Deconstruction - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

The Rise of Literary Theory

Deconstruction emerged out of a tradition of French philosophical thought strongly influenced by the phenomenological projects of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. The main concern of phenomenology is consciousness and essence. For Husserl, consciousness entailed an intention towards the essence of an object, whether it be material or imaginary. As Robert Holub puts it, “consciousness is always consciousness of something; it has a direction towards or a goal in the object” (291). Heidegger's critique of Husserl led him to shift the emphasis from an epistemological phenomenology (knowledge or consciousness of the world) to an ONTOLOGICAL phenomenology (knowledge of Being, which precedes and conditions consciousness of the world). This general context of Heideggerian critique, together with the new existentialist phenomenology of Jean-Paul Sartre, was the environment in which Jacques Derrida developed his deconstructionist method. Of special interest to him was Heidegger's critique of the “transcendental temporality of consciousness,” which revealed the latent idealism of Husserl's phenomenology and shifted attention to the essence of Being, which is always understood as “worldly,” as Being-in-the-world or human-being (Dasein). Derrida was quick to expose in his turn the (ma)lingering influence of a metaphysical tradition discernible in the privilege Heidegger accorded Being, a presence that “dwells” in the world, a transcendental foundation for philosophy, an indivisible point of origin and departure. “The privilege granted to consciousness signifies the privilege granted to the present; and even if one describes the transcendental temporality of consciousness, and at the depth at which Husserl does so, one grants to the ’living present' the power of synthesizing traces, and of incessantly reassembling them. This privilege is the ether of metaphysics, the element of our thought that is caught in the language of metaphysics” (Margins 16). Derrida identifies here the chief object of philosophical analysis: the metaphysics of PRESENCE. Out of his critique of this philosophical tradition came the revolutionary idea that language does not refer in some stable and predictable way to the world outside of it but rather designates its own relationships of internal DIFFERENCE.

Like other thinkers in the late 1950s and early '60s, Derrida was drawn to the emerging discipline of structuralism, especially the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure’s lectures in the first decade of the twentieth century provided the foundation for many poststructuralist thinkers. Saussurean linguistics refutes the “Adamic” theory of language, which holds that there is an essential link between words and the things they signify, and argues instead that phonemic difference (bat v. cat), which parallels but is not reducible to conceptual difference, is the primary operative feature of language. The SIGN, according to Saussure, consists of a SIGNIFIER (word or sound pattern) and a SIGNIFIED (concept). Its importance lies not in designating an aspect of the material world but rather in functioning as part of a system. The significance of the sign is thus entirely arbitrary. (On Saussure, see pp. 181-4.) One of the important implications of Deconstruction is that the signifier is just as important as the signified, that the word is just as important as the world it purports to designate. Deconstruction, as a form of analysis, calls our attention to the failure of philosophy to achieve or describe PRESENCE (the SELF-IDENTITY of the signified, the “transcendental signified”). Deconstruction distrusts the valorization of presence as the more authentic register of discourse (i.e., “speech” is more authentic and present than “writing”). Instead, it focuses on the way in which language constitutes meaning through a play of differences, the slippage or “spacing” of the signifier. In his seminal essay, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Derrida argues for a theory of PLAY that calls into question the “structuration of structure,” the transcendental signified that stands behind and authorizes the very possibility of stable and centered structures. The play of difference within language is “permitted by the lack or absence of a center or origin” - it is “the movement of supplementarity” (Writing 289). For Derrida, SUPPLEMENTATION means more than simply adding something, “a plenitude enriching another plenitude, the fullest measure of presence.” It means also, and perhaps primarily, a substitution, something that “insinuates itself in-the-place-of … If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence” (Of Grammatology 167, 144-45). The supplemental difference within language oscillates between nostalgia for lost unities and a joyful embrace of their loss.

In Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida argues that the priority of speech over writing generally assumed by theorists of language and human development has obscured the problem of language and its relation to presence. On this view, Deconstruction emerged as both a critique of

“phonocentrism” and an elaboration of a “general science of writing” (27). Writing, in this special sense, refers to the play of differences within language or, to use Derrida's neologism, DIFFERANCE (the French term combines two meanings, “differing” and “deferring”), which marks the arbitrary condition of language in which signifiers endlessly refer to each other, in a process that Umberto Eco calls “infinite semiosis.” However, while the free play of signification nullifies the possibility of presence or a transcendental signified, it does not sanction subjectivist claims that only language exists or that the material world is a conjuring trick, an illusion of words. Derrida's famous remark, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” there is nothing outside of the text (Of Grammatology 158), is not a repudiation of the material world. It is rather a testament to the text's radical ONTOLOGY, its otherness, its “being-as-text,” its freedom from a merely mimetic mode of reference. Deconstruction takes place within the horizon of the text, at the moments of rupture, in those APORIAS in which the text throws itself into doubt. These moments of instability provide the starting point for a critique of the philosophical, scientific, moral, ethical, or critical assumptions underlying a given text. The presumption of an adequate language - one that could faithfully represent the true being of things in the world - is precisely what Deconstruction seeks to criticize. All purportedly singular and unified texts can be shown to be internally inconsistent and this inconsistency, or aporia, is constitutive of those very texts. Deconstruction demonstrates that Western thought has always already been defined by inconsistency, PARADOX, contradiction, incommensurability. Deconstruction is not nihilistic, however. To de-construct is not to destroy; it is rather to unveil the seemingly hidden workings of language that constitute the very basis of linguistic and textual meaning. In the “Plato's Pharmacy” section of Derrida's Disseminations, for example, we learn that the term pharmakon means both remedy and poison. other examples of this paradoxical concept in Derrida's work include hymen, which can signify both a barrier (between men and women) and a fusion (marriage), and the gift, which signifies a relation to the presence of the OTHER that grounds all philosophy but also all deconstructionist critiques of philosophy.

in the later part of his career, Derrida explored the ethical implications of the gift as it has been represented since Abraham offered up Isaac to God. Derrida's “ethics of the possible” (to use Richard Kearney's phrase) offered a compelling alternative to nihilistic relativism and an amoral Postmodernism. The gift also provided a focal point for meditations on history, epistemology, biography, and autobiography. Derrida's powerful last works deal precisely with the reality of, even the desire for, presence. Indeed, presence haunts the later works in the form of the specter, the uncanny presence of what can never be present but manages to survive as the trace of pure presence that neither Deconstruction nor philosophy can achieve.

Though Deconstruction began as a critique of phenomenology, it very soon became a valuable critical tool in the analysis of literature, film, and other cultural phenomena. Derrida wrote several important works on literature (particularly on the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and James Joyce), but it was the work of the US theorists Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller that made Deconstruction a popular tool for the analysis of literature (especially in US universities). De Man and Miller were, like Derrida, influenced by phenomenology, but they arrived at their deconstructionist methodologies through their own understanding of the implications of difference and contradiction within literary texts. Miller's early work on Dickens and other Victorian novelists, strongly influenced by the phenomenology of Georges Poulet, advanced new ideas about the structure and significance of narrative and linguistic consciousness. For Miller, language created the world of the text, a point of view that undermines the naive sense, to some degree a product of phenomenology itself, that language can capture the immediacy of one's experience of the world. By the late 1970s, Miller had become the leading advocate of Deconstruction. In a brilliant and influential response to M. H. Abram's accusation that deconstructionist criticism was parasitical on definitive or univocal readings of literary texts, Miller deconstructed the opposition host/parasite, demonstrating through detailed etymological analysis that the word “parasite” can be traced back to the same roots as the word “host.” “On the one hand, the ’obvious or univocal reading' always contains the ’deconstructive reading' as a parasite encrypted within itself, as part of itself, and, on the other hand, the ’deconstructive' reading can by no means free itself from the metaphysical, logocentric reading which it means to contest” (“Critic” 444-45). Miller draws from Friedrich Nietzsche and Gilles Deleuze to put forward a theory of “differential repetition” that attempts to account for the way that literary narratives work. Differential repetition lacks a ground or fixed origin against which to compare succeeding copies. Rather than produce copies,

which is what we find in conventional, MIMETIC, or “unifying” repetition, differential repetition produces SIMULACRA: “ungrounded doublings which arise from differential interrelations among elements which are all on the same plane. This lack of ground in some paradigm or archetype means that there is something ghostly about the effects of this … kind of repetition” (Fiction and Repetition 6). Reading, on this view, is not a matter of tracing language to its referents outside the text (either in the author's consciousness or in the external world) but of following the labyrinthine trajectory of language as it produces significations in a theoretically endless process of repetition. Instead of the exact repetition of a signifier in harmony with its signified, we find the “infinite semiosis” of signifiers linked in chains of signification.

One of the most important influences on Miller was the work of de Man, his colleague at Yale. De Man's Blindness and Insight is perhaps the best known text of American deconstructionist criticism. De Man argues that becoming aware of the “complexities of reading” is the necessary first step towards “theorizing about literary language” (viii). These complexities are the function of the critic's “blindness” with respect to a gap between practice and the theoretical precepts guiding it. Literary critics are thus “curiously doomed to say something quite different from what they meant to say” (105-106). And while critics may remain unaware of the discrepancy that informs their work, “they seem to thrive on it and owe their best insights to the assumptions these insights disprove” (ix). De Man illustrates his thesis in a detailed analysis of Derrida's reading of Rousseau, arguing that it is actually a misreading. Derrida believes that Rousseau's theory of language is a reflection of his desire to link language to the world of objects in a direct and unmediated fashion - a reflection, in short, of his desire for presence. De Man, however, argues that Rousseau is always aware of the fundamentally rhetorical nature of language, that he in fact uses language not to make mimetic statements about the world but rather to make rhetorical statements that refer only to themselves, to their own figural nature. By working in this rhetorical mode, Rousseau's text “prefigures its own misunderstanding as the correlative of its rhetorical nature” (136). When Derrida deconstructs Rousseau, claiming that his theory of language and representation is committed to the “metaphysics of presence,” he misses the point. For de Man, Rousseau “said what he meant to say” (Blindness 135). Part of the problem is that Derrida refuses to read Rousseau as literature and thus fails to see the figural or rhetorical nature of Rousseau's language. His reading of a “pseudo-Rousseau” is nevertheless instructive, for he seems to be aware of his own misreading, which is “too interesting not to be deliberate” (Blindness 140).

According to de Man, Rousseau, like all literary authors, is well aware of the figural nature of his discourse; in fact, he occupies the privileged position of not being blinded by his own practice. The importance of the rhetorical dimensions of language is explored in de Man’s most famous essay, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” which focuses on two of the most common rhetorical tropes, symbol and allegory. De Man is chiefly concerned with the privilege historically granted to the symbol. The Romantic notion that the symbol exists in a kind of synthesis or union with what it designates is called into question, as is the denigration of allegory as a disjunctive figure, lacking any intimate association with what it signifies. De Man argues that the disjunctive quality of allegory is owing to its temporal nature: “in the world of allegory, time is the originary constitutive category” (Blindness 207). Allegory, like irony, always points to another sign that precedes it; it is always an instance of differential repetition in which the sign can never coincide, as the symbol is purported to do, completely and without remainder, with its object. it is, in a word, a narrative form of signification. This narrative temporality is precisely the differance that Derrida believes to be the function language: deferral, spacing, the trace, play, specter, survival - all of these terms indicate the temporality of rhetorical figures that refer not to the world of objects but to the world of signs and traces, a mode of reference that is interminable and vertiginous, leading the reader not to some definite referent or origin beyond language but to the very heart of language itself: its engagement with time along an endless series of significations. For de Man, it is rarely possible to decide, when reading a literary text, whether we are reading, or should be reading, in a rhetorical or literal fashion. This critical “undecidability” is a property of both literary and critical language.

Though Deconstruction is primarily understood as a theory of TEX- TUALITY and as a method for reading texts, it constitutes for many a radically new way of seeing and knowing the world. Barbara Johnson and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for example, both translators of Derrida's work, were instrumental in bringing Deconstruction into Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the critique of gender and racial difference.

Derrida, de Man, and other deconstructionists may no longer stand in the limelight of literary theory, but their ideas are part of the foundation of contemporary theories of sexuality, gender, race, history, and culture.

Note. For more on Derrida, see Poststructuralism.


Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

---- . Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

---- . Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Holub, Robert. “Phenomenology.” In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Vol. 8: From Formalism to Poststructuralism. Ed. Raman Selden. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 289-318.

Miller, J. Hillis. “The Critic as Host.” Critical Inquiry (Spring 1977) 3.3: 439-47. . Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

De Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.