Week 9--The Law (of Genre? of Gender? of The Scarlet Letter?)

Anne Dalke's picture
This week we'll be reading some theory by the "father of deconstruction," Jacques Derrida, and by the feminist critic Mary Eagleton, who applies Derrida's deconstructive theories to the intersectioning questions of gender and genre. We'll also begin our reading of The Scarlet Letter, a 19th century romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which is just full of duplicity and complexity waiting to be deconstructed. Your thoughts about any/all of this...?
egoodlett's picture

class notes from tuesday

We started off by talking about the poem, "The Law of the Law of Genre," which was written for Jacque Derrida and Derek Attridge. We discussed the mother-child relationship as it's compared in the poem to genres - the mother is the "original" form of a genre, and her child resembles her in some ways, but differs in others, producing a slight variation on the original. That child then has children of its own, which are also alike in some ways, and differ in others. We also touched on the line where the narrator refers to his/her children as "fascinating, incorrect nodes in my brain," suggesting that the parent in the poem may be experiencing their children (or successive genres) as errors, or having inherited incorrect parts from the narrator. Looking over this again, I found this line especially interesting given Hester's feelings in the chapter on Pearl, as she begins to fear that the child has inherited all of her negative traits.

After this, we talked a little about the English major here at Bryn Mawr, and our class in particular - where we feel we want to go after taking this class, and if it has given us any ideas for future classes we might like to explore.

We also watched (or tried to watch, anyway) a clip of Aretha Franklin's song, Natural Woman, and discussed what we thought the line "you make me feel like a natural woman" meant. Some of us thought in terms of biological definitions (to have an XX chromosome, or to be born a woman, whereas an unnatural woman would be someone intersexed or transgendered male-to-female), others in terms of cultural constructions (for example, nowadays we use blue clothes for baby boys and pink for baby girls, but in the 18th century, it was the reverse), others thought in times of not-culturally-constructed women (i.e. someone not made-up or wearing jewelry, not someone who wants to define themselves with a label). We also discussed the line itself - if Aretha is being made to feel like a natural woman, then she isn't really one, she just feels like one, and she needs this other person around to make her feel "natural," which means, in other words, she wasn't a "natural" woman, then.

From there, we moved into talking about Derrida as the father of deconstruction, and his method of analyzing a text; very close readings in order to detect portions where it contradicts itself. Later, we also talked about the feeling, in Western philosophy, that expressions should be as transparent as possible in order to reflect truth or thought. Speech is a sign, a means of expressing our thoughts, but we can never quite fully express them or communicate our exact meaning to the listener. However, speech, according to this train of thought, is closer to truth than writing, because writing is a sign made to represent speech, thus making it a sign of a sign in regards to thought, or a sign of a sign of a sign in regards to reality (object - thought - speech - writing). So writing is just a supplement to speech, and will lead to the problem of misunderstandings when used in place of speech.

Derrida, however, asks what is a supplement? A supplement is something that makes an addition to or completes an idea. So writing makes up for something that is lacking in speech; we write because speech has problems as well - the true inner self cannot be expressed when speaking, and we write to more transparently/clearly communicate our ideas.

But then, speech is already a supplement, to thought. And then we talked about Derrida's idea that it is all a series of supplements. In the example story we discussed, Rosseau (forgive spelling) loves Madame de Warens, but even when she's there, she's not enough, because she is a supplement for his mother figure. But even if his mother had been there, she still wouldn't have been enough, because she couldn't have been there every moment she was needed, so she was a supplement too, for something else, and on and on. Someone brought up a similarity in Uncle Tom's Cabin here - St. Claire's wife doesn't value him until he dies, and then she remembers him as much more valuable than she felt he was when he was alive.

We finished by talking about daydreaming/the world of the imagination as possibly the most "real" world we can access - it is the dream world where everything can be perfect and truth can be readily accessable (even if we cannot share it perfectly with others, since speech and writing are all mere signs of our thoughts, and not our thoughts in their pure form). Is that reality, or is reality just what we know; the fixed foundation, as certain as a mathmatical proof, that Descartes was searching for.

Louisa Amsterdam's picture

Derrida sneaks up on me one Friday night

On Friday night, I went with a couple of friends to Haverford's Lunt basement to see live music. As we waited for the band to play, my two friends talked; I was tuning in and out of their conversation, when I heard one of them say (heavily paraphrased): "I don't like opinions. I think they are a type of judgmental mindframe; everyone should just take in new ideas and not apply their pre-existing opinion to them." And I couldn't help but think, upon hearing this, "What would Derrida say?" If I have understood the class discussion of him correctly, he would say that this statement is ridiculous, and that we will never simply evaluate, completely fresh, every new piece of information we receive. Instead, new information is molded against ideas that are already inside of us, but are also not uniquely our ideas, but our translation of some other basic outside idea.

Or something.

Marina Gallo's picture

Theory in general

I was thinking about theory and how it is endless in its questioning of what we think. That IS intimidating..as we talked about in class. I think that is part of the reason I dislike studying theory. The other main reason is that it is always written in a convoluted way. Why can the authors simply state what they mean instead of trying to confuse everyone and prove how smart they are. I just feel like it is a game of show-off rather than simply giving people information. That really bothers me!
One Student's picture

Either I understand Derrida

Either I understand Derrida on an elementary level though not the specifics of his argument and what exactly he means by his terms, or I am completely at sea. In particular, I am confused by citation vs. recit, and history vs. nature, and mode vs. genre.

What is Derrida saying that Foucault does not? (I know, we haven't read Foucault in this class, but he was my first theorist.) Are they developing similar ideas about categories but applying them to different areas of categorization? Wittgenstein on mathematics, too, for that matter: he argued that mathematicians don't discover mathematical truth, but invent it, creat it, just as genre truth (Derrida) and sexuality truth (Foucault) are created or constructed, not found. Is that the crux of post-modernism?