What is Deconstruction?

What is deconstruction? The use of the copula calls for a definition. It defines the subject of this enquiry. The use of the interrogative calls for this enquiry to be one which defines the subject. Rather than attempt to define deconstruction I am going to interrogate or investigate deconstruction and try to force it to reveal itself on its own terms. Deconstruction is a subject that eludes definition. As Derrida says, "All sentences of the type "Deconstruction is X"... miss the point,"1 a point I shall probably return to later. Some-thing (some argument etc.) is something that can be deconstructed, or rather it deconstructs itself. Deconstruction is something that can be understood. As a word it can be delimited and/or its value may be seen through its contrast and opposition to other words such as "ecriture," "trace," "differance," "supplement," "hymen," "pharmakon," "marge, "entame" and "parergon.""2 By examining events of deconstruction and the context in which such events take place we are able to discover not so much what but where and how deconstruction is.

Deconstruction takes place within the context of all other modes of philosophical discourse: critique; analysis; empiricist, metaphysical, theological, logical, phenomenological etc.. Perhaps most importantly it happens against the backdrop of structural analysis. Structural analysis, the methodology of which was taken largely from the method of structural linguistics (the structural analysis of linguistics) of Saussure. Structural analysis became popular in France in the 1960's and was used not only by philosophers and linguists but also by anthropologists, sociologists and so on. The structures that were uncovered by structural analysis were not a new invention, many having been in place since at least the time of Plato and Aristotle. Indeed one of the most important structures of thought, which underwrites many interrelated structures and was directly inherited by Saussure, almost without the slightest consideration, was also inherited by structuralist thinkers with similar ignorance. The most basic form of a structure is a binary opposition. Binary oppositions can be found in both the Judeo-Christian tradition (i.e. good/evil) as well as in the Platonic tradition and so it is not surprising that it is this form of structure which has dominated "western" thought ever since. These binary oppositions are a result of, or a symptom of, the idea (and perhaps in some cases the desire) of a center such as an origin (historical or otherwise), a Truth, an Ideal (Platonic) Form, a Fixed Point, an Immovable Mover, an Essence, A God, a Presence etc., usually capitalised and serving as the basis and guarantor of all meaning.3 The history of these structures and their future, in the form of structural analysis, is combined in Saussure's structural linguistics.

The problem for Derrida is not that these structures exist but that one half of a binary opposition takes on the role of the centre while the other half is marginalised, excluded and determined only through its opposition to the central position as Other. Furthermore it is an essential feature of centres that the Other be fixed in its marginalised position, thus freezing the "play" of binary oppositions and asserting the dominance of the centre in the structure. In a discourse where the centre is asserted, or it is argued that one side of the binary opposition is dominant for whatever reasons may be conjured up, the Other becomes the negative side/component of the centre. As Other it is all that the centre is not or the negation of what the centre is. Deconstruction places these binary oppositions back into the field of play so that the dominance of one side or the other is no longer privileged from the outset and so it can be shown that neither side can assert its dominance over the other. Deconstruction does not decentre binary oppositions merely for the sake of it. A centre becomes decentred when the structure (or system) deconstructs and reveals that the structure signifies both terms in the binary opposition. A deconstructive reading (/event) first of all makes us aware of the centrality of the centre, reveals that the Other can just as easily become the centre (subverting the centre to the marginalised role) without necessarily asserting that it does so even if in the course of a deconstructive event it does so temporarily. Rather than allowing one side of a binary opposition to become the centre one should always allow the free play of them so that they do not become fixed and so that neither term becomes marginalised.

One such binary opposition which I would like to look at as an example of how deconstruction works is the speech/writing opposition. I alluded to this binary opposition earlier as that which is found in western thought as early as Plato and right up to the modern day in Rousseau, Saussure and Levi-Strauss. In this binary opposition speech is favoured over writing, the spoken word preferred to the written. This binary opposition supports many other like oppositions such as presence/absence, reality/appearance, nature/culture, inside/outside etc. Derrida refers to this bias as logocentrism. This logocentrism is found in Plato where speech is favoured over writing as presence preferred to absence, memory to forgetting, reality (of knowledge) to appearance (of knowledge) and it is said that writing is as far removed from the Platonic forms as painting or art, it is a second level of abstraction.4 This Logocentrism is carried over into Saussure as the phonocentric foundation for his science of linguistics. In this logocentric tradition phonetic writing exists only as a replacement for spoken words, it is "derivative, accidental, particular, exterior, doubling the signifier: phonetic. "Sign of a sign," said Aristotle, Rousseau and Hegel."5 The phonocentric linguistics of Saussure states that the object of linguistic studies is the spoken word.6 With spoken words taking up centre stage in the science of linguistics written words are pushed to the margins and the outside of the study of linguistics. In his discussion of the written word Saussure limits his discussion to "phonetic" scripts particularly to those that have been used in the west and have a common origin in the Greek alphabet.7 This excludes ideographic and pictographic scripts. The degrees of indexicality and iconicity, in the Peircian sense, of such scripts would provide a problem for Saussure as one of the tenets of his doctrine of the sign is that the sign is fundamentally arbitrary. For Saussure the arbitrary nature of the sign justifies his exclusion of ideographic and pictographic scripts, this exclusion in turn allows Saussure to set boundaries on language and to demarcate what is to be interior and exterior to the system of language.8 Writing, excluded from the interior of the system of language and serving only as a representation of language is therefore seen as an unnatural form of language. Written signs are therefore seen to be naturally subordinate to spoken signs, a natural order of relationships is established between them.9

Having outlined the demonisation of writing and its expulsion from the realm of language Derrida begins to deconstruct this logocentric tradition as it is found in Saussure. Deconstruction does not however begin from a position external to the system nor even external to the very text that outlines it. Derrida begins the process of deconstruction with a statement in Saussure that says that "the graphic form of words strikes us as being something permanent and stable, better suited than sound to constitute the unity of language throughout time" and asking the question: "Is that not a natural phenomenon too?"10 Deconstruction will show that writing has just as much right to be called a "natural phenomenon" or perhaps that neither speaking nor writing can lay claim to this distinction. More importantly deconstruction will show that writing is not a parasitic entity that attaches itself to an "innocent" language and that language is already itself "writing" in a much broader sense of the term that Derrida wants to attribute to it.11 As evidence of this Derrida sites that fact that Saussure finds it difficult to prove that are any phonemes anterior to writing.12 "Writing is not a sign of a sign, except if one says it of all signs, which would be more profoundly true."13 The next step in deconstruction is to show how writing can in fact be central to Saussure's own theory of linguistics. Saussure says that the linguistic sign is arbitrary and unmotivated, that the link between a signifier and a signified is purely arbitrary and unmotivated.14 A sign functions as a sign only through its differance to/from other signs within the system. This facet of all systems of signification is what Derrida calls the instituted trace.15 Any word, spoken or written, implies that it can be traced back to the system which it inhabits and from which it derives its signification and value. The trace reveals that it comes from a system in which the play of differences between words is what is important to it being a recognisable word with a more or less specific signification. In this play of differences between specific signifiers the concepts to which they are attached (signifieds) are themselves only distinguished through their difference from other concepts. The trace reflects the fact that signs do not emerge fully formed out of ether. Signs emerge from within a system, they grow and develop from out of these other signs in the system.16 The trace is the evidence of this fact. A spoken word cannot be seen to be the presence of a thought/concept /signified as any sign, spoken or written, can only be present within its system or language. In the Peircian scheme each signifier is a representamen which is attached to an interpretant which is linked to another interpretant attached to another signifier and so on. The interpretant is the aspect of the sign which reveals its trace.

Derrida suggests that the only reason that writing could be accused of being derivative is due to the fact that an "original" or "natural" language had never existed in the way in which it is supposed that it did.17 The spoken language which it is logically assumed preceded writing was always a type of writing which Derrida calls "arche-writing." Writing could not have come into being except for the fact that it is desirable that a sign be clearly delimited, a task that writing is perhaps better suited to handle. Writing therefore did not come from outside of language but from its very core, signifying "the most formidable difference" and perhaps completing the task of language or, rather, making language complete.18 As neither writing nor speech can serve as the template for the other, as there is no standard against which to measure language, language must always remain precariously balanced on its own feet. As Hjelslev has pointed out Saussure recognised that language can never be thought of as anything more than a game.19 There is no stable signified or stable meaning that can provide the foundation or origin of the system. Speech has been decentred in the speech/writing opposition but its place has not been assumed by writing. Both must share the same position within language. The play of differance is the main mechanism in the functioning of a language and as each word relies on this play they reveal their dependence on it (trace). This is how deconstruction works, how it deconstructs a binary opposition uncovering the prejudices that have led to the centralisation of one term and allowing the system to show what is really at issue within the discourse.

As the above clearly shows it is difficult to give an example of an event of deconstruction without getting entirely caught up in the topic of the deconstruction, such is the deceptive and indefinable nature of it. In this example some of the words that Derrida uses in conjunction with "deconstruction" such as "trace" and "differance" have appeared and if one were to look at other examples of deconstruction carried out by Derrida many of the other words which he closely associates with deconstruction would also appear. However these words mark out their own territory and can only determine aspects of deconstruction. Deconstruction is not however the collection of all the terms, which are endless in number and by definition cannot become a closed list of terms which negates the possibility of them ever coming together to define deconstruction.20 Whatever terms can be used to determine aspects of deconstruction, deconstruction is always that and more.

Derrida first used the word deconstruction when he wanted to translate and make use of the Heideggerian word Destruktion or Abbau.21 When Heidegger uses the word destruktion he speaks of a destrukuring of the history of ontology.22 Heideggers intentions are not to destroy the history of ontology but to go beyond the metaphysics of transcendental subjectivity and return to the ontological question of Being. Just as a certain prejudice allowed speech to be seen as "natural" and of primary importance and so on, a certain response to the question of Being had also been allowed to dominate western thought since Plato and which claimed to be ontological. Heidegger wished to look past this response and to investigate the question of Being in an ontological way without confusing ontology with the history of metaphysics or with ontic responses to the question of Being.23 The Heideggarian approach to the question of Being could be seen as a deconstructionist approach (though not a Derridian approach). This is the type of approach that Derrida had in mind when he wished to use the Heideggerian word Destruktion but because the French (and for that matter English) translation, "destruction," is too easily associated with "demolition," "annihilation" or a "negative reduction" Derrida had to find an alternative word to use.24 Of course the word he settled on was Deconstruction, some of the dictionary meanings of which are as follows: "action of deconstructing ... to disassemble the parts of a whole ... to deconstruct itself, to loose its construction ... a language reaching its own state of perfection is deconstructed and altered from within itself according to the single law of change, natural to the human mind."25 Derrida does not suggest that these meanings in any way aptly define the way in which he uses the word but it does show that the word already contained some of the value/s which he was going to ascribe to it. Derrida also states that Deconstruction is not an analysis as it is "not a regression toward a simple element, toward a simple origin," nor is it a critique as decision, choice, judgement, discernment and "all the apparatus of transcendental critique are one of the essential "themes" or "objects" of deconstruction, nor is deconstruction a method and it "cannot be transformed into one," "deconstruction is not even an act or an operation."26 So what is it then? "Deconstruction takes place, it is an event that does not await the deliberation, consciousness, or organisation of a subject, or even of modernity. It deconstruct it-self. It can be deconstructed ... It is in deconstruction."27 Whensoever deconstruction can be said to occur the object of that deconstruction is deconstructing itself, is in deconstruction. Deconstruction does not happen to it nor is it being deconstructed, it is perhaps deconstructing itself. Above all else "deconstruction is not X," "deconstruction is precisely the delimiting of ontology and above all of the third person present indicative: S is P."28 Deconstruction is not anything but what it is, it is nothing except for what occurs within it. To take the example of deconstruction above: Language is not X. Language is not speech, nor is it writing. It is both, it is neither, and it is more than both. Deconstruction is not trace, difference, supplement etc. It is all of these, none of these and more than all of them.

Deconstruction is not a ready made formula for analysis, nor method, nor critique and so on. It is as it were just another word that has come to be associated, more so than any other word, with a particular device (or tool or style) which can be used in philosophy as well as in other disciplines. Part of the difficulty in understanding deconstruction is that the language which it is forced to use is also that of "traditional" philosophy and logocentrism which is why Derrida often places certain words under erasure to show that while they are necessary in their usage they are not adequate to describe the play of differences common to both. What deconstruction does is it unlocks fixed binary oppositions to allow the play of differences to show that neither term or concept can truly be thought without one or the other. It takes structures in which one term has been allowed to become centralised at the expense of the other and renders the binary opposition decentralised. Deconstruction does not destroy structures it decentres them. Perhaps the last word on this subject should be left to Derrida:

"What deconstruction is not? everything of course!
What is deconstruction? nothing of course!"29
  1. Critchley, S., and Mooney, T., Deconstruction and Derrida, in Kearney, R. (ed.), Routledge History of Philosophy vol. VIII: Continental Philosophy in the 20th Century, (London, 1994), pp. 441-473.
  2. Culler, J., On Deconstruction, (London, 1982).
  3. Derrida, J., Of Grammatology, (Baltimore, 1976).
  4. Derrida, J., Letter to a Japanese Friend (1983) in Kamuf, P. (ed.) A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, (New York, 1991), pp. 270-276.
  5. De Saussure, F., Course in General Linguistics, trans. Baskin, W., (Glagow, 1974).
  6. Heidegger, M., "Introduction" to Being and Time, in Krell, D.F. (ed.) Heidegger: Basic Writings, (San Francisco, 1993), pp. 108-121.
  7. Johnson, C., Derrida: The Scene of Writing, (London, 1997).
  8. Peirce, C.S., "Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs," in Buchler, J. (ed.) Philosophic Writings of Peirce, (New York, 1955), pp. 97-119.
  9. Plato, Phaedrus in Hamilton, W. (trans.), Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII, (Penguin, 1973). 10. Powell, J., Derrida, (London, 1997).