What is the deconstruction theory attributed to Derrida?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Deconstruction is a philosophical system of thought. It is applied to many fields and disciplines particularly to literature but also to fields as different from literature as anthropology and archaeology. Derrida is a philosopher who studied then taught at prestigious academic institutions in France (he later lectured then taught at prestigious American universities like John Hopkins and UC Irvine). Derrida became disillusioned with Western philosophical systems and with philosophical Structuralism.

Concurrently, he became interested in the linguistic system of Saussure in which words--expressions of speech and writing--are signifiers and the thing referred to is the signified and both comprise sign. Saussure posited that the signified has no innate nor inherent meaning of its own--there is no universal object irrevocably, inherently labeled "dog" "horse" "piano" "love" etc--and that the way signifieds are defined is through their relationship to other signifiers in systems of grouped signifiers or chains of signifiers: signifiers are defined not by what they innately are but by contrast to what they are not; they are not defined by their presence but by the absence of presence.

Derrida began to develop a Saussurean philosophic linguistics. He saw that while Saussure was correct, Saussurean linguistics stopped short of the true picture of linguistics. He saw that the logical extension of Saussurean insight was that there is no linguistic meaning at all. If there is no linguist meaning because signifiers are given meaning through absence, then agents of linguistic expression (speakers, writers) can have no absolute intention and expressions can have no absolute meaning. This system of linguistic meaning formed the bedrock of theoretical deconstruction. 

Derrida holds that language expressions and reality described by these expressions are constructed culturally; such expressions are not, as ancient and modern Western philosophers have held, describing absolutes of truth and substance: other realities are possible from within the systems (or chains) of definitions developed through relationship with that which is the other; if "dog" is the absence of "cat," then "dog" is equally the absence of "run." Defining dog through relationship with another signifier(s), such as "run," shapes a subtly different reality. Thus reality is malleable and mutable, not static and immutable: it is unstable, not stable.

Deconstruction theory seeks to deconstruct the constructed reality and to expose the instability of the language presented by linguistic expression. Deconstruction theory does this by:

  • destabilizing the logocentric idea that states that knowledge is knowable and that reality has origination (origin) in opposing ideas, called binary hierarchies, such as the examples power/weakness, evil/good, truth/beauty, me/them, us/other etc.
  • exposing jeu or "play" (mobility, interchangeability, fluidity) between signifiers whereby suppressed realities can emerge thus subverting linguistic stability and immutable reality.
  • challenging the assertion of the primacy of speech over writing, which, in Western views, is a mere disconnected shadow of speech, speech having come and continuing to come first and directly from the conscious mind, while positing the opposing assertion that before speech was, writing was, with writing defined as anything from cave paintings to music to (in the extreme analysis) wars.
  • asserting différance, which is (1) the deferment of meaning from the moment of expression to a future moment of interpretation that occurs in conjunction with a system of signifiers or a chain of signifiers that may or may not be the system or chain in the intention and conscious thought of the linguistic expressor (speaker/writer) at the moment of expression and which is (2) the difference between and amongst signifiers that defines the meaning of the expressed signifer that contains only the absence of meaning until relationship with another signifier(s) is observed.