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definition : deconstruction

Deconstruction is a critique of the relationship between text and meaning originated by the philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida's approach consisted in conducting readings of texts with an ear to what runs counter to the intended meaning or structural unity of a particular text. The purpose of deconstruction is to expose that the object of language, and that which any text is founded upon, is irreducibly complex, unstable, or impossible. Throughout his readings, Derrida hoped to show deconstruction at work, i.e., the ways that this originary complexity—which by definition cannot ever be completely known—works its structuring and destructuring effects.

Many debates in continental philosophy surrounding ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, hermeneutics, and philosophy of language refer to Derrida's observations. Since the 1980s, these observations inspired a range of theoretical enterprises in the humanities, including the disciplines of law anthropology, historiography, linguistics, sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis, LGBT studies, and the feminist school of thought. Deconstruction also inspired deconstructivism in architecture and remains important within art, music, and literary criticism. While common in continental Europe (and wherever Continental Philosophy is in the mainstream), deconstruction is not adopted or accepted by most philosophy departments in universities where Analytic Philosophy has the upper hand.

==Overview== Jacques Derrida's 1967 book Of Grammatology introduced the majority of ideas influential within deconstruction. Derrida published a number of other works directly relevant to the concept of deconstruction. Books showing deconstruction in action or defining it more completely include Différance, Speech and Phenomena, and Writing and Difference.

According to Derrida and taking inspiration from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, language as a system of signs and words only has meaning because of the contrast between these signs.

Further, Derrida contends that "in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand": signified over signifier; intelligible over sensible; speech over writing; activity over passivity, etc. The first task of deconstruction would be to find and overturn these oppositions inside a text or a corpus of texts; but the final objective of deconstruction is not to surpass all oppositions, because it is assumed they are structurally necessary to produce sense. The oppositions simply cannot be suspended once and for all. The hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself. Deconstruction only points to the necessity of an unending analysis that can make explicit the decisions and arbitrary violence intrinsic to all texts.

Nietzsche's point in Daybreak is that standing at the end of modern history, modern thinkers know too much to be deceived by the illusion of reason any more. Reason, logic, philosophy and science are no longer solely sufficient as the royal roads to truth. And so Nietzsche decides to throw it in our faces, and uncover the truth of Plato, that he—unlike Orpheus—just happened to discover his true love in the light instead of in the dark. This being merely one historical event amongst many, Nietzsche proposes that we revisualize the history of the West as the history of a series of political moves, that is, a manifestation of the will to power, that at bottom have no greater or lesser claim to truth in any noumenal (absolute) sense. By calling our attention to the fact that he has assumed the role of Orpheus, the man underground, in dialectical opposition to Plato, Nietzsche hopes to sensitize us to the political and cultural context, and the political influences that impact authorship. For example, the political influences that led one author to choose philosophy over poetry (or at least portray himself as having made such a choice), and another to make a different choice.

The problem with Nietzsche, as Derrida sees it, is that he did not go far enough. That he missed the fact that this will to power is itself but a manifestation of the operation of writing. And so Derrida wishes to help us step beyond Nietzsche's penultimate revaluation of all western values, to the ultimate, which is the final appreciation of "the role of writing in the production of knowledge".

Saussure is considered one of the fathers of structuralism when he explained that terms get their meaning in reciprocal determination with other terms inside language:

In language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. [...] A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas; but the pairing of a certain number of acoustical signs with as many cuts made from the mass thought engenders a system of values.

===Basic philosophical concerns=== Derrida's concerns flow from a consideration of several issues:

# A desire to contribute to the re-evaluation of all Western values, a re-evaluation built on the 18th-century Kantian critique of reason, and carried forward to the 19th century, in its more radical implications, by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. # An assertion that texts outlive their authors, and become part of a set of cultural habits equal to, if not surpassing, the importance of authorial intent. # A re-valuation of certain classic western dialectics: poetry vs. philosophy, reason vs. revelation, structure vs. creativity, episteme vs. techne, etc.

To this end, Derrida follows a long line of modern philosophers, who look backwards to Plato and his influence on the Western metaphysical tradition. Like Nietzsche, Derrida suspects Plato of dissimulation in the service of a political project, namely the education, through critical reflections, of a class of citizens more strategically positioned to influence the polis. However, like Nietzsche, Derrida is not satisfied merely with such a political interpretation of Plato, because of the particular dilemma modern humans find themselves in. His Platonic reflections are inseparably part of his critique of modernity, hence the attempt to be something beyond the modern, because of this Nietzschian sense that the modern has lost its way and become mired in nihilism.


Différance is the observation that the meanings of words come from their synchrony with other words within the language and their diachrony between contemporary and historical definitions of a word. Understanding language, according to Derrida, requires an understanding of both viewpoints of linguistic analysis. The focus on diachrony has led to accusations against Derrida of engaging in the etymological fallacy.

There is one statement by Derrida—in an essay on Rousseau in Of Grammatology—which has been of great interest to his opponents. According to Derrida, his statement simply refers to the unavoidability of context that is at the heart of différance.

For example, the word "house" derives its meaning more as a function of how it differs from "shed", "mansion", "hotel", "building", etc. (Form of Content, that Louis Hjelmslev distinguished from Form of Expression) than how the word "house" may be tied to a certain image of a traditional house (i.e., the relationship between signified and signifier), with each term being established in reciprocal determination with the other terms than by an ostensive description or definition: when can we talk about a "house" or a "mansion" or a "shed"? The same can be said about verbs, in all the languages in the world: when should we stop saying "walk" and start saying "run"? The same happens, of course, with adjectives: when must we stop saying "yellow" and start saying "orange", or exchange "past" for "present? Not only are the topological differences between the words relevant here, but the differentials between what is signified is also covered by différance.

Thus, complete meaning is always "differential" and postponed in language; there is never a moment when meaning is complete and total. A simple example would consist of looking up a given word in a dictionary, then proceeding to look up the words found in that word's definition, etc., also comparing with older dictionaries. Such a process would never end.

===Metaphysics of presence===

Derrida describes the task of deconstruction as the identification of metaphysics of presence, or logocentrism in western philosophy. Metaphysics of presence is the desire for immediate access to meaning, the privileging of presence over absence. This means that there is an assumed bias in certain binary oppositions where one side is placed in a position over another, such as good over bad, speech over the written word, male over female. Derrida writes, "Without a doubt, Aristotle thinks of time on the basis of ousia as parousia, on the basis of the now, the point, etc. And yet an entire reading could be organized that would repeat in Aristotle's text both this limitation and its opposite".

Derrida states that deconstruction is not an analysis, a critique, or a method

Beardsworth here explains that it would be irresponsible to undertake a deconstruction with a complete set of rules that need only be applied as a method to the object of deconstruction, because this understanding would reduce deconstruction to a thesis of the reader that the text is then made to fit. This would be an irresponsible act of reading, because it becomes a prejudicial procedure that only finds what it sets out to find.

====Not a critique==== Derrida states that deconstruction is not a critique in the Kantian sense.

===Alternative definitions=== The popularity of the term deconstruction, combined with the technical difficulty of Derrida's primary material on deconstruction and his reluctance to elaborate his understanding of the term, has meant that many secondary sources have attempted to give a more straightforward explanation than Derrida himself ever attempted. Secondary definitions are therefore an interpretation of deconstruction by the person offering them rather than a summary of Derrida's actual position.

* Paul de Man was a member of the Yale School and a prominent practitioner of deconstruction as he understood it. His definition of deconstruction is that, "[i]t's possible, within text, to frame a question or 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." * Richard Rorty was a prominent interpreter of Derrida's philosophy. His definition of deconstruction is that, "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." * John D. Caputo attempts to explain deconstruction in a nutshell by stating:

"Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell—a secure axiom or a pithy maxim—the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might even say that cracking nutshells is what deconstruction is. In a nutshell. ...Have we not run up against a paradox and an aporia [something contradictory]...the paralysis and impossibility of an aporia is just what impels deconstruction, what rouses it out of bed in the morning..."
* Niall Lucy points to the impossibility of defining the term at all, stating:
"While in a sense it is impossibly difficult to define, the impossibility has less to do with the adoption of a position or the assertion of a choice on deconstruction's part than with the impossibility of every 'is' as such. Deconstruction begins, as it were, from a refusal of the authority or determining power of every 'is', or simply from a refusal of authority in general. While such refusal may indeed count as a position, it is not the case that deconstruction holds this as a sort of 'preference' ".
* David B. Allison is an early translator of Derrida and states, in the introduction to his translation of Speech and Phenomena:
[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.
* Paul Ricœur defines deconstruction as a way of uncovering the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition. * Richard Ellmann defines 'deconstruction' as the systematic undoing of understanding.

A survey of the secondary literature reveals a wide range of heterogeneous arguments. Particularly problematic are the attempts to give neat introductions to deconstruction by people trained in literary criticism who sometimes have little or no expertise in the relevant areas of philosophy that Derrida is working in. These secondary works (e.g. Deconstruction for Beginners and Deconstructions: A User's Guide) have attempted to explain deconstruction while being academically criticized as too far removed from the original texts and Derrida's actual position. In an effort to clarify the rather muddled reception of the term deconstruction, Derrida specifies what deconstruction is not through a number of negative definitions.

==Application== Derrida's observations have greatly influenced literary criticism and post-structuralism.

===Literary criticism=== Derrida's method consisted of demonstrating all the forms and varieties of the originary complexity of semiotics, and their multiple consequences in many fields. His way of achieving this was by conducting thorough, careful, sensitive, and yet transformational readings of philosophical and literary texts, with an ear to what in those texts runs counter to their apparent systematicity (structural unity) or intended sense (authorial genesis). By demonstrating the aporias and ellipses of thought, Derrida hoped to show the infinitely subtle ways that this originary complexity, which by definition cannot ever be completely known, works its structuring and destructuring effects.

Deconstruction denotes the pursuing of the meaning of a text to the point of exposing the supposed contradictions and internal oppositions upon which it is founded—supposedly showing that those foundations are irreducibly complex, unstable, or impossible. It is an approach that may be deployed in philosophy, in literary analysis, and even in the analysis of scientific writings. Deconstruction generally tries to demonstrate that any text is not a discrete whole but contains several irreconcilable and contradictory meanings; that any text therefore has more than one interpretation; that the text itself links these interpretations inextricably; that the incompatibility of these interpretations is irreducible; and thus that an interpretative reading cannot go beyond a certain point. Derrida refers to this point as an "aporia" in the text; thus, deconstructive reading is termed "aporetic." He insists that meaning is made possible by the relations of a word to other words within the network of structures that language is.

Derrida initially resisted granting to his approach the overarching name "deconstruction", on the grounds that it was a precise technical term that could not be used to characterize his work generally. Nevertheless, he eventually accepted that the term had come into common use to refer to his textual approach, and Derrida himself increasingly began to use the term in this more general way.

===Critique of structuralism=== Derrida's lecture at Johns Hopkins University, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences", often appears in collections as a manifesto against structuralism. Derrida's essay was one of the earliest to propose some theoretical limitations to structuralism, and to attempt to theorize on terms that were clearly no longer structuralist. Structuralism viewed language as a number of signs, composed of a signified (the meaning) and a signifier (the word itself). Derrida proposed that signs always referred to other signs, existing only in relation to each other, and there was therefore no ultimate foundation or centre. This is the basis of différance.

==Development after Derrida==

===The Yale School===

Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, many thinkers were influenced by deconstruction, including Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller. This group came to be known as the Yale school and was especially influential in literary criticism. Derrida and Hillis Miller were subsequently affiliated with the University of California, Irvine.

Miller has described deconstruction this way: "Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock, but thin air."

===Critical legal studies movement===

Arguing that law and politics cannot be separated, the founders of the "Critical Legal Studies Movement" found it necessary to criticize the absence of the recognition of this inseparability at the level of theory. To demonstrate the indeterminacy of legal doctrine, these scholars often adopt a method, such as structuralism in linguistics, or deconstruction in Continental philosophy, to make explicit the deep structure of categories and tensions at work in legal texts and talk. The aim was to deconstruct the tensions and procedures by which they are constructed, expressed, and deployed.

For example, Duncan Kennedy, in explicit reference to semiotics and deconstruction procedures, maintains that various legal doctrines are constructed around the binary pairs of opposed concepts, each of which has a claim upon intuitive and formal forms of reasoning that must be made explicit in their meaning and relative value, and criticized. Self and other, private and public, subjective and objective, freedom and control are examples of such pairs demonstrating the influence of opposing concepts on the development of legal doctrines throughout history. that Derrida's deconstruction is an intrinsically ethical practice. Critchley argues that deconstruction involves an openness to the Other that makes it ethical in the Levinasian understanding of the term.

===Derrida and the Political=== Jacques Derrida has had a great influence on contemporary political theory and political philosophy. Derrida's thinking has inspired Slavoj Zizek, Richard Rorty, Ernesto Laclau, Judith Butler and many more contemporary theorists who have developed a deconstructive approach to politics. Because deconstruction examines the internal logic of any given text or discourse it has helped many authors to analyse the contradictions inherent in all schools of thought; and, as such, it has proved revolutionary in political analysis, particularly ideology critiques.

Richard Beardsworth, developing from Critchley's Ethics of Deconstruction, argues, in his 1996 Derrida and the Political, that deconstruction is an intrinsically political practice. He further argues that the future of deconstruction faces a perhaps undecidable choice between a theological approach and a technological approach, represented first of all by the work of Bernard Stiegler.

==Criticisms== Derrida was involved in a number of high-profile disagreements with prominent philosophers, including Michel Foucault, John Searle, Willard Van Orman Quine, Peter Kreeft, and Jürgen Habermas. Most of the criticism of deconstruction were first articulated by these philosophers and repeated elsewhere.

===John Searle===

In the early 1970s, Searle had a brief exchange with Jacques Derrida regarding speech-act theory. The exchange was characterized by a degree of mutual hostility between the philosophers, each of whom accused the other of having misunderstood his basic points. have considered the exchange to be a series of elaborate misunderstandings rather than a debate, while others have seen either Derrida or Searle gaining the upper hand. The level of hostility can be seen from Searle's statement that "It would be a mistake to regard Derrida's discussion of Austin as a confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions", to which Derrida replied that that sentence was "the only sentence of the 'reply' to which I can subscribe". Commentators have frequently interpreted the exchange as a prominent example of a confrontation between analytical and continental philosophies.

The debate began in 1972, when, in his paper "Signature Event Context", Derrida analyzed J. L. Austin's theory of the illocutionary act. While sympathetic to Austin's departure from a purely denotational account of language to one that includes "force", Derrida was sceptical of the framework of normativity employed by Austin. Derrida argued that Austin had missed the fact that any speech event is framed by a "structure of absence" (the words that are left unsaid due to contextual constraints) and by "iterability" (the constraints on what can be said, imposed by what has been said in the past). Derrida argued that the focus on intentionality in speech-act theory was misguided because intentionality is restricted to that which is already established as a possible intention. He also took issue with the way Austin had excluded the study of fiction, non-serious, or "parasitic" speech, wondering whether this exclusion was because Austin had considered these speech genres as governed by different structures of meaning, or hadn't considered them due to a lack of interest. In his brief reply to Derrida, "Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida", Searle argued that Derrida's critique was unwarranted because it assumed that Austin's theory attempted to give a full account of language and meaning when its aim was much narrower. Searle considered the omission of parasitic discourse forms to be justified by the narrow scope of Austin's inquiry. Searle agreed with Derrida's proposal that intentionality presupposes iterability, but did not apply the same concept of intentionality used by Derrida, being unable or unwilling to engage with the continental conceptual apparatus. Searle also argued that Derrida's disagreement with Austin turned on Derrida's having misunderstood Austin's type–token distinction and having failed to understand Austin's concept of failure in relation to performativity. Some critics

In the debate, Derrida praised Austin's work, but argued that Austin is wrong to banish what Austin calls "infelicities" from the "normal" operation of language. One "infelicity", for instance, occurs when it cannot be known whether a given speech act is "sincere" or "merely citational" (and therefore possibly ironic). Derrida argues that every iteration is necessarily "citational", due to the graphematic nature of speech and writing, and that language could not work at all without the ever-present and ineradicable possibility of such alternate readings. Derrida takes Searle to task for attempting to get around this issue by grounding final authority in the speaker's inaccessible "intention". Derrida argues that intention cannot possibly govern how an iteration signifies, once it becomes hearable or readable. All speech acts borrow from a language whose significance is determined by historical-linguistic context, and by the alternate possibilities that this context makes possible. This significance, Derrida argues, cannot be altered or governed by the whims of intention.

Derrida argued against the constant appeal to "normality" in the analytical tradition of which Austin and Searle were paradigmatic examples. Searle's reference here is not to anything forwarded in the debate, but to a mistranslation of the phrase "il n'y a pas dehors du texte," ("There is no outside-text") which appears in Derrida's Of Grammatology.

Further, in an essay on religion and religious language, Habermas criticized Derrida's insistence on etymology and philology

===In popular media=== Popular criticism of deconstruction intensified following the Sokal affair, which many people took as an indicator of the quality of deconstruction as a whole, despite the absence of Derrida from Sokal's follow-up book Impostures Intellectuelles.

Chip Morningstar holds a view critical of deconstruction, believing it to be epistemologically challenged. He claims the humanities are subject to isolation and genetic drift due to their unaccountability to the world outside academia. During the Second International Conference on Cyberspace (Santa Cruz, California, 1991), he reportedly heckled deconstructionists off the stage. He subsequently presented his views in the article "How to Deconstruct Almost Anything", where he stated, "Contrary to the report given in the 'Hype List' column of issue #1 of Wired ('Po-Mo Gets Tek-No', page 87), we did not shout down the postmodernists. We made fun of them."

==See also== *Hermeneutics *List of deconstructionists *Post-structuralism *Postmodernism *Radical hermeneutics


==Further reading==

*Derrida, Jacques. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. *Derrida [1980], The time of a thesis: punctuations, first published in: *Derrida [1990], Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2, pp. 113–128 *Montefiore, Alan (ed., 1983), Philosophy in France Today Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 34–50 *Breckman, Warren, "Times of Theory: On Writing the History of French Theory," Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 71, no. 3 (July 2010), 339–361 ([ online]). *Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, Cornell University Press, 1982. . *Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction, University of Minnesota Press, 1996. *Ellis, John M.. Against Deconstruction, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989. . *Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. *Reynolds, Simon, Rip It Up and Start Again, New York: Penguin, 2006, pp. 316. . (Source for the information about Green Gartside, Scritti Politti, and deconstructionism.) *Stocker, Barry, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Derrida on Deconstruction, Routledge, 2006. *Wortham, Simon Morgan, The Derrida Dictionary, Continuum, 2010.

==External links==

* * * Video of [ Jacques Derrida attempting to define "Deconstruction"] * [ "Deconstruction" in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] * [ "Deconstruction" in Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts] * [ "Deconstruction" in Encyclopædia Britannica"] * [ "Deconstruction" in "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy"] * [ "German Law Journal special number about Derrida and Deconstruction" ] * [ "Deconstruction: Some Assumptions"] by John Lye * [ A Bibliography of Literary Theory, Criticism, and Philology] by José Ángel García Landa (Deconstruction found under: Authors & Schools - Critics & Schools - Poststructuralism - On Deconstruction) * [ Ten ways of thinking about deconstruction] by Willy Maley * [ Archive of the international conference "Deconstructing Mimesis - Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe"] about the work of Lacoue-Labarthe and his mimetic version of deconstruction, held at the Sorbonne in January 2006 * [ How To Deconstruct Almost Anything - My Postmodern Adventure] by Chip Morningstar; a cynical introduction to 'deconstruction' from the perspective of a software engineer. * [ Jacques Derrida: The Perchance of a Coming of the Otherwoman. The Deconstruction of Phallogocentrism from Duel to Duo] by Carole Dely, English translation by Wilson Baldridge, at Sens Public * [ Ellen Lupton on deconstruction in Graphic Design] * [ Deconstruction of fashion; La moda en la posmodernidad] by Adolfo Vasquez Rocca * [ Derrida: Deconstrucción, différance y diseminación; una historia de parásitos, huellas y espectros ] Academia.Edu

Category:Deconstruction Category:Literary criticism Category:Philosophical movements Category:Philosophy of language Category:Postmodern theory

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