Ten ways of thinking about deconstruction

Willy Maley, Department of English Literature

As someone who has been reading Jacques Derrida for ten years, I am still struck dumb when asked to sum up deconstruction, in two words, as the saying goes. Definitions are arguably the most difficult exercises to undertake, as Raymond Williams proved admirably in Keywords. In this short paper I want to offer some ways of thinking about deconstruction, quoting extensively from Derrida where possible. While stressing that all formulations that begin 'Deconstruction is ...' are in a sense missing the point, there are nonetheless quite a few places where Derrida does say what deconstruction might be, or what it does, or at least what it entails. 1

Derrida, defining 'deconstruction', said on one occasion 'America is deconstruction'.2 Similarly, when asked to define 'the state of theory', 'What is the state of theory?', Derrida replied that the state of theory was 'California', or, to be more precise, 'Southern California', where he happened to be teaching at the time.3 Now, on the one hand, this can seem like exactly the kind of thing that gives deconstruction a bad name, particularly in the popular press - in fact, as Derrida has often remarked, 'deconstruction' is a bad name, an 'ugly word', but think for a moment: What is 'America'? What is 'theory'? What are these words, on their own, that stand for complex things? Define 'America', in less than ten words. Sum it up. Look it up in the OED. What is it, where did it come from, how did it get there, how did it become what it is today? Derrida is difficult to read, but he's not, he assures us, difficult for the sake of it. In a sense, I am presenting a provisional response to the question: What is deconstruction?:

1) It is a general theory of text, not a 'textualization' of politics but a politicization of text, of text as a system rather than as a book bound by covers. The Oxford English Dictionary defines text as 'the original words of author especially as opposed to paraphrase of or commentary on them (there is nothing about this in the text; the text is hopelessly corrupt); passage of Scripture quoted as authority or especially chosen as subject of sermon etc.; subject, theme; main body of book as opposed to notes, pictures, etc.; textbook, book prescribed for study, standard book in branch of study, instructively typical'. In Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida first formulated the phrase that has haunted him ever since: 'There is no extra-text', or there is no frame, often interpreted as: 'There is nothing outside - or beyond - the text'.4 This is the impression of deconstruction that sees it as a form of close reading that is blind to larger questions of history and politics, a sort of ultra-formalism. But when Derrida used the phrase he had something else in mind, specifically a desire to undo the opposition between close readings and contextual ones. Thus in a recent essay in Critical Inquiry he writes:

'there is no outside-the-text' signifies that one never accedes to a text without some relation to its contextual opening and that a context is not made up only of what is so trivially called a text, that is, the words of a book or the more or less biodegradable paper document in a library. If one does not understand this initial transformation of the concepts of text ...[and] ... context, one understands nothing about nothing of .... deconstruction ...5

Earlier, in another essay, Derrida reminds his readers that when he says that 'there is nothing outside the text' he has in mind a new, expanded and revised notion of textuality:

all those boundaries that form the running border of what used to be called a text, of what we once thought this word could identify, i.e. the supposed end and beginning of a work, the unity of a corpus, the title, the margins, the signatures, the referential realm outside the frame, and so forth. What has happened ... is a sort of overrun that spoils all these boundaries and divisions and forces us to extend the accredited concept, the dominant notion of a 'text' ... that is no longer a finished corpus of writing, some content enclosed in a book or its margins, but a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces.6

In fact, there is nothing outside the text, far from implying that there is only the text, can be taken to mean that there is only con-text, which is why, as Derrida insists:

An 'internal' reading will always be insufficient. And moreover impossible. Question of context, as everyone knows, there is nothing but context, and therefore: there is no outside-the-text.7

Derrida's enlarged notion of text has been seen, curiously in an academic context, as a reduction of politics. Derrida denies the equation of textualization with trivialization. He maintains that:

It was never our wish to extend the reassuring notion of the text to a whole extra-textual realm and to transform the world into a library by doing away with all boundaries ... but ... we sought rather to work out the theoretical and practical system of these margins, these borders, once more, from the ground up.8

Derrida is out to circumvent both the 'text as world' and the 'world as text'. The book/reality dichotomy.
He is also out to subvert the opposition between close reading (all the formalisms) and contextual reading (all the sociologies of literature). Derrida likens reading to dunking for apples, head submerged, then up gasping for air. Into the text again, and up for air. In The Truth in Painting Derrida writes:

Everything comes down to one of those reading exercises with magnifying glass which calmly claim to lay down the law, in police fashion indeed.
- ['close reading'] can always ... become police-like ... [But] It can also arm you against that other (secret) police which, on the pretext of delivering you from the chains of writing and reading ... hastily lock you up in a supposed outside of the text: the pre-text of perception, of living speech, of bare hands, of living creation, of real history, etc. Pretext indeed to bash on with the most hackneyed, crude, and tired of discourses. And it's also with supposed nontext, naked pre-text, the immediate, that they try to intimidate you, to subject you to the oldest, most dogmatic, most sinisterly authoritarian of programs, to the most massive mediatizing machines.9

So, for deconstruction the distinction between text and context is bogus. A con-text, because this text is not impervious to politics, culture, history and so on, and this context is not something non-textual. Derrida again:

Either the contextual difference changes everything, because it determines from within: in this case, it can hardly be bracketed, even provisionally. Or it leaves certain aspects intact, and this signifies that these aspects can always separate themselves from the allegedly 'original' context in order to export or to graft themselves elsewhere while continuing to function in one way or another ... In order that this either/or not be an alternative or an insurmountable logical contradiction, the value of context must be reelaborated according to a new logic ... Every sign ... can ... break with every given context, is absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any centre or absolute anchoring.10

This last point relates to the deconstructive idea of iterability. Iterability, according to Derrida, 'both puts down roots in the unity of a context and immediately opens this non-saturable context onto a recontextualization'.11

2) Second way of thinking about deconstruction: It is in one sense deliberately eccentric, working in the margins. As Terry Eagleton puts it in Literary Theory:

Derrida's ... typical habit of reading is to settle on some apparently peripheral fragment in the work - a footnote, a recurrent minor term or image, a casual allusion - and work it tenaciously through to the point where it threatens to dismantle the oppositions which govern the text as a whole.12

As Derrida himself says:

I do not 'concentrate' in my reading ... either exclusively or primarily on those points that appear to be the most 'important', 'central', 'crucial'. Rather, I deconcentrate, and it is the secondary, eccentric, lateral, marginal, parasitic, borderline cases which are 'important' to me and are the source of many things, such as pleasure, but also insight into the general functioning of a textual system.13

The margins, then, represent examples and exemplary instances of something apparently much larger and more important:

... 'marginal, fringe' cases ... always constitute the most certain and most decisive indices wherever essential conditions are to be grasped.14

Of course, there is a sense in which whenever we quote from any text, whenever we write criticism, we are writing on the margins. Every example, or quotation, or excerpt is doing the work of metonymy, the part standing for the (imagined) whole.

3) Number three: Deconstruction can be seen as an overcoming of the risk of repetition through revolution. As bell hooks would have it, opposition is not enough. In Positions Derrida states that deconstruction has two stages. Reversal and displacement. Reversal of a binary opposition which is also a violent hierarchy, followed by a reorientation, or displacement of the problem, to avoid repetition. (Opposition followed by juxtaposition might be another way of phrasing this). You cannot skip reversal and move straight on to displacement. Elsewhere Derrida seems to suggest that these two stages need not be executed in that order. Still, reversal and displacement remain one way of thinking about deconstruction. The passage in positions reads:

Therefore we must proceed according to a double gesture, according to a unity that is both systematic and in and of itself divided, a double writing that is, a writing that is in and of itself multiple ... On the other hand, we must traverse a phase of 'overturning'. To do justice to this necessity is to recognise that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a 'vis-a-vis', but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, etc.), or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment. To overlook this phase of overturning is to forget the conflictual and subordinating structure of opposition. Therefore one might proceed too quickly to a 'neutralization' that 'in practice' would leave the previous field untouched, leaving one no hold on the previous opposition, thereby preventing any means of 'intervening' in the field effectively.15

4) Four: Deconstruction can also be seen as an allegorics, or analogics of power. A politics of linkage. Because there is nothing outside the text - everything is included in 'reading', everything counts - connections are constantly made with the so-called 'real' or 'outside' world. One example of this might be Derrida's essay on apartheid, in which he drew an analogy between the state racism of South Africa and the strict separation of academic disciplines.16

5) Number five: History: Although deconstruction is often seen as unhistorical or ahistorical, Derrida contends that, unlike close and contextual readings that want to uphold the text/context distinction, deconstruction is an attempt to recover histories that have been 'repressed', 'minoritized', 'deligitimated'. Derrida claims that it is in fact the most historical of approaches:

One of the most necessary gestures of a deconstructive understanding of history consists ... in transforming things by exhibiting writings, genres, textual strata (which is also to say - since there is no outside-the-text, right - exhibiting institutional, economic, political, pulsive [and so on] 'realities') that have been repulsed, repressed, devalorized, minoritized, deligitimated, occulted by hegemonic canons, in short, all that which certain forces have attempted to melt down into the anonymous mass of an unrecognisable culture, to '(bio)degrade' in the common compost of a memory said to be living and organic.17

6) Number six: Authorship: Deconstruction problematises the notion of author. The author is included in the text - because there's nothing outside the text - but as text, to be read, not as a governing presence.

... what [deconstruction] calls into question is the presence of a fulfilled and actualised intentionality, adequate to itself and its contents.18

Derrida appeals to Freud and the psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious in order to back up his claim that intention is necessarily limited. Note, not that it doesn't exist. But it is limited.
In fact, going back to the subject of children, we can think of Derrida's approach to authorship through recourse to an old metaphor. We are all familiar with the notion of writing as birth and books as children. Often when we think about texts in this way its in terms of authorship - ownership, even - and of intentionality, protection of copyright, whatever. Derrida writes:

This is what happens when one writes a text ... It's like a child - an old topos which has its historical patent of nobility. But a child is not only that toward which or for which a father or mother remains; it is an other who starts talking and goes on talking by itself, without your help, who doesn't even answer you except in your fantasy ... This is also what one does when one has children - talking beings who can always outtalk you.19

Thus for Derrida the idea that texts are children is not one that puts the parent as author in a position of absolute authority. A text, like a child, is a talking being that can outtalk you, that can ask questions that you would blush to think of. I've put a picture of Derrida as a child on the back of the handout from which you can see that while he had his feet firmly on the ground he's also obviously intent on going places.
Now, Derrida's qualification and modification of authorship and intentionality - a limiting rather than a denial of authorship - by no means should be taken to infer that he is not interested in biography, but first and foremost as text - biographies. His life, like any life, is a text. He says:

In a minimal autobiographical trait can be gathered the greatest potentiality of historical, theoretical, linguistic, philosophical culture - that's really what interests me.20

It would be tempting to do as some critics do and tie in the notion of limited authorship with the 'critique of the subject', but Derrida has written on this topic in a way that would warn us off. In 'Biodegradables' he writes:

Another respondent lays into what he believes to be 'the deconstructive method' (p. 799) and believing, since he has obviously never read me, that it consists in taking no account of the 'context' (!!!) and of 'authorial intention', here he is ready to give me a lesson in deconstruction ... Then, by substituting 'post-structuralist' for 'deconstructive', he leaves me the choice only between 'the unified subject' and 'the post-structuralist critique of the unified subject'. Ah, if only things could be that simple! Ah, if only one knew what a 'subject' was and whether it could be only 'unified' or 'nonunified'! After having recalled the 'post-structuralist critique of the unified subject', just so many words that have no meaning for me and that one would have a lot of trouble articulating with anything I have ever written, the same author calmly adds this, which has no meaning for me: 'But Derrida apparently doesn't believe that the critique of the unified subject applies to [Paul] de Man'. (p. 801) Come on, would anyone ever have talked or heard talk of deconstruction for more than ten minutes if it came down to such derisory dogmas or such stupid monoliths as these (of the sort: 'I don't believe there is any context! There is no authorial intention! There is no subject! No unified subject! We have to stop paying attention to these things!'). One shows considerable contempt for many colleagues or students if one believes they are silly enough or credulous enough to interest themselves in such simple and pitiful discourses. Unless it is quite simply reading that is the object of one's contempt and one's fear.21

Thus the question of intentionality comes back to the question of reading.

7) Number seven: Repetition: You become like the thing you criticize. Oppositional writing always runs the risk of reappropriation. There are a myriad of references here, everything on parasitism, for a start, and most of 'Limited Inc'. In Specters of Marx Derrida asks: 'But how to distinguish between the analysis that denounces magic and the counter-magic that it still risks being?'22

8) Number eight is related: Parody or pastiche?: Deconstruction is postmodernist insofar as it inhabits - in a parasitic way - the texts that it reads. There is a kind of miming, or 'sampling', that goes on. This is both a question of fidelity and of parody, but by resorting to several styles, what starts out as parody quickly turns into pastiche.

9) Number nine: Deconstruction is a hauntology, rather than an ontology, a theory of ghosts. A belief in the ghostliness of being. The self, according to Derrida is a ghost. The first ghost we are host to. Derrida believes in ghosts, and in telepathy. Now the belief in ghosts might be related to a theory of literature, of culture, of the archive, of ancestors, of tradition. It is also related to the deconstructive insistence that the subject or author is never fully present to itself. Absence is ghostliness. Literature, of course, is a favourite haunt of ghosts. One thinks here of Hamlet, of Toni Morrison's Beloved, but also of Joyce. In the library in Ulysses Stephen asks: 'What is a ghost?', and answers, one who is not here. Derrida, for example, despite my desperate attempts at a conjuration. For Derrida, there is no politics without ghosts, without a relation to the past, the dead:

... the relation to the other (in itself outside myself, outside myself in myself) will never be indistinguishable from a bereaved apprehension. The relevance of the question of knowing whether it is from one's own proper death or from the other's death that the relation to death or the certitude of death is instituted is thus limited from the start ... It may even engage the political in its essence. In an economic, elliptic, hence dogmatic way, I would say that there is no politics without an organization of the time and space of mourning, without a topolitology of the sepulchre, without an anamnesic and thematic relation to the spirit as ghost [revenant], without an open hospitality to the guest as ghost ... whom one holds, just as he holds us, hostage.23

Derrida's interest in ghosts is linked also to technology, science and virtuality. He says: 'There has never been a scholar who really, and as a scholar, deals with ghosts. A traditional scholar does not believe in ghosts - nor in all that could be called the virtual space of spectrality'.24

10) Number ten: Marxism: Deconstruction is 'a radicalization of Marxism', claims Derrida, a radicalization in terms of its conception of work, ideology, and ghosts.25 Thirty years ago Derrida had asked the question in Of Grammatology:

Is it sufficient to speak of superstructure and to denounce in an hypothesis an exploitation of man by man in order to confer a Marxian pertinence upon this hypothesis?26

In other words what does one have to say or do in order to be a Marxist? Thirty years later, in Specters of Marx, Derrida is asking the same question: 'Who can say that they are not a marxist?' and 'What does one have to do or say in order to be a marxist?' Bearing in mind that the first person to deny being a marxist was Marx himself.27 Given that Derrida himself has apparently disowned the word, or at least distanced himself from it, one might ask: What does one have to do or say in order to be a deconstructivist?

1. For example, Jacques Derrida, 'Letter to a Japanese friend', trans. David Wood and Andrew Benjamin, in David Wood and Robert Bernasconi (eds.), Derrida and Différance (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988), pp. 1-5. For another attempt to grapple with deconstruction in a pedagogical context see Michael Ryan, 'Deconstruction and radical teaching', Yale French Studies 63 (1982), pp. 45-58.
2. Jacques Derrida, Memoires for Paul de Man, trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, Eduardo Cadava, and Peggy Kamuf (New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 18.
3. Jacques Derrida, 'Some Statements and Truisms about Neologisms, Newisms, Postisms, Parasitisms, and Other Small Seismisms', trans. Anne Tomiche, in David Carroll (ed.), The States of 'Theory': History, Art, and Critical Discourse (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 63.
4. Jacques Derrida, 'The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing', in Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1976), p. 158.
5. Jacques Derrida, 'Biodegradables: seven diary fragments', trans. Peggy Kamuf, Critical Inquiry 15, 4 (1989), p. 841.
6. Jacques Derrida, 'Living On: Border Lines', trans. James Hulbert, in Bloom et al Deconstruction and Criticism (London: Routledge, 1979), p. 81; pp. 83-84. See also Jacques Derrida, 'Form and Meaning: A Note on the Phenomenology of Language', Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. D. B. Allison (Evanston ; Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 107-28.
7. Derrida, 'Biodegradables', p. 873. In a recent essay on The Tempest, Francis Barker and Peter Hulme use the word 'con-text' in order to highlight this problem: 'Con-texts with a hyphen, to signify a break from the inequality of the usual text/context relationship. Con-texts are themselves texts and must be read with: they do not simply make up a background'. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, 'Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest', in John Drakakis (ed.), Alternative Shakespeares (London; Methuen, 1985), p. 236, n. 7.
8. Derrida, 'Living On: Border Lines', p. 84.
9. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1987), pp. 326-27.
10. Jacques Derrida, 'Limited Inc', Glyph 2 (1977), p. 220.
11. 'This strange institution called literature": an interview with Jacques Derrida', in Derek Attridge (ed.), Jacques Derrida: Acts of Literature (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 63.
12. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), pp. 133-34.
13. Derrida, 'Limited Inc', p. 209.
14. Derrida, 'Limited Inc', p. 209.
15. Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (London: The Athlone Press, 1981), p. 41.
16. Jacques Derrida, 'But Beyond ... (Open Letter to Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon)', trans. Peggy Kamuf, in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (ed.), 'Race', Writing, and Difference (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986), p. 369.
17. Derrida, 'Biodegradables', p. 821.
18. Derrida, 'Limited Inc', pp. 202-203.
19. Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), pp. 157-8.
20. Derrida, '"That strange institution called literature"', p. 43.
21. Derrida, 'Biodegradables', pp. 826-27.
22. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 46-7.
23. Jacques Derrida, Aporias: Dying - awaiting (one another at) the limits of truth, trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 61-62.
24. Derrida, Specters of Marx, p. 11.
25. Derrida, Specters of Marx, p. 92.
26. Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 120.
27. Derrida, Specters of Marx, p. 34

::source: http://www2.arts.gla.ac.uk/SESLL/EngLit/ugrad/hons/theory/Ten%20Ways.htm