Study Guide

Deconstruction Critics

  • Jacques Derrida

    There is no outside-text. — Of Grammatology

    This quote is often used to caricature deconstruction. Remember that text is a term of art for Derrida—it refers to the mediation of reality by concepts that are necessarily rendered in writing.

    So the statement that "there is no outside-text" means that there is nothing in our world that is unmediated. Nothing ever comes to us in a pure state, without being under- or overwritten with textual ideas or literal texts.

    Lotsa philosophers want to access this prior, pure state, of concepts. But according to Derrida, they're all barking up the wrong tree; that "pure state" is inaccessible, he says.

    A text remains […] forever imperceptible. Its law and its rules are not, however, harbored in the inaccessibility of a secret; it is simply that they can never be booked, in the present, into anything that could rigorously be called a perception. —"Plato's Pharmacy"

    So the text-plot thickens. We warned you things would get dicey. Here, near the very beginning of his famous essay on Plato, Derrida is already playing fast and loose with our brain matter.

    But if you read this quote carefully—and repeatedly, alas—you'll see that he's also giving us clues as to what he means by "text." And how he understands the role of the reader.

    The meanings of a text, for Derrida, are not something that can ever really be nailed down. So a text's fancy structures (its "law and rules") are not there to be deciphered. They're not evidence of some secrets that are locked away in the text's inner depths.

    Instead, reading a text is more like learning to play a card game without anyone explaining it to you. You just kind of pick it up as you go along. And try your best to make peace with the fact that you'll never figure out the text's final and definitive "truth"—because it doesn't exist.

    Other players will play the text-reading game by different rules and arrive at different truths.

    What is metaphysics? A white mythology which assembles and reflects Western culture: the white man takes his own mythology (that is, Indo-European mythology), his logos-that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that which it is still his inescapable desire to call Reason. […] What is white mythology? It is metaphysics which has effaced in itself that fabulous scene which brought it into being, and which yet remains, active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, an invisible drawing covered over in the palimpsest. —"White Mythology"

    Hang in there, friends. This is the densest and most dizzying of the quotes we've selected. Why'd we select such an annoying quote, you ask? Well, here's why: because these question-and-answer-style paragraphs reveal some of Derridean Deconstruction's key features.

    So it's pretty important. And what's Derrida saying here, exactly? He's saying that metaphysics, which is really a stand-in for all of traditional European philosophy, gets its start with a "fabulous scene." But it later forgets this scene's fabulous—as in fictional—status.

    This forgetting then allows metaphysics to mistake its insights for absolute truths and to masquerade as "Reason." As the One and Only Smart Way of Thinking About Anything Ever.

    The crucial take-away here is that Derrida seeks to undo the philosophy/literature binary. See, we're used to thinking of mythology and metaphysics as opposed; stories are silly, made-up things, whereas philosophy is all about logic and intellectualism. But Derrida shows that there's a lot of fiction to be found in Western philosophy too.

    Deconstruction's like the hand that peels back the layers of the metaphysics onion; it shows us philosophy's true colors.

    (There's that Cyndi again. You heard it here first: she and Jacques D. really share a special something.)

    In the beginning, in principle, was the post, and I will never get over it.

    Playing with the Biblical line, "In the beginning was the Word," Derrida replaces "Word" with "post." As in, the mail. As in, that good, old-fashioned, snail mail that existed before the-email. You can ask your parents about it.

    Anyway, Derrida is saying that distance—at the very least, the distance between one speaker and another—is a precondition for communication. Without the gap between speakers or that between the sender and receiver of a post card or a love letter, no act of communication is possible.

    To accept this distance as a part of communication is, Derrida thinks, to abolish the fantasy that we can access any concept or meaning in its pure form. As we already know, JD thinks "pure essence" is a fiction. And take note of his flair for the dramatic: he will, he says, "never get over it."

    To the haters' dismay, this kind of reality TV-degree drama permeates lots of Derridean writing. These guys obviously thought what they were doing was pretty important. 

    Back to the central point: The Post Card is one kooky book. It shows Derrida at his most playful—his most literary, some might say. The whole first part of the book comprises a series of love letters (destination unknown) that are as beautiful as they are mysterious.

    Be sure to check these love letters out if you're ever courting a card-carrying deconstructionist. Derrida's postcards will serve as good examples for your future Lit Crit Rom Com.

    And what if disadjustment were on the contrary the condition of justice?

    Much of Derrida's Specters of Marx is focused on close reading a line from Hamlet that goes, "The time is out of joint."

    Most of Shakespeare's readers have understood this sentence to mean that things are rotten in Denmark. But Derrida considers the possibility that a certain kind of rottenness—an out-of-jointness—is, somewhat counter-intuitively, the precondition for justice.

    Allow us to break it down for you:

    (1) This question highlights Derrida's tendency to reverse readers' expectations. (Who on earth would think to associate "disadjustment," which sounds so negative, with the notion of "justice"?)

    (2) This question also shows how worried Derrida was about justice and all that other political hoopla in his late work. Beginning with "The Force of Law," Derrida made his reflections on law and politics increasingly explicit. He started spending fewer words on language philosophy and the critique of metaphysics and more on ethics and politics. Even if he never gave up his quirkiness.

    What is going to come, perhaps, is not only this or that; it is at last the thought of the perhaps, the perhaps itself.

    Okay, now Derrida's really gone off the deep end with all those italics. And that weird way of turning perhaps into a noun. Or has he? Bear with us as we attempt to explain.

    We cite JD here to give you a sense of the global importance of what's "to come" in his late work. In The Politics of Friendship, he's into friendship, obviously; in other texts, he's all about democracy. Whatever the future brings, though, it isn't just a continuation of whatever's been happening all along. For Derrida, the future brings a completely new and unforeseen awesomeness. Even more importantly, this future is open to indeterminacy in a way that the present is not.

    So Derrida turns "perhaps" into a watchword. Well, we guess Doris Day beat him to it. But still: watch out for those "perhaps"s.

    As deconstruction moves forward into the 1990s and beyond, it looks to "the perhaps" with increasing frequency. He's turning his focus to the unknowable, the indeterminate, and the incalculable at every turn. Dude likes stuff that no one can totally understand—even himself. What can we say?

    Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

    Democracy is what it is only in the differance by which it defers itself and differs from itself.

    Let's get back to the basics. Or what passes for basics in Deconstruction Boot Camp. Remember that old darling "differance," which you first thought was just "difference" misspelled? Well, here it is again. And Derrida's using it to help us understand "democracy" in new ways.

    It's difficult to unpack the sentence above without a sense of Derrida's overall argument about democracy. He thinks that democracy is always "to come." So it's not something that we can ever attain. It's a perfect vision that's always going to be deferred: a fantastic vision on the horizon.

    But Derrida doesn't mean that democracy is unimportant. Our Old Love Democracy is well worth the complicated dance into the distance. We have to work toward it. But at the same time, we have to understand that there's space between attainable democracies and the perfect or ultimate realization of Democracy (i.e., there's differance between the two).

    And it's this distance that makes democracy "what it is."

    The main takeaway is that the classic concepts from deconstruction's arsenal—concepts like differance, writing, the trace, and all the rest—don't disappear in Derrida's late work. Even when he turns to ethics and politics, these lit crit concepts permeate his work.

  • Paul de Man

    Literature as well as criticism—the difference between them being delusive—is condemned (or privileged) to be forever the most rigorous and, consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and transforms himself.

    In this snazzy short quote, we get a taste of how de Man takes down the philosophy/literature binary. His prose can be a slog, but it makes good sense if you're patient enough to give it a good old college try.

    Here, de Man uses the word "criticism" to refer to what Derrida calls "metaphysics." But it's tomato/to-MAH-to, really. Both Derrida and de Man decide that these critical enterprises are only "delusively" different from literature. Translation: they're not different at all.

    So literary criticism is just a kind of literature, and vice versa.

    Oh, and did you notice how de Man keeps using different terms to refer to basically the same things? Not only literature/criticism, but also condemnation/privilege, rigor/unreliability, and naming /transformation. He does this in order to undo the false oppositions between these concepts. Sounds pretty Derridean, are we right?

    What's great about literature and criticism alike, de Man writes, is that they let you move from naming something to transforming it. How? By "rigorously" exploring the ambiguities and other powers of language.

    Obviously we realize that this is the kind of passage that would drive deconstruction's opponents positively bonkers. De Man, they'd point out, seems not only to be making very little sense here, but he also to be leaving us with no ground left to stand on. He sure does set fire to a lot of our common beliefs, but what's left aside from ashes?

    These nasty nay-sayers might go on to protest: if language is both rigorous and unreliable, then what happens to truth? What is truth anyway?

    And the deep-thinking de Man might reply: Tough noogies. C'est la vie. Live blind or live to embrace the world's complexities.

  • Barbara Johnson

    Therefore, the one imperative a [deconstructive] reading must obey is that it follow, with rigor, what puts in question the kind of reading it thought it was going to be. A reading is strong, I would therefore submit, to the extent that it encounters and propagates the surprise of otherness. The impossible but necessary task of the reader is to set herself up to be surprised.

    "Rigor" is one of those deconstructionist favorites; those dudes and dudettes were really into doing everything exhaustingly rigorously. Especially close reading texts. But Johnson was always a bit sunnier than de Man, and so she makes rigorous reading a matter of "surprise" as well as insight and responsibility.

    This quotation sheds light on Deconstruction's ideal reader. The ideal reader is not merely a receiver of information; she is willing to take the risk of changing her preconceptions, of "put[ting] in question the kind of reading" she thought she was going to do.

    Sounds kind of gloomy, huh? Not like anything that'll really get people onto the dance floor? But Johnson makes the prospect of deconstructive reading sound exciting, since it's supposed to be about surprises. And who doesn't love a good surprise (party)? Just remember that preparing one's self to be open to surprises won't be easy. It may be both "impossible" and "necessary," actually. Now that's vintage Derrida for you.

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