Deconstruction

In Continental philosophy and literary criticism, deconstruction is a post-structuralist philosophical and literary method (or, some would say, event) first characterized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. More broadly, it is the critical reading of texts in a manner similar to Derrida's. Many whose writings may be considered deconstructive resist the use of the word deconstructionism, along with related "-ist" and "-istic" forms, because they do not consider deconstruction properly to be a movement or constituency, but rather a textual occurrence. (A few have advocated the word deconstructor.) Popularly, however, deconstruction is widely considered to be a liberal Western academic movement, and the main philosophical pillar of postmodernism.

Table of contents
1 The meaning of "deconstruction"
2 Criticisms of deconstruction
3 History of deconstruction
4 References
5 External links
6 Books and articles

The meaning of "deconstruction"

The word deconstruction has been used by Jacques Derrida and others, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Paul de Man, Jonathan Culler, Barbara Johnson, and J. Hillis Miller, to describe an event in which they participated. However, these writers have actively resisted a precise and succinct definition of the word. While Derrida was the first to use the word in this philosophical and linguistic sense, he states, "I little thought it would be credited with such a central role in the discourse that interested me at the time." See Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Differance, ed. David Wood & Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia Press 1985, p. 1. According to Derrida, deconstruction is neither an analysis, a critique, a method, an act, or an operation. See id. , p. 3. As to the question of what deconstruction is, Derrida stated, "I have no simple and formalizable response to this question. All my essays are attempts to have it out with this formidable question. See id. , p. 4.

Similarly, there are hundreds of pages devoted to the issue of what deconstruction is, and thousands of pages in which deconstruction occurs. Most of these texts are difficult reading, and resistant to summary. The writing's difficulty and idiosyncratic style is claimed by sympathetic readers to be essential to a proper treatment of its subject (but many unsympathetic readers have called it everything from obscurantism to outright nonsense).

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." See Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference (1981).

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.

An early translator of Derrida (the philosopher David B. Allison) explained the term "deconstruction" as follows:

It 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 to Speech and Phenomena, p. xxxii, n. 1)

Another 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." See de Man's reply to a request for a definition of "deconstruction" in Robert Moynihan, A Recent Imagining, p. 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." See Richard Rorty, "From Formalism to Poststructuralism", in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol.8, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Différance

Against the metaphysics of presence, deconstruction brings an idea 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.

Binary oppositions

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 over the other. 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.

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 incorrect. There is abundant historical evidence that both 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

As a rule, deconstructive writing tends to be rather inaccessible and eccentric, containing word-play, playful interpretations of texts, and other features that invite criticism. Judged on the basis of more orthodox Western thought, these writings may appear irrelevant and incoherent. For example, Derrida used punning on the name of a poet as a way to explore the meaning of a poem.

The practices of deconstructive writers have been disputed and criticized by many historians, linguists, and literary scholars. For example:

A common rebuttal to all deconstructionist dogma is that deconstructionists effectively claim a privileged position for their own writings. They write letters and books which expect that readers understand their own intent, yet deny that this is possible for anyone else. MIT Linguist Noam Chomsky has written a strong refutation of deconstructionism and related philosophies.

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

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.)

Precursors

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:

References

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

Books and articles




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