The structuralism conference at The Johns Hopkins University in 1966 was intended to introduce into the United States structuralist theory, an approach to reading in which a poem or novel is viewed as a closed entity that has specific meanings. When Jacques Derrida read his paper, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” the demise of structuralism and the arrival of a new theory, deconstruction, was unexpectedly announced.
Deconstruction has since become the main philosophical tenet of poststructuralism, an intellectual movement that is largely a reaction to structuralism. Poststructuralism includes not only the deconstructive analyses of Derrida, who has had an enormous influence on the development of literary theory, but also the work of other French intellectuals, including the historian Michel Foucault, the feminist philosopher and critic Julie Kristeva, and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.
Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of modern structuralist linguistics, saw language as a closed, stable system of signs, and this view forms much of the foundation of structuralist thought. These signs helped structuralists to arrive at a better understanding of a text, because it was thought that they offered consistent, logical representations of the order of things, or what Foucault called “a principle of unity.”
Rather than attempting to understand the logical structure of things, poststructuralism, and deconstruction in particular, attempts to do much more: It attempts to understand the limits of understanding. Deconstruction is an extraordinarily complex strategy of reading that is based primarily on two presuppositions.
The first presupposition relies heavily on Saussure’s notion of signs; however, Derrida argues that rather than representing the order of things, signs represent disorder, because they can never be nailed down to a single meaning. He posits that because meaning is irreducibly plural, language can never be a closed and stable system.
The second presupposition involves Derrida’s observation of Western modes of thought. He noticed that “universal truths” have gone unquestioned in terms of their “rightness,” and that these concepts are defined by what they exclude, their binary opposites (for example, man is defined as the opposite of the identity that...
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