- Jemma DeerJemma DeerDepartment of Comparative Literature- Harvard University
Deconstruction is one of the most significant and controversial intellectual movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. Beginning with the French writer Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), and subsequently adopted by many others, the reading strategy known as deconstruction works to dislocate or destabilize the structures and assumptions that shape human history. Deconstruction calls into question the fundamental concepts and hierarchies of Western philosophy, demonstrates how notions of “writing” and “text” are generalizable beyond human language and thought, and foregrounds the undecidable or incalculable aspects of reading and being.
Through extremely attentive readings of philosophical and psychoanalytic texts, Derrida’s work brings to light the various centrisms and oppositions upon which they are based (centrisms such as logocentrism; anthropocentrism; and phallocentrism; and oppositions such as nature and culture; life and death; presence and absence; speech and writing; human beings and other animals). Alongside having a strong engagement with contemporary issues in society and politics, Derrida was consistently concerned with the literary effects at work in both literary and nonliterary texts, recognizing that meaning and context can neither be absolutely closed off nor fixed by author or reader. Contrary to common misapprehensions about deconstruction, the recognition of the irreducible literariness of all writing is not to suggest that texts are “meaningless,” and nor is Derrida’s generalized notion of writing meant to privilege language over the real world.
Its sustained attention to literature and the effects of reading and writing perhaps account for why deconstruction has been, and is still, most eminent within the field of literary studies. Indeed, much of the prominent deconstructive work after Derrida—including, for example, that of Hélène Cixous, Paul de Man, and J. Hillis Miller—is explicitly and primarily concerned with reading literature. That said, deconstruction cannot be reduced to merely a mode of literary criticism, and it remains influential in numerous other fields, including cultural studies, the environmental humanities, feminism, film studies, history, the life sciences, philosophy, politics, psychoanalysis, queer theory, and religious studies, to name a few.