Deconstructing an Elephant

*Note to the reader — This was first written in September of 2016. I’ve since refined my understanding of Derrida and have lost a once confused sense of reverence for him. Fortunately, the use of Derridian thought in this essay does not necessarily praise Derrida as the messiah who contributed largely to neo-Marxist/postmodernist thought—if anything my attitude toward Derrida in this essay is expressed as being somewhat neutral. Articles that I will publish later will exhibit my true feelings about Derrida.

Allow me to begin by stating that we will not be dissecting and analyzing the anatomy of Elephas maximus, we will simply be extracting some specific excerpts from Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” followed by the deconstruction of one of those excerpts as per Jacques Derrida’s thought. The practical (and theoretical) intent of this exercise is to break down the intended meaning of Orwell’s thesis in Elephant, and then further deconstruct just one word that Orwell chooses and, equally importantly, words that he omits, and we will finally discuss some practical application of our newfound understandings. It should be noted that it has been Orwell whom has often been credited with saying that omission is the most powerful form of lie (though evidence of Orwell having stated this seems to be scarce, and third-hand at best). Orwell’s intimate understanding of the manipulation of language (in all its forms) is quite pertinent to Derrida’s deconstructive concept of différance in his work, Of Grammatology.

The term différance is an amalgamation of the French différence and the verb différer, (“différer” meaning both “to defer” and/or “to differ”); note the a inserted where there otherwise would be an e (Cassell’s French Dictionary, 10th ed., pg. 258). The intent of the “creation” of the word and concept of différance is to subvert the hierarchy of opposing terms or concepts, particularly as it regards the speaking-writing binary opposition, wherein speaking is the traditionally preferred method of conveying thoughts due to its seemingly inherent truths simply by virtue of its presence as a spoken word. Différance, when written, succeeds in its subversion of the spoken différence in that only in writing does the word achieve its advantage (in the traditional binary opposition hierarchy) due to its altered meaning that cannot be perceived with hearing but only with sight (or with touch should the word be translated into braille, which would serve only to further subvert this hierarchy); the two words are pronounced precisely the same but are perceived differently with the eyes, thus making only one true différance (as is illustrated simply by writing and reading the word). The meaning of a word can only be described by deferring to other objects or concepts and by addressing the differences between other objects or concepts relative to the subject word, which causes what has been deemed a temporal delay (a potentially indefinite postponement) or simply, deference. In other words, language is composed entirely of differences between words and not of any "intrinsic” value for each word (for context is required to understand the value of a word); however, the temporal delay is eliminated and the hierarchy of words successfully turned around in the instance of différance, as it can only exist in written form.

Enter George Orwell: a subversive, multi-faceted man; a virtuous, humble and ambitious man that was graceful enough to warn all who might read his messages of what a “dystopic” society might be like through works of autobiography and of politically allegorical fiction, be it via the anthropomorphizing of rebellious farm animals turned tyrants/slaves, or the persecution of a man’s very own thoughts that he cannot be allowed to think according to the laws of his society. Orwell himself emphasized in some of his works the importance of having an intimate familiarity with language in order to subvert attempts of others at manipulating language for nefarious purposes. For example, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” is a prime example from Orwell’s Animal Farm (Orwell pg. 51-52) of the manipulation of words in order to fulfill a socio-political agenda. The word “dystopic”, for example, is itself a word omitted from the English lexicon; it is an untruth, an unacknowledged word that, ironically, sounds like it ought to have the antonym “utopic” (being the recognizable word that would be used to describe something as being “of utopia”). Instead we must use the word “dystopian” to describe something as being “of dystopia”. The problem (or rather the supportive argument that Derrida may have approved of) therein is the forced creation of a new word (“dystopic”) due to the lack of collective agreement that such a word exists in some official capacity (although general understanding of this particular conjured word typically suffices for purposes of conveying the meaning of the word “dystopian”). The invocation of the not-uncommonly used “dystopic” raises questions regarding the barriers of language and the limitations of human understanding of concepts that language creates: if “dystopic” is not officially a word, then can it have meaning? Dystopic is clearly (to me, and no doubt to many others) antonymous with “utopic,” so perhaps our understanding of the word “officially” needs to be clarified or altered, but who or what deems an entity or group of people to be official? From where does one derive the authority to grant authority to another? This conundrum can go on ad infinitum. This example is why contracts are so long – everything in a contract must be clearly defined. We must understand the meaning of “the,” or at least agree to the entirely subjective pre-determined meaning of “the” before we can proceed (at the whim of the provider of the contract), legally, officially, and with (or without?) authority. The convolution of the meaning of words is due to the fact that no intrinsic value can exist in any word, only collective (but not total) acknowledgement of the meaning of a word, which again can only be described by comparing the word (with some degree of context) with other words or concepts, as with the example of “dystopic”.

In the early-mid 1920s when Orwell was working in British-colonized Burma as a police officer, he had been pursuing a rampaging work-elephant to either scare it off or, as a last resort, put the elephant down (the latter of which he most certainly did not want to do, as putting down the elephant would not involve hurling insults at the elephant, but rather hurling lethal projectiles). The thesis of Orwell’s essay can be summed up in the second paragraph of his essay:

Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. … All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.

Here is what Orwell’s thought process had evolved into by the end of his pursuit of the elephant:

And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedoms that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib… (Orwell, George, “Shooting an Elephant”, pg 540 & 542).

I extracted the excerpts above to outline Orwell’s duality of mind—his own problematic dichotomous thoughts—thoughts of conflicting ideology. Orwell used the word “Empire” with a capital “E”, emphasizing the proper title, and stateliness of a given empire such as that of the British. The emphasis here is critical and can only be understood through visual observation – one must deprive one’s self of the pre-disposition of the ‘reading voice’ in one’s own mind to remove or discard the capitalization of the “E” in Empire – only through the conscious suppression of what I will call “cognitive de-capitalization bias” can we see the hidden meaning of “Empire” and all that it implies. It is not uncommon, for example, to capitalize other similar monolithic abstracts such as God or the State. To capitalize the “E” in Empire is to deify or canonize the very concept of the State. To make proper the very title of the oppressor, which torments Orwell in his ideological struggle, is to grant the oppressor a reverent status that is collectively known and acknowledged, all the while regarded as tyrannical by the sparse individual. Through cognitive de-capitalization bias, one is unknowingly removing one’s self from the awareness of the idolization of the State. In other words, subconsciously—especially through spoken word (where capitalization is non-existent and merely implicit)—it is quite common to overlook the conscious emphasis placed by the orator and the writer on the composition of a word.

It is imperative that a greater emphasis be placed on the relevance of both reading and writing, particularly to collectively reduce naïve pre-conceived notions of the socio-political systems that have been in place for millennia; notions of greatness, necessity, virtue, nobility, and even divinity—notions that have served the will of the many but more importantly and more vastly (and historically as well as contemporarily) have served the will of the few.

To be utterly aware of the words and their meanings that are used throughout our lives in all forms of media is to be armed with knowledge, but this awareness is not enough—we cannot simply read or listen to words issued to us and thus understand the world that we live in—we must pay attention to what information is being omitted. Read between the words. Cognitive de-capitalization bias is one ailment that must be overcome among a sea of cognitive ailments. Words, concepts, and bits of information are deceptive in nature, for they are utilized to persuade us of something; this persuasion must be identified and deferred to its binary opposite—particularly that opposite which is omitted. When we look at the binary oppositions thematically expressed in Orwell’s 1984 (war-peace, freedom-slavery, and ignorance-strength), we can clearly understand the need to subvert these oxymoronic hierarchies, for they are antithetical to individual liberty. However, when a diametrically-opposed hierarchy is not clearly present (as in the example of “Empire”) due to its brazen omission (dependent solely on the apathy and docility of the masses), this is the moment when we must look closely at what is not being told so that we may, without fear, effectively and openly question authority in order to free ourselves from our collective physical and cognitive enslavement.

Works Cited

Girard, Denis, et al, Cassell’s French Dictionary, 10th ed., New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1981 pg. 258

Orwell, George, Animal Farm, Published 1945, pg. 51-52

Orwell, George, 1984, Published 1949,, pg. 6

Orwell, George, "Shooting an Elephant”, Literature: The Human Experience, Shorter Eleventh Edition, Richard Abcarian, et al, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012, pg 540 & 542