Deconstruction Theory

(last revised 3/12/09)

Jacques Derrida's linguistics theory called Deconstruction is a great lens to use when looking at text's set of beliefs or ideological assumptions (which could also be called "warrants" in the Toulmin argument model) because it doesn't allow arguments about ideological assumptions to fall back on some kind of Platonic Ideal with unchanging Ideals and absolute Truths. Deconstruction theory, and post-structuralism in general, critiques structuralist notions because they rely on a universal, transcendent approach to studying texts (though deconstructionists, like structuralists, think about the binaries we think with/through, but they don't simply try to identify key binaries; they seek to uproot the oversimplification of binary-style thinking).

Once Derrida (based on work by Saussure, of course) and others claimed that everything is language (that everything is signifiers in webs of signification), that nothing is accessible without language (thus there are no universal structures that are outside language), and that language is always, already ideological, or constructed and fluid, rather than natural or absolute (or universal and transcendent), you also open the door to a powerful set of tools that can help you analyze, or deconstruct, faulty or the harmful logic of hierarchical binaries that posit a positive, powerful Subject vs. a weak, strange object or Other.

To say this another way, when you read any text, you might notice that certain ideologies, or beliefs, can often be presented as if they are Absolute Truths, as Natural, as Eternal, as Good or Best.  This kind of absolutism (or essentialism) implies, of course, it's opposite, often setting up overly simplistic, and often harmful, binaries.  In other words, texts will often privilege a certain point of view as the Correct or Truthful or Natural point of view, and they will de-privilege a supposedly opposite point of view which is False or Unnatural or Evil.  

For a text that naively posits traditional binaries as Truth, Deconstruction theory would read it against-the-grain, or show how it is perhaps unaware of it's harmful (limiting) ideological POV. Of course, some texts are overtly "deconstructing" hierarchies, and in that sense could be read with-the-grain (as Tyson says; see Olsen's anti-patriarchal "The Yellow Wallpaper" or Bambara's anti-racist, anti-classist "The Lesson"; but these are not necessarily complexly deconstructive texts because they don't necessarily suggest a third space, if you will, where the binary falls apart; they are pushing their own binaries that fail or show ambiguity at some point; we could look at Jean Kilbourne's work with ads as both structuralist, and also kind of deconstructive, but not fully so because she does not suggest a way out of the binary).


Another important deconstructive concept is that of differance. Signifiers defer their meaning TO other signifiers, but also have traces of meaning based on differences FROM other signifiers--in other words, another way of strongly emphasizing the connectedness of webs of signifiers/meaning. Signifiers are always deferring and differing (traces of meaning come from signifiers deferring their meaning to other words, but also through being different than other words...back to the idea of opposites, except a Deconstructionist would say these opposites don't simply come from the human mind). That signifiers mean by pointing to other words, and yet also by being different than other words, is part of how language is slippery and difficult, and yet also why we can't simply escape the ideologies inherent in language (see Foucault and New Historicism).

Deconstructionists also fight the logocentrism of structuralists. Structuralists seek to construct self-contained (out of play) grammars and plots that are universal and transcendent/logocentric. Deconstructionists seek to de-construct structures that are seemingly "out-of-play" by showing the slippage, the leaks, in their ideological assumptions, by showing the increase of multiplicity (parole?), the eternal dissemination of infinite meaning.

Another deconstructive concept is that we are all bricoleurs or collage makers, meaning makers, a term Derrida took from Levi-Strauss.

George Bush's (and all previous administrations) use of war rhetoric about "Evil doers" which implied it's opposite, that he/we/America is Good, and also by implication, that anything he/we/America does is Good. Do you see any problems with that dialectic or binary oriented logic (Time magazine 2003?)?


Activism: In other words, when you look at any text (an argument, an Op-Ed piece, an advertisement, things your mother says, things Phyllis Schlafly says--all of her utterances must be part of a clear ultra-conservative binary--or things Molly Ivins says, or what Gay Marriage advocates say that emphasize the "need" for clear definitions, for binaries--marriage is good; "we" are normal like "you"; sexual identity is clear and fixed), you may find that there are assumptions about the world that are set up by one or a series of rather simplistic, hierarchical binaries that are seen as natural, but that are limited or show a failure (ambiguity) at some point.

For example, if we think about our culture's stereotypical assumptions about gender (whether from 1950's June Cleaver stereotypes, or from 1990's Madonna/Brittany Spear stereotypes), we often will come up with gender differences that begin to set up a simplistic, and usually hierarchical, binary (though I've also added connotations that begin to show slippage of the binary):

Man (masculine) Woman (feminine)
blue pink
hard, muscular soft, weak
aggressive/driven passive
intellectual, scientific (logos) emotional (pathos)
realist romantic
likes ESPN likes Lifetime Channel
doesn't think much about love desperate for love
uncontrolled hair--in other words, doesn't obsess about looks (what of metrosexuals?  are they feminized?) controlled hair--obsessed with looks 
cold, detached nurturing, giving
rugged individualist (solitary, Western Cowboy) forms groups (with coffee klatches, in bathrooms)
controlling, dominating, colonizer uncontrolling, a follower, colonized
master narrative writer a character in the master's narrative
adam--a full fledged body eve--a rib
the winner the winner's spoils (say in war)

The "masculine" connotations of this binary can often end up being privileged, say, in the business world or in sports or politics.  The "feminine" connotations are often only privileged in terms of raising children or being a teacher or therapist.  But also notice that I've included language under each category that can be seen as negative or positive, depending on context or PAGS or the ideologies they emanate from.

So, do you as a gendered subject fit neatly into these categories/connotations?  Do your friends and relatives fit these categories?  Where do you see leaks or cracks in these binaries?


Looking at how notions of beauty have changed over time (diachronically) is a good way to think about the slipperyness of signifiers (yet to also notice how old notions are still in play today--thus total revolution is impossible). Notice what the attributes of a woman were supposed to be in 1950's, white America (at least according to Joe Bonomo and his handy pocket guides to getting men).  Are these still considered "natural" or "best" today?  What about the Miss America Pageant ideals?  If ideals change over time, doesn't that imply a certain cultural constructedness rather than a natural absolute?

What about beauty?  Marilyn Monroe vs. Twiggy--even the fashionableness of body types come and go (thus beauty has to seem like a construct). And we currently have feminist deconstructions of today's beauty which tends to be Photoshopped (Photoshop by Adobe).


Often these questions can help show the hierarchy is not Absolute or Natural (which you can see in the way it might be difficult to stick to a simplistic binary when looking at gender).  Often hierarchies are constructed, or socially agreed upon.  Deconstruction theory says that eventually harmful binaries or constructs can start to seem as if they are Natural (we forget they might have been part of past discourse rather than God's words) when they might very well not be at all natural.  

Queer theory is one of the academic areas of study that plays with these gender stereotypes by, say, using such words "Butch" vs. "Femme" instead of masculine or feminine, to talk about gender preferences/performances between same sex couples ("Who's the man?" heterosexuals often ask in an essentializing way).  These words imply more playfullness or choice (performativity) because often people perform elements of both depending on the day or the context (I'm a hard femme at school, for instance, or today I'm feeling butch so I'll dress butch to enhance my feelings/performance).

Let's think about RACE and deconstruction.  There was a lot of discourse pushing the "innate" or natural differences between races during the Victorian era: .  Most of us look at this and blanche or laugh.  We know it's ridiculous (or do we?). An example of this scientific racism came with photos of the so called Hottentot Venus (who has a big butt and she cannot lie; obviously this image of "black woman" is still pervasive today, taken up as a sign of beauty and power, depending on the text you look at), a hypersexualized emphasis on hips and butt (and animalistic focus). But the Victorian idea of scientific racism (which caracatured Others as animals, monkeys, monsters) is still, even now, in play in our language.

What does it mean to be white?  To be black?  What is the authentic white experience?  What is the authentic black experience?  bell hooks, a black, female poststructuralist, has a very good essay about this difficult question called "Postmodern Blackness" which discusses the problem of postmodern and post-structuralist theories for people who may not have an identity to call into question in the first place (black folks don't need deconstruction when they've only just started to construct)...

Be brave and start listing cultural constructs (stereotypes) dealing with this...

White (or the white experience/identity) Black (or the black experience/identity)
rich? poor?
standard american english? black vernacular?
educated? uneducated?
lawful? criminal?
rock and roll? rap?

And of course the next question to ask is, which side tends to be privileged in our culture?

And then we need to ask, where are the leaks in this binary?

But I know deconstruction theory's idea about constructed meaning vs. natural meaning may be a dangerous idea for some people, but then again thinking can also be a dangerous activity.  Still, if you can practice some simple deconstructive techniques, you can often look at an argument, or any text, and make it's problematic assumptions more visible to yourself or to those you are writing for.


Basically you could think of the deconstruction of a text's assumptions as a 3 step process:

Step 1. Find a binary with a hierarchy that privileges one view as natural or absolute and vilifies (or de-priveleges) the opposite.  Write in the words from the text that seem to support this binary in a grid (much may be implied rather than stated):

A Potential Binary from Ann Coulter Feb. 8, 2006
"Calvin and Hobbes - and Mohammed"

Muslim Christian/Western?
bad? good?
"proclivity toward violence" non-violent?
  westerner's fears:
--cartoonist who would rather piss on the Bible than the Quoran
--only 10 out of 40 cartoonist did cartoons, and only 3 were political
"Muslims make feminists look laid back" feminists look like feminazis in the US?

"In order to express their displeasure with the idea that Muslims are violent, thousands of Muslims around the world engaged in rioting, arson, mob savagery, flag-burning, murder and mayhem, among other peaceful acts of nonviolence."


Show displeasure with peaceful, legal protest?

"They warn Europe of their own impending 9/11 with signs that say: 'Europe: Your 9/11 will come'"  
"But apparently the Quran is like the Constitution: It's a "living document," capable of sprouting all-new provisions at will." The US constitution also changes (according to whim?)

 --but the Bible doesn't change?  basic values don't change?

Muslims used to be different--depicting Mohammed in frescoes etc.  
Lack progress--no indoor plumbing Progressive?  Have indoor plumbing
"crazy" "bipolar rage" "barbaric" sane? civilized?
most muslim countries--non-democracy iraq--democracy
want to control the world (like liberals) "Catholics aren't short on rules, but they couldn't care less if non-Catholics use birth control. Conservative Jews have no interest in forbidding other people from mixing meat and dairy. Protestants don't make a peep about other people eating food off one another's plates."

we aren't, therefore, control freaks?


Yes, I do need to keep in mind her Purpose, Audience, Genre, and Style...but, still...

Step 2. Can you use a different set of lenses that would help you flip the hierarchy of the binary (privilege what was de-priveleged in the original text)?  Do that:

A Potential Flipping of the Coulter Binary

Muslim Western
good? bad?
spiritual secular
allah/god comes first capitalism and techno-worship comes first
family ties come first pleasing the self comes first--Me Me Me
victims imperialists
poor and helpless rich and fat


Step 3. Can you Show how any hierarchical binary is problematic and thus more about social constructedness than an absolute or The Truth?  In other words, how much do both hiearchies depend on very fluidly defined values?

First, you don't have to believe in the fluidity of meaning or values or language.  You can keep your beliefs.  But being able to put on these deconstructive lenses can give you another way of looking at how differences create different, and sometimes harmful, hierarchies.

Second, even trying to put down a neat hierarchical binary is very difficult as its simplicities begin to break down or leak.

Third, notice that just by showing the hierarchy flipped that this spin must depend on the lenses you use to define and describe things.  In other words, lenses are basically everything (linguists would say language and lenses are the same, and language is everything to a linguist).  Values may seem natural until there are such vast differences between values from one religion to the next (or from one sex to the next, or one ethnicity to the next etc.).