Artwork By Ayesha Alshared


Defying Self-Reliance

By Jessica Habib



  • Introduction


“There is nothing outside the text” (Derrida, 2010, p. 1682). Using Derrida’s quote and Roland Barthes’s concept of ‘death of the author’, this essay will examine how Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance” (1841), can be read from both a deconstructionist, by focusing on how the language opposes the motif(s) of the text, as well as through a Marxist perspective, by showing how the text relies on materialistic values and opposes Marxist beliefs of collectivity and unity in order to build on its argument(s). Furthermore, using a new critical lens, the text will be studied and read closely to analyze the structure(s) and ideas behind it. Additionally, reading “Self-Reliance” from both the deconstructive and Marxist perspectives, this essay will,  through closely examining language, form, and content demonstrate how Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” contradicts itself by neglecting the ‘self’ to meet societal expectations and ideologies.


  • Deconstruction


Defining deconstruction is a very difficult task; furthermore, many textbooks and critics try to explain deconstruction in a number of different ways and manners. However, the explanations that dictionaries and textbooks provide appear to be very radical. Giving deconstruction meaning or asking the question of “what is deconstruction all about?” would “kill it” (Derrida, 2010, p. 1691). Defining deconstruction would ridicule the liberation and freedom offered by this theory. Nevertheless, it is important to define—or attempt to define—the ideas and philosophies that this essay will accommodate.  


Rewriting Ferdinand De Saussure’s theories about the signifier and signified, deconstruction challenges the idea that a text can only have one meaning (Derrida, 2010, p. 1682-1683, p. 1733). Due to the abstract meaning in the signifier, a text can have different meaning based on how readers interpret those signifiers. Therefore, deconstruction defies structuralism by showing that a text can have an almost infinite number of possible explanations. According to Derrida, language(s) and texts never contain ‘one’ complete; precise meaning fully realized by everyone “language is a system of differences” (Saussure, n.d. as cited in Derrida, 2010, p. 1683). A text is based on signs and symbols which serve to generate meaning, but none of those signs or symbols occupy a fixed, unchanging position or meaning within a language (Henderson & Brown, Glossary of Literary Theory). Furthermore, according to Derrida, “the signifier functions as a trace that gives the impression that a signified was prior to it, even though the only evidence for that signified is the trace itself” (Derrida, 2010, p. 1683) For instance, Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Theuth-Thamus myth shows that the use of the word pharmakon creates a paradox due to the opposing definitions it carries, poison and cure. Hence, the medicine referred to in Plato’s text can either be toxic or a cure. These two meanings that the word carries undermine the text as a whole by showing that there is no meaning or no ‘one’ meaning to the text. Accordingly, deconstruction and deconstructionists seek to subvert and destroy any notion that a text has boundaries or ‘truth’. Although structuralism privileges and ‘likes’ structure and the concept of ‘having meaning,’ deconstruction challenges this ideology by insisting on opposition and paradox within a text.


Deconstructionists enjoy working with binaries and paradoxes. Thus, meaning for deconstruction is based or bound by context; nonetheless, context in itself is boundless. As a result, “a double bind is produced” (Henderson & Brown, Glossary of Literary Theory). If context can extend indefinitely and indeterminately and meaning is based on context; then meaning, too, is “boundless” (Henderson & Brown, Glossary of Literary Theory).



  • Marxism


Marxism dates back to the thinking of Karl Marx (1818-1883), a nineteenth century German philosopher and economist who believed that socialism and communism are the institutions to be implemented in society(ies) (Eagleton, 1976, p. 3). Therefore, in Marx’s ‘world’, there would no longer be a distinction between lower and upper classes in society(ies); moreover, there would be no ‘one’ leader or ‘one’ superior (Eagleton, 1976, p. 3-4). As a result, these ideas directly oppose capitalism and capitalist ideas which are based on individual opportunity, profit, and personal development. Moreover, although Marxism did not initially emerge as a method of literary analysis, the ideas and philosophies associated with this theory became integrated and applicable to literature by the twentieth century. To be specific, in American literature, Marxism established itself towards the 1930s, alongside the economic depression (Dobie, 2012). Becoming a Marxist critic means that one has “not only cultural and literary reasons”, but also “political and economic” ones as well (Williams, 1977, p. 1-2). A text cannot be read without looking at who the author(s) is (are), who reads it, what is it about, and the ideologies it follows (Williams, 1977, p. 2-3). What Marxism demands or looks for in literature is the unity of arts and politics, the unity of content and form,  the unity or revolutionary political content, and the highest possible perfection of artistic form (Eagleton, 1976, p. 3-6). Marxism asks questions such as “What is the class stand of the text? and “Who is it addressing?” Furthermore, Marxism examines how texts address power and wealth with regards to the powerless and the unfortunate ones in society(ies).  Based on that, Marxist critics aim towards establishing how texts ‘feel’ about a class-less world, and how they address materialism. Therefore, literature must not build or be the initiation point of a money-based, capitalist hierarchy. In addition, literature should not create differences between people based on materialistic ideologies. Therefore, economics is the base for all Marxist thought(s). Thus, Marxist critics examine literary texts to see how they might create hierarchy amongst people, give privileges to a certain group of people over others, develop materialistic values, and anticipate—or perhaps promote—capitalism.


  • “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Brief Overview


Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance,” talks about the advantages of attaining self-reliance as a tool for achieving individuality and gaining the acceptance of society in three different sections (Buell, 1972). The first section explains and emphasizes on self-reliance by referring to the importance of thinking for one’s benefit(s) in order to attain or achieve power, ability, and creativity. As a result, the text promotes emotions, thoughts, and beliefs over facts “To believe that what is true in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius" (Emerson, 1841 p. 549). Furthermore, the text rejects the idea of man having to depend on others or the outside world as a whole “Trust thyself” (Emerson, 1841 p. 550). It is cowardly to rely on others. The second section refers back to the person— in this case being man— by offering advice or suggestions for those who want to be self-reliant. Additionally, the text develops a hierarchy through its comparison of man and landmarks (and books). In addition, the text explains how individuality is only achieved after man stops over exaggerating his ‘love’ and respect for celebrities and royalties. Instead, man should see what ordinary people are doing and learn from them. Furthermore, objects are given value by people; not vice-versa. This materialistic contradiction shows that man can only be self-reliant based on his accomplishment in society; in other words, man needs society’s approval.  Thus, by over-objectifying royalty and celebrities, man makes himself inferior and devalues himself "And now at last the highest truth of this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition" (Emerson, 1841 p. 558). Finally, the third section talks about the importance of individuality in reference to society. Society needs self-reliant ‘men’ to hold it together; therefore, the text promotes self-reliance as a tool for spirituality and for serving a greater good. Self-reliance can help ‘man’ become a better person, care about others, and work towards making the word a better place. Self-reliance can help ‘man’ become a better believer and serve God better. As a result, “Self-Reliance” shows that individuality is important for ‘man’ in order to become a better person in the eyes of himself, society, and God. Creativity and power lies in self-reliance.


  • Deconstruction and “Self-Reliance”


Although the text does not identify the ‘self’ in “Self-Reliance” and who it addresses, ‘self’ is textually the main signifier.  Self-reliance refers to believing in one’s self and in one’s power(s), intelligence, creativity, and ability(ies).  However, although ‘self’ is unidentified, the text uses ‘man’ when to refer to ‘self’. So, according to the text, ‘man’ equals ‘self’. In other words, the text considers ‘man’ and ‘self’ to hold the same semantic and pragmatic meaning(s) and to symbolize the same concept(s) “self-reliance”, “Man is his own star”, “himself”, “Trust thyself” (Emerson, 1841). Hence, the text assumes that ‘man’ and ‘self’ refer to the same ideas and values. As a result, there is an opposition created due to this alternation. The meaning(s) of ‘self’ and the meaning(s) of ‘man’ are not the same. Man does not equal self; moreover, they connotative meaning(s) do not refer to the same concept(s). So, what is self, and what is man?  The word ‘self’ means one spirit, mind, and body; an entity. It is neither female nor male; ‘self’ has no characteristics. The word ‘man’ simply refers to an adult male. Therefore, the two words cannot be replaced for one another. Hence, the argument made by the text is invalid since it assumes that ‘man’ is the only carrier of ‘self’. In other words, ‘man’ does not fill the space for main signifier. As a result, self-reliance is unachievable since the text does not define which ‘self’ is being addressed.


In addition, at first, the text appears to give ‘man’ an illusion of authority and superiority over society “A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition” (Emerson, 1841 p. 551). The text reads as a praise to ‘man’—on the surface level. Nonetheless, once the text is closely examined, it becomes noticeable that the text actually challenges the powers and capabilities of ‘man’ by praising society’s superiority. Society is powerful, much more powerful than ‘man’. Moreover, it controls how much power ‘man’ has or can have “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater” (Emerson, 1841 p. 561). As a result, it appears that man should “have the manhood to withhold” (Emerson, 1841 p. 552) society’s waves (Emerson, 1841 p. 565). Moreover, it is man who has to work and fight in order to defeat society because “society is made to growl and mow” (Emerson, 1841 p. 553), “society has chosen for us” (Emerson, 1841 p. 561).  “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” (Emerson, 1841 p. 551). Hence, the main signifier, ‘self’, loses superiority over society. Man is no longer the leader; society is the one in charge. Society does not need man to develop; instead, man needs to develop himself in order to receive society’s approval and value and achieve self-reliance. “Society acquires new arts” (Emerson, 1841 p. 564); thus, ‘man’ should educate himself, develop himself, and advance himself in order to meet society’s expectations and needs. Or else, society will “not advance” (Emerson, 1841 p. 564).


As a result, by first equating ‘man’ to ‘self’ and assuming they carry the same meaning(s) and values, and second by using language to show that self-reliance is indeed not impossible since it is society that decides whether its members can be considered reliant or not, the argument(s) made by the text become meaningless. Self-reliance becomes almost impossible since it is not the ‘self’ that should experience “oneness” in order to be independent (Buell, 1972); rather, it is society that needs to feel updated and developed so ‘self’ can feel the slightest satisfaction.


  • Marxism and “Self-Reliance”


“Self-Reliance” builds on transcendental ideologies, reflecting on the hegemonies of American culture(s) in order to stress the importance of individuality, individual intelligence, and moral development (Shafi, 2008). Moreover, the text sees that man should focus his attention on his inner self for guidance and faith rather than rely on external religious figures. Furthermore, one of the first and most-evident themes that the text deals with is the idea of accepting one’s self. Through acceptance, man can begin to acknowledge the “oneness” (Buell, 1972) in himself and begin his adventure towards self-reliance “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you” (Emerson). As a result, for man to achieve self-reliance, he must abandon the outside world and allow his individuality to speak for society. According to Buell(1972), “Non-conformity to society” is the key to self-reliance, while conformity is the converse”. Thus, the text points at the ‘essence’ of genius, creativity, virtue, and life as the roots for self-reliance. Man can learn nothing from the outside world “He dares not say I think,” “I am” (Emerson, 1841 p. 557). Fortune and peace are attainable only when man begins to believe in himself and in the benefits of self-reliance. Hence, it is clear that ‘man’ is treated as the base of society. He makes the laws, establishes the codes, builds skyscrapers and towers, and leads society. Man “Commands all light, all influence, all fate” (Emerson, 1841 p. 549). Also, self-reliance can be seen as the result of man’s work—maybe another level or kind of superstructure.


Therefore, “Self-Reliance” opposes the socialist and communist views of Marxism by promoting self-development, profit, individualism, and materialistic values (Raed, 2009). For instance, by comparing man to royalties and celebrities, the text creates a hierarchy between the ordinary man and the royalty man. The materialistic values associated with kings, queens, and celebrities are there; in fact, the text reminds man that there is a difference between him and those who get such labels. As a result, royalty is made superior by suggesting that man has to work internally to achieve what he dreams of externally. Furthermore, although man is thought to be the breadwinner and the ‘money-maker’ in almost all societies, the comparison made between buildings, landmarks and ‘man’ encourages materialism. Man becomes objectified; his worth is measured according to how many buildings and towers he builds and by how much he provides society—a form of commodification. Thus, the connotation of sign value is reversed. It is no longer man who gives commodities values; it is the commodities that give him value. From there, it is clear that the text builds on false consciousness through deception.


The first section of the text claims that self-reliance is for everybody, deceiving all men into believing that self-reliance is their only means for power, creativity, and independence. The text misleads men into thinking that they all have the privilege of experiencing self-reliance. Nevertheless, by comparing man to materialistic values associated with skyscrapers and royalties, the text develops a clear distinction between those who are included in the image of skyscrapers, either by getting involved in the building process or by simply visiting them, those who get to ‘see’ those royalties and celebrities, and those who do not get the chance of experiencing either one of these.  Thus, although the text does directly identify any addressees, it is evident that not everybody enjoys the privileges associated with being accepted by society. There is a distortion and profit-based hierarchy created by the text indicating that not everybody is meant to enjoy self-reliance. Self-reliance belongs only to those who work hard enough in order to provide society with advancement; thus, it is only for the bourgeoisie. The working class does not get a taste.


  • Conclusion


Reading Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance” from a deconstructive and a Marxist perspective is very enlightening and life-changing because the text begins to look and feel differently. “Self-Reliance” is known for its liberating ideas and spirituality (Shafi, 2008); however, using these two perspectives turns the situation upside down. Additionally, using these two perspectives shows that “Self-Reliance” contradicts its motif(s) through language, form, and content. For example, using deconstruction, the definition(s) of ‘self’, ‘man’, ‘individuality’, and ‘society become questionable and almost unknown. What does each word actually mean? Which one is more superior? Moreover, it becomes shockingly clear that ‘self’—whether man or woman—is entirely dependent on society. Societal norms and expectations are what determine one’s success, power, and authority. In the case of Emerson’s essay, if ‘man’ gives nothing to society, then he, himself, comes to be seen as nobody—perhaps even nothing. Additionally, using Marxism, the text becomes almost completely reliant on materialistic values and ideologies. The continuous reference to power and money ignores Marxism’s aims of collectivity and unity. In fact, there is no unity; there is only the ‘self’. It is frightening to think about society being the determiner of authority; it is similar to saying that society owns everybody. Society comes to symbolize an abstract power capable of lifting ‘man’ up and throwing him down whenever it wishes to do either.  Thus, through these perspectives, “Self-Reliance”, becomes a rather restricting and even tormenting concept. Instead of reading the text as a path to discovering one’s ‘self’ and achieving self-independence and individuality, it becomes an eye-opener to reality. The ideas used in the text such as money, materialism, profit, buildings, towers, royalties, and celebrities fall under capitalism which the text indicates to be man’s superior. He can try to avoid it, but it will always be in his face; wherever he goes, materialism and capitalism will follow. There is no chance of running away. Unfortunately, all he could do is try to live up to the expectations, in hope of seeking acceptance.  




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Jessica Habib is a Palestinian/American studying English Literature at the American University of Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates. Her research interests include cultural studies, colonial, post-colonial, and feminist literature(s). As a graduating senior, she intends to focus her future research on the elements of diaspora and trans-nationality as portrayed in literature across different cultures and several years.  

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