Innovations in language are always interesting metaphorically. When the words used for familiar things change, or new words are introduced, they are usually not composed of nonsense syllables, but borrowed or adapted from stock. Assuming new roles, they drag their old meanings along behind them like flickering shadows. To the outside observer this seems especially true of the language of the contemporary school of literary criticism that now prefers to describe itself simply and rather magisterially as “theory” but is still popularly referred to as post-structuralism or deconstruction.
Many of the terms current in the field, like its ideas, originated in France, and their translation into English sometimes subtly alters the shadow-meaning. The earliest neologisms of the movement, Saussure’s signifiant and signifié, became “signifier” and “signified,” now employed to distinguish words (signifiers) from their meanings (signifieds), and point out the arbitrariness of the terms we choose The use of these particular terms (rather than, say, word and thing) underlined the seriousness of the process and its claim on our attention. Since in English “to signify” can also mean “to portend” it was also suggested that words predicted coming events—as indeed they did in this case.
With deconstruction we move into another and more complex realm of implication. The most common use of the terms construction and deconstruction in English is in the building trades, and their borrowing by literary theorists for a new type of criticism cannot help but have certain overtones to the outsider. First, it suggests that the creation and interpretation of literature are not organic but mechanical processes; that the author of a piece of writing or “text” (see below) is not an inspired, intuitive artist or interpreter, but merely a workman who cobbles existing materials (words) into more or less conventional structures.
The term deconstruction implies that the text has been put together like a building or a piece of machinery, and that it is in need of being taken apart, not so much in order to repair it as to demonstrate underlying inadequacies, false assumptions, and inherent contradictions. This process can be repeated many times and by many literary hard hats; it is expected that each deconstruction will reveal additional flaws, and expose the illusions or bad faith of the builder.
The preference for the term deconstruction rather than criticism is also interesting etymologically. Criticism and critic derive from the Greek kritikos, “skillful in judging, decisive.” Deconstruction (Latin construere, “to pile up, build”), on the other hand, has no overtones of skill or wisdom; it merely suggests demolition of an existing building. In popular usage criticism suggests censure but not change. If we criticize someone or something we may condemn them but we do not carry out the sentence ourselves. The contemporary theorist, by implication, is both judge and executioner. When he/she is finished with a text it will have been totally dismantled, if not reduced to a pile of rubble.
Central to the new language of post-structuralism, and rich …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.