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Monday, June 18, 2012


Sachin Ketkar

The Problem of Defining Deconstruction.

“What deconstruction is not? Everything of course! What is deconstruction? Nothing of course!”
Jacques Derrida,
"Letter to a Japanese Friend"

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) whose name is associated with the term ‘deconstruction’ is one of the most renowned and prolific philosophers of the twentieth century. His writings are characteristically postmodern in the sense they seek to go beyond modernity. Derrida has written prolifically on various themes like translation, ethics, aesthetics, responsibility, death and mourning, politics of friendship, cosmopolitanism, Marxism, globalization, technology and terrorism. His dense and complex writings have had an enormous influence in psychology, literary theory, cultural studies, linguistics, feminism, sociology and anthropology. 

Though the term has become very popular in literary criticism and theory, its precise meaning is extremely problematic. In fact, Derrida himself in the famous "Letter to a Japanese Friend" (1983) pointed out that the term was a product of his wish,” to translate and adapt to my own ends the Heidggerian word Destruktion or Abbau. Each signified in this context an operation bearing on the structure or traditional architecture of the fundamental concepts of ontology or of Western metaphysics”. This operation on the traditional structures of western thought was not a negative one connoting destruction but, “rather than destroying, it was also necessary to understand how an "ensemble" was constituted and to reconstruct it to this end.” Derrida also reminds his Japanese friend that deconstruction is “neither an analysis nor a critique” and is not, “a method and cannot be transformed into one.” For Derrida, deconstruction is not something that you do, rather “Deconstruction takes place, it is an event that does not await the deliberation, consciousness, or organization of a subject, or even of modernity. It deconstructs itself.”  J. Hillis Miller in “Stevens' Rock and Criticism as Cure" (1976) notes, "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."

This leads Derrida to question,” Can deconstruction become a methodology for reading and for interpretation? Can it thus be allowed to be reappropriated and domesticated by academic institutions?” In spite of Derrida’s disclaimers and caveats, there have been innumerable attempts to explain, simplify, define or ‘package’ deconstruction for the academic malls, a tendency that Derrida protested and criticized throughout his life. The present article does not try to simplify or package Derrida’s philosophy, but offers some starting points into more serious and rigorous examination of his works.

Background to Deconstruction

Derrida and Heidegger:
 One of the essential places to start while approaching Derrida’s texts is in the works of very controversial and yet one of the most influential German philosophers Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). In Being and Time, Heidegger argued that the western thought has neglected or repressed the question of Being of beings (or entities) by failing to make the ontological difference between ‘ beings’ and Being. The metaphysical tradition of the western thought has always been concerned about ‘beings as beings’ (i.e. treating entities as entities, rather than their mode of existence) which has resulted in a deep crisis in the western civilization. Heidegger demands the destruction (Destruktion) of the Western philosophical tradition, which is not its destruction but total transformation. In his later works, Heidegger talks about the importance of the question of language in philosophy and points out that it is ‘language that speaks, not Man’ and that language is ‘the house of Being’. Heidegger’s own language is extremely dense and often very strange as if Heidegger is not just offering a critique of the language of western philosophy but reinventing it. Derrida continues – and critiques- the Heideggerian themes of radical rethinking of the very foundations of western thought by dismantling the metaphysical tradition and  raising the key question of language and reinvention of the language of western philosophy. While Heidegger argued that the neglect and repression of the question of Being of beings is a blind spot of the entire western thinking and dwelling in this question one can deconstruct the entire western tradition of philosophy, Derrida in the first book Of Grammatology (1968) argues that neglect and the repression of the question of writing in its conception of language as speech is another such blind-spot in the western thought and the rigorous pursuit of this question can similarly ‘deconstruct’ the tradition of western thinking.

Derrida and Saussure:

Another important place to approach Derrida’s works is Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857-1913) Course in General Linguistics. Saussure made an influential distinction between the signifier (the sound image of a word) and signified ( or the concept or meaning) and that the relationship between them is arbitrary, that is, there is no inner relationship,  say between the word ‘ sister’ and the person it signifies. The relation between the signifier and the signified is merely conventional and that convention can be considered as a ‘code’, which combines the signifier and the signified to make, the linguistic sign. It also implies that the signifier does not naturally lead to the entities in the world beyond the linguistic system but stays within it by pointing to other signifier. Derrida notes that the signifier does lead to some universal and stable entity or fixed and universal meaning (transcendental signified) but only to another signifier- just as what we consider as what we consider as ‘meaning’ in the dictionary are actually other words which have meanings of their own. As Derrida demonstrates the arbitrariness of the sign results in indefinite ‘deferral’ or postponement or the delay of reaching this ‘ultimate and absolute’ meaning beyond language. It is in this context one has to see his famous statements which appears in an essay on Rousseau in his book Of Grammatology (1967) that "there is nothing outside the text" (il n'y a pas de hors-texte).

 Another important point that Saussure makes is that ‘in language there are only differences without positive terms”, that is, we can recognize and understand one linguistic item – say the phoneme ‘p- only by contrasting it with everything that is ‘not-p’. Saussure goes on to say, “The entire mechanism of language, with which we shall be concerned later, is based on oppositions of this kind (e.g. between the word ‘father’ and ‘mother’) and on the phonic and conceptual differences that they imply.” Derrida shows that the same applies to the language of philosophy and the entire mechanism of this language is based on binary oppositions like ‘light’ vs. ‘dark’,  ‘ male’ vs. ‘female’, ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’, ‘speech’ vs. ‘writing’ ,‘nature’ vs. culture’ and so on. However, Derrida points out that these oppositions are not equal but hierarchic where the second term is considered either derivative or inferior to the first, the privileged one. What allows this inequality and hierarchy, according to Derrida is the tendency in the western thought to privilege ‘presence’ over ‘absence’, which Heidegger had termed as ‘metaphysics of presence’.


Derrida combines two characteristics of the language mentioned above: the arbitrariness or the tendency to defer the ultimate and final meaning, and the systemic differentiality of language and coins a new term ‘différance’ – the tendency or the force of language to defer and differ that is intrinsic to language. The new term is a pun, and is possible in French as the word différer can mean either to differ or to defer, depending on context.

 In his rigorous readings of classical western philosophical texts, Derrida overturns the binaries like ‘ nature’ and ‘ culture’ or ‘ speech’ and ‘writing’ to show that the whole idea that the first term is basic or central and the second term is derived or marginal -is actually illusionary and ‘metaphysical’. He demonstrates how the second term can also be considered ‘basic’ and ‘central’ to a philosophical system, and the philosophical text can be read to mean exactly the opposite of what it starts out to state. This results in ‘undecidability’ or ‘aporia’ regarding which reading or interpretation is the ‘true’ or ‘right’ one.  He does this to demonstrate that any act of communication or significance is a function ‘differance’ rather than some stable entity outside of language.

The tendency in the western philosophy to repress or neglect writing- or as Derrida calls it ‘phonocentricism’ is a manifestation of ‘logocentricism’ of the western metaphysics- the tendency to privilege presence over absence, which is undone due to the force of ‘difference’ within the mechanism of language. Interestingly, what differentiates ‘différance’ and ‘difference’ is inaudible, and this means that distinguishing between them actually requires that they be written.

Derrida’s assertion that ‘deconstruction’ is not something that you do, but something which ‘happens’ to texts implies that it is the force of ‘differance’ which is the part of the system of thought that brings about the production and signification of binaries and their subversion and the resultant aporia, rather than a person, school or a historical period causing it.

Structure ,   Sign, and Play

In his famous essay, ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses in Human Sciences’ which was read at the John Hopkins International Colloquium on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” in October 1966, Derrida demonstrates how structuralism as represented by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss which sets out as a criticism or rejection of science and metaphysics can be read as embodying precisely those aspects of science and metaphysics which it seeks to challenge. The essay concludes by saying, “There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of free play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from free play and from the order of the sign, and lives like an exile the necessity of interpretation. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms free play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism.” Thus, we have two diametrically opposite interpretations of structuralism, and we are unable to decide which the ‘right’ one is. This ‘aporia’ between two interpretations is due to the force of ‘difference’ intrinsic to the structure of language. The force of ‘differance’ makes language characteristically ‘centrifugal’, that is moving away from the center by ‘scattering’ of the philosophical system or by its ‘dissemination’ into multiple and conflicting interpretations. Characteristically, Derrida in this essay notes that ‘language bears within itself, the necessity of its own critique’.  The essay is considered as inauguration of ‘poststructuralism’ (going beyond structuralism) as a theoretical movement.

The Yale School of Deconstruction:

Though Derrida wrote occasionally on literature, his primary focus was on the classical texts of Western philosophical tradition starting from Plato onwards. Most of his important statements on literature are collected in the book Acts of Literature.  However, ‘deconstruction’ became popular in literary criticism largely due to the literary theorists and scholars associated with the Yale School like Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Harold Bloom ( For my entry on Harold Bloom click here) . One of the most important practitioners Paul de Man (1919–83) in ‘The Resistance to Theory’ ( For my entry on ' Resistance to Theory' click here)  says that the rhetorical and figurative dimension of language makes it an unreliable medium for communication of truths. Literary language being predominantly rhetorical and figurative, to take for granted that literature is a reliable source of information about anything but itself would be a great mistake. This gives rise to a particular crisis in literary studies because "literariness" is no longer seen as an aesthetic quality nor is it seen as a mimetic mode. As we consider language as an intuitive and transparent medium, as opposed to the material and conventional medium that it is, aesthetic effect, according to de Man, takes place because we tend to mistake the materiality of the signifier with the materiality of the signified. Mimesis, like aesthetic quality, is also an effect of the rhetorical and figurative aspects of language. The assumption of ideological and historical contexts or backgrounds to literary texts becomes problematic if language is no longer seen as a transparent and intuitive guide from the textual material to the historical situation. Consequently, the theorists who uphold an aesthetic approach to literary studies and those who uphold an historical approach both find deconstructive approach inconvenient and challenging.    De Man practiced his own variety of deconstruction in his philosophically oriented literary criticism of Romanticism, especially the writings of William Wordsworth, John Keats, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, William Butler Yeats, Friedrich Holderlin and Rainer Maria Rilke. In Blindness and Insight, de Man sought to deconstruct the privileging of symbol over allegory and metaphor over metonymy in Romantic thought. In Romantic philosophy, metaphor implied self-identity and wholeness, decomposition of self-identity implied inability of overcoming the dualism between subject and object, which Romantic metaphor sought to transcend. To compensate for this inability, de Man argued that the Romanticism constantly relies on allegory to attain the wholeness established by the totality of the symbol.

Legacy of Deconstruction:

As against the Yale School’s obsession with figurative language and the close reading of the texts, many New Historicist, Cultural Materialists, feminists, and postcolonial theorists have used deconstruction as a political weapon to expose the political, historical and the ideological biases built into the text. While feminists and gender theorists find deconstruction useful in subverting the gender binaries in literary texts, the postcolonial theorists find it a powerful tool to undermine and explode the colonizer’s master narratives from within. Cultural materialists have found Derrida’s emphasis on the materiality of language and its social and institutional context very useful to critique the idealistic modes of reading literature. New Historicists like Louis Montrose have used Derrida to formulate a new way of reading relationship between literature and history by focusing on ‘reciprocal concern about historicity of texts and textuality of history’.  Thus, deconstruction remains one of the most influential theories in literary studies till today.

An Attempt to Summarize:

Though the term’ deconstruction’ has become very popular in literary criticism and theory, its precise meaning is extremely problematic. It has had an enormous influence in psychology, literary theory, cultural studies, linguistics, feminism, sociology and anthropology. It has influenced a wide range of theoretical approaches to literary studies like feminism and gender studies, cultural materialism, new historicism, postcolonial studies, Marxism, psychoanalysis and so on.  It 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. Though it is often misunderstood as negative activity of destruction, it is in many ways continuation of Heideggerian project of dismantling and transforming the entire tradition and architecture of western thought by building upon the insights from contemporary linguistics regarding the mechanism of language and meaning production.


Derrida, Jacques, Letter to a Japanese Friend

Ferdinand de Saussure Course in General Linguistics

Lawlor, Leonard, "Jacques Derrida", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Wheeler, Michael, "Martin Heidegger", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Wikipedia Entries on Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida

Culler, Jonathan (1975) Structuralist Poetics.
Culler, Jonathan (1983) On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism.
Norris, Christopher (1982) Deconstruction: Theory and Practice.