Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction

Key Concept

The last word on the word (artist: Annie Vought)

Img: Annie Vought | annievought.com

Deconstruction by its very nature defies institutionalization in an authoritative definition. The concept was first outlined by Derrida in Of Grammatology where he explored the interplay between language and the construction of meaning. From this early work, and later works in which he has attempted to explain deconstruction to others, most notably the Letter to a Japanese Friend, it is possible to provide a basic explanation of what deconstruction is commonly understood to mean. Three key features emerge from Derrida’s work as making deconstruction possible. These are, first, the inherent desire to have a centre, or focal point, to structure understanding (logocentrism); second, the reduction of meaning to set definitions that are committed to writing (nothing beyond the text); and, finally, how the reduction of meaning to writing captures opposition within that concept itself (différance). These three features found the possibility of deconstruction as an on-going process of questioning the accepted basis of meaning. While the concept initially arose in the context of language, it is equally applicable to the study of law. Derrida considered deconstruction to be a ‘problematisation of the foundation of law, morality and politics.’1 For him it was both ‘foreseeable and desirable that studies of deconstructive style should culminate in the problematic of law and justice.’2 Deconstruction is therefore a means of interrogating the relationship between the two.

Derrida takes as his starting point the assertion that modern Western philosophy is characterized by and constructed around an inherent desire to place meaning at the centre of presence. Put simply, what this means is that philosophy is driven by a desire for the certainty associated with the existence of an absolute truth, or an objective meaning that makes sense of our place in the world. Derrida terms this desire ‘logocentrism’. Its effect is the placing of one particular term or concept, such as justice, at the centre of all efforts at theorizing or interrogating meaning. The term becomes the core around which meaning is constructed, the reference point that determines all subsequent knowledge. Derrida highlights how logocentrism assumes the existence of set and stable meanings that exist to be discovered. The way in which this term—the logos—is made known is language, the translation into words of a concept or a way of thinking. This is described as the ‘metaphysics of presence’—the way in which we make present the objects of our thought.3 The logos represents nature, which is something different from the instituted form embodied in language or in text. Crucial therefore is the idea of a rigid separation of the origin of meaning (the abstract idea of justice, for example) and the institutionalization of that meaning in ‘writing’ (or law).

For Derrida, it is this logocentrism, and the idea of the exteriority of meaning, that opens up the possibility of deconstruction. He examines how the natural ‘origin’ of meaning and its ‘institution’ in writing cannot be so easily separated. Rather than nature (justice) and institution (law) existing independently of each other, Derrida suggests that nature itself is constructed only with reference to the institution. So rather than law being a direct embodiment of justice, how we understand both justice and law is determined by the interplay between the two. This is a rejection of the rigid separation that makes the quest for certainty possible — of the very idea that justice exists as a prior objective standard to be discovered. By reading law as reflecting or embodying the natural origin of justice, what is ignored or concealed are all the other possible interpretations of justice that are not embodied or encapsulated in the law. In this way writing defines nature, as well as reflecting it.

The idea of deconstruction is therefore concerned with countering the idea of a transcendental origin or natural referent. It refutes the notion that it is possible to transgress the institution in order to discover something beyond — the existence of an independent origin. This idea is famously encapsulated in the phrase ‘There is nothing outside of the text’,4 which is often used to summarise Derrida’s work. For Derrida the origin does not exist independently of its institution, but exists only ‘through its functioning within a classification and therefore within a system of differences…’5 In his own words, Derrida terms this phenomenon ‘différance’,6 and it is this idea that forms the basis of deconstruction. Différance refers to the fact that meaning cannot be regarded as fixed or static, but is constantly evolving. It arises from the constant process of negotiation between competing concepts. Rather than pursuing the truth of a natural origin, what deconstruction requires is the interrogation of these competing interpretations that combine to produce meaning. The act of institution—or writing —itself captures this constant competition between the differing possible interpretations of meaning within the institution. The effect of the translation of thought into language is therefore to inscribe différance into the structure of meaning. It simultaneously embodies the desired meaning as intended by the author, and the constraints placed on that meaning through the act of interpretation of the text. In this regard, meaning is defined equally by what is included in the institution and what is not. At any one time, one concept will be dominant over the other, thus excluding the other. However while the idea of exclusion suggest the absence of any presence of that which is excluded, in fact that which is instituted depends for its existence on what has been excluded. The two exist in a relationship of hierarchy in which one will always be dominant over the other. The dominant concept is the one that manages to legitimate itself as the reflection of the natural order thereby squeezing out competing interpretations that remain trapped as the excluded trace within the dominant meaning.

In Positions Derrida explains how the first task of deconstruction is to overturn the hierarchy. This is necessary to highlight the ‘conflictual and subordinating structure of opposition’.7 It emphasizes the dominance of one particular way of thinking over others, and belies the idea of fixed meaning, overturning, and therefore exposing, the existence of the binary and destabilizing previously fixed categories of understanding. However this is only the first stage. Derrida emphasizes how to remain in this phase is to remain within the oppositional structure, allowing the hierarchy to re-establish itself. If deconstruction is limited to the simple inversion of binaries, then inquiry remains trapped ‘within the closed field of these oppositions’.8 What this means is that instead of making any real change to structural conditions, what is happening is simply swapping the positions of dominant and subordinate, allowing the same conditions to persist. In order to move beyond this dynamic, and to break open the structure itself, a second stage is necessary. This second stage is where the indeterminate element of deconstruction becomes visible. Rather than resting with the inversion of the binaries, and by extension accepting a different manifestation of fixed meaning, the second phase requires us to step outside the oppositions, to remain in search of new meanings, not by repeating ideas but by analyzing how ideas are framed, how arguments are made. Speaking at the Villanova Roundtable, Derrida described this as searching for the ‘tensions, the contradictions, the heterogeneity within [the] corpus’.9 It is only through this element of endless analysis, criticism and deconstruction that we can prevent existing structures of dominance from reasserting themselves.

In this context, deconstruction is concerned not with the discovery of ‘truth’ or of distilling correct conclusions, but rather with the process of questioning itself. It is a process characterized by uncertainty and indeterminacy. For this reason, Derrida explains, deconstruction is not a ‘method’, and it cannot be transformed into one.10 One cannot ‘apply’ deconstruction to test a hypothesis or to support an argument. Rather it is an ongoing process of interrogation concerned with the structure of meaning itself. As explained in ‘Letter to a Japanese Friend’, for Derrida deconstruction is neither analysis nor critique. It is not done with a particular aim. It is not a search for a ‘simple element’ or ‘indissoluble origin’. The consequence of this is that its value is not linked to any subsequent reconstruction. As discussed above, it does not exist to take apart one structure to replace it with another, but exists simply to reveal the inner logic of that structure so as better to understand it. This has led to the charge that deconstruction is insufficiently concerned with questions of justice and ethics. Derrida is clear, however, that although deconstruction is not primarily concerned with advocacy or activism, nor is it nihilistic or anarchic. It does not reject the need for law and institutions, but rather seeks to work within those structures to reveal new possibilities. It consists of dismantling not institutions themselves, but rather ‘structures within institutions that have become too rigid, or are dogmatic or which work as an obstacle to future research’.11 Deconstruction is therefore an affirmative force that opens up possibilities that have been suppressed by virtue of the dominance of one particular way of conceptualizing justice.

Finally, deconstruction is not an act or an operation. Rather, it is something that happens, something that takes place. It takes place everywhere. It does not require deliberation or consciousness, but rather its potential exists within our structures of meaning. It is interested in exploring and revealing the internal logic of ideas and meaning. It is concerned with opening up these structures and revealing the way in which our understanding of foundational concepts is constructed. This is internal to meaning itself and not dependent on external factors. What this suggests is that the possibility of deconstruction exists within the structure of meaning itself, within the structure of differánce, and is not something to be found and applied from the outside. It is primarily concerned with understanding ideas, not with their application.

Deconstruction does not aim to provide answers. It does not seek to prove an objective truth or to support any one particular claim to justice over another. For this reason deconstruction itself is indeterminate. In Force of Law Derrida concedes that deconstruction is ‘impossible’. The ‘happening’ of deconstruction is not going to lead to a determinate outcome. It will not reveal the one true meaning of justice that can be embodied in law. Rather, deconstruction requires first and foremost the relentless pursuit of the impossible. What is ‘happening’ is not the pursuit of an answer which marks the end of the inquiry, but rather the ongoing questioning that keeps our minds open to the idea that there may be alternative views and understandings of the meaning of justice. When seen in these terms, it is not a method but simply a way of reading, writing, thinking and acting. Rather than seeking an endpoint or a solid conclusion, the means cannot be distinguished from the end. The ongoing process of questioning is the end in itself. It is about negotiating the impossible and the undecidable and, in so doing, remaining open to the possibility of justice.

Dr Catherine Turner, Durham Law School

Call for contributions to ‘Key Concepts’.

Show 11 footnotes

  1. Jacques Derrida, ‘Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority’ in Cornell et al (eds) Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice (Routledge, 1992) 8
  2. Force of Law 7
  3. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Spivak trans.) (John Hopkins Press,1976) 49
  4. Of Grammatology 158
  5. Of Grammatology 109
  6. Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida (University of Chicago Press, 1993) 71
  7. Jacques Derrida, Positions (The Athlone Press, 1981) 41
  8. Positions 41
  9. Jacques Derrida and John D Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (Fordham, 1997) (referred to as the Villanova Roundtable)
  10. Jacques Derrida, ‘Letter to a Japanese Friend’ in Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth G Rottenberg (eds) Psyche: Interventions of the Other Volume III (Stanford University Press, 2008)
  11. Villanova Roundtable 8
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  4 comments for “Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction

  1. Nathan Braga
    30 May 2016 at 1:38 am

    Great article, very good writing and didactic as well.

  2. Louis van Niekerk
    30 May 2016 at 5:02 am

    Excellent exposition of the concept “deconstruction” which by its very nature is elusive to grasp.

    • eric d. meyer
      10 June 2016 at 11:55 pm

      Jacques Derrida’s “Force of Law” (in “Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice”) is crucial to thinking the nexus between deconstruction and critical legal theory, and is must reading for anybody interested in the critical field. Deconstruction often involves the analysis of certain binary dichotomies or dialectical oppositions (spirit/matter, mind/body, culture/nature etc.) which inhabit Western metaphysical thought (e.g. Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”). Deconstructive analysis attempts to show that these binary dichotomies or dialectical oppositions implicitly privilege one term over the other (for example, in Hegelian “Phenomenology,” spirit is privileged over matter, mind over body, culture over nature etc.), and then further shows how that binary dichotomy or dialectical opposition is subverted and overturned by re-privileging the supplementary, deprivileged term over the privileged dominant term (as in Marx, Nietzsche, or Freud, matter is privileged over spirit, body over mind, nature over culture etc. etc.). In “Force of Law,” Derrida argues that Western political theory is based on a binary dichotomy or dialectical opposition which implicitly privileges the sovereign state or rule of “law” over the primordial (“natural”) state of “force” or “violence,” by suggesting that the establishment of a sovereign state and its rule of law necessarily involves the repression or sublimation of the use of force or violence as a solution to conflict. The sovereign state then claims to stop the self-perpetuating cycle of violence (the Hobbesian “war of each against all”) which is ‘the state of nature’ prior to law by inaugurating the sovereign rule of law and establishing a sovereign state. But the sovereign state and its rule of law, Derrida argues, are necessarily based upon a founding act of violence (a coup d’etat, a revolution etc.) which establishes the sovereign rule of law, and also relies upon the sovereign’s monopoly on violence to sustain and enforce the sovereign rule of law. Therefore the sovereign state and its rule of law, instead of opposing the rule of force or violence, necessarily perpetuate it, since they rely upon the sovereign’s ability to exercise superior violence to enforce the rule of law and to censor or repress challenges to the sovereign rule of law. Derrida then analyzes Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” to show that this deconstructive aporia also inhabits Benjamin’s thinking of a “divine” or “messianic” violence (the revolutionary violence of the general strike) as an alternative to sovereign state violence, which disturbingly resembles the ‘Nazi’ theory of sovereign violence (Carl Schmitt) that Benjamin ostensibly opposes. Derrida’s critique could also be made of Giorgio Agamben’s opposition to “the state of exception” in contemporary political theory, which, while brilliantly analyzing the current slide toward a sovereign state of exception or state of martial law in the contemporary ‘war on terror,’ has no alternative to that state of sovereign violence except the revolutionary violence of the general strike, which is also only too likely to instigate another regime of violence. See the edited collection, “Towards a Critique of Violence,” ed. Moran and Salzano, for an interesting early Agamben essay on this subject…

  3. Rohini
    3 April 2017 at 6:53 pm

    Thanks sir it will be very helpul for my upcoming MA exams

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