Deconstruction analyzes the ontotheological, metaphysical presuppositions of written texts and argues that all texts subvert their own internal structures when they claim a fully systematic, coherent frame of reference. Primarily the product of the French thinker Jacques Derrida (b. 1930), deconstructionism follows upon the perceived inadequacies of the structuralist approach and derives inspiration from the post-Kantian thinkers Sigmund Freud, Martin heidegger, and Friedrich nietzsche. The deconstructionist maintains that every classical text tries to construct or propose a metaphysical presence to hide the inherent absences and gaps in the human psyche, the history of freedom and power, or the fully gracious presence of God/Being. Deconstruction notes the linguistic sutures that try to sew these spaces together and unravels their positive meaning.
Derrida. In 1967 Jacques Derrida published three volumes of philosophical essays (Le Voix et Le Phénomene [Speech and Phenomena 1973]; De la Grammatologie [Of Grammatology 1974]; and L'écriture et la différence [Writing and Difference 1978]) and established himself as a critical voice in contemporary French philosophy. In a stream of articles and books since 1959, Derrida's publications inaugurated a movement that has been called deconstructionism. This philosophical method of reading has affected disciplines as widely disparate as literary criticism, law, medicine, and theology. The interpretation of deconstruction that follows will treat the background of Derrida's philosophical positions, his characteristic terms and strategies for interpreting texts as well as its linkages to theology.
Born of Sephardic Jewish parents in Algiers, Derrida came to France for military service and continued work at the École Normale with Jean Hippolyte, the translator and commentator on G. W. F. hegel. In the 1960s he helped maintain the journal Tel Quel. During his tenure as maître-assistant of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, was also visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University and Yale University. His early work in philosophy focused upon Edmund Husserl's understanding of the production of meaning.
Philosophical Context. Immanuel kant's (1724–1804) philosophical project to ground Newtonian science was issued in The Critique of Pure Reason. His analysis focused upon the conditions in the subject for the possibility of knowing any object whatsoever. Objects in the world were known through a combination of human sensibility, imagination, and understanding. Subjects engaged in knowing themselves knew only their own empirical inner sense, not the transcendental unity of apperception that Kant postulated as the subjective presence that actively preceded the process of objectification. Even objects that had been traditionally the province of philosophy (God, freedom in the world, and the soul) were suspect because they escaped perception. Kant argued that these topics were ideas of pure reason, regulative of our ways of acting, but not constitutive, i.e., content filled, in themselves. Reason could both prove and disprove with convincing clarity that the theological, cosmological and psychological ideas did and did not exist. Classical metaphysics died in a violent war of contradictory antinomies. Human beings should act "as if" God existed, as if the world were free and not determined, as if there were a continuous human subject—but there was no way to provide certainty for these assumed ideas.
Philosophies of the 19th and 20th centuries have promoted solutions to Kant's antinomies and also carried his program of suspicion farther. Deconstruction as a movement has had as its partners in conversation the figures most allied with the tradition of suspicion: Nietzsche (1844–1900), Heidegger (1889–1976), and Freud (1856–1939). Derrida has reinterpreted all three figures and his remarks framing all three will help the understanding of deconstruction as a project.
Derrida notes that Freud has described the way in which human subjects are never present to themselves completely. Not only is the subject "broken up" in itself as an id, an ego, and a superego, but the unconscious, following Jacques Lacan's (1901–81) reading of Freud, can never be objectified. Human beings are forever involved in an otherness over which they have no control. Psychoanalysis is, therefore, not a discipline to be confined to a small range of data, but a way of reading all of human experience. The signs that emerge from the unconscious can never be anything but suspect; they will never be deciphered completely. Indeed, all human beings have are the signs that appear; there is no permanent personal presence that generates the signs. They come from the unconscious nowhere. There is no constituting subjectivity. Kant's psychological idea annihilates itself through its own internal conflicts.
Heidegger argues that there is a precomprehended question of Being (Sein ) that is asked and answered in every statement or position taken. Since it is always prior to thinking itself, it cannot be formulated in a propositional form if someone asks "What is being?" Dasein (human being) is that reality where the disclosure of Sein can appear. Being is thus not a being among other beings, like plants, trees, chairs, or even people. Being is both absence and presence, and is, according to Derrida, written Being.
For Heidegger, this de-structs Western metaphysics. The age of metaphysics extending from Plato (428–347 b.c.) to at least Hegel (1770–1831) was a tradition that believed that a fully constituted presence of positive ground supported phenomena. Being was the ultimate foundation of all that is, including that which is not. Heidegger argued that the unholy wedding of this concept of being with the divine produced an ontotheology in which Being was not itself in radical difference, but a supreme being related to all other beings. Contemporary confusion in this regard is simply nostalgia for lost presence.
Derrida speaks of Being, this deleted and present word, as "under erasure" (sous rature ) and agrees with Heidegger's argument that metaphysics cannot survive, but he maintains that even Heidegger's Being might direct thinking toward a mystical presence. Derrida points to the absence, the lack that is the condition of life and thinking. The attempt to understand never allows a coincidence of word, thought, and thing. Instead, Derrida marks the present absence as a trace, the way in which the radically other appears in the midst of human attempts to signify anything. A trace points to the ineradicable nonidentity that conditions the motion of discourse. There can therefore be no full presence—whether Being or God. Kant's theological idea is unavailable for saving the appearances.
From Nietzsche, Derrida learns a style of philosophizing. The perpetual creativity of the artist continually invents metaphors, tropes that ironically subvert the received pieties. For Nietzsche, metaphors, not concepts, are the process of truth telling. The fragmentation of Nietzsche's prose, the rapid reconfiguration of his texts from aphorisms to fables to lengthy conceptual commentary reveal the multifaceted play of the writing that is the creative force of the inscribed author. The reader's "access" to the thinker is only through the pathways of the prose. The subjects' freedom (in the Kantian framework) has become the power to write, undoing one position by espousing another. And this process has no end.
Remaining oneself therefore requires playing in the differences, not attempting to master one metaphoric appearance by another. The movement has neither origin (and hence no "original" sign) nor a specific ending (and hence no probable or improbable dénoument). Eternally creative subjects, by noting the otherness within their own psyches, allow the signs to appear.
Characteristic Terms. Derrida uses the term différance to mark the reality of absent otherness that is always present in the traditional notions of self, Being/God, and the power of freedom. The word is spelled with an "a" to show its relationship in French to both "difference" and "deferral." Différance is the structure of the human psyche, never possessed of itself, always dispersed in its specific signs. The psyche is never quite there, never completely perceived. This différance is always what marks the human nostalgia for being and the Power of Freedom. Each is radically absent from its attempts at self-identification.
This différance appears in writing. Writing is at once the ordinary notion of having marks on paper and a psychic space, a metaphoric sense of the word in which the subject is always distanced from itself in its objectifications. Words therefore are always rifled by their own ambiguity, leading down labyrinthine paths to other terms, not back to a primordial presence either human or divine. The subject "knows" itself only in the play of different signs, the marks that it traces throughout time and space. The continuity of time and space is abolished in a constant stream of differences. The economy of understanding these signs requires maintaining their nonidentities, not overcoming them.
Any attempt to turn the deconstructionist project into a positive avowal of presence destroys its operative motifs and returns to what Derrida calls logocentrism or rational, logos-focused discourse. Deconstruction does not claim that the negative reading is the whole; that would turn the nonidentity into a positive presence and misconstrue the project. There is in deconstructive analysis a constant postponement of complete meaning. The unconscious is not a hidden or potential self-presence; it is simply not—only to be read in its traces. To recognize that the self is available only in its differences and deferrals is sufficient. There are no similarities, only differents.
Strategies for Interpretation. What does it mean to deconstruct a particular text? What difference does deconstructive writing make to reading? First, it ignores the absolute authority of the text. It is not what the author may have said that is important, but what the subject matter has achieved in the writing itself. Second, texts are always made up of other texts; no writing is pristine. Rather it is always plagiarized, borrowed unconsciously from previous discourse. Inter-textuality is the discovery of the dependences in the text, the blocks of writing sewn together to look like a whole. Third, readers actively unmake the constructs of the text. They look for the moments in the text that transgress or subvert the system of values that the text is consciously presenting. This strategy focuses upon the double-edged words, the crucial metaphors that disclose the collapse of the systemic order. Fourth, this process discloses the dyadic either/ors that the text hopes to conceal. Invariably, one member of these differences is promoted to mastery over the other. By searching for the structures of concealment and radical indecipherability, readers isolate the general structures of human activity, discover the fundamental spaces that establish the network of signs.
This process produces a counter-reading of the texts themselves. The interpretations are not protected by a neutral commentary, but allowed to deconstruct their proper selves. Deconstructive readings of texts regularly toy with texts, drawing from them the metaphoric playfulness that marks their primordial antinomous moments. Deconstructive interpretations are expressed in a further metaphoric game in which the differences appear as tolerable, even invited chaos. Just as the text was disseminated by the writer, so the seeds of its polysemy are scattered through the work of the reader. Deconstructive prose regularly espouses opposite positions in the same text and switches perspectives by changing stylistic devices and levels of discourse. Prose, poetry, scholarly commentary, typographic displays, etc., may all be found in the same writing. There is no suppression of one reading by another; there are only differing interpretations. Any choice of one reading over another would be oppression. It is precisely the differences of genres that disclose the burden and joy of reading.
Influences on Theology. Following the influence of Derrida on literary criticism (Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, J. Hillis Miller), Protestant biblical critics and theologians have recently made use of the style, strategies, and underlying program of deconstructionism. They have seen in it some continuity with the Protestant critique of metaphysics and natural theology. The radical disjuncture between the human and divine in the early neo-orthodox theology of Karl barth (1886–1968) and his arguments against the analogy of being have certainly been in the theological background of these theological uses of deconstruction. Paul tillich's (1886–1965) "God beyond God" and Rudolph Bultmann's (1884–1976) program of demythologization also may have provided a context for its inclusion in contemporary discussions. The radically negative Hegelianism of Thomas J. J. Altizer, especially in his extension of William Blake's (1757–1827) dialectical vision, has developed a metaphoric, radically incarnational reading of the Christian universe, establishing a matrix for later deconstructionist writing.
Mark C. Taylor, recognizing the avowedly atheistic motifs of deconstruction, has taken up its strategies more than any other single figure. He argues for the death of God, the disappearance of the self, the end of history and the closing of the book. Each is deconstructed within its own exclusive dyadic formulations (infinity-finitude, time-eternity, self-other, speaking-writing, etc.), especially in its ability to deny its own otherness. The completely enclosed, identically self-present God who is wholly other dies through its own refusal to include the very creation it invents. This God simply alienates the self, establishes its hegemony over all subjects and destroys human self-agency. The autonomous self disappears for the same reasons; its attempts at total self-making deconstruct in its refusal to face death. Taylor argues that human meaning is possible only by non-self-possession, by spacing the self through writing. History-writing is the attempt to control death by filling in the holes. By coding the events, the writer tries to repress the gaps, turning history into a colonial enterprise. But there is no plot at the heart of history, only different irreducible elements with no explanatory nexus. The matter has no plot. Books are irredeemably ontotheological, since they presume that what is known can be enclosed in a whole. The belief that coherence can be maintained grants certain works classic status, but every masterpiece subverts itself, disclosing its own incompletion, its need for interpreters to keep its memory alive. Rather, interpreters are left with no promise of total stability, a refusal to close the book, a constant dissemination of ideas, and the uneasy joy of being open to différance.
For Taylor, this way of reading the Bible, providential history, saving grace, and divine identity is "truer" to the original faith of the Cross. The experience of the Cross is paradoxical and open-ended. It refuses to avoid death, indeed embraces it as the way to salvation. Jesus is the disappearance of the Being of total self-presence into the signified, where neither identity nor difference can be seen as prior. The divine milieu includes both the finite and the infinite, time and eternity in such a way that neither can claim priority. With Derrida, Taylor maintains that there is no transcendental signified. The fundamental kenotic character of the mystery of God is a/presented. Human beings live in the irreducible generative multiplicity of the signs that disclose the play of a god who is not God, who is only dispossession.
The experience of God is also the experience of the self and the way that the self can experience grace. The Christian subject is ever in exile, an undomesticated drifter who is in ceaseless transgression, in an unavoidable purposelessness. Living always at this margin, the Christian is ever the threshold person, experiencing the gratuity of the divine milieu. Transcience is what the ritualizing, religio-secular clown celebrates in comedy.
In Catholic theology, little use has been made of deconstruction as a program. Derrida's work, however, has been recognized as a significant challenge to classical formulations of philosophy and theology. Theologians recognize the ways in which systems are not closed except through their refusal to account for the alterity that exists within their own proposals. Theologies that do not listen to deconstruction fail to meet the negative questions of the gaps in human narratives, the oppressive violence that marks human relationships, and the illusory character of the autonomous self-making self. Deconstructive analyses, in their powerful ironies, can function as a critical linguistic therapy, requiring clarity of argument, specification of metaphors, and nonsuppressive proposals for future religious discourse.
Questions. Derridean deconstructionism and its variants raise the most fundamental questions for traditional philosophers and theologians. How is being to be understood? Does the finite character of human knowing prohibit an understanding of absolute transcendence? Is there a positive relationship between the patterning in events and the stories that human beings write? What is the relationship between conceptual and metaphoric or symbolic discourse? What can account for the difference between what one writer calls the "terrifying and exhilarating vertigo" of deconstructionist interpretations and a stoically repressive, relativistic nihilism?
What are the consequences of using deconstructionist discourse in theology as an ironic therapy for smug complacency? In the religious acceptance of deconstructionist strategies of interpretation, how does one tell the difference among events if they all disclose the divine milieu or grace? Is there a difference in choosing one path over another? Are specific choices of evil, such as murder of the innocent, malice toward the charitable, the degradation of the poor, oppression of the powerless, all paths to the world of grace? While deconstructionist readings can intrigue the mind and even tease the heart, they fail to discriminate the differences among the silences (solitude, narcissism, and sin) and they deny a transformative teleology to the Cross. It makes a difference which action one chooses in the present such that one might anticipate some future more valuable than the past. That there might be a nondominative victory of the Cross and Resurrection where a true discipleship of equals could emerge seems justifiably utopian when the ironic subtext of deconstructionist theology commands the same thing, but refuses to enter discussion on the appropriate paths to arrive at the disclosure.
Bibliography: t. j. j. altizer et al., Deconstruction and Theology (New York 1982). j. derrida, Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, tr. d. b. allison (Evanston 1973); Of Grammatology, tr. g. chakravorty (Baltimore 1974); Writing and Difference, tr. a. bass (Chicago 1978). j. v. harari, ed., Textual Strategies: Perspective in Post-Structuralist Criticism (Ithaca, N.Y. 1979). r. macksey, ed., Velocities of Change (Baltimore 1974). m. c. taylor, Erring: A Post-Modern A/theology (Chicago 1984); Altarity (Chicago 1988). d. tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (San Francisco 1987).
"Deconstructionism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 16, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/deconstructionism
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