“I’m no good for anything except taking the world apart and putting it together again (and I manage the latter less and less frequently).”
This quote from the master of deconstructionism has the ring of a well-known nursery rhyme. Derrida is famous for questioning the logic of language and the binaries it creates. He takes words apart, extracting their various associations until one can see that they are an unstable mess of meanings. They are signs that can never reach a specific signified. Each word points to other words (signifiers) that take us further and further along in our search for meaning. Language, in this sense, functions as “chains of signifiers” (Derrida as qtd. in Tyson, 2006, p. 252). We are always on the journey towards meaning, but we never fully arrive at its destination. We are constantly being re-routed by new words that point us in different directions.
Language, from this perspective, is but a series of detours through wonderland.
Sound complicated? It is. Derrida’s words represent their own chains of signifiers and (speaking for myself) it is easy to get lost along the mental paths they create.
However, part of deconstructionism is recognizing how binaries break down when we begin to explore their respective chains. For example, if we were to deconstruct the binary of complicated and simple in relation to Derrida’s theory, we might consider how such a complex idea can be conveyed through a simple nursery rhyme.
For instance, let’s say that a word is an egg. From the outside, it seems whole. It seems in-tact.
Now pretend a sentence is a wall. We carefully balance our egg on the wall, leaving it for people to see.
One by one, they begin to walk by. They are curious as to why the egg is on the wall, so they touch it. Once. Twice. Three times. They try to get a proper feel for it. To make sense of its presence in that particular place.
Gradually, our carefully balanced egg begins to rock. We watch it go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until suddenly…SPLATT! It falls and cracks.
What do we get when we crack a word open?
One, big, runny mess.
Try as we might, we cannot fix it. Once we recognize the cracks in our vocabulary we will spend hours and hours trying to put it together again to no avail. No matter how hard we try, we know that words are just fragile shells, shells out of which meaning will always escape.
Complicated or simple? I think it’s both. Derrida is not as far removed from Mother Goose as one might think.
Lewis Carroll knew this.
Although he was well before Derrida’s time, he recognized the intellectual complexity of nursery rhymes and the slippery yolk of language.
In fact, Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass sounds a lot like a lesson in deconstructionism.
“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty-Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
“‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
“‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master -that’s all.'”
Which is to be master? It’s a good question. Whether we like it or not, we all find ourselves walking on eggshells of broken words and splattered meanings. Careful as we are, we still get egg on our faces and everywhere else.
But if words are like eggs, they can also be used to create wonderful things. Delicious things. Fascinating things. Our conversations may leave us stained, but they can also leave us satisfied. Words may only be one ingredient in the recipe of our lives, but they are an important ingredient. They may not possess a stable consistency, but perhaps it is their inconsistency–their sticky residual traces–that make them so vital to the creation of meaning–to the digestible moments that, for lack of any words, fill us with a sense of significance.
All of the signs, after all, eventually point back to us. Where we are. Who we are. How we are. When we are. Why we are. These are questions everyone faces.
Maybe the moment we stop feeling lost is the moment when we realize that we are not alone in our journeys through wonderland. That we are not the only Alice who is having trouble navigating pretentious eggs.
On that note, please humour this experiment with Mother Goose’s original recipe.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
And all the King’s horses,
And all the King’s men,
Had a lovely feast of scrambled eggs.
Thank you for taking the time to break eggs together. After all, if our words are inevitably going to leave traces, we might as well make them taste of something good!
From one King’s person to another, I hope you cook up something awesome with your Humpty Dumpty moments today!
Carroll, L. (1871/1992). Through the looking glass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Tyson, L. (2006). Critical theory today: A user-friendly guide. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.