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Friday, August 31, 2018

What Exactly is Deconstruction?

Jacques Derrida
The movement of “deconstruction” was developed by Jacques Derrida. John Searle, in his essay, “The World Turned Upside Down,”  tries to find out what exactly is deconstruction and why it has become so influential in American literary criticism. Searle writes:
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.
Here’s an excerpt from Searle’s description of the methodology of the deconstructionists:
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. 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.
Searle goes on to note that deconstruction is a game that anyone can play:
One sometimes gets the impression that deconstruction is a kind of game that anyone can play. One could, for example, invent a deconstruction of deconstructionism as follows: In the hierarchical opposition, deconstruction/logocentrism (phono-phallo-logocentrism), the privileged term "deconstruction" is in fact subordinate to the devalued term "logocentrism," for, in order to establish the hierarchical superiority of deconstruction, the deconstructionist is forced to attempt to represent its superiority, its axiological primacy, by argument and persuasion, by appealing to the logocentric values he tries to devalue. But his efforts to do this are doomed to failure because of the internal inconsistency in the concept of deconstructionism itself, because of its very self-referential dependence on the authority of a prior logic. By an aporetical Aufhebung, deconstruction deconstructs itself.
Michel Foucault was very hostile to Derrida’s deconstruction. Searle points out in his essay that once when he was having conversation with Foucault in French, Foucault characterized Derrida's prose style as "obscurantisme terroriste” (terrorism of obscurantism). Derrida writes so obscurely that you can't figure out exactly what the thesis is, and then when one criticizes it, Derrida can always say, "Vous m'avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot" ('You didn't understand me; you're an idiot'). That's the terrorism part.

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