Making sense of Derrida and his philosophy of language, and failing to put it into words (sorry, the pun was irresistible)


Jacques Derrida was a French Philosopher who developed the rather overwhelming and terrifying (if you ask me) concept that language fails us, as well as challenging the idea of an essential reality. Perhaps the best known out of the post structuralists, he launched a philosophical attack upon the idea that feelings, thoughts, and ideas exist outside of the language we use to express them. I suppose Derrida’s argument scares me, and maybe, well hopefully, others too because of the stark truth that there is no alternative to language to communicate meaning. If language is failing and deceiving us, we are immensely helpless to escape this deception.

Key Concepts
1. It is impossible to tell someone what you really mean: Derrida was deeply concerned with the failure of language. Language is all we have to express how we ‘feel’, yet it is also the very thing that fails to express this ‘feeling’ adequately. Derrida suggests that when attempting to describe a feeling to others the subject will always fail to capture meaning, they will be merely engaging in the process of what he calls differing. What is being described is not being defined by what it is, but by difference. So, to put it simply (if it is possible) when you are describing meaning you are only ever referring to other signs, you are merely free falling down the slippery linguistic system.

For example: you want to tell someone you love them, so, as is procedure, you utter the words “I love you”. However, the moment these words become phonic, they are taken from the real in which they were conceived and placed into the imaginary. I suppose the easiest way to get your head around the concept is to consider the idea that to every single person love surely does not meet the same definition? The meaning of “I love you” is so uniquely arbitrary to everyone, therefore, love has multiple meanings. Every time someone says “I love you” they temporarily become the author of the sentence, they attach to it a new meaning, then, someone else says “I love you” and once again, the words fall into slipperiness and meaning is redefined. So basically, whoever you fall in love with will never actually know, because you will fail to put whatever ‘love’ is into words. See, language is slippery and deceptive, it’s trying to ruin your relationship (okay, the last few sentences are not valid Derridean points, just me, trying to be funny, but hours of reading Derrida does that to you)

2. Words just refer to other words and not thoughts or feelings: to Derrida, nothing escapes this endless play of meaning, and the endless differing that takes place. The concept of ‘play’ is key here. Play refers to how language is right in our grasp and slipping away from us all at once! Look at the word play as a perfect example, play could refer to performance, to action, or to escaping language, for you need no words to play in some circumstances. The multiple meanings of ‘play’ in itself is an example of not only how words refer to other words, but of Derrida’s rejection of a text only ever having one meaning. Leading on to the next point….

3. “There is nothing outside of the text” (NATC 1692) Derrida rejects the idea of an assumed universal truth. For this idealises the idea of something having a centre, and subsequently, something fixed, meaning, fixed. Derrida favours de-centring. He urges a mode of thought that considers the idea of a text having an original presence as elusive. (getting metaphysical now) the very concept of ‘presence’ is reliant upon reconstruction and interpretation and is defined by what is absent, it gets its definition by it’s other, which is exemplary of Derrida’s point that the linguistic system is slippery and based upon differing in space and time, fixed definition is impossible in such a system. Another way to think of the concepts of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ is the idea that if words refer to other words then how can there be a point of origin? Maybe there never has been, and never can be a ‘present’?

Of course, these key concepts I have constructed are only a very basic attempts to make sense of Derrida and deconstructive theories; spring boards into post structuralism. Derrida’s attack plunged right into the depths of meaning, truth, identity, and philosophy. What I have written is individual understanding and interpretation! I suppose this is okay, because (cue Derridean mode of thought) in essence surely everything is interpretation? In the giant web of meaning where our language habituates if every signifier points to another signifier then the meaning and authorship of words will always be arbitrary?

1. For further reading Derrida’s book Of Grammatology ( a very short video of Derrida discussing deconstruction (
2. In order not to lose all of your sanity… go for a long, leisurely walk and think about everything but Derrida for a while!

Derrida, Jacques. “From Of Grammatology”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2010. 1688 – 1607. Print.
Image Cited From

How is the female body ‘docile’? Key concepts and quotes from Susan Bordo’s “Unbearable Weight”


Introductory Notes:

  • Susan Bordo:  modern feminist philosopher
  • Bordo’s work focuses on how gendered bodies are formed, in particular her essay “Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body” provides an analysis whereby Bordo looks at (with frustration) how popular culture shapes the female body
  • She is often considered as being amongst the “founders” of body studies, which may be understood as the way in which culture shapes how both sexes should be looking upon each other and what they should be deeming desirable in the opposite sex
  • Some Influences:  Michel Foucault, Helene Cixous, and Sigmund Freud (note that she is influenced by theory, but her purposely politically stirring work reaches to an audience further than academic studies)
  • She strives to note how women are more prone to suffer from illnesses both physical and psychological and focuses on hysteria, anorexia, and agoraphobia in particular to demonstrate how such illnesses can be seen as examples for how women use their bodies to insert themselves into “the network of practices, institutions, and technologies”
  • A Common Theme: the personal and political are not separate in Bordo’s work. The woman and her relationship with her body is a reflection of how culture moulds gender performance. The power source that sustains the mould is the hold that ‘being perceived as attractive’ has on us.
  • Note: Bordo is very careful not to assert that illnesses such as anorexia are purely social and cultural coding’s induced by dominant ideology – she offers a feminist interpretation, and analyses social discourses and the ongoing construction of the feminine body


Some Key Concepts:

  • The female body can be considered as a text in itself. It can be read as an example of how society uses cultural images to regulate the female, disciplines consisting of makeup, dress, diet to name but a few, are examples of how the body is subconsciously (and scarily) exacted and normalized in everyday cultural discourse
  • Eating disorders today parallel the hysteria that infected (metaphorically) women in Victorian Britain. Both disorders are indicative of greater cultural struggles.
  • Anorexia is a self-defeating form of protest – for whilst the subject is questioning the cultural ideals that shape her life and body, she is as the same time being absorbed into a self-absorbing, isolating fetish. In attempting to protest the way in which her body culturally functions, she is now physically unable to function in fully health – this highlights the self-defeating nature of such a protest
  • The living body is trained and shaped, it is docile. It is socially adapted into what Bordo calls a “useful body” an example of which being the nineteenth century ideal of the hourglass figure, which is symbolic of how easily bodies succumb to domestic and sexual ideals placed upon them, the strait lace, starvation and subsequent lack of mobility to look this way restricts the body to a sphere of correspondence to aesthetic norm
  • Bordo looks at the symptomology of Anorexia, Agoraphobia, and Hysteria and considers their political significance. For example;

–          Anorexia see’s the subject literally and physically whittling down the space in which they occupy in society, Bordo considers the anorexic body as a “caricature” for the ideal of “hyperslenderness” ideal for the modern woman. She suggests that the anorexic body is inscribed with very much alive and pulsing conceptions for the ideal for domesticated femininity, for the anorexic and the domestic woman share the similarities of feeding others before the self, nurturing likewise, and considering self-feeding as greedy. Not to mention that the physically weak body carries “connotations of fragility and lack of power” when placed alongside her male counterpart. Bordo also continues to develop an interesting point that in order to function neutrally and (for lack of a better word) happily in society, the subject must strike a balance between female and male sides of the self, when they are anorexic they are practising a masculine language and values of “emotional discipline, mastery, and so on” however, at the same time, their bodies are keeping these skills restricted to the task of keeping them away from the public arena, they are not occupying a ‘happy’ medium.

–          In Agoraphobia the woman loses her social mobility. In being homebound she is being restricted to a controllable sphere. Similarly, when she is hysterical and muted she becomes an ideal of “patriarchal culture” in that she becomes the “silent, uncomplaining woman” (2249).

Key Quotes:

“female bodies become docile bodies” (2241)

“at the furthest extremes, the practices of femininity may lead us to utter demoralization, debilitation, and death” (2241)

“The symptomology of these disorders reveals itself as textuality” (2243)  – Bordo encourages one to consider the disordered body as symbolic and to pry at possible political meanings etched as deep as the suffering

“a steady motif in the feminist literature on female disorder is that of pathology as embodied protest (2247) – Bordo notes how within the language of suffering lies a violent protest – the language of which is not effective, it cannot be spoken, it has to be suffered through – it is counterproductive

“the social and sexual vulnerability involved in having a female body” (2250) – idea that female curves represent sexual vulnerability, in loosing these, the woman presumably also loses her sexual admirers and removes itself from harms reach; it is admired in a masculine nature, for the ‘strength’ and ‘will’ is connotes.

“The anorectic, of course, is unaware that she is making a political statement” (2248)

“the sufferer becomes wedded to an obsessive practice, unable to make any effective change in her life” she is as Toril Moi has put it“Gagged and chained to the feminine role” (2252) – suggestions that the anorexic is being distracted by an elusive acquirement of power

“I view our bodies as a site of struggle” (2254) – to Bordo it is crucial that an analysis of the contradictions in the practice of femininity are constantly analysed, and that this is how feminist politics perhaps should proceed

“The body – what we eat, how we dress, the daily rituals through which we attend to the body – is a medium of culture(2240)

“our bodies are trained, shaped, and impressed with the stamp of prevailing historical forms of selfhood, desire, masculinity, femininity” (2240)

“In newspapers and magazines we daily encounter stories that promote traditional gender relations and prey on anxieties about change” (2241)

“A dominant visual theme in teenage magazines involves women hiding in the shadows of men, seeking solace in their arms” (2241)

“following Foucault, we must first abandon the idea of power as something possessed by one group and levelled against one another” (2242)

A final thought… Bordo suggests the need for a new discourse in which the body and gender are formulated, suggesting that this discourse should be one that will confront the forces that sustain feminine oppression…

Questions to consider:

  1. What will happen if media advertising continues to prey on anxieties attached to body and gender perception?
  2. How are we raising young girls today? How vulnerable are contemporary young women?
  3. Although this essay is a feminist analysis and specific to the cultural pressures of females, I ask, what culture is doing to men? Men suffer just as much as women from cultural expectations and pressures, what can be read from the symptomology of psychological and physical illnesses common to men?



Image cited from

Bordo, Susan. “Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2010. 2240-2254. Print.

A Critique of Phallocentrism: Helene Cixous, “the Laugh of Medusa” (key concepts and quotes)


Introductory notes:

  • Helen Cixous: French feminist writer and philosopher
  • Her work is often considered as being deconstructive and of poststructuralist mode
  • Cixous wrote during the mid-70s, during the period of second wave feminism that was primarily concerned with the economic, social and economic limitations placed upon women
  • Her writing focuses upon the relationship between language and sexuality
  • Influences include: Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Sigmund Freud
  • Phallocentrism: the idea that woman exists separated from her body and desires. The phallus is the desired and the concept is dependent upon a ‘he has’ ‘she lacks’ binary.
  • Cixous’s article The Laugh of Medusa was translated from French to English in 1976. The highly metaphorical article proposes the idea of l’ecriture feminine, of women using her body as a means of communication and as a way to assert herself into “the text – as into the world and into history” (NATC 1942)

Key concepts: (note that when Cixous refers to ‘woman’ she is referring to the “universal woman subject” and her “struggle against conventional man”) (1943)

  1. Cixous seeks to destroy the prison of sexual impudence
  2. She urges women NOT to identify themselves in relation to men
  3. Before woman can write herself into a new type of text that liberates as oppose to merely oppressing further, she must discover where her own sexual pleasure is located. This will debunk mythology that suggests woman is defined by what she lacks (the phallus).
  4. She argues that the entire history of writing has been one of “phallocentric tradition” and that woman is yet to be given her turn
  5. Cixous asserts a solution. Her solution is the concept of l’ecriture feminine, this is female writing that communicates a new language, this language isn’t restricted by the ‘traditional’ binaries of woman and man, passive and active etc. This language is one whereby woman reconnects with the body that has been “confiscated” from her from the typical “masculine – economy” that has previously governed literature. This language is woman using her body as ink, or as Cixous suggests writing in “white ink” which is a metaphor she uses to further assert the importance of reunion, for just like female presentation of herself in writing, the maternal body is a place whereby lack and separation is overruled by connection and wholesomeness.

Key quotes:

“I wished that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire” (1943)

“Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it” (1943)

“Woman must write woman. And man, man.” (1944)Cixous notes that man still has everything to say about his sexuality, that he (in the universal sense) is encouraged to view l’ecriture feminine as opportunity for a redefinition of binary opposition that he can benefit from.

“Woman will return to the body that has been more than confiscated from her” (1946)

“the act of writing Is equivalent to masculine masturbation (and so the woman who writes cuts herself out a paper penis)” (1950)

“they riveted us between two horrifying myths: between the Medusa and the abyss” (1951) – note that in Freudian terms female sexuality is seem as a “dark continent”, as a place of fearsome riddle, as a black hole whereby the penis may disappear. The reference to Medusa refers women as being coherent with the fear of castration.

“you only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing” (1951) – Cixous suggests that beauty is no longer to be forbidden as Medusa’s was.

Men say that there are two unpresentable things: death and the feminine sex. That’s because they need femininity to be associated with death” (1951)

“women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations, and codes” (1952)

“sweeping away syntax” (1952) – (activity of female writing referred to with a an allusion to the story of Theseus led out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth by Ariadne’s thread)

her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible.” (1955)

“When pregnant, the woman not only doubles her market value, but – takes on intrinsic value as a woman in her own eyes and, undeniably, acquires body, and sex” (1957) to Cixous motherhood is a major catalyst for writing -(back to Freud again)  to Cixous giving birth is proof that women know how to live without fear of detachment or ‘castration’.

“Besides, isn’t it obvious that the penis gets around in my texts, that I give it a place and appeal? Of course I do. I want all. I want all of me with all of him.” (1957)

“In one another we will never be lacking” (1959)

A final concept… woman has always existed as being within a male discourse, she must invent her own language in which to function.


Works Cited

Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of Medusa”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2010. 1942-1959. Print.

Image cited from