4. Deconstruction: Analysed


Deconstruction is one of the several doctrines in contemporary philosophy often loosely held under the umbrella terms post-structuralism and postmodernism. Jacques Derrida coined the term in the 1960s, and proved more forthcoming with negative, rather than a pined-for positive, analyses of the school. Derrida says, deconstruction is a word whose fortunes have disagreeably surprised me. I little thought it would be credited with such a central role—it has been of service in a certain situation, but it’s never appeared satisfactory to me. It is not a good word, and not elegant.[1] According to Derrida, “There is not – one deconstruction, and deconstruction is not a single theory or a single method.” Because it is used variously to refer to a philosophical position, a theory of reading, and a political strategy, what it “is” has never been “clear.” Attempts to define deconstruction inevitably presuppose the very notions that the project of deconstruction has attempted to “problematize,” or throw into question- certain, referential meaning and the disinterested, “objective” search for knowledge.[2]


Defining deconstruction is an activity that goes against the whole thrust of Derrida’s thought. Derrida has said that any statement such as “deconstruction is X” or “deconstruction is not-X” automatically misses the point, which is to say that they are at least false[3]. Once when he was asked, what is Deconstruction, he himself was loath to define Deconstruction. “What deconstruction is not? Everything, of course. What is deconstruction? Nothing, of course,” this was his sardonic reply.[4] Not only is the definition and meaning of deconstruction in dispute between advocates and critics, but also among proponents. Derrida’s disclaimers present a major obstacle to any attempt, to encapsulate his thoughts. He tells that deconstruction is neither an analytical nor a critical tool, neither a method, nor an operation, nor an act performed on text by a subject; that is, rather a term that resists both definition and translation. To make matters worse, he adds that ‘all sentence of the type “deconstruction is X” or “deconstruction is not X” miss the point. Which is to say that they are at least false.[5]


Oxford English dictionary defines deconstruction as:

  1. The action of undoing the construction of a thing.
  2. A strategy of critical analysis, directed towards exposing unquestionable metaphysical assumptions and internal contradictions in philosophical and literary language.[6]


Although the term is often used interchangeably (and loosely) alongside others like ‘post-structuralism’ and ‘postmodernism’, deconstruction differs from these other movements. Unlike post-structuralism, its sources lie squarely within the tradition of Western philosophical debate about truth, knowledge, logic, language and representation. Where as post-structuralism follows the linguist Saussure – or its own version of Saussure – in espousing a radically conventionalist (hence sceptical and relativist) approach to these issues, deconstruction pursues a more complex and critical path, examining the texts of philosophy with an eye to their various blindspots and contradictions. Where as postmodernism blithely declares an end to the typecast ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘modernist’ project of truth-seeking rational enquiry, deconstruction preserves the critical spirit of Enlightenment thought while questioning its more dogmatic or complacent habits of belief. It does so primarily through the close reading of philosophical and other texts and by drawing attention to the moments of ‘aporia’ (unresolved tension or conflict) that tend to be ignored by mainstream exegetes. Yet this is not to say (as its detractors often do) that deconstruction is a kind of all-licensing textualist ‘freeplay’ which abandons every last standard of interpretive fidelity, rigour or truth. At any rate it is a charge that finds no warrant in the writings of those – Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man chief among them – whose work is discussed below.[7]


Derrida takes the word deconstruction (Originally German word, Destruktion) from the work of Martin Heidegger. In the summer of 1927, Martin Heidegger delivered a lecture course now published under the title, Basic Problems of Phenomenology.[8] Given the topic of his lectures, Heidegger appropriately begins them with a discussion of the nature of philosophy and, particularly of the philosophical movement called phenomenology. Borrowing creatively from his teacher, Edmund Husserl, Heidegger says that phenomenology is the name for a method of doing philosophy; he says that the method includes three steps—reduction, construction, and destruction—and he explains that these three are mutually pertinent to one another. Construction necessarily involves destruction, he says, and then he identifies destruction with deconstruction For Derrida, Deconstruction is a strategy of critical questioning of any and all kinds of religious or political discourses that make dogmatic assumptions.[9]


To name deconstruction as ‘–ism’ is to call it to order, to harness it to familiar, stable, logocentric notions of what thinking should be. If it is Deconstructionism, then it must be a mode of analysis or critique; or a method or a project. Derrida has resisted this. Analysis seeks to distinguish simple undivided elements which can then be treated as originary and explanatory. In its operations on western Metaphysics, deconstruction resists the move towards simple elements or origins. Critique in the usual sense implies a stance outside its object. Deconstruction insists on movements across and between the metaphysical opposites, inside/outside. Method, in Derrida’s view, operates by selecting out certain terms of a discourse and using them to name something technical or procedural. He identified this specially in deconstruction in the United states, for example, in aspects of the literary criticism known as Yale deconstruction. Now as a last resort, can deconstruction be described as a project..? But as a project, Deconstruction might clear pathways for its movement, but not knowing entirely where they lead.[10]


Deconstruction often involves a way of reading that concerns itself with decentering—with unmasking the problematic nature of all centers. According to Derrida, all western thought is based on the idea of center—an origin, a truth, an ideal Form, a Fixed Point, an Immovable Mover, an essence, a God, a Presence—which is usually capitalized, and guarantees all meaning. Derrida has taken the deconstruction of metaphysics, particularly logocentric metaphysics, as his critical target. His early training in phenomenology led to a wariness of, and a tempered respect for, the desire for presence all pervasive in Western philosophy: a presence of meaning, being, and knowledge.[11]


According to Derrida, the primary goal of Western philosophy as a discipline, the naming of Truth, depends on the assumption that words are capable of referring accurately to a transcendent reality existing outside of language.[12] For instance, for 2000 years much of western culture has been centered on the idea of Christianity and Christ. And it is the same in other cultures as well. They all have their own central symbols. The problem with centers for Derrida is that they attempt to exclude. In doing so they ignore, repress or marginalize others (which becomes the other). In male-dominated societies, man is central (and the woman is marginalized Other, repressed, ignored, pushed to the margins).


If there is a culture which has Christ in the center of its icons, then Christians will be central to that culture, and Buddhist, Muslims, Jews—anybody different—will be in the margins—marginalised—pushed to the outside. So the longing for a center spawns binary opposites, with one term of the opposition central and the other marginal. Furthermore, centers want to fix, or freeze the play of binary opposites.


Thus, the opposition Man/Woman is just one binary opposite. Others are Spirit/Matter; Nature/Culture; Caucasian/Black; Christian/Pagan. According to Derrida we have no access to reality except through concepts, codes and categories, and the human mind functions by forming conceptual pairs such as these. Here one member of the pair (here left), is privileged. The right hand term then becomes marginalized. Icons with Christ or Buddha or whatever in the center try to tell us that what s in the center is the only reality. All other views are repressed. Drawing such an icon is an attempt to freeze the play of opposites between, for example, Christianity/Jews or Christianity/pagan. The Jew and the Pagan are not even represented in such art. But icons are just one of the social practices that try to freeze the play of opposites—there are many more—such as advertising, social codes, taboos, conventions, categories, rituals, etc. But reality and Language are not as simple and singular as icons with a central as icons with a central, exclusive image in thee middle—they are more like ambiguous figures.


The interesting thing about such figures is that at first we see only one possibility. One possibility is “central” for a moment. For a moment the figure signifies two faces, but then, because the play of the system is not arrested, the other view dawns, and the same figure signifies a candle.


But suppose a group seizes power, a group called the Face-ists. (Here, Derrida has deliberately made this sound like “fascists”). They might draw eyes on the faces. This would be an attempt to freeze or arrest the free play of differences. But—the figure, in reality, signifies both faces and a candle. In such a situation, Candle-ist would be marginalized, repressed or even oppressed or persecuted. The image of the faces becomes privileged member of the other pair, the face, becomes instituted as the Real and the Good. Derrida says that all Western thought behaves in the same way, forming pairs of binary opposites in which one member of the pair is privileged, freezing the play of the system, and marginalizing the other member of the pair.


Thus, Deconstruction is a tactic of decentering, a way of reading, which first makes us aware of the centrality of the Central term. Then it attempts to subvert the central term so that the marginalized term can become central. The marginalized term is temporarily overthrows the hierarchy. Suppose you have a poem such has the following of Haiku:

How mournfully the wind of

Autumn pines

Upon the mountainside as day



And suppose that for thousands of years the only correct way of reading the poem is to read “pines” as a verb—like pining for one’s lost love. But what about the other meaning. “Pines”, in the context of the sound line, can switch over and becomes a noun: “Pines upon the mountain side.”


Thus, this will be the second move in deconstructing a piece of literature—to subvert the privileged term by revealing how the repressed, marginalized meaning can as well be central. In this way Derrida claims that Deconstruction is a political practice, and that one must not passover and neutralize this phase of subversion too quickly. For this phase of reversal is needed in order to subvert the original hierarchy of the first term over the second. But eventually, one must realize that this hierarchy is equally unstable, and surrender to the complete free play of the binary opposites in a non-hierarchical way.


This will be just like a system of triangles in which there is a series of configurations of triangles one after the other. But each so called present configuration, each group of triangles which seem to be momentarily present, has emerged out of a prior configuration, and is already dissolving into a future configuration. And this play goes on endlessly. There is no central configuration that attempts to freeze the play of the system, no marginal one, no privileged one, no repressed one. According to Derrida all languages and all the texts are, when deconstructed, like this, and so in human thought, which is always made up of language. He says we should continuously attempt to see this free play in all our language and texts—which otherwise will tend towards fixity, institutionalization, centralization and totalitarianism. For out of anxiety we always feel a need to construct new centers, to associate ourselves with them, and marginalize those who are different from there central values.


Thus, Derrida first focuses on the binary oppositions within a text—like man/woman. Next it shows how these opposites are related, how one is central, natural and privileged, the other ignored, repressed and marginalized. Next it temporarily undoes or subverts the hierarchy to make the text mean the opposite of what it originally appeared to mean. Then in the last step both terms of the opposition are seen dancing in the free play of nonhierarchical, non-stable meanings.


Derrida maintains that through three millennia of western Philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle to Rousseau, Hegel, Husserl and others, philosophers have indeed privileged speech. They claim that voice is the privileged medium of meaning, This is phonocentricism: the voice is the centre. And Writing is derivative. If the voice is king, writing is its enemy. Writing is a pernicious threat to the true carrier of meaning. If writing represents speech, speech is the representative of thought, of sovereign idea, of ideation, of consciousness itself.


In the chain



Speech lies closest to thought. Spoken words are the symbol of mental experience, and written words are the symbols of spoken words. Languages are made to be spoken. Writing serves only as a supplement to speech. The spoken word alone is the object of linguistic study. Writing is a trap. Its actions are vicious and tyrannical. All its cases are monstrous. Linguistics should put them under observation in special compartments.


Now question arises, is writing Both Useless and dangerous…? This does not square easily with the social history of the rise of writing in the west. Sometimes, speech is offered a curious privilege, for example, law courts rely on writing, but they privilege vocal testimony, when the person is asked to say “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” An academic thesis forbidden to cite oral statements as evidence is brought to its final court, the viva voce the court of the living voice, as “the argument of my theses is…….” Also the minutes of the committee meeting are written, but are ratified at the next meeting in speech; the Boss says “I call the secretary to read the minutest of the last meeting.”


But that is not quiet Derrida’s argument. First, paradoxically, phonocentricism is ‘a history of silence’, a repression of writing which can scarcely be acknowledged. Secondly, the suppression of writing is necessary to western philosophy, and all thinking influenced by it. It is crucial to philosophy’s metaphysical presuppositions.


Metaphysics inquires into aspects of reality which seem to lie beyond the empirically knowable world, out of reach of scientific methods. Its questions look like the philosophical questions: essential truth, being and knowing, mind, presence, time and space, causation, free will, belief in god, human immortality, etc. Are these questions? Empiricists like David Hume, and many positivists, scientific naturalists, skeptics and others have said NO. But the question persists. To set them up and answer them, Western metaphysics has looked for foundations:- fundamentals, principles, or a notion of the centre. These are the groundings for all of its inquiries and statements. This is the drive to ground truth in a single ultimate point—an ultimate point. Derrida calls this impulse logocentricism. The logos is taken as the undivided point, the origin. Metaphysics ascribes truth to the logos, along with the origin of truth in general. Metaphysics in its search for foundations is logocentric.[14]


How are the Foundations laid:


  1. Use Binary oppositions: cast the key terms against their opposites. If the question is being, established “being” against “non-being”. And so on……presence/absence, mind/body, cause/effect, god/man, etc.
  2. Privilege the first term: it’s is the “groundly” term, the positive term, give it priority. It is the term which articulates the fundamentals, principles or the center. It’s on the side of logos.
  3. Subordinate the second term: It has to be negative, or the first term can’t be positive. It has to be deficient, lacking, corrupt, or just derivative. It opposes the logos, it is its enemy; or it dilutes that truth of truth, attenutates it, bleaches it out.
  4. Set up a procedure: Always move from the first term towards the second.[15]


All metaphysicians proceed from an origin, seen as simple, intact, normal, pure, standard, self-identical—to treat then of accidents, derivations, complication, deterioration. Hence God before evil, positive before negative, pure before complex, etc. This is not just one metaphysical gesture among others; it is the metaphysical exigency, the most constant, profound and potent procedure.[16]


Derrida’s task is to undermine metaphysical thinking—to disrupt its foundations, dislodged its certitudes, turn aside its quests for an undivided point of origin, the logos. Its major task, Derrida argues that metaphysics pervades Western thought. Now, if Metaphysics is so pervasive, isn’t Derrida’s own thinking going to be inhabited by it? Yes – inescapably. So the task is impossible..? Derrida has never claimed that what he does is possible. He knows that no critique can ever totally escape from what it is criticizing. Meanwhile, movements can be made…. It is possible to overturn a metaphysical binaries, to reverse its hierarchy by privileging its second term—for instance, to privilege body not mind, Man not God, the complex before the simple, absence rather than presence. Derrida does this.[17]


But undecidability disrupts the binary structures of metaphysical thinking. It displaces the “either/or” structure of oppositions. The undecidable plays all ways, takes no sides. It won’t be fixed down. It leaves no certainty of privileged foundational term against subordinated second term. The unfixing of this certainty is the unfixing of Metaphysics. Derrida’s Philosophy has been called anti-foudationalism. That’s partly useful. But Derrida is not simply “against” foundations, he knows they are inescapable. However, metaphysical foundations can still be shaken. That’s what he does. He makes a movement of solicitation (French word, from old Latin solliciatare, to shake as a whole), a shaking at the core, a tremor through the entire structure.


Metaphysical oppositions rely on assumptions of presence. The first or privileged binary term “full” presence. Its subordinate is the term of absence, or of mediated, attenuated presence. This concept Derrida takes from Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), the German Phenomenologist. Adopting Heidegger’s formulation, Derrida argues that in western thinking the meaning of being in general has been determind by presence, in all the senses of this word. Presence can be spatial: for example, proximity, nearness or adjacency, and also immediacy, having actual or direct contact, lacking mediation, having no intervening material, object or agency. And it can be temporal, it evokes the present as the single present moment, the now; and occurrence without delay, lapse or deferral. Presence organizes metaphysical concepts of being. And all the “groundly” terms of metaphysics designate a presence. Derrida gives these examples: [18]

  • Presence of the object to sight
  • Presence as substance essence or existence
  • Temporal presence as the point of the ‘now’, or of the instant
  • Self presence of thought or consciousness
  • Present being of the subject
  • Co-presence of the self and the other


Presence is the foundation for many claims, philosophical or not:-

  • That a truth can lie behind (therefore in proximity to) an appearance
  • That there is an immediate bond between the “the word of God” and truth
  • That a “spirit of the age” can inform an historical era, and therefore be present within it.
  • That a photograph can capture the “significant moment”, the now
  • That an artist’s expressed emotion can be present in their work


Why, then, is the speech/writing opposition so important….? Why is the privileging of speech a gesture which inaugurates Western philosophy? And if Philosophy as we know it is writing, why treat writing as a corruption, an obstacle or an irrelevance? To all this question Derrida give one single answer to all these questions “because it is a necessity of the metaphysics of presence.”[19] From that perspective speech seems to carry full presence. Metaphysical concepts of being, in time and space, demand presence. Writing depends on absence. Its characteristics oppose presence, metaphysical thinking has to eject it or subordinate it. In Speech, the speaker and the listner have to be present in at least two senses:

    1. Present to the word in a spatial sense
    2. Present at a particular moment in time in which the words are uttered.


Therefore, it seems that the speakers’ thoughts are as close as possible to their words. The thoughts are present to the words. So speech offers the most direct access to consciousness. The voice can seem to be consciousness itself. Derrida says “When I speak, I am conscious of being present for what I think, but also of keeping as close as possible to my thought a signifying substance, a soud carried by my breath. I hear this as soon as I emit it. It seems to depend only on my pure and free spontaneity, requiring the use of no instrument, no accessory, no force taken from the world. Tis signifying substance, this sound, seems to unite with my thought…..so that the sound seems to erase itself, become transparent…..allowing the concept to present itself as what it is, referring to nothing other than its present.”[20]


Speech is transparent, a diaphanous veil through which we view consciousness. Speech and thought, nothing comes between them. No lapse of time, no surface, no gap. So presence beguilingly seems to attend spoken words…..but not writing. Writing operates on absences; it does not need the presence of writer, or of the writer’s consciousness. The written marks are abandoned, cut off from the write, yet they continue to produce effects beyond his presence and beyond the present actuality of his meaning, that is, beyond his life itself.” [21]


And the same for the reader, all writing, in order to be what it is , must be able to function in the radical absence of every empirically determined addressee in general. This is not a modification of presence, but a break in it, a ‘death’ or the possibility of a ‘death’ of the addressee.” Writing cannot be writing unless it can function in these two absences. Presence is unsustainable.


[1] Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida,, p. 91

[2] Peter Vandenberg, Coming to Terms: Deconstruction, The English Journal, Vol. 84, No. 2. (Feb., 1995), pp. 122-123.

[3] Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida,, p. 93

[4] David Wood and Robert Bernasconi ,Derrida and difference (Essay: A letter to a Japanese friend), Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1988, p. 1-6

[5] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 193

[6] Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 ed., As quoted in, Nicholas Royle, Jacques Derrida, p.24

[7] Rutledge Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[8] Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Albert Hofstadter (tr.), Indiana University Press, 1988

[9] Nicholas Royle, Jacques Derrida, London, Rutledge, 2004, p. 35

[10] Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida, p. 95

[11] Elizabeth Gross, Derrida and the Limits of philosophy, Sage Publications, Thesis Eleven, 1986; 14; 26

[12] Peter Vandenberg, “Coming to Terms: Deconstruction”, The English Journal, Vol. 84, No. 2. (Feb., 1995), pp. 122-123.

[13] Jim Powell, Derrida for Beginners, p. 26

[14] Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida, p. 45

[15] Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida, p. 46

[16] Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida, p. 46

[17] Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida, p. 46

[18] Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida, p. 50

[19] Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida,, p. 46

[20] As quoted in Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida, p. 52

[21] Jim Powell, Introducing Derrida,, p. 52


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