There’s a constant kerfluffle in the otaku-rhombus, and everywhere in nerddom, actually, concerning criticism. Specifically, many nerds want it kept out of their entertainment — despite the fact they engage in it constantly. Academics have similar kerfluffles, honestly; many’s the time I’ve heard a professor complain about “jargon.” Inevitably only the schools of thought they dislike use “jargon;” their preferred schools of thought don’t engage in it. Anyway, this is the first in a series of entries meant to extend an olive branch in the best way a scholar knows how: through teaching and learning together. In this series, we’ll be describing different “schools” of critical thought, how they work, where they came from, what they do, how they’re useful, and so on. We’ll even apply a bit of the theory to familiar texts to illustrate how this is supposed to work from a literary point of view — and remember, literature is just entertainment, so criticism is simply thinking about entertainment. Why? To be further entertained! This post specifically is part of that most dreaded (as most [un]familiar) world, the post-something-or-other. This time, post-structuralism.
Carl Sagan once posited that many Americans (he not having a lot of experience being a citizen of any other countries) distrust science because it requires background reading. To engage in science one must do the up-front work. Literary criticism is similar: many people avoid it simply because they don’t want to do the background reading to know which post-structuralist said what and what we people think of it now. Of course, really, criticism is simply careful and loving thought about something you love, but the background reading provides a platform of similarity from which everyone can begin.
That paragraph serves to introduce this paragraph, specifically, structuralism. As the name implies, post-structuralism is a response to structuralism (these names are awkward yes, but at this point they’ve stuck). So. Ferdinand de Saussure was a French linguist who lectured on the nature of language. If you only take one thing away from Saussure, it must be this: language is arbitrary.
For us, in the year of our flying spaghetti monster 2010, that seems obvious, perhaps even trite. We’ve likely all had that moment of realization, that a word only means something because we decided it does. If you’ve studied a language not native to you, you almost certainly understood this at some level. However, back in the early 1900s this was a little revolutionary. Linguistics was a branch of history, studying where a word came from — all the way back to Latin or Greek if it’s a respectable word. Most people thought of language worked in the way that’s sometimes called the “Adam” principle. That is, Adam named the beasts and the bird and the seas. So a thing’s name was a part of the thing. Think of any fantasy you’ve read or seen where someone’s true name is a handle to the person. It’s the same principle. Saussure described the system of thought on language that, which, with modification, rules today.
Specifically, language is arbitrary. But also specific. Language isn’t simply “made up” in the way nonsense words are. Language is arbitrary, but at the same time everyone must agree on the arbitrary decisions. Imagine a game where a move counts for three points in player A’s rules, but five points in player B’s. A and B can’t play a game until they agree on one common system.
Saussure used a famous diagram that, as a whole, represents a sign — a sign is a language unit, basically. The signified is the thing to which the word is applied, like a tree. The signifier is the word applied to it, such as “tree” or “ki” or “arbor.” Both together actually make the sign, because when we hear the word we designate as appropriate, we think of a tree. Not some Platonic ideal tree, but a tree, maybe one we’ve seen every day, or a special tree (maybe the one you climbed in as a child, or the one that was blasted by lightning in your back yard).
That’s how an individual sign works. All of them work in a system, where each one means something because it doesn’t mean anything else.
That’ s a little weird, but think on it for a moment. “Tree” means a plant with bark and leaves because it does not mean an animal with four legs that chases cars. Without contrasting words, a single word would be useless, as it could expand to be everything. In fact, that’s why we have so many binaries. “Everything” itself is what isn’t “nothing.”
Now, the sign is fine, as far as it goes. But poststructuralist theorists focus their magnifying lenses upon the signifier in particular, assuming in part that signifiers are all we can really work with. This may sound like an almost existentialist argument, but, in “…That Dangerous Supplement…” (or, more affectionately, “…That Highbrow Essay About Masturbation…” or “…That Essay Titled Kind Of Like an Aria Episode…”), Derrida turns it into a matter of “mere” linguistic mechanics.
The basic idea here is that, in attaching a signifier to a signified, or a sound-image to a concept, or what have you, we’re doing two things: 1. creating a relationship between ourselves and the signified, which can only exist via the supplementary signifier, and 2. creating another “terminal” signified, to which we can only relate with another signifier. Of course, your mileage may vary regarding how “basic” an idea this is, but it’s really not that wild, and we can apply it to many fandom concepts with which we’re already familiar.
Consider, for example, one binary that anime often approaches: life/death. Many of us have encountered the idea that death gives meaning to life, and while the idea as it shows up in anime probably has more to do with Eastern philosophy than with Derrida, it’s a good example of what Derrida means by supplementation. A deconstructionist might tell you that death gives meaning to life precisely due to the arrangement of the two words-and-or-ideas in the life/death binary: life happens for a while, and then death substitutes for (absent) life.
We might lament death as the absence of life (as we might lament writing as the absence of speech, or masturbation as the absence of sex, or absence as the absence of presence). But death is useful insofar as it allows us to conceive of life as a thing with certain qualities; sans death, life simply is, but, in light of death, life is z, y, z, etc. As Derrida puts it, when presence becomes absence, the quality and worth of the absent presence becomes apparent. We often say that people lead good or bad lives, but we can only make such judgments — we can only conceive of such a thing as “a life” — with death in mind. This, I imagine, has much to do with the explorations of mortality conducted by such things as Casshern Sins and Bokurano.
So far the territory we’ve crossed hasn’t gotten too thorny. In fact, this all seems like an extension of Saussure — i.e. things “mean” relative to one another. But here’s the strange part: as absence fulfills its role as absence, it becomes another presence. Simply put, death describes the state of a thing as does life. The problem with death specifically is that we can’t exactly substitute something for it — there is no “post-death” at the end of death — and so it’s hard to say anything about death as such other than that it simply is.
Fortunately the hypothetical world of fiction gives us such things as undeath; we might say of a zombie that it had a foreshortened or interrupted death, a death that wasn’t peaceful. And there’s always religious afterlife, I guess. But I digress, and I really shouldn’t in a post that will be long enough anyway. What we end up with is a great chain of supplementation:
This convenient model can be applied to all kinds of things, and it gets particularly interesting when there’s more than one person doing the conceptualizing. Consider translation:
And, as implied however many hundred words ago, this process bears upon Saussure’s basic signified/signifier model, which is, in a sense, a variation on the presence/absence binary. The thing signified is our idea of a “presence” in the world, and we discuss these presences-as-conceived via signifiers, symbols that imply the “absence” of the signified in collective discursive space. Working with signifiers may be about all we can do, but that’s not the whole of it; we also have to consider that the very existence of the signifier gives us a sense of the “form” of the signified — hence the poststructuralist interest in the signifier.
Of course, one of Derrida’s strangest ideas is about the space between the signifier and the signified. Derrida, in his “Différance,” described what one could describe as what Saussure didn’t bother with: how signs work. That is, the actual mechanism of them.
Essentially, différance is that line in the signifier/signified diagram. Here’s the deal: the word différance combines the words “differ” and “defer.” All words both differ and defer, and in doing so they create meaning.
A word differs because, as we saw earlier, a dog is a dog because it’s not a cat. We have lots and lots of different words for things because that’s part of how language works — each signifier is different from every other signifier. That’s the simple part.
A word defers as it sends you both away and back. When you hear the word “dog” you think of a dog, but a dog is not actually summoned into the room with you. You are thrown back in your memory and call up an image of a dog — perhaps a particular dog, perhaps an amalgamation of many dogs — that is in the past, because it is a memory. At the same time, save in rare occasions, the dog(s) you’re thinking of were not in the room you’re in when you hear the word “dog,” so you’re also deferred out to somewhere else.
Now. It is a joke among academics that only two people ever understood deconstruction (the literary lens that grew out of Derridian post-structuralism): Derrida and Cixous (his wife). This is a common joke because Deconstruction is pretty wild, and we’re never sure if we’re doing it the way it was originally meant to be done. But really it doesn’t matter. So.
You may be able to see already how différance is useful when reading a text. A sign in a text, most often a metaphor, symbol, or such-like, works the same way a Derridian sign does. It both differs and defers. I think first of the famous traffic lights and road signs in anime — my favorite examples are from Kare Kano. They are literally things: a traffic light flashing yellow. It is also a representation of a thing, a signifier, as the thing is actually a real traffic light, the thing we’re seeing actually being a series of drawings of a light, and not the light itself. So we’re being sent out and back to traffic lights in our past, and what that meant to us (to slow down). Slowing down, or the need to, is also the import of the sign on the symbolic level, and so we’re being deferred through our deferral into another signified: danger/caution. But the show uses that series of deferments instead of another. We’re constantly sliding back out of the show into our own lives. Coupled with various other elements in the show, such as the shifting art style, the music, the painstakingly realized (and only mildly cliché-ridden) school setting, we can see the show as something that constantly pushes us farther away, with its method, even as it draws us closer with the story and the characters. We’re positioned always as viewers, never as fellows of the characters. There is, in fact, one possible implication in the way the show slides us, defers us, with the sorts of signs and signifiers it chooses: the show could be implying that we are beyond the problems and the timeframe that the characters live in. We can think of other examples of shows that behave as though they’re for one audience and really deal with another (Nanoha springs to mind). Kare Kano acts as though high schoolers are the entire world it deals with, but the signs are both more complex than usual (the art style) and defer us to places that are out of character for high schoolers (traffic lights only mean something that powerful to us when we’re driving, and the typical high schooler hasn’t driven much).
ALL signs, according to Derrida, function with différance within them — fortunately for Roland Barthes, who, for a while, made a living analyzing the signs of day-to-day French life. Barthes did literature, too — he wrote “The Death of the Author,” for one thing — but his Mythologies is founded largely upon such miscellanea as advertising campaigns and strippers. This may be notable in itself, as it demonstrates that (post)structural practices have applicability beyond strictly-defined art; we might analyze as symbols or signs such things as vendor booths at conventions, anime-related clothing, and yes, even anime blogs.
But this notion isn’t particularly poststructural. Barthes is, in fact, something of a transitional figure; he became more poststructural with every essay (which, really, may just mean that his position became more nuanced — if we reduce it to its essence, poststructuralism is more like an extension of structuralism than a radical reaction). The post- begins to come into play when Barthes points out the contradictions inherent to things.
You may have surmised at this point that, thanks in large part to Derrida, poststructuralism concerns itself with contradiction and paradox in ways that structuralism did not. We see this in such concepts as différance, which, again, relies upon levels of separation, but we might also call contradiction the motive of the poststructuralist — in short, if the meaning-values of things come from the ways that binaries function, we may as well reveal and scrutinize relevant binaries.
Barthes, for example, demonstrated that the striptease is a fundamentally chaste act, reinforcing the distance between erotic dancer and viewer. And this isn’t in spite of the particular features of the act — it’s a direct result of them. Everything from the layout of the typical gentlemen’s club to the final article of clothing that the dancer does not remove suggests separation (or suggested as much to Barthes in mid-20th-century France). Such elements as partial nudity and the sexualization of the dancer may imply intimacy, but there’s more to consider beyond what seems most obvious.
We might say that striptease demonstrates a structural contradiction, that it is, perhaps, the binary of intimacy/separation in action. And, if we’re Derridean about it, these contradictions are fundamental to everything — they are, as we’ve seen, the reason things are able to mean, so to speak.
But what good does that do us? The life of the fan is, of course, as rife with contradiction as any other sort of life; these contradictions seem to turn up in practically any sustained examination of the fandom, Azuma’s Otaku being a prime example. Azuma (who, by the way, made a name for himself as a Derrida scholar) deals with how fiction can feel more real than reality; he explains how pornographic visual novels really aren’t about sexual gratification; he investigates different parallel ways of engaging with different parts of texts; he even brings up the topic of otaku sexuality, pointing out the gulf between crazy 2D fetishes and relative 3D conservatism. And yet another contradiction emerges in Otaku that the book doesn’t deal with explicitly: the very idea of the postmodern database seems strange when postmodernism is evidently all about doing away with such all-encompassing structures. We could do this all day, really, but the point is that fandom, as anything, is made of binaries — reality/fiction being perhaps the biggest and most visible — and, in revealing and examining these binaries, we stand to learn something about ourselves.
Well then! With poststructuralism out of the way, we’ve handily dealt with the vagaries of mid-to-late-20th-century literary and cultural theory. Haven’t we?
No. No we haven’t. You know we haven’t. For, alas! there’s another feared and reviled body of critical work to consider, one that may prove even more difficult to wrangle than poststructuralism, insofar as it’s considerably vaguer.
I’m speaking, of course, of postmodernism.