Some words are their own worst enemies. Deconstruction is one of them.
Like existentialism, special, liberal,
conservative, and postmodern, its meaning is often so vague as to be useless. Coined, more or less, by the contemporary
French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, the word deconstruction began its life in the late sixties, but it has only become part of
the American vocabulary in the last ten years or so. In that time, however, it has moved from a technical philosophical term
adopted by literary critics for their related uses to a word that pops up in offhand remarks by everyone from botanists to the
clergy. Whatever its original meaning, in its now widespread use, deconstruction has come to mean "tear down" or "destroy"
(usually when the object is nonmaterial).
These uses of the word have been anything but charitable. To the irritation
of older professors as well as Derrida (whom older
professors often think of as "the enemy"), many in literature have used the word, positively and negatively, to mean something
like, "playing with texts to show that they have no meaning." In the Anglo-American academy and to a lesser extent also in
Continental Europe, the result has been that those who talk about deconstruction positively often do so in simplistic ways and
those who criticize it take the simpletons as representative of deconstruction. One side creates the straw men, the other side
burns them down, but neither actually gets to the point of discussing deconstruction. Neither has the everyday use of the word
as a synonym for destruction helped it avoid a bad reputation. Today, at best, to deconstruct something is to tear it apart. At
worst, it is to be disrespectful and nihilistic.
In the face of these assaults on the word deconstruction, I'm sure it
is too late to save it from the fate of meaninglessness or
synonymy with destruction. On the other hand, it may not be too late to say something about how the word began its life and
what the philosophy called deconstruction is about. That may not save the word, but that shouldn't surprise us. The devil usually
gets all the good words. That may not surprise us, but perhaps knowing something about the word and how Derrida originally
meant it to work may help us understand what it means as a philosophical term and what the movement called deconstruction is
Derrida takes the word deconstruction from the work of Martin Heidegger.
In the summer of 1927, Martin Heidegger
delivered a lecture course now published under the title, Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Given the topic of his lectures,
Heidegger appropriately begins them with a discussion of the nature of philosophy and, particularly of the philosophical
movement called phenomenology. Borrowing creatively from his teacher, Edmund Husserl, Heidegger says that
phenomenology is the name for a method of doing philosophy; he says that the method includes three steps -- reduction,
construction, and destruction -- and he explains that these three are mutually pertinent to one another. Construction necessarily
involves destruction, he says, and then he identifies destruction with deconstruction, Abbau (20-23). Heidegger explains what
he means by philosophical destruction by using an ordinary German word that we can translate literally "unbuild."
The lexical and historical connection of deconstruction to destruction
is obvious, but Heidegger does not mean by Abbau
quite what we mean by either destruction or disassembly. He uses Abbau to show that in his method the word destruction
does not mean what we might often mean by it. He explains what he means by Abbau -- deconstruction -- to clarify further that
he does not simply mean "taking things apart." As Heidegger conceived deconstruction, it was an answer to a philosophical
problem: "All philosophical discussion, even the most radical attempt to begin all over again, is pervaded by traditional concepts
and thus by traditional horizons and traditional angles of approach" (Basic Problems 22). Unfortunately, however, we cannot
assume that these concepts, horizons, and approaches are the best ones for dealing with the things they supposedly explain.
There is a world "out there." Our problem is that our only rational access to that world is linguistic, which might make us
mistakenly to believe that our understanding of the world is always derivative from our language. If we add our suspicion to
Heidegger's point that we have inherited our concepts and words from others who themselves had to work with inherited
concepts and words and we quickly come to a question: How, then, can we think about the world productively? How can we
avoid reducing understanding to something relative only to a particular language and history?
Like every other philosopher in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries,
Heidegger does not believe there is an autonomous tool
called reason that we use irrespective of our language, time, circumstances, or interests, to criticize ideas. Thus, since we seem
unable to begin from such a rational zero point, free of any already given concepts, terms, or approaches, it appears that we are
forced to repeat the past and its mistakes. If we must use concepts we've inherited from others to do philosophy (or anything
else), how can we ever get to anything new? How can we get beyond whatever philosophical mistakes our intellectual
forebears may have made? Aren't we condemned to historicism and cultural relativism?
Ironically, given much of the current discussion of Heidegger's work
and the work that derives from his, Heidegger's answer is,
"No." We can use these concepts, horizons, and approaches against themselves to discover what produced them. We might,
for example, think about Aristotle's discussion of form and matter, using those very terms to show their inadequacy. What, after
all, is matter? Any answer I give is in terms of another form rather than in terms of matter. Questions: "What is that desk made
of; what is its material?" Answer: "Wood." But the word wood gives us a form, not a matter. I can ask, "What is the wood
made of?" and give a reasonable answer, though one still in terms of form. As we use the terms matter and form against
themselves, what starts out looking like a perfectly sensible question becomes problematic. By problematizing the distinction,
we begin to get at least a glimpse of the problem to which Aristotle was responding. Perhaps we begin to wonder -- to think --
in the same way that he did. If we do, perhaps we begin to do philosophy with regards to Aristotle's questions rather than
simply to repeat the scholarly exegesis of Aristotle's philosophy.
Derrida would say of this example that we can deconstruct the idea of
form and matter. But what he means by deconstruction
differs from what Heidegger means. For one thing, rather than a method or part of a method, for Derrida deconstruction is an
attitude, in the root sense of that word. It is a position one has with regard to something.
To think about the difference between Heidegger's and Derrida's notions
of deconstruction, consider an example: I am writing a
book on community. I will work over it repeatedly until I am satisfied that I am done. But what does done mean? Doesn't it
mean "say everything I want to say"? And what do I want it to say? Everything. Everything, that is, about what it means to be a
community. Of course, there will be this or that minor point that I may ignore or safely overlook, but as long as something
significant remains to be said about my topic or as long as the connections of important points have not been made clear, I am
not done. When I am done, therefore, I have produced something that claims to say everything of importance on my topic; that
I have written the book on my topic is implicit in its existence as a book, even if I insert footnotes and apologies and
disclaimers to the contrary.
However, when I have finished the book and have (I hope) a publisher,
what is the first thing I will do? I'll write an introduction.
But introductions are odd things. If they can say what the book says, then what need is there for the book? If they can't, then
what need is there for the introduction? Sometimes they are appetizers, things designed to get people to read the book (or at
least to buy it). Most of the time, however, an introduction is a short version of the book, an overview. It sets the problem in
context, it shows the readers how important the problem or solution is, it gives the argument in a more easily understood form.
Introductions add to the book to improve it, to supplement its work.
Thus, though the book implicitly claims to say everything needed, as
a supplement, the introduction says "one more thing" or
"the same thing briefly," deconstructing the book's claim to completeness and self-sufficiency. In deconstructing the book, the
introduction doesn't show us the irrelevance of the book. It doesn't show us that the book is meaningless. It doesn't show us
that just any interpretation of the book will do. It shows us that the book claims more than it can deliver, that it has left
something out though it claims to be complete. I take that to be the general meaning of the word deconstruction as Derrida has
used it: not just using our words and concepts against themselves, but showing what has been left out or overlooked. In fact,
better: showing that something has been left out or overlooked, that omission is structural to any text -- and that we can find
those omissions in the structure of the text -- without necessarily being able to specify what has been omitted.
Notice, however, that once, by means of a deconstruction, we have seen
something that was omitted, we won't be able to go
back, insert the missing piece, and then be finally done. The omission is structural to writing and explaining because it is
structural to existence and experience. Omission is unavoidable. The reason why is not difficult to see. For one thing, no one
can say everything about anything; things are never that simple, not simple things, especially not "first things."
This inability to say everything is not a failure of language, something
to be overcome. Neither is it a point of new-age silliness or
old-age magic (though it may be an origin of the latter). It is one of the properties of things. If I hold an object up before
someone and ask her to tell me what she sees, she can give a list of the thing's properties. If she works at it, she can make that
list very long. It may become ever more difficult to add things to the list, but there is really no end to what she could truthfully
say about the object. She can, for example, always relate it to another thing in the universe or even to the list she is making.
Though we seldom have any reason to go on and on in such a way, there is, in principle, no end to the length of the description
one can give of an ordinary object. As a result, it is impossible to say everything about an object, material or otherwise.
More important, the object itself shows that there is still more to
be said. Every object shows itself as a set of possibilities, not
merely as a determinate thing. To see a particular object is to see it in terms of possibilities. It is for example, to see the
possibility of seeing the object from another perspective without knowing what perspective that might be or what I might see
from that other perspective. To see one side of a chalk board eraser is to know (though usually only implicitly) that there is
another side. That there is more to see and, therefore, to say is not just an inference I make when I see this side; the other side
is not something I deduce from seeing this side. The fact that there is more than what I see immediately is part and parcel of
seeing an object at all, for I don't see planes and surfaces and then deduce that they are objects. I see objects from the
beginning and, as objects, objects have aspects that don't meet the eye, aspects like their other sides and things that I will only
discover determinately on investigation. There is always more in what I see than I can name. Kant might have called this fact
about the excessive character of perception one of the conditions for the possibility of having an experience at all. To perceive
an object is to know immediately that there is always more to be said. All experience is experience of more, of possibility.
Most of the time these facts about describing things are quite irrelevant.
For practical purposes I need only say what needs to
be said, not everything. (For an interesting discussion of this, though not a deconstructive one, see Jerry Fodor's The Elm and
the Expert.) I write a book for a purpose and an audience. It is difficult, if not impossible to do otherwise. Even if doing
otherwise is possible, it isn't often a very good idea. Given that I would like to influence the ways we think about community,
there is nothing wrong with my writing for my purpose and audience. I should do so.
After I write my book for a particular purpose and a particular audience,
someone else can give a straightforward interpretation
of it with that purpose and audience in mind. If I have done my job well, there will be general agreement about what I have said
to that audience for that purpose. However, once I have published the book, it is no longer simply mine. It may be taken up by
other audiences or used for other purposes. Or someone can ask about the effects of my having written for my purpose and
audience: did doing so leave someone out? someone who, perhaps, should not have been left out? In addressing my purposes
and audience, does the book fail to address a topic that I could have or should have addressed? Does the text do something
that I, perhaps, never intended it to do? Are there political or ethical implications of what I have written that I could not see but
that should, nevertheless, be considered? Is something or someone excluded by the very structure of the enterprise, whether the
enterprise is that of writing my book or of philosophy?
One way to address these kinds of questions would be to write a book
or article about my book, to criticize it for not doing
what it should. Christian, Marxist, feminist, and moral criticism often take this form. Another way would be to write another
book on community that explicitly or implicitly corrects the mistakes my book makes. My book will be, in fact, such a book. I
write it with certain previous books and ideas in mind, books and ideas that I think have made mistakes. But these are not the
only ways of responding to my book. Another is deconstruction (and deconstruction can serve the ends of any of the other
kinds of criticism, Christian, Marxist, feminist, moral, etc.).
Deconstruction differs from other ways of addressing questions about
a work in that, rather than comparing the work to an
external standard for what should be done (such as moral standards, scientific standards, or political ideology), it looks for
ways in which the book itself shows what it has overlooked. Deconstruction is a form of what is called imminent critique.
Derrida, for example, writes about a footnote in Heidegger's Being and Time to show that -- as a careful reading of the
footnote will purportedly show -- the book's claims are problematic. In fact, Derrida argues that Heidegger's work undercuts
Derrida's deconstruction, however, is different from ideological or
moral criticism. Derrida does not deconstruct Heidegger's
work to show that Heidegger should have written the book better. Unlike a good book reviewer, Derrida is not repairing
Heidegger's work for him, presuming that with these corrections we will have, at least in principle, a better work.
Deconstructive criticism is not intended to suggest a way to make the book finally complete, but to show its necessary
incompleteness. Deconstruction is used to show that a work does not adequately address something, not that it should have.
Deconstruction does not assume that once its work has been done everything
will have been included. That would be
impossible. It doesn't even assume that its work will result in the inclusion of more than was previously included; it doesn't
assume that its work will make things better. That remains to be seen in each case. In sum, deconstruction doesn't assume that
there is, even if only in principle, an end to the work of deconstruction. The point of deconstruction is to show where something
has been omitted, not because of the blindness of the author, not because the critic is smarter or better, but because that is the
way things are. There are always things I don't know, though in a very real way that I don't know them is part of what I know.
Derrida is fascinated by this "nonknowledge" and his work circles around it:
not that I love nonknowledge for itself, on the contrary, I am even
ready to think like certain Muslims that "the ink of the learned
is more sacred than the blood of the martyrs," but sacred, precisely, through something other than knowledge, et cum
amant beatam uitam, quod non est aliud quam de ueritate guadium, utique amant etiam ueritatem nec amarent, nisi
esset aliqua notitia eius in memoria eorum
What we read or write can be sacred, but what makes it sacred is something
other than itself, something outside the text,
something that the text calls us to remember while, at the same time, excluding it by its implicit claim to finality and completion.
Texts strive to speak about this other-than toward which they point but that their pointing never quite reaches; they speak
toward what is always finally omitted by the text, in spite of its or its author's intentions. The object of their intention eludes
their intention. The problem is that, in spite of itself, the text purports to have left nothing outside itself, to have recovered what it
calls us to remember; the text purports to have moved what needs to be remembered from forgetfulness into immediacy, to
have made memory no long necessary.
Because Derrida is interested in this relation between the text and
what the text aims to speak of but cannot, some have
compared his work to negative theology. After some initial hesitation, Derrida has himself made the comparison, though it
would be a mistake to say that his work constitutes a negative theology. There are two moments in negative theology. One is
to discover and to say as accurately as possible the right names and descriptions of the Divine. Paradoxically, the second is to
show that these names are inadequate. For example, one must say "God is just"; it is blasphemy to say otherwise. Nevertheless,
once that is established, it is also true that the sentence is inadequate; from the point of view of a claim to have said the
complete and final truth, it is untrue. For, we only know what justice is by using our own justice as a reference point. However,
God's justice surpasses ours, so much so that it is inadequate to use the same name for it. Thus one must also say, "God is not
just" -- but readers must take care how they read what looks like a simple denial of God's justice.
The negative theologian recognizes the absolute necessity of speaking
about God. Theology is necessary. He worries, however,
that our theology may give us the impression that we are now done with thinking about God; we may believe, at least implicitly,
that our knowledge has encompassed the infinite. So the negative theologian reminds us of God's infinity by showing us the
failure of our affirmative theology. The point is not that there is no God or that God is, in a straightforward sense, not just, but
that we must continue to speak of God, to praise him, to wonder at his justice. Because it makes possible the continuation of
the essence of first, positive, praising moment of theology, the second moment of theology, negative theology, is not a moment
of pure denial, but as much a moment of praise as the first. For the negative theologian, true theology comes in neither
affirmative theology by itself nor in negative theology alone, but in the "third way," the continued praise that is opened by the
opposition between the two ways.
The common assumption of deconstruction and negative theology is that
language necessarily "fails" to say everything, to
remember everything, but that it nevertheless says something, even something about what it fails to recover. If we put this in
terms of intention, we can say that our intention fails to reach its object, but that it nevertheless points toward something.
What the text excludes shows itself in various traces within the very texts that do the forgetting. Derrida is interested in this
"logic" of saying and not saying, of inclusion and exclusion, of presence and absence, of speaking and silence, of memory and
Often what is not spoken is a matter of meaning. Often, however, it
is not merely a matter of meaning. Deconstruction can be a
matter of showing whom the text has omitted, overlooked, or forgotten. There are various others whom we may forget.
Sometimes we fail to remember God, someone with whom, contrary to many expectations, Derrida continues to be concerned,
though he is not a theist:
I am addressing myself here to God, the only one I take as a witness,
without yet knowing what these sublime words mean, and
this grammar, and to, and witness, and god, and take, take God, and not only do I pray, as I have never stopped doing all my
life, and pray to him, but I take him here and take him as my witness, I give myself what he gives me, i.e. the i.e. to take the
time to take God as a witness (Circumfession 56-8)
In the last several years, at least partly because of the many misunderstandings
of his work (misunderstandings for which he
admits some responsibility), Derrida has been explicit about this focus on absence and omission as an ethical focus. Like
negative theology, his work is not nihilistic or merely playful. It is not merely an exercise in a new kind of literary criticism
(though it may have implications for literary criticism). Ultimately, Derrida's work is ethical. The point of deconstruction is to
help us remember what the text calls us to remember but then forgets by its very nature. Deconstruction calls us to the act of
remembering, wonder, and praise, and in that to a remembering relation to what we have forgotten rather than to the
descriptions of what we have forgotten. Though ideas and words and meanings are important omissions, they are not nearly so
important as are the unnameable people who are often omitted, excluded, forgotten. Deconstruction interrupts the apparent
seamlessness of texts and practices so that we have some chance of noticing what makes those texts and practices possible,
even if we can only notice "it" in the trace or spoor that it leaves behind. It may not be possible simply to remember what we
have forgotten, but deconstruction calls us at least to remember our forgetting.
As Derrida says in Circumfession: "What we have said about writing and
the trace shows that no autos is possible without an
inscription of alterity, no inside without a relation to an outside which cannot be simply outside but must remark itself on the
inside" (47-48). And, contrary to those who see in him an advocate of anarchy or simple relativism: "The law one gives oneself
retains an irreducible relation to the law received before the law" (48).
Deconstruction is not naive about what it uncovers for us, about what
it calls us to remember. The comparison to negative
theology is strong: just as Derrida's deconstruction would not repair Heidegger's text, he does not believe that deconstruction
can, by showing us our ethical and other kinds of omissions, make it possible to exclude no one. As Derrida explains, pure
hospitality, including everyone is impossible. Actual hospitality requires decision, discrimination. That discrimination, always a
limit on hospitality, on inclusion, is indispensable. The point is not the end of exclusion and forgetting, but our thought about
them. The point is for us to face those omissions and exclusions and, through facing them, to rethink what we are about. But
Derrida is not so naive as to believe that any rethinking will bring an end to exclusion. He is not Hegel or Marx. Language will
never capture what it aims at completely because the things there are, whether words, material objects, persons, human
relations, or God, cannot be captured fully -- and that is because to think that something could be captured fully is to think of it
as static, as without possibility, as dead in the strictest sense.
Though sentences, words, and texts are necessary, they do not have the
same necessity as wonder, praise, and reverence. In
homage to that reverence, our texts provide us with the first moment of Derrida's negative theology, affirmation; deconstruction
provides us with the second, the denial that calls us back to wonder and praise, to something other than either affirmation or
denial. Deconstruction is critical philosophy, using the word critical in its philosophic sense: it shows the limits of the text or
practice that we are examining so we can see the effects of those limits. Sometimes meanings are affected. Sometimes someone
or some group of people are. Sometimes our relations to God are. Sometimes we may be unsure of what is effected, though
we are sure that there are effects.
As a result of deconstruction, we may rethink our aims and, as a reasonable
result, continue with something like the status quo.
(The parallel with negative theology is that we may continue to say the same things about God.) We may, instead, opt for
something "new" (we may create new theologies), but if we do we must know in advance that will we consequently omit and
exclude new groups or persons, or ideas, or . . . . Like the negative theologian, Derrida is not necessarily arguing for a new
system or approach to philosophical, literary, or ethical problems. The point is not to replace the old theology with a new one
that overcomes the mistakes of the old. Neither is he arguing against a new system or approach. Rather, he wants us to "see"
our omissions and exclusions and "failures" so we can think through them and decide, so we can act ethically in response to
them. Derrida's work is a work of praise and reverence for others -- especially since, with thinkers like Emmanuel Lévinas,
Derrida believes that the other person, like God, always escapes my grasp and comprehension. The other person is always
absent from any merely rational system, if for no other reason than that any embodied, material being, especially a living one,
escapes complete rationalization.
For Derrida, therefore, though deconstruction deals with texts, it is
not a method for criticizing texts, whether written, social, or
otherwise. Deconstruction is an attitude, especially an ethical attitude (using that word in the sense that Lévinas uses it, to
denote fundamental relation, not necessarily rules for living in those relations). It is an attitude by means of which one injects
theoretical and ethical humility back into the claims of texts and analyses. It is the attitude of continuing to re-member, of
continuing to praise. In Aristotle's terms, deconstruction is an attitude of continued wonder. In Socrates' terms, it is the
moment of ignorance, of what medievals later called "learned ignorance." Deconstruction is one moment in the continuation of
Derrida's style puts some readers off. Some of what he has said in such
places as Memoires for Paul DeMan suggests that,
because of its effects in American literary criticism, Derrida has begun to have second thoughts about the way he wrote. But his
playful style is not just a result of literary perversity. Given the premises and goals of a deconstructive reading of a text, we can
question the status of a straightforward critical essay. Such an essay, perhaps a book review, says, "this straightforward text
omits something that I can show you straightforwardly." Thus, a straightforward response does not recognize the necessity of
the omission. It stands as an accusation of the text in question rather than as a deconstruction of it. Such accusations are
sometimes necessary. People do, after all, make mistakes. And they commit crimes and sins. Accusation can be an appropriate
response to either, but because they are comparable to the necessary first moment of negative theology, in other words to a
moment in affirmative theology, accusations are not deconstructions (and deconstructions are not accusations). Especially in
his early work, Derrida plays with the rhetoric of response and the idea of response without accusation, aiming to respond to
the problems of the texts he examines in a manner appropriate to his theory and, at the same time, aiming to stretch his
In a fragment from a long sentence that embodies what it describes, Derrida says of his writing:
I remember having gone to bed very late after
a moment of anger or irony against a sentence of Proust's . . . which
says: "A work in which there are theories is like an object on which one has left he price tag," and I find nothing
more vulgar than this Franco-Britannic decorum . . . I admit that I write with the price on, I display, not so that the
price be legible to the first-comer, for I am for an aristocracy without distinction, therefore without vulgarity, for a
democracy of the compulsion to the highest price, you have to pay the price to read the price displayed
Many who read Derrida's work do so without paying the price. They do
not want to read deeply and widely from the
European traditions. They do not want to learn other languages. They do not want to begin their deconstructive work with the
background of careful scholarship. They are lazy. They want to skip the first moment and deal with only the second (which is
impossible). Others are lazy because they depend on someone else's account of Derrida's work (such as this one) or because
they remain committed to the Enlightenment ideal of complete, rational explanation without confronting the problems of that
commitment. In either case, such people are unable to read the price tag (the theory) of that work.
However, Derrida's style is not only a consequence of writing deconstructive
work according to the understanding of his
theory. It is also a result of the excessive character of things themselves and therefore texts. The excessive character of being --
that to be is to be a nexus of possibilities rather than of determinate qualities -- means there is always play in things, experiences
of things, and descriptions, the kind of play one finds in a steering wheel, looseness and variability, give and take more than
joyfulness or silliness (though the latter are not impossible). The straightforward text cannot but have some play in it. No text,
even a deconstructive one can avoid it. Language is like that; things themselves are like that. After Speech and Phenomena,
Derrida's earlier texts were more devoted to playing with that play, deconstructing a text by enacting the play in it in another
text. Derrida's early texts were obviously devoted to play. Less obvious to many readers, that play was also praise. The same
playful, praising element remains in all his texts, even in those such as some of his more recent work, where it is less obvious.
Unfortunately, however one accounts for Derrida's style, the result
of that style has been that some believe his work to be only
a matter of play, just a matter of doing whatever one wishes with the text and, therefore, anything but a matter of praise and
wonder. Among those who believe this, some take it as a sign of his genius and others as a sign of his derangement. Both are
wrong. However playful it may appear at first glance, deconstruction cannot be a matter of mere playfulness. Mere playfulness
does not show us the traces in a text of what otherwise does not appear. In fact, mere playfulness shows us only emptiness,
rather than traces of the absence of meanings, persons, and God, rather than the "failure" of our texts. Rather than calling us to
remembrance, mere playfulness suggests that there is nothing to remember. Mere playfulness is like simple atheism rather than
negative theology. Like negative theology and unlike mere playfulness, deconstruction is also always a matter of serious
purpose and careful attention to the text or matter in question. Thus, it is not enough to object to Derrida's style as obfuscatory.
It may be opaque, intentionally so. However, that opacity is a matter of richness and fullness, a reflection of the richness and
fullness of that to which it tries to refer. (Surely neither poets nor religious people are not generally committed to the idea that
all language should be propositionally clear and distinct. I doubt that even many empirical scientists would be so committed.) If
one is to object to Derrida, one must object to the theory of his style, a theory rich in antecedents and implications. Dismissal
will not do.
Some will doubt what I say about deconstruction. "I've never heard anything
like that," they may say, or "That's not what I
learned about deconstruction." It is tempting to respond by trotting out my "qualifications." To do so, however, is to invite
comparison of my qualifications with those of others, and some who have said ignorant things about deconstruction are
nevertheless very well qualified -- in many respects better than I. I can't win such a showdown. So, consider instead these
quotations from an interview with Jacques Derrida himself:
I learned a lot from my teachers. . . . This
instruction was very hard and heavy, very demanding according to
classical norms. I was trained in those very classical norms. And probably people who read me and think I am
playing with or transgressing norms -- which I do, of course -- usually don't know what I know: that all of this has
not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in
writing. . . . the fact that I am at some level true to this classical teaching is essential. . . . When I take liberties, it's
always by measuring the distance from the standards I know or that I've rigorously been trained in.
Deconstruction questions the thesis, theme,
the positionality of everything. . . . We have to study the models and
the history of the models and then try not to subvert them for the sake of destroying them but to change the
models and invent new ways of writing -- not as a formal challenge, but for ethical, political reasons.
I wouldn't approve of simply throwing texts
into disorder. First, deconstructing academic professional discourse
doesn't mean destroying the norms or pushing these norms to utter chaos. I'm not in favor of disorder.
I started with the tradition. If you're not
trained in the tradition, then deconstruction means nothing. It's simply
I think that if what is called "deconstruction"
produces neglect of the classical authors, the canonical texts, and so
on, we should fight it. . . . I'm in favor of the canon, but I won't stop there. I think that students should read what
are considered the great texts in our tradition. . . . Students could develop, let's say, a deconstructive practice --
but only to the extent that they "know" what they are "deconstructing": an enormous network of other questions.
I'm in favor or tradition. I'm respectful of
and a lover of the tradition. There's no deconstruction without the
memory of the tradition. I couldn't imagine what the university could be without reference to the tradition, but a
tradition that is as rich as possible and that is open to other traditions, and so on.
Logocentrism literally, as such, is nothing
else but Greek. Everywhere that the Greek culture is the dominant
heritage there is logocentrism. I wouldn't draw as a conclusion, as a consequence of this, that we should simply
leave it behind.
I think that people who try to represent what
I'm doing or what so called "deconstruction" is doing, as, on the one
hand, trying to destroy culture or, on the other hand, to reduce it to a kind of negativity, to a kind of death, are
misrepresenting deconstruction. Deconstruction is essentially affirmative. It's in favor of reaffirmation of memory,
but this reaffirmation of memory asks the most adventurous and the most risky questions about our tradition,
about our institutions, about our way of teaching, and so on.
Consider also that in a book explaining Derrida's thought (Jacques Derrida),
Derrida appends to the bottom of each page a
series of reflections in response (the appendage is Circumfession). Derrida's reflections are autobiographical, reflections on his
relation to his mother that take the form, among others, of a response to passages from Augustine's Confessions. One cannot
write or remember in this explicit way without the benefit of a long history of autobiography, confession, philosophy, literature,
art, religion, . . . . Without a kind of obscenity, one could not write about one's mother and her death and, at the same time,
insist that texts don't matter, that words do not signify.
The given quotations and examples from Derrida's work suggest that either
deconstruction has been much misunderstood or
Derrida has never explained himself well. Having read many of his works, I think the first alternative is the better explanation. In
fact, though I am not a Derridean, I think that with such things in mind Derrida's work changes its character, moving from
playful, irritating, but nonsensical texts to playful, irritating, demanding, and sometimes profound texts. With a long list of
antecedents in Christian history and Christian philosophy, Derrida sees writing as an aid to memory: its purpose is to help us
remember what is always nevertheless forgotten, what only too easily slips out of our grasp, whether what we forget is what we
mean, those with whom we live, or God. Derrida writes to nudge us to remember. As texts of memory, Derrida's works move
from a position as texts on the margins of literary criticism and philosophical interests to texts that ask about our margins, about
what is outside those, about what we have forgotten and, perhaps to our peril, ignored.
1. Though part of phenomenology's contribution to philosophy has been
to demonstrate the dangers of and alternatives to
speaking of ourselves as "in here," cut off from the world that is "out there," I will ignore that point for heuristic reasons.
2. It is important to note that, for Heidegger, this problem is only
apparent. Historicism and relativism are mistakes consequent
on the representational thinking of modernism. (See Nietzsche, vol. 2, especially section 16.)
3. Heidegger argues that this is a consequence of what it means to be
at all. Thus, strictly speaking, it is not really a property of
4. "Ousia and Gramm: Note on a Note from Being and Time," Margins of
Philosophy (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1982),
5. "Circumfession" 141-42 (my bold), in Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques
Derrida, Jacques Derrida. (Chicago: U of
Chicago, 1993). The Latin is a quotation from Augustine's Confessions (X, xxiii, 33): "For they love (truth), also since they do
not wish to be deceived. And, when they love the happy life, which is nothing other than joy arising from truth, they certainly
love truth, also. Nor would they love it, unless some knowledge of it were in their memory."
6. One reason for some of the difficulty of Derrida's prose is that
he is experimenting with form to see whether there are ways
of bringing the failure of the text explicitly to the attention of the reader.
7. In, for example, Kevin Hart, The Trespass of the Sign (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1989).
8. See, for example, the two essays in Coward and Foshay, Derrida and
Negative Theology, particularly the second on
Pseudo-Dionysius, "How to Avoid Speaking: Denials" (Albany: SUNY, 1992; 25-71 and 73-142).
9. More accurately, the intention does reach its object (by definition),
but the object of an intention and that at which the
intention purports to aim are not the same.
10. For example, see The Other Heading (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana
UP, 1992) and such books as The Gift of Death
(Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995), Given Time: Counterfeit Money (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991), and "Foi et Savoir:
Les deux source de la 'religion' aux limites de la simple raison," La Religion (Paris: Seuil, 1996) 9-86.
11. Christians remember covenants via ordinances, sermons, the Christian
life, etc. In other words, they remember what it
means to be a Christian in their practices, which may include dogmatics, confession, and theology, but is not limited to them.
One might say that Derrida looks for something like a covenantal relation in texts and philosophy. This parallel of Derrida's
work to Christian theology is fascinating and fruitful, though I will not explore it here. (Those interested should begin with Hart's
book.) Briefly, however, consider an example: not only is deconstruction a matter of remembrance, it is also a matter of hope
and faith. In one place Derrida says: "I shall always have been eschatological if one can say so, in the extreme, I am the last of
the eschatologists" (Circumfession 75). In another: "There is no morality without faith, faith in the other. There is no social
experience without bearing witness, without attestation, the recognition of a dimension of trust and faith. This is not a religious
point; it is the general structure of experience" (Private interview, 1 March 1996, Paris).
12. Derrida's interest in James Joyce's Ulysses, an interest that began
during his days as a student at Harvard, is also behind his
interest in the effects and possibilities of writing.
13. Gary A. Olsen, "Jacques Derrida on Rhetoric and Composition: A Conversation,"
Perspectives on Rhetoric and Literacy (Ed., Olsen and Gale), Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois UP, 121-141.
14. But note the complexity of this claim created by what Derrida has
to say about writing in On Grammatology (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins U, 1976) and in "Plato's Pharmacy" (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1981).