The Linguistic Return: Deconstruction as Textual Messianism


In a 1994 interview with Maurizio Ferraris, Derrida expressed some frustration at the way in which deconstruction had been assimilated or “inscribed in the ‘linguistic turn,’” when in fact it began as “a protest against” it: “The irony … of the story is that often, especially in the United States, because I wrote ‘il n’y a pas de hors-text,’ because I deployed a thought of the ‘trace,’ some people believed they could interpret this as a thought of language (it is exactly the opposite)” (Secret 76). It has become a familiar story to us, practically a topos of the discourse: Derrida being called to defend deconstruction from the misreadings and misappropriations of friend and foe alike. And to the extent that the linguistic turn can be taken to mean something like a methodological appropriation of structural linguistics, we can empathize with Derrida’s evident frustration. Yet the linguistic turn has generally been understood far more broadly—and more vaguely—to designate a watershed moment in the history of philosophy when language begins to be problematized across a range of philosophical movements and schools, from the analytic philosophy of Frege and Wittgenstein to the structuralism of Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Lacan and certainly including the neopragmatism of Richard Rorty whose 1967 anthology The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method helped popularize the term. And more to the point, in his 1966 critique of structuralism, “Sign, Structure and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Derrida himself clearly acknowledged this more broadly conceived linguistic turn as a “moment” in the “history of the concept of structure” “when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse,” citing Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger as “those authors in whose discourse this occurrence has kept most closely to its most radical formulation” (28). In retrospect Derrida’s strategic deployment of the linguistic turn as the opening move in this early critique of structuralism seems glaringly at odds with his more recent dismissal of the linguistic turn as a modality or manifestation of the very structuralism it was meant to destabilize. What has motivated, we might ask, this late turn against the turn?

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