Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction


The Truth in Painting (1987)

In 1905 Paul Cézanne wrote to the younger artist, Emile Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” One can immediately imagine how Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would have seized upon such a statement with its promise of “truth” “in painting,” two dubious precepts. Derrida would be compelled to deconstruct such a proposition. Despite its name, the Deconstruction that is associated with Derrida is not an act of destruction or a breaking up, instead Deconstruction, like Structuralism is an activity or performance. Deconstruction is reading, a textual labor, traversing the body of a text, leaving “a track in the text.” Unlike other forms of critical analysis, deconstruction cannot happen from the outside but, as Derrida stated, “Deconstruction is something that happens and happens from the inside.” As he stated to an audience of academics at Villanova in 1994 (in English),

The very meaning and mission of deconstruction is to show that things–texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices of whatever size and sort you need–do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they are always more than any mission could impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy..A “meaning” or a “mission” is a way to contain and compact things, like a nutshell, gathering them into a unity, whereas deconstruction bends all its efforts to stretch beyond these boundaries, to transgress these confines, to interrupt and disjoint all such gatherings.Whatever it runs up against a limit, deconstruction presses against. Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell–a secure axiom or a pithy maxim–the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might say that cracking nutshells is what decontsructrucion is. In a nutshell.

Deconstruction does not appeal to a higher logical principle or superior reason, something which Derrida considered to be metaphysical. His goal was to upsets the system of hidden hierarchies that composed philosophy by producing an exchange of properties. His major target was the hierarchy between speech and writing, in which speech was presumed to have preceded writing, this giving to speech a (false) priority and the (false) presumption of origin. In inverting the hierarchies embedded in paired opposites, Derrida insisted neither element can occupy the position of origin (such as speech over writing) and the origin looses its metaphysical privilege, which is why he insisted on deconstructing the Structuralist system of polarities and oppositions. He pointed out that the pairs, far from being equal or balanced, were, in fact, hierarchized, with one term being preferred (culturally) over the other. If this is the case, if “good” is preferred over “bad”, then the meanings of each/both term/s are interdependent. If the terms are interdependent, then they cannot be separated or polarized. If the terms cannot be separated or opposed in any final way, then their meanings are also interdependent and inseparable. This logical march which deconstructs

Structuralism began with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) who was concerned with the problem of transcendence, the objectivity of objects, and their existence outside of temporal consciousness. In other words, the object had to be a form of knowledge of the object itself, not the mental acts which cognitively construct it. Phenomenological reflection suspends or “brackets” the question of existence and privileges the experience-of-object, which is the “object to be described” and this privileging means that the identity of the object must be ideal. But Derrida did not believe that Husserl’s transcendental acts of pure perception existed or that such states of purity could exist. Husserl posited an absolute ideal of objectivity, geometry, in order to differentiate between subjective and objective structures. Derrida asserted that Husserl “lodged” objectivity within subjectivity or self-presence, and that if this is the case, then the self must differentiate itself from the object and thus, Husserl introduces the idea of difference.

Derrida charged that Husserl created a structure of alterity or the otherness of the meaning or self. Living presence, according to Derrida, is always inhabited by difference. To express this differently, so to speak, difference creates an endlessly deferred meaning as the self and the object oscillate, unable to fix a position. By deconstructing Husserl’s philosophy, Derrida relocated his philosophy as writing. Without this “fixing” of a position, then a transcendental position is impossible, for if Derrida is correct and Husserl is merely writing, then yet another metaphysical account of the mystical thing in itself is revealed to be a figurative fiction. To the dismay of traditionalists, Postmodernism robs us of the fantasy of certainty. If we can never be certain, we can never know the truth. In contrast, the “close reading” of the Structuralists, that sought to find “unity,” gives way to a new close reading–Deconstruction–that seeks the “uncanny”–a Freudian term–that works against the bounds of the text. “The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar…” said Freud, referring to something that is repressed but recurs, responding to deeper laws, which for Deconstruction is that which is hidden in the text.

Deconstruction intervenes in philosophical texts, seeking what is not acknowledged, and intercedes in the field of oppositions and their hierarchies and works within the terms of the system in order to break open the structure and to breach its boundaries to determine what might have been concealed or excluded, or repressed. To deconstruct a discourse is to show it undermines the authority of philosophy and reveals its literary/rhetorical aspects. In identifying the rhetorical oppositions that structure the ground of the argument Deconstruction deconstructs philosophy as language, as writing. In The Truth in Painting (1987), Derrida interrogated Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) by introducing the concept of the passé-partout or what Americans refer to as the mat that encircles the painting or print or photograph, i. e. the work of art. He wrote,

Between the outside and the inside, between the external and the internal edge-line, the framer and the framed, the figure and the ground, form and content, signifier and signified, and so on for any two-faced opposition. The trait thus divides in this place where it takes place. The emblem for this topos seems undiscoverable; I shall borrow it from the nomenclature of framing: the passe-partout. The passe-partout which here creates an event must not pass for a master key.

Using the concepts of inside/outside and the idea of betweenness, Derrida was led to the next obvious question: “What is art? Then: Where does it come from ? What is the origin of art? This assumes that we reach agreement about what we understand by the word art. Hence: What is the origin of the meaning of “art?” The modern meaning of art must begin with Kant’s third Critique which was then commented upon by Georg Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1818-1829), who, in turn was over-writen by Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art (written 1935-7, published 1950/60) and Derrida also used Kantian the concept of the “parergon” to question the supposed autonomy of art and its relation to various discourses, such as history and philosophy, which seek to preserve its autonomy. The parergon is the frame, the boundary between the art work (ergon) and its background and context, and in surrounding the painting, the frame guarantee its musical/metaphysical autonomy as “art.” Kant rejected the boundary-conditions and prevented the invasion of art’s privileged domain by assuming a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, or that which is proper to the domain of art and that which is outside the properties of art itself.

Kant introduced the metaphor of framing in an attempt to delimit a proper space of aesthetic representation, but in so doing, Kant perceived a problem, an undecidability in some seemingly marginal details that could not be detached without altering or upsetting the composition. For example, what is intrinsic to a sculpture with drapery? Should the body be considered as autonomous, that is self-sufficient without the drapery, or is the drapery intrinsic to the work of art itself? Decorative outwork was perceived of as part of art’s intrinsic quality, such as clothing on statues, which is not part of the essential form, and architectural details that are purely functional but that cannot be excluded from the overall artistic impression. Therefore for Kant, the parergon is a hybrid of inside and outside, frame, clothing, column, and there is no deciding what is intrinsic to artwork and what belongs to the outside frame. From the standpoint of Deconstruction, this “Framing” discourse is the chief concern of aesthetics which legitimizes its own existence by fixing a boundary between art and other modes of knowledge, including history and theory. “Art” becomes “art” through boundaries that exclude its other. Clearly, this notion of “frame” and the idea of “boundary” are both figural constructs hidden in plain sight within the discourse of aesthetics.

The frame is another variation of the Structure. Rhetorical figures, such as the “frame” in art, exist within discourse for a reason. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What is at stake?” why is the frame/the structure necessary? In asking why it is necessary to place art within s structure, to produce boundaries to validate “art,” he then demystified the notion of aesthetics as disinterested value. Aesthetics in “interested” in the sense that it defines and therefore produces “art” via these framing devices. The frame must be present in order to structure and the purpose of structurality is to both contain art within and exclude all that is deemed non-art. In the case of art, that which is “not art” is excluded in order to shape and form “art” as an entity that is transcendent. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What particular interests are served by aesthetics”? Contrary to the notion of a discourse that assumes art gives access to the realm of timeless and disinterestedness values, any discourse on art is always and inevitably bound up with interests that belong to the outside (of art).

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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