An Amateur Deconstructive Operation* on a line by Adrienne Rich

Copyright 1996 by John Lye. As with all of my pages for this course, this is open to revision, re-thinking. If you have any suggestions, please mail me

*from L operate- , to work, labour, take pains, bestow pains upon; in late L also, to have effect, be active, produce by working, cause; operation , a planned strategic enterprise, usually of war or espionage or industrial/managerial planning; operation , a surgical procedure by a licensed medical practitioner to remove or repair a defective body part; related to the theatre as opera , as theatre of operation , as operating theatre, and, in this case, it's all theatre ... ETCETERA

Derrida on the impossibility of a genuinely rigorous deconstruction (from "Psyche: Invention of the Other", 1984):

I would say that deconstruction loses nothing from admitting that it is impossible; also that those who would rush to delight in that admission lose nothing from having to wait. For a deconstructive operation possibility would rather be a danger, the danger of becoming an available set of rule-governed procedures, methods, accessible practices. The interest of deconstruction, of such force and desire as it may have, is a certain experience of the impossible....

Deconstruction is inventive or it is nothing at all; it does not settle for methodological procedures, it opens up a passageway, it marches ahead and marks a trail; its writing is not only performative, it produces rules -- other conventions -- for new performativities and never installs itself in the theoretical assurance of a simple opposition between performative and constative. Its process involves an affirmation, this latter being linked to the coming [venir] in event, advent, invention.

Time is the only just power.
                  -- Adrienne Rich

Some operations/entailments:

1) logical contradictions -- E.g. time is : as time is always only was or to be, i.e. its nature is change from potential to actualized, we would have to write time [is] -- that is, put "is" under erasure. But as (see 2 below) time is has no essence, hence its nomination is a convenient fiction, we should read put both words under erasure: [time is] (lynx doesn't provide a stikethrough function, which is the usual way one would signal a word under erasure).

2) totalizing/essentializing errors -- E.g. time , just : these are what might be called false essences: there is no 'time' , only change, only was-ing and will-being, and there is no 'just' or even justice only, and this becomes difficult, (justice)ing, the meeting of a standard, fulfilling of a condition. While the processes are phenomena we experience and so we nominate them, they are not entities and cannot be treated as such; power is also a set of relationships and not a thing -- the difficulty can be seen by writing Time is the only just (set of relationships). Power exists only as potential; when it is realized, it is as a changed state, the result of power; hence power is not an essence. Just is also totalized, as the line implies that there is a universal standard, applicable at all times and in all places, irrespective of contingencies or contexts.

3) language interruptions/eruptions -- Many words meanings have subversions, digressions, interventions: Just = righteous; = straight; = only; = barely (I just made the bus this morning) and Power = authority; = energizing force, which may oppose authority. Time is the only barely energizing force.

4) entailments of difference -- Every word means by difference, in a number of directions, and each incident of the word entails the words which define it, that is, mark its boundaries; and entails the words which it excludes, with which it forms an hierarchical opposition , e.g. in a very limited instance, power/weakness and justice/injustice. But power is also not other forces or sources of authority which power is not. (The strange pairing on the lower side of the oppositions of weakness and injustice will be addressed below under moral contradictions.)

5) entailments of metaphysics , or différance -- E.g. power implies essence or being, because anything that is can only be by acting (even if the action is not acting), which requires the competence to act, which requires power; but simultaneously power undermines essence or being, as these things 'are' only by virtue of something ontologically previous to them which cannot be things which are being, because then (traces abound) they themselves require that which is previous to them which is not being or essence, etc. -- that is, all being requires something anterior to it by which it can exist but which is not itself being. So anything which lays claim to an essential nature also, not immediately but sooner than that, before it is even enunciated, also cancels its essentiality as it depends on prior unessential conditions.

6) moral contradictions -- These are less inevitable but circulate freely in language and are implied in former contradictions: here the relation of just and power will continue to resonate with claim and counter-claim, a state long recognized in conventional wisdom, e.g. the Beatitudes, Blessed are the weak , and Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. They are like logical contradictions. The term just power in fact should remind us of the danger and contingency of our lives, in which justice belongs to whomever has power.

7) rhetorical (co-) (pre-) (counter-) operations -- We have not gotten at all even to rhetoric and the claims of rhetoric, to tropes, to ways of saying which say by being ways (conventions). For example, the form of the sentence is a declamation: it then a) connects with/challenges every other declamation, makes the statement both one of many and discriminated against any other declamation, and b) claims an authority by virtue of its convention, which authority implicitly undermines the authority claimed by the content of the declamation the convention of declamation explicitly claims an authority, but just authority has just been authorized (given by the author) only to time: the statement is in the curious position of denying itself by the convention of force of its claim. Similarly the centered nature of the quote (on the page, therefore claiming the power of space and writing), the claim for centrality which the typography articulates, makes a claim based on power and authority: the authority of the conventions of placement, for instance. Finally, for now, insofar as the statement depends for its force on the sound of the language, on the poetical nature of the language, the very force which makes the phrase meaningful erodes the authority of its claim; poetry is the only just power, it would then be.

8) intertextual contradictions -- To say Time is the only just power is to challenge a famous text, and that is the text which reads, in many ways in our tradition, God. In fact what it says is, God is not God. But as God is just power, and as time is the only just power, then time is God, and so time is legitimating and originary force. But of course that is one thing that time cannot be. There is no doubt of the (a)theological nature of the statement.

9) supplemental authority -- We haven't gotten at all to the curious subvention or addendum to the statement, that is "Adrienne Rich", or rather, to be this supplement in aid of? If it is an appeal to authority, then is it, ipso facto, an unjust authority? If it is a claim that the statement is owned, then does it serve the interests of Adrienne Rich, is it something which is not available without Adrienne Rich attached to it? Is "Adrienne Rich" a legal entity, a moral claim, or a financial entailment? does "Adrienne Rich" refer to the institution of authorship, or to a person, or to a group of texts also with "Adrienne Rich" attached? If the phrase requires the addendum or supplement for its full authority, then the statement is in fact subverted by that supplement.

  Readers may now proceed to the postoperation room, which entails continual monitoring and surveillance 

In a sense, what we can say we have demonstrated is the impossibility of Rich's claim, a demonstration which may not, however, mitigate its power or appeal or meaningfulness. We have deconstructed the phrase by showing a number of inherent and internal contradictions. This is only one way to do deconstruction, a way which demonstrates that what the text is saying is other than what it appears to be saying, that there is a contradiction between the claim of the text and the implicit meanings in evokes which undermine it. See my comments on the first two lines of Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare for another demonstration.