Study Guide

Deconstruction Texts

  • St. Augustine, Confessions (397)

    Written in Latin, this ancient autobiography recounts Augustine's early life and his conversion to Christianity. It also includes wide-ranging philosophical speculation. No wonder, then, that it attracted Derrida.

    Derrida even wrote a text inspired by the Confessions, called "Circumfession". Great title, if we do say so ourselves. But we were wondering:

    1. What else do Derrida and Augustine share, aside from the fact that both combine philosophy and autobiography?
    2. How is Augustine's meditation on his childhood like the one written by Jacques Derrida, that's included in Veils? How is it different?

    Put those Deconstruction Hats (or stompin' boots) on, and have at it, Shmoopers.

  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605, 1615)

    You may have heard of Cervantes' sad knight, that old bugger Don Quixote. You may know him as the Man of La Mancha. Or you may not know him at all—in which case you're in for a treat.

    This guy's worth getting to know, we promise you. He's an unforgettable character. He blurs the boundary (the binary, even?) between literature and life. And though a lot falls apart as he does so, a lot is revealed as well.

    Literature becomes a place for truth as well as lies. Yeah, that sounds a lot like Derrida's love for uncertainty, doesn't it?

    Here are some questions for you, as you think about Don Quixote through your Derridean Looking Glass:

    1. Where does Don Quixote fall in "the institution of literature"?
    2. What, if anything, does Cervantes's text teach us that Deconstruction cannot account for?
  • Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1856)

    Flaubert's proto-feminist tearjerker inspired Avital Ronell to write a whole book riffing on it: Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania. In this book, our favorite deconstructionist diva relates Madame Bovary to later forms of drug addiction. And there's solid motivation for Ronnell's readings of Flaubert's work.

    His text does seem to look forward to more recent darker times.

    But put on your thinking caps, and mull over these questions, if you dare:

    1. What does Madame Bovary suggest about the relationship between literature and life? Is there anything deconstructive about the novel's lesson?
    2. Flaubert's text opens in a schoolroom. What do you make of this opening, and how do you think it prepares the reader (or doesn't prepare the reader) for the events "to come"?
  • W.B. Yeats, "Among School Children" (1928)

    Paul de Man has a great reading of this poem's final rhetorical question. And what a question it is: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" If you think Deconstruction has nothing to do with dance, think again.

    In any case, there's no denying that it has to do with knowing. With complicating what we think we can know. So sit back, don't relax, and enjoy the "Among School Children." Get your think on.

    1. What's the relationship between the poem's last line and what comes before it?
    2. What other deconstructive theorists or theories would you test against Yeats's poem? Why?
  • Jorge Luis Borges, "The Library of Babel" (1941)

    The Universe is a Library in this wild ride of a text. And from that one-line summary, we bet you can tell that Borges's story is a deconstructionist's dream come true. Here, again, there really is no outside-text. It's all text. We're all text.

    Okay, now it's your turn:

    1. How does the form of Borges's text (including its use of footnotes) relate to the message that it conveys?
    2. What's deconstructive about "The Library of Babel" (aside from the whole "no outside-text" idea)?
  • Paul de Man, "Anthropomorphism and Trope in Lyric" (1983)

    In this essay, de Man takes on Baudelaire and the stakes of "lyric reading." It's tough going, so far as essays go, but you're a Boot Camp survivor. So you'll be prepared.

    And we promise you'll be a better theorist for all of your hard work. Just do us one more solid. Let us know what you think about these questions:

    1. Why does de Man get so worked up about that last "comme" (like/as) in Baudelaire's sonnet "Correspondances"?
    2. What do you think de Man means by "true mourning"?
  • Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, Veils (1998, 2001)

    This kooky, co-authored text is quite something. It's interesting to see Derrida at work in dialogue with someone else. And writing in an autobiographical vein.

    Not that Derrida didn't delve into autobiography in some of his other texts. But, for what it's worth, we find Veils to be the most beautiful of Derrida's self-focused talk. See if you agree.

    And while you're hittin' those books, muse on this:

    1. Derrida's Judaism figures prominently in Veils. Does his portion of the text give you any ideas about how his religious background might have informed his other, more strictly philosophical work?
    2. More generally, what does Veils make you think about the relationship between philosophy and autobiography?
  • Jacques Derrida, Glas (1974, 1990)

    Everyone knows that there are two sides to every story. We've seen Gossip Girl. But Glas literally has two sides. It's printed in two columns: one addresses Hegelian philosophy, the other is a close reading of the work of French author and playwright Jean Genet.

    The whole thing's dizzying even by Derridean standards. But it's well worth a college try. So, indulge us, would you?

    1. What is the relationship between the text's two columns? Does the setup of Glas suggest anything about the relationship between literature and philosophy?
    2. What do you think is the value of experimental writing? What do you think Derrida was trying to accomplish by taking a chance on a strange, two-column text?
  • Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology—Schizophrenia—Electric Speech (1989)

    We've told you before, but we'll tell you again: The Telephone Book is one wild ride. It's worth a reading for the laughs alone. Seriously, there are zingers on every page—and in different font sizes.

    This is Ronell at her playful best. And Derridean theory at its absolute wackiest. Seriously. The text makes Derrida's Glas look tame. Now answer us these Riddles Three:

    1. What elements of Deconstruction can you identify in Ronell's offbeat approach to writing and argumentation?
    2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a book that resists the reader? What is lost and what is gained, for the reader, when a text puts up resistance?
    3. What if everyone just stops reading hard texts? (Answer: we'd cry.)
  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999)

    This Bible of postcolonial theory also includes lots of interesting engagements with Derrida's work. Spivak's writing isn't for the faint of heart, it's true. But if you want to see how Deconstruction gets applied outside traditional textual criticism, then she's the theorist for you.

    Plus, she's just generally rad. Trust us, as you consider these questions:

    1. Why, according to Spivak, is Derridean theory more helpful to the postcolonial critic than other kinds of French theory?
    2. What do you think Spivak means by "The Setting to Work of Deconstruction"? (See her Critique's Appendix for clues.)