Deconstruction theory, derived from the works of philosopher Jacques Derrida, is a theory of literary analysis that opposes the assumptions of structuralism. Its primary purpose is to discern the relationship between text and meaning. In performing this task, deconstruction theory is critical of the structuralist ideas of logocentrism and binary oppositions and instead seeks to understand the meaning as abstract and fluid.
Deconstruction may be seen as a means to understand the relationship between text and meaning, institution and nature, dichotomies and the hierarchies created by language. It stands as a form of literary and philosophical analysis that has been derived from the works of the post-structuralist philosopher Jaques Derrida. His work asserts that meaning is not static and instead continually evolves and varies across time and space. Furthermore, he maintains that language is derivative, i.e., words derive meaning from other words rather than from some absolute truth. While explaining the dynamic quality of meaning in language, Derrida writes about binary oppositions and how meaning exists as an inherently unstable force. In illustrating the idea of deconstruction, Derrida critiques the Western philosophical notion of logocentrism and instead argues that linguistic signs must be treated as distinct from the concepts that they represent.
Derrida coined the term “differance”, which forms the basis of the deconstruction theory. It means both a difference and an act of deferring, which together help us understand the meaning. We understand the meaning of words in contrast to the meaning of other words. For example, happiness is understood as an emotion that is not sadness. This takes care of the “difference” aspect of differance. Derrida also argues that the meaning of any word is understood through a continuous process of deferring. He says that in order to understand the definition or meaning of one word, we rely on the meanings of other words that define it. This constant process of competing interpretations and eternal deferring is a testament to the fact that meaning is not fixed.
Derrida was critical of the idea of logocentrism – the traditional Western philosophical belief that writing and language are indicative of some external reality. Derrida opines that a central aspect of traditional Western philosophy is the belief that there exists an absolute, undeniable truth that is then used to theorise meaning. What this means is that this “truth” becomes the centre around which all meaning is created. The idea/term being accorded the title of “truth” is called logos whichis made known to society using language, which translates the term into words. Here, it is essential to note that logocentrism emphasises the difference between the natural (logos) meaning of a term (as it exists abstractly in our thoughts) and its institutionalised meaning (as it exists in writing). For example, while justice is an abstract idea that births subsequent meanings and knowledge, it is institutionalised as law which is a written manifestation of the idea. Derrida, however, opines that the natural and institutionalised meanings of terms cannot be so easily separated. Instead, he says that nature and institution are intricately linked, with one influencing the meaning of the other. Rather than viewing law as an embodiment of justice, we can understand both concepts through their interplay because, as Derrida suggests, nature is constructed with reference to institutions. If we continue to view law as an embodiment of justice, we ignore all the other possible meanings of justice that are not reflected in written law. As a result, deconstruction celebrates the heterogeneity of meaning contained within texts. Deconstruction stands true to the phrase, “There is nothing outside of the text”, by refuting the notion that there is a transcendental origin of meaning. Instead, Derrida says that origin is not independent of its institution but rather a function of it.
Derrida argues that Western culture teaches individuals to think and perceive the world in binaries (good & evil, masculine & feminine, black & white). When we understand the world in terms of such binary oppositions, we inadvertently create hierarchies by according the title of superiority to one half of the binary while deeming the other to be “subordinate”. The existence of such binaries in language reinforces the hierarchies created by them in reality. One of the primary roles of deconstruction is to question such orders by rejecting the idea of ‘fixed meaning’. However, it does not seek to do so by reversing the hierarchies because it would allow a dominant and subordinate dynamic to persist and continue to accept an alternate manifestation of fixed meaning. Instead, deconstruction aims to venture out the borders of oppositional meaning and analyse the origin of ideas so as to impede dominant structures from reasserting themselves. In this sense, deconstruction may be looked at as a process of questioning rather than one that is pursuing “truth”.
Derrida insists that deconstruction should not be viewed as a method because it is not something that can be applied to prove or disprove hypotheses. He also adds that deconstruction is not performed with a particular aim or even deliberately; it is something that just happens around us. As discussed, deconstruction does not strive to dismantle existing structures but instead only seeks to reveal the logic of such systems so that one may understand them better. The process itself is indeterminate and will not help you arrive at a determinate outcome or an absolute truth. It will only open up possibilities of meaning and different ways to understand the ideas and concepts that govern us.
Opposed to the suggestions of structuralism and formalism, Derrida rejects the notion that all texts are structured around a single central idea or reality. Instead, deconstruction seeks to understand texts by negating dichotomies and instead focusing on their undecidability. A deconstructed text, therefore, does not arrive at any permanent and definite meanings. As literary difference critic, J. Hillis Miller wrote in his essay Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure (1976), “Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock but thin air.”