Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Ragged Trousered Deconstructionists

NOTE: This is an early draft of a paper which is still in the process of being revised and submitted, and to which a number of changes have been made.

The ragged-trousered deconstructionists. Writerly reading as a strategy in everyday life
Andrew Robinson1

In nineteenth-century Russia, peasant rebels frequently defended their actions in reference to the will of the czar, claiming because of the myth of the czar's benevolence that the czar necessarily supported struggles against local barons' depredations2. In a Malay village, the rich used religious gifts known as zakat peribadi to labourers as a means of social control, but according to James C. Scott, 'labourers came to view the zakat bonus not as a gift but as a right'. When the rich cut back their "gifts", the poor resented this as greediness3. In 1966, the Black Panther Party announced: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness... [T]hat whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of people to alter and abolish it'4.

What these claims and actions have in common is that they take an ostensibly official discourse which was designed, or is usually used, to demobilise and silence resistance, and turn it into a basis for a politics of resistance directed against the social structures the discourse usually maintains. The reasons for such a use vary from attempts to parody official discourse or to reduce the threat of repression, to attempts to change the orientations of supporters of mainstream ideas. The logic, however, is the same. Dissidents and members of oppressed groups claim autonomy from a dominant discursive structure by reclaiming its words as their own.

Each "official" text is constructed by dominant elites in an attempt to justify their domination to subordinates or to themselves. Elites intend for such texts to be used in what Roland Barthes terms a 'readerly' way: the text is a closed totality and '[t]he reader is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum'5. Such reading, surrounded by a cult of seriousness, reinforces elite power: people divide easily into conformists who accept and rebels who reject, and the latter can be singled out for repression. The problem with such a strategy is that, as Susan McManus puts it, official texts 'are always riddled with ambiguity, and... their impossibility can be read'6. As Jacques Derrida argues, 'the possibilities of rupture are always waiting to be effected'7. Benedict Anderson adds that ideas 'are inventions, on which patents are impossible to preserve. They are there, so to speak, for the pirating'8. And the pirates need not share the official author's intent.

So a different kind of reading is possible, a kind which in Barthes's words operates 'to make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text'. Barthes terms this a "writerly" reading; other authors, such as Keenan, Derrida and Bakhtin, simply term it "reading". For Keenan, '[r]eading... is what happens when we cannot apply the rules'9. Once the 'consumer' has become 'producer', a text can be reappropriated to assert an autonomous message, and the voiceless can assert a voice. For Barthes, this opens space for a 'productive (and no longer representative)' use of language, 'a perpetual present, upon which no consequent language... can be superimposed', 'production without product, structuration without structure'10. For Bhabha, similarly, hybrid (writerly) readings stop a text from becoming politically authoritative. When ‘the words of the master become the site of hybridity… then we may not only read between the lines but even seek to change the often coercive reality that they so lucidly contain’ (** Location of Culture 121).

Though it may be combined with various degrees of conformity to the existing system, such reading tends to turn representative relations, where an elite claims legitimacy through an abstract justification, into productive ones, where elites can be challenged and overturned through active uses of their own discourse. When extended to power-structures in general, it constructs a rhizomatic world in which no system can reduce 'the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages'11 and where reading operates to maintain whate Lorraine terms the 'immersion and participation' of everyday life as lived actuality against the 'separation and control' of the society of the spectacle12. The becoming-writerly of reading is a means for asserting autonomy and voice. 'The absolutist wanders along the shelves of the ideological supermarket looking for the ideal commodity... But the ideological supermarket... is fit only for looting. It is of more practical use to move along the shelves, rip open the packets, take out what looks authentic and useful, and dump the rest'13.

While usually associated with the criticism of literary and philosophical works (a tendency which has led to ill-founded attacks on critical theory and deconstruction as ivory-tower approaches), this variety of reading abounds in everyday movements of resistance, and the purpose of this essay is to explore examples of this. Writerly reading is not an exclusive characteristic of the discourse of resistance, which also uses modalities of refusal and negation to combat attempts to close discursive space. It is also not always effective, since conformists and repressive agents often remain unconvinced by writerly readings. It is, however, an important part of the politics of resistance, and this importance should be emphasised.

The purpose of this article is to answer the accusations of irrelevance against deconstruction and poststructuralist theory by demonstrating that deconstructive or writerly reading is frequently used by oppressed groups as a means of resisting official control. To this end, I aim to link the abstract theoretical ideas of authors such as Barthes and Derrida to concrete empirical evidence drawn from ethnographic research. In the next section, I shall examine the theoretical significance of writerly reading in relation to phenomena of official violence and subaltern resistance. I shall then discuss in detail two particular cases of writerly reading: the creative reappropriation of elite-led religion in peasant communities, and the re-interpretation of legal terminology by “juvenile delinquents”. Though drawing on existing (and fairly well-known) empirical research, this study is original in linking such research explicitly to a deconstructive terminology. In the final section, I shall attempt to dispel suspicions of selectivity by briefly discussing a number of other instances of “writerly reading”.

Words as repression or words as rebellion?

Sub-commandante Marcos says of the Zapatistas: 'our weapons are words... not as a way of communicating something, but of creating something'14. Words can, indeed, be weapons, but how is one to use them as weapons of liberation rather than as machines of oppression? How, in other words, can the active desiring-machines and semantic-machines of language be extended into active, creative social-machines, and unplugged from reactive machines of violence and voicelessness? For words are the weapons of oppressors as well as oppressed: machines of systematisation, of anathematisation, of imposition, of invalidation, of saying in a thousand ways, 'be silent, you do not matter'. An Israeli activist refers to a 'Kafka-esque administration system designed to wear the Palestinians down... laws, zoning, planning, permits, settlements, roadblocks - all designed to control and confine the Palestinians'15. Could the violence - the shootings, the curfews, the demolitions, the invasions, the torture, and so on - happen without the words to which
it is fused - the administrative and military vocabularies, the rhetorics of constraint and control? Territorialisation is at once a physical and a verbal/semantic process, and it is made possible by a systematising language; each system of oppression has its own discursive system which constructs it as a meaningful (pseudo-)totality. Violence is not reducible to words but nor is it separable from them.

The language of the tanks and bulldozers cannot be the language of freedom, but to exist it must draw on the flows of desire. For this reason, it is vulnerable to deterritorialising flows which release the desire trapped in systems of control, even while it uses its words-as-weapons to disarm and repress desire. Just as guerrillas can raid an enemy convoy and take supplies for their own use, so people can - and do - "raid" the official language for ways of reasserting a voice over and against domination - if not to break down the machine of domination, then at least to fashion a social force able to stand against it among people denied a language of their own. Paolo Freire expresses this goal in terms of a 'right to speak one's own word' - an assertion of language as communication rather than as an issuing of orders (though, as Bakhtin argues, even orders require an active interpreter: readerly reading is parasitic on writerly reading, which is perhaps why it is vulnerable to deconstruction). Freire's pedagogical projects were constructed around such an attitude to language: not merely teaching literacy as a functional skill, but encouraging people to construct their own words and to speak for themselves, 'naming the world' directly instead of reproducing its pre-existing territorialisation by oppressors. According to Freire, the oppressed are often victims of a 'culture of silence'; unable to form a 'critical awareness and response' to a hostile world, one can find oneself 'submerged' in it16. Subject to 'cultural invasion' by groups such as colonisers and elites, the oppressed are stripped of any right to a distinct 'word', culture and expressiveness17. The equivalent to "readerly" reading in education is what Freire calls the "banking" conception, in which ideas flow between a teller (subject) and a listener (object). In his view, this renders language 'lifeless and petrified', pinning down the transformative possibilities of language in inert categories18. Freire's alternative is to build a critical perception of "reality" by speaking one's own word. This may involve the development of new theoretical vocabularies and of distinct counter-cultures19, but it can also involve reclaiming and using existing language.

In its broadest sense, such gestures of reclaiming are by no means limited to language, but occur across the universe of bodies, buildings, tools and images; for instance, the fashioning of an escape tunnel from boards taken within a prison, or the assertion of identity through graffiti on a wall. The planks were not "properly" there to build tunnels, nor the walls "properly" there as art-canvases; but the reclamation of voice moves through the reclamation of space - in Scott's terms, 'setting a course for the very perimeter of what the elites are obliged to permit or unable to prevent'20. The liberty, rights and voice exercised by anyone who does not belong to dominant elites depends on what they are able to assert autonomously - not on what formal rules and formalised "rights" and "liberties" are awarded by the state.

So, the deconstruction of language is but one instance in a longer string of resistances through which the voiceless reshape the world (and not an ever-present one: the most violent systems of domination use language in such a monologic manner as to render linguistic responses ineffectual; it is not possible to dispel truncheons with words, and the point is still, as Marx once said, to change it, not to interpret). In these cases, the impulse is similar: dominant groups wish to pin down, territorialise, control, and bind, whereas oppressed groups try to break down codes, build limits and conditionalities into the system's imperatives, and open up space and meaning. What is at stake is whether language, and the other spheres, are to be strictly encoded as defined by the property and propriety of dominant groups, or whether they are to be open for creative use and negotiations about use (as opposed to imposed, naturalised uses). For all their monolithic certainty, official "texts" (both written and social) are dependent on an underlying process of construction. According to Butler, 'the political field is of necesity constructed through a determining exterior. In other words, the very domain of politics constitutes itself through the production and naturalization of a 'pre-' or 'non-' political'21. The process of construction occurs at the level of 'infrapolitics', political struggles and struggles around the meaning of texts in everyday life. (Even an internally fixed textual dogmatism is vulnerable - for instance, to the claim that parts of the text have been repressed or hidden).

Language as property allots meaning to dominant groups, so others are subsumed in this group's conception of the world. Marcuse, for instance, writes of 'operationalist' language, in which sentences are abridged and condensed until 'no tension, no "space", is left between the parts of the sentence'; words are identified with formulaic functions, and expectations are embedded in the uses of words in such a way as to reduce them to a limited, standardised set of routine behaviours. The manner of functioning ' "closes" the meaning of the thing, excluding other manners of functioning'22. This is the school of writing and reading which brought the world "friendly fire" and "collateral damage", "structural adjustment" and "downsizing", "rights" as gifts from the courts and "democracy" as the ritual of voting. Debord similarly writes that the spectacle demands an attitude of 'passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance'23. An example is the idea of an "opinion" as property - a view which encodes subversive views as part of a series of mutually untouchable units overcoded by the media and political systems, and which renders the hearer unable to reply decisively24. Another example is the advice of a mainstream administrative psychologist encouraging readers to control conversations: speak little, accept no "buts", 'Enjoy the word "no"... "No sounds nice and decisive. It needs no expansion nor explanation... Listeners soon have to give up or disappear'; use the phrase "Point taken!" to shut down conversations, ' "True!" will... shut the other person down', ' "I am unhappy" is a statement best not elaborated upon', 'Bombshells need to be carefully premeditated and rehearsed, ' "No Comment" can be an extremely useful device', omission is good, one should learn to repeat instructions over and over; 'It is important that you as speaker should be in the driving seat', 'Learn to stonewall... whether in the office, in the street, or in the midst of your own family', 'it is highly convenient for some subjects to be out of bounds'... and so on25. One can find more elaborate versions of such models of language as bulldozer in authors such as John Rawls, whose “freestanding” political theory is constructed around the silenjce of those deemed “unreasonable”. Language as control, constraint, and means to dominate runs through all these instances, along with a cult of seriousness and an interrelationship between language and control. As Barthes puts it, '[o]pposite the writerly text... is its countervalue, its negative reactive value: what can be read but not written: the readerly'26.

Language can be opened up - but only when its use to cement hierarchies is undermined. Once this is done, language ceases to be property and becomes a tool of emancipation. Against the game of control, the oppressed can counterpose a game of opening-up and of redefining and reclaiming. As Vaneigem puts it, '[t]he appropriation of language is both the labyrinth and the Ariadne's thread that leads to the heart of life, to the latencies that wait to be born in each of us'27. One way of reclaiming language is to claim mainstream discourse for one's own purposes (though there is also the possibility of constructing alternative vocabularies). As Scott puts it, '[h]appily for the peasantry, cultural meanings cannot be coerced in quite the same way as taxes or corv‚e can be'28. Michael Clark refers to Barthes's texts as confounding official texts: 'it counfounds those terms entirely by treating word as world, by recognizing in the word the weighty materiality of its worldly existence as part of our lived experience'29. To be effective as a means of 'making new', as a constructive praxis which actually reclaims voice and constructs a new world, this process must occur among the oppressed, and not solely among progressive intellectuals - though there is no reason the latter cannot give the former a helping hand when they can, working with (rather than for) others who are resisting the machinery of repression, and reconceiving the practices of deconstructive reading which are already active in everyday life may well qualify as a 'helping hand' (at least if someone gets around to applying it in active politics). To this purpose, I shall examine examples of oppressive ideologies which have been reclaimed, or pirated, by a variety of oppressed groups30.

Redefining Religion

Organised religion is perhaps one of the clearest examples available of a system of language constructed as a mode of control. As Vaneigem puts it, 'all ideologies are totalitarian... Cut off from the very life they are supposed to represent in the spectacle, they invariably take over a repressive power...: the power of heaven over earth, of the spirit over the body, of lucrative labor over creative pleasure'31. Libidinally, organised religion is based on the denial and repression of pleasures which are then turned against themselves and channelled into the intensive investment of religious experiences and stimuli32. It usually promotes 'guilt, self-hatred, fear of pleasure... [and] contempt for the body and for the earth', 'fear, submission, dependency and repression'33. Socially, it is associated with networks of control closely linked to, and sometimes coterminous with, dominant elites - in medieval Europe, for instance, with the Divine Right of Kings, the Templars, the Inquisition, the witch-hunts, the Crusades and the subordination of the masses. Its repressive use is clear from a catechism given to slaves in America, which asserted that Christianity demands obedience to all masters and patience in the face of injustice34. Many religions, including the Catholic Church in Europe, were based on a centralised power-structure with an institution posing as the possessor or founder of truth and presence. As Vanegiem puts it, '[w]hen theology interpreted what it claimed was the speech of the gods, the meaning given to these inaudible words was... liable to reflect the interests of the priests'35. Prior to the rise of modern science, however, and in some places today also, religious languages were/are the main means of expressing political positions, including those of popular origin. This was/is partly because it was imposed almost everywhere, but also because it was/is put to other, more "writerly", uses. How, then, could/can people use such languages without becoming complicit in apparatuses of domination?

The answer is that religion could be re-encoded and reclaimed - "pirated", so to speak - by oppressed groups, either through alternative readings or through syncretic versions of official religions practiced in hidden spaces - either surveillance-free areas such as a wood, clearing or ravine, specially-constructed areas defended by hanging rags or a watch, or simply a social activity hidden by 'secret signs and codes'36; religion could be reinterpreted so as to carry the energies and demands it was 'officially' intended to repress or suppress. Indeed, its very totalising logic left religion open to this kind of use. Vaneigem suggests that in medieval Christianity, 'the key words of religious language drew all forms of expression into their vortex'. But this was a double-edged sword for the church: 'By trying to explain everything, these words ended up meaning almost anything. In the dominant mythology of the Middle Ages religion was most vulnerable when words such as 'God', 'salvation', 'divine love', 'paradise', 'hell', 'sin', 'perfection', 'apostolate' and 'charity' suddenly acquired new meanings'37. Psychological and social repression 'may suddenly be worn down by the reverberations from one remark that threatens to break through the constructed edifice of repression', even if the remark was intended as orthodox38. Thus, the church found itself in a perpetual struggle to suppress enemies which were part of itself, and to ignore, crush or recuperate the movements which periodically and unendingly broke through its official image of certainty and finitude. Beneath the struggle between orthodoxy and heresy was another struggle between gods and slaves, economics and exchange on the one side, and life and pleasure on the other39. 'Much of the history of Catholicism, for example, could be written in terms of the tension between ecclesiastical orthodoxy and folk heterodoxy, not to say heresy, to which its expansion gave rise'40. While in most religious societies, therefore, the elite and subaltern strata such as the peasantry share an official religion, '[w]ithin this shared great tradition... peasant beliefs may fly directly in the face of what passes as orthodoxy'41. '[T]he forms of great tradition religion are more easily absorbed into the little tradition than the meanings attached to them by doctrine'42.

Oppressed groups frequently reinterpret religious ideas for their own purposes. Slaves in America organised autonomous religious services involving unguarded emotional release in secret, sound-insulated areas known as "hush arbors"; Scott terms this religion a reply to elite claims43. In medieval Europe, the Lollard "heresy" flourished in low-surveillance pastoral, forest, moorland and fen areas; later, heterodoxy flourished in homes, taverns and small chapels44. In the Phillipines during the colonial period, Christianity was imposed by the colonisers, but was reappropriated through folk culture. In particular the pasyon, or passion play, was used to express oppositional discourse in partly veiled form, attacking authorities and the institutionalised church and celebrating the lowly, horizontal (rather than vertical) solidarity and millenarianism. That the plays were an officially-authorised church ritual made them relatively safe, even though their use was subversive45. In India, religious sects such as the Sahajiya asserted autonomy from the social and colonial order by reinterpreting Hindu ideas. Like the movements of the free spirit in Europe, such groups stressed the immediacy of bodily experience, endorsed pleasure and encouraged the immediate (not otherworldly) pursuit of goals such as bliss46. And in Mexico, peasants engage in the 'appropriation of religious symbolism in the service of class interests'47; indeed, millenarian movements often articulated peasant demands and rebellions in terms of religious themes48.

For Scott, as for Deleuze and Vaneigem, such hidden sites are crucial to resistance. 'The strongest evidence for the vital importance of autonomous social sites in generating a hidden transcript is the strenuous effort made by dominant groups to abolish or control such sites'49. This sometimes led to resistance. In 1476, a prophetic drummer named Boheim, using already-popular religious themes, attracted large crowds. He was killed by the state, but only after an initial skirmish was won by commoners against nobles50. The ideas expressed in passion plays recurred across a number of uprisings in the Phillipines51. Some medieval sects went as far as to develop a 'secret language' to ensure an outward appearance of orthodoxy52. Indeed, Calvin once complained of alleged heretics: 'they disguise their language so much that no-one can tell what they are talking about'53. Religious words gained different meanings, expressing themes (including immediate experience, sexuality, and freedom from guilt) which religion is usually used to suppress. As Vaneigem puts it, 'words shifted their centre of gravity. They became guided by a different reality'54. Scott adds of peasant religions that elements of religion are 'reworded in accord with the local cultural genius'55.

Groups such as slaves, peasants and low-caste Hindus tend to emphasise aspects of religious texts which stress injustice, resistance and deliverance. Such ideas can become a 'general normative form' for resistance and a counterbalance to ideological domination56. Further, subaltern strata do not draw the distinctions anthropologists and historians might between official and local religions; their own beliefs involve a fusion of the two, especially since peasant deities and the like (such as the pagan gods who were often recuperated as Catholic saints) are primarily concerned with immediate issues57.

Often, official churches and states try to restore a 'proper' meaning by edicts and repression. Most of the heresies Vaneigem discusses were viciously persecuted, their leaders burnt at the stake and their books (although not their popular impact) destroyed. The state went out of its way to ensure no meetings could happen at the site of Boheim's preaching and that no artifacts were left to which mystical powers could be attached. The Catholic Church disavowed millenarian themes and the Pope in 1323 went so far as to declare the assertion of Christ's poverty to be a heresy58. The fallback on impositional discourse and on actual violence shows that the 'proper' meaning of religious discourse was simply a construct of will, based on force. When those excluded from power invest texts with their own discourse, the meaning of the text radically changes.

Deconstructing official justifications in liberal systems

In societies where liberalism is the dominant ideology, religion is no longer the main discourse legitimating elite dominance and psychological and social repression. Rather, the internal self-justifications of the coercive agencies of the state have been extended into a so-called "public" culture which provides a string of excuses for elite and state activities. For instance, state repression is presented as enforcing standards of conduct between individuals in such a way as to compel people to behave reasonably or to avoid harming each other. Associated with a slavish submissiveness to state power, such concepts block the autonomous assertion of needs and desires, encode people in an official order governed for rules and money instead of people, and reinforces the power of elites who are able to selectively apply such standards. Legal bans operate by inducing guilt; a 'first order of business for Leviathan... is to deter the possibility of innocent affiliation with guilty activity'59. Also, as Matza admits, routine legal practices are often concealed or mystified because of the way they are couched in a mystified language60. Official excuses are rejected by some groups (today's equivalent of heretics), but, like religion, such ideas have spread through society in such a way as to be the easiest-available language for groups with little independent discursive structure. It is unsurprising, therefore, that subordinate groups reappropriate this language in much the same way that their forebears and contemporaries elsewhere subvert/ed religion. One such example occurs in the discourse of juvenile delinquents, studied in detail by David Matza61. Challenging conventional assumptions about the existence of a separate delinquent "subculture", Matza suggests that "delinquency" emerges instead through a process he terms 'drift' - in which official discourse is used against itself. The role of drift is not directly to cause acts, but to remove 'restraints' built into discourse62; as such it is a necessary part of the transition from conformist to dissident belief-systems, even if it sometimes leads to new oppressions and even if the syncretic belief-systems it produces often stop short of radical refusal and rebellion.

Submissiveness to the status quo is frequently expressed in terms of what Matza terms the 'legal bind' - a sense of an obligation to obey the law. Gaining autonomous agency requires undermining or neutralising this bind. Matza refers to the legal bind being 'episodically subverted on its own terms' by so-called delinquents acting with 'subterranean support' from their own group63. Drift occurs, according to Matza, in a 'limbo' resulting from what he calls a loosening of control by the system64. It is embedded in a 'subterranean tradition' linked to the past through local legacies. Though denounced by official spokespeople in the mainstream, this tradition often has wide resonances in less pinned-down spaces65. Further, it involves distinct knowledge, such as 'a memory file that collects injustices'66, and creates an 'unregulated area' outside state control67. Taken far enough, this neutralisation becomes a rejection of state power, which is reconceived as oppressive68.

Terms used in the dominant discourse with a clear meaning are, Matza suggests, often given an ambiguous meaning. 'Bad', for instance, can mean a praiseworthy characteristic of toughness or deviance, as well as its more usual sense; thus, it can express either shame or pride69. Other phrases are simultaneously a badge of pride and an insult70.

Similarly, legal standards are not simply rejected, but are adopted, altered and extended. This operates to neutralise law beneath the surface by using its own limits against it, appealing to conditions of inapplicability such as negation of responsibility, a sense of injustice, and the assertion of tort and custom71; exceptions to the legal bind are expanded72. In particular, direct experiences of oppression are reconceived as a negation of legal binds. 'Being "pushed around" puts the delinquent in a mood of fatalism. He experiences himself as effect. In that condition, he is rendered irresponsible'73. 'The role played by the sense of injustice is to weaken the bind of law and thus ready the way for the immediate condition of neutralisation - the negation of intent. Neutralisation enables drift. It is the process by which we are freed from the moral bind of law', because it leads to 'the temporary liquidation of the bind between the actor and the legal order'74. Thus, the legal bind ceases to be a significant defence of oppressive social relations. Also, "delinquents" take causal relations far more seriously than legal officials, seeing the causality behind acts as stretching further75. Matza also mentions the extension of ideas such as "craziness", self-defence, and others.

The use of legal terminology, Matza suggests, is not a case of deliberate bowdlerising but an unconventional application of the same customary standards which law claims to be systematising76. Law, however, tries to pin down meaning through the use of punishment, i.e. violence. For instance, 'the delinquent may assert that he did not mean it; the agent of law may retort that as far as it can see, "he did mean it" '77. This is similar to the older tradition of religious institutions attempting to pin down meaning by suppressing heresies. Ultimately, in both cases, struggle returns to a level of conflict between social forces; dominant elites do not easily accept the syncretic use of their own discourse. As Matza admits (though without the logical conclusion of opposing statism), judges can never fully understand, for if they did, they would have to cease judging and drop their claims to superior status78. Nevertheless, writerly reading enables groups who do not have their own distinct world-view to assert autonomous standpoints; in this sense, at least the clash of forces becomes possible, instead of being foreclosed by generally imposed rhetoric. It also enables them to apply ethical concepts minus their usual asymmetrical context. For instance, "delinquents" see through the usual doublespeak surrounding police and other state agencies, who they see as just as bad as them, or worse because of their hypocrisy79. Thus, 'those who are regularly judged come to sit in judgment over instituted authority'80.

Other examples

Legal and religious systems of discourse are not the only systems of discourse susceptible to readings which open them to new, alternative meanings. Examples abound, across the political, social and cultural fields (including some cases where practices are developed with such readings apparently in mind). To take an example, in medieval Europe, customary use of forests by peasants was interpreted within the hidden transcript as a right; this right was enforced by "poaching", and this in turn led to a hatred of gendarmes and other officials which produced a desire for libertarian revolution. Peasants acted 'to take in fact the property rights they were denied in law'81.

Western-style and modernist political practices are also open to deconstructive readings, especially when peasants are involved. Elections in societies with peasant populations are often reinterpreted as occasions for unscheduled festivals, and people and objects take on 'heterodox meanings'82, for instance as amulets. Thus, a majority vote for a party is not an endorsement of its ideology or policies83. As regards national debates, 'the issues which are at stake in state politics have to be translated into something else at the constituency level and translated yet again at the village level'84. This affects the impact of nationalism, official communism and other such national-based movements. Similar phenomena are involved when peasants supported national independence movements in countries such as Vietnam and the Phillipines85. Furthermore, 'there is good reason to believe that within every great tradition rebellion with mass support there is also a little tradition revolt that threatens to usurp that rebellion for its parochial ends'86. In 1926, the Indonesian Communist Party, under a modernist leadership, launched an attempt at revolution. The result was not what the leaders intended. 'Membership cards were taken to be exemptions from the poll tax, the goal of the rebellion varied from district to district according to local grievances and beliefs, utopian dreams were openly entertained. As the ideas of the leadership percolated down to its rural following, they seemed to lose their original features and take on the coloration of the local social environment; efforts to close the cognitive gap were to no avail'. Party ideas 'were infused with a variety of "folk" meanings that often flew in the face of party doctrine'87.

The popular culture of subaltern strata often renders itself in forms which are open to plural readings. Carnival was officially tolerated as a safety-valve, but often passed over into symbolic challenge and rebellion, and sometimes even full-scale revolt. Folk culture often involves a euphemised variant of the hidden transcript which operates by having two possible readings, one of them innocuous886. It usually had an anti-essentialist quality: 'there is no orthodoxy or centre to folk culture since there is no primary text to serve as the measure of heresy'; further, each repetition of (for instance) a story or song is optional, and each enactment unique89. 'By their nature, oral traditions are plastic; they may be embroidered and transformed in accord with the needs of social groups and the vicissitudes of history. Since there is no original text... the past may serve the present without any sense of heresy'90. Examples of subversive folk culture include the various trickster figures (eg. Anantse and Brer Rabbit) and world-upside-down imagery (eg. a bull butchering the butcher or a cat chasing a dog). Images from, for instance, Javanese folk culture which seem domesticated on the surface often appeared in millenarian, radical and reformist movements91. In particular, the autonomy of the local (the village or the peasant) is asserted through peasants' cultural forms.

In patronage systems, elites legitimate themselves mainly by reference to the welfare of the group they subordinate. This can be interpreted as creating 'moral principles of performance' by which elites can be judged. Slaves interpreted a master's 'duty' to paternalistic generosity as a slave's 'right'92. Similarly, in authoritarian political systems, ideological assertions (such as the Soviet commitment to workers' welfare) are often used by opposition movements as rallying-points. Under the Argentine junta, the mothers of the disappeared became a focal point for resistance because they exposed the emptiness of the regime's valuation of the family, religion and so on93. In monarchic systems, peasant insurgents often claimed that the King or equivalent was on their side because their demands were just (therefore a just king must be on their side)94.

Sometimes, the alterations involved are less political, but important for constructing (or undermining) one's identity. Words used by dominant groups may be given inverted or ambiguous meanings. For instance, in the Phillipines, the word cacique, initially an hororific, was redefined through popular use as a term of opprobrium95. Media discourse is also "negotiated" by audiences to a greater extent than is recognised in many theories of contemporary society. Studies such as those by Morley and Ang reveal that television viewers appropriate its symbols for their own purposes and are not passive recipients96. Readings can adapt texts to local cultures or particular audience uses, and programmes may be watched without being ideologically absorbed. Such phenomena of reinterpreting and hybridising western media symbolism are widespread in parts of Africa, as for instance in the Set Setal popular art movement in Senegal (** Hecht and Simone Ch. 6). Similarly, the sapeaux - poor Francophile Africans who place enormous importance on wearing items of (usually faked) designer clothing - resist the social power of elites by undermining their monopoly on luxury consumption. In some cases, such as in Mobutu’s Zaire, this becomes an invisible way of mounting a political challenge (** Hecht and Simone 50-1).

Conclusion (for now)

Reinterpretations are often supplemented or replaced in discourses of resistance with inversions and negations. This is true, for instance, of peasant religion. Syncretic variants of dominant religions often rejected elements unpalatable to peasant belief-systems, included elements disavowed by the dominant religion or drawn from earlier religions, and may be dropped entirely in the context of millenarian revolutionary upheavals. Similarly, the youths studied by Matza reject important elements of the legal system and its ideology, and have a number of distinct ideas of their own (for instance, the territorial conception of "turf" and a distinctive ideology of group loyalty and honour). Deconstructing official texts is not an exclusive response to asymmetrical power-relations; it is one of a number of possible responses.

Further, the discursive weapons of the ragged-trousered deconstructionists are deployed in many different ways. The cults studied by Vaneigem used public appearances to conceal their "heresies", but were self-conscious in their rejection of 'official' doctrine. Some of the people studied by Scott are more ambiguous; they are involved in negotiations of meaning with elites, in an attempt to infuse supposedly shared slogans with an alternative content. The youths in Matza's study use their discourse (often unsuccessfully) in court, but its main role is internal to their group, providing a basis for action among people who presumably believe in large parts of the ideology they are adapting for use. It should also be noted that some deconstructive gestures are consciously performed, with a view to undermining a dominant conception or to gaining an advantage in debates and/or conflicts, whereas others are "misunderstandings" generated by fusing an 'official' discourse with existing beliefs it is assumed not to challenge. Also, when used to negotiate with dominant groups, deconstruction often 'fails': the latter may refuse to accept uses of language alternative to their own, and resort to impositional discourse and to violence rather than allow their claims to property and propriety to collapse from the inside. Deconstruction is perhaps most useful in everyday life when it is used to construct ways of thinking about one's position which are distinct from those supposedly fixed in the only language one knows. As Pateman puts it, '[s]chizophrenics use the Bible when they haven't got anything better to use. They may not have come across the works of R.D. Laing'97. Perhaps better theories are possible; but for the time being, those without a political language of their own can often fashion something, by bricolage, from fragments of 'official' ideology. In this way, they can claim, in Freire's terms, the right to speak their own word.

Deconstructive readings of 'official' texts - readings which undermine their status as statements of property and propriety by dominant elites - are clearly a widespread and potent form of resistance which has been and is used by oppressed groups in a wide variety of contexts. There is, therefore, no basis for criticisms of deconstruction which denounce it as a purely intellectual exercise or as irrelevant to everyday issues. It is possible to meet the iron seriousness of the words and phrases of the powerful with a different kind of language-use which opens up the meanings of the same words and phrases.


1. The author would like to extend special thanks to Susan McManus for extensive discussion and cooperation on earlier versions of this paper.
2. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance (New Haven, 1980), pp. 97-101.
3. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak (New Haven, 1985), p. 193.
4. "Black Panther Platform", in Peter Stansill and David Zane Mairowitz, eds., BAMN (By Any Means Necessary). Outlaw manifestos and ephemera 1965-1970 (New York, 1971), p. 76.
5. Roland Barthes, S/Z (New York, 1984), p. 4. (Originally 1976).
6. Susan McManus, The Politics of Fictive Theories (PhD thesis, University of Nottingham, 2002), p. 7.
7. Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (London, 1992), p. 53.
8. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, revised edition (London, 1991), p. 156.
9. Thomas Keenan, Fables of Responsibility. Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics (Stanford, 1997), pp. 1-2.
10. Barthes, op. cit., p. 5.
11. Ibid., p. 45.
12. Tamsin Lorraine, Irigaray and Deleuze: Experiments in Visceral Psychology (Ithaca, 1999), p. 48.
13. Anonymous, The Revolutionary Pleasure of Thinking for Yourself (Tucson, 1992), p. 11.
14. Subcomandante Marcos, "The Punch Card and the Hourglass", interview with Gabriel Garc¡a M rquez and Roberto Pombo, New Left Review 9 (2001), p. 77.
15. Jeff Halper, cited in SchNews 342, 15th September 2002.
16. Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 10.
17. Ibid., p. 108.
18. Ibid., p. 45-6.
19. See for instance Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Harmondsworth, 1969).
20. Scott (1990), op cit., p. 138-9.
21. Judith Butler, "Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of 'Postmodernism' ", in Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, eds., Feminists Theorize the Political (New York, 1992), p. 20 n. 1.
22. Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (London, 1991), pp. 86-7. (Originally 1964).
23. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (London, 1977), Thesis 12.
24. Trevor Pateman, Language, Truth and Politics (Newton Poppleford, 1975), chapter 6; Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance", in Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr. and Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston, 1965).
25. Godfrey H. Hodges, Your Conversation or Mine? (Chesterfield, 1999), pp. 12, 22, 25, 27, 49, 80, 108, 116, 119, 126, 135.
26. Barthes, op cit., p. 4.
27. Raoul Vaneigem, Movement of the Free Spirit (New York, 1994), p. 243.
28. James C. Scott, "Protest and Profanation", part 1, Theory and Society vol. 4 no. 1 (1977), p. 22.
29. Michael P. Clark, ed., Revenge of the Aethetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today (Berkeley, 2000), p. 7.
30. This is not to suggest that different groups involved in resistance are in any sense alike or equivalent, except in the very specific sense of being groups subjected to some variety of oppressive practice and responding with a deconstructive mode of reading "official" texts. If such uses can be found across a variety of diverse groups which are at the sharp end of a variety of different oppressive systems, my case regarding the significance of such readings as a form of resistance is strengthened. I am also not claiming to speak on behalf of these groups, or even to share their general outlook; I am neither a 'juvenile delinquent' nor a peasant, nor do I subscribe to any particular religious 'heresy'. It is the usefulness of deconstructive readings as a means of challenging systems of property and propriety and as a way of reclaiming voice which I am trying to establish.
31. Vaneigem, op cit., p. 7.
32. Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (New York 1970), pp. 146-7. (Originally 1946). cf. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (Harmondsworth 1996). (Originally 1887).
33 Vaneigem, op cit., pp. 8-9.
34. Scott (1990), op cit., p. 165.
35. Vaneigem, op cit., p. 36.
36. Scott (1990), op cit., p. 121; cf. Vaneigem, op cit., p. 294.
37. Vaneigem, op cit., p. 44.
38. Ibid., pp. 67-8.
39. Ibid., pp. 54-5.
40. Scott (1977), Part 1, op cit., p. 1.
41. Ibid., p. 19.
42. James C. Scott, "Protest and Profanation", Part 2, Theoiry and Society vol. 4 no. 2 (1977), p. 219.
43. Scott (1990), op cit., p. 116.
44. Ibid., p. 121.
45. Ibid., p. 159.
46. Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments (Princeton 1993), pp. 185-95.
47. Scott (1977), Part 2, op cit., p. 226.
48. Ibid., p. 228.
49. Scott (1990), op cit., p. 124.
50. Ibid., p. 125.
51. Ibid., p. 159.
52. Vaneigem, op cit., p. 190.
53. Ibid., p. 229.
54. Ibid., p. 243.
55. Scott (1977), Part 1, op cit., p. 27.
56. Scott (1990), op cit., pp. 117-18.
57. Scott (1977), Part 1, op cit., pp. 26-7.
58. Scott (1977), Part 2, op cit., p. 229.
59. David Matza, Becoming Deviant (Englewood Cliff, 1968), pp. 147-9.
60. David Matza, Delinquency and Drift (New York, 1964), p. 128.
61. This is not to say that acts by people labelled as "delinquents" are necessarily justified, radical, progressive, etc., any more than I am suggesting that all "heretics" were saintly (since some "heresies" had authoritarian, ascetic and misogynistic views), or that peasant worldviews are a positive ideal. My point is that the discursive gesture of using language autonomously, to express experiences and desires above and beyond the system's control and to escape the linguistic bonds the system uses to impede autonomous thought, is structurally progressive, and that it is possible and, indeed, actual. Also, my own appropriation of Matza's evidence and conclusions is somewhat different from Matza's own, because he often seems to be aiming to eliminate "drift" rather than to encourage or redirect it. Further, I do not share his tendency to see reappropriations of legal and official terms as spurious and misguided. Such an interpretation is mistaken given the rampantly impositional character of the discourse of the liberal state.
62. Matza (1964), op cit., p. 181.
63. Ibid., p. vii; cf. pp. 84-5.
64. Ibid., p. 28.
65. Ibid., pp. 63-4.
66. Ibid., p. 102.
67. Ibid., p. 169.
68. Matza (1969), op cit., p. 146.
69. Matza (1964), op cit., p. 39.
70. Ibid., pp. 42-3.
71. Ibid., p. 61.
72. Ibid., pp. 84-5.
73. Ibid., p. 89.
74. Ibid., p. 176.
75. Ibid., pp. 87-8.
76. Ibid., pp. 99-100.
77. Ibid., p. 74.
78. Ibid., p. 159.
79. Ibid., pp. 140-3.
80. Ibid., p. 137.
81. Scott (1990), op cit., pp. 189-90.
82. Scott (1977), Part 2, op cit., p. 220.
83. Ibid., p. 223.
84. Bailey on India, cited in ibid., p. 221.
85. Ibid. p. 241.
86. Ibid. p. 222.
87. Scott (1977), Part 1, op cit., p. 3.
88. Scott (1990), op cit., p. 157.
89. Ibid., pp. 160-1.
90. Scott (1977), Part 1, p. 26.
91. Ibid., p. 12. Elsewhere, Scott makes similar arguments about world-upside-down woodcuts and the tradition of carnival.
92. Ibid., pp. 14-15.
93. Scott (1990), op cit., p. 166.
94. Scott (1977), Part 2, op cit., p. 227.
95. Scott (1977), Part 1, op cit., p. 15.
96. Ien Ang, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination (London 1985); David Morley, The Nationwide Audience (London 1980).
97. Pateman, op cit., p. 34.


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