Deconstruction: A poststructuralist approach to literary criticism developed by twentieth-century French philosopher of language Jacques Derrida that involves the close reading of texts in order to demonstrate that any given text has irreconcilably contradictory meanings, rather than being a unified, logical whole. As J. Hillis Miller, the preeminent American deconstructor, explained in an essay entitled “Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure” (1976), “Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock but thin air.” Deconstructing a text involves showing that it — like DNA with its double helix — can and does have intertwined yet opposite discourses, multiple and conflicting strands of narrative.
According to Derrida, people in Western culture tend to think and express their thoughts in terms of binary oppositions. Something is white but not black, masculine and therefore not feminine, a cause rather than an effect. Other common and mutually exclusive pairs include beginning / end, conscious / unconscious, presence / absence, and speech / writing. Derrida also suggested these dichotomies are hierarchical, containing one term that Western culture views as positive or superior and another that it considers negative or inferior, even if only slightly so. (Presence, for instance, is more clearly preferable to absence than speech is preferable to writing.) Derrida did not seek to reverse these oppositions, however, because doing so would mean falling into the trap of perpetuating the same forms that he sought to deconstruct. He instead aimed to erase the boundary between binary oppositions — and to do so in such a way as to throw the hierarchy implied by the oppositions into question.
Of particular interest to Derrida, perhaps because it involves the language in which all the other dichotomies are expressed, was the speech / writing opposition. Derrida argued that the privileging of speech, that is, the tendency to regard speech in positive terms and writing in negative terms, cannot be disentangled from the privileging of presence. (Postcards are written by absent friends; we read Plato because he cannot speak from beyond the grave.) Furthermore, the tendency to privilege both speech and presence is part of the Western tradition of logocentrism, the belief that a creative Beginning requires spoken words announced by an ideal, present God. Derrida also used the word phallogocentrism to point out the connection between logocentrism and the phallocentrism (patriarchal structure) of a culture whose God created light, the world, and man before creating woman — from Adam’s rib.
Derrida used the theories of twentieth-century Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who invented the modern science of linguistics, to remind us that associating speech with present, obvious, and ideal meaning and writing with absent, merely pictured, and therefore less reliable meaning is suspect. As Saussure demonstrated, words are not the things they name and, indeed, are only arbitrarily associated with those things. A tiger, for instance, need not be represented by the word tiger; any other word would do just as well. A word, like any sign, is what Derrida called a “deferred presence” in his essay “Différance” (1973); that is to say, the thing being signified is never actually present, and every signified concept invokes others in an endless string of connotations. Thus, words have meaning only by virtue of their difference from other words and, at the same time, their contextual relationship to those words. When reading, for example, to know whether the word read is the present or past tense of the verb — that is, whether it rhymes with reed or red — we need to see it in relation to some other word or words (for example, yesterday).
In De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology) (1967), Derrida began to redefine writing by deconstructing some of the ways in which it was defined. Using Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1783) to expose Rousseau’s conflicting attitudes and behavior with respect to speech and writing, Derrida demonstrated the contradiction between viewing writing both as a secondary, even treacherous supplement to speech and as necessary to (effective) communication. Although Rousseau condemned writing as mere representation, a corruption of the more natural, childlike, direct, and supposedly undevious speech, he admitted that he often blurted out exactly the wrong thing in public and expressed himself better in writing.
Although Derrida deconstructed numerous texts, he did not claim to have explained or revealed their true meaning, at least not in any traditional sense. In fact, Derrida would have denied that any one “true” meaning could be found, arguing that those who seek to find a single, homogeneous, or universal meaning in a text are imprisoned by the structure of thought that insists only one of various readings can be “right.” Deconstructors believe that all works defy the laws of Western logic, the laws of opposition and noncontradiction. Texts don’t say A and not B (or B and not A). They say A and not A (or B and not B). As American literary critic Barbara Johnson noted in her translator’s introduction to Dissémination (Dissemination) (1972), Derrida made a typical deconstructive move to show that a text dismantles itself when he unearthed “dimensions of Plato’s text that work against the grain of (Plato’s own) Platonism.” Further, as Johnson pointed out in A World of Difference (1987), the word deconstruction is itself intended to “undermine the either / or logic of the opposition ’construction / destruction.’” Deconstruction is both, it is neither, and it reveals the way in which both construction and destruction are themselves not what they appear to be.
Although its ultimate aim may be to criticize Western idealism and logic, deconstruction arose as a response to structuralism and formalism, two structure-oriented theories of reading. Structuralists, who believe that all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as parts of a system of signs, argued that anything people do or use to communicate information constitutes a sign. For instance, before his own turn to poststructuralism, twentieth-century French theorist Roland Barthes tried to show that the same laws govern all signs, whether road signs, handshakes, or articles of clothing, and French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued in works such as “The Structural Study of Myth” (1955) that building blocks he called “mythemes” occur in similar myths from different cultures. Derrida, however, did not believe structuralists could explain the laws governing human signification and thus provide the key to understanding form and meaning, nor did he believe texts have centers of meaning.
Formalists, such as the New Critics, see literary works as freestanding, self-contained objects whose meaning can be found in the network of relations between their parts, such as allusions, images, rhythms, and sounds. While deconstruction shares certain characteristics with formalism, including a text-oriented approach, an interest in figurative language, and an acknowledgment of the counterpatterns of meaning in any text, deconstructors have questioned two significant aspects of the formalist approach. First, they have challenged the formalists’ tendency to place figures in a valuative hierarchy, including their preference for metaphors and symbols over metonyms on the basis that the former are less arbitrary figures. For instance, in “The Rhetoric of Temporality” (1969), Belgian-born theorist and critic Paul de Man deconstructed the distinction between symbol and allegory; elsewhere, he, Derrida, and Miller questioned the distinction between metaphor and metonymy, arguing that all figuration is a process of linguistic substitution. Derrida and de Man also challenged the priority of literal over figurative language; Miller even denied the validity of the literal / figurative distinction, arguing in Ariadne’s Thread: Story Lines (1992) that all words are figures.
Second, deconstructors differ from formalists in evaluating the counterpatterns of meaning that can be found in any text. While formalists concede that the resulting ambiguity is characteristic of literary texts, they also believe that a complete understanding of the literary work is possible pending the objective resolution of ambiguities by the reader. Deconstructors, by contrast, argue that conflicts are irreconcilable or “undecidable,” embedded as they are within the text itself. Undecidability, as de Man came to define it, is a complex notion easily misunderstood. Many people (incorrectly) assume that it refers to readers who, when forced to decide between two or more equally plausible and conflicting readings, give up and decide that the choice can’t be made. Undecidability, however, actually debunks the whole notion of reading as a decision-making process. To say that we are forced to choose or decide — or that we are unable to do so — is falsely to locate undecidability within ourselves, rather than recognizing it as an intrinsic feature of the text.
Deconstruction, then, is not really interpretation, the act of choosing between or among possible meanings. It is more accurately defined as reading, as long as reading is defined as de Man defined it: a process involving moments of aporia (irreconcilable uncertainty) and an act performed with the awareness that all texts are ultimately unreadable (that is, irreducible to a single, homogeneous meaning). In The Ethics of Reading (1987), Miller explained unreadability by saying that although moments of great lucidity in reading exist, each such moment itself contains a “blind spot” that must be elucidated, and so on.
For deconstructors, the boundaries between any given text and that larger text we call language are always shifting. It was this larger text that Derrida was referring to in Of Grammatology when he said “there is nothing outside the text.” In making this statement, Derrida refused to categorically distinguish world and text, simultaneously asserting that every human (worldly) product can be viewed as a text and that every text reflects and shapes the world we perceive. It is through language that we express ourselves and understand the world; the acts that constitute the “real world” (e.g., the 9/11 attacks, the decision to marry) are both inseparable from the discourses out of which they arise and as open to interpretation as any work of literature. If no language or discourse existed, neither would tradition nor even disagreement. Terrorist acts likely would not occur were there no media to report them and no clash between competing philosophies to incite them in the first place.
Because a text is always open to being seen in the light of new contexts, any given text can be different each time it is read. Furthermore, as Miller showed in Ariadne’s Thread, the various terms and families of terms we use in reading invariably affect the results. Whether we choose to focus on a novel’s characters or its realism, for instance, leads us to view the same text differently; no single thread, as Miller put it, serves to control and unify the whole. Even the individual words of narratives — words used to compose a mental picture of a character or place — usually have several (and often conflicting) meanings.
Deconstruction has been the target of considerable opposition, expressed not only in academic books and journals but also in popular magazines such as Newsweek. Indeed, some of the movement’s harshest critics, pointing to articles de Man wrote during World War II for Nazi-controlled or collaborationist newspapers, have charged that deconstruction is morally as well as intellectually flawed. In The Ethics of Reading, Miller identified two notions commonly repeated by deconstruction’s detractors. First, critics of deconstruction often claim that deconstructors believe a text means nothing insofar as it means whatever the playful reader wants it to mean. Miller responded by pointing out that both Derrida and de Man consistently argued that readers cannot make texts mean anything they want them to mean because texts do not support a single meaning or interpretation. Second, Miller noted that deconstruction has been criticized as “immoral” insofar as it refuses to view literature traditionally, that is, “as the foundation and embodiment, the means of preserving and transmitting, the basic humanistic values of our culture.” Miller rejected the notion that deconstructors shirk an ethical responsibility because they do not seek to (re)discover and (re)assert the values contained in the Western canon.
Foes of deconstruction also object to the attitude of pleasurable playfulness, or jouissance, that practitioners exhibit in teasing out the contradictory interpretive possibilities generated by the words in a text, their etymologies and contexts, and their potential to be read figuratively or even ironically. In The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1987), Derrida associated deconstruction with pleasure; in an interview published in his Acts of Literature (1992), he speculated that “it is perhaps that jouissance which most irritates the all-out adversaries of deconstruction.” According to Derrida, however, the pleasure of deconstruction arises from dismantling repressive ideas, not from playing delightfully useless little word games with texts.
Perhaps the most common charge leveled at deconstructors is a claim that they divorce literary texts from historical, political, and legal institutions. Derek Attridge countered this charge in his introduction to Acts of Literature by noting that deconstructors like Derrida view literature not as a word-playground but, rather, as discourse “brought into being by processes that are social, legal, and political, and that can be mapped historically and geographically.” Derrida also pointed out in Memoires for Paul de Man (1986) that deconstructors have pointedly questioned the tendency of historians to view the past as the source of (lost) truth and value, to look for explanations in origins, and to view as unified epochs (for example, the Victorian Period, 1837—1901) what are in fact complex and heterogeneous times in history.
In addition to history and politics, deconstructors have focused on the law. In “Before the Law” (1983), an essay on Franz Kafka’s eponymously titled 1915 parable, Derrida showed that for Kafka the law as such existed but could never actually be confronted. Miller pointed out in The Ethics of Reading that the law “may only be confronted in its delegates or representatives or by its effects on us or others.” The law’s presence is continually deferred by narrative, that is, writing about the law which constantly reinterprets it in the attempt to reveal what it really is and means. This very act of (re)interpretation, however, serves to “defer” or distance the law even further from the case at hand, because the (re)interpretation takes precedence over the law itself.
A number of contemporary thinkers have adapted and applied deconstruction in their work. For instance, a deconstructive theology has been developed, as has a deconstructive architectural theory. In the area of law, scholars associated with the Critical Legal Studies movement of the 1980s, such as Gerald Frug, David Kennedy, and Pierre Schlag, used deconstruction to critique the claims to rational coherence made by judicial and legal discourse and to criticize the way in which particular legal regimes affect justice between groups by highlighting the gaps, conflicts, and ambiguities in the law and legal discourse.
In the field of literary studies, deconstruction’s influence is apparent in the work of critics ostensibly taking some other, more “political” approach. In The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (1980), Johnson put deconstruction to work for the feminist cause, arguing that chief among the most significant binary oppositions is the opposition man / woman. Johnson, Shoshana Felman, and Gayatri Spivak combined Derrida’s theories with the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan to analyze the way in which gender and sexuality are ultimately textual, grounded in language and rhetoric. Gay and lesbian critics have followed their lead, hence Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s recognition in Epistemology of the Closet (1990) that the “categories presented in a culture as symmetrical binary oppositions … actually subsist in a more unsettled and dynamic tacit relation.” For instance, although most people think of sexual preference in terms of the binary opposition heterosexual / homosexual, sexuality is more accurately represented along a continuum. Edward Said, a scholar who helped inaugurate postcolonial criticism in his book Orientalism (1978), deconstructed the East / West, Orient / Occident opposition and the stereotypes entailed, arguing that they not only facilitated colonization but still govern Western relations with Arab and Eastern countries.