You are on page 1of 4

CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF M.

H ABRAMS’s THE DECONTSTRUCTIVE ANGEL

Structuralism proved that meaning evolves out of differences from other signs in a semantic
chain. Post structuralists too it to its extreme and claimed that this chain is endless. Hence
the final meaning is impossible. The process of finding difference is always deferred as
well. Derrida coined the portmanteau term Differance. The term suggests to differ' and 'to
defer'. Deconstructionists hold that communicating through language is rather impossible. In
"The Deconstructive Angel", Abrams defend the ability of traditional historical criticism to
discover what literary works might have meant to their contemporaries. They can also grasp
what they mean today. To prove this, he compares his own interpretation to those of other
interpretations. These combined approximations will "confirm the 'objectivity' of his own
interpretation". Abrams admits the ambiguity of literary language, sharing the ideas of
Barthes. Abram is comfortable with linguistic theories that see language as pluralistic or
ambiguous. But he cannot agree with the violent claims of Deconstruction. To quote
him: "deconstruction goes beyond the limits of pluralism, by making impossible anything
that we would account as literary and cultural history".

Deconstruction is a philosophical-critical approach to textual analysis that is most


closely associated with the work of Jacques Derrida in philosophy and the Yale School (Paul
DeMan, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman) in literary theory and criticism. Derrida draws
the term déconstruction from his interpretation of Martin Heidegger as a way to translate two
Heideggerian terms: Destruktion, which means not destruction but a destructuring that
dismantles the structural layers in a system; and Abbau, which means to take apart an edifice
in order to see how it is constituted or deconstituted. For Derrida, then, deconstruction, in the
context of philosophy, refers to a way to think the structured genealogy of philosophy's
concepts while exposing what the history of these concepts has been able to obscure or
exclude. By displaying those concepts that the philosophical tradition both authorizes and
excludes, a deconstructive reading seeks to work within the closed field of metaphysical
discourse without at the same time confirming that field. Instead, it allows a text to dismantle
itself by exposing the internal inconsistencies and implicit significations that lie concealed
within the language of the text.

Thinking that, for Derrida, is central to the history of philosophy. This is to say, each term in
the Western philosophical/cultural lexicon is accompanied by its binary opposite:
intelligible/sensible, truth/error, speech/writing, reality/appearance, mind/body,
culture/nature, good/evil, male/female, and so on. These oppositions do not peacefully
coexist, however: one side of each binary opposition has been privileged and the other side
devalued. A hierarchy has been established within these oppositions, as the intelligible has
come to be valued over the sensible, mind has come to be valued over body, and so on. The
task of deconstruction is to dismantle or deconstruct these binary oppositions: to expose the
foundational choices of the philosophical tradition and to bring into view what the tradition
has repressed, excluded, or—to use the Derridean terminology—marginalized.
Abrams has made essential premises that he shares with traditional historians of Western
culture, about the entire body of traditional inquiries in the human sciences. They are:
1. The basic materials of history are written text and the authors who wrote this
text with exaggerated language assumed that the readers would be able to understand
what they wrote.
2. The historian interprets the passages he cites by combining his own language
and the language of his author in order to approximate what the author meant.
3. The historian realizes that it is possible that some of his interpretation contains
some errors. However, if they are only small errors, they will not seriously affect the
soundness of his overall history, but if the errors are the greater part, his book is not to
be accounted a history but an historical fiction.

He associates those three premises with linguistic interpretation, that is , the


categories, topics, and conceptual and explanatory patterns that the historian brings to his
investigation of texts, which serve to shape the story within which passages of texts, with
their linguistic meanings, serve as instances and evidence. However, the differences among
each part of linguistic meaning effect the diversity in the stories those different historians tell.
Abrams’s view of language is, on the whole, functional and pragmatic: Language is
the use of a great variety of speech-acts to accomplish a great diversity of human
purposes. He claims that, what he meant and whatever else the author also meant, at a
sufficient approximation, is sufficient to the story he undertakes to tell.
Deconstruction designates a theory and practice of reading which claims to “subvert” or
“undermine” the assumption that the system of language provides grounds that are adequate
to establish the boundaries, the coherence or unity, and the determinate meanings of a text.
Hillis Miller made a challenging review on Abrams’s book, Natural
Supernaturalism. He considered what is being risked in Natural Supernaturalism is the
validity of the premises and procedures of Abrams. However, according to abrams, Miller’s
radical statement, in his review, of the principles of what he calls deconstructive
interpretation goes beyond the limits of pluralism, by making impossible anything that is
accounted as literary and cultural history.
Miller’s central contention is not simply that Abrams has wrong interpretation, but
instead that Abrams can never be right in his interpretation. He said that because he agrees
with Nietzsche’s challenge of ‘the concept of “rightness’ in interpretation,’ and with
Nietzsche’s assertion that ‘the same text authorizes innumerable interpretations: there is no
“correct” interpretation. According to Miller, Nietzsche’s view of interpretation are rerlevant
to the recent deconstructive theorists who have ‘reinterpreted Nietszche’ or have written
‘directly or indirectly under his aegis.’
Jacques Derrida, founder of deconstruction, inquiries to a prior inquiry into language.
What is distinctive about Derrida is first that he shifts his inquiry from language to the written
or printed text; and second that he conceives a text in an extraordinary limited fashion.
Derrida’s initial and decisive strategy is to disestablish the priority of speech over
writing. By priority means the use of oral discourse as the conceptual model from which to
derive the semantic and other features of written language and of language in general.
Derrida’s shift to elementary reference is to a written text which consists of what we find
when we look at it-to a text already written, black on white.
Derrida goes further than that by suggesting there is no referent, no signified. There is
the system of signifiers, but outside of that are no signified. This is an important feature of
deconstruction because contemporary Western thinking is that there is an absolute signified
in all its fullness. A notion which Derrida dubbed the “metaphysics of presence”, meaning
that language is ‘logocentric,’ focused around words. This lack of signifiers having a
signified means that there is nothing for signifiers to refer to-that is, no absolute meaning and
thus only multiple meanings; there is no univocal text and consequently only plurivocal texts.
Derrida expresses his alternative conception on the “undecidable” play of linguistic
meanings in terms derived from Saussure’s view that in linguistic sign-system, both the
signifier (the material elements of a language, whether spoken or written) and the signifieds
(their conceptual meanings) awe their seemingly identity, not to their own “positive” or
inherent features, but to their differences from other speech-sounds, written marks, or
conceptual significations which bring us back to the metaphysics of presence.
Because the signified is nothing but a concept, different from other concepts only due
to differences in the signifier, it cannot exist as something tangible in the sense that they have
an absolute presence to us. The signified is illusory and so signifiers can only relate to other
signifiers and thus that we cannot, in any instance of speech or writing, have a fixed and
decidable present meaning. In other words, what appears to have only one meaning to us, has
in fact multiple meanings due to the absence of a tangible signified. Text may seem
decidable, but they are all in fact undecidable.
To account for what is distinctive in the signification of a sign Derrida puts Forward
the term ‘trace,’ which he says is not a presence, though it functions as a kind of
‘simulacrum’ of a signified presence. This trace is first of all elusive since the readers do not
know it is there and “which consists of all the nonpresent meanings whose differences from
the present instance are the basic factor which invest the utterance with its “effect” of having
a meaning in its own right.” Trace makes it so that the signifier can never have a single fixed
interpretation but instead makes it open for countless different interpretations.
Derrida coins what in French is the impormanteau term difference to indicate the
endless play of generated significances, in which the reference is interminably postponed.
The conclusion is that ‘the central signified, the originating or transcendental signified’ is
revealed to be ‘never absolutely present outside a system of differences,’ and this ‘absence of
an ultimate signified extends the domain and play of signification to infinity.’
For the mirage of traditional interpretation, Derrida proposes the alternative that we
deliver ourselves over to a free participation in the infinite free-play of signification opened
out by the signs in a text.
Hillis Miller sets up an apt distinction between two classes of current structuralist
critics, the ‘canny critics’ and the ‘uncanny critics.’ The canny critics cling still to the
possibility of ‘a structuralist-inspired criticism as a rational and rationalizable activity, which
agreed-upon rules of procedure, given facts, and measurable results. The uncanny critics have
renounced such a nostalgia for impossible certainties. And as himself an uncanny critic,
Miller’s persistent enterprise is to get us to share, in each of the diverse works that he
criticizes, its self-deconstructive revelation that in default of any possible origin, ground,
presence, or end, it is an interminable free-play of indeterminable meanings.
Like Derrida, Miller sets up as his given written text, ‘innocent black marks on a
page’ which are endowed with traces, or vestiges of meaning; he then employs a variety of
strategies that maximize the number and diversity of the possible meanings
while minimizing any factors that might limit their free-play. The two of them are:
First, he applies the terms ‘interpretation’ and ‘meaning’ in an extremely capacious
way, so as to conflate linguistic utterance or writing with any metaphysical representation of
theory or of fact about the physical world. These diverse realms are treated as ‘text’ which
are ‘read’ or ‘interpreted.’ And within the realm of explicitly verbal texts, Miller does not
make a distinction to the kinds of norms that may obtain or may not obtain for the
‘interpretation’ of the entire corpus of an author’s work.
Secondly, it is related to Derrida’s treatment of the ‘trace.’ Whenever and by
whomever and in whatever context a printed word is used, therefore, the limits of what it can
be said to mean in that use are set only by what the interpreter can find in historical and
etymological dictionaries, supplemented by any further information that the interpreter’s own
erudition can provide.
One way in which Miller goes about deconstructing a text via the use of etymology.
He looks up the word in his etymology dictionary and applies the alternate meanings of the
root-form of the words to the text from which he took the words in the first place, thus giving
several different interpretations to what is being said, as shown in his article The Critic as
Host. So what would happen if a similar procedure was followed concerning his article? In it,
he deconstruct the word parasitical, names it as an example of the deconstructive strategy of
interpretation.
In conclusion, deconstruction is a method of interpreting the text in an alternative way
by looking at the different meanings hidden within the text, which is possible due to the
deconstructive critics belief there is no set signified at the origin of the signifier. However,
deconstruction has its flaws and the most noticeable one of these is of course that the
deconstructive critic is obliged to use the same signifiers with its lack of absolute signified as
the texts that are deconstructed and thus, within the deconstructive principle, would be unable
to bring the intended meaning across whilst at the same time exemplifying the point which
the critic is trying to bring across; that no text has asset of meaning.