, cultural materialism, new historicism, postcolonial studies, Marxism, psychoanalysis and so on.  It involves the close reading of texts in order to demonstrate that any given text has irreconcilably contradictory meanings, rather than being a unified, logical whole. Though it is often misunderstood as negative activity of destruction, it is in many ways continuation of Heideggerian project of dismantling and transforming the entire tradition and architecture of western thought by building upon the insights from contemporary linguistics regarding the mechanism of language and meaning production.


Derrida, Jacques, Letter to a Japanese Friend

Ferdinand de Saussure Course in General Linguistics

Lawlor, Leonard, "Jacques Derrida", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Wheeler, Michael, "Martin Heidegger", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Wikipedia Entries on Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida

Culler, Jonathan (1975) Structuralist Poetics.
Culler, Jonathan (1983) On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism.
Norris, Christopher (1982) Deconstruction: Theory and Practice.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Life-Cycle of the Poet-in-the Poet: Harold Bloom and the Writer’s Struggle for Existence

In an age which treats literature as a pretext for studying other things like ideology, culture and society, Harold Bloom (b.1930), one of the most ‘original’ and fascinating literary theorists of the later half of the twentieth century,  provocatively places literature at the centre of his theorizing. In many ways he reminds us of Northrop Frye’s dictum that literature alone is the primary context for literature. However, unlike Frye or Eliot, Bloom often collapses, in Wildean manner, the distinction between ‘critical writing’ and ‘creative writing’.

Bloom revives the Eliotian theme of the relationship between ‘tradition’ and ‘individual talent’ in a dramatic manner, this time, using Nietzsche, Freud, Vico, Emerson and Oscar Wilde.  He aims to ‘de-idealize’ this relationship on the one hand ( “more than ever, contemporary poets insist that they are telling the truth in their work, and more than ever they tell continuous lies, particularly about their relations to one another, and most consistently about their relations to their precursors” )and propose an approach to practical criticism on the other. In Bloom’s theory, tradition is not a benign and empowering presence but something of a threat and a challenge to new writers in the west. For Bloom, one of the functions of criticism is to make a good poet’s work even more difficult for him to perform…… as all that a critic, as a critic, can give poets is the deadly encouragement that never ceases to remind them of how heavy their inheritance is.” A exceptionally prolific writer, some of his most significant books are The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1976), Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages (1994), How to Read and Why (2001), How to Read Poetry (2005) and more recently The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (2011).

In ‘Poetic Origins and Final Phases’ which is the first chapter of A Map of Misreading (1975), Bloom points out that the relationship between the poets ,or,  in his words ‘the poets-in-the-poets’,  is that of rivalry and hostility, as they all are trying to achieve ‘immortality’ by securing a place in the canon. Bloom says, ‘poetic strength comes only from a triumphant wrestling with the dead, and from even more triumphant solipsism.’

What makes this rivalry very bitter is the fact that the new poet (‘ephebe’) starts writing poetry by reading his favorite poets only to discover that his poetry is not really his own original work but only a ‘response’ to the works of earlier masters. Thus he suffers from the ‘anxiety of influence’. His love for poetry of the masters which ‘inspired’ him to write in the first place becomes an obstruction in achieving his own place in the canon. The new writer suffers from the ‘burden of belatedness’. His love turns into hatred. The struggle (‘agon’) of the ‘ephebe’, and the precursor poet according to Bloom, is analogous to the Freudian notion of oedipal conflict. “Initial love for the precursors’ poetry is transformed rapidly enough into revisionary strife, without which individuation is not possible”, Bloom notes. The birth of the poet-in-the-poet or the process by which a poet is reborn as a poet is what Bloom terms as ‘poetic incarnation’. The poetic incarnation, in Bloom’s view, results from poetic influence. Bloom sees influence as ‘the giving that famishes the taker’. This influence is ‘catastrophic’ and dualistic as it starts out as love and ends up as conflict. Bloom note that this influence has almost nothing to do with verbal resemblance between two poets or even stylistic resemblance. In strong poets, it works in the depths, “as all love antithetically works”.

The link, the antithetical dependency, between the precursors work and ephebe’s own is that of ‘misprision’.  If he is a weak poet, then either he sacrifices his talent or he sacrifices his originality, but if he is a ‘strong poet’ he struggles against the overwhelming influence of the precursor poet in order to give birth to his own voice. The ‘ephebe’ ‘misreads’ his master to produce his own works. The ‘ephebe’ deploys six ‘revisionary ratios’ or strategies to misread the precursor’s poetry. Taking a shot at Wordsworthian notion of poetry, Bloom points out ‘A poet is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.’

In ‘Poetic Origins and Final Phases’,  Bloom allegorically and metaphorically notes that the poets are born by the side of ocean- the ocean of already written poems which is the feast that ‘famishes the taker’. Then, they move onwards to ‘the land by a drying up of the oceanic sense’. True poets are born because of ‘desiccation combined with unusually strong oceanic sense’ and poetry like sexual love, is regressive – a drive back to ocean. In contrast to the mass of smaller and weaker poets, the strong poet has in his first voice, ‘what is most central in the precursors’ voices. Bloom notes that towards the end of their careers as poets, the strongest poets become obsessed with origins and return to the origins in the end. To make his point, Bloom analyzes the tropes of ocean and desiccation in the strong poets like Shelley, Wordsworth, Swinburne, Beddoes, Auden, Hardy and Wallace Stevens and demonstrates how older Hardy and Stevens returned to Shelleyian vision, their ‘poetic origin’ towards the end of their lives, and hence are the strongest English poets of the twentieth century.

Bloom simplifies his argument by saying, ‘poems…are neither about ‘subjects’ nor about ‘themselves’. They are necessarily about other poems; a poem is a response to a poem, as a poet is response to a poet, or a person to his parent. Trying to write a poem takes the poet back to the origins of what a poem first was for him, and so takes the poet back beyond the pleasure principle to the decisive initial encounter and response that began him….Only a poet challenges a poet as a poet, and so only a poet makes a poet. To the poet –in-the-poet, a poem is always the other man, the precursor, and so a poem is always a person, always the person of one’s Second Birth. To live, the poet must misinterpret the father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is re-writing of the father. But who is the poetic father? The voice of the other, of the daimon, is always speaking in one; the voice that cannot die because already it has survived death-the dead poet lives in one. In the last phase of strong poets, they attempt to join the undying by living in the dead poets who are already alive in them. This late Return of the Dead recalls us, as readers, to a recognition of the original motive for the catastrophe of poetic incarnation…….Literary, poems are refusals of mortality. Even poem therefore has two makers: the precursor and the ephebe’s rejected mortality.’

 Harold Bloom, ‘Poetic Origins and Final Phases’, in David Lodge and Nigel Wood ed. Modern Criticism and Theory’, 2005 (fourth reprint)

David Lodge and Nigel Wood ed. Modern Criticism and Theory, Delhi: Pearson Education, 2005, 235-247

For more on ‘revisionary ratios’ click here

Monday, August 9, 2010

Meet My Talkative Unconscious: Notes on Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’

One of the most influential French cultural theorists of the twentieth century, Jacques Lacan (1901-1980) is responsible for revival of interest in Freud, notably among the feminists who saw Freud as a typical MCP- Male Chauvinist Psychologist. While most of Jacques Lacan’s writing is willfully obscure and irritatingly playful, one can approximately discern the general thrust of his theory.

Lacan’s emphasis is on the anti-humanistic implication of decentered and split human self in Freud’s psychoanalysis.  Freud’s theory replaced the idea of coherent and autonomous human self (which is a humanist idea) with the idea of human ego existing on the fringe of the all powerful Unconscious- the huge area of human self existing outside of human awareness. In Freud’s view, the car of human life is driven from the back seat of Unconscious. Freudian theory, in Lacanian interpretation, is chiefly about decentering or marginality of human self in relation to itself.

This notion of decentering ties up with the similar ideas in Heideggerian existentialism. Heidegger’s remark ‘it is language that speaks, not man’ sums up this position of the decentered human self in relation to language.

Lacan draws attention to the fact that we tend to misconstrue (méconnaissance) ‘I’ of our linguistic utterance (enunciation) - as in “I am going home” (which is grammatically in subject position of enunciation) for the self of the speaker (‘enounce’). This gap between the speaker’s self and the linguistic ‘I’ is due to this decentering of human self in relation to language. Just like the structure of language displaces man by being the real producer of meaning instead of human soul, the unconscious displaces the humanist idea of autonomous coherent self which knows –’the cogito’. 

Lacan also notes that as any use of language assumes the presence of the audience, the ‘self’ and ‘the other’ split is built into language. That is, we always assume the presence of someone when we use the language. This someone may be oneself as when we talk to ourselves or when we write things like diaries for one. This means the use of language (as in thinking) results in the split between the self (the addresser) and the other (addressee) who might be the same person.

It is this conception of decentering and splitting of human self which is expressed by Lacan’s widely quoted dictum, ‘ The Unconscious is structured like language’. It implies that the laws governing the unconscious and the laws governing human language are analogous and that unconscious functions in much the same way as language does.

Lacan draws upon the works of Saussure and Roman Jakobson on the mechanism of language to demonstrate that the mechanism of unconscious also functions on similar lines. For instance, the dream work described by Freud as comprising of mechanisms of displacement, condensation and symbolism is in Lacan’s view, actually ‘language work’. Drawing upon Roman Jakobson’s work on aphasia and poetics, Lacan notes that the mechanisms of dream work like the processes of condensesation, displacement and symbolism are actually analogous to ‘tropes’ of language like metaphor and metonymy.

In Lacan’s view, the splitting of human self and the decentering occurs when human beings acquire the symbolic cultural system represented by language. This system as noted by Saussure is the system of differences based on binarisms like the self and the other, man and woman.  With language acquisition, the human beings position themselves within this system of differences and assume identity and the sense of self and the other.

What is lost in the process of differentiation is the sense of oneness and union with our mothers and we try to regain it in our lives. This is possible only at the level of imagination or the Imaginary where the distinctions and differences are believed to be non-existent. Hence human beings operate on two levels in their lives: the Imaginary and the Symbolic. These levels can only be accessed through human language and hence are seen as ‘registers’ in psychoanalytical theory.

The humans can articulate desire only through language, the Symbolic domain and as Lacan points out the structure of language is the structure of signifiers where one signifier perpetually leads to another signifier. That is, the meaning of one word is another word or another set of words. Consider a dictionary entry on a difficult word.  The entry itself is composed of words whose meanings lay elsewhere. This means that the meaning does not lie ‘in the signifier’ but elsewhere. The signifier ‘lacks’ meaning and it is this ‘lack’ which makes the movement from one signifier to another possible. This movement from one signifier to another driven by ‘lack’ becomes the movement of ‘supplemantarity’ and difference in Derrida’s philosophy.

Lacan points out that the human desire is a combination of ‘the demand’ and ‘the need’. The need which is biological can be gratified, while the demand which can only be articulated through language can never be satisfied. The demand for something (this thing is a signifier) can lead only to another signifier which leads to another signifier ad infinitum. Hence, the Lacanian dictum: ‘All speech is a demand and all demand is a demand for love.’ The demand which can never ever be fulfilled as each signifier ‘lacks’ meaning and links to another signifier.

Lacan notes that desire is a movement from one signifier to another and hence ‘syntagmatic’ or ‘metonymic’ while the movement of neurosis is the movement of substituting one thing for another (‘a symptom’ for an unconscious wish) and hence ‘paradigmatic’ or ‘metaphorical’.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the phallus is ‘the privileged signifier’, as language and culture in patriarchy function under the ‘Law of Father’. The Phallus, being a signifier also ‘lacks’ positive meaning. The idea of the phallus as a privileged signifier comes from Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud’s oedipal phase or phallic phase of psychosexual development (see the entry on Freud).

While most of the ideas discussed above are later development in Lacan’s philosophy, his ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I’ (Ecrits, 1977) is an early essay dealing with question of human identity formation. In contrast to traditional humanistic notion of identity as being innate and organic to human self, Lacan notes that it is formed in the process of identification with something which is not self and something which is outside of self. Lacan’s views on identity formation resemble the Hegelian notion of dialectic between the self and other as expressed in his ‘Master-Servant’ relationship. The Mirror Stage, according to Lacan, results in child’s recognition and discovery of self as a reflection. This misidentification of reflection for self is central to Lacan’s theory.  It implies that ‘identity’ is a product of misidentification and misconstruction (méconnaissance) rather than discovery of ‘true’ or ‘real’ self. Lacan gives instances from neurology and zoology where visual knowledge of similar species is necessary for full biological development of the organism (as in pigeons and locusts). Lacan also points out how this ‘specular I’ contributes to development of motor skills in a child. Hence this méconnaissance is necessary for biological development of an organism.

The notion of mirror stage in Lacan also brings to fore his disagreement with Freud. While Freud sees the oedipal phase or phallic phase as being crucial to identity, including the gender identity, Lacan points out that the processes of identity formation start even earlier at the pre-linguistic and pre-phallic stage of psychological development. This idea in Lacan also prefigures his theorization of ‘the Imaginary’ register in psychoanalysis. The Imaginary is the register where human beings are able to imagine themselves as undifferentiated totality and where the complete intimacy with the other is possible.
There is a huge amount of good quality reference on Lacan available on the Internet. Here are links to a few:

i)                    Excellent annotated guide to the essay on the Essex University website:
ii)                  Very Brief introduction to Lacan:
iii)                Also check out very useful
iv)                At Purdue university website:
v)                  For interesting collection of Lacan quotes at