Deconstruction Theory | Jacques Derrida | English Literature

Initiated by Jacques Derrida in the late 1960s, the idea of deconstruction had a significant impact on literary studies by the 1970s and 1980s. Phrases like “the transcendental signified,” and “random play of signifiers” are connected to deconstructive critique. The most well-known figures in this field are Geoffrey Hartman, Jacques Derrida, and Luce Irigaray.

Deconstructing Language

Deconstruction’s concept of language is grounded on the notion that language is far more ambiguous and complex than we think. Imagine someone pointing at the only tree visible in a wide field and making a statement “This tree is huge”. In this context it seems to indicate a single, distinct signified: there is only one tree in question, and we are aware that a claim is being made regarding its size. Even when a statement appears to be as clear and precise as this one is at first look, deconstruction forces us to examine its ambiguities. Is the speaker equating herself to the tree when she states, “This tree is big”? Or, a different tree? Is the size of the tree a surprise to her? Or is she just telling us that the tree is large? This series of inquiries shows that human speech rarely—if ever—is as straightforward and uncomplicated as the structuralist formula signifier + signified would appear to indicate. As we’ve seen, every one signifier can, at any given time, refer to any number of signifieds. Furthermore, whereas context frequently assists us in reducing the range of potential signifieds for certain signifiers, it concurrently expands the range of potential signifieds for other signifiers.

If we stopped here, the structuralist formula might be rewritten as Sign = signifier + signified… + signified. What does the word signified imply, though? If “tree” serves as the signifier, then the signified should be the tree we can visualize in our minds. But what exactly do we mean by this imaginary tree? What components make up our concept? Our understanding of trees is made up of all the associations we have made with them throughout our lives, including “shade,” “climbing,” “leaf,” “planting,” and more. In reality, what structuralism refers to as the signified is always a series of signifiers.

Therefore, according to Deconstruction, language basically consists of signifiers rather than the combination of signifiers and signifieds. As we have seen, structuralism claims that language is non referential because it doesn’t refer to real objects in the world rather the concept of object in the world. Deconstruction takes this argument a step further by asserting that language is non referential since it only refers to the play of signifiers that constitutes language itself and neither to objects in the world nor to our perceptions of them. 

In conclusion, Derrida contends that language has two crucial qualities: (1) its play of signifiers continuously delays, or postpones, meaning; and (2) the apparent meaning it possesses is the product of the distinctions we make between different signifiers. He creates the term “differance”—the only “meaning” a language may have—by combining the French phrases for “to defer” and “to differ.”

To study the precise ways in which language impacts our experience, Derrida adopted and changed structuralism’s notion that humans frequently perceive our experience in terms of polar opposites, known as binary oppositions. According to structuralism, for instance, we understand the idea of good by comparing it with the concept of evil. Similar to this, we consider reason to be the opposite of emotion, masculine to be the antithesis of feminine, civilization to be the antithesis of primitive, and so on.

Derrida pointed out that these distinctions are also little hierarchies. This means that one phrase in the pair is always given preference over the other. Hence, by recognizing the binary oppositions at play and determining which member of the opposition is preferred, one may learn something about the ideology supported by that group. For instance, Take the American culture’s binary opposition between the terms “objective” and “subjective,”. When seen from a different angle, isn’t the preference for the objective over the subjective a byproduct of the preference for logic over feeling? Ultimately, we assume that emotion “contaminates” subjectivity because it impairs our capacity for objectivity, or more specifically, for logical thought. But is it actually reasonable to classify all emotions as irrational? Aren’t some emotions occasionally the most “logical” reaction one can have to a specific circumstance, that is, the one that generates the most precise, valuable, and trustworthy insights? And isn’t the emphasis on reason occasionally an emotional reaction brought on by a fear of one’s own emotions?

Deconstruction provides us with a radical understanding of the process of thinking. As we previously saw, every signifier is made up of signifiers, resulting in a never-ending deferral, or postponement, of meaning. We look for meaning that is firm and reliable, but we never really find it because we are unable to move past the play of signifiers that is language. What we interpret as meaning, according to Derrida, is only the mental trace created by the play of signifiers.

The key takeaway is that language, – including word meanings and the linguistic categories by which we categorize our experiences, – doesn’t work the way we’d like to think it does. The interpretations, associations, and ambiguities that permeate language on a daily basis mirror the implications, associations, and ambiguities of the ideologies from which it is derived.

Deconstructing our world:

It is reasonable to assert that language shapes how we think about and experience the world and ourselves since language is the means through which a culture transmits its ideology. Philosophically speaking, for deconstruction, language serves as our “base of being”. Some philosophers believe that the foundation of existence is some cosmic principle of harmony or order, as demonstrated, for instance, by Plato’s concept of perfect Forms existing in an abstract, eternal realm of thinking. Others view self-reflection as the underlying premise of logical thought, as demonstrated by Descartes’ well-known axiom “I think, therefore I am.” Although we are able to grasp the dynamic, changing environment around us as well as our own dynamic, changing selves thanks to these grounding conceptions, the concepts themselves are constant. They are neither dynamic or developing, contrary to everything they teach. They are, in Derrida’s words, “out of play.” Derrida refers to this style of philosophy—basically, all Western philosophy—as logocentric because it sets a notion (logos) that organizes and explains the world for us while staying outside of the world. But according to Derrida, this is the biggest fallacy of Western philosophy. How can a grounding notion—such as Plato’s Forms or Descartes’ cogito—be exempt from linguistic ambiguity given that each is a human idea and hence a byproduct of human language? In other words, how can any notion exist outside of the dynamic, constantly changing, and ideologically infused processes of the language that created it? Derrida believes that the explanation is that no notion is outside the dynamic instability of language, which disseminates an unlimited number of potential interpretations with each written or spoken utterance (much like a flower scatters its seeds on the air). Language is the foundation of existence, for deconstruction, but that foundation is not neutral since it is just as dynamic, changing, complex, and ideologically imbued as the theologies it produces. This is why our understanding of being has no center point. Instead, there are an endless number of perspectives from which to examine it, and each of these perspectives has a unique language, which deconstruction refers to as its discourse. The discourse of contemporary physics, the discourse of American medicine in the 19th century, and so forth are a few examples. To put it another way, Derrida decentered Western philosophy in the same way that Copernicus decentered the earth by claiming that the world did not revolve around it in the 1600s.

Deconstructing human identity:

As we’ve seen, deconstruction maintains that the language we use shapes how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Since every language is an unstable, ambiguous force-field of conflicting ideologies, we are also unstable, ambiguous force-fields of conflicting ideologies. We don’t truly have an identity since the word ‘identity’ suggests that we are made up of a single, cohesive person, but in reality, we are complex and fragmented, made up of a wide range of opposing ideas, desires, fears, worries, and intents at any given time. At work, at the store, on a date, or alone in front of the TV, aren’t most of us really different people? Even if we restrict our assessment to how we perceive ourselves while on job, for instance, wouldn’t our perception vary from day to day, perhaps from hour to hour or minute to minute, as we interact with various people or as different ideas, memories, and emotions pop into our heads?

Deconstructing literature:

According to deconstruction, (i) Language is dynamic, unclear, and unstable, constantly disseminating possible meanings. (ii) Existence also has no center point, no reliable purpose, and no fixed ground. Unstable is the crucial term here, as you may have observed. Therefore for deconstruction, literature is just as impermanent, unclear, and unstable as the language it is written in. 

Meaning is not a constant component of the text that we may actively discover. In the process of reading, the reader creates meaning. The meaning that is produced lacks a reliable aspect that can bring about conclusion; no interpretation is the last word. Like all text, literature is made up of many overlapping, contradictory meanings that are in constant motion, relative to one another and to us. Similar to how writers cannot help but include their cultural assumptions into their writing, readers too cannot help but incorporate their own preconceptions into their readings. Thus, it is possible to deconstruct both literary and critical texts. 

Deconstruction of a literary work often serves two major purposes:

  1. To demonstrate the text’s instability.
  2. To show intricate functioning of the ideologies, and beliefs of which the text is produced.

The steps below can be used to quickly achieve this goal:

  1. Record all the different perspectives, and viewpoints – of characters, incidents, images and so on – the text seems to provide. 
  2. Show how these interpretations conflict with one another.
  3. Show how these conflicts lead to new interpretations and new conflicts. 
  4. Use steps 1, 2, and 3 to support the argument that the text’s meaning is undecidable.

Undecidability does not imply that the reader is unable to make a decision amongst potential readings. It doesn’t also imply that the text can’t “make up its mind” as to what it ought to express. Instead, undecidability indicates that the reader and the text are intertwined inside the meaning-dissemination of languages. In the endlessly churning loom of language, reader and text are intertwined threads. Specific interpretations are only “moments” of meaning that ultimately give way to more interpretations.

Deconstruction is referred to as a poststructuralist theory not just because it developed in response to the success of structuralism but also because it opposes the ordered interpretation of language and human experience that structuralism offered.

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