What is post-structuralism and deconstruction, and what is their relationship?

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The "practice" of deconstruction and the associated post-structural theory are both associated with French theorist Jacques Derrida. They involve questioning and upsetting the meaning behind language and concepts that we often take to be self-evident.

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Post-structuralism is a philosophical position that suggests that all events and ideas in life are inherently unstable, but this is especially true of language. Before post-structuralism, the idea was that a word signified a specific concept (a sign and a signifier). However, Jacques Derrida suggests that there is no centralizing inherent structure to words that give them a particular meaning. No two people can have the exact same experiences with a particular word, and thus no word can have the exact same meaning for two people who are in dialogue.

Further, for language to come together in unique ways (that is, for sentences containing the same words to have different meanings depending on how those words are arranged), there must be what Derrida calls "freeplay" in language. Derrida does not go into great depth about what freeplay means, but it is in contrast to the idea of centralizing structures in language. We might think about it in terms of Lego blocks: we can follow all of the instructions and put together a particular item, but that is only if we insist that the Legos must be put together the same way every time.

We can also completely throw the instructions away and create our own constructs with Legos. If Legos were inherently structured in a single way, we would not be able to build other things with those Legos. The same is true of language. But to put these Legos together in novel ways, we also need to be creative and willing to dismiss the instructions that the Legos came with. Derrida suggests, both in "Structure, Sign and Play" (probably his most cited work) as well as On Grammatology, that we need to approach things in a more playful way. Just as much as freeplay is what allows words to be constructed with other words to have different meaning, freeplay is an attitude that allows us to play with and invent new concepts in language, even if those concepts are not universal or transmissible to others.

Deconstruction is the critical attitude/practice that comes with post-structuralism and freeplay. It is a way of reading that tries to show where a hole in meaning or "aporia" appears within a text and begins to void it of any inherent meaning. It often means finding a place in a text where an author's meaning might be interpreted in various, possibly even contradictory ways, or where voice differs (thus the author's voice is unstable). Any piece of literature or art is subject to deconstruction, but some are deconstructive in their messages.

Work that seeks to remove traditional binaries might be considered deconstructive, especially those that trouble notions of race, gender, religion, and so on. Individuals like Susan Butler and Donna Haraway, for instance, suggest that there is no inherent identity for the female gender, and Haraway even suggests that the division between human and robot is not entirely clear. A recent movie that is deconstructive is "Straight Up," as it seeks to trouble notions of heterosexual, homosexual, queer, and asexual relationships, suggesting that individuals may evince any of these qualities at a given time.

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