A Derridean Approach to Critical Reading: A MONSTER! by Talitha May, Colorado State University
Hearing the term “critical reading” provokes my composition students to lemon-pucker grimace and nervously shift in their seats as if a monster had suddenly appeared. They often gasp at the prospects of the composition course’s planned future critical reading unit. They identify with theorist Jacques Derrida’s notion that “the future is necessarily monstrous: the figure of the future, that is, that which can only be surprising, that for which [they] are not prepared, you see, is heralded by a species of monsters” (Derrida 386-7). I do not try convincing students that texts are un-intimidating and that critical reading is an unthreatening process of merely examining specific dominant codes within texts that allow for predisposed meanings to occur. I rather tell students that texts are indeed monstrous and the process of critical reading is undeniably what Derrida terms “a monster.” Considering then that a monster rears its head in the composition classroom, it is necessary to learn one possible way students may approach the wide-ranging process of critical reading. In this brief article, I attempt to discuss Jacques Derrida’s definition of the “monster” and how this definition may be applied to a practice of critically reading texts, appropriately expressed by the memorable acronym, “A MONSTER.”
A text “which appears for the first time,” may not only present difficulties of understanding for students, but may also elicit fear; such a text may be considered what Derrida terms “a monster” (Derrida 386). This unrecognizable text does not necessarily allow an expected and familiar meaning to occur, but rather “produces a language of its own, in itself, which while continuing to work through translation, emerges at a given moment as a monster, a monstrous mutation without tradition or a normative precedent” (Derrida 385). Because a precedent is not yet established, when students undertake arriving at a stable meaning, such a text “frightens [them] precisely because no anticipation had prepared [them] to identify this figure” (Derrida 386). Students are fearful because they risk being “without power” when encountering new texts; as Derrida explains, “the notion of the monster is rather difficult to deal with, to get a hold on, to stabilize” (Derrida 385). Despite an initial sense of fear and a sense of powerlessness when considering difficult texts, students may in fact begin accustoming themselves to the monstrosity.
When faced with a monster, students do not have to remain frozen in action by a Medusa’s gaze, for instance, but may instead initiate the process of “normalization.” Derrida explains this process when he states:
But as soon as one perceives a monster […] one begins to domesticate it, one begins […]to compare it to the norms, to analyze it, consequently to master whatever could be frightening in this figure of the monster. And the movement of accustoming oneself, but also of legitimation, and, consequently, of normalization has already begun. (Derrida 386)
Derrida explains that students may initially become aware of how to normalize or domesticate any appearance of monstrosity by analyzing it. Analyzing the monster potentially entails examining what may characterize it.
For Derrida, the monster is characterized as an amalgam, or a hybrid, and as such, students must acquaint themselves with the monster by a similarly heterogeneous and thus monstrous approach. Derrida maintains, “a monster may be obviously a composite figure of heterogeneous organisms that are grafted onto each other. This graft, this hybridization, this composition that puts heterogeneous bodies together may be called a monster” (Derrida 385). Because the monster is a hybrid, and exposes the myth of a unified body, the movement of accustoming oneself to the monster may involve an analytical process characterized by a similarly varied composition. Derrida explains this process of hybrid normalization when he states, “one must conduct not only a theoretical analysis; one must produce what in fact looks like a discursive monster so that the analysis will be a practical effect” (Derrida 386).
Producing such a discursive monster necessarily entails an analytical process whereby students may explore various aspects of a text and examining their relationships. An effective practice to initiate exploration involves the process of questioning a text’s various aspects.
The below list of various rhetorical contextual questions may be grafted together to create “A MONSTER.” This “monster” analysis is perhaps one possible attempt of what Derrida terms a “practical” theoretical analysis. A composition student may begin the process of dissecting the monstrous text by means of considering the below guided questions, and attempt answering the questions in an answer log, or even in the text’s marginalia for visual reference. Not all of the questions may be relevant to every monstrous text; composition students are encouraged to forge a different set of questions when encountering the next text.
Audience and Appeals
1. Who is the intended or unintentional audience for the text?
2. What type of audience does the text create or have a need for?
3. What characterizes the audience? (These characterizations may include language, geographical locations, gender, ethnicity, values, motivations, age, political affiliation, religion, educational background, profession, physical differences, etc.)
4. What types of appeals (logos, ethos, and pathos) are operative in the text?
5. Now consider yourself as a particular audience; how does your particular background affect your reading of the text?
1. What is the particular mode or aim of argument functioning in the text? (These modes may include: to persuade, inform, analyze, request, document, explain, evaluate, instruct, convince, explore, mediate, negotiate, entertain, etc.)
1. In what ways is the text organized (circular, linear, a combination, or neither)?
2. Where does the text indicate new sections?
3. Where does the text point to new main ideas?
4. Where in the text do the main ideas occur?
1. What are the overall needs or purposes of the text?
2. What rhetorical context seemed to have prompted the need of the text?
Style and Sources
1. What is the text’s tone (satirical, humorous, ironic, whimsical, formal, causal, technical, angry, didactic, etc.)?
2. What types of figurative language (tropes and schemes) are operative in the text?
3. What images or vocabulary recur throughout the text?
4. What kind of language occurs in the text (standard, slang, sexist, technical, abstract, concrete, obsolete, archaic, regional, foreign, etc.)?
5. What kinds of sources are cited and what are their dates and contexts?
6. Who are the authors of the text’s sources?
Thesis and Theory
1. What is the author’s thesis and where is it located?
2. What are the main ideas of the text?
3. Can you identify a particular critical “theory” that perhaps informs the text?
1. What types of evidence does the text possess (descriptive, statistical, interviews, personal, etc.)?
2. Is the evidence credible, detailed, relevant, specific, asserted, or explained?
Reasoning and Re-reading
1. Are there any logical fallacies present in the text’s reasoning?
2. What type of reasoning (inductive, deductive, or both) is present in the text?
3. What underlying assumptions are operative in the text?
4. Have you re-read the text not necessarily teleologically from beginning to end?
The monster analysis does not prescribe a definitive or even repeatable approach to critical thinking, but instead aims to allow composition students to begin engaging in a memorable process of critical reading. Many students indicate that it is rather difficult even knowing how to begin the process of critical reading. This analysis is merely one possible simple approach students may consider when initially attempting the practice of critical reading. Not only is the process an effective method allowing students to begin critically thinking, but the acronym is highly valuable. The acronym is effective because it is literally memorable when students do indeed encounter a monstrous text.
The outlined “A MONSTER” inquiring approach to critical reading makes it possible for composition students to begin their process of engaging with difficult texts. Even though the questions of the monster analysis are somewhat repeatable, the actual answers always differ and remain contextual to each monstrous text. Monstrous texts do rebuke enclosure and any systematizing efforts on behalf of their captor; however, they easily lend themselves to student inquiry and provide students a step in the direction of accessibility.
Derrida, Jacques. Points…Interviews, 1974-1994. Trans. Peggy Kamuf, et al. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.