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The Post Card: FROM SOCRATES TO FREUD AND BEYOND by Jacques Derrida; translated from the French by Alan Bass (University of Chicago: $46; 516 pp.)

July 12, 1987|Sara E. Melzer | Melzer is associate professor of French at UCLA. She is the author of "Discourses of the Fall: A Study of Pascal's Pensees" (University of California Press).

E. D. Hirsch, in his recent best-selling book, "Cultural Literacy," codifies 5,000 items one must know to be culturally literate. Jacques Derrida, one of the most important theoretical thinkers of the last two decades, should certainly figure on this list. But neither he, nor the philosophical position "deconstruction" associated with his name, are included. This absence, however, is not surprising, since deconstruction challenges the very assumptions that underlie Hirsch's or any other attempt to codify and universalize knowledge. Hirsch's list presupposes distinctions between the central and the marginal, the essential and the inessential. Deconstruction works to show that what had previously been thought marginal may be seen as central, when viewed from another position. But this reversal, attributing importance to the marginal, does not lead simply to the reconstitution of a new center, but to the subversion of such distinctions between essential and inessential, universal and particular. What is a center, if the marginal can become central?

The tremendous impact of Derrida's writing on contemporary thought began in France in 1967 with the simultaneous publication of three major philosophical works, all subsequently translated into English, "Speech and Phenomena," "Writing and Difference" and "Of Grammatology." In 1980, he wrote "The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond," which is now available in an excellent English translation. The titles seem odd at first, remote from the central concepts of traditional philosophical inquiry. Writing and grammar do not have the same ring as being and nothingness . And a book about the post card? A book about an artifact situated on the margins of the already marginalized epistolary arts? How dare one juxtapose such ephemera to the enduring weightiness of the philosophical and psychological traditions as represented by their most solid pillars, Socrates and Sigmund Freud? This unconventional marriage of the "marginal" and the "central" is typical of Derrida's deconstructive strategy.

Deconstruction, following Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche, seeks to alter and displace the central questions that structure our pursuit of truth and knowledge. As variants of the grounding question, "What is it?" stand the questions "What is truth?" or "What is the meaning of this text?" Claiming that such questions determine their answer, Derrida asks that we question these very questions. What assumptions do such questions presuppose? According to Derrida, they presuppose that truth and meaning exist as an object, a self-contained essence immune from the subjective process of its pursuit. Truth and meaning, such questions assume, will be revealed through the systematic peeling away of layers of fiction to uncover an origin that lies behind the work and serves as a center controlling its structure. According to Derrida, this truth/fiction opposition fits into a parallel series of dichotomies that govern Western thought: central/marginal; presence/absence; thought/language; nature/convention; reality/image; objective/subjective; masculine/feminine; soul/body; identity/difference. Both terms of the polarity, he says, are organized into a hierarchical structure that privileges the first term and devalues the second. What determines the respective value attributed to each term is its relation to an idealized notion of an origin. The first term is privileged because it supposedly exists in a relation of unity, identity or immediacy with the origin, whereas the second term, derived from the first, is distant and different from the origin, which it dissimulates.

Derrida would deconstruct the metaphysical underpinnings of Western thought by undoing these hierarchical oppositions themselves so that no term can be shown to merit priority over the other, each then existing only by virtue of its relation to the other. For example, the terms masculine/feminine would then not be defined by their ability to imitate an idealized or essentialized notion of masculinity or femininity, an origin that lies outside the system these terms inhabit. Rather each term would be defined by its difference from the other: the masculine as that which is not feminine, the feminine as that which is not masculine. In this way, each would be determined by its difference from the other terms within a given system of meaning. The differential structure that determines meaning being invisible, the words in a given system may appear to correspond to an essential and universal meaning outside the system, Derrida maintains. But in fact, on his view, no meaning exists outside the system.

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