Steen (steenlc) wrote in theorybookclub,
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‘Force and Signification’

In this essay, Derrida reads Jean Rousset’s Forme et Signification and does it to reveal the folly of structuralist analysis, critiquing the emphasis on form. Often, Derrida is quite forceful in his critique “the structuralist consciousness is a catastrophic consciousness” (4). His harshest criticism at the beginning of his essay is the ahistoricity of structuralism, and indicts all literary criticism as being non-creative. “Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is to create.” (3)

While he takes up many different paths in this essay, I’m most interested in his concept of reading and writing. He argues that meaning does not precede writing and that “meaning is neither before nor after the act [of writing]” (12). It is the work (as in force and activity) which comes between writing and reading which makes a work (as in text) irreducible. Reading, thus, is no longer a passive activity of absorbing the form on the page, but rather a matter of using force, both in the sense of violence but also simply an activity.

What Derrida is arguing for here is the general switch seen in poststructuralist accounts of reading, where the focus moves away from the structuralist/referential analysis, to an emphasis on the enunciative moment and performative action of reading. Reading is a creative act for Derrida, not a non-creative (critical) analysis, and since reading is creative it can be considered a form of writing; ie. we as readers ‘write’ the text/novel/etc we are engaged in reading. All of this is dependent on the force of signification, where the play of meaning can overflow signification (13).

This is the reason why a work can never be summarized and is never present, nor has a space of space means presence (15). It is because a work is always in play, never total but always in continual motion, force, in the process of being written, as it were. This line of thought is parallel to Roland Barthes’ argument in ‘From Work to Text’ and ‘The Death of the Author.’

The structuralist analysis of a work is thus missing something, because the individual work disappears when focussing on the structure (17). Derrida later quotes Leibniz’s ridiculing of medieval geomancers because any fool can draw a line between various points and create a formula for it. This is clearly parallel to bad structuralist analysis, where useless structures are detected in works, but the force of the work is completely missed (21-22). Structuralism presupposes that the book/work has a theological simultaneity, ie. that we as readers can keep, and should keep, all of the book’s contents present in our mind when reading it and especially when analysing it (28). Derrida points out not just the impossible nature of this, but also the useless notion of it, since meaning is the indefinite referral of signifier to signifier (29).

Note here the word ‘indefinite,’ which precisely precludes the notion of the work as whole, total and complete. Again he returns to the act of reading a creative process which never stops and the individual work as containing infinite meanings. This is something which he later resumes to in the essay ‘Dissemination’ and other works. This concept of a given text holding endless meanings is one of the more controversial of his statements and one many people have reacted against since it sounds like the ultimate argument for textual nihilism: ‘there is nothing in the text at all’ to paraphrase his ‘there is no outside text.’ However, this is far from Derrida’s point; instead he wishes to point out that meaning is not controllable by the work as such, but is instead as dependent on the reader’s performative act.

OK, so this last bit went beyond ‘Force and Signification’ and into more general Derridian concerns on reading.

X-posted to my own journal.

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