Who? Jacques Derrida
When? 1970’s – 2000’s
This page follows from the ideas discussed on the Discourse page. Foucault essentially, believed that there is a series of rules or constraints that determine what we can say sensibly, truthfully and sanely in our society. This series of rules he called a Discourse but can also be thought of as an ideology. Derrida gives us a way to ‘deconstruct’ or, more simply, think about the rules that make up that Discourse.
Derrida believes that the rules that make up our ideology consist of a series of Binary Oppositions, for example: true / false; mad / sane; written / spoken; black / white; free / imprisoned; nature / civilisation; good / evil; man / women; etc. Derrida calls these ‘violent hierarchies’ because one term is always seen as more important, more central than the other, for example truth is more central than falsity, sanity more central than madness, freedom more central than imprisonment. In a sense the more central thing is used to define the less important one e.g. evil is the absence of good.
However, Derrida argues that we have no reason for believing that good is more important than evil. In fact, it might be argued that we need the negative idea of evil to make sense of the idea of good. We don’t get many examples of pure goodness but there is plenty of evil around. So perhaps we come up with the idea of evil first and then think of the opposite and call it good. As such both of these terms seem to be as important as each other. Without one you cannot have the other. If there was no such thing as evil you would not need the word good because there would be no reason to talk about it and perhaps no way of picking it out to even think about.
So, how does this affect literature and what can we say about it?
Firstly it means that there is an un-ending degree of uncertainty in the texts that we read. Texts and societies try to lie or pretend that we can have a sensible reason for preferring one side of a binary opposition over another, e.g. good over evil. However, deconstructing this lie means that we undermine the message that good is more central than evil. This does not mean that we can say that evil is more central than good because that would just be a binary opposition in the other direction. As such we’re left kind of stuck, not being able to say anything definite either one way o the other, which many critics believe is actually a pretty pointless position to get yourself into. One plus is that this complexity does mean that you can sometimes say some interesting things about this uncertainty and the strange contradictions that we can discover when we deconstruct a text but never expect to find a definite answer!
Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, becoming aware of the rules that govern our texts can help us to challenge the assumptions that a text makes and, because our texts often reflect our society, challenge the assumptions that our society makes. For example, the assumption that male is a more central term than female or white a more central term than black or heterosexual a more central term than homosexual. This is perhaps the most useful thing that deconstructionism has given us.