Deconstruction Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.