In short: Deconstruction is a practice of reading texts that revolves around the (in)stability of linguistic signs and their meaning.
What is Deconstruction?
Structuralism, which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, reached its peak in France in the 1960s. Structuralism, grounded in the theory of signs by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (3), is particularly concerned with the assumption that there are underlying structures to everything that produce objective, definitive meaning and provide the framework within which actions can be performed. Poststructuralism, which began to emerge in the mid-1960s, called into question the existence of such structures. It was now necessary to break up the previously assumed stable structures and let them collapse (3). An important approach to this was deconstruction, which goes back to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). He first spoke of deconstruction in his book "Of grammatology", published in 1967.
With his approach of deconstruction, Derrida criticized structuralism and illustrated this with the example of Saussure's sign system (7). Fundamental to Saussure's sign system is the assumption that a linguistic sign always consists of a signified (e.g., an object), and a signifier (e.g., a word for this object). The figure on the right exemplifies the linguistic sign "tree" with its two components - the content level (signified) and the expression level (signifier). According to Saussure, a signifier is assigned - arbitrarily but nevertheless unambiguously - to a signified, and the meaning of the signified results from the demarcation of the signifier from other signifiers - often as binary opposites (3, 6). The idea is that the tree - the signified - can be unambiguously explained by the word „tree“ – the signifier - because the word „tree“ can clearly be differentiated from other words.
Derrida saw a problem in this unambiguous assignment and the resulting binary opposition structure. For Derrida, signifier and signified do not stand in an unambiguous relationship; rather, their positions in the system can change. That is, a signified can become a signifier and vice versa. For the example of "tree" this can be explained as follows: If the sign "tree" is unknown in its meaning, one can look up the signifier T R E E and receive a (simplified) meaning, i.e. the signified, "plant". At the same time, "plant" in this case is also another linguistic sign. If one now also does not know the meaning of the sign "plant", one again looks up the signifier P L A N T. This way, "plant", which was originally the signified for the sign „tree“ becomes the signifier of another sign with ist own signified. Consequently, the previously assumed/existing structure of the sign is not rigid and unambiguous, but unstable and movable (3).
In addition, Derrida assumed that an unambiguous meaning could never be achieved, since every sign with its signifier always refers to other signs that either precede or follow it, and accordingly deconstructs and shifts its own meaning (7). He therefore introduced the neologism ‚différance‘. Différance describes the never-ending shift in meaning that results from the instability and ambiguity of concepts. It highlights that a term can have several meanings or its meaning can be shifted, depending on the context in which it exists and is read (5).
In this sense, a sign is to be understood as a construct and deconstruction offers a possibility to deal with it (5). The main point is to emphasize the non-naturalness, the non-originality of a term and to show the external influences that have shaped it in the course of time (5). That is, terms can never depict absolutely unambiguously and universally what they try to depict, since they usually once held a completely different - or at least slightly shifted - meaning. Thus, they unconsciously always say more or something else than they want to say. With deconstruction, this historicity - Derrida spoke of ‚trace‘ - of concepts is to be uncovered and made visible. It shall be shown that there is neither a first, original nor a last, final meaning (5).
Especially the rigid, binary opposition structures of structuralism (e.g. language/writing, man/woman, reason/madness, heterosexuality/homosexuality) are supposed to be broken up with the help of deconstruction. Derrida perceived this in its strict hierarchy of values as not neutral and consequently not logical (3). Due to the hierarchical structure, one part would always be perceived as original/"normal"/superior, while the other part would be seen as derivative and thus less valuable. However, Derrida's goal in deconstruction was not to completely abandon the concepts or to reverse the hierarchy of values, because in his opinion the concepts depend on each other and constitute each other in the first place. Instead, deconstruction should shift the entire system, which with its rigid structures enables the formation of such hierarchies, by making visible the instability and ambiguity of the individual concepts (2).
Deconstruction, however, was conceived by Derrida less as "a method or some tool that you apply to something from the outside" (Derrida & Caputo 2020, p.9). While scientific methods are seen as "settled and stable" (Feustel 2015, p.15), deconstruction instead emphasizes the instability not only of the respective object, but also of one's own approach and goal (5). Accordingly, deconstruction is to be seen more as an art of reading, of shifting meaning, which occurs from within but must be made visible (4). Derrida's deconstruction influenced, especially in the USA, the so-called Yale School, whose representatives included Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman and Hillis Miller. They conceived of deconstruction as a poststructuralist reading for the analysis and critique of texts, and developed it further in their own work (1).
Deconstruction is also drawn upon in gender and queer studies. Deconstruction is particularly prominently linked to gender theory in the work of the US philo-sopher Judith Butler. Butler questions and deconstructs the sex-gender distinction by hypothesizing that not only social sex (gender) but also biological sex (sex) is only constituted by the - partly socially enforced - constant repetition of certain practices and thus cannot be assumed as natural (2). Other representatives of deconstructive feminist theory include Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
(1) Babka, A. Posselt, G. 2003. Dekonstruktion. In: produktive differenzen.forum für differenz- und genderforschung. Available at https://differenzen.univie.ac.at/glossar.php?sp=3.
(2) Babka, A. Posselt, G. 2016. Gender und Dekonstruktion. Begriffe und kommentierte Grundlagentexte der Gender- und Queer-Theorie. Wien, Stuttgart: Facultas.
(3) Dahlerup, P. 1998. Dekonstruktion. Die Literaturtheorie der 1990er. Berlin: De Gruyter.
(4) Derrida, J. Caputo, J. D. 2020. Deconstruction in a Nutshell. New York: Fordham University Press.
(5) Feustel, R. 2015. Die Kunst des Verschiebens. Dekonstruktion für Einsteiger. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink.
(6) Posselt, G. 2003. Struktur. In: produktive differenzen.forum für differenz- und genderforschung. Available at https://differenzen.univie.ac.at/glossar.php?sp=5.
(7) Zima, P. V. 2016. Die Dekonstruktion. Einführung und Kritik. 2nd Edition. Tübingen: A. Francke Verlag.
The author of this entry is Greta Bosse.