The following entry discusses deconstruction theory as a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary texts.
Deconstruction is a literary criticism movement originated by French critic Jacques Derrida in the 1960s, developed in three works—De la grammatologie (1967; Of Grammatology), L'Écriture et la différence (1967; Writing and Difference), and La Voix et le phénomène: introduction au problème du signe dans la phénomènologie de Husserl (1967; Speech and Phenomena and Other Writings on Husserl's Theory of Signs). Drawing on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche, on the language theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, and on the psychoanalytic ideas of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, Derrida presented his notion of deconstruction in 1966 at an international symposium at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. There he met Lacan and American critic Paul de Man for the first time, and they formed the core group that would go on to popularize deconstruction in the United States. Initially considered elitist, nihilistic, and subversive of humanistic ideals, deconstruction has been much debated in academe and has gained more widespread acceptance, although it still remains, to an extent, a radical way of analyzing texts.
Deconstruction theory embraces the precept that meaning is always uncertain and that it is not the task of the literary critic to illuminate meaning in a given text. Derrida began with Saussure's ideas of the signified and the signifier: an idea (signified) is represented by a sign (signifier), but the sign can never be the same as the idea. The French term “différer” used in deconstruction discourse refers both to the difference between signified and signifier, and to the way the signified defers meaning to the signifier. The signified contains a trace of the signifier, but also of its opposite. According to practitioners of deconstruction, the job of the literary critic is to look for “slippage” in the text—to note duplicity, or to expose how a text has violated the very linguistic and thematic rules it has set up internally. Calling attention to breaks in the internal logic of a literary text achieves its deconstruction. Deconstruction itself can be deconstructed, however, and the process goes on indefinitely.
Because it challenges logocentrism—that is, it questions order and certainty in language—deconstruction has been viewed by its opponents as an intellectually obscure, negativistic form of cultural critique. M. H. Abrams wrote a particularly devastating essay on deconstruction, and Steven E. Cole and Archibald A. Hill have criticized the methods of de Man and Geoffrey Hartman, respectively. Other scholars have found deconstruction a stimulating and innovative new approach to literary criticism. While such critics as Lance St. John Butler and Shawn St. Jean have written on major literary figures and works using deconstruction theory, other scholars, including Edward Said, David B. Allison, and Christina M. Howells have found an application for deconstruction in the fields of history and philosophy.
In a Nutshell
You Can Do It
If any theory takes blood, sweat, and tears to master, it's deconstruction. Often dismissed as white devil sophistry, this way of reading, pioneered by hottie Jacques Derrida, is one of the most rigorous—er, hardcore—and useful around.
That's right. You heard us. We're convinced that deconstruction can be useful. No, really.
Deconstruction can help us to question and revise everything we're told about the world—our received ideas. So it can make us more critical citizens as well as more critical readers of literary texts.
But if you really want to set deconstruction to work, you've got to work to achieve that goal. Never mind the theory's enticing talk about "play." It is not kid stuff. Think of deconstruction as, at the very least PG-13, kind of material. Though we're sure many of you grad students out there would say this theory gave you nightmares and would slap an "R" on it faster than we can say "Gayatri Spivak" twice.
It's true: you need a fully developed brain—the bigger, the better—to process the lessons that Derrida and Co. have to impart. They want to teach us about how everything we consider to be a capital-T Truth has been carefully constructed by other heavy-hitting philosophers in the tradition, and how those Truths continue to influence the way we see the world today.
But they're not gonna make it easy on us.
Get By With a Little Help from My (Deconstructionist) Friends
Derrida's not here to make friends, dudes and dudettes. But he is here to open your mind to The Politics of Friendship. His brand's not for the faint of heart, but it will open your heart while blowing your mind.
Think you're ready? Good. We promise that you'll have a lot to show for the time you spend at deconstruction Boot Camp: a whole set of conceptual tools and reading techniques, applicable in a wide range of times and places.
In the meantime, here are a handful of dos and don'ts to help you avoid awkwardness at the deconstructionist dinner party you have to attend this weekend.
(1) Derrida's the guy who started it all, and he still commands everyone's respect. During his lifetime, his buds called him "Jackie," but don't drop his nickname in polite society. Instead, practice your pronunciation: De-ri-DAH.
(2) Deconstruction values nothing more highly than close reading. The closer the better—by which we mean: the more sophisticated, stylistically elegant, and philosophically literate. So, don't own up to reading US Weekly unless you're prepared to say something subversive about it. And if you've got a few extra hours, we recommend brushing up on your Baudelaire.
(3) In deconstruction, philosophy and literature truly are birds of a feather. There's no telling them apart. Deconstructionists treat philosophers like authors, and vice versa. They also pride themselves on their own prose styles as much as, if not more than, their argumentative skillz. We beg of you: don't make the mistake of dissing a deconstructionist's rhetoric. And you better come up with some fancy stylings of your own, or someone else'll steal the mic from you right quick.
(4) Deconstructionists tend to have sophisticated fashion senses, even if they often opt for basic black. You'll score points by complimenting their accessories, and even more if you point out the fallacy of the clothing/accessory binary, which deconstructionists think is so pre-post-structuralist.
(5) The same goes for the opposition between main dishes and dessert. Deconstructionists are over this artificial division, and you'll ingratiate yourself to them if you get over it, too. Try starting a conversation by overturning the received assumption that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, for example. Or try posing questions like these: "Who ever said that coffee and cake shouldn't be served before salad? Isn't it time to undo this hierarchical opposition? It's almost as phallocentric as the speech/writing binary." Sweet-toothed Derrideans will be impressed. And grateful.
Why Should I Care?
Why Should Readers Care?
Whatever you can say about deconstructive criticism—it's boring, it's impenetrable, it's basically the worst thing to happen to college students since Ramen started costing more like $2 instead of $1—its practitioners are tenacious readers of texts. They go for the gut and the gold. They don't settle for less.
Deconstruction has been built on the backs of scholars who lived to wrestle weak arguments to the ground. To find contradictions in even the most apparently coherent of texts.
They're admirable, in other words, these scholars. They're real readerly role models. So even if you're not fully on board with deconstructionist ideas—we admit, some of 'em are pretty extreme and/or hard to put into practice without making you want to lock yourself into your room and cry—you stand to benefit from deconstructionist methods.
Nothing bad can be said about these methods: super close reading, nonstop and no-holds-barred attention to detail, massive book learning, and philosophical maturity.
But if all that sounds like a serious slog, let us reassure you. Deconstruction is not all work and no play. On the contrary, Derrida and friends love a good time.
For starters, they are some of the very best punsters on the lit crit scene. Cyndi Lauper might even have been one of the D-Crew, because we swear, at some level, deconstructionists just want to have fun.
Why Should Theorists Care?
Even if Deconstruction isn't exactly trending these days—don't expect a "Deconstruction Lives" celebration at your college anytime soon—it still hasn't lost its relevance. Lots of theory-heads still cut their teeth on Derrida's dense texts, and for good reason. These texts are training grounds for the theoretical mind.
They condense centuries of highbrow philosophy into a few key texts. So, we weren't kidding when we called our work here Deconstruction Boot Camp. Derrida and Friends will whip your intellect into shape.
And what do you have to do to reach deconstructionist enlightenment? You have to bear with them. You have to be willing to sweat. These theorists' often-taxing texts take lots of patience to wade through.
This is the other main reason aspiring theorists should learn to love Deconstruction, though: once you've sharpened your mind enough to get through this stuff, virtually everything else will be a piece of cake.
Let us eat cake.