Deconstruction Essay - Critical Essays




The following entry discusses deconstruction theory as a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary texts.

Deconstruction is a literary criticism movement originated by French critic Jacques Derrida in the 1960s, developed in three works—De la grammatologie (1967; Of Grammatology), L'Écriture et la différence (1967; Writing and Difference), and La Voix et le phénomène: introduction au problème du signe dans la phénomènologie de Husserl (1967; Speech and Phenomena and Other Writings on Husserl's Theory of Signs). Drawing on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche, on the language theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, and on the psychoanalytic ideas of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, Derrida presented his notion of deconstruction in 1966 at an international symposium at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. There he met Lacan and American critic Paul de Man for the first time, and they formed the core group that would go on to popularize deconstruction in the United States. Initially considered elitist, nihilistic, and subversive of humanistic ideals, deconstruction has been much debated in academe and has gained more widespread acceptance, although it still remains, to an extent, a radical way of analyzing texts.

Deconstruction theory embraces the precept that meaning is always uncertain and that it is not the task of the literary critic to illuminate meaning in a given text. Derrida began with Saussure's ideas of the signified and the signifier: an idea (signified) is represented by a sign (signifier), but the sign can never be the same as the idea. The French term “différer” used in deconstruction discourse refers both to the difference between signified and signifier, and to the way the signified defers meaning to the signifier. The signified contains a trace of the signifier, but also of its opposite. According to practitioners of deconstruction, the job of the literary critic is to look for “slippage” in the text—to note duplicity, or to expose how a text has violated the very linguistic and thematic rules it has set up internally. Calling attention to breaks in the internal logic of a literary text achieves its deconstruction. Deconstruction itself can be deconstructed, however, and the process goes on indefinitely.

Because it challenges logocentrism—that is, it questions order and certainty in language—deconstruction has been viewed by its opponents as an intellectually obscure, negativistic form of cultural critique. M. H. Abrams wrote a particularly devastating essay on deconstruction, and Steven E. Cole and Archibald A. Hill have criticized the methods of de Man and Geoffrey Hartman, respectively. Other scholars have found deconstruction a stimulating and innovative new approach to literary criticism. While such critics as Lance St. John Butler and Shawn St. Jean have written on major literary figures and works using deconstruction theory, other scholars, including Edward Said, David B. Allison, and Christina M. Howells have found an application for deconstruction in the fields of history and philosophy.

Representative Works

Jonathan Arac, Wlad Godzich, Wallace Martin, editors
The Yale Critics: Deconstruction in America (criticism) 1983

Samuel Beckett
Murphy (novel) 1938
En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (play) 1953
L'innommable [The Unnamable] (novel) 1953
Watt (novel) 1953
Fin de Partie [Endgame] (play) 1957

Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey H. Hartman, J. Hillis Miller
Deconstruction and Criticism (criticism) 1979

Jonathan Culler
On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (criticism) 1982

Jacques Derrida
De la grammatologie [Of Grammatology] (criticism) 1967
L'Écriture et la différence [Writing and Difference] (criticism) 1967
La Voix et le phénomène: introduction au problème du signe dans la phénomènologie de Husserl [Speech and Phenomena and Other Writings on Husserl's Theory of Signs] (criticism) 1967
La dissémination [Dissemination] (criticism) 1972
Marges de la philosophie [Margins of Philosophy] (criticism) 1972
Positions [Positions] (criticism) 1972
Nietzsche aujourd'hui [Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles] (criticism) 1973
Glas [Glas] (criticism) 1974
Mémoires: Pour Paul de Man [Mémoirs: For Paul de Man] (memoirs) 1986
Du droit à la philosophie (lectures) 1990
Spectres de Marx: L'Etat de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale [Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of the Mourning, and the New International] (criticism) 1993

Theodore Dreiser
An American Tragedy (novel) 1925

Geoffrey Hartman
Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature (criticism) 1980

Anselm Haverkamp, editor
Deconstruction is/in America: A New Sense of the Political (criticism) 1995

Martin Heidegger
Sein und Zeit: Erste Haelfte [Being and Time] (nonfiction) 1927

Edmund Husserl
Logische Untersuchungen [Logical Investigations] (nonfiction) 1900

Barbara Johnson
The Wake of Deconstruction (criticism) 1994

Franz Kafka
“Die Verwandlung” [“Metamorphosis”] (short story) 1915

Jacques Lacan
Ecrits [Ecrits: A Selection] (essays) 1966

D. H. Lawrence
Studies in Classic American Literature (essays) 1923

Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, editors
The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy (criticism) 1970

Paul de Man
Allegories of Reading: Figural Reading in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (essays) 1979

J. Hillis Miller
The Disappearance of God (essays) 1963
Poets of Reality (essays) 1965
Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (essays) 1970

Friedrich Nietzsche
Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik [The Birth of Tragedy] (essay) 1872
Also Sprach Zarathustra [Thus Spake Zarathustra] (prose) 1883-85

Jean-Paul Sartre
L'etre et le neant: Essai d'ontologie phenomenologique [Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology] (philosophy) 1943
Saint Genet, comedien et martyr [Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr] (biography) 1952

Ferdinand de Saussure
Cours de linguistique générale [Course in General Linguistics] (nonfiction) 1916

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

M. H. Abrams (essay date spring 1977)

SOURCE: Abrams, M. H. “The Deconstructive Angel.” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (spring 1977): 425-38.

[In the following essay, which many critics consider the strongest and most influential critique of deconstruction, Abrams points out the limitations of deconstruction in literary criticism.]

                              —If the Abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets:—but a voice
Is wanting …

—Shelley, Prometheus Unbound

We have been instructed these days to be wary of words like “origin,” “center,” and “end,” but I will venture to say that this...

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G. Douglas Atkins (essay date fall 1980)

SOURCE: Atkins, G. Douglas. “J. Hillis Miller, Deconstruction, and the Recovery of Transcendence.” Notre Dame English Journal 13, no. 1 (fall 1980): 51-63.

[In the following essay, Atkins explores the charge of lack of spiritual concern leveled against deconstructionist critics, pointing out that their writings reinterpret rather than negate questions of the spiritual.]

Following publication of Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (1958), The Disappearance of God (1963), and Poets of Reality (1965), J. Hillis Miller became known as one of the most knowledgeable and articulate spokesmen for religion in modern literature. These works, and...

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G. Douglas Atkins (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Atkins, G. Douglas. “The Sign as a Structure of Difference: Derridean Deconstruction and Some of Its Implications.” In Semiotic Themes, edited by Richard T. DeGeorge, pp. 133-47. Lawrence: University of Kansas Publications, 1981.

[In the following essay, Atkins discusses the ideas of Derrida, a leading practitioner of deconstruction, defending him from accusations of nihilism and undermining the humanistic tradition in literature.]

A major force to be reckoned with in contemporary literary criticism is Jacques Derrida. Derrida's star has risen precipitously since his participation in 1966 in a Johns Hopkins international symposium, where he took...

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Steven E. Cole (essay date winter 1988)

SOURCE: Cole, Steven E. “The Dead-end of Deconstruction: Paul de Man and the Fate of Poetic Language.” Criticism 30, no. 1 (winter 1988): 91-112.

[In the following essay, Cole focuses on the critical theory of de Man, suggesting that his deconstruction of meaning in literature leads not to liberation from tradition, but to a logical dead end.]


Perhaps no contemporary theorist is more difficult to analyze than Paul de Man, although the difficulties are not precisely what his admirers have supposed. In the flood of commentary which has appeared since his death (and this is true even of Jacques Derrida's remarkable...

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Archibald A. Hill (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Hill, Archibald A. “Deconstruction and Analysis of Meaning in Literature.” In Language and Cultures: Studies in Honor of Edgar C. Palomé, edited by Mohammad Ali Jazayery and Werner Winter, pp. 279-85. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter, 1988.

[In the following essay, Hill discusses Hartman's deconstructionist interpretation of selected poems and posits that deconstructionist critics confuse textual with contextual meaning.]

As an academic who has spent a good many years in teaching both literature and linguistics, and in watching and even participating in literary and linguistic analysis, I can not help being repelled by some of the recent developments in...

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Hent de Vries (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: de Vries, Hent. “Deconstruction and America.” In Traveling Theory: France and the United States, edited by Ieme van der Poel and Sophie Bertho, pp. 72-98. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, de Vries presents an overview of issues raised by deconstruction theory as it was introduced and flourished in the United States.]

Much has changed since October 1966, when the famous conference on structuralism took place at Johns Hopkins University, introducing the work of a remarkable group of contemporary French thinkers in the United States. The conference, which featured lectures by Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and...

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Criticism: Deconstruction And Literature

John P. Muller and William J. Richardson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Muller, John P., and William J. Richardson. “The Challenge of Deconstruction.” In The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, pp. 159-72. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Muller and Richardson present a survey of the critical dialogue between Lacan and Derrida regarding Lacan's interpretation of Poe's “The Purloined Letter,” emphasizing that Derrida's method is to “deconstruct logocentrism.”]

Beyond any question, the most serious challenge to Lacan's reading of “The Purloined Letter” comes from his compatriot Jacques Derrida. The challenge is all the more telling because of Derrida's...

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Gavriel Ben-Ephraim (essay date summer 1994)

SOURCE: Ben-Ephraim, Gavriel. “Making and Breaking Meaning: Deconstruction, Four-Level Allegory, and The Metamorphosis.Midwest Quarterly 35, no. 4 (summer 1994): 450-67.

[In the following essay, Ben-Ephraim demonstrates how Kafka both builds up and deconstructs the traditional pattern of allegory in his The Metamorphosis.]

From Quintilian to Angus Fletcher critics have noted allegory's doubled significance; “twice-told,” but many times understood, allegory invariably means more than it says. To supplement meaning, allegory characteristically enfolds abstract significance in narrative images. These suggestions may be provided by presences...

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Lance St. John Butler (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Butler, Lance St. John. “Beckett's Stage of Deconstruction.” In Twentieth-Century European Drama, edited by Brian Docherty, pp. 63-77. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Butler examines deconstructive elements in several plays by Beckett, suggesting that in them Beckett attempts to “escape … from the tyranny of the signifier.”]

Beckett is the poet of the poststructuralist age. In his plays, as in all his work, we are offered something like a version of the world according to Derrida. Where Beckett has already given up the search for determinable meaning, in the 1940s and 1950s, as a vain pursuit, poststructuralism would...

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Isobel M. Findlay (essay date September 1995)

SOURCE: Findlay, Isobel M. “‘Word-Perfect But Deed-Demented’: Canon Formation, Deconstruction, and the Challenge of D. H. Lawrence.” Mosaic 28, no. 3 (September 1995): 57-81.

[In the following essay, Findlay considers Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature in light of deconstructionist critical methodology, emphasizing his belief in multiple textual meanings.]

In recent decades changing faculty and student bodies and new methodologies have raised questions about the nature and distribution of power and authority, challenging traditional institutional, disciplinary and discursive protocols. Not surprisingly, the consequent reconstitution of...

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Shawn St. Jean (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: St. Jean, Shawn. “Social Deconstruction and An American Tragedy.Dreiser Studies 28, no. 1 (spring 1997): 3-24.

[In the following essay, St. Jean explores how a deconstructionist approach to Dreiser's An American Tragedy illuminates his focus on the relativism of truth in the novel.]

Of all major aspects of his work, Theodore Dreiser's social criticism is perhaps the most elusive and has therefore received the least sustained critical attention. It cannot be called obvious at any level, else readers would not be forced to wonder over such basic issues as whether a book like The Financier (1912) is a celebration or an indictment of...

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Criticism: Deconstruction In Philosophy And History

Edward Said, M.-R. Logan, Eugenio Donato, et al (essay date fall 1979)

SOURCE: Said, Edward, M.-R. Logan, Eugenio Donato, et al. “An Exchange on Deconstruction and History.” boundary 2 8, no. 1 (fall 1979): 65-74.

[In the following conversation following a presentation, Said, Logan, Donato, and others discuss some theoretical implications of deconstruction for the study of history.]

I'm sorry, I'm not sure that I can be as brief as you would like, because I have a number of things to say on what both of the speakers have said. I think these things are important for the general discussion of critical theory that we have been having here. Now, as you know, I have a great admiration for both of your work, and...

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David B. Allison (essay date fall 1979)

SOURCE: Allison, David B. “Destruction/Deconstruction in the Text of Nietzsche.” boundary 2 8, no. 1 (fall 1979): 197-222.

[In the following essay, Allison examines elements of deconstruction theory in several texts by Nietzsche, also commenting on Derrida's interpretation of those texts.]

The paper I'd like to present—“Destruction/Deconstruction in the Text of Nietzsche”—is composed of two parts, two quite different parts. The first and shorter part deals with the issue of a deconstructive style within the text of Nietzsche, and the second is concerned with such an operation as performed upon Nietzsche's text—i.e., by someone else...

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Jonathan Culler (essay date autumn 1979)

SOURCE: Culler, Jonathan. “Semiotics and Deconstruction.”1Poetics Today 1, no. 1-2 (autumn 1979): 137-41.

[In the following essay, Culler examines the interplay between deconstruction methodology and semiotics, noting that semiotics can benefit from “the most rigorous pursuit of logic” in the text that is the hallmark of deconstruction.]

The moment when semiotics is becoming well-established in America—a subject of conferences, a topic of university courses, and even a domain to which people in various traditional disciplines are beginning to relate their own work—is also, as is perhaps only appropriate, a moment when semiotics finds itself under...

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Christina M. Howells (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Howells, Christina M. “Derrida and Sartre: Hegel's Death Knell.” In Continental Philosophy II: Derrida and Deconstruction, edited by Hugh J. Silverman, pp. 169-81. London: Routledge, 1989.

[In the following essay, Howells discusses the textual interplay between the works of Hegel, Sartre, and Derrida—with Derrida attempting to refute Sartre, and both Derrida and Sartre attempting to refute Hegel.]

Ils ne savent pas qu'en fait ils décapitent, pour ainsi dire, l'hydre.

(Jacques Derrida, Glas, p. 118)

Derrida and Sartre spend much of their philosophical energy in a...

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Walter Benn Michaels (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Michaels, Walter Benn. “‘You Who Never Was There’: Slavery and the New Historicism—Deconstruction and the Holocaust.” In The Americanization of the Holocaust, edited by Hilene Flanzbaum, pp. 181-97. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Michaels uses the example of the treatment of the Holocaust by American academics as an example of the importance of upholding cultural myths.]


The title of this section is derived from Paul Veyne's Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?—a book that I read several years ago, first with great eagerness...

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Further Reading


Bové, Paul A. “Beckett's Dreadful Postmodern: The Deconstruction of Form in Molloy.” In De-Structing the Novel: Essays in Applied Postmodern Hermeneutics, edited by Leonard Orr, pp. 185-221. Troy, N.Y.: The Whiston Publishing Company, 1982.

Compares Kierkegaard's deconstruction of aesthetic form in his works with that of Beckett in Molloy, concluding that both writers push their readers into unfamiliar territory where they can explore their “own forgotten possibilities.”

Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981, 242 p....

(The entire section is 248 words.)