Deconstruction (Post-structuralism)


Against seeing language as a stable and closed system.


Post-Structuralism (which is often used synonymously with Deconstruction or Postmodernism) is a reaction to structuralism and works against seeing language as a stable, closed system. "It is a shift from seeing the poem or novel as a closed entity, equipped with definite meanings which it is the critic's task to decipher, to seeing literature as irreducibly plural, an endless play of signifiers which can never be finally nailed down to a single center, essence, or meaning" (Eagleton 120 - see reference below under "General References"). Jacques Derrida's (dair-ree-DAH) paper on "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (delivered in 1966) proved particularly influential in the creation of post-structuralism. Derrida argued against, in essence, the notion of a knowable center (the Western ideal of logocentrism), a structure that could organize the differential play of language or thought but somehow remain immune to the same "play" it depicts (Abrams, 258-9). Derrida's critique of structuralism also heralded the advent of deconstruction that--like post-structuralism--critiques the notion of "origin" built into structuralism. In negative terms, deconstruction--particularly as articulated by Derrida--has often come to be interpreted as "anything goes" since nothing has any real meaning or truth. More positively, it may posited that Derrida, like Paul de Man (de-MAHN) and other post-structuralists, really asks for rigor, that is, a type of interpretation that is constantly and ruthlessly self-conscious and on guard. Similarly, Christopher Norris (in "What's Wrong with Postmodernism?") launches a cogent argument against simplistic attacks of Derrida's theories:

On this question [the tendency of critics to read deconstruction "as a species of all-licensing sophistical 'freeplay'"), as on so many others, the issue has been obscured by a failure to grasp Derrida's point when he identifies those problematic factors in language (catachreses, slippages between 'literal' and 'figural' sense, subliminal metaphors mistaken for determinate concepts) whose effect--as in Husserl--is to complicate the passage from what the text manifestly means to say to what it actually says when read with an eye to its latent or covert signifying structures. This 'free-play' has nothing whatsoever to do with that notion of an out-and-out hermeneutic license which would finally come down to a series of slogans like "all reading is misreading," "all interpretation is misinterpretation," etc. If Derrida's texts have been read that way--most often by literary critics in quest of more adventurous hermeneutic models--this is just one sign of the widespread deformation professionelle that has attended the advent of deconstruction as a new arrival on the US academic scene. (151)


In addition to Jacques Derrida, key poststructuralist and deconstructive figures include Michel Foucault (fou-KOH), Roland Barthes (bart), Jean Baudrillard (zhon boh-dree-YAHR), Helene Cixous (seek-sou), Paul de Man (de-MAHN), J. Hillis Miller, Jacques Lacan (lawk-KAWN), and Barbara Johnson.



Ferdinand de Saussure:

Linguistic sign = signifier (word) + signified (concept)

Relation between signifier & signified is arbitrary and linear (relational, conventional, based on its relation or difference from other words not on any innate quality it has)



Derrida's addition to Saussure:

Like signifier, signified is also arbitrary and relational. The two elements are interchangeable.

I filled the glass with milk (glass is signifier for container which is the signified)

I filled the container with glass (container becomes a signifier)


Key Terms:

- Aporia (ah-por-EE-ah)- a moment of undecidability; the inherent contradictions found in any text. Derrida, for example, cites the inherent contradictions at work in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's use of the words culture and nature by demonstrating that Rousseau's sense of the self's innocence (in nature) is already corrupted by the concept of culture (and existence) and vice-versa.

- Erasure (sous rature) - to highlight suspect ideologies, notions linked to the metaphysics of presence, Derrida put them under "erasure," metaphorically pointing out the absence of any definitive meaning. By using erasure, however, Derrida realized that a "trace" will always remain but that these traces do not indicate the marks themselves but rather the absence of the marks (which emphasize the absence of "univocal meaning, truth, or origin"). In contrast, when Heidegger similarly "crossed out" words, he assumed that meaning would be (eventually) recoverable.

- Metaphysics of Presence - "beliefs including binary oppositions, logocentrism, and phonocentrism that have been the basis of Western philosophy since Plato".

- Supplement - "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"

- Trace - from Lois Tyson: "Meaning seems to reside in words (or in things) only when we distinguish their difference from other words (or things). For example, if we believed that all objects were the same color, we wouldn't need the word red (or blue or green) at all. Red is red only because we believe it to be different from blue and green (and because we believe color to be different from shape). So the word red carries with it the trace of all the signifiers it is not (for it is in contrast to other signifiers that we define it)" (245). Tyson's explanation helps explain what Derrida means when he states "the trace itself does not exist."


Binary Opposition:

In binary opposition there are two opposing concepts, according to Western philosophy one concept is superior and other is inferior e.g: good/bad, man/woman, and humans/animals.


Transcendental Signified: from Charles Bressler: a term introduced by Derrida who "asserts that from the time of Plato to the present, Western culture has been founded on a classic, fundamental error: the searching for a transcendental signified, an external point of reference on which one may build a concept or philosophy. Once found, this transcendental signified would provide ultimate meaning. It would guarantee a 'center' of meaning...." (287).

A signified that is understood without being compared or related to other signifieds or signifiers. These self-defined terms (God, reason, origin, being, essence, truth, humanity, beginning, end, and self) are invented by Western Metaphysics and function as centers.

This promotes the belief that individuals exist as stable entities separate from the world. Derrida insists that the human subject is created in language, not existing before it.


Logocentrism: term associated with Derrida that "refers to the nature of western thought, language and culture since Plato's era. The Greek signifier for "word," "speech," and "reason," logos possesses connotations in western culture for law and truth. Hence, logocentrism refers to a culture that revolves around a central set of supposedly universal principles or beliefs".

The belief that there is an ultimate reality on which we can base our thoughts and actions. We can't escape Logocentrism as even if we question this central or transcendental signifier, we do this by opposing it to another signifier. (We decenter signifier by centering its opposite)



In the speech/writing binary, speech is privileged because people express directly the ideas that come into their minds while in writing people capture an idea that already was spoken. Speech also signifies the speaker's presence, while writing signifies the author's presence. Thus the hierarchy of presence/absence comes with the hierarchy of speech/writing.


Différance: a combination of the meanings in the word différance. The concept means 1) différer or to differ, 2) différance which means to delay or postpone (defer), and 3) the idea of difference itself. To oversimplify, words are always at a distance from what they signify and, to make matters worse, must be described by using other words.

Coined by Derrida (from differ and defer)

Differ: a word is known not through what it is but through its difference to other words

Defer: meaning is always deferred or postponed (as to define a word we relate it to another)


Steps to a deconstructive reading:

- find the binary operations in a text

- comment on the values beyond these operations

- reverse their binary operations

- dismantle previously held beliefs and worldviews

- accept the possibility of multiple meanings

- allow meaning of text to be undecidable