Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

An approach to the reading of literary and philosophical texts that casts doubt upon the possibility of finding in them a definitive meaning, and traces instead the multiplication (or ‘dissemination’) of possible meanings. A deconstructive reading of a poem, for instance, will conclude not with the discovery of its essential meaning, but with an impasse (‘aporia’) at which there are no grounds for choosing between two radically incompatible interpretations. According to deconstruction, literary texts resist any process of interpretation that would fix their meanings, appearing to ‘undo’ themselves as we try to tie them up.

The basis for this apparently perverse approach to reading lies in a certain view of the philosophy of language, and specifically of the status of writing, as developed since 1966 by the French philosopher Derrida, and by his American followers at Yale and elsewhere, including de Man. On this view, derived from a critical reassessment of Saussure, meaning can never be fully ‘present’ in language, but is always deferred endlessly–as when one may look up a word in a dictionary, only to be given other words, and so on ad infinitum. While speech gives the illusion of a fixed origin—the presence of the speaker—that can guarantee the meaning of an utterance, writing is more clearly unauthenticated and open to unlicensed interpretation. Derrida's alarmingly simplified account of the history of Western philosophy since Plato proposes that the dominant metaphysical tradition, in its deep suspicion of writing, has repeatedly tried to erect a fixed point of reference (a ‘transcendental signified’ such as God, Reason, absolute truth, etc.) outside the promiscuous circulation of signifiers, one that could hold in place a determinate system of truths and meanings.

The project of deconstruction, then, is not to destroy but to unpick or dismantle such illusory systems, often by showing how their major categories are unstable or contaminated by their supposed opposites. In philosophical terms, deconstruction is a form of relativist scepticism in the tradition of Nietzsche. Its literary implications are partly compatible with the New Criticism's rejection of the ‘intentional fallacy’ or any notion of the author fixing a text's meanings (see also death of the author), as they are with New Critical interest in paradox as a feature of poetry; but they go further in challenging the claims of any critical system to possess ‘the meaning’ of a literary (or any other) work. In some forms of deconstruction, notably that of de Man, literary texts are held to be more honest than other writings, because they openly delight in the instabilities of language and meaning, through their use of figurative language, for instance. The deconstructive style of literary analysis commonly emphasizes this through puns and wordplay of its own. See also Structuralism and post‐structuralism.

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.