Literary Theory- Deconstruction

Deconstruction is a post-structuralist perspective in literary theory that is not a theory per se but rather a set of strategies or ways of reading a text.

Jacques Derrida is a leading figure in deconstruction.

There are two aspects that are important in deconstruction:

  1. Binary oppositions
  2. Centre of the structure

Binary Oppositions

Drawn from Levi-Strauss’ findings, units in a system exist in binary pairs or oppositions. One is favourable or positive while the other is unfavourable or negative.  Eg. good/evil

We think about the world in terms of binary oppositions.

In Western metaphysics, the term that comes to the left of the slash is considered positive while the term to the right of the slash is considered negative. We argue about which position a term should be placed. For example, why is male better than female or why is white better than black? Deconstruction asks how the first term is valued over the other.

By taking the example of speech/writing and how speech is favoured over writing, it’s been found that we associate speech to the presence of another wherein writing is associated to the person who has written the text. The privilege of speech or presence over writing or absence is an example of logocentrism ( word-centredness).

Eg. God said “Let there be light” which associates his presence to light. The fact that He spoke reinstates His existence.

Each term has meaning or what Saussure calls value in reference to the other. Binary opposites are inseparable in their opposition because the term on either side of the slash has meaning as the negation of the term on the other side of the slash.

Centre of the structure

The centre holds the whole structure in place, keeping each binary opposition on the proper side of the slash.

Terms like God, human being, truth serve as the centre.

Functions of the centre:

  1. It creates the system and governs the units within the system according to the rules of the system.
  2. It is something beyond the system and not governed by the rules of the system. Hence the structure is paradoxically inside and outside the system. It escapes what Derrida calls the totality or structurality.

Characteristics of the centre:

  1. It limits play. The centre thus holds all the units in place and in relation to one another, keeping the structure for moving too much. This motion is called ‘play’, so the centre limits play and keeps the system stable and rigid. Derrida says this isn’t good for a signifying or philosophical system. Play is what makes literary language. In literary texts, language plays (polysemy) while in non-literary texts, language does not play (each term has only one meaning). You wouldn’t wonder what the word wrench means in a plumbers manual means but you would in a poem.
  2. It cannot be replaced by any other unit in the system. Eg. God is the centre of the system and nothing else is equivalent to replace as the centre
  3. It is the transcendental signified i.e the ultimate source of meanings.

According to Derrida, there was a rupture or a moment when structuralism enabled philosophy to think about itself differently. It was the moment when philosophers were able to see philosophical systems not as absolute truth but as systems and structures.

Prior to this rupture, there was continual substitution of one centred system to another centred system like God was replaced by the rational mind and the rational mind was replaced by the unconscious and so on.

Derrida and other poststructuralists write in a way that is constantly reminding the reader that meaning is unstable and that makes us aware of the constructed systems which make the text possible. That is why their works are so difficult to read and understand.

So what does Derrida mean when he says deconstruction is a set of ways to read a text?

  • Deconstruction reads a text to see where it posits its own centre, how it constructs its own system of ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ and then looks to see where it contradicts itself. Hence it’s a way of reading that looks for chinks in the armour of the text i.e where the structure gets shaken up. A deconstructive reading reads a text against itself.


The term bricolage means tinkering in French. In art or literature, bricolage means construction from a diverse range of available things. Someone who engages in bricolage is bricoleur, the equivalent of a handy man or jack of all trades. A bricoleur doesn’t care about the purity or stability of a system but rather uses what’s available to get the job done.

Bricolage doesn’t worry about coherence of the words or ideas it uses. For example, you are a bricoleur if you talk about the Oedipus complex without knowing anything about psychoanalysis. Bricolage understands that meaning is something shifting.

A bricoleur is contrasted to an engineer. A bricoleur cannot plan or make projects since to do so implies both that the necessary tools and materials can be obtained as required and do not have to be ready at hand.

Source- Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed by Mary Klages


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