In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Jacques Derrida comments on problem of interpretation. The epigram from Montaigne that introduces this essay is curious, a sort of anti-Thesis 11 (Marx):
We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things.
We can stop our reading here and ask, why? Why not interpret things? Doesn’t study of human society involve the interpretation of things, the things of society?
Perhaps Derrida answers this question in Of Grammatology, where he discusses the relation of writing and reading:
…the writer writes in a language and in a logic whose proper system, laws, and life his discourse by definition cannot dominate absolutely. He uses them only by letting himself, after a fashion and up to a point, be governed by the system. And the reading must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer…” (p. 158)
Now Maurice Blanchot in The Space of Literature:
The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self. (Space, p. 16)
Back to Derrida: What, then, is the “task of reading”? Reading involves a doubling commentary, which is unavoidable but is never really a reading of a text; the reading of the text does not involve reaching beyond language to a referent external to the text:
To produce this signifying structure obviously cannot consist of reproducing, by the effaced and respectful doubling of commentary, the conscious, voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes in his exchanges with the history to which he belongs thanks to the element of language….Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guard rail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading. (Of Grammatology, 158).
Yet if reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above; as regards the absense of the referent or the transcendental signified. There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte]. (Of Grammatology, 158).
Back to the epigram, “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things”: What does this mean for the human sciences? Don’t the human sciences attempt to reach through interpretation to the things themselves? Isn’t language really just a tool used to reach the things of reality? Or is Derrida correct to remind us that language, as a system of signs, has its own materiality, its own force and play, its own energia? Should we not see that the contradiction between our concepts and the reality out there (the dualism that haunts Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Gadamer, and numerous others) does not arise at the level of reality but rather at the level of language itself, in the space of textuality?
Or is Foucault’s criticism of Derrida correct:
Today Derrida is the most decisive representative of the [Classical] system in its final brilliance; the reduction of discursive practices to textual traces; the elision of the events that are produced there in order to retain nothing but marks for a reading; the invention of voices behind the texts in order not to have to analyze the modes of implication of the subject in discourse; assigning the spoken and the unspoken in the text to an originary place in order not to have to reinstate the discursive practices in the field of transformations where they are effected. (Harari, p. 41, Histoire de la folie, p. 602).
I read Foucault to be saying the following: whereas Derrida thinks force resides in the text, I (Foucault) think force resides in the field of forces in which the text has its effectivity. If Foucault is correct that Derrida’s emphasis on the text and play within the sign or structure of language leaves behind the play of language in practice, is there a way to reinsert Derrida’s critique into this field of transformations? Or should we agree with Derrida, who might have argued that the field its only possible through language?
Perhaps Josué Harari can provide some clarity: speaking of deconstruction he writes
Deconstruction implies an operation involving the dismantling of something into discrete component parts and suggests the ever-present possibility of putting the object back together in its original form. This is clearly not the case with, nor the aim of, Derridean deconstruction, which consists more of the tracing of a path among textual strata in order to stir up and expose forgotten or dormant sediments of meaning which have accumulated and settled into the text’s fabric. (‘A text always has several epochs and reading must resign itself to this fact’ [Of Grammatology, p. 42]) Thus, deconstruction is really more of a technique of de-sedimentation…a technique of de-sedimenting the text in order to allow what was always already inscribed in its texture to resurface (Harari, Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, p. 36-37)
This makes sense (I think) when speaking of written texts; what does it mean for the possible de-sedimentation of social action? If we treat social action as a text, as does Ricoeur, does deconstruction, de-sedimentation, makes more sense: social scientists would then “stir up and expose forgotten or dormant sediments of meaning”? Is this analogous to stirring up the forgotten – the repressed – social unconscious, that arises from action itself, action qua text?
All that, and we’ve only just finished with the epigram…
Jacques Derrida, “Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences,” Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 278-293
Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974)
Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982)
Theory of the Text
Literature and Society
Literature as a Cultural Field
Theory of the Text
Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?” The Second Common Reader: Annotated Edition (San Diego: Harcourt Inc., 2003), 258-270
Jeanette Winterson, “Writer, Reader, Words,” in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (New York: Vintage International, 1997), 25-44
Paul Ricœur, “What is a Text? Explanation and Understanding,” From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991), 105-124
Edward W. Said, “The Problem of Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions,” Critical Inquiry 4, 4 (1978): 673-714 (read 673-681)
Roland Barthes, “Work to Text,” in Image, Music, Text (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), 156-164
Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 1-25
Dorrit Cohn, The Distinction of Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 1-37, 109-131
Ian Watt, “Realism and the Novel Form,” The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 9-34
Pericles Lewis, The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1-53
Franco Moretti, “The Novel: History and Theory,” Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013), 159-178
Literature and Society
Georg Lukács, “Realism in the Balance” , in Theodor Adorno et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007), 28-59
[Recommended Reading: Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger” (1903), in Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 75-132]
[Supplemental Reading] Imre Szeman, “Marxist Literary Criticism, Then and Now,” Mediations 24, 2 (Spring 2009): 36-47
Leo Lowenthal, “Literature and Society,” Literature, Popular Culture, and Society (Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1961), 141-161
Leo Lowenthal, “The Classical French Drama,” Literature and The Image of Man: Studies of the European Drama and Novel, 1600-1900 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 98-135
Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), “The Misanthrope” , In The Misanthrope and Other Plays (London: Penguin Books, 1959), 23-75
Ian Watt, “The Reading Public and the Rise of the Novel,” The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 35-59
Ian Watt, “Love and The Novel: ‘Pamela,’” The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 135-173
[Recommended Reading: Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)]
Lucien Goldmann, “The Revolt of the Arts and Letters in Advanced Civilizations,” Cultural Creation in Modern Society (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977), 51-75
Lucien Goldmann, “Interdependencies Between Industrial Society and New Forms of Literary Creation,” Cultural Creation in Modern Society (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977), 76-88
Literature as a Cultural Field
Pierre Bourdieu, “The Intellectual Field: A World Apart,” In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 140-149
Pierre Bourdieu, “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods,” The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 74-111
Pierre Bourdieu, “Prologue/ Flaubert, Analyst of Flaubert: A Reading of Sentimental Education,” The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 1-43
[Recommended Reading: Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education , Revised Edition (New York: Penguin Classics, 2004)]
Franco Moretti, “Modern European Literature: A Geographical Sketch,” Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013), 1-42
Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013), 43-62
Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York and London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978), 220-238
Walter Benjamin, “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” in Hannah Arendt ed., Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 19-34
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 1-19, 127-207
[Supplemental reading] W. K. Wimsatt, “The Intentional Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 3-18
Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Josué V. Harari ed., Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 141-160
Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), 142-148
Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 21-34
Sigmund Freud, “The Creative Writer and Daydreaming,” in The Uncanny (London and New York: Penguin, 2003), 25-34
Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)
[Supplemental reading] H. Porter Abbott, “Narration,” The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Second Edition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 67-82
[Supplemental reading] Wayne C. Booth, “Telling and Showing,” The Rhetoric of Fiction, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 3-20
Pierre Bourdieu, “Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception.” The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 215-237
Pierre Bourdieu, “Principles for a Sociology of Cultural Works.” The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 176-191
Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” in Jane P. Tompkins ed., Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 50-69
Pierre Bourdieu, “Reading, Readers, the Literate, Literature.” In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 94-105
Jeanette Winterson, “Art Objects,” in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (New York: Vintage International, 1997), 3-21
Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press, 1991)
Michael Wood, Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1-12, 37-67 (“Introduction: Among the Analogies” and “After Such Knowledge”)
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1989), 3-24
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1927)
Perhaps the ahistorical and, ultimately, utopian nature of the proposal to seal the borders and compel undocumented persons to self-deport can be brought into focus via a discussion of apparatuses of security and the mechanisms of discipline conducted by the obscure Foucault*. In his historical narrative, “the territorial sovereign became an architect of the disciplined space, but also, and almost at the same time, the regulator of a milieu, which involved not so much establishing limits and frontiers, or fixing locations, as above all and essentially, making possible, guaranteeing, and ensuring circulations: the circulation of people, merchandise, and air, et cetera.” He selects as an example of the “relationship of government to event” the problem of dearth or scarcity, defined as “’the present insufficiency of the amount of grain necessary for a nation’s subsistence.’” A typical pattern was assumed to develop from the scarcity of grain:
It is a state of scarcity, in fact, that raises prices. And, of course, the more prices rise, the more those possessing scarce objects are inclined to hoard them and monopolize them so that prices rise even more, and this occurs precisely when the most basic needs of the population are not being met.
In seventeenth- and eighteen-century France, the goal of government was to avoid this cycle of events. Because urban revolts are “the major thing for government to avoid,” scarcity the “scourge of population” and the “catastrophe, crisis” for government.
Two political and philosophical judgments go hand-in-hand with this scenario of scourge and crisis that must be avoided. First, scarcity is thought as “inevitable misfortune.” “Food shortage is misfortune in the pure state, since its most immediate, most apparent factor is bad weather, drought, ice, excessive humidity, or anyway everything outside of one’s control…So, scarcity appears as one of the fundamental forms of bad fortune for a people and for a sovereign.” Second, scarcity is viewed from a moral perspective as a punishment for man’s evil human nature. This evil nature “will have an influence on scarcity by figuring as one of its sources, inasmuch as men’s greed – their need to earn, their desire to earn even more, their egoism – causes the phenomena of hoarding, monopolization, and withholding merchandise, which intensity the phenomena of scarcity.” Fallen nature and (mis)fortune are, for Foucault, the two frameworks for thought about scarcity.
The eighteenth-century governmental response to evil and misfortune in grain provisions is primarily juridical:
For a long time scarcity was countered by a system that I would say is both juridical and political, a system of legality and a system of regulations, which was basically intended to prevent food shortages, that is to say, not just to halt it or eradicate it when it occurs, but literally to prevent it and ensure that it cannot take place at all. This is a juridical and disciplinary system that, concretely, take the classical forms you are familiar with: price control, and especially control of the right to store; the prohibition on hoarding with the consequent necessity of immediate sale; limits on export, the prohibition on sending grain abroad with, as the simple restriction on this, the limitation of the extent of land under cultivation, because if the cultivation of grains is too extensive, the surplus from this abundance will result in a collapse of prices, so that the peasants will not break even.
If we substitute persons moving across the border for grain, how might Foucault help clarify the conditions that actually govern the situation? “Illegal immigration” or rather illegal movement of persons across the border is interdicted — viewed through a moral lense (as an evil) — by heavy apparatus, rules, and controls which enforce, and thereby eradicate, all illegal movement across the border. (Analogous discussion by Foucault of a town struck by plague: quarantine).
*Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978, Lecture 18 January 1978.