The Word Turned Upside Down

On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism

by Jonathan Culler
Cornell University Press, 307 pp., $8.95 (paper)
Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida; drawing by David Levine


“Deconstruction” is the name of a currently influential movement in American literary criticism. The underlying theory was developed not by literary critics but by a French professor of philosophy, Jacques Derrida, and many of his ideas are in turn owing to Nietzsche and Heidegger. Culler writes as a disciple of Derrida and his primary aim is to expound his master’s philosophy and show how it “bears on the most important issues of literary theory” (p. 12).

What exactly is deconstruction, and why has it become so influential in American literary criticism while largely ignored by American philosophers? I think if you asked most practicing deconstructionists for a definition they would not only be unable to provide one, but would regard the very request as a manifestation of that “logocentrism” which it is one of the aims of deconstruction to, well, deconstruct. By “logocentrism” they mean roughly the concern with truth, rationality, logic, and “the word” that marks the Western philosophical tradition. I think the best way to get at it, which would be endorsed by many of its practitioners, is to see it, at least initially, as a set of methods for dealing with texts, a set of textual strategies aimed in large part at subverting logocentric tendencies. One of the several merits of Culler’s book is that he provides a catalog of these strategies and a characterization of their common aims:

To deconstruct a discourse is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts, or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies, by identifying in the text the rhetorical operations that produce the supposed ground of argument, the key concept or premise [p. 86].

There are numerous such strategies but at least three stand out. First, and most important, the deconstructionist is on the lookout for any of the traditional binary oppositions in Western intellectual history, e.g., speech/writing, male/female, truth/fiction, literal/metaphorical, signified/signifier, reality/appearance. In such oppositions, the deconstructionist claims that the first or left-hand term is given a superior status over the right-hand term, which is regarded “as a complication, a negation, a manifestation, or a disruption of the first” (p. 93). These hierarchical oppositions allegedly lie at the very heart of logocentrism with its obsessive interest in rationality, logic, and the search for truth.

The deconstructionist wants to undermine these oppositions, and so undermine logocentrism, by first reversing the hierarchy, by trying to show that the right-hand term is really the prior term and that the left-hand term is just a special case of the right-hand term; the right-hand term is the condition of possibility of the left-hand term. This move gives some very curious results. It turns out that speech is really a form of writing, understanding a form of misunderstanding, and that what we think of as meaningful language is just a free play of signifiers or an endless process of grafting texts onto texts.


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