petit récit

Main Page




de Beauvoir

de Saussure









Jacques Derrida

derrida picture

Derrida is a French philosopher, born in Algiers in 1930. He is perhaps best known for developing the analytical technique of deconstruction.


  • a close and critical reading of a written text to uncover the ways of thinking that constrain our impressions or conceptualisation of the world.
  • this idea has been extended to other forms of text - for example, visual art and architecture.
  • the technique may often be (mis)used in a destructive manner. However, Derrida's original aim was not to destroy, merely to point out hidden assumptions and contradictions that shape a text.
  • Derrida himself is often viewed with deep suspicion, if not hatred, by many academics. It seems that deconstruction has a nasty habit of biting hard into people's pet ideas and theories.

What does this mean for us?

Derrida disputes the idea that a text (or for us, a communication) has an unchanging, unified meaning. He challenges the author's intentions, and shows there may be numerous legitimate interpretations of a text. This is where the idea of "the author is dead" arises: once the text is written, the author's input is finished.

The meaning (any meaning) is up for grabs, in other words.

Another definition

Deconstruction is a poststructuralist theory, based largely but not exclusively on the writings of the Paris-based Jacques Derrida. It is in the first instance a philosophical theory and a theory directed towards the (re)reading of philosophical writings. Its impact on literature, mediated in North America largely through the influences of theorists at Yale University, is based in part on the fact that deconstruction sees all writing as a complex historical, cultural process rooted in the relations of texts to each other and in the institutions and conventions of writing, in part on the sophistication and intensity of its sense that human knowledge is not as controllable or as cogent as Western thought would have it and that language operates in subtle and often contradictory ways, so that certainty will always elude us.

- from "Deconstruction, some assumptions", a page well worth reading by John Lye at . This page states quite firmly (and Derrida himself seems to imply) that "deconstruction is not a technique or a method, and hence that there is no question of 'applying' it". I will now contradict this idea with the next section which provides a methodology for deconstruction. Isn't postmodernism fun?

How to do deconstruction

From the page at . For one line examples of deconstruction, see this page.

1) Identify a Binary Opposition

  • Notice what a particular text or school of thought takes to be natural, normal, self-evident, originary, immediately apparent, or worthy of pursuit or emulation.
  • Or, notice those places where a text is most insistent that there is a firm and fast distinction between two things.

2) Deconstruct the Opposition

  • Show how something represented as primary, complete & originary is derived, composite, and/or an effect of something else.
  • And/or, show how something represented as completely different from something else only exists by virtue of defining itself against that something else. In other words, show how it depends on that thing.
  • And/or show how something represented as normal is a special case.

Still more damned definitions

Some definitions of Derridean terms, from the page "Derrida and Deconstruction" at . The page text states that these definitions are "oversimplified". Uh-oh.

  • Grammatology: The science of writing. Derrida proposes to move beyond traditional models of writing that describe its history and evolution to develop a theory of writing, to apply that theory and to move in the direction of a new writing. The difficult in doing so is the result of the relationship between writing and metaphysics.
  • The metaphysics of presence: The assumption that the physical presence of a speaker authenticates his speech. Speaking would then precede writing (the sign of a sign), since the writer is not present at the reading of his text to authenticate it. Spoken language is assumed to be directly related to thought, writing a supplement to spoken language, standing in for it. This is the result of phonocentrism the valorization of speech over writing.
  • Logocentrism: "In the beginning was the word." Logocentrism is the belief that knowledge is rooted in a primeval language (now lost) given by God to humans. God (or some other transcendental signifier: the Idea, the Great Spirit, the Self, etc;) acts a foundation for all our thought, language and action. He is the truth whose manifestation is the world. He is the foundation for the binaries by which we think: God/Man, spiritual/physical, man/woman, good/evil. The first term of the binary is valorized, and a chain of binaries constitutes a hierarchy.
  • Binary Oppositions: The hierarchical relation of elements that results from logocentrism. Derrida is interested more in the margins, the supplements, than in the centre.
  • The supplement: Derrida takes this term from Rousseau, who saw a supplement as "an inessential extra added to something complete in itself." Derrida argues that what is complete in itself cannot be added to, and so a supplement can only occur where there is an originary lack. In any binary set of terms, the second can be argued to exist in order to fill in an originary lack in the first. This relationship, in which one term secretly resides in another, Derrida calls invagination.
  • Originary lack: Some absence in a thing that permits it to be supplemented.
  • Metonymic chain: Derrida argues with Saussure's notion that signs are binary. (signifier, signified) The signified, he says, is always a signifier in another system. As a result, meaning cannot be in a sign, since it is always dispersed, deferred and delayed. (dictionary analogy). In terms of a text, then, all signifiers must be seen as defective. A signifier always contains traces of other signifiers.
  • Trace: The indications of an absence that define a presence. (The present is known as the present only through the evidence of a past that once was a present.) The traces of other signifiers in any signifier means that it must always be read under erasure.(sur rasure).
  • Erasure: The decision to read a signifier or a text as if its meaning were clear, with the understanding that this is only a strategy.
  • Difference (Différance) A pun on difference and deference. Any signifier (or chain of signification, ie. text) must infinitely defer its meaning because of the nature of the sign (the signified is composed of signifiers). At the same time, meaning must be kept under erasure because any text is always out of phase with itself, doubled, in an argument with itself that can be glimpsed through the aporias it generates.
  • Deconstruction: an attempt to dismantle the binary oppositions which govern a text by focussing on the aporias or impasses of meaning. A deconstructive reading will identify the logocentric assumptions of a text and the binaries and hierarchies it contains. It will demonstrate how a logocentric text always undercuts its own assumptions, its own system of logic. It will do this largely through an examination of the traces, supplements, and invaginations in the text.


In addition to the abovementioned URLs, try:

A Final note / warning

The style of Derrida's writing is difficult, to say the least, and not helped by the way Derrida often uses various forms or wordplay and ambiguity to make his points, not all of which carry well in translation. I'm almost suspicious that this opaqueness is intentional and in fact is designed to encourage multiple interpretations of his texts in the spirit of deconstruction itself. Be careful out there... and don't take it too seriously.