Study Guide

Deconstruction Timeline

How It All Went Down

1927: Heidegger's Being and Time

Word on the theoretical street is that Derrida got the idea of deconstruction from Heidegger's notion of Destruktion, as set forth in Being and Time. But rather than render this word as straight-up "destruction," Derrida goes for "deconstruction." This move emphasizes the affirmative and constructive nature of the critical process that he develops.

At least that's what Derrida believed. And Derrida's followers. But lots deconstruction's detractors still say that all this theory does is, erm, deconstruct stuff—take it apart. Criticize it. Leave nothing but destruction in its path.

You can decide for yourself.

But we think this theory is not just about the demolition of previous philosophical systems. Deconstruction does build something new, that something new is just on shaky ground. (Derrida was always suspicious of attempts to build on terra firma.)

Anyway, Heidegger lays the foundation for deconstruction's anti-foundational enterprise in this book. And this work remained a key point of reference for Derrida throughout his career.

1930: Jacques Derrida is born

Homeboy got his start in a suburb of Algiers. He was born into a family of Sephardic Jews when Algeria was still a French colony, and during World War II he was expelled from high school because of an anti-Semitic policy.

Basically, he spent his formative years feeling like an outsider. This had consequences for his burgeoning theory of deconstruction, as an eloquent late book of his would explain.

1949: Jackie goes to school

Jacques D moved to Paris from Algiers just before the 1950s got underway, and what a time it was. His teachers at the École Normale Supérieure—he got in on his second try, after having failed the entrance exam the first time—included some serious philosophical heavyweights.

Phenomenology was all the rage in those heady days, and Derrida wrote his Master's thesis on phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. What's that fancy phenomo-word mean, you ask? Well, phenomenology is really the study of our first-person experiences of life—i.e., our reality—through the senses, through human perception.

What were we saying? Oh, yeah. Derrida's thesis adviser was the famed Hegelian Jean Hyppolite, and his most important teacher at the École. Phenomenal.

1966: Derrida delivers "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"

It's hard to overstate the impact that this lecture had on the philosophy world. And the world in general, really. It was given as part of a colloquium on structuralism held at Johns Hopkins University, attended by Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Paul de Man, among others. (Only poor Foucault was left out of this Cool Kids Club.)

According to some sources, Derrida was a last-minute replacement for another speaker at the colloquium. But boy, did he bring his A-Game. The whole event is credited with introducing "French Theory" to the U.S., and Derrida was at the forefront of this transatlantic movement from the 1960s forward.

1967: Derrida publishes Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena

No lie. JD really did put out these three massive works in a single year. In case you had any lingering doubts about his genius, this fact should dispel them. Having paid his dues with years' worth of close readings of Edmund Husserl and others, here, Derrida finally let loose his own theories.

These works set Derrida apart from his critical pack. They elaborated deconstruction as an approach with a distinct—and differant—identity from any school of philosophy or literary criticism that had come before. (Remember "differance.")

These texts also made clear, however, that close reading would remain deconstruction's go-to technique. Derrida's particular spin on the close read was to get intimate with authors and texts—even those he was most critical of.

So all three works in 1967's deconstructionist trifecta combined painstaking and rigorous readings of philosophical texts with ground-breaking (and, again, mind-blowing) original theories. From this point forward, there was no denying that deconstruction was here to stay.

1976: Spivak's English translation of Of Grammatology is published

This powerhouse publication further solidified Derrida's reputation in the U.S. and further disseminated deconstructionist concepts and approaches. Spivak's sharp-as-nails critical preface didn't hurt, either. Get it, girl.

1987: The de Man affair blows up

This event represents a darker time in deconstruction's history. As it turned out, the theory's darling, Paul de Man, had written pro-Fascist journalism very early in his career.

Yikes.

The de Man affair put deconstruction on the defensive. It made the movement look really bad, not least of all because it seemed to confirm, or even one-up, suspicions about deconstruction's questionable politics.

Detractors had long accused the movement and its head scholars of being apolitical. But the de Man affair made it seem like Derrideans everywhere had politics—they were just outright bad politics. As in anti-democratic, destructive beliefs.

It took the movement a long time to recover from this blow. In fact, some critical histories would argue that it never did. Since we always try to be democratic here in Shmooptown, we'll let you decide.

1988: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's "Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography"

This hard and heady essay introduces a set of works by the Subaltern Studies collective: a group of historians whose works focused on colonial India. In it, Spivak tried to illustrate deconstruction's applicability to non-European contexts.

We're not going to lie to you; only those who've been through Derridean Boot Camp need apply for entry to this essay's intellectual party. It's a tough read. But it's just one of Spivak's many translational/interpretive efforts later filed under the apt label of "The Setting to Work of Deconstruction".

1989: Derrida redefines deconstruction in "The Force of Law"

At this point in his career, Derrida turned with increasing dedication to addressing political and religious questions. Perhaps he was fired up about saving the movement's image after the de Man affair. But no matter his motivations, he spent a lot of time during this period trying to illustrate deconstruction's relevance to "real-world" problems.

Not that Derrida ever claimed deconstruction was a cure-all.

On the contrary, actually. As "The Force of Law" emphasizes, deconstruction represents a way of engaging with the difficulty of "reading" (i.e., closely analyzing and understanding) any text, real-world political act, or legal decision.

Derrida often called this difficulty aporia, and his new definition of deconstruction centered on its aporetic approach. Whereas earlier texts like Of Grammatology treated deconstruction primarily as a method of reading texts, "The Force of Law" taught readers to understand the theory as offering tools for reading the world—for embracing ambiguity everywhere it resides.

For Derrida, reading the world well means enjoying the impossibility of ever unearthing any definitive answers. So keep on keepin' on, young Shmoopers.

2004: The death of a legend

When Derrida died, the New York Times ran a nasty obituary whose title said it all: "Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74." ("Abstruse," for the Times, meant not only difficult but also absurd and irrelevant.)

But pro-Derrida scholars of various stripes responded with a series of letters to the Times editor. They also built a moving website to pay tribute to the philosopher, who was also, during his lifetime, a famously generous teacher.