Study Guide

Deconstruction Buzzwords

Binary

This fancy-sounding word refers to a pair of polar opposites. So take any two terms that are traditionally defined in opposition to each other, and you've probably got a binary. Like: nature/culture, speech/writing, original/copy, appearance/essence, presence/absence, life/death, human/animal.

Deconstruction questions these oppositions, and often seeks to undo them—because no two things truly have nothing in common. There's more nature in culture than we've been taught to believe, and vice versa. Or more death in life, and so on, for just about every opposition you can name.

The binary beat-down begins now.

Democracy

In his late work, Derrida changed his focus from strictly textual issues to more obviously political problems. This turn led him reflect on the past, future, and meaning of democracy. According to Derrida, we haven't yet seen democracy in the real world.

Why? Because democracy is, by definition, "to come." It is a horizon toward which we aspire, but not less real or crucial for all that. In other words, "democracy for all" is a fantastic(ally inhuman) ideal that we petty little people strive for but will never quite be able to accomplish.

Differance

No, that's not a misspelling. Derrida did indeed want to put an "a" where we'd ordinarily see an "e" here. This neologism, one of many that this philosopher coined, combines "difference" and "deferral."

The Deconstructionist Cabal uses the notion of differance to describe how individual words do not convey complete meanings—they give us some idea of what a speaker means (because a horse is distinct from a dog), but they also postpone the higher-level meaning of a sentence. They defer what the speaker is trying to say until some later moment in the conversation. This is a tough one, we know, but bear with us.

One of Derrida's examples of differance is the word, "house." If your friend were to just say "house" to you, without any context, you wouldn't really know what the heck he was talking about. But if he were to say "my house" or "the White House," suddenly, that word "house" has a lot more meaning.

See? The basic idea here is that meaning is tricky and often ephemeral. We can't always find meaning where we expect it to emerge.

Play

Derrida first made a splash in the United States by delivering a lecture called "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." And that last term in his trifecta? It really stuck around.

The basic idea of "play" is that meaning is never stable—because the concepts behind our words are always changing, just as words themselves are always changing. So whether we want to keep our words (and our ideas) stable or not, all kinds of signification (a.k.a. meaning-making) will fall prey to "play." Our language is like a band of wild children; it refuses to be tamed.

Silly words, all they want to do is slide down the slide all day.

No matter what we humans want, language will not allow anyone to say, "Game over." The game will keep on going, and keep on changing.

Phallogocentrism

Say what? Yeah, it's kind of a wacky word. But we'll break it down for you. First, there's the phallus, that penis thing that symbolizes male power. Paging Dr. Freud—please report directly to the Washington Monument.

Next, there's logos, which just means "word." And finally, there's centrism, as in Eurocentrism or ethnocentrism—you know, when you put something at the center of your focus, at the cost of seeing what else is out there.

Still don't catch our drift? Well, you're in good company. But you'll be in even better company if you pay close attention to this quick and dirty, Derridean version of phallogocentrism.

Western philosophy thinks that whoever masters words wields power. Derrida thinks, on the other hand, that language can never be mastered. It's always in a state of "play"; it's always changing and so are the people who are using it.

So Derrida argues that the belief—or, really, the male chauvinist fantasy—that language can be mastered, pinned down, standardized (according to white male norms, of course) is an illusion that we would do well to outgrow.

Origin

Deconstruction is famous for its assault on origins. Together with binaries, these are the theory's most important targets. Ready? Aim. Fire.

Traditional philosophers have always had a thing for origin stories. They fetishize the origin of whatever: the absolute beginning of life or love or the text, a pure presence, the thing itself, the voice before the letter, and so on. But Derrida thought that there really was no such thing.

He argued that origins, like meanings, were always unstable. And multiple. And impossible to pin down. Getting an eye for what the deconstructionists were deconstructing yet?

Text

Finally, another word with only one syllable. What a relief, right? Right. Here's the bad news, though: the text is, like any other deconstructive concept, highly complicated.

Haters love to hate on Derrida's claim that "There is no outside-text." These people assume that Derrida was trying to say that all the world's a text, and there's no such thing as bodies or matter or any of that; everything around us is, in its purest form, a text.

If Derrida had been trying to say that, then his claim would have been absurd. Forrealz. But we're here to tell you: that's so not what he meant.

He meant something more like this: there is no part of the world that doesn't come to us mediated—virtually, not actually, written over—by concepts that come to us in the form of texts. 

So assuming that we can get away from the text is like believing we can somehow get outside our own heads.

For better and worse, we're stuck in here. But that doesn't mean that we're stuck with the way things are. On the contrary, the uncertainties of life and language that leave room for constant change ("play") ensure that things stay interesting.

Trace

Another one-syllable word. But another deceptively simple one. Alas. How so, you ask? Well, to be honest, whole books have been written about what "trace" means in deconstruction. But we'll keep it as simple as possible.

Traditional philosophy—you know, the thing Derrida always had beef with—focuses on presence. Presence is the stuff of real-time developments, face-to-face interactions, the famous thing- or person-itself (e.g., Miley Cyrus). You get the idea. Presence is the real, "core" life stuff.

But Derrida claimed there's really no such thing as presence. Why? Because nothing we experience is in a "pure" form, just chillin' "as itself." No single conversation or human sensation or art simply "exists." Everything we know about the world is mediated by the concepts that we have available to understand the world.

Kind of makes sense, when you think about it. (Check out our definition of "text" for more on the notion of mediation.)

So, to skip a lot of long-winded argumentation, Derrida thinks we should let go of the philosophical fantasy that we can ever experience a thing in its pure form. As its presence. Instead, we should accept what we have available to us: lots and lots of traces.

Basically, everything we experience is a trace of some presence. The mediation of things by concepts and texts means that everything comes to us belatedly. Indirectly. Incompletely.

So in a way, what we see as we move about the world are like records of things past. Things that used to exist in pure presence but in our experience of them are actually traces.

We may sound like we're adopting a bleak worldview here. Whine cry, nothing is pure and beautiful and complete anymore. Nothing is accessed directly. But Derrida really doesn't think mediation is a bad thing. He just thinks, and says: c'est la vie.

Undecideability

Remember those "binaries"—those pairs of polar opposites? Well, undecideability is something that happens when we undo a binary. When we deconstruct a binary (ooh).

After an act of deconstruction, we simply can't decide where nature ends and culture begins. Or what's present and what's absent, or what's real and what's fantasy.

In the same way, once you start to contemplate a literary text's multiple meanings, you simply cannot decide, according to deconstruction, on one final, definitive reading. And that's undecideability, folks.

Writing

Hold the phone. Actually, hold the phoné. See, phoné is Greek for voice. Get it? Nudge nudge, wink wink?

In deconstruction, no voices need apply. Speech, in Derrida's view, is really secondary to writing. And there's writing in speech, anyway, so essentially, there's just writing.

And plenty of it to go around… even to make the world go around. (Check out our definition of "text" for more on the all-reaching powers of the text and text-based ideas.)