Deconstruction and the Social Text

 Originally Appeared in: Social Text: 1 | Published: Winter 1979

Recent American literary criticism has enriched the interplay between philosophy and literature by finding the mainspring of deconstructive reading in the tendency of literary language to be figural. Derrida has consistently exposed the self-protective strategies by which the “metaphysics of presence” has used various conceptions that reduce language to an essentially transparent and stable mediation with the task of simply transmitting an already formed thought from one consciousness to another or of denoting objects. The rhetorical figure challenges any such conception of language by shaking the connection between a sign and a thing, or a signifier and a signified, through the reverberating interaction of signifier and signifier. Literary practice has a kind of inherent deconstructive force; it brings to the fore or enacts in a thoroughgoing way the internal division of the linguistic sign itself, the misalignment of signifier and signified. 

Deconstructive criticism has tended, however, to thematize this process in a way that closes off the two-fold problematic of the text’s relation to the referent and to the unconscious. First of all, by means of a kind of logical short-circuit, the recognition that any intentionalized sign misses the referent at which it aims is replaced by the claim that there is no referent. Moreover-and here we can mark a point at which the Marxian problematic is strategically passed over in silence-, the referent or the Real continues to be thought according to the oldest philosophical habits, namely, as the stable, fixed object of perception. Since Marx, the Real itself is to be conceived as historically produced and socially organized-a complex of objects, institutions, and intersubjective relations which not only have a history but are in process. Viewed in this way, the Real is always only approximated by discourse even as it is that out of which any act of discourse emerges. In this way, the discrepancy between sign and referent conditions the dynamics of their interrelation. Secondly, the misalignment of signifier and signified, which is enacted in literary figuration, is not simply the formal condition of language; in fact, by means of a certain analytic abstraction, structuralist linguistics and generative grammar are able to isolate the sign so as to show the alignment between the signifier and the signified. At issue rather-and here Lacan’s formulations on the unconscious are indispensable-are the effects of speech on the human subject, for whom any utterance contains a constitutive gap whereby it communicates more or less or something other than what it says; for Lacan, this always unbalanced relation of the subject to the signifier results from the fact that every human being enters into language-the symbolic network of human intersubjectivity before he or she can speak. 

The apparent expansion of the term rhetoric can, then, actually serve to forestall any reference, in the act of reading, to the unconscious or to social reality-that is, to the very social and intersubjective processes that condition human speech in general and literary writing in particular. To reopen deconstructive reading to the problematic initiated by Freud and Marx, it would be necessary to understand literary figuration as a function akin to fantasy in the psychoanalytic sense or utopian thought in the political realm. Let us recall that for Freud any act must be prepared for in the imagination, which is why fantasy cannot be adequately defined as a turning away from reality, its primary function being to mediate the subject’s relation to reality. Similarly, the utopian dimension that supports revolutionary political practice is a kind of figuration in which the fantasmal possibilities of desire are directed not toward a reality to which this desire must adapt but toward a reality apprehended critically as something to be changed. Literary figuration, the capacity to fictionalize at the heart of all literary practice, is a construct that, on the one hand, sets itself apart from the Real, from what is given at a particular historical moment, and, on the other hand, arranges the various permutations, the utopian possibilities of desire. To interpret figuration in this way would precisely require that the figurative swerve be read against its referent-that is, against the social reality out of which it emerges and to which it responds. Moreover, this interpretation would necessarily be a valuation as well, a judgment about the overdetermined ways in which the text seeks to justify or escape or exceed the reality that constrains it.

Another way back to the problem of the referent is the very concept that deconstruction has used against referentiality itself-namely, that of intertextuality. The very notion of text has had the capacity to show that any discourse is not a closed system of meaning but an active production of meanings–“dissemination” being the term by which Derrida has pointed to the infinite referral from signifier to signifier, from text to text. 

This sense of unending intertextual reference, as well as the generalization of the notion of the text to all human activity, has authorized deconstructive criticism to eschew the problem of the referent, whether in the narrow sense of the object designated or in the sense we are using the term. We must recognize, I believe, that not every text to which a literary text refers is itself literary. Indeed, without this recognition, the very discovery that all literary discourse is intertextual becomes a sham, a kind of shell-game played with outmoded notions of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic.” 

Literature is intertextual in the sense that literary practice actively responds to the entire set of discourses, symbolic formations, and systems of representation that define a particular society’s cultural and political life. The literary text is a signifying act whose context includes, for example, 

(1) political discourse and the systems of political representation that organize, direct, mediate, neutralize, or exhaust the collective exercise of power by social groups; 

(2) the symbolic formations of religion as they channel the libidinal flows of a collective and connect the subject to determinant social institutions; 

(3) the entire collection of those kinds of statements traditionally called ideology which are produced not only in the public sphere but in the speech acts of everyday life;

(4) even the codes that regulate material production and exchange, a problem whose urgency and complexity has become apparent with the rise of consumer society itself, which has provoked the recognition that what Marx called a commodity’s “use-value” is not simply the unmediated relation between a need and an object’s inherent qualities but is the effect of those underlying intersubjective, symbolic, and libidinal relations that determine our relation to objects in general. 

The general or, if you will, social text comprises all these discourses, each of which has a distinct history, just as the forms of their interaction evolve historically. Moreover, each of these discourses entails its own signifying operations as well as its own libidinal and intersubjective economy. In other words, these various “textual fields” are not homogeneous nor even necessarily homologous with one another-which is why, it seems to me, that the deconstructive reading of literature, when satisfied with its limited conception of intertextuality, narrows the scope of reading, which it had promised to expand.
The task of literary analysis is to find the means of performing the shifts in register that the social text requires. If “reading” is truly an active practice which criticizes, negates, and dismantles-then it should be obvious that a shift from literary discourse to, say, the economic codes and the mode of production or to political representation and the collective exercise of power requires different forms of hermeneutical subversion, other types of interpretive violence. 

Much of what I have argued depends, of course, upon the conception of history that Derrida and those who follow him have consistently refused. This refusal has sought theoretical grounding in the suspicion that history, with its teleology and linearity, is a thoroughly metaphysical concept. I would argue, however, that neither the Marxian conception of history nor the notion of history that guides psychoanalysis is linear. Lacan has often argued that history in psychoanalysis is not bio-psychological development; rather, it is the always open interplay between the events that have made the subject’s history and the history that the subject makes of those events. The history of society, like the history of the subject, is a process in which objective development is meaningless except as its history is constructed by those who live it, which is why for Marx there is no revolution without a political practice performed by historicizing subjects. In the subversive hermeneutic of tradition proposed by Freud, as in the revolutionary politics guided by Marx, the subject is required to unbind his or her own intrication in a reality and a heritage that are to be interpreted, analyzed, and destroyed. 

It is, then, not surprising that the category of the subject has met with as much suspicion as that of history in the theoretical formulations of Derridean deconstruction. The meaning of this refusal to link the subject and history is most effectively grasped if we understand the effects of the historical framework that does in fact operate in Derrida’s work-namely, the constant reference to the “era of Western metaphysics.” Deconstructive literary criticism has held off the problems posed by history and society by limiting the construct to be deconstructed to the series of fundamental concepts, oppositions, and value schemes that Derrida has found to organize idealist philosophy since Plato. The deconstructed system remains a purely philosophical one. This indefinite broadening of history into the era of metaphysics, accompanied by the narrowing of the general text, hides the evasion of all historical specificity; such a strategy has a special appeal precisely because it allows the act of radical critique to withdraw from its actual historical, political, and institutional context. The active neutralization that is so central to deconstructive reading becomes the neutrality of deconstruction itself; the subject who deconstructs is strangely at peace with the work of criticism and negation. The heritage which deconstruction claims to dismantle becomes so extensive, so ever-present and yet remote, that the subject’s own entanglement in that heritage is hardly felt. We must ask where, for this philosophy of the future, the risks, the adventure, the submission to chance can lead if everything is in question except ourselves.