In 1963 Roland Barthes recommended: “watch who uses signifier and signified, synchrony and diachrony, and you will know whether the structuralist vision is constituted.” When Barthes put that remark into an essay entitled “The Structuralist Activity,” he was at the peak of his career as a structuralist. Yet, as is clear from that suggestion, as well as from the other signifiers that have both syntagmatic and paradigmatic (two more to look out for) relationships in that text, structuralism was a hard-to-define exercise. In the succeeding 20 years things have become less murky and more clear—at least with regard to the ophthalmologic condition of structuralism. But just when most were finally able to peg the clues as they presented themselves, the poststructuralist age leaped full-grown from Jacques Derrida’s head.

Christopher Norris is able to write in a tone that is undoubtedly meant to evoke the ubi sunt formula for the briefest moment: “Barthes was a brilliant stylist and a highly original—at times even wayward—constructor of theories.” The past tense of the verb in that sentence signifies more than the fact that M. Barthes has been tucked away in his grave since 1980. This is evident if the syntagmatic chain of that utterance (another word to monitor) is examined. Antony Easthope is a great one for using all of the words noted so far, so his explanation of this aspect is in order:


[T]he syntagmatic chain is not to be identified with the sentence. Sentences pertain to the syntactic rules of a language. . . . The syntagmatic chain does operate within the sentence but it also operates beyond the sentence in the way sentences become cohesive as discourse. [Keep an eye on discourse.] For example ‘I hate pigs’ is a sentence correctly generated within the rules of English syntax. Extension of the syntagmatic chain with another sentence (such as either ‘However, I like horses’ or ‘last week I got busted’) would firmly identify the chain as belonging to agricultural or to bohemian discourse.


Now, this means that “meaning” can be found in the syntagmatic chain, even if that chain, by the rules of conventional grammar, is a fragment. A sufficiently long chain—and how long is never clear—becomes a discourse. This should come as no surprise to anyone. Conversation is full of fragments, though people tend not to notice them. Some of the dialogue in Ford Madox Ford’s novels caused outrage in his day because he rendered this aspect of communication. Now we yawn.

Another reference from Easthope is necessary: “Conscious intention is brought about along the syntagmatic chain where meaning ‘insists’ but this place is always produced as an effect of the Other [another], which remains outside it and so to that extent unconscious.” “The Other” is a term that’s often used by the followers of one Jacques Lacan. Lacan, a psychoanalyst, used it before he joined Barthes in the Other in 1981. Although it is getting fairly crowded in here (a metaphor, I should note, that identifies the graphematic aspect of this discourse: language, as Derrida has it, is a thing, therefore it has dimensions), another name must be introduced: Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure, a linguist, died in 1913, though he is the man to blame for much of the current jargon. More precisely, some of his students are to blame, for they compiled lectures and notes to create Course in General Linguistics, which has become something of a bible in the hands of certain otherwise agnostic Frenchmen.

Saussure promoted several types of categories. He distinguished between the noteworthy (in the sense of Barthes, that is) langue and parole. The former is essentially a system: language. Parole, then, is a speech act (don’t let speech fool you; writing is the primary concern today, though it wasn’t for Saussure) within that language. Then there are the signifier and the signified. If you watch those two little words long enough, you’ll see that they become virtually as high as the Eiffel Tower, as broad as the Louvre, and as fulsome as the Seine in critical, philosophical discourses. To cheat by making things as simple as possible, I’ll say/write that the signifier is the word and the signified the concept. The argument goes that you can’t have a signified without a signifier, which is a nice trick as it serves to foreground words ahead of ideas for those who are inclined to take the trump. (Pardon the interruption, but chances are, “trick” and “trump” undoubtedly stand out in the preceeding so much that they, unlike the other words, called attention to themselves as signifiers. And that is what much of this is all about.) Now, although the concept of words as things begins to sound like what Gulliver was introduced to in the school of language at the Grand Academy of Lagado (e.g., “since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on”), it isn’t precisely the case. One could carry about a pocketful of words for a short discussion or a satchel-ful for a long one and the agenda wouldn’t necessarily come out as planned. One signifier can have numerous signifieds. Signifiers are, so it’s claimed, there, and signifieds are arbitrarily welded to them. An important feature of this langue­ parole/signifiers-signified scheme is that context becomes vital, in the life-giving sense. Saussure maintained that a signifier meaningfully exists only in relation to other signifiers. Thus, the concept of the syntagmatic chain becomes slightly more clear: elements are lined up, hooked together, and supportive of the others. There’s more to it, of course, but now we must attend to the Other. The Other is what’s not there. For example, as Foucault and Blanchot (two names to add to the now-burgeoning list) would have it, death is the Other that life isn’t. The Other for this sentence is the many words not used but possibly implied by the 17 here. Or, in Easthope’s words, “the island is only there because the sea is withdrawn.” What lesson can be drawn from this? Context! Context! Context!

The quotation from Christopher Norris once again: “Barthes was a brilliant stylist and a highly original—at times even wayward—constructor of theories.” On the face of it, the eulogy is most kind. However, what about the Other? In this case, determining what it is is fairly simple, given two things: (1) the use of the word constructor and (2) the title of Norris’s book: Deconstruction: Theory & Practice. Norris, wielding Derrida’s disintegrating fescue, eliminates Barthes limb by limb, signifier by signifier in a fairly brutal manner. It must be pointed out, though, that Norris is forced to take large chunks at a time due to the space limitations imposed by the publisher (see, words can take up lots of room). Although it is still a bit early in the day to say bonne nuit to M. Barthes, it is obvious that his shadow is dissolving in the salons of the City of Light.

Deconstruction is currently one of those words that evoke among “more conventional” critics and scholars a response that is not unlike that of a mother with a child at an R-rated film. When the R-rated scene appears, she inevitably covers the child’s eyes. In time, of course, the child becomes an adult and must face those scenes unshielded. Structuralism once had the same power; it was cowered from. Things have changed. Norris says with bitterness in an opening salvo, “What started as a powerful protest against ruling critical assumptions ended up as just one more available method for saying new things about well­worn texts.” Structuralism is now rated PG. And with good reason. Two things were initially held against structuralism. One was that it presented itself in a quasi-scientific guise. For many academics in the literary community, the debate between the two cultures is over—not completed, just over. Literature is not to be subject to equations, they maintained. So that was that for structuralism. Why this resistance passed is hard to establish. Perhaps the popularity of structuralism was infectious; perhaps literary scholars became enamored of pocket calculators and digital watches during the 70’s and so figured that technology was okay.

The second objection remains one and, what is more, deconstructionists have taken up the baton. Barthes, among others, one of whom is Derrida, said that the “author is dead.” This was apparently more shocking than Nietzsche’s infamous bon mot. Blood pressure levels rose throughout university literature departments in the West. The implication of such a statement was that the guardians of the great and not-so-great authors were performing a pointless task. But that isn’t the case. As everyone knows, a joke is killed when it is methodically explained; its magic is suddenly evacuated. A true novel, play, or poem can be explained and dissected over and over and over again yet still remain pregnant with meaning. The reason behind these two cases is that a joke merely has a horizontal dimension (A then B then C) while literature is multidimensional. Consider Shakespeare. With the amount of scholarship that has been performed on his works (and no one has proved that the man we know and love is really the right guy) it would seem that their meaning would have been established once and for all long ago. But no, that’s not the case. For example, new interpretations of Hamlet emerge on a regular basis. Why—because of Shakespeare? No—because of the various interpreters who apply their knowledge and skills to the play. Clearly, Hamlet doesn’t have the same meaning for audiences in 1983 that it had for those who witnessed its opening in 1602. What we see today are not the author’s intentions: how could he have imagined this world? There exists a difference. The author is “dead” because the reader is “alive” to make meaning. Everyone does it all the time. Each person reading this text will construe it differently from another; my readings will change as the words go from pencil to ink to type. Does this mean that all interpretations of any given work are equally valid? In a sense, the answer is yes. All writing—and literature, in particular—is protean; it can never be explained with complete exactitude: once you think you’ve got it, it slips away and changes: or you change. Things get very scary to conventional readers when an affirmative answer is given to the question of whether all of this doesn’t mean that the author’s explanation is really no better than that of a person from Yale or the College de France. Why this is so can be explained fairly simply if the preexisting material nature of signifiers is taken as a given: the author is unable to say what he really means. Or, it can be argued that the author, by making his work public, loses certain rights: once the manuscript is out of the desk drawer and onto the bookshelves, everyone has an equal crack at it. Doesn’t this then lead to interpretative anarchy? Taken to an extreme, it does. But common sense must be applied, in the same way that it must be when making measurements: Euclid works better than Einstein, even though the latter is, as far as we know, more correct.

Deconstruction, so Norris would lead one to believe, is rated X and ever shall be. He and Antony Easthope are among the best representatives for what’s worst about modern critical theory. Norris is obviously smug; he thinks he knows it all. Norris writes, “For Nietzsche, as for Derrida, the project of absolute knowledge [i.e., Western philosophical speculation] was deluded at source by its forgetfulness of how language creates and capriciously misleads the processes of thought.” To deconstruct. And to risk misinterpretation throughout: misreading is more common than you can imagine. One of Derrida’s main concepts is différance (list still out?). Basically, referring back to the before-mentioned material nature of words, this means that a writer’s intentions are not necessarily manifest in his text because the signifiers are things and from the whole collection of things, the author must make a selection, even though the fit isn’t just right—sort of like a pair of shoes that are too big or too small: the shoes are still serviceable. Derrida suggests, it seems, that the written “nature” (my word), the graphematic structure (his) of language is primary: even a man making a speech must “pick his words.” Différance comes in in that the writer must defer to language and in that his meaning (and the reader’s reading) must differ from the written text. Derrida’s clever word game insists that approximations are as close as anyone can get: there’s no such thing as the real thing.

Now here’s why no one needs to shy away from deconstruction. Like any good scholar, Derrida performs close readings of texts (as do his American heirs, such as de Man and Hartman). Derrida has read the canonical works of Western philosophy and has indicated what he perceives as the shortcomings of what are accepted beliefs. The shortcomings stem from the fact that Plato and all of the rest had to work with language. Of course, Derrida gives the philosophers their due as cunning men, and so he claims that the “truths” are really ruses. He deconstructs their game; he shows how the tricks work. The tricks are typically based on rhetoric. Deconstruction, then, is just another means through which its adherents can propose that ultimately we can know nothing. That isn’t exactly original. While often boring, deconstructive readings can be amusing and can even provide insights. Thus, while it is still “adults-only” fare, it isn’t particularly risqué. What is surprising about Norris’s handling of the subject is his reverential approach to Derrida. Derrida is, for him, the Last Word. We know that that is impossible, deconstructively speaking.

Easthope, another Derridian epigone, is less smug. But he is more radical, though in the standard political sense. Although he is most familiar with the main figures in poststructuralist thought and provides some workmanlike explanations, he sounds as if he was suckled by Gramsci. That is, Poetry as Discourse is essentially an examination of the history of English poetry from a standpoint that can be discerned (to borrow an approach from Barthes) from this sentence: “A poem obviously is an example of parole, an utterance constructed according to and within the system of a language.” Easthope, however, grinds an axe more than he deconstructs. His thesis is buried among the signifiers that should now constitute the list of words to watch for, but it shines out like glowing swamp gas:


English poetic discourse since the Renaissance is the product of history, ideologically determined. In this respect it is an epochal form, coterminous with the capitalist mode of production and the hegemony of the bourgeoisie as the ruling class. It is therefore a bourgeois poetic discourse.


Easthope sets out to prove that iambic pentameter is the most insidious tool for keeping the masses downtroddened since capital was developed. To return to the chiropodic metaphor. It becomes clear that literary theories are like feet. They are wonderful devices for going places. They can also get stuck in one’s mouth, vide Easthope.