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Jacques Derrida
What is it?

Deconstruction: A school of philosophy that originated in France in the late 1960s, has had an enormous impact on Anglo-American criticism. Largely the creation of its chief proponent Jacques Derrida, deconstruction upends the Western metaphysical tradition. It represents a complex response to a variety of theoretical and philosophical movements of the 20th century, most notably Husserlian phenomenology, Saussurean and French structuralism, and Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis.

[First paragraph of a seven-page explanation in the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).]

Deconstruction: The term denotes a particular kind of practice in reading and, thereby, a method of criticism and mode of analytical inquiry. In her book The Critical Difference (1981), Barbara Johnson clarifies the term:
"Deconstruction is not synonymous with "destruction", however. It is in fact much closer to the original meaning of the word 'analysis' itself, which etymologically means "to undo" -- a virtual synonym for "to de-construct." ... If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not the text, but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another. A deconstructive reading is a reading which analyses the specificity of a text's critical difference from itself."
[First paragraph of a four-page definition of the term deconstruction in J.A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, third ed. (London: Blackwell, 1991)].

Deconstruction: School of philosophy and literary criticism forged in the writings of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the Belgium/North American literary critic Paul De Man. Deconstruction can perhaps best be described as a theory of reading which aims to undermine the logic of opposition within texts.
[Start of a four-page definition of deconstruction in A Dictionary of Critical Theory (London: Blackwell, 1996).]

Deconstruction: Rarely has a critical theory attracted the sort of dread and hysteria that deconstruction has incited since its inception in 1967.
[Beginning of an eleven-page entry in A Dictionary of Critical Theory (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991).]

"Deconstruction" as incorporated without meaning into everyday language, associated with "grunge"

...We think we speak the English, or French, of today. But our English or French language of today is of yesterday and elsewhere. The miracle is that language has not been cut from its archaic roots -- even if we do not remember, our language remembers, and what we say began to be said three thousand years ago. Inversely language has incorporated our own times, before even we know, the most recent elements, linguistic and semantic particles blown by the present winds.

Here is an example, which I find magnificent and comic, magnificently comic and comically magnificent, that I have taken from an American magazine destined for the public dated April 1993. It is the beginning of an illustrated fashion article:

Deconstruction may be the darling of Europe but in the U.S. it's a love-hate thing. Creases are ironed out, raw edges refined, grunge given a touch of polish.

In New York, memories are not only short, they are entirely selective. Grunge -- the so-called fashion revolution which has launched a thousand headlines in the past six months -- seemed, at the American collections last week, never to have happened.

Here, in these few lines, treasures snatched from the most noble, the most elaborate, the most complex thoughts and discourses of our century and the sixteenth century imperceptibly touch and are exchanged.

Here, "deconstruction" (though does the woman who goes to buy a dress know what this is?) has become a term that adds a "commercial" mark, a surplus value of "modernism" to domains totally unforeseen by the author of the thinking of deconstruction. Here is a word derived from philosophical thinking, that of Derrida, which no longer resides in philosophy, but "launches" fashion products, bathroom items, sports equipment, political attitudes. In brief a word which, having left its native shore, henceforth circulates in the world's blood.

And so this magical word made banal meets (does it know?) another formula equally magical and rendered banal, this on centuries ago, that reverberates under a made-up form in the phrase quoted: The revolution which has launched a thousand headlines. What makes a comeback here in fashionable dress is Marlowe's beautiful Helen...

[From the Preface written by Hélène Cixous (trans. by Susan Sollers) in The Hélène Cixous Reader (London: Routledge, 1994): xx-xxi.]

Deconstructionist Theory By Richard Rorty. Excerpted from The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism -- vol.8 From Formalism to Poststructuralism. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Deconstruction in the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.


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