Study Guide

Deconstruction Basics

  • Beginnings

    Deconstruction got started in France, where the Algerian-born Derrida  began blowing people's minds in the sixties. He had those razor-sharp reading skills, some insane book smarts, and an unstoppable philosophical mind.

    Derrida's movement was so ground-breaking that it made major waves early on. In 1966, Derrida delivered a talk called "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" at Johns Hopkins University. (If you think that title's a mouthful, just wait for others we'll discuss down the line.)

    Instantly—not even overnight—this lecture made literary critical history. It scandalized some audience members (Derrida wasn't out to make friends, as we said) but inspired others to import more deconstruction to the U.S., through translations and teaching.

    Of Grammatology is often considered the key text in the U.S. importation of deconstruction. Not to mention that it's considered the deconstructionist Bible. It's a serious take-down of phallogocentrism, via a deconstruction of the speech/writing binary.

    Of Grammatology also provides tour de force readings of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, among other biggies. The book was published in France in 1967, then in an English translation (by Gayatri Spivak) in 1976. And it grew deconstruction from fledging theoretical movement to a force to be reckoned with.

  • Big Players

    Jackie D is to deconstruction what Freud is to psychoanalysis: the founding father. The guiding light. Always and forever, Amen.

    That said, other big names have made their mark—or, to get all Derridean on you, left their trace—as well. So if you say capital-D "Deconstruction" to a critic who was around during the movement's heyday, they're likely to think not only of Derrida himself, but also of his followers. (Deconstruction's detractors would call them his hangers-on. Ouch.)

    As in any clique of theorists, these folks have had their disagreements—both with the school's founder and with each other. But more on those later, in our "Key Debates" Section.

    We suggest that you think of Paul de Man as deconstruction's other Main Man. (Teehee.) Born in Belgium, de Man became famous in the States as a fiercely demanding teacher and a supremely sharp reader and difficult critic. Later, some of de Man's dirty, dirty laundry was aired, and these revelations dealt a blow to deconstruction's already iffy reputation. (See our "Timeline" for the skinny.)

    Others associated with the deconstruction movement—that came to be called the Yale School, a virtual synonym for lit crit à la Derrida—include these smarty-pants profs and near-contemporaries of Derrida and de Man: Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Harold Bloom.

    Together, Team D&D (Derrida and de Man) trained a younger generation of U.S.-based critics who deserve credit for putting deconstruction on the map and keeping it there. These folks proved themselves under the scarily watchful eyes of the Masters, and that's no easy feat. So props to Barbara Johnson, Avital Ronell, and Gayatri Spivak.

    And all the other deconstructionist divas who keep it real.

  • Key Debates

    The D. Crew vs. Bad Politics

    No question has vexed deconstruction as much as the question of politics.

    Almost from the beginning, haters accused Derrida and friends of holding themselves above the political. Deconstructionists refused, these people said, to get their hands dirty in the hyper-political 1960s, when hand-dirtying was de rigueur… and anything short of commitment to a revolution was siding with the enemy.

    According to the haters, Derrideans preferred to dwell in the philosophical ether. They spent their time spinning out exquisite readings of already widely read classics, not saving lives. Sadly, we think, this accusation stuck to deconstruction like glue, and controversies like the de Man affair didn't help.

    Neither did Derrida's allegiance—critical and endlessly complicated though it always was—to Herr Heidegger's.

    But deconstruction did, eventually, join the political fracas. In its own way, of course. With critiques of violence. Throughout the 1990s, and well into the first decade of the new millennium, theorists loyal to Derrida took pains to articulate deconstruction's politics. They tried hard, in other words, to show that deconstruction wasn't what its detractors said it was: apolitical and hopelessly out of touch.

    During the last decades of his life, Derrida himself turned to politics with increasing explicitness and urgency. Maybe he got tired of all the haters' attacks.

    Meanwhile, people as different as Spivak and Hartman worked tirelessly to defend deconstruction. This theory's biggest advocates have always worked to show people how helpful it can be to radical causes of all kinds. And, you know, we're pretty convinced.

  • State of the Theory

    Deconstruction is dead. Long live deconstruction. Huh? Derrida would be the first to appreciate the pairing of those two sentences and sentiments. As we know, one of Jackie's lifelong dreams was to get his readers to think of life and death as something other than a pair of polar opposites—i.e., binaries.

    Why? Because life is in death, he taught. And death in life. Just as speech is in writing, and writing in speech.

    But we digress. We'll stop beating around the Derridean bush and come out and say what it pains us (some of us loyalists, at least) to say: the critical school that Jackie built is, alas, no longer the cool kid at the lunch table.

    But that doesn't mean the Deconstruction Game is over.

    Critics started saying deconstruction's death was right around the corner almost as soon as Derrida's texts landed in the States. And they kept at it, always anticipating deconstruction's demise and delivering mean-spirited eulogies that proclaimed that good old, home-grown reading methods would rise again—thereby putting an end to Derridean pretention.

    But this hostile takeover never happened. Things were, and are, as Derrida himself would point out, much more complicated than that. Even if critical theory is now in a "post-deconstructionist" phase, Daddy Derrida's influence on contemporary thinking—and contemporary close reading practices—is undeniable.

    Indeed, we would argue that even the haters have borrowed from deconstruction's teachings. More importantly, though, the Derridean legacy lives on in the work of the Master's students, many of whom are still hard at work and still indisputably influential. See our "Big Players" section for more on heavy hitters like Gayatri Spivak and Avital Ronell.

    And for "post-deconstructionist" theory that still keeps it real à la Derrida, check out the work of Derrida's fellow Frenchies: Jean-Luc Nancy, Catherine Malabou, and Bernard Stiegler. Wazzup.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Believe it or not, deconstructionists find this question super straightforward to answer. You can thank Derrida; he left us a trail of reflections on what he called "the institution of literature."

    Deconstruction values literature because it is, in one critic's helpful paraphrase, "an institution in which the value of deferral is embraced." In other words, literature is one place in Western culture where it's okay to suspend certainties. Where you can put truth on "pause" in order to revel in play (in the Derridean sense).

    Not sure what a literary text is? That's alright, deconstruction says. You're really not supposed to. In fact, what literature teaches is precisely the ability to dwell in uncertainty.

    This means that books don't just provide a time-out from totalizing ideas, institutions, and experiences. They actually provide crucial training for being properly skeptical in all of our ethical and political endeavors.

    Oh, and there's one last crucial point about deconstruction's relationship to literature. Always style-obsessed as well as suspicious of binaries, Derrida refuses the neat opposition between philosophy and literature.

    He thinks philosophy is always borrowing from literature, and (good) literature always leads us to philosophical insight. This is why he lavishes the same kind of care on close readings of Kant as on analyses of Kafka.

    Carry on my wayward Derrideans. There may never be peace, but there will be play, when you are done.

    What is an author?

    Deconstruction doesn't care much for the authority of capital-A Authors, but it does give more attention to biography than you might at first expect it to.

    Derrida noted that "traditional philosophy excludes biography," but considered himself "among those few people who (and you must do it well) put philosophers' biographies back in the picture." (See Derrida: A Biography 1.)

    If this was true of philosophers, then it was true of the authors of literary texts, who were never quite as "dead" for Derrida as they were for, say, Barthes. But remember that literature and philosophy aren't strictly separable from deconstruction's point of view. So the author is also a philosopher; and the philosopher, an author.

    What is a reader?

    To deconstructionists, a reader is the player of a game. But this game's rules aren't determined in advance. Instead, everything is left up to the reader to discover—or, really, to improvise—as she goes along.

    Derrida sometimes calls these rules the "protocols" of the text.

    From another angle, deconstruction's reader is a risk-taker. If other theories train their students to approach a text as if they were fishing for confirmation of the theories' tenets, deconstruction instead encourages readers to remain open to the possibility of refutation.

    That is, Derrida and Co. want readers to be willing to change their minds. To overturn their assumptions. You know, including the assumptions they've learned from deconstruction itself. Pretty rad, right?

    For more on the reader in deconstruction, check out the passage from Derrida's "Plato's Pharmacy" and the mission statement from Barbara Johnson, both quoted in our "Say What?" Section.