a resource for studying literary theory


Post-structuralismUndone in mine undoing,
And ruined in my ruin… (‘Goblin Market’)

Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) was a French philosopher; born into a French speaking Sephardic Jewish family in Algeria, his ancestors spoke Arabic, Ladino and Hebrew, though these languages had fallen into disuse in the family by the time of his birth.  It should be emphasized that there is never any simple equivalence of language and identity in his work. Derrida worked in the continental philosophical tradition; in a sense his work is nothing but footnotes to Martin Heidegger (then Nietzsche, Saussure and Freud). A.N. Whitehead characterized Western philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato; the footnote, the apparently marginal takes up central importance in deconstruction. Derrida’s work is both deeply indebted to Heidegger and to a sceptical overturning of Heidegger exploring the limits of hermeneutics, the art or science of interpretation. He also might be read as overturning structuralism (the ideas stemming from the work of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure that culture is structured like a language) and phenomenology (this is a branch of philosophy which analyses subjective appearances and consciousness). Derrida’s early work was a translation and commentary on Edmund Husserl; but together with Heidegger his work is considered as an end of the phenomenological tradition besides being deeply imbued with it.

Writing comprehensively about Derrida’s ideas in a brief article is clearly impossible, to embark upon an aporia, an impassable path; this page is a supplement or gesture towards further reading. One must read Derrida himself together with commentaries. Deconstruction is not a method, so there can be no question of applying it. One can attempt to think with Derrida’s writings and to write about literature informed by him or in reaction to him. From the late 1960s the post-structuralist writings of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva emerged in dialogue with him, sometimes acrimoniously in the case of Foucault and Lacan while his friend Hélène Cixous was particularly close; then in the United States the so-called Yale School of Harold Bloom, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man were indebted to him. Of literary theorists and philosophers working today, I would indicate Judith Butler and Steven Connor together with the post-colonial critics Gayatri Spivak, who translated Of Grammatology, and Homi Bhaba; though the very discourse of theory, if there is any such thing, has been profoundly shaped by his influence.  Frank Kermode was instrumental in disseminating these ideas through his seminar in London. Besides this Derrida’s ideas have entered diverse fields from art history to law, even popular culture, though often in a debased form; one can purchase deconstructed salads and deconstructed clothing. I cannot provide an exposition of post-structuralism here, but will simply refer you to the classic account in John Sturrock’s Structuralism and Since.  Classroom expositions of deconstruction often suggest that one simply analyses the text into a series of binary oppositions then subverts this by asserting the rights of the debased pairing – this is held to be generally political. This is a travesty of Derrida and far from his own interpretation of literary texts.

To reiterate there is no deconstructive method. Derrida typically will closely interpret an existing philosophical or literary text undoing its implications, exploring rhetoric, marginal details, evasions, silences and omissions.  Deconstruction, literally the undoing of construction, is itself translation of Heidegger’s own terms Destruktion ‘destruction’ and Abbau ‘unbuilding’. The idea that the text ‘always already’ contains its own deconstruction is likewise derived from Heidegger. I say this not to diminish Derrida’s ‘originality’, but to emphasize both that he is working in a tradition and suspicious of romantic assumptions of originality. You might see the quotation from Rossetti at the head of this article in another light now since my purpose of enabling the poem to call to deconstruction will emerge.  Derrida is a formidably difficult writer, however this style is not ornament but intrinsic to the text.  Derrida was a profoundly original interpreter of texts, but this originality is paid for by obscurity. Simon Critchley discusses obscurity in his introduction to Continental Philosophy; part of this difficulty is created by a deliberate radical estrangement, a defamiliarization of assumed common sense or commonplace, what the Greeks (and Derrida) termed the doxa.  Derrida did not work out a method which he then proceeded to apply to everything; instead he invents an interpretive machinery for each occasion producing an array of terms which he declares are not concepts. De Saussure, the father of structuralism, declared that language is difference without positive terms.  Derrida takes this principle of difference and applies it through a series of terms which are used ‘under erasure’ (another Heidegger device): they are both present yet absent, they are in a sense arbitrary because they are provisional. In Of Grammatology, a key term is différance, a neologism created by misspelling différence ‘difference’ but pronounced identically.  This plays on the meaning of differ and defer, the mark of difference between différance and différence is only perceptible in writing, not in speech. Modern linguistics privileges speech over writing, but Derrida is interested in showing how the Greek word logos λόγος which can be translated variously as speech, thought, reason and language depends upon an illusion of full presence and the repression of writing. Is there a difference of kind or a difference of degree between differences of kind and differences of degree? Derrida poses such riddling questions to demonstrate the constructed nature of language and identity. In writing there is the absence of presence of the living voice. We cannot ask Rossetti what she intended by writing ‘wombat’ and ‘ratel’ – did she intend to suggest womb and rattle? Does ‘goblin-ridden’ imply the idea of an incubus, the mara or nightmare – an evil spirit or goblin who rides his victim having intercourse with her while she is asleep? There is a pun, a play on language here; ‘goblin-ridden’ might mean ridden by Goblins, perhaps with an innuendo on ride; or it might be simply that the goblins are a pest or disease or indeed both.  Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare depicts such a scene but is it part of the context? Writing continues to work after the death of the author; writing has its own intentionality, its signifying structure, its textuality. Philosophy (and literary criticism for that matter) is a kind of writing; notoriously il n’y a pas de hors-texte,,,,,,,,,, which might be translated as ‘there is nothing outside of the text’ or literally ‘there is no outside-text.’ (Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 158). The context is itself a text open to interpretation.

When I turn to ‘Goblin Market’, I shall offer a dehiscence of goblin fruits. Dehiscence is a term from botany meaning the bursting open of fruiting bodies in order to discharge their contents; it is a metaphor for the endless dissemination of meaning, in the scattering of semen or semantics, there is both reproduction and contamination. Dehiscence is also used in the discourse of surgery to describe the gaping of a wound as it splits along the suture where it has been sewn together, a complication as medics euphemistically describe it.   Again like Heidegger and Nietzsche, Derrida utilizes speculative etymology as a mode of thought.  For example, in Germanic languages gift means poison; this is brought to bear on the gift-exchange in which ties of mutual obligation are constructed when presents are given and received.  These pages are my gift to you in which I am attempting to reproduce Derrida’s own gift of deconstruction to the world; no gift is free.  The gift is a pharmakon, in Ancient Greek a drug which is both poison and antidote, sickness and cure. It is as impossible to write like Derrida as it is impossible to translate poetry transparently. Derrida himself reading Ancient Greek, French, German and English, with excursions into Hebrew, continually explored the impossibilities or betrayals of translation: Des Tours de Babel (punning on detour and tower) is a meditation on Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’ in which Benjamin argues that true translation is impossible.  Moreover, if I were to reproduce Derrida accurately then I would be as difficult, as excessively baroque as him – perhaps you should stop reading now and read Acts of Literature followed by A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds;  ideally you should read some Heidegger, Nietzsche, Saussure and Freud too. Then Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot and the Talmud.

In the last twenty years of his life, Derrida was engaged in teaching mainly in literature departments in the United States. There is a shift towards writing about the self and especially upon death. Simon Critchley argues that an ethics of deconstruction emerges. In Specters of Marx (1993), Derrida explores the legacy of the radical critique of capitalism brought into being by Marx and what remains after the collapse of communism as a state doctrine in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe. He invents a neologism, hauntology, which combines ‘haunt’ the haunting of ghosts with the location or haunts where such haunting takes place and ‘ontology’ the philosophy of being and becoming. The Communist Manifesto begins ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.’ Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa – das Gespenst des Kommunismus. Gespenst means ghost or phantom, Geist ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’ is another possibility.  Hauntology has itself continued to grow and mutate since the death of Derrida. Derrida maintained that he was a man of the left, though orthodox Marxists continue to question that assertion. Reading Derrida with any degree of understanding makes considerable demands upon the reader.  It is the wager of any philosophy or critical work that it can open more books to readers; my gift here is the legacy of continental philosophy which has forged a new language for university level literary studies since 1968.  In Acts of Literature Derrida’s writings specifically on literature are anthologized: Mallarmé, Kafka, Joyce, Shakespeare, Paul Celan; they are remarkable readings very different from those of his American followers, indeed they are a strange fruit of literature itself. Perhaps it is the lure of these ‘sugar-baited words’, the promise of a new language for criticism which calls readers to deconstruction. Here is goblin fruit indeed, ‘Sweeter than honey from the rock’ (l. 129), an allusion to the Bible which suggests a hard-won pleasure as well as the danger of stings.  In the spirit of Derrida’s Acts of Literature, I have attempted to read ‘Goblin Market’ provocatively and creatively, by drawing upon some of Derrida’s own critical terms, such as dehiscence, gift and pharmakon and to explore the remarkable fruiting of carnal knowledge, sex and death which the poem puts into play.

You might follow up my initial reading by considering how the poem rewrites phrases from the Bible, how Rabbinical commentary interprets the Old Testament material and how Christina Rossetti came to be acquainted with the Goblins of Germanic legend. Reading Derrida’s Acts of Literature and Heidegger’s Poetry Language Thought may extend your reading of the poem. Bennett and Royle’s An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory is suffused with deconstruction; speculative etymology is deployed to open up texts. Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy offers a Derrida-inspired reading of the Bible which might inform possible reading of Rossetti.  Beginning readers of literary theory may well assume that the theory will simplify the literary text and say what it is really about; on the contrary, my purpose is to entice you to read some difficult books. Jacques Derrida typically reads the texts he writes about in the original (as well as in translation); he reads the work of an author comprehensively then often echoes the form of the text in the manner of his exposition, that is his reading of Kafka is Kafkan and his reading of Joyce is Joycean as well as Derridean. This uniting of form and function is a modernist aesthetic; he writes with a singular voice, but in the margins of his chosen text.


Image ‘Dekonstrukcja’ by Chris (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr