Deconstructive Reading: What, Why, and How?

Anil Singhal, Central University of Himachal Pradesh

The philosophical term ‘deconstruction’ originates from writing begun in the 1960s by Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), one of the most well-known philosophers and literary theorists worldwide. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy locates the roots of ‘deconstruction’ in Martin Heidegger’s concept of ‘Destruktion.’ Heidegger’s expression referred to a route to explore the history of the concepts and categories enforced on a word by tradition, which results in a distinct interpretation offering a more reliable understanding of human existence. ‘Deconstruction,’ like ‘Destruktion,’ is a “historicizing movement that opens texts to the conditions of their production, their con-text in a very broad sense, including not only the historical circumstances and tradition from which they arose, but also the conventions and nuances of the language in which they were written and the details of their authors’ lives.” Since Derrida preferred ‘deconstruction’ (generally considered to be a combination of ‘construction’ and ‘destruction’) to the literal translation of Heidegger’s term, i.e. ‘destruction,’ “to deconstruct is not to destroy” and “deconstruction is always a double movement of simultaneous affirmation [preserving] and undoing.” Thus, deconstructive reading differentiates from ‘Destruktion’ in that “it has no fixed or expected endpoint or map, but is rather a potentially infinite process” of textual criticism (Holland).

Despite his disinclination to be associated with ‘deconstruction’ as he had “never stopped having doubts about the very identity of what is referred to by such a nick name” (Derrida, “Time is Out of Joint” 15), Derrida was frequently solicited to characterize the expression. In his own words, “deconstruction is neither an analysis nor a critique. . . . Deconstruction is not a method and cannot be transformed into one . . . deconstruction is not even an act or an operation . . . deconstruction loses nothing from admitting that it is impossible” (Derrida, “Letter” 272–75). “[T]here is no deconstruction” or “deconstruction has no specific object” (Derrida, “As If I Were Dead” 218), because a “deconstructive reading attends to the deconstructive processes always occurring in the texts and already there waiting to be read” (Payne 121). This deconstructive course happens not on the part of the reader/critic but on the part of the text itself corresponding to the misease “between what [the text] manifestly means to say and what it is nonetheless constrained to mean” (Norris, Derrida 19). To assert the impossibility of deconstruction is to recognize “the impossible desire of language . . . to make present the permanently elusive” (Payne 121). There is no means to deconstruction as a text literally deconstructs itself while making an impracticable attempt to take up language as a “transcendental signifier” (Usher, and Edwards), i.e. as a manner of positioning one or other eternal truth. Spivak also states that “[A]ll texts . . . are rehearsing their grammatological structure, self-deconstructing as they constitute themselves” (lxxviii). Therefore, all that a deconstructionist requires to do is writing with no predetermined objective because ‘to write,’ as Barthes puts, is an intransitive verb, i.e. a verb having no object and ending in itself. To explain, deconstruction takes place in the practice of writing and not in the result of writing without waiting for “the deliberation, consciousness, or organization of a subject” (Derrida, “Letter” 274). As per the understanding of Gary Rolfe, this process of “deconstructive writing produces a second text as a ‘supplement’ to that which it seeks to deconstruct,” and “there is no single authoritative and ‘correct’ deconstructive reading/writing of any particular text.” Hence, “each text contains within itself the possibility of a vast number of supplementary deconstructive texts, and each of those is likewise open to further deconstruction ad infinitum in an infinite regress” (274). Spivak endorses: “The fall into the abyss of deconstruction inspires us with as much pleasure as fear. We are intoxicated with the prospect of never hitting bottom” (lxxvii).

If we consider the case presented above, deconstruction seems to be unfeasible in a tangible sense. Meanwhile, if we reflect on the true spirit of the above meaning of deconstruction, as McQuillan points out, Derrida’s contention that deconstruction is not a method, i.e. “pas de méthode” (qtd. in McQuillan 5) can itself be questioned and thus deconstructed: “The word pas in French means both ‘not’ and ‘step,’ so this ambiguous phrase can be translated as either ‘not a method’ or ‘a methodological step’ ” (5). In tandem with McQuillan’s claim, Derrida also insists that his fundamental work in the 1960s attempted to devise some methodological step or strategy for deconstruction: “I tried to work out . . . what was in no way meant to be a system but rather a sort of strategic device, opening into its own abyss, an enclosed, unenclosable, not wholly formalizable ensemble of rules for reading, interpretation and writing” (“Time of a Thesis” 40). Though still a deconstructive analysis solely depends upon the perception of the individual reader and there is no clarity about what sort of strategic device it might be, Spivak tries to provide certain hints to such a compilation of rules: “To locate the promising marginal text, to disclose the undecidable moment, to pry it loose with the positive lever of the signifier; to reverse the resident hierarchy, only to displace it; to dismantle in order to reconstitute what is always already inscribed. Deconstruction in a nutshell” (lxxvii). Noticeably deconstruction cannot be only this but if we try to afford the essence (arguably though) of it, it is “the active antithesis of everything that criticism ought to be if one accepts its [criticism’s] traditional values and concepts” (Norris, Deconstruction xii). In other words, deconstruction is the opponent of the original/authoritarian meaning of the text that criticism conventionally seeks to establish.

To elaborate, “[though] not purely negative, deconstruction is primarily concerned with something tantamount to a critique of the Western philosophical tradition.” ‘Logocentrism,’ ‘phallogocentrism’ and perhaps most famous ‘the metaphysics of presence’ are some of the terms Derrida exploited to illustrate the deep-seated ways of thinking of the traditional Western philosophy. “Logocentrism emphasizes the privileged role that logos, or speech, has been accorded in the Western tradition. Phallogocentrism points towards the patriarchal significance of this privileging. Derrida’s enduring references to the metaphysics of presence borrows heavily from the work of Heidegger. Heidegger insists that Western philosophy has consistently privileged that which is, or that which appears, and has forgotten to pay any attention to the condition for that appearance. In other words, presence itself is privileged, rather than that which allows presence to be possible at all—and also impossible, for Derrida” (Reynolds). In keeping with the Heideggerian viewpoint, Derrida believed that metaphysics (a collective substitute for all the three terms above)—which created binary oppositions and established a hierarchy that regrettably prioritized only one term of each pair (presence over absence, speech over writing and so on)—shaped the entire philosophy since the time of the ancient Greeks. Deconstruction toppled this Western metaphysical convention in response to the theoretical and philosophical discourses of the twentieth century including phenomenology, structuralism and psychoanalysis (“Deconstructive Reading”).

To deconstruct a dualism, as elaborated in Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, “is to explore the tensions and contradictions between the hierarchical ordering assumed (and sometimes explicitly asserted) in the text and other aspects of the text’s meaning, especially those that are indirect or implicit or that rely on figurative [metonyms, tropes, puns] or performative [non-sensical utterances, interrogatives, directives, ethical propositions] uses of language” (“Deconstruction”). The deconstructive analysis shows the opposition to be a creation of the text rather than something given autonomously of it. In effect, apart from its two essential steps, i.e. reversing dualities and striving to distort the dualities themselves, the deconstructive reading also aims to unmask the undecidables or ‘aporias’ that cannot comply with either polarity of an opposition. Considered unavoidable in deconstruction, aporia is an insoluble contradiction or logical cul-de-sac in a textual or theoretical argument. For example, referring to the aporetic nature of the political state, Derrida declares it to be “at once remedy and poison”—something we cannot live either with because of its intrinsic violence, or without because of its power to protect us from the violence engendered by itself (Borradori 124). At the same time, Derrida believes that a text is always open to different and infinite interpretations. To assert his point and suggest ways to tackle the logocentric and aporetic situations, Derrida gives another term, viz. “différance” (“Différance” 1). According to Leitch, ‘différance’ has three connotations: “(1) ‘to differ’—to be unlike or dissimilar in nature, quality, or form; (2) differre (Latin)—to scatter, disperse; and (3) ‘to defer’—to delay, postpone.” In brief, différance is an endeavor to create a hinge between “differing and deferring aspects” (Reynolds) of meaning implicated in text or archi-writing—“a kind of writing that precedes both speech and writing” or an original form of language impervious to the difference between speech and writing (“Archi-Writing”).

Sine Quibus Non of Deconstructive Reading

In order to streamline the above discussion and facilitate a deconstructive reading heuristically, below is a review of the essentials of textual deconstruction:

  1. Though Deconstruction cannot be reduced to one method of appliance in practical criticism, deconstructive analysis of a text—by means of patient reading, attention to detail and clarity of standpoint—tends to concentrate on persistent and diverse conflicts in the text.
  2. Deconstructive criticism seeks to interpret a literary or philosophical work by lending prominence to its suppressed/silent meaning(s). It not only prevents a text from semantic stagnation by way of rejuvenating it through dislodging any fixity/finality associated with its meanings, but creates the possibility of coexistence or Derridean “freeplay” (Lodge 89) of contradictory, paradoxical or rival meanings of a text also.
  3. The principal move of deconstructive appraisal is to home in on the binary oppositions within a text to dissolve and displace them through its practice. As a result, what might sound distinct, deep-rooted and meaningful becomes blurred, amorphous and elusive.
  4. Deconstructive reading, which is a re-reading in the sense of interpreting afresh in the presence of all pre-existent interpretations, adopts a three-pronged approach to deal with dualities. It first exposes how the oppositions are configured hierarchically. Secondly, it upends the hierarchy provisionally to make the text reverse what it appeared to mean primarily. Finally, it reaffirms the binary opposites within a non-hierarchical correlation of difference. Exhibiting that these conceptual distinctions are non-stable, reversible, and reciprocally dependent, deconstruction celebrates limitless singular interpretations of meaning without proposing any objective reality or truth.
  5. Further, deconstruction reads a text to observe where it tends to posit its own centre (a privileged idea/concept) to hold the whole structure of the text together and how it constructs its own system of language to yield meaning, and then looks to see how it contradicts itself and what will happen to the structure if the centre is taken away. Thus, deconstruction is a strategy of reading that looks for places where the structure gets shaken up and where more “play” (Derrida, “Structure” 89) of signifiers occurs. Deconstruction does not unbuild the structure of a text. Rather, it tries its level best to manifest that the text has already unbuilt itself.
  6. To unravel the inconsistencies and prevarications inherent in key concept(s)/theme(s)/idea(s), which make a text possible, deconstructionism has to go beyond binarism too. While examining the logicality and rhetoricity of a text, a deconstructionist has to read between the lines to ‘trace’ the aporias, shifts in argument/tenor, and other orthodoxly overlooked details like footnotes/endnotes, casual metaphors, etymologies, use of slashes/brackets/commas, changes in word-order, repetition of words, solecisms, etc.
  7. Deconstructive criticism is a mode of analysis to meaning and not necessarily to true meaning. It focuses on different interpretations and not on the most/least correct one. As the core thrust of deconstruction is to extract meaning, the same theme of a deconstructionist study can be catechized from manifold unique positions.
  8. A deconstructive reading (writing), which is based completely on the subjective opinion of the reader (writer), is a counter-writing which keeps postponing its final version.
  9. Deconstruction also nurtures imagination, ingenuity, creativeness and criticality by employing newer ways of explicating texts/language. It emphasizes that any text, including that which is aware of its self-deconstructive nature as well as that which has been deconstructed (at least once), can be subjected to a deconstructive reading as each such reading remains preliminary and unfinished.
  10. Deconstructionism is a self-referring tool of investigation which by itself does not provide any answer to the pervasive problem of interpretation. Therefore, its techniques can and should be applied to both deconstructive reading as well as deconstructionist applications to do its spirit justice.
  11. In agreement with the spirit of deconstruction, the division between what is within the text and what is beyond the text also can be deconstructed. It will offer the deconstructor the liberty to contextualize the uncertainties of the text with its outside factors such as cultural and linguistic circumstances which propelled its writing, or the personal life of its author, etc. Also, by deconstructing such customary limitations of the method, it will help deconstruction extend its boundaries with each fresh reading.
  12. It is imperative to realize that to deconstruct a text does not imply to tear it apart or leave it meaningless. Rather, the aim is to survey and expand the horizon of its possible logical and rhetorical meanings to understand it more and better, and thus provide democratic dimensions to its interpretation.

To conclude, deconstructive reading paves the way for the disclosure of inherent instability, ambiguities and multiplicities of meaning, and dichotomies within texts. As says Vincent Leitch: “[Deconstruction] aims to decipher the stable truths of a work, employing conventional ‘passive’ tactics of reading; and it seeks to question and subvert such truths in an active production of enigmatic undecidables.” Further, i“Deconstruction deconstruction as a mode of interpretation is concerned, it has often been condemned for its incapacity to provide any concluding thesis as regards the drift of a particular work, and accused of having “little philosophical sensitivity,” lacking “precision and accuracy” and being “an apocalyptic manner of a conspiracy against all literary values” (Gasch). It has also been criticized for being a self-indulgent intellectual subculture which ignores rational appreciation from the outside. Nevertheless, deconstructionism owing to its interstitial hovering between philosophy and literature has immensely influenced interdisciplines like linguistics, psychology, cultural studies, sociology, and anthropology throughout, maintaining its critical rigor in present times as well.


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Anil Singhal, a PhD candidate at Central University of Himachal Pradesh (Department of English & European Languages), is writing his thesis on “Deconstructive Reading of J. Krishnamurti’s Selected Works” under the supervision of Dr Roshan Sharma. His interest areas include Academic Writing, Linguistics, Literary Theory, Mystical and Non-Fictional Writings, Higher Education, and Community Service. He can be reached via email at anil.