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Deconstruction

These days, we keep our eyes peeled for celebrity feuds and occasional spats between politicians. Did you ever think this would also happen between philosophers and thinkers? Despite the 'highbrow' nature of philosophy, the intellectual community often falls into different blocs on different ideas. Jacques Derrida's (1930–2004) theory of deconstruction was one like that. 

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These days, we keep our eyes peeled for celebrity feuds and occasional spats between politicians. Did you ever think this would also happen between philosophers and thinkers? Despite the 'highbrow' nature of philosophy, the intellectual community often falls into different blocs on different ideas. Jacques Derrida's (1930–2004) theory of deconstruction was one like that.

Highbrow: related to serious and complex ideas and arts considered superior as opposed to popular culture.

The theory of deconstruction has subsequently influenced different branches of humanities and even science and mathematics. Deconstruction theory remains one of the defining ideas of postmodern philosophy. Deconstructionism in literature is now a widely used methodology in literary criticism.

Deconstruction: Theory

Derrida's concept of deconstruction is based on the concept of Zerstörung or destruktion by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). Deconstruction was initially a philosophical proposition but gained a foothold in literary analysis and the interpretation of texts in religion, law, and several other social institutions. Today, the term 'deconstruction' is used in mathematics and even gastronomy.

Origins of deconstruction can be found in Derrida's books Writing and Difference (1967) and Of Grammatology (1967) and the lecture titled 'Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences' which Derrida gave at Johns Hopkins University in a 1966 symposium.

Before we delve into the meaning of deconstruction, here are some key terms that will make understanding deconstruction slightly easier!

Formalism is a critical approach that focuses on the form of a text instead of its content and its relationship to the outside world.

Structuralism was a broader philosophy and critical approach that emerged in the early 20th century. In literary theory, structuralism focused on the structural and linguistic aspects of a text rather than what it represented.

Binary oppositions are two concepts that are set as opposites of each other. For example, light and dark, man and woman, and nature and culture.

Hierarchy is a system in which things or people are organised into different levels based on their status or importance.

Deconstruction relies on concepts of structural linguistics.

Structural linguistics is a branch of linguistics that treats language as a system of interconnected units.

Semiotics is the study of how meaning is generated during the process of communication.

A sign is the basic unit of communication that refers to anything (word, image, or symbol) that carries a meaning. In structural linguistics, the sign is made of a 'signifier' and a 'signified'.

A signifier is a verbal or graphic symbol or code that represents an idea or an object. For example, a word or an image.

Signified is the object or concept the signifier tries to represent.

Derrida identified that Western thinking is premised on or dominated by certain concepts, such as these:

Phonocentrism is the idea that speech or sound is superior to the written word.

Logocentrism (derived from the Greek word 'logos' which means word or reason) refers to the inclination in Western thought to privilege the word over what it stands for.

Phallogocentrism is a new word created by Derrida to describe the tendency to privilege masculinity in the understanding of society and meaning.

Metaphysics is a branch of physics that studies the nature of reality and the relationship between different aspects of life, such as knowledge, perception, identity, existence, and time.

Now that we have the basics down let's delve into the concept of deconstruction.

Deconstruction: Meaning

Derridean deconstruction is sometimes described as bringing a literary approach to philosophy, a way of reading philosophical texts like literature, using methods of literary analysis. Irrespective of how accurate this view of deconstruction is, Derrida is now a prominent figure in literary analysis and criticism itself.

Bear in mind that the idea of deconstruction itself is open to interpretation, and scholars define it in different ways. In many cases, a definition of deconstruction is an approximation owing to the difficulty of comprehension of Derrida's writing.

Deconstruction Meaning StudySmarterFig. 1 The theory of deconstruction opposed the idea of fixed meanings in a text.

The theory of deconstruction is based on Derrida's analysis of Western philosophy which he argued was rooted in phallogocentrism. It emerged primarily as a critique of structuralism, especially the work of Claude Levi Strauss (1908–2009). Derrida challenged the theory of binary opposites by arguing that contrary to neutral, the relationship between the two opposites was hierarchical in which one becomes subordinate to the other.

In popular conception, light and dark are opposites. But when you think about it some more, not only are they opposites, light is favoured over the other as better.

Deconstruction, as the name suggests, seeks to pick these intricate connections and presumptions apart through close analysis. Critics and philosophers like Paul de Man (1919–1983) and Geoffrey Hartman (1929–2016) are other notable deconstructionists.

Characteristics of Deconstruction

Central to the theory of deconstruction is the new concept of différance. As is often the case with Derrida, he coined this term based on the French term différence by misspelling the word.

Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist who introduced the idea that language is a system of signs in which meaning is generated through difference.

Différance

Derrida intended the concept of différance to demonstrate the limits of phonocentrism. Derrida developed Saussure's concept of sign, only to open up new questions about the way meaning is created and the concept of difference itself. The term différance simultaneously refers to the difference and deferral of meaning. In fact, Derrida describes the concept as an infinite series in the chain of signification.

The term différance sounds exactly the same in French as différence. The two terms are indistinct in speech and can only be differentiated in writing. Thus, Derrida's term différance showcases the complexity of the relationship between speech and sound, and the concept of difference Saussurean linguistics is based on.

Deconstruction is regarded as a poststructuralist and postmodernist theory. Derrida did not subscribe to these labels.

Deconstruction: Examples

In every application in arts or culture, deconstruction symbolises the lack of inherent and definite meaning. It is not easy to present examples of deconstruction itself as it can only be presented as an analysis of texts.

Feminism

Feminism adopted deconstruction to dismantle the cultural assumptions surrounding gender. Feminist writers used it to challenge the dominance and presumed superiority of the masculine. The binary opposition 'man/woman' is now commonly referred to as the gender binary and has been challenged by scholars of gender studies. Feminist literary criticism often uses the deconstructionist approach to analyse literary texts.

Deconstructivism

Deconstructivism is a form of contemporary architecture that started gaining popularity in the 1990s. Deconstructivist architecture defies conventional architecture to create buildings that disobey the rules of linearity and symmetry. Similar to Derrida's theory, deconstructivist architecture broke away from structuralism in architecture.

Culinary deconstruction

In gastronomy, chefs nowadays take a creative approach towards food by deconstructing classic dishes. This involves presenting a dish sometimes as an aggregate of its components based on their interpretation of a dish.

The deconstructed apple pie has been making rounds in the culinary world. Would you try it?

Deconstructionism: Literature

The fundamental logic of deconstruction is that no text carries meanings or messages that are beyond interpretation.

Deconstruction is sometimes also referred to as deconstructionism. The term deconstructionism is used in academic circles in a slightly disparaging manner to refer to Derrida's theory.

As we already mentioned, Derridean deconstruction created a fissure within the intellectual community. It was subjected to aggressive and hostile attacks from established academics and philosophers. Derrida was accused of being deliberately complex and perplexing. His theory was even criticised as misguiding young intellectuals and students.

Now let's look at deconstruction in action!

Using deconstruction in literary analysis is complex and simple at the same time. When we read something, a poem, for example, we might sometimes be too quick to look at its form and structure. Does it rhyme? What kind of literary devices are used in the poem? What is the subject matter and theme?

When we do a deconstructionist analysis, we look for ideas and meanings that usually fall through the cracks. You read between the lines, knowing that the boundaries are not rigid and there is no one correct interpretation.

This might be a good exercise to help you understand the concept of deconstruction: re-read a book a while after you first read it. Did you notice anything new or come up with a different interpretation?

Deconstruction - Key takeaways

  • Deconstruction is a critical theory and philosophical approach proposed by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.
  • The key argument in deconstruction is that meaning is unreliable as the language that communicates meaning is itself unreliable.
  • It is impossible to determine fixed, underlying meanings in a text.
  • Therefore, all texts are open to multiple interpretations.
  • Central to the theory of deconstruction is Derrida's idea of différance and his criticism of binary oppositions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Deconstruction

The theory of deconstruction is important because it heavily influenced postmodern philosophy, intellectual thought, and literary criticism. It remains one of the most widely discussed theory in postmodernity.

Deconstruction is a method of literary criticism. Famous literary works are studied using deconstructionism which helps to unearth new meanings from the text. 

Deconstruction seeks to undertake close reading of a text to find meanings in parts of a text that are often overlooked.

Theory of deconstruction emphasises the lack of a definite or fixed meanings of a text.

Deconstruction is a critical approach that rejects the notion of definite and fixed meanings in any work of art. 

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