From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
Jump to: navigation, search

54-5, 106, 133 Conversations

The term deconstruction was coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1960s and is used in contemporary humanities and social sciences to denote a philosophy of meaning that deals with the ways that meaning is constructed and understood by writers, texts, and readers. One way of understanding the term is that it involves discovering, recognizing, and understanding the underlying — and unspoken and implicit — assumptions, ideas, and frameworks that form the basis for thought and belief. It has various shades of meaning in different areas of study and discussion, and is, by its very nature, difficult to define without depending on "un-deconstructed" concepts.

The difficulty in defining deconstruction

The problems of definition

The term deconstruction in the context of Western philosophy is highly resistant to formal definition. Martin Heidegger was perhaps the first to use the term (in contrast to Nietzschean demolition), although the form we recognize in English is an element in a series of translations (from Heidegger's Abbau and Destruktion to Jacques Derrida's construction), and it has been explored by others, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Paul de Man, Jonathan Culler, Barbara Johnson, J. Hillis Miller, Jean-François Lyotard, and Geoffrey Bennington.

These authors have resisted calls to define the word 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.) There is a great deal of confusion as to what kind of thing deconstruction is — whether it is a school of thought (it is certainly not so in the singular), a method of reading (it has often been reduced to this by various attempts to define it formally), or, as some call it, a "textual event" (a characterization implied by the Derrida quote just given) — and determining what authority to accord to a particular attempt at delimiting it.

Many pages have been devoted to attempts to define deconstruction or to demonstrate why attempts at delimitation are misconceived. Most of these attempts (including those signed by critics who are considered deconstructionist) are difficult reading and resistant to summary. On the other hand, there is a cottage industry of writers of variably explicit sympathy or antipathy to deconstruction (however they understand it) who attempt to explain it to those who are reluctant to read the original deconstructive texts.

Surveying the deconstructive texts and the secondary literature, one is confronted with a bafflingly heterogeneous range of arguments. These include claims that deconstruction can sort out the Western tradition in its entirety, by highlighting and discrediting unjustified privileges accorded to white males and other hegemonists. On the other hand, some critics claim that deconstruction is a dangerous form of nihilism that wishes the utter destruction of Western scientific and ethical values. As a rule, deconstruction is ridiculed by members of the political right of just about any stripe. Its reception on the left is far more varied, ranging from hostility to co-optation:

  • While there is no doubting that principal figures associated with deconstruction in France have been "leftist" in their political positions, Heidegger's place in deconstruction complicates matters considerably, as do the politics of Paul de Man in early adulthood. Heidegger assumed the rectorship of the University of Freiburg from 1933-1934 as a member of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazis), while de Man worked, during the German occupation of Belgium, as a writer for a collaborationist newspaper, Le Soire.
  • From a racial-religious perspective, deconstruction has no clear sectarian identity. For example, Derrida's views on religion are anything but sectarian. As a Jew raised in a walled Jewish community in colonial Algeria, Derrida rejected what he regarded as the countersignature of anti-Semitism by Algerian Jewish institutions of the 1940s. He is almost certainly an atheist in terms of dogmatic theology, and has written about religion in terms of what was shared among the Mosaic monotheisms.
  • Those writing sympathetically about deconstruction tend to use an "idiosyncratic" (sometimes in fact imitative) style with numerous neologisms, a bent toward playfulness and irony, and a massive amount of allusion across many corners of the Western canon.

What deconstruction is not

It is easier to explain what deconstruction is not than what it is. According to Derrida, deconstruction is neither an analysis, a critique, a method, an act, nor an operation. (Derrida 1985, at 3.) In addition, deconstruction is not, properly speaking, a synonym for "destruction." Rather, according to Barbara Johnson, it is a specific kind of analytical "reading":

[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 analyzes 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 all meaning, but attempts to demonstrate 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.

Approaching a definition of deconstruction

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. 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).

In the context of religious studies Paul Ricoeur (1983) defines deconstruction as a way of uncovering the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition (Klein 1995).

Logocentrism 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 "logocentrism" or "metaphysics of presence" (also known as 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 form of deconstructive reading is the critique of binary oppositions, or the criticism of dichotomous thought. 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 and the logos. Examples include:

  • speech over writing
  • presence over absence
  • identity over difference
  • fullness over emptiness
  • meaning over meaninglessness
  • mastery over submission
  • life over death

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, or "violent hierarchies", 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 argued 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 his 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 was understood in and 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, écriture, supplement, hymen, pharmakon, slippage, marge, entame, parergon, text, and same.


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 emphasizes 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 theories' 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 denies 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.) Because all signifiers viewed as present in Western thought will necessarily contain traces of other (absent) signifiers, the signifier can be neither wholly present nor wholly absent.


In deconstruction, the word écriture (usually translated as writing in English) is appropriated to refer not just to systems of graphic communication, but to all systems inhabited by différance. A related term, called archi-écriture, refers to the positive side of writing, or writing as an ultimate principle, rather than an a derivative of logos (speech). In other words, whereas the Western logos encompasses writing, it is equally valid to view archi-écriture as encompassing the logos, and therefore speech can be thought of as a form of writing: writing on air waves, or on the memory of the listener or recording device.

Supplement, originary lack, and invagination

The word supplement is taken from the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who defined it as "an inessential extra added to something complete in itself." According to Derrida, Western thinking is characterized by the "logic of supplementation", which is actually two apparently contradictory ideas. From one perspective, a supplement serves to enhance the presence of something which is already complete and self-sufficient. Thus, writing is the supplement of speech, Eve was the supplement of Adam, and masturbation is the supplement of "natural sex".

But simultaneously, according to Derrida, the Western idea of the supplement has within it the idea that a thing that has a supplement cannot be truly "complete in itself". If it were complete without the supplement, it shouldn't need, or long-for, the supplement. The fact that a thing can be added-to to make it even more "present" or "whole" means that there is a hole (which Derrida called an originary lack) and the supplement can fill that hole. The metaphorical opening of this "hole" Derrida called invagination. From this perspective, the supplement does not enhance something's presence, but rather underscores its absence.

Thus, what really happens during supplementation is that something appears from one perspective to be whole, complete, and self-sufficient, with the supplement acting as an external appendage. However, from another perspective, the supplement also fills a hole within the interior of the original "something". Thus, the supplement represents an indeterminacy between externality and interiority.


The word hymen refers to the interplay between inside and outside. The hymen is the membrane of intersection where it becomes impossible to distinguish whether the membrane is on the inside or the outside. And in the absence of the hymen (as in, once the hymen is penetrated), the distinction between inside and outside disappears. Thus, in a way, the hymen is neither inside nor outside, and both inside and outside.


The word pharmakon refers to the play between cure and poison. It derives from the ancient Greek word, used by Plato in Phaedrus and Phaedo, which had an undecidable meaning which could be translated to mean anything ranging from a drug, recipe, spell, medicine, or poison.

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.

  1. The first step is to reveal an asymmetry in the binary opposition, suggesting an implied hierarchy.
  2. The second step is to reverse the hierarchy.
  3. 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 question the usefulness of deconstruction. They see it as little more than an academic word-game, a clever way to discredit a text without having to refute any of the text's arguments. They argue that it is of no practical assistance to scientists or philosophers, and suggest that no one seems to benefit from deconstruction except its own practitioners.

Some literary practitioners, critics, and theorists are hostile to deconstruction, claiming that it is inconsistent with any meaningful discussion and analysis of literature, particularly of forms such as poetry and fiction that invite active discussion. The criticism is that deconstruction fails to provide any substantial grounds for engagement with literary texts because it abruptly truncates all ideas and subjects as equal and interchangeable. Because it essentially rules out nothing, it fails to provide any especially salient windows of thought to assist the understanding of texts, or to allow this to segue into any other topics of discussion. Deconstruction, according to this line of argument, cannot combine usefully with other schools of literary criticism and actually impedes progress in literary understanding.

As American Scholar Murray Rothbard has said: "Deconstructionism reduces to the claim that no one, not even deconstructionists, can understand literary texts - not even their own literary texts." This means that all writers under the observation of such are only "subjective musings".

Unintelligibility, Meaninglessness

Deconstructive readings have been criticized both academically and popularly as largely nonsensical and unintelligible. Few would deny that any discourse may seem nonsensical to those who do not understand it, and that just because something is unintelligible to one doesn't mean it is unintelligible to another reader. On the other hand, the deconstructionist position demands that we take the meaningfulness and importance of what appears to be "nonsense" as an act of faith. There remains the question of whether deconstructive readings are at times so unintelligible that, after peeling away the often dense and complicated language, anything remains.

The question of whether deconstruction really "means anything" was explored through an experiment conducted by Alan Sokal, a physicist who described it in an article in a leading (though not peer-reviewed) journal using some of the language, vocabulary, and rhetorical devices of deconstruction, but which he deliberately designed to be what he considered "self-indulgent nonsense". See Sokal affair. Sokal's critics claim, however, that his parody was not truly nonsensical, and had its own internal logic. Regardless, the "Sokal affair" suggests that a work warranted by its own author to be outright nonsense may be received by deconstructionists as more or less sensible.

Another parody was created later by artificial intelligence researchers, who wrote a program they called The Postmodernism Generator, which produces a superficially genuine article on a postmodern theme, using much of the vocabulary of deconstruction. When the hoax was revealed, deconstructionists pointed out in their defense that the generated article is not an actual deconstructive reading and so cannot be used to discredit deconstruction. In other words, only a sincere deconstructive reading of deconstruction may be used to critique deconstruction itself; and since such a reading must utilize deconstruction to be persuasive, its critique of deconstructive techniques would actually be a vindication of them. One troubling thing about The Postmodernism Generator is that it uses structuralist techniques to assault an amorphous stance (deconstructionism), which approach may in itself have undermined the entire project.

Partly as a result of these incidents, critics of deconstruction now see reason to doubt whether there is much difference between "real" deconstruction and parodies of it, and whether deconstruction is so unintelligible that it could be done by a machine. In other words, is deconstruction itself a hoax or parody?

Some academics suspected that it was. Ironically, though, some postmodernists and deconstructionists insist that the Sokal affair and the Postmodern Generator prove one of the ideas they have insisted on all along: that there is no strict binary opposition between a parody and a "serious" academic work, that all academic work is its own parody (and parodies may have serious points to make), and that a reader must not enslave himself to the views of any author, including machine "authors" (without real "views") and authors who disbelieve in their own texts.

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. Deconstruction tends also to be comparatively opaque, eccentric, playful, imitative, 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 silly and uninstructive to analyze Western metaphysics deconstructively through the use of puns, wordplay, poetry, book reviews, fiction, or the analysis of pop culture. Yet the deconstructionist claim that rationality and coherence are deceptive and manipulative would seem to lead inexorably to such productions in the place of traditional, intelligible argumentation.

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 opacity 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

Anti-essentialist criticism

Anti-essentialist philosopher Richard Rorty has criticized Derrida's assertion that essentialism is not a method, but something that is "already, all the time" occurring in texts. Anti-essentialists allege that Derrida's position is close to positing something which is intrinsic to the text, and thus close to positing an "essential" privileged reading of a text. Anti-essentialists still accept the validity of deconstructive readings, but view them as the result of subjective interaction with a text that is one of many possible readings, rather than an excavation of something "within" the text, and should not be privileged as reading the "truth" of the text. However, one might counter that this "reading" of deconstruction is itself a deconstruction, putting the anti-essentialist in the tricky situation of having to admit that his "reading" of deconstruction is not privileged.

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 consistently denied any simple political aspect to deconstruction, and his later texts were concerned with complicating the relationship between deconstruction and politics. Despite these denials Derrida made numerous statements supporting the spirit of Marxism, for instance:

"Now these problems of the foreign debt - and everything that is metonymized by this concept - will not be treated without at least the spirit of the Marxist critique, the critique of the market, of the multiple logics of capital, and of that which links the State and international law to this market". Spectres of Marx, 1994.

So différance can also be understood as part of the revolutionary dialectic that destroys the established order to permit the adoption of some new world order. In general the deconstructive writers are much more closely associated with the political left and various elements of academia than with the political right but their work may benefit either faction.

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 argued 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

Critics of deconstruction commonly argue that it denies that authors can have a coherent intention, or that a text can have a particular meaning. They suggest, therefore, that deconstructive analysis is little more than a form of nihilism or extreme relativism.

Deconstructive writers generally disagree that deconstruction is a denial of the existence of meaning and authorial intentionality. Rather, they say, meaning and authorial intent exist, but Western philosophy has failed to locate them outside the realm of texts. If one tries through metaphysics to find meaning or intent outside text, they say, one only finds a further 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, or that it is futile to seek them.

Critics have also accused deconstruction of being a form of solipsism, arguing that deconstruction implies the futility of seeking or trying to communicate accurate knowledge about the world. Deconstructive writers reject this assertion. They say that the existence of knowledge is possible, but that Western philosophy and metaphysics have failed to prove a reliable source of it. All Western writers have done is to point to inherently untrustworthy texts. No text-based knowledge, they say, is trustworthy; therefore, it is not knowledge.

During the 1980s and '90s, the novelty of deconstructionist thinking helped to encourage the publication, by academic journals and university presses, of a great many deconstructionist readings. In retrospect, however, it seemed to many academic critics that such readings, even when viewed sympathetically, tended mostly toward a repetitious insistence that no matter what the text, any meaning was entirely indeterminate (or "deferred"), and/or, whatever the author's intentions, the text was deceptive and manipulative. Critics argued that the project of applying this basic deconstructionist tenet to individual works was sterile indeed. On a practical note, it is also observed that while deconstructionists deride objectivity and authoritativeness, they still go about their daily tasks depending as much as anyone else on the overall reliability of Western technology, medical knowledge, and other manifestations of objective and authoritative scientific findings. The sincere "living out" of deconstruction theory would seem to result in state of consciousness indistinguishable from extreme psychosis. As no deconstructionist is known to have chosen to live in such a state, or even to have attempted to do so, the sincerity and utility of deconstructive philosophy may be called into serious question. (But for an ancient advocacy of something similar, see Sextus Empiricus' defense of Pyrrhonism.)

Perhaps the most damaging criticism of deconstruction is the observation that if all texts subvert honesty and truth, deconstructionist texts are just as false and dishonest as any other. Why then, critics ask, should anyone "privilege" deconstructive texts? As just one more set of texts, Derrida's deconstructive philosophy itself can be neither accurate nor trustworthy. And if deconstruction cannot provide knowledge, and no other discourse can provide it either, then all that we think must be pure illusion. Moreover, the critics continue, even if all that we think really is just illusion, our reason remains a most practical illusion that allows us to survive both as societies and as individuals. Deconstruction, they say, lends itself as an excuse to nihilists who wish to see societies as nothing but contending, meaningless illusions battling ruthlessly for tyranny over the quite useless and dispensable human mind.

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. (At a faculty meeting of the Department of English, Professor Martin Price, the chairman, while observing the surfeit of deconstructionists flooding the University with more hires in sight, asked his colleagues, "I can understand hiring a few deconstructionists here and there. But do we really need to corner the market?")

(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:

  • Derrida's earliest work, including the texts that introduced the term "deconstruction," dealt with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl: Derrida's first publication was a book-length Introduction to Husserl's The Origin of Geometry, and Speech and Phenomena, an early work, dealt largely with phenomenology.
  • A student and prior interpreter of Husserl's, Martin Heidegger, was one of the most significant influences on Derrida's thought: Derrida's Of Spirit deals directly with Heidegger, but Heidegger's influence on deconstruction is much broader than that one volume.
  • The psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud is an important reference for much of deconstruction: The Post Card, important essays in Writing and Difference, Archive Fever, and many other deconstructive works deal primarily with Freud.
  • The work of Friedrich Nietzsche is a forerunner of deconstruction in form and substance, as Derrida writes in Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles.
  • The structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure, and other forms of post-structuralism that evolved contemporaneously with deconstruction (such as the work of Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, etc.), were the immediate intellectual climate for the formation of deconstruction. In many cases, these authors were close friends, colleagues, or correspondents of Derrida's.

Deconstruction as literary trope

Deconstruction has been directly used and / or parodied in a large number of literary texts. Native American novelist Gerald Vizenor claims an extensive debt to deconstructionist ideas in attacking essentialist notions of race. Writer Percival Everett goes further in satire, actually incorporating fictional conversations between a number of leading deconstructionists within his fictions. Comic author David Lodge’s work contains a number of figures whose belief in the deconstructionist project is undermined by contact with non-academic figures (cf Nice Work). The difficult and verbose nature of many deconstructionist writings makes them a popular figure of fun in anti-intellectual fiction.

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

External links


  • Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. ISBN 0801413222
  • Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood & Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia Press 1985, p. 1.
  • Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. ISBN 0801858305
  • Derrida, Jacques, Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1981. ISBN 0226143317
  • Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern U.P., 1973. ISBN 081010590X
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. ISBN 081661251X
  • Ellis, John M. (1989). Against Deconstruction Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-06754-6
  • Johnson, Barbara, The Critical Difference (1981).
  • Klein, Anne Carolyn (1995). Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Beacon Press: Boston. ISBN 0807073067.
  • Moynihan, Robert, Recent Imagining: Interviews with Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartmen, Paul DeMan, J. Hillis Miller (Shoe String Press 1986). ISBN 0208021205.
  • Rorty, Richard, "From Formalism to Poststructuralism", in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol.8, Cambridge University Press, 1995.