DECONSTRUCTION . The word deconstruction was coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), with whom the movement of that same name is identified. Derrida rejects the classical anthropological model of language, according to which the speaking subject gives verbal expression to inner thoughts that are subsequently written down. In such a model, writing is a sign of speaking; speaking is a sign of thinking; and thinking is a sign of being. Instead, Derrida follows the structuralist thesis of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), which posits that language is to be understood scientifically as a purely formal system of signs (langue) internally related to one another (like a dictionary in which one word is defined by other words) and underlying the utterances of speaking subjects (parole), thus eliminating both the subjective-psychological and objective-metaphysical factors. In Saussure's model, signifiers are arbitrary (the word king has no natural likeness to a real king) and differential (they differ by the "space" between, say, king and ring ). The signified is the effect produced by the rule-governed use of signifiers. Derrida's thought is post-structuralist; it criticizes Saussure for privileging speech over writing, in violation of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, and for treating linguistic strings as closed systems of fixed structures. Metaphors and wordplay illustrate the uncontainable capacity of linguistic chains to network out indefinitely in new directions, pushing endlessly against the limits imposed by the rules. Derrida encapsulated his adaptation of Saussure in the neologism différance, French philosophy's most famous misspelling. The idea is to keep networks open-ended, to resist their tendencies to closure, in order to allow new and unforeseen effects.
Deconstruction is not a settled body of substantive theses or positions but a style of thinking that applies in any field of inquiry, theoretical or practical, by virtue of which any present set of beliefs or practices is held to be indefinitely revisable (deconstructible) in the light of something unrevisable (undeconstructible). Inasmuch as the undeconstructible is never actually present or realized, the undeconstructible is also said to be "the impossible." According to Derrida, the least bad definition of deconstruction is the "experience of the impossible." "Least bad" because, in deconstruction, which is resolutely anti-essentialist (nominalistic), words have only a relatively stable unity of meaning, shifting histories of use, and no fixed or defined borders. Derrida uses the word experience in the sense not of empirical data gathering but of running up against something unexpected, even traumatic. "The impossible" does not mean a simple logical contradiction, such as (p & ~p ), but something that shatters the horizon of expectation, that is not accountable (or possible) under prevailing presuppositions.
The same sense is conveyed when Derrida describes deconstruction as the "invention of the other." Invention has the more literal sense of "coming upon" and even of "incoming" (Latin, in-veniens ), running up against something that comes in upon or comes over us, overwhelming our powers of anticipation. By the "other," Derrida means not the relatively other—that is, new evidence confirming an existing horizon—but the "wholly other" (tout autre), a phrase he borrows from the Jewish ethicist Emmanuel Levinas, meaning something unforeseeable, unrepresentable, for which we have no concept. A deconstructive analysis thus prepares the way for or explores "the possibility of the impossible." Jean-François Lyotard makes a comparable distinction between making a new move in an old game (the possible or relatively other) and inventing a new game altogether (the impossible or wholly other). That, in turn, invites comparison with Thomas Kuhn's distinction between normal science, which makes new discoveries within an existing paradigm, and revolutionary science, when an anomaly forces a fundamental reconfiguration of the current schema, resulting in a "paradigm shift."
Derrida has recourse to a family of venir ("to come") words picked up in English in both Latinate (invention) and Anglo-Saxon forms (coming). Deconstruction is turned to the "incoming," the invention, or the advent, of the "event," which is a unique and "singular" happening, not an instance or example of a universal (Derrida's idea of "singularity" is derived from Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Levinas). The event defies convention, where everything is regularized and routinized. Deconstructive thinking is guided by the invocation "come" (viens), which Derrida has not hesitated to call a certain "prayer," by which he means a deep desire or love of the event to come, which is not without anxiety since the future is also an absolute risk. The motif of the "come" clearly has messianic overtones that Derrida acknowledged in later, more autobiographical, essays like "Circumfession," where he reflects on his birth as a Jew and on his early life in a Jewish family in French Algeria. The motifs of love and desire have overtones of Augustine's cor inquietum, of what Derrida calls the "prayers and tears of Augustine," which also surface in these same essays about his life in the Franco-Christian colony that is the historic land of Augustine.
The word deconstruction, which has the predominantly negative sense of disassembling something, is clearly not the best word for this deeply affirmative mode of thinking. Coined by Derrida as a translation of Heidegger's Destruktion, and used by him to characterize his own work, it owes its currency just as much to commentators who seized upon it. Heidegger himself was likely referring to Martin Luther's use of destructio, which itself goes back to 1 Corinthians 1:19. Just as for Luther, destroying the wisdom of the wise meant nothing destructive, but rather the recovery of the original sense of scripture by breaking through the crust of Scholastic theology. And just as Heidegger did not mean anything negative but rather the recovery of the unthought sense of "being" that was hidden in the history of metaphysics, so Derrida does not mean anything negative, but rather the releasing of the possibility of the impossible, or the coming of the event, that threatens to be closed off by conventional interpretation and practices. While the word has entered the general vocabulary (e.g., "deconstructing Woody Allen") with the negative sense of knocking down and exposing faults, to deconstruct something in Derrida's sense is not to ruin it but to give it a history, to open it up to a future. Something that is insulated from deconstruction is not protected but petrified, having hardened over into a dogma, like a law that could never be reformed or repealed. The word enjoyed, or suffered from, a succès de scandale, particularly in American literary theory circles in the 1970s, where it seemed to invite a kind of interpretive anarchy that licensed any interpretation, however bizarre. When Derrida protested against such interpretations, critics thought him involved in the self-contradiction of insisting that his own texts should be interpreted carefully, thus refuting his own theory that anything goes.
In fact, careful reading is what deconstruction is all about. A philosophical theory with wider implications, deconstruction first gained ascendancy in the 1960s and 1970s as a literary theory. A deconstructive reading settles deeply into the grain of a text, sensitizing itself to its tropes and metaphors, its choice of words, the chains in which those words are caught up, and the complex and even anonymous operations of the linguistic system in which the author is working, in order to show that the text contains an unmasterable complexity—dissemination —that cannot be contained by the author's own intentions or conscious logic. Thus, Derrida's well-known critique of "logo-centrism." Derrida's frequent use of puns and wordplay is not a substitute for an argument but an exemplification of a theory about wordplay, which illustrates the unmasterable, unintended dimension of language, the semantic, graphic, and phonic chains that no intentional agent can contain. James Joyce, an early hero of Derrida's, embodies this point about language almost perfectly. This disseminative effect is not something that a clever writer or reader is doing to the text, exerting a kind of violence or mastery over it, but an auto-deconstructive operation going on within the linguistic network itself.
That this is not interpretive anarchy but responsible work, Derrida thinks, is clear to anyone who reads carefully. Anyone who reads Greek philosophy carefully knows that there is all the difference between "Plato," a shorthand for a cluster of condensed philosophical theses, summarized and passed along in prepackaged histories of philosophy, and a close, careful reading of or immersion into Plato's writings, which reveals multiple voices, dramatic devices, conflicting and suggestive counter-motifs, and loose threads—in short, a "text," a highly woven and interwoven complex, not a neatly argued "book" under the absolute conscious control of an "author." We might add that anyone who has studied the Jewish or Christian scriptures carefully will understand that these are "texts" in just this sense; that is, a complex weave (or "palimpsest") of many voices, competing theological and political agendas, redactive layerings, anonymous interventions, lost stories, liturgies, and multiple extra-textual references or reinscriptions of earlier texts, texts without fixed "margins." In the same way, conservative critics charge deconstruction with being out to destroy "tradition," but Derrida would respond that he only wants to show its immense complexity and competing voices; there is no such thing as "tradition" in the singular but rather an interweaving of many traditions and counter-traditions, of dominant and recessive voices, and even of chance mutations in manuscripts. Close readings of the past—the uncovering of forgotten women, for example—opens up hitherto closed possibilities for the future. Deconstruction is very conservative, Derrida once quipped, because the only way to love and be loyal to the past is to deconstruct it.
Although Derrida's avant-garde style of writing, especially early on, lent superficial credibility to the misinterpretation of deconstruction as a form of relativism or even nihilism, no one today can mistake the sustained seriousness of the later writings, whose ethical, political, and even religious character is beyond doubt. Reading his account of the "gift without return" or "forgiving the unforgivable," more informed critics today will accuse him of a Kantian rigorism or unrealistic ethical purism, an accusation that he also rejects. From the early 1980s on, Derrida has written not only about the gift and forgiveness, but about justice and the law, hospitality, friendship, democracy, capital punishment, and international human rights. In 2003 he published Voyous, a book about the denunciation of "rogue states" by the Western democracies.
Religious thinkers are fascinated by a distinction Derrida introduced in the 1990s between the concrete "messianisms"—the three great monotheistic religions of the book, as well as the philosophical eschatologies of G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Heidegger—and the pure "messianic" or "messianicity." The pure messianic means the formal structure of desire, expectancy, or openness, the pure structure of the "to come" (à venir) —like the hospitality to come, the justice to come, and, most famously, the "democracy to come"—that is concretized in the historical messianisms. In virtue of the pure messianic, one can speak of a "religion without religion," a religious desire without confessional dogma or institutional ties. The "democracy to come" is not a Kantian regulative ideal, which brings a concept to ideal completion beyond its empirical limits, because, for Derrida, democracy is not a concept or an essence on which we are making asymptotic progress, but a moment in the open-endedness of history that makes possible an event, whose coming cannot be foreseen and whose name is not known, and where nothing guarantees that it will not bring forth a monster instead of a messiah. "Secular" political theory, and philosophy generally, is always transcribing an "unavowed theologeme," like the messianic promise, thus skewing any rigorous distinction between the religious and secular, faith and reason, religion and the nonreligious, prayer and social hope, theism and atheism.
This is not to say that religious thinkers were not interested in deconstruction from the start. The early essay "Differance" (1967) started a discussion with negative theology that dominated the dialogue between deconstruction and theology until the late 1990s. As Derrida says, he loves the syntax, semantics, and the tropes of negative theology, which is a self-effacing discourse, a discourse that attempts to erase its own traces. Beyond matters of style, the critique of the metaphysics of presence in deconstruction (what is present is deconstructible; the undeconstructible is never present) bears a substantive analogy to the critique of idols in apophatic theology (if you comprehend it, it is not God; if it is God, you cannot comprehend it). Nonetheless, while negative theology clearly uses deconstructive techniques, deconstruction is not negative theology, because it has no commitment to a hyperousios, to a Godhead beyond God or a God beyond being. The exchange between Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion is the most important in this regard.
In the 1980s, deconstruction was appropriated by the theology of the "death of God," most notably in Mark C. Taylor's Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (1984). Taylor argued that the first wave of death-of-God thinking in the nineteenth century left the old God standing under the new name of Humanity. Deconstruction is the true hermeneutics of the death of God because it has displaced any absolute center, human or divine, with the free play of signifiers. God has descended into the world without remainder, even as scripture has descended into écriture without remainder, a reading that reflected the Nietzschean understanding of Derrida then dominant in American departments of literature. Since then a different appreciation of the religious dimension of deconstruction has emerged in thinkers such as John Caputo, Kevin Hart, and Hent de Vries, for whom deconstruction is the hermeneutics not of the death but of the desire for God.
Altizer, Thomas J. J., ed. Deconstruction and Theology. New York, 1982.
Caputo, John D. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion. Bloomington, Ind., 1997.
Carlson, Thomas A. Indiscretion: Finitude and the Naming of God. Chicago, 1999.
Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago, 1978.
Derrida, Jacques. "Circumfession: Fifty-nine Periods and Periphrases." In Jacques Derrida, by Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, translated by Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago, 1993.
Derrida, Jacques. On the Name. Edited by Thomas Dutoit. Stanford, Calif., 1995.
Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Translated by David Wills. Chicago, 1995.
Derrida, Jacques. Monolingualism of the Other, or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Translated by Patrick Mensah. Stanford, Calif., 1998.
Derrida, Jacques. "On Forgiveness: A Roundtable Discussion with Jacques Derrida." In Questioning God, edited by Mark Dooley, Michael Scanlon, and John D. Caputo. Bloomington, Ind., 2001.
Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Religion. Edited by Gil Anidjar. London and New York, 2002.
Derrida, Jacques. Voyous. Paris, 2003.
Derrida, Jacques, and John D. Caputo. Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. Edited with a commentary. New York, 1997.
Derrida, Jacques, and Jean-Luc Marion. "On the Gift: A Discussion between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion." In God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, edited by John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon. Bloomington, Ind., 1999.
de Vries, Hent. Philosophy and the Turn to Religion. Baltimore, 1999.
Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology, and Philosophy. New York, 2000.
Horner, Robyn. Rethinking God as Gift: Marion, Derrida, and the Limits of Phenomenology. New York, 2001.
Taylor, Mark C. Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. Chicago, 1984.
John D. Caputo (2005)
The topic of deconstruction and the Constitution arises chiefly because of work done since 1978 by the left-oriented scholars of the Conference on critical legal studies, who have applied modern continental critical theory, including literary theory, to Anglo-American law. The issues involved also descend from the rise of pragmatism in American philosophy in the late nineteenth century and its influence on American jurisprudence via the skepticism of oliver wendell holmes, jr. , and the later adherents of legal realism. This dual ancestry is not coincidental. Deconstruction was popularized by the French critical philosopher Jacques Derrida, especially in his 1974 book Of Grammatology. Though most influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Derrida also drew on a forebear of American pragmatism, Charles Peirce.
Like many pragmatists, deconstructionists take a radical stance toward the epistemological doubts that have occupied modern philosophy since Descartes. In their view, although the various ways in which human minds represent their experiences to themselves (from organic sensations to oral languages, to conventional writing) may bear some complex relationship to an external physical reality, they never provide a direct, unmediated grasp of it. The visual sensation of seeing the color "red," the sounds of the English adjective "red," and the written word "red" may somehow signify to us something that is really out there, but we cannot claim that our physical sensation or our oral or written terms are full or necessary representations of it. The something might cause different physical sensations in different individuals or sensory apparatuses, and certainly it can be signified by different sounds or written marks. All this is uncontroversial in most modern epistemologies.
What deconstructionists distinctively stress is that our sense of the meaning of our particular representations, our regard of those representations as signs for external somethings, is heavily dependent on the relationship of the representations or signs to some existing system of representations or signs. Obviously, the meaning readers of written English assign to the written marks "red" requires familiarity with the system of signs that is written English. The meaning speakers of English assign to the spoken sounds of "red" requires knowledge of English as a system of sound signs. Even the visual sensation we call "red" has its meaning for us only by reference to other sensations and to a system of terms that classifies and labels those sensations for us, a system that partly constitutes our knowledge of colors. The sensation, too, is for us a sign that gains much of its sense from a system of signs.
Deconstructionists therefore see all human experience as heavily defined and constructed by vast webs of signs that get their meaning more clearly from their relationship to other signs than from reality. We still presume that some such reality exists, that human minds have formed systems of signs to give reality a measure of order and meaning, and that reality can somehow prompt sensations in us that may persuade us to revise the signs we use to depict it. But deconstructionists stress that our choice of particular signs to represent reality is always in some measure arbitrary, influenced more by the preexisting set of signs available to us than any self-evident demands of external reality. Hence, we cannot have much confidence that any set of signs is an accurate representation of reality. All such systems are but partial interpretations, discernibly built out of other partial interpretations that at best show aspects of the world, and those through a glass darkly.
Yet we persist in taking our interpretations, our systems of signs, to be something more. We present them to ourselves (or they present themselves to us) as reliable windows or maps revealing an external reality of matter andor reason that can be rendered present to our minds and senses. Like Nietzsche and the pragmatists, deconstructionists urge us to abandon this old dualistic "metaphysics of presence," in which we try to pierce through our mental limitations to grasp fully an external truth beyond. Instead, we should admit that our world of experience is always composed largely of questionable interpretations, partial perspectives, and contingent systems of signs. We should therefore turn inquiry away from the "reality" for which signs allegedly stand, toward a greater understanding of the components, possibilities, and limitations of systems of signs. The world will then be seen as sets of signs or texts, melding philosophy and other modes of inquiry into literary theory.
Deconstruction is one means toward a better understanding of these texts. One deconstructs something—a novel, a treatise, a law, a political institution—by viewing it as a system of signs and unraveling it to reveal its reliance on preexisting systems of signs to make it meaningful; its consequent vulnerability to multiple meanings, depending on which of the systems of signs it incorporates, is stressed, along with its embodiment of those systems' biases and of the contradictions within them and among them, and thus its inevitable incompleteness and incoherencies. To be sure, one may also find insights that seem worth preserving. But ultimately one can always show any text to be another partial, ambiguous system of signs constructed out of other such systems.
Unlike the early scientific resolutive-compositive method of inquiry, moreover, the point of deconstruction is not to give us a fuller understanding of how the object of analysis functions while otherwise leaving it intact after we mentally reconstruct it. Deconstruction always invalidates much of what a text initially appeared to do or say, altering our sense of it. We may then strive to construct new accounts of the text's themes that are more comprehensive because they encompass what we have learned; but those accounts will ultimately remain partial interpretations.
The appeal of all this for critical scholars in Anglo-American law should be clear. National legal systems can plausibly be viewed as systems of signs for which people make strong claims. They are said to have considerable internal coherence and to be largely accurate representations of external social and political worlds and of appropriate moral principles. Those claims seem integral to a legal system's very legitimacy. But, via deconstruction, one can often show that many legal terms derive from preexisting discourses identified with particular ruling groups and that they express those groups' interests more clearly than they express any objective moral principles. Legal language can also be shown to be subject to multiple inconsistent interpretations, depending on which elements are stressed. Thus, the law may seem indeterminate or incoherent, gaining definition only from those who wield enough power to make their interpretations stick.
Critical legal scholars have deconstructed the doctrines of judicial and administrative law in numerous areas of American law, such as contracts, property, and criminal law, in just these ways. At times, however, they have moved too quickly to two types of conclusions that represent shallow readings of the implications of deconstruction. Some align deconstruction with Marxism, attempting to show that legal doctrines at bottom express capitalist class interests rooted in material relations of production. Such readings have some force, but in deconstructionist terms they do not go far enough unless they concede that the various Marxisms are but further systems of signs and that Marxist claims to have grasped the truth of external material reality are highly vulnerable to deconstructionist debunking. Other critical legal scholars write as if the American legal system is peculiarly guilty of insuperable internal contradictions and ambiguities, implying that a system ordered on different principles would overcome these problems. But again deconstruction suggests that although there are more or less encompassing interpretations, all systems of signs will always be vulnerable to demonstrations of their inadequacy.
These points can be exemplified by showing how we might begin deconstructing the Constitution. Its preamble says that "We the People of the United States" are ordaining and establishing the document. Those words seem to assume a traditional understanding of flesh-and-blood persons consciously using words as authoritative signs, accurately representing themselves and their thoughts and giving new order to their lives.
But deconstructing interpreters can challenge that picture in all the ways just suggested. "We the People" is, after all, plainly a kind of metaphor: no reader really thinks all the people of the United States directly established the Constitution. Interpreters can easily show, moreover, that the text's terms, derived largely from the discourse of American elites, treat many as virtually invisible nonpeople (e.g., indentured servants, women, African Americans, Native Americans, all of whom the document relegates to lesser categories, explicitly or implicitly). Thus, deconstruction might first suggest that the Constitution is a misleading, biased creation of elites alone, as leftist critics assert.
Next, one can deconstruct the Constitution to display internal dissonances. For instance, in contrast to the Preamble, the last article of the original Constitution (Article VII) indicates that the Constitution must be ratified by nine state conventions. Here the Constitution seems established more by a supermajority of the states, or of these state conventions, than by "We the People." Wrestling with whether the text finally describes itself as a product of the national populace or the states has long led analysts to conclude that it is opaque or inconsistent, incapable of constituting a government without added meaning supplied by its interpreters. If so, it is less a constitution than it purports to be.
Deconstruction of "We the People" can be taken still deeper yet. We might question how much of its meaning derives from reference to any flesh-and-blood inhabitants of the United States, then or now, be they a national populace, ruling elites, or state citizens. For some readers, the opening words actually summon up thoughts of Founding Fathers who are plainly not all "the People," but a few, and whose identities are provided much more by enduring national myths than any perceptions of the Founders' physical reality. Insofar as readers do think of "the People," moreover, they are likely to imagine the type of entity portrayed in certain traditions of political writing and novels—a heroic demos of anti-aristocratic republicans, unified by a general will and acting as a collective moral agent capable of political transformations. That may be a stirring image, but it is one expressing knowledge of certain systems of signs, not of the particular persons living in the United States in 1787–1789.
The power of those political traditions in shaping our reading of the Constitution suggests in turn that these systems of signs are actually providing much of the Constitution's meaning that the text purports to derive from "the People." If so, the most fundamental political claim of the Constitution, the claim that it is the creation of responsible human agents who are guiding their own collective destiny, may appear to be a myth. The Constitution now seems much more a set of signs drawn from other systems of signs that constituted the consciousness of "We the People" than a law created by "We the People." In short, deconstruction of "We the People" can lead us to think of political agency in a different way, a subjectless way that is sharply opposed to what the text initially seemed to suggest.
There is something to be learned from each of these three deconstructionist readings of the Constitution, culminating in this challenge to meaningful human agency itself. Yet we should also recall that the partiality of every existing interpretation does not by itself show that they are all simply false. The existence of contradictions in a text or a body of laws does not alone prove that its essential themes are indefensible. And the dependence of our minds on the many systems of signs that order our worlds of experience does not prove that we cannot play a significant role in coming to understand those worlds somewhat better and in reordering them beneficially.
Like the "cynical acid" concerning the determinacy of legal rules and factual judgments that the legal realists earlier provided, deconstruction simply renders certain particular claims of these sorts less credible. It does not prevent us, after encompassing the insights it provides us, from going on to construct systems of ideas and institutions that seem more satisfactory than their predecessors, albeit still imperfect. Nor does it tell us much about how such constructive efforts should proceed. Thus, deconstruction itself represents but a partial contribution to understanding the Constitution and judging what it can and should mean, how and whether it can and should work, today and in the future.
Rogers M. Smith
(see also: Political Philosophy of the Constitution.)
Derrida, Jacques 1974 Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kelman, Mark 1987 A Guide to Critical Legal Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich 1966 Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House.
Deconstruction is a philosophical-critical approach to textual analysis that is most closely associated with the work of Jacques Derrida in philosophy and the Yale School (Paul DeMan, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman) in literary theory and criticism. Derrida draws the term déconstruction from his interpretation of Martin Heidegger as a way to translate two Heideggerian terms: Destruktion, which means not destruction but a destructuring that dismantles the structural layers in a system; and Abbau, which means to take apart an edifice in order to see how it is constituted or deconstituted. For Derrida, then, deconstruction, in the context of philosophy, refers to a way to think the structured genealogy of philosophy's concepts while exposing what the history of these concepts has been able to obscure or exclude. By displaying those concepts that the philosophical tradition both authorizes and excludes, a deconstructive reading seeks to work within the closed field of metaphysical discourse without at the same time confirming that field. Instead, it allows a text to dismantle itself by exposing the internal inconsistencies and implicit significations that lie concealed within the language of the text.
One way to understand deconstruction is in terms of a critique of the binary, oppositional thinking that, for Derrida, is central to the history of philosophy. This is to say, each term in the Western philosophical/cultural lexicon is accompanied by its binary opposite: intelligible/sensible, truth/error, speech/writing, reality/appearance, mind/body, culture/nature, good/evil, male/female, and so on. These oppositions do not peacefully coexist, however: one side of each binary opposition has been privileged and the other side devalued. A hierarchy has been established within these oppositions, as the intelligible has come to be valued over the sensible, mind has come to be valued over body, and so on. The task of deconstruction is to dismantle or deconstruct these binary oppositions: to expose the foundational choices of the philosophical tradition and to bring into view what the tradition has repressed, excluded, or—to use the Derridean terminology—marginalized.
As a critical practice, the deconstruction of these oppositions involves a double movement of overturning and displacement. The first phase initiates an overturning of the hierarchy that valorizes the term traditionally subordinated by the history of philosophy: for example, privileging writing over speech, signifier over signified, or the figurative over the literal. But this privileging is temporary and strategic, for in overturning a metaphysical hierarchy, deconstruction seeks to avoid reappropriating the same hierarchical structure; it is the hierarchical oppositional structure itself that underwrites the metaphysical tradition, and to remain within the binary logic of metaphysical thinking will only reestablish and affirm these oppositions. The second phase of deconstruction destabilizes the inversion by showing the arbitrary nature of the process of hierarchical valorization itself and displaces the hierarchy altogether by intervening with a new "undecidable" term—for example, difference, trace, pharmakon, supplement —that resists the formal structure imposed by the binary logic of philosophical opposition. Much of Derrida's early work involves elucidating the play of these undecidables: the play of différence, which both differs and defers; the play of the trace, which is both present and absent; the play of the pharmakon, which is both poison and cure; the play of the supplement, which is both surplus and lack. By displaying the choices by means of which the philosophical tradition constitutes itself as a tradition, Derridean deconstruction opens the possibility to think difference other than as opposition and hierarchy.
Within literary criticism, the deconstructive method is used to show that the meaning of a literary text is not fixed and stable. Instead, by exploring the dynamic tension within a text's language, literary deconstruction reveals the literary work to be not a determinate object with a single correct meaning but an expanding semantic field that is open to multiple, sometimes conflicting interpretations.
See also Structuralism and Post-structuralism.
Bloom, Harold, Paul DeMan, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller. Deconstruction and Criticism. London: Continuum, 1979.
Culler, Jonathan D. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism in the 1970s. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982.
DeMan, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. Originally published as La Dissémination (Paris: Du Seuil, 1972).
Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Originally published as Marges de la Philosophie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1972).
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Originally published as De la Grammatologie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967).
Derrida, Jacques. Positions. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. Originally published as Positions: Entretiens avec Henri Ronse, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Louis Houdebine, Guy Scarpetta (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1972).
Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Translated by David B. Allison. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973. Originally published as La voix et le phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967).
Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Originally published as L'écrituré et la difference (Paris: Éditions de Seuil, 1967).
Gasche, Rodolphe. The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Miller, J. Hillis. The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Norris, Christopher. Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. London: Methuen, 1982.
Alan D. Schrift (2005)
deconstruction, in linguistics, philosophy, and literary theory, the exposure and undermining of the metaphysical assumptions involved in systematic attempts to ground knowledge, especially in academic disciplines such as structuralism and semiotics. The term
was coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1960s. In general, deconstruction is a philosophy of meaning, which deals with the ways that meaning is constructed by writers, texts, and readers.
Extending the philosophical excursions of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Derrida criticized the entire tradition of Western philosophy's search to discover the essential structure of knowledge and reality, ultimately confronting the limits of human thought. As an extension of his theory of logocentrism, Derrida posited that all texts are based on hierarchical dualisms (e.g., being/nonbeing, reality/appearance, male/female), where the first element is regarded as stronger and thus essentially true and that all systems of thought have an assumed center, or Archimedean point, upon which they are based. In a deconstructionist reading, this unconscious and unarticulated point is revealed, and in this revelation the binary structure upon which the text rests is imploded. Thus what appears stable and logical is revealed to be illogical and paradoxical, and interpretation is by its very nature misinterpretation.
To a deconstructionist, meaning includes what is left out of the text or ignored or silenced by it. Because deconstruction is an attack on the very existence of theories and conceptual systems, its exposition by Derrida and others purposely resists logical definitions and explanations, opting instead for alinear presentations based on extensive wordplay and puns. Deconstructionists tend to concentrate on close readings of particular texts, focusing on how these texts refer to other texts. Certain scholars have severely criticized this movement on this basic point.
Nevertheless, deconstruction, especially as articulated in Derrida's writings and as promoted by Paul de Man and others, has had a profound effect on many fields of knowledge in American universities, particularly during the 1970s and 80s. In addition to philosophy and literary theory, the techniques and ideas of deconstruction have been employed by scholars in history, sociology, educational theory, linguistics, art, and architecture. While the theory has lost much of its intellectual currency, the general acceptance and popularity of interdisciplinary scholarship in the 1980s and 90s are regarded by many as an outgrowth of deconstruction.
See J. Culler, On Deconstruction (1982); R. Gasche, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (1986); P. Kamuf, A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds (1991).
de·con·struc·tion / ˌdēkənˈstrəkshən/ • n. a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language that emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression. DERIVATIVES: de·con·struc·tion·ism / -ˌnizəm/ n. de·con·struc·tion·ist / -ist/ adj. & n.