Wednesday 1 April 2015

Kamala: Stranger to Herself

Kamala: Stranger to Herself

Knowledge Clip based on this Article:

The article attempts to view kamala Das as an identity that is stranger to herself in her poems. Critics have termed her as one of the best voices in Indian poetry where feminine sensibility finds its best expression. This article looks at Kamala from psycho-linguistic point of view and tries to exemplify that her identity is lost in the strangeness of language. Another’s language, man’s language has failed her is her attempt to reveal her true feminine identity. She is nothing more than stranger to herself. Taking help of Julia Kristeva and Lacan’s theory of Otherness of Language, the writer has aimed to prove his point with the help of several poems written by Kamala Das.
How to cite this article:
MLA Citation:
Barad, Dilip. “Kamala Das: Stranger to Herself.” Charisma of Kamala Das. Ed. T. Sai Chandra Mouli. New Delhi: Gnosis, 2010. Print

K R S Iyengar (677) puts Kamala Das under the title of ‘New’ poets in his comprehensive and masterly survey of the whole body of writing in the English language by Indian writers. The fifth edition of the book entitled Indian Writing in English was published in 1985. For last two and half decade, Kamala Das still remains ‘New’ and strikingly fresh poet to the Twenty First century reader. Her poetry spoke with fierce and unsparing honesty about the difficulties of being a woman and a wife in a time and for a culture which had trained women to a long tradition of silence (Mehrotra 251). With all her honesty and ‘Newness’, Kamala remained stranger to her own identity. In her real life, Kamala ‘Nair’ by birth, became ‘Das’ after marriage, ‘Madhavikutty’ as a bilingual write and later on ‘Suraiya’ after converting to Muslim religion. Her search for true self-identity never ended. In her poems also the same striving for self-identity is reflected. The problem with Kamala Das the poet is the problem of any or all female writers. Any female writer, be it poet or novelist, face same dilemma when it comes to express their genuine self with sincerity. The dilemma leads towards anguish and anxiety. The dilemma is because of the language they use to express their sensibility. The language is such a tool, which on one hand helps to given vent to our emotions and feelings; on the other, it is the weapon which kills genuine expression of feminine sensibility. The language which is male oriented and patriarchal in its nature does not allow freedom of expression to feminine sensibility. Kamala Das is almost frantic to own this language:
The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness
All mine, mine alone…..
It is as human as I am human, don’t
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes,… (From An Introduction).
But her unconscious, as reflected in her choice of words, voices another story all together.

It is well said by Roland Barthes (Qtd in Belsey 19): “Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing.” Kamala Das, the person – is not to be found in her writings. What we get is true feminine sensibility, feminine spirit; and the desperation of feminine sensibility for its expression in the language which is not hers.
When Kamala Das wrote about ‘musk of sweat between the breast’, ‘menstrual blood’, ‘male/female body’, ‘female hungers’, ‘beat sorry breasts’, or ‘stand nude before the glass’, it was considered as ‘a far cry … a fiercely feminine sensibility that dares without inhibitions to articulate the hurts it has received in an insensitive largely man-made world’ (Iyengar 680). But these words studied from psycho-linguistic view point and with the help of the theories of Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Carl Jung, Northrop Frye, would give contrasting impression of Kamala Das as a poet. She emerges as a poet struggling to express her genuine sensibility in man-made language. The words as signifier do not signify the signified. What they signify is not acceptable to her, yet she has to as there is no way out. Julia Kristeva (Belsey 16) calls this signifying capability which is not derived from the meanings of the words ‘the semiotic’. It evokes, she maintains, the sound produced by the rhythmic babbling of small children who cannot yet speak. The semiotic exists prior to the acquisition of meaning, and psychoanalysis links it with the drive towards either pleasure or death. These sound effects, as they reappear in poetry, are musical, patterned; they disrupt the purely ‘thetic’ (thesis-making) logic of rational argument by drawing on a sense or sensation that Kristeva locates beyond surface meaning. Thus the surface meaning in Kamala Das misguides us to believe what Iyengar believed. But in true sense, she has failed to give vent to her feminine sensibility. She is failed by the very language she tries to express herself. The language is the prison within the limits of which she has to function. Her address to Krishna, in Krishna is symbolical address to the language she uses:
Your body is my prison, Krishna,
I cannot see beyond it.
Your darkness blinds me,
Your love words shut out the wise world's din. (Krishna).
Krishna becomes the symbol of man-made language. She is imprisoned within the limits of the language. She cannot see beyond the language and it blinds her. Its words shut out the feminine spirit which she wants to express. Thus she remains ‘stranger to herself’ in her poems. The female voice in her poems pines for Krishna’s love, the unconscious female self of the poet pines for her own language.
But in absence of her language, she makes use of man’s language in an attempt to express her true sensibility. In The Looking Glass, she writes:
… the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers.
The reference to breast is her inner heart – which throbs for true love – menstrual blood is life giving and life enhancing – which flows out in absence of life in womb to nurture… There is hunger in this reference to nurture life. It is cry for true love. Absence of love from gay oriented husband and hidden love affaire represses her desires to be what she is. She finds outlet of her repressed desires and emotions through poems.
In her first novel, Alphabet of Lust (Das 9) she writes, “But then she would not have been a poetess, for her poetry had burst out of the mire of her utter hopelessness like a red lotus”.
But she needs to be read and understood with much deeper significance and interpretation. The Otherness of language (Lacan, Kristeva as qtd in Belsey) becomes hurdles in her expression and reader’s interpretation. What Julia Kristeva writes in Strangers to Ourselves (189, 191) is quite true for Kamala Das: “You improve your skills in the new language but it is never quite yours, and you lack the authority that goes with unthinking fluency. You are easy to ignore and thus easily humiliated. … You become a kind of cultural orphan, never at ONE with anyone anywhere”. She is not comfortable with man-made language and thus never at one with herself.
In The Maggots, she writes:
At sunset, on the river ban, Krishna
Loved her for the last time and left…
That night in her husband’s arms, Radha felt
So dead that he asked, What is wrong,
Do you mind my kisses, love? And she said,
No, not at all, but thought, What is
It to the corpse if the maggots nip?
(From The Descendants)
In this small poem, she expresses women’s desire to be with her love. When married to other man, she languishes. For her the husband is maggot… Krishna is symbolic of the language which female writers from Mary Wollstonecraft to Elain Showalter and Julia Kristeva have desired to have as theirs own. But as Krishna is of none and is illusive avatar, the language, which is patriarchal and male dominated, is also not acquired by these female writers. And in absence of that language, they have to be satisfied with kisses of maggot like husband. As maggot’s nip has no effect of corpse, the language they use have no effect on what they really want to express.
In ‘An Introduction’, Kamala Das’s attempt to own Otherness (Lacan web) of language is reflected:
‘The language I speak
Becomes mine

Here again, linguistic study of the words reflect repressed desire to own something which is not hers and in that attempt something is lost (From An Introduction).
…. Its distortions, its queerness
All mine, mine alone.

Why is it that she makes use of words that are denotative of negation? Words like ‘distortion’, ‘queerness’, they denote negation. Perhaps, consciously she want to say that language is hers own, but the hidden unconscious, the feminine consciousness, expresses the hidden angst against the language. She is true to her feminine sensibility when she make use of negative adjectives like ‘distortions’ or ‘queerness’. Her feminine sensibility and consciousness know it very well that the language which she uses can never be hers.
Later see writes in the same poem:
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions…

These lines from ‘An Introduction’ clearly signify what Lacan has said about Otherness of language. Lacan uses a capital ‘O’ to distinguish the Otherness of language and culture from the otherness of other people, though of course it is from other people that we learn and internalize the Otherness of the signifier. (Belsey 58)
Catherine Belsey (58) simplifies what Lacan has said in ‘Of Strucure as the Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever’ and in Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan (2007) by Lorenzo Chiesa. The big Other is there before we are, exists outside us, and does not belong to us. In the course of asking for what we want, for instance, we necessarily borrow our terms from the Other, since we have no alternative if we want to communicate. In this way, the little human organism, which begins with no sense of a distinction between itself and the world, gets separated off from its surroundings and is obliged to formulate its demands in terms of the differences already available in language, however alienating these might be. Then there is desperate attempt, anxiety and agony to express and to belong to. In this attempt to achieve fit full expression for desires and emotions, one finds oneself in very awkward situation. The Otherness of language, which we have acquired to ask and say what we want instead of crying helplessly, does not permit us to express what we want to. Because the language is irretrievably Other. For female the distance is ever greater. It is not only Other’s language; it is also man’s language. It has developed and acquired its uniqueness in patriarchal society.
Something is lost here – experienced, perhaps, as a residue of the continuity with our organic existence, or as wishes that don’t quite fit the signifiers that are supposed to define them. Belsey (59) writes, “Lacan calls what is lost is real. The real is not reality, which is what culture tells us about. On the contrary, the real is that organic being outside signification, which we can’t know, because it has no signifiers in the world of names the subject inhibits. The real, repressed because it has no way of making itself recognized in our consciousness, returns to disturb and disrupt our engagement with a reality that we imagine we know.”
In the above lines quoted form ‘An Introduction’, we find this lost of real and desperation to own it. She says that the language is hers and it expresses her longings and hopes. She is longing to express herself but her hopes are thwarted. She fails to express her ‘real’ self. The imagery that follows these lines signifies how she is lost in search of her real self. This strange self is reflected in the imagery she uses. Why is the language and its ownership like ‘cawing of craw’ and not like‘music in the Koel’or the sweet songs of Nightingale? Why are predator birds and animals like crow and lion used to signify it? These predators are archetypes of tragic world. Such recurrent archetypes are held t be the result of elemental and universal forms or patterns in the human psyche, whose effective embodiment in a literary work evoke a profound response from the attentive reader, because he or she shares the psychic archetypes.( Abrams 13) In Archetypes of Literature, Northrope Frye (Fry 1951) denotes tragic sense to the animal world belonging to the class of predatory. The use of imagery of animals belonging to archetypal tragic world, exemplifies that poet’s ‘real’ is dissatisfied. She is unable to find better images to show the general effect of loss. The loss of something that was never her own. A gap now exists between the organism and the signifying subject, and in that gap desire is born. Desire, Lacan (Belsey 60) says, is for nothing nameable, since it is unconscious, not part of the consciousness language gives us. But it is structural. The consequence of the gap that marks the loss of the real, and thus a perpetual condition. Although desire is unconscious, most of us find a succession of love-objects, and fasten our desire onto them, as if they could make us whole again, heal the rift between the subject and the lost real.
Thus we find following lines in ‘A Widow’s Lament’:
My man, my sons, forming the axis
While, I, wife and mother….

She wants to be identified as individual and as someone attached to husband and son. She desired to be one with her ‘real’. She longs to be ‘wife’ and ‘mother’… But as Lacan puts it, the rift between the subject and the lost real is reflected in the line following these:
Insignificant as a fly
Climbed the glass panes of their eyes…

In her search of her real identify ultimately she finds her nothing more than ‘insignificant fly’. She is stranger to herself. The rift between the self and real lost is clearly manifested in several of her poems.
It is human as I am human, don’t
You see? … (An Introduction)

She longs to be human. The capital ‘Y’ in ‘You’ signifies all the male gaze which considers women’s body as ‘thing’ and nothing more but a toy. She can be scornful of male desire, as for ‘The Latest Toy’, which asks that the woman not speak with
A voice, softened as though with tears. He said then, his
Dark brow wrinkling, oh please don’t become emotional,
Emotion is the only true enemy of joy.

Her obsession for sex and body is also expression of the repression born out of the desire. To heal the rift between the subject and the lost real, she seems to be obsessed with body and sex but in the end, it is difficult to heal the rift. It is possible to have a good time in the process of finding the lost real self but it is not possible to find better form of expression. And more she tries to get near to her true self, more she is dragged in the realm of strangeness.
She tries to be honest and sincere with her feminine sensibility when she writes about her obsession for body and sex:
And, I loved his body without shame, (Winter)
In The looking Glass, she writes about total submission to man, may be to get her identity:
Getting a man to love you is easy
Only be honest about your wants as
She goes to an extent of saying:
Stand nude before the glass with him
So that he sees himself the stronger one
And believes it so, and you so much more
Softer, younger, lovelier.
She is ready to succumb her entire self to man to gain her real identity:
Gift him all,
Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers.
Man, like Krishna, here becomes symbol of the language, his language. The female poet in an attempt to achieve true sensibility and its expression is ready to give all she has. She also gets objective correlative or negative capability in form of Krishna’s image. Krishna is the symbol of that language which she wants to master in order to express herself. The otherness of language blindfolds her and she ‘cannot see beyond it. It darkens her vision and imagination. Her power of expression as poet is ‘shut out’.
The craving to voice her sensibility is thwarted. She beats her ‘sorry breast’ and writes:
Some beat their drums; others beat their sorry breasts
And wailed, and writhed in vacant ecstasy. (Dance of Eunuch)
Thus, the language betrays her. She somehow fails to speak of the various depredations the human is susceptible to with a poignancy which is more stark for being clear-eyed. (Mehrotra 252). Thus, she finds herself beaten, crushed and in pitiful situation.
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me.
I shrank Pitifully. (An Introduction)
It seems that in The Stone Age, she is very happy and enjoys her love.  The poem end with following lines:
Ask me why life is short and love is
Shorter still, ask me what is bliss and what its price….
She seems to be happy and so wishes for longer hours of loving with ‘another’ man.
If we read a few lines above it we may find that in reality she is not happy. It again is his craving to give vent to her feminine sensibility but all in vain. The strangeness of language does not help her to do so.
As soon as his husband leaves the house in the morning, she goes to meet his lover:
I drive my blue battered car
Along the bluer sea. I run up the forty
Noisy steps to knock at another’s door.
Though peep-holes, the neighbours watch,
they watch me come
And go like rain. Ask me, everybody, ask me
What he sees in me, ask me why he is called a lion,
A libertine, ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake
Before it clasps my pubis. Ask me why like
A great tree, felled, he slumps against my breasts,
And sleeps.

The images used in the sensuous expression are again archetypes of tragic world. Say for instance, ‘Lion’, ‘hooded snake’, and ‘felled tree’ are all archetypes of tragic vision. Northrop Frye (1951) writes that the archetypes of tragic vision denote tragic sense. Archetypes, according to C.G. Jung (1922) are the reflection of collective unconsciousness. These archetypes are expressive of the fact that she is not at ease while expressing her genuine feelings and emotions. It does not mean that she is not sincere towards her sensibility. Yes, she is genuinely true towards feminine sensibility. But like all humans, she does not have control over her unconscious. When she is true with her emotions and feelings, she is true with her unconsciousness also. Here though the poet seems to express her joy in having sex with ‘another’, actually she is not happy with the act of sex. Going in ‘battered car’ does not speak about a happy journey. The entire process recalls the mechanical sexual process depicted in the episode between the typist and an unknown guest in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
These lines also express the attempts of a female poet to own man’s language. The poet drives in her blue imagination but they are battered as she fails to get better form to externalize it. The ‘knocking at another’s door’ is knocking at man’s language. But she can only peep through it. She cannot have fuller expression of her feminine sensibility through this language. That language like hooded snake ‘clasps her pubis’, symbolically gets hold of her emotions and feelings, but the result is not worth celebrating. The poem created is like ‘a great felled tree’. The creation ‘slumps’ against her breast. It cannot go deeper than skin. The language fails to touch the heart and soul of female poet. The poet has not found an expression of her true sensibility but the true meaning escapes from her grasp. The language has failed her. She merely remains a poet of body and sex. The genuine feminine sensibility that she wants to express is lost somewhere in the lacuna created because of Otherness of language.  She remains stranger to herself.
Works cited:
·        Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Delhi: Thomson Wadsworth. Rpt 2007.
·        Belsey, Catherine. A Very Short Introduction: Post structuralism. New York: OUP. 2002.
·        Chiesa, Lorenzo. Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan. MIT press. 2007.
·        Das, Kamala. Alphabet of Lust. New Delhi: Orient. 1976.
·        Frye, Northrop. The Archetypes of Literature. The Kenyon Review: Vol. 8. 1951.
·        Iyengar, KRS. Indian Writing in English. New Delhi: Sterling Pub. Rpt 2001. 1985.
·        "Introduction" Contemporary Literary Criticism Ed. Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 191. Gale Cengage 2004 1 Jan, 2010 <>
·        Jung, C.G. On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetic Art. 1922.
·        Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Columbia University Press. 1991.
·        Lacan, Jacques. Of Structure as the Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever. 18 July 2009
·        Mehrotra, A.K. An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English. Delhi: Permanent Black. 2003.

·        Wikipedia contributors. "Kamala Surayya." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 30 Dec. 2009. Web. 1 Jan. 2010.

                         An Introduction

I don't know politics but I know the names 
Of those in power, and can repeat them like 
Days of week, or names of months, beginning with Nehru. 
I amIndian, very brown, born inMalabar, 
I speak three languages, write in 
Two, dream in one. 
Don't write in English, they said, English is 
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave 
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins, 
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in 
Any language I like? The language I speak, 
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses 
All mine, mine alone. 
It is half English, halfIndian, funny perhaps, but it is honest, 
It is as human as I am human, don't 
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my 
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing 
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, it 
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is 
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and 
Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech 
Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of rain or the 
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing 
Funeral pyre. I was child, and later they 
Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs 
Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair. 
WhenI asked for love, not knowing what else to ask 
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the 
Bedroom and closed the door, He did not beat me 
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten. 
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me. 
I shrank Pitifully. 
Then … I wore a shirt and my 
Brother's trousers, cut my hair short and ignored 
My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl 
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook, 
Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh, 
Belong, cried the categorizers. Don't sit 
On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows. 
Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better 
Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to 
Choose a name, a role. Don't play pretending games. 
Don't play at schizophrenia or be a 
Nympho. Don't cry embarrassingly loud when 
Jilted in love … I met a man, loved him. Call 
Him not by any name, he is every man 
Who wants. a woman, just as I am every 
Woman who seeks love. In him . . . the hungry haste 
Of rivers, in me . . . the oceans' tireless 
Waiting. Who are you, I ask each and everyone, 
The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and, 
Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself I 
In this world, he is tightly packed like the 
Sword in its sheath. It is I who drink lonely 
Drinks at twelve, midnight, in hotels of strange towns, 
It is I who laugh, it is I who make love 
And then, feel shame, it is I who lie dying 
With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner, 
I am saint. I am the beloved and the 
Betrayed. I have no joys that are not yours, no 
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Deconstruction and Derrida

Jacques Derrida:
Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences

(from The Structuralist Controversy, ed. Richard Macksey and Donato E. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Uni Press 1970)

Define deconstruction:
Deconstruction, as applied in the criticism of literature, designates a theory and practice of reading which questions and 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 literary text. Typically, a deconstructive reading sets out to show that conflicting forces within the text itself serve to dissipate the seeming definiteness of its structure and meanings into an indefinite array of incompatible and undecidable possibilities.

Q. Expound Derrida’s concept of decentering centre and suplimentarity.
Q. Discuss how Derrida asserts the inexhaustibility of the text and thus keeps it perpetually open to new discoveries.
Q. Comment upon the post-structuralist view that there is no ‘a-textual origin’ of text.
Q. The Post Structuralist critic 'read the text against itself so as to expose what might be thought of as the 'textual subconscious', where meanings are expressed which may be directly contrary to the surface meaning.
Deconstruction: In the criticism of literature, Deconstruction is a theory and practice of reading which questions and 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 meaning of a literary text. Typically, a deconstructive reading sets out to show the conflicting forces within the text itself to dissipate the seeming definiteness of its structure and meaning into indefinite array of incompatibility and undecidable possibilities.
Derrida was the most influential philosopher in 70s and 80s of last century. His philosophy is the further extension of structuralism and is better called as Post-Structuralism. He carries this structuralist movement to its logical extreme and his reasoning is original and startling. We have seen in this movement that as in New Criticism, the attention was shifted from the writer to the work of literary text; consequently textual analysis became more important than extra textual information. Further, the author disappeared and only the text remained. This is what we called the stylistic and structuralist position. The meaning as it emerges from the text (the illocutionary force) alone counted. In this process the importance of the reader and his understanding increased, and the Reader Response or Reception Theory came into being. Derrida gives the same process a further and final push according to which what matters is the reading and not the writing of the text. At times one feels, though not quite justifiably, that, in Derrida even the text disappears and what is left behind is an individual’s reader response to it. Now the reader rules the supreme, and the validity of his reading can not be challenged. However, the structure of each reading has to be coherent and convincing.

Decentering the Centre
Derrida deconstructs the metaphysics of presence. That is to say that according to Derrida there is no presence or truth apart from language. He seeks to prove that the structurality of the structure does not indicate a presence above its free play of signs. This presence was earlier supposed to be the centre of the structure which was paradoxically thought to be within, and outside this structure, it was truth and within, it was intelligibility. But Derrida contends that, ‘the centre could not be thought in the form of a being-presence’, and that in any given text, there is only a free play of an infinite number of sign substitutions. A word is explained by another word which is only a word not an existence. Thus a text is all words which are just words, not indicative of any presence beyond them. In the words of John Sturrock, “The resort to language or sign entails, we know the loss of all uniqueness and immediacy. The sign is not the thing in itself”. It is utteractive or repeatable. A sign which was uttered only once would be not sign. It is the types of which each utterance is token.
There is no a-textual origin of a text. The author’s plan of a book is a text. His realization of the same book is another text. Its summary is third text. A text kindles a text and there is no truth beyond the text that the text seeks to represent or explain. There is no reality other than textuality. The textuality is the free play of signifiers. There is no signified that is not itself a signifier.
In the words of John Sturrock, Derrida seeks to undermine “a prevailing and generally unconscious ‘idealism’, which asserts that language does not create meanings but reveals them, thereby implying that meanings, pre-exists their expression”. This for Derrida is nonsense. For him there can be no meaning which is not formulated, we cannot reach outside language.

The concept of supplementarity follows from decentrring the centre. A literary text is a work of language and language as such according to Derrida, is like time, ever in a state of flux. Just as time has no origin, so also the origin of language is inconceivable. All that we can say is that it came into being fully, not bit by bit along with the emergence of man, and will disappear along with man. Derrida quotes and approves Levi-Strauss who writes: “Whatever may have been the moment and the circumstances of its appearance in the scale of animal life, language could only have been born in one full swoop (all at a time). Things could not have set about signifying progressively. Following a transformation the study of which is not the concern of the social sciences, but rather of biology and psychology, a crossing over came about from a stage where nothing had a meaning to another where everything possessed it”.
But language being a flux is not ever the same. It is always gaining in new elements and loosing the older ones. “The totality of the myths of a people”, Derrida quotes Levi-Strauss again, “is of the order of the discourse. Provided that these people do not become physically or morally extinct, this totality is never extinct. Such a criticism would therefore be equivalent to re-approaching a linguist with writing the grammar of a language without having recorded the totality of the words which have been uttered since that language came into existence and without knowing the verbal exchanges which will take place as long as the language continues to exist.” Totalisation is thus useless and impossible. The language paradoxically comes into being as a quest of imaginary truth apart from language and continues to realize the lack of truth in the words that it employs. The freeplay of signifiers, “a field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ‘ensemble’ permitted by the lack. The absence of centre of a origin is the movement of supplimentarity. The super abundance of the signifier, its supplementary character, is thus the result of a finitude, that is to say, the result of a lack which must be supplemented. The process of supplementarity has no end. Because positive & concrete definition is impossible for any term, every term necessarily requires a supplement or supplements, something or some things which help(s) it exist and be understood. Yet, at the same time, the object(s) which the supplement is (are) supplementing is (are) (a) supplements itself. Extend this web in all directions and the relationship between bricolage, play, and the supplementary begins to make sense.

The same applied to any literary text. We look for the truth of the text which in fact is only language, and create in our quest another text through our criticism to supplement the lack of the original text. Supplement the lack of the original text - reading is reactivating the expressivity of the text with the help of its indicative signs. But in the words of John Sturrock, “the meanings that are read into it may or may not coincide with the meanings which the author believes he or she has invested it with. A reasonable view is that a large number of these meanings will coincide depending on how far separable author and reader are in time, space and culture; but that a large number of other meanings will not coincide. For language have powers of generating meanings irrespective of the wishes of those of who use it.”
Of course, the discussion here barely begins to scratch the surface of the implications made by Derrida, for within not even a full fourteen pages of text, has established the foundation of one of the most significant revolutions in the history of thought. Of course, saying that Derrida demonstrated how the history of thought contradicted itself and in so doing imploded the foundation of Western philosophy. Yet, there is scant little chance of denying that Derrida himself holds some special place in this development: if not as its father then at least as its catalyst.

Deconstruction, not critique

Traditional Western metaphysics advances on the basis of critique. You find the weakness in your antagonist's argument, and by this means show it to be false. In the tradition of Pope and Swift, you
may then ridicule the argument, thereby persuading your reader to take your side against your antagonist. You go on to replace the previous position with your own views, which are then subject to
critique in their turn. Deconstruction, however, is not critique. Derrida treats Levi-Strauss with respect, and his project is not to persuade us to repudiate Saussure, still less to ridicule him (though there are moments of comedy in his account of the sermon against the sin of writing delivered by the moralist from Geneva). Instead, he points out that Saussure's own book does not sustain the opposition between speech and writing it takes for granted and reiterates. On the contrary, the Course records (as an outrage) the invasion of the rejected writing into speech itself. Spelling, Saussure declares with horror, is changing pronunciation.

Let us conclude with M. H. Abram’s observation in ‘How to do things with texts?’: - “Derrida emphasizes that to deconstruct is not to destroy; that his task is to “dismantle the metaphysical and rhetorical structures” operative in a text “not in order to reject or discard them, but to reconstitute them in another way”; - that he puts into question the “search for the signified not annul it, but to understand it within a system to which such a reading is blind.”  

What post-structuralist critics do?

1. They 'read the text against itself so as to expose what might be thought of as the 'textual
subconscious', where meanings are expressed which may be directly contrary to the surface meaning.
2. They fix upon the surface features of the words - similarities in sound, the root meanings of words, a 'dead' (or dying) metaphor and bring these to the foreground, so that they become crucial to the overall meaning.
3. They seek to show that the text is characterized by disunity rather than unity.
4. They concentrate on a single passage and analyze it so intensively that it becomes impossible to
sustain a 'univocal' reading and the language explodes into 'multiplicities of meaning'.
5. They look for shifts and breaks of various kinds in the text and see these as evidence of what is
repressed or glossed over or passed over in silence by the text. These discontinuities are sometimes called 'fault-lines', a geological metaphor referring to the breaks in rock formations which give evidence of previous activity and movement.

Structuralism and Poststructuralism: Some Practical Differences

Barry, Peter. An introduction to literary and cultural theory

Structuralism and Literary Criticism: Gerard Genette

Gerard Genette: Structuralism and Literary Criticism

Part I

What is structuralism? How is it applied to the study of literature?

Structuralism (Structuralist Criticism): It is the offshoot of certain developments in linguistics and anthropology. Saussure’s mode of the synchronic study of language was an attempt to formulate the grammar of a language from a study of parole. Using the Saussurean linguistic model, Claude Levi-Strauss examined the customs and conventions of some cultures with a view of arriving at the grammar of those cultures. Structuralist criticism aims at forming a poetics or the science of literature from a study of literary works. It takes for granted ‘the death of the author’; hence it looks upon works as self-organized linguistic structures. The best work in structuralist poetics has been done in the field of narrative.
In literary theory, structuralism is an approach to analyzing the narrative material by examining the underlying invariant structure. For example, a literary critic applying a structuralist literary theory might say that the authors of West Side Story did not write anything "really" new, because their work has the same structure as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In both texts a girl and a boy fall in love (a "formula" with a symbolic operator between them would be "Boy + Girl") despite the fact that they belong to two groups that hate each other ("Boy's Group - Girl's Group" or "Opposing forces") and conflict is resolved by their death.
The versatility of structuralism is such that a literary critic could make the same claim about a story of two friendly families ("Boy's Family + Girl's Family") that arrange a marriage between their children despite the fact that the children hate each other ("Boy - Girl") and then the children commit suicide to escape the arranged marriage; the justification is that the second story's structure is an 'inversion' of the first story's structure: the relationship between the values of love and the two pairs of parties involved have been reversed.
Structuralistic literary criticism argues that the "novelty value of a literary text" can lie only in new structure, rather than in the specifics of character development and voice in which that structure is expressed. 
Gerard Genette and Structuralistic Criticism
Gerard Genette writes at the outset in his essay ‘Structuralism and Literary Criticism’ that methods developed for the study of one discipline could be satisfactorily applied to the study of other discipline as well. This is what he calls “intellectual bricolage[i]’, borrowing a term from Claude Levi-Strauss. This is precisely so, so far as structuralism is concerned. Structuralism is the name given to Saussure’s approach to language as a system of relationship. But it is applied also to the study of philosophy, literature and other sciences of humanity.
Structuralism as a method is peculiarly imitable to literary criticism which is a discourse upon a discourse[ii]. Literary criticism in that it is meta-linguistic in character and comes into being / existence as metaliterature. In his words: “it can therefore be metaliterature, that is to say, ‘a literature of which literature is the imposed object’.” That is, it is literature written to explain literature and language used in it to explain the role of language in literature.
In Genette’s words, ‘if the writer questions the universe, the critic questions literature, that is to say, the universe of signs. But what was a sign for the writer (the work) becomes meaning for the critic (since it is the object of the critical discourse), and in another way what was meaning for the writer (his view of the world) becomes a sign for the critic, as the theme and symbol of a certain literary nature’. Now this being so, there is certain room for reader’s interpretation. Levi-Strauss is quite right when he says that the critic always puts something of himself into the works he read.
The Structuralist method of criticism:
Literature, being primarily a work of language, and structuralism in its part, being preeminently a linguistic method, the most probable encounter should obviously take place on the terrain of linguistic material. Sound, forms, words and sentences constitute the common object of the linguist and the philologist to much an extent that it was possible, in the early Russian Formalist movement, to define literature as a mere dialect, and to envisage its study as an annex of general dialectology.
Traditional criticism regards criticism as a message without code; Russian Formalism regards literature as code without message. Structuralism by structural analysis makes it possible to uncover the connection that exists between a system of forms and a system of meanings, by replacing the search for term by term analysis with one for over all homologies (likeness, similarity)”.
Meaning is yielded by the structural relationship within a given work. It is not introduced from outside. Genette believed that the structural study of ‘poetic language’ and of the forms of literary expression cannot reject the analysis of the relations between code and message. The ambition of structuralism is not confined to counting feet and to observe the repetition of phonemes: it must also study semantic (word meaning) phenomena which constitute the essence of poetic language. It is in this reference that Genette writes: “one of the newest and most fruitful directions that are now opening up for literary research ought to be the structural study of the ‘large unities’ of discourse, beyond the framework – which linguistics in the strict sense cannot cross – of the sentence.” One would thus study systems from a much higher level of generality, such as narrative, description and the other major forms of literary expression. There would be linguistics of discourse that was a translinguistics.
Genette empathetically defines Structuralism as a method is based on the study of structures wherever they occur. He further adds, “But to begin with, structures are not directly encountered objects – far from it; they are systems of latent relations, conceived rather than perceived, which analysis constructs as it uncovers them, and which it runs the risk of inventing while believing that it is discovering them.”  Furthermore, structuralism is not a method; it is also what Ernst Cassirer calls a ‘general tendency of thought’ or as others would say (more crudely) an ideology, the prejudice of which is precisely to value structures at the expense of substances.
Genette is of the view that any analysis that confines itself to a work without considering its sources or motives would be implicitly structuralist, and the structural method ought to intervene in order to give this immanent study a sort of rationality of understanding that would replace the rationality of explanation abandoned with the search of causes. Unlike Russian Formalist, Structuralists like Genette gave importance to thematic study also. “Thematic analysis”, writes Genette, “would tend spontaneously to culminate and to be tested in a structural synthesis in which the different themes are grouped in networks, in order to extract their full meaning from their place and function in the system of the work.” Thus, structuralism would appear to be a refuge for all immanent criticism against the danger of fragmentation that threatens thematic analysis.
Genette believes that structural criticism is untainted by any of the transcendent reductions of psychoanalysis or Marxist explanation. He further writes, “It exerts, in its own way, a sort of internal reduction, traversing the substance of the work in order to reach its bone-structure: certainly not a superficial examination, but a sort of radioscopic penetration, and all the more external in that it is more penetrating.”
Genette observes relationship between structuralism and hermeneutics also. He writes: “thus the relation that binds structuralism and hermeneutics together might not be one of mechanical separation and exclusion, but of complementarity: on the subject of the same work, hermeneutic criticism might speak the language of the assumption of meaning and of internal recreation, and structural criticism that of distant speech and intelligible reconstruction.” They would, thus, bring out complementary significations, and their dialogue would be all the more fruitful.
Thus to conclude we may say, the structuralist idea is to follow literature in its overall evolution, while making synchronic cuts at various stages and comparing the tables one with another. Literary evolution then appears in all its richness, which derives from the fact that the system survives while constantly altering. In this sense literary history becomes the history of a system: it is the evolution of the functions that is significant, not that of the elements, and knowledge of the synchronic relations necessarily precedes that of the processes.

Part II
Application of Structuralism:

Gérard Genette (born 1930) is a French literary theorist, associated in particular with the structuralist movement and such figures as Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss, from whom he adapted the concept of bricolage.
He is largely responsible for the reintroduction of a rhetorical vocabulary into literary criticism, for example such terms as trope and metonymy. Additionally his work on narrative, best known in English through the selection Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, has been of importance. His major work is the multi-part Figures series, of which Narrative Discourse is a section.
His international influence is not as great as that of some others identified with structuralism, such as Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss; his work is more often included in selections or discussed in secondary works than studied in its own right. Terms and techniques originating in his vocabulary and systems have, however, become widespread, such as the term paratext for prefaces, introductions, illustrations or other material accompanying the text, or hypotext for the sources of the text.
Important concepts in Genette's narratology
This outline of Genette's narratology is derived from Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. This book forms part of his multi-volume work Figures I-III. The examples used in it are mainly drawn from Proust's epic In Search of Lost Time. One criticism which had been used against previous forms of narratology was that they could deal only with simple stories, such as Vladimir Propp's work in Morphology of the Folk Tale. If narratology could cope with Proust, this could no longer be said.
Below are the five main concepts used by Genette in Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. They are primarily used to look at the syntax of narratives, rather than to perform an interpretation of them.
Say a story is as follows: a murder occurs (event A); then the circumstances of the murder are revealed to a detective (event B), finally the murderer is caught (event C).
Arranged chronologically the events run A1, B2, C3. Arranged in the text they may run B1 (discovery), A2 (flashback), C3 (resolution).
This accounts for the 'obvious' effects the reader will recognise, such as flashback. It also deals with the structure of narratives on a more systematic basis, accounting for flash-forward, simultaneity, as well as possible, if rarely used effects. These disarrangements on the level of order are termed 'anachrony'.
The separation between an event and its narration allows several possibilities.
  • An event can occur once and be narrated once (singular). (Give me more – Oliver) 
    • 'Today I went to the shop.'
  • An event can occur n times and be narrated once (iterative). (valour of Macbeth, sleepless nights)
    • 'I used to go to the shop.'
  • An event can occur once and be narrated n times (repetitive). (Tess’s molestation and its aftereffect)
    • 'Today I went to the shop' + 'Today he went to the shop' etc.
  • An event can occur n times and be narrated n times (multiple). (Moll’s escapades into immoral behaviour)
    • 'I used to go to the shop' + 'He used to go to the shop' + 'I went to the shop yesterday' etc.
The separation between an event and its narration means that there is discourse time and narrative time. These are the two main elements of duration.
  • "Five years passed", has a lengthy discourse time, five years, but a short narrative time (it only took a second to read).
  • James Joyce's novel Ulysses has a relatively short discourse time, twenty-four hours. Not many people, however, could read Ulysses in twenty-four hours. Thus it is safe to say it has a lengthy narrative time.
Voice is concerned with who narrates, and from where. This can be split four ways.
  • Where the narration is from
    • Intra-diegetic: inside the text. eg. Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White(1859)(Chocolate, Musafir)
    • Extra-diegetic: outside the text. eg. Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles
  • Is the narrator a character in the story?
    • Hetero-diegetic: the narrator is not a character in the story. eg. Homer's The Odyssey (Samay in Mahabharat,)
    • Homo-diegetic: the narrator is a character in the story. eg. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (Moll Flanders) Pilgrim’s Progress
Genette said narrative mood is dependent on the 'distance' and 'perspective' of the narrator, and like music, narrative mood has predominant patterns. It is related to voice.
Distance of the narrator changes with narrated speech, transposed speech and reported speech.
Perspective of the narrator is called focalization. Narratives can be non-focalized, internally focalized or externally focalized.
Genette, G (1980) Chapter 4: 'Mood' in Narrative Discourse, pp. 161 - 211, 1980, New York, Cornell University Press.
Wikipedia contributors. "Gérard Genette." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Mar. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2015.

Roland Barthes - Mythologies

The other major figure in the early phase of structuralism was Roland Barthes, who applied the structuralist method to the general field of modern culture. He examined modern France (of the 1950s) from the standpoint of a cultural anthropologist in a little book called Mythologies which he published in France in 1957. This looked at a host of items which had never before been subjected to intellectual analysis, such as: the difference between boxing and wrestling; the significance of eating steak and chips; the styling of the Citroen car; the cinema image of Greta Garbo's face; a magazine photograph of an Algerian soldier saluting the French flag. Each of these items he placed within a wider structure of values, beliefs, and symbols as the key to understanding it. Thus, boxing is seen as a sport concerned with repression and endurance, as distinct from wrestling, where pain is flamboyantly displayed. Boxers do not cry out in pain when hit, the rules cannot be disregarded at any point during the bout, and the boxer fights as himself, not in the elaborate guise of a make-believe villain or hero. By contrast, wrestlers grunt and snarl with aggression, stage elaborate displays of agony or triumph, and fight as exaggerated, larger than life villains or super-heroes. Clearly, these two sports have quite different functions within society: boxing enacts the stoical endurance which is sometimes necessary in life, while wrestling dramatises ultimate struggles and conflicts between good and evil. Barthes's approach here, then, is that of the classic structuralist: the individual item is 'structuralised', or 'contextualised by structure', and in the process of doing this layers of sigificance are revealed. (Source: Peter Barry: An Introduction to Theory)

Roland Barthes - S/Z

Structuralist criticism: examples
These examples are based on the methods of literary analysis described and demonstrated in Barthes's book S/Z, published in 1970. This book, of some two hundred pages, is about Balzac's thirty-page story 'Sarrasine'. Barthes's method of analysis is to divide the story into 561 lexies', or units of meaning, which he then classifies using five 'codes', seeing these as the basic underlying structures of all narratives. So in terms of our opening statement about structuralism (that it aims to understand the individual item by placing it in the context of the larger structure to which it belongs) the individual item here is this particular story, and the larger structure is the system of codes, which Barthes sees as generating all possible actual narratives, just as the grammatical structures of a language can be seen as generating all possible sentences which can be written or spoken in it. I should add that there is a difficulty in taking as an example of structuralism material from a text by Barthes published in 1970, since 1970 comes within what is usually considered to be Barthes's post-structuralist phase, always said to begin (as in this book) with his 1968 essay 'The Death of the Author'. My reasons for nevertheless regarding S/Z as primarily a structuralist text are, firstly, to do with precedent and established custom: it is treated as such, for instance, in many of the best known books on structuralism (such as Terence Hawkes's Structuralism and Semiotics, Robert Scholes's Structuralism in Literature, and Jonathan Culler's Structuralist Poetics). A second reason is that while S/Z clearly contains many elements which subvert the confident positivism of structuralism, it is nevertheless essentially structuralist in its attempt to reduce the immense complexity and diversity possible in fiction to the operation of five codes, however tongue-in-cheek the exercise may be taken to be. The
truth, really, is that the book sits on the fence between structuralism and post-structuralism: the 561 lexies and the five codes are linked in spirit to the 'high' structuralism of Barthes's 1968 esssay 'Analysing Narrative Structures', while the ninety-three interspersed digressions, with their much more free-wheeling comments on narrative, anticipate the 'full' post-structuralism of his 1973 book The Pleasure of the Text. The five codes identified by Barthes in S/Z are:
1. The proairetic code This code provides indications of actions. ('The ship sailed at midnight' 'They began again', etc.)
2. The hermeneutic code This code poses questions or enigmas which provide narrative suspense. (For instance, the sentence 'He knocked on a certain door in the neighbourhood of Pell Street' makes the reader wonder who lived there, what kind of neighbourhood it was, and so on).
(Read this to understand the difference between proairetic and hermeneutic)
3. The cultural code This code contains references out beyond the text to what is regarded as common knowledge. (For example, the sentence 'Agent Angelis was the kind of man who sometimes arrives at work in odd socks' evokes a preexisting image in the reader's mind of the kind of man this is - a stereotype of bungling incompetence, perhaps, contrasting that with the image of brisk efficiency contained in the notion of an 'agent'.).
4. The semic code This is also called the connotative code. It is linked to theme, and this code (says
Scholes in the book mentioned above) when organised around a particular proper name constitutes a
'character'. Its operation is demonstrated in the second example, below.
5. The symbolic code This code is also linked to theme, but on a larger scale, so to speak. It consists of contrasts and pairings related to the most basic binary polarities - male and female, night and day, good and evil, life and art, and so on. These are the structures of contrasted elements which structuralists see asfundamental to the human way of perceiving and organising reality.

For better understanding of these codes, read this:

Part III
What do Struturalist critics do?

1. They analyse (mainly) prose narratives, relating the text to some larger containing structure, such as:
(a) the conventions of a particular literary genre, or
(b) a network of intertextual connections, or
(c) a projected model of an underlying universal narrative structure, or
(d) a notion of narrative as a complex of recurrent patterns or motifs.
2. They interpret literature in terms of a range of underlying parallels with the structures of language, as described by modern linguistics. For instance, the notion of the 'mytheme', posited by Levi-Strauss, denoting the minimal units of narrative 'sense', is formed on the analogy of the morpheme, which, in linguistics, is the smallest unit of grammatical sense. An example of a morpheme is the 'ed' added to a verb to denote the past tense.
3. They apply the concept of systematic patterning and structuring to the whole field of Western culture, and across cultures, treating as 'systems of signs' anything from Ancient Greek myths to brands of soap powder.

Barry, Peter. An introduction to literary and cultural theory


  1. Quiz: Click here to appear in the Quiz based on Structuralism and Literary Criticism
  2. Think and Write: Being a structuralist critic, how would you analyse literary text or TV serial or Film? You can select any image or TV serial or film or literary text or advertisement. Apply structuralist method and post your write up on your blog. Give link of that blog-post in the comment section under this blog.

[i] Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago, 1966).p.17.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Some thoughts on Man on this Women's Day

It is philosophically self-evident that to think of 'Man' on the International Women's Day, is nothing less than to play with fire. It is proved with empirical evidences that the female sex has been subjugated by Man for centuries, since the advent of culture or civilization. All discourses regarding gender studies, be it ontological or epistemological, have proved that female identity has been 'subject' to the patriarchy. When we say so, we distinguish 'subject' from 'individual'. As per Humanism, an Individual is the one with 'Free-Will' and 'Choice'. Whereas, 'Subject' is the one without 'Free-Will' and 'Choice'. The Female Identity is denied the 'Free-Will' and 'Choice' is undeniable fact, even in the second decade of 21st Century.

However, the change is happening. Now-a-days, we quite often come across events in which Male Identity is exploited. As the legal provisions are heavily in favour of female, many of them misuse it to harass their male counterpart. It seems, it is too early to theorize this happenstance, but the fact is they are coming in very serious way and damaging the very purpose of safeguarding female identities. In most of these cases, the so-called cases against 'Male-Identity', it is also the female (i.e. sister, mother of the Man under question) who is harassed.

Here is one of the tragic story of a man who committed suicide because of the harassment from wife under domestic violence and dowry cases.

While the entire country is rejoicing and celebrating Women's Day, an old mother is crying inconsolably in Jhansi. Her son, Avadhesh Yadav committed suicide on February 25, 2015 because of a "woman". This day has no meaning for her as she is confused of the word that means "Women Empowerment". Laws that have been made to protect women, abuse of same became the reason for her son's death . . . Read full story:

Well, after reading the tragic suicide letter which has not missed an opportunity to educate the society against the reality of pro-woman legal provisions, if you are still not convinced with the argument - "the need to rethink for the Man", view this TED Talk: "Men - The Forgotten Gender"

It is self-evident that the theory of reverse-subjugation or reverse-subaltern  cannot be applied on such 'exceptional' cases.
It can better be read as 'Time's great revenge' (Julian Barnes) or Thomas Hardy once questioned in context of human predicament:

Why should we not read these events (sign) with the same meaning (signified) with which we read of female-subjugation? Well, these lines can help us understand it:

"Master-slave narrative, history told from below, bottom-top narrative, slave apes master. . . . . . subaltern is not just a classy word for “oppressed”, for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie. . . . In post-colonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern — a space of difference. Now, who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern. . . . Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus; they don't need the word ‘subaltern’ . . . They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They’re within the hegemonic discourse, wanting a piece of the pie, and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern.
 Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa (1992) 
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Somehow, it is becoming increasingly necessary to give a thought to the atrocities on Man by Woman on this International Women's Day, more-so-over, by the legal provision. It is necessary to make 'gender neutral laws'.