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In Continental philosophy and literary criticism, deconstruction is a school of criticism created by the French post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida offered what he called deconstructive readings of Western philosophers. Roughly speaking, a deconstructive reading is an analysis of a text that uncovers the difference between the text's structure and its Western metaphysical essence. Deconstructive readings show how Western texts cannot simply be read as a single author communicating a distinct message, but instead must be read as sites of conflict within a given culture or worldview. A deconstructed text will reveal a multitude of viewpoints simultaneously existing, often in direct conflict with one another. Comparison of a deconstructive reading of a text with a more traditional one will also show how many of these viewpoints are suppressed and ignored.

The central move of a deconstructive analysis is to look at binary oppositions within a text (for instance, maleness and femaleness, or gayness and straightness) and to show how, instead of describing a rigid set of categories, the two opposing terms are actually fluid and impossible to fully separate. The conclusion from this, generally, is that the categories do not actually exist in any rigid or absolute sense.

Deconstruction was highly controversial both in academia, where it was accused of being nihilistic, parasitic, and just plain silly, and in the popular press, where it was often seized upon as a sign that academia had become completely out of touch with reality. Despite this controversy, it remains a major force in contemporary philosophy and literary criticism and theory.

Table of contents
1 The philosophical meaning of deconstruction
2 Phallogocentrism and the critique of binary oppositions
3 Text and deconstruction
4 The terminology of deconstruction
5 An illustration: Derrida's reading of Lévi-Strauss
6 Criticisms of deconstruction
7 History of deconstruction
8 Deconstruction in popular media
9 See also
10 External links
11 References

The philosophical meaning of deconstruction

The term deconstruction in the context of Western philosophy is highly resistant to a succinct, formal definition. Jacques Derrida was the first to use the term, and it has been explored by others, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Paul de Man, Jonathan Culler, Barbara Johnson, and J. Hillis Miller. These authors, however, have actively resisted calls to define the word precisely and succinctly. When asked what deconstruction is, Derrida once stated, "I have no simple and formalizable response to this question. All my essays are attempts to have it out with this formidable question." (Derrida 1985, at 4.) It is not even entirely clear what kind of thing deconstruction is - whether it's a school of thought, a method of reading, or, as some call it, a "textual event."

There are hundreds of pages devoted to the issue of what deconstruction is. Most of these texts are difficult reading, and resistant to summary. Those writing sympathetically about deconstruction tend to use an idiosyncratic style building upon a long tradition of difficult Western philosophy, with the addition of numerous neologisms, and a bent toward playfulness and irony. Some suggest that this style of writing about deconstruction is essential to a proper treatment of the subject. Others find this discourse to be needlessly obscurantist.

It is much easier to explain what deconstruction is not. According to Derrida, deconstruction is neither an analysis, a critique, a method, an act, or an operation. (Derrida 1985, at 3.) In addition, deconstruction is not, properly speaking, a synonym for "destruction." Rather, according to Barbara Johnson,

[Deconstruction] is in fact much closer to the original meaning of the word 'analysis' itself, which etymologically means "to undo"—a virtual synonym for "to de-construct." ... If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not the text, but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another. A deconstructive reading is a reading which analyses the specificity of a text's critical difference from itself." (Johnson, 1981).

In addition, deconstruction is not the same as nihilism or relativism. It is not the abandonment of meaning, but a demonstration that Western thought has not satisfied its quest for a "transcendental signifier" that will give meaning to all other signs. According to Derrida, "Deconstruction is not an enclosure in nothingness, but an openness to the other" (Derrida 1984, at 124), and an attempt "to discover the non-place or non-lieu which would be [that] 'other' of philosophy" (Id. at 112). Thus, meaning is "out there", but it cannot be located by Western metaphysics, because text gets in the way.

Part of the difficulty in defining deconstruction arises from the fact that the act of defining deconstruction in the language of Western metaphysics requires one to accept the very ideas of Western metaphysics that are thought to be the subject of deconstruction. Nevertheless, various authors have provided a number of rough definitions. According to Barbara Johnson, "A deconstructive reading is a reading which analyses the specificity of a text's critical difference from itself." (Johnson, 1981). Similarly, the philosopher David B. Allison (an early translator of Derrida) stated:

"[Deconstruction] signifies a project of critical thought whose task is to locate and 'take apart' those concepts which serve as the axioms or rules for a period of thought, those concepts which command the unfolding of an entire epoch of metaphysics. 'Deconstruction' is somewhat less negative than the Heideggerian or Nietzschean terms 'destruction' or 'reversal'; it suggests that certain foundational concepts of metaphysics will never be entirely eliminated...There is no simple 'overcoming' of metaphysics or the language of metaphysics." (Introduction by Allison, in Derrida, 1973, p. xxxii, n. 1.)

Another rough-but-concise explanation of deconstruction is by Paul de Man, who explained, "It's possible, within text, to frame a question or to undo assertions made in the text, by means of elements which are in the text, which frequently would be precisely structures that play off the rhetorical against grammatical elements." (de Man, in Moynihan 1986, at 156.) Thus, viewed in this way, "the term 'deconstruction', refers in the first instance to the way in which the 'accidental' features of a text can be seen as betraying, subverting, its purportedly 'essential' message." (Rorty 1995) (The word accidental is usually interpreted here in the sense of incidental).

Phallogocentrism and the critique of binary oppositions

Deconstruction's central concern is a radical critique of the Enlightenment project and of metaphysics, including in particular the founding texts by such philosophers as Plato, Rousseau, and Husserl, but also other sorts of texts, including literature. Deconstruction identifies in the Western philosophical tradition a "metaphysics of presence" (also known as logocentrism or sometimes phallogocentrism) which holds that speech-thought (the logos) is a privileged, ideal, and self-present entity, through which all discourse and meaning are derived. This logocentrism is the primary target of deconstruction.

One typical procedure of deconstruction is its critique of binary oppositions. A central deconstructive argument holds that, in all the classic dualities of Western thought, one term is privileged or "central" over the other. The privileged, central term is the one most associated with the phallus (penis) and the logos. Examples include:

Derrida argues in Of Grammatology (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and published in English in 1976) that, in each such case, the first term is classically conceived as original, authentic, and superior, while the second is thought of as secondary, derivative, or even "parasitic." These binary oppositions, and others of their form, he argues, must be deconstructed.

This deconstruction is effected in stages. First, Derrida suggests, the opposition must be inverted, and the second, traditionally subordinate term must be privileged. He argues that these oppositions cannot be simply transcended; given the thousands of years of philosophical history behind them, it would be disingenuous to attempt to move directly to a domain of thought beyond these distinctions. So deconstruction attempts to compensate for these historical power imbalances, undertaking the difficult project of thinking through the philosophical implications of reversing them.

Only after this task is undertaken (if not completed, which may be impossible), Derrida argues, can philosophy begin to conceive a conceptual terrain outside these oppositions: the next project of deconstruction would be to develop concepts which fall under neither one term of these oppositions nor the other. Much of the philosophical work of deconstruction has been devoted to developing such ideas and their implications, of which différance may be the prototype (as it denotes neither simple identity nor simple difference). Derrida spoke in an interview (first published in French in 1967) about such "concepts," which he called merely "marks" in order to distinguish them from proper philosophical concepts:

...[I]t has been necessary to analyze, to set to work, within the text of the history of philosophy, as well as within the so-called literary text,..., certain marks, shall we say,... that by analogy (I underline) I have called undecidables, that is, unities of simulacrum, "false" verbal properties (nominal or semantic) that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, resisting and disorganizing it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dialectics. (Positions, trans. Alan Bass, pp. 42-43)

As can be seen in this discussion of its terms' undecidable, unresolvable complexity, deconstruction requires a high level of comfort with suspended, deferred decision; a deconstructive thinker must be willing to work with terms whose precise meaning has not been, and perhaps cannot be, established. (This is often given as a major reason for the difficult writing style of deconstructive texts.) Critics of deconstruction find this unacceptable as philosophy; many feel that, by working in this manner with unspecified terms, deconstruction ignores the primary task of philosophy, which they say is the creation and elucidation of concepts. This deep criticism is a result of a fundamental difference of opinion about the nature of philosophy, and is unlikely to be resolved simply.

Text and deconstruction

According to deconstructive readers, one of the phallogocentrisms of modernism is the distinction between speech (logos) and writing, with writing historically being thought of as derivative to logos. As part of subverting the presumed dominance of logos over text, Derrida showed that the idea of a speech-writing dichotomy contains within it the idea of a very expansive view of textuality that subsumes both speech and writing. According to Jacques Derrida, "There is nothing outside of the text" (Derrida, 1976, at 158). That is, text is thought of not merely as linear writing derived from speech, but any form of depiction, marking, or storage, including the marking of the human brain by the process of cognition or by the senses.

In a sense, deconstruction is simply a way to read text (as broadly defined); any deconstruction has a text as its object and subject. This accounts for deconstruction's broad cross-disciplinary scope. Deconstruction has been applied to literature, art, architecture, science, mathematics, philosophy, and psychology, and any other disciplines that can be thought of as involving the act of marking.

In deconstruction, text can be thought of as "dead", in the sense that once the markings are made, the markings remain in suspended animation and do not change in themselves. Thus, what an author says about her text doesn't revive it, and is just another text commenting on the original, along with the commentary of others. In this view, when an author says, "You have understood my work perfectly," this utterance constitutes an addition to the textual system, along with what the reader said she understood about the original text, and not a resuscitation of the original dead text. The reader has an opinion, the author has an opinion. Communication is possible not because the text has a transcendental signification, but because the brain tissue of the author contains similar "markings" as the brain tissue of the reader. These brain markings, however, are unstable and fragmentary.

The terminology of deconstruction

Deconstruction makes use of a number of terms, many of which are coined or repurposed, that illustrate or follow the process of deconstruction. Among these words are différance, trace, ecriture, supplement, hymen, pharmakon, slippage, marge, entame, and parergon.


Main Article: différance

Against the metaphysics of presence, deconstruction brings a (non)concept called différance. This French neologism is, on the deconstructive argument, properly neither a word nor a concept; it names the non-coincidence of meaning both synchronically (one French homonym means "differing") and diachronically (another French homonym means "deferring"). Because the resonance and conflict between these two French meanings is difficult to convey tersely in English, the word différance is usually left untranslated.

In simple terms, this means that rather than privileging commonality and simplicity and seeking unifying principles (or grand teleological narratives, or overarching concepts, etc.) deconstruction empasizes difference, complexity, and non-self-identity. A deconstructive reading of a text, or a deconstructive interpretation of philosophy (for deconstruction tends to elide any difference between the two), often seeks to demonstrate how a seemingly unitary idea or concept contains different or opposing meanings within itself. The elision of difference in philosophical concepts is even referred to in deconstruction as a kind of violence, the idea being that theory's willful misdescription or simplification of reality always does violence to the true richness and complexity of the world. This criticism can be taken as a rejection of the philosophical law of the excluded middle, arguing that the simple oppositions of Aristotelian logic force a false appearance of simplicity onto a recalcitrant world.

Thus the perception of différance has two sides, both a deferment of final, unifying meaning in a unit of text (of whatever size, word or book), and a difference of meaning of the text upon every act of re-reading a work. Repetition, and the impossibility of final access to a text, of ever being at the text's "ground zero" so to speak, are emphasized, indefinitely leaving a text outside of the realm of the knowable in typical senses of "mastery". A text can, obviously, be experienced, be read, be "understood" -- but that understanding, for all its deep feeling or lack of it, is marked by a quintessential provisionality that never denys the possibility of rereading. Indeed it requires this. If the text is traditionally thought to be some perdurable sequence of symbols (letters) that go through time unchanged in the formal sense, différance moves the concept toward the realization that for all the perdurability of the text, experience of this structure is impossible and inconceivable outside of the realm of the unique instance, outside of the realm of perception.

A text cannot read itself, therein lies the provisionality of différance.


The idea of différance also brings with it the idea of trace. A trace is what a sign differs/defers from. It is the absent part of the sign's presence. In other words, through the act of différance, a sign leaves behind a trace, which is whatever is left over after everything present has been accounted for. According to Derrida, "the trace itself does not exist" (Derrida 1976, at 167)", because it is self-effacing. That is, "[i]n presenting itself, it becomes effaced" (Id. at 125.)

An illustration: Derrida's reading of Lévi-Strauss

A more concrete example, drawn from one of Derrida's most famous works, may help to clarify the typical manner in which deconstruction works.

Structuralist analysis generally relies on the search for underlying binary oppositions as an explanatory device. The structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that such oppositions are found in all cultures, not only in Western culture, and thus that the device of binary opposition was fundamental to meaning.

Deconstruction challenges the explanatory value of these oppositions. This method has three steps. The first step is to reveal an asymmetry in the binary opposition, suggesting an implied hierarchy. The second step is to reverse the hierarchy. The third step is to displace one of the terms of the opposition, often in the form of a new and expanded definition.

In his book Of Grammatology, Derrida offers one example of deconstruction applied to a theory of Lévi-Strauss. Following many other Western thinkers, Lévi-Strauss distinguished between "savage" societies lacking writing and "civilized" societies that have writing. This distinction implies that human beings developed verbal communication (speech) before some human cultures developed writing, and that speech is thus conceptually as well as chronologically prior to writing (thus speech would be more authentic, closer to truth and meaning, and more immediate than writing).

Although the development of writing is generally considered to be an advance, after an encounter with the Nambikwara Indians of Brazil, Lévi-Strauss suggested that societies without writing were also lacking violence and domination (in other words, savages are truly noble savages). He further argued that the primary function of writing is to facilitate slavery (or social inequality, exploitation, and domination in general). (This claim has been rejected by most later historians and anthropologists as strictly incorrect. There is abundant historical evidence that many hunter-gatherer societies and later non-literate tribes had significant amounts of violence and warfare in their cultures.)

Derrida's interpretation begins with taking Lévi-Strauss's discussion of writing at its word: what is important in writing for Lévi-Strauss is not the use of markings on a piece of paper to communicate information, but rather their use in domination and violence. Derrida further observes that, based on Lévi-Strauss's own ethnography, the Nambikwara really do use language for domination and violence. Derrida thus concludes that writing, in fact, is prior to speech. That is, he reverses the opposition between speech and writing.

Derrida was not making fun of Lévi-Strauss, nor did he mean to supersede, replace, or proclaim himself superior to Lévi-Strauss. (A common theme of deconstruction is the desire to be critical without assuming a posture of superiority.) He was using his deconstruction of Lévi-Strauss to question a common belief in Western culture, dating back at least to Plato: that speech is prior to, more authentic than, and closer to "true meaning" than writing.

Criticisms of deconstruction

Deconstruction is the subject of at least three main types of criticism. Critics take issue with what they believe is a lack of seriousness and transparency in deconstructive writings, and with what they interpret as a political stance against traditional modernism. In addition, critics often equate deconstruction with nihilism or relativism and criticize deconstruction accordingly.

Lack of usefulness

Many critics wonder what is the usefulness of deconstruction. They see it as little more than a tricky way to discredit a text without having to refute any of the text's arguments. They say that it doesn't seem to help scientists or philosophers nor does it seem to have any scientific value. They also point out that no one seems to benefit from deconstruction except the deconstructionists themselves.


Some critics say that many deconstructive analyses are largely non-sensical and needlessly obscure. These critics suggest that, once one dispenses with the dense and complicated language of deconstructionist theory, there's not a lot of serious or interesting thought going on in deconstruction. This criticism reached its high point with the Sokal affair, in which Alan Sokal, a physicist, managed to get a non-sensical article published by a semi-important journal.

People making this criticism are often accused of not having understood deconstruction, and of simply assuming that because they can't understand it, it must be wrong.

Lack of seriousness and transparency

As part of the tradition of modernism and the Enlightenment, matters of Western philosophy and literary criticism have generally been framed within a particular standard of formality, transparency, earnestness, rationality, and high-mindedness. As a critique of modernism, however, deconstruction is usually rational at least to an extent; but deconstruction is also critical of Western rationality, which to modernist thinkers appears irrational. In addition, deconstruction tends to be comparatively opaque, eccentric, playful, derivative, and often crass. As a result, deconstruction takes place on the margins of modernist discourse, which invites criticism by modernists. There is a particular expectation of seriousness in Western philosophy. Therefore, many critics find it irreverent to deconstruct Western metaphysics using puns, wordplay, poetry, book reviews, fiction, or the analysis of pop culture.

In addition, deconstruction sprang in part as a critique of such philosophers as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. While the style of Husserl and Heidegger was dense and opaque, Derrida's criticism of their writings was for some readers even more difficult to understand. Similarly, most deconstructive writings are relatively opaque and dense, and are full of not only the terminology of the text being critiqued, but additional neologisms that many find hard to follow. This opaqueness in texts of the broader movements of postmodernism and post-structuralism has led to criticism of those movements, and implicitly of deconstruction, by many modernists such as Noam Chomsky, himself a noted linguist, who stated:

I have spent a lot of my life working on questions such as these, using the only methods I know of--those condemned here as "science," "rationality," "logic," and so on. I therefore read the papers with some hope that they would help me "transcend" these limitations, or perhaps suggest an entirely different course. I'm afraid I was disappointed. Admittedly, that may be my own limitation. Quite regularly, "my eyes glaze over" when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don't understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish, and I do not know how to proceed.

Noam Chomsky on Rationality/Science - From Z Papers Special Issue

Political criticisms

Deconstruction has also been criticized for its perceived political stance, in that it is perceived as advocating particular movements or points of view. An argument can be made that deconstruction is apolitical. Indeed, Jacques Derrida has consistently denied any simple political aspect to deconstruction, and his later texts are concerned with complicating the relationship between deconstruction and politics. However, deconstructive writers are much more closely associated with the political left and various elements of academia than with the political right.

Thus, some critics view deconstruction as means of academic empire-building; they see deconstruction as elevating the practice of reading and deconstructing a text to the same status as the original act of writing the text. For example, critics have taken issue with deconstructive writings which seem to elevate the criticism of Western science, metaphysics, and philosophy, such as quantum mechanics and the writings of Aristotle, to the same political status as the original scientific and philosophical writings. This seems to give deconstructive writings a privileged position with respect to other writings. This, critics suggest, is arrogant.

While there are numerous left-leaning political forces at work within postmodernism as a whole, deconstructive writers such as Derrida argue that deconstruction is not simply political. For example, while deconstruction criticizes the binary opposition between presence and absence, and the tendency to favor presence, deconstruction does not go a step further and advocate absence, or argue that the Western favoritism of presence is simply a bad thing. This further step, deconstructive writers argue, would not be deconstruction at all, but construction or reconstruction. Nor, deconstructive writers argue, does deconstruction necessarily imply an advocacy of one type of text over another. They agree, however, that critics of deconstruction ascribe that stance of advocacy to the deconstructive writer, because (they argue) of the critics' own logocentrism.

Undoubtedly, however, everything that deconstructive writers do is not deconstructive, and deconstructive writers hold political views and take the role of advocating aspects of Western metaphysics. Deconstructive writers do not view this as inconsistent with deconstruction. They do not see a paradox in advocating a point of Western metaphysics with self-conscious irony. Derrida stated, "Deconstruction is not an enclosure in nothingness, but an openness to the other" (Derrida 1984, at 124).

Criticisms classifying deconstruction as nihilism or relativism

Especially in non-academic forums, deconstruction is criticized for the same reasons as nihilism and relativism, which many view as equivalent to deconstruction. For example, critics commonly argue that deconstruction denies that authors have an intention, or that text has any meaning. Therefore, deconstruction is criticized because of the belief that deconstruction is a form of nihilism or extreme relativism.

Deconstructive writers generally disagree that deconstruction is a destruction of all meaning and authorial intentionality. Rather, they say, meaning exists, as does authorial intent; however, Western philosophy has failed to locate or situate that meaning and that intent outside the realm of text. If one tries through metaphysics to find meaning or intent outside text, they say, one only finds a web of text from which one cannot escape using Western metaphysics. However, there is value, according to some deconstructive writers, in following the textual threads of Western metaphysics, which is something like wordplay. And one may hope, they suppose, to transcend Western metaphysics. This is quite different, in their view, from the nihilist assertion that meaning and intent do not exist, and that it is futile to seek them.

Critics have also criticized deconstruction as a form of solipsism, arguing that deconstruction implies that there is no reality "out there", or that one cannot know its true nature. Deconstructive writers do not agree with with this assertion. They acknowledge that there is a reality "out there", and that one may discover knowledge or true nature, but state that Western metaphysics has not provided a mechanism whereby these ideals may be located outside the bounds of text.

Nor do deconstructive writers allege that it is impossible to learn authoritative information. However, authoritative text, they say, is still text, and while Western metaphysics has established methods to establish and perpetuate authority, it has not located the source of that authority as a transcendental signifier.

History of deconstruction

During the period between the late 1960s and the early 1980s many thinkers influenced by deconstruction, including Derrida, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller, worked at Yale University. This group came to be known as the Yale school and was especially influential in literary criticism, as de Man, Miller, and Hartman were all primarily literary critics. Several of these theorists were subsequently affiliated with the University of California Irvine.

(More detailed institutional history could be added here.)


Deconstruction has significant ties with much of Western philosophy; even considering only Derrida's work, there are existing deconstructive texts about the works of at least many dozens of important philosophers. However, deconstruction emerged from a clearly delineated philosophical context:

Deconstruction in popular media

In popular media, deconstruction has been seized upon by conservative writers as a central example of what is wrong with modern academia. Editorials and columns come out with some frequency pointing to deconstruction as a sign of how self-evidently absurd English departments have become, and of how traditional values are no longer being taught to students. Conservatives frequently treat deconstruction as being equivalent to Marxism. These criticisms became particularly prevalent when it was discovered that Paul de Man had written pro-Nazi articles during World War II, due to what was seen as the inadequate and offensive response of many deconstructionist thinkers, especially Derrida, to this revelation. Popular criticism of deconstruction also intensified following the Sokal affair, which many people took as an indicator of the quality of deconstructionism as a whole, despite Sokal's insistence that his hoax proved nothing of the sort.

Deconstruction is also used by many popular sources as a synonym for revisionism - for instance, the CBS miniseries The Reagans was described by some as a "deconstruction" of the Reagan administration.

See also

See also: Jacques Derrida -- Paul de Man -- Jean Baudrillard -- Jean-François Lyotard -- Judith Butler -- Yale school (deconstruction) -- structuralism -- Post-structuralism -- Cultural movement -- Post-modernism -- Continental philosophy -- feminism -- feminist theory -- Queer theory -- literary theory -- literary criticism -- psychoanalysis -- phenomenology

See also: Deconstructivism or Deconstruction, an architectural movement inspired by Deconstruction.

External links