Structuralism and Post-Structuralism in Derrida's Deconstruction

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 10/01/2013


In critical theory, structuralism is a theoretical paradigm positing that elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger system or structure as an example signs gain their meaning from their relationships and contrasts with other signs constituting a system of signs This was quite different from previous approaches that focused on the relationship between words and the object in the world that they designate.

Ferdinand de Saussure argued that the "sign" was composed of both a signified, an abstract concept or idea, and a "signifier", the perceived sound/visual image, and since different languages have different words to describe the same objects or concepts, there is no intrinsic reason why a specific signifier is used to express a given signified. It is thus "arbitrary". Signs thus gain their meaning from their relationships and contrasts with other signs. As he wrote, "in language, there are only differences 'without positive terms.' As summarized by philosopher John Searle, de Saussure established that 'I understand the sentence "the cat is on the mat" the way I do because I know how it would relate to an indefinite—indeed infinite—set of other sentences, "the dog is on the mat," "the cat is on the couch," etc.'

In literary theory, structuralist criticism relates literary texts to a larger structure, which may be a particular genre, a range of inter-textual connections, a model of a universal narrative structure, or a system of recurrent patterns or motifs. Structuralism argues that there must be a structure in every text, which explains why it is easier for experienced readers than for non-experienced readers to interpret a text. Hence, everything that is written seems to be governed by specific rules, or a "grammar of literature", that are to be unmasked. And so text has one final meaning. The Signifier can't be a signified.

A potential problem of structuralist interpretation is that it can be highly reductive. An example of such a reading might be if a student concludes the authors of West Side Story did not write anything "really" new, because their work has the same structure as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In both texts a girl and a boy fall in love (a "formula" with a symbolic operator between them would be "Boy + Girl") despite the fact that they belong to two groups that hate each other ("Boy's Group - Girl's Group" or "Opposing forces") and conflict is resolved by their death.

Ferdinand de Saussure tries to restrict the science of linguistics to the phonetic and audible word only . In the course of his inquiry, Saussure goes as far as to argue that “language and writing are two distinct systems of signs: the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first”. Similar to how tone and stress on a word can change the meaning of a sentence.

Structuralism rejected the concept of human freedom and choice and focused instead on the way that human experience and thus, behavior, is determined by various structures. So it opposed existentialism.


A post-structuralist critic must be able to use a variety of perspectives to create a multifaceted interpretation of a text, even if these interpretations conflict with one another. It is particularly important to analyze how the meanings of a text shift in relation to certain variables, usually involving the identity of the reader (for example: class, racial, or sexual identity). The theme of history in modern Continental thought can be linked to such influences as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. So there is an endless number of interpretations. Foucault argues that everything is interpretation. There is no final meaning for any particular sign, no notion of unitary sense of text, no interpretation can be regarded as superior to any other. A Signifier can be a signified and so on in an endless chain.

Umberto Eco's (1962) The Open Work satisfies the criteria of a post-structuralist work. Eco's thesis is that a work of art, and especially of contemporary art, has an undefined meaning, and that the will of the artist was exactly that of producing such indeterminacy or openness. These "open works" have then to be completed by the interpreter, according to that particular interpreter's knowledge.

Binary Opposition

In critical theory, a binary opposition is a pair of related terms or concepts that are opposite in meaning. Binary opposition is the system by which, in language and thought, two theoretical opposites are strictly defined and set off against one another. It is the contrast between two mutually exclusive terms, such as on and off, up and down, left and right. Each unit is defined in reciprocal determination with another term, as in binary code. It is not a contradictory relation but, a structural, complementary one. An example of this is that one cannot conceive of 'good' if we do not understand 'evil'. In post-structuralism, it is seen as one of several influential characteristics or tendencies of Western and Western-derived thought, and that typically, one of the two opposites assumes a role of dominance over the other. For example when was adopted by several French feminist theorists as a way of making clearer the deep male bias embedded in the European intellectual tradition.


Derrida follows Wittgenstein in his linguistic turn, transforming the classic question of what we can know to the question of what we can express. Derrida aimed to show that writing is not simply a reproduction of speech, but that the way in which thoughts are recorded in writing, strongly affects the nature of knowledge.

Deconstruction is, like Destruktion, an historicizing movement that opens texts to the conditions of their production, their context 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. Deconstruction, is breaking something down into parts to look for meaning, then putting the parts back together to create greater and show the contradictions that undo the texts themselves, because "Language is constantly overflowing with implications, associations, and contradictions of the ideologies of which it is formed". The contextual noumenon, as discovered by the deconstructionist, is relatively more important than the textual content.

For Heidegger, Destruktion of the traditions in that social world can lead us back to a past that can be re-interpreted in ways that reveal the deeper understanding of Being hidden in the earliest texts of the European tradition; it can offer ways to project a different, more authentic future for Dasein based on the new way of seeing the past. Deconstruction differs from Destruktion in that it has no fixed or expected endpoint or map, but is rather a potentially infinite process. Although obviously a critical tool, it also lacks the sense, evident in Heidegger, that the text to be deconstructed is part of how European thought has somehow gone wrong and needs correction. This is because deconstruction rejects both the idea that there is a fixed series of eras (ancient, medieval, modern) in European history that mark a downward path, and the idea that there is some determinate way in which that path might be reversed, by a re-interpretation. Rather, Texts are vital parts of our intellectual world, with a view to revealing their underlying complexities and hidden contradictions. He does not seek to undo Kant, for example, or interpret his writings in ways closer to Derrida’s own vision of what philosophy should be, but rather shows us the ways in which Kant both changes and continues the metaphysical tradition, as well as the ways in which Kant’s texts undo themselves along the same.

The basic strategy is still to follow the trace of a key ambiguity or blind spot through the text to illuminate hierarchical oppositions. "In a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment". In order to begin the deconstruction, one must break the link between the two opposing concepts. To overlook this phase of overturning is to forget the conflicting and subordinating structure of opposition. But, as a second step, Derrida added that one must do what is needed so that the two concepts stay separate and non hierarchical. In order to achieve this, one must intervene in the field effectively, to create new marks, a new concept that no longer is, and never could be included in the previous regime. "To be effective, deconstruction needs to create new concepts, not to synthesize the terms in opposition, but to mark their difference and eternal interplay". — "Interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta," in "Positions"

Derrida argues that at the crucial point of observation, that is at the point that a thing becomes identifiable for us, we label it. That is, we think and we observe in words. In a language even. If you open the box, the way you identify your reality is through your binary opposition. This is why the "Zombie" is an undecidable, and you have to enforce its place on one side of the binary opposition. It must be ONLY alive or dead. It has to become a proper corpse or a living being. At that point the familiar concepts of life and death can rule again, untroubled. This is the restoration of conceptual order, like Schrodinger's cat. But it can't be on other side so we need to create a new concept, "Zombie".


Perhaps Derrida's most famous mark was, from the start, differance, created to deconstruct the opposition between speech and writing. Derrida deconstructs this binary opposition and argues that writing precedes speech rather than being its consequence or effect. Derrida quotes Saussure: “Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first.” Critiquing this relationship between speech and writing, Derrida suggests that written symbols are legitimate signifiers on their own—that they should not be considered as secondary or derivative relative to oral speech. What differentiates différance and différence is inaudible, and this means that distinguishing between them actually requires the written. This problematical efforts like Saussure’s, which as well as attempting to keep speech and writing apart, also suggest that writing is an almost unnecessary addition to speech. In response to such a claim, Derrida can simply point out that there is often, and perhaps even always, this type of ambiguity in the spoken word – différence as compared to différance – that demands reference to the written.

In the essay "Différance" Derrida indicates that différance gestures at a number of heterogeneous features that govern the production of textual meaning.

  1. The first (relating to deferral) is the notion that words and signs can never fully summon forth what they mean, but can only be defined through appeal to additional words, from which they differ. Thus, meaning is forever "deferred" or postponed through an endless chain of signifiers. Deferral also comes into play, as the words that occur following "house" or "white" in any expression will revise the meaning of that word, sometimes dramatically so. This is true not only with syntagmatic succession in relation with paradigmatic simultaneity, but also, in a broader sense, between diachronic succession in History related with synchronic simultaneity inside a "system of distinct signs".
  2. The second (relating to difference, sometimes referred to as espacement or "spacing") concerns the force that differentiates elements from one another and, in so doing, engenders binary oppositions and hierarchies that underpin meaning itself. For example, the word "house" derives its meaning more as a function of how it differs from "shed", "mansion", "hotel", "building", etc. (Form of Content, that Louis Hjelmslev distinguished from Form of Expression) than how the word "house" may be tied to a certain image of a traditional house (i.e. the relationship between signifier and signified) with each term being established in reciprocal determination with the other terms than by an ostensive description or definition: when can we talk about a "house" or a "mansion" or a "shed"? The same can be said about verbs, in all the languages in the world: when should we stop saying "walk" and start saying "run"? The same happens, of course, with adjectives: when must we stop saying "yellow" and start saying "orange", or exchange "past" for "present? Not only are the topological differences between the words relevant here, but the differentials between what is signified is also covered by différance.
Complete meaning is always "differential" and postponed in language; there is never a moment when meaning is complete and total. A simple example would consist of looking up a given word in a dictionary, then proceeding to look up the words found in that word's definition, etc., also comparing with older dictionaries from different periods in time, and such a process would never end.

Archi-writing refers to a kind of writing that precedes both speech and writing. Derrida argued that Archi-writing is, in a sense, language, in that it is already there before we use it, it is a semi-fixed set-up of different words and syntax. This fixedness is the writing to which Derrida refers, just such a 'writing' can even be seen in cultures that do not employ writing, it could be seen in notches on a rope or barrel, fixed customs, or placements around the living areas.

Deconstruction Examples

As an example of deconstruction here, The Truth in Painting takes its title from a letter in which Paul Cézanne tells Émile Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting [la verité en peinture] and I will tell it to you.” Derrida points out that the philosophy of language would assert that in writing this, Cézanne must have known what he meant, but in fact the sentence itself has no determinate meaning. “The truth in painting” escapes and exceeds the boundaries philosophy wants to draw with regard to language because it has at least four meanings, none of which is reducible to any of the others: 1) the truth about truth itself to be found in or through a painting or other work of art, such as the truth Heidegger finds in Van Gogh’s painting of the shoes in “Origin of the Work of Art”; 2) the truth of the painting as painting, that is, how “true to life” it is, how well it succeeds in representing what it is meant to represent; 3) the truth about its object that can be found through the painting, such as when a portrait lays bare the character of its subject; and 4) the truth about painting in the sense of what is true in painting as a human enterprise or art form.

Another example, Ernest Jones’ classic psychoanalytic reading of “Hamlet”, for instance, is deconstructive in that it foregrounds the suppressed patricide in “Julius Caesar” (Shakespeare ignores the fact that Brutus was Caesar’s illegitimate son, thus implying an invariant (beloved-)father/(legitimate-)son pair), and then uses this omission as one key in tracing the Oedipal fault line in the later play. Here deconstruction yields, not a new meaning to “Hamlet”, as one could say Derrida does in his discussion of prefaces in Hegel, but a new richness to our understanding of Shakespeare’s work.

An example for feminist deconstruction, Sarah Kofman’s 1980 book on Freud provides a detailed example of the potential power of this method for feminist thought. One major fault line she examines is the concept of “penis envy”, a phenomenon that is supposedly central to the process that transforms bisexual creatures into women. Kofman notes, however, that this process amounts to transforming into a woman “a little girl who has first been a little boy” because within psychoanalysis pre-Oedipal bisexuality affirms the “original predominance of masculinity (in both sexes)” (EW 111-122). She draws extensively on Freud’s biography, as well as his texts, to make clear how he characterizes women as defined both by lack (their penis envy) and their excess (“her narcissistic self-sufficiency and her indifference” which leaves the male “emptied of this original narcissism in favor of the love object” [EW 52]), another classic deconstructive self-contradiction. Ultimately, she argues that penis envy, Freud’s “idée fixe”, and indeed his whole account of femininity and female sexuality, “allows him to blame nature for the cultural injustice by which man subordinates woman’s sexual desires to his”. She also notes Freud’s surprise that, given all this, women might be hostile to men or frigid (EW 208-209).

Deconstruction retains it critical edge well into the 21st century, even when directed against closely allied texts. For instance, the 2001 address Derrida gave upon receiving the Theodor Adorno Prize turns back on Adorno himself, specifically on his privileging of the German language even as he champions globalism and a united Europe. This deconstruction centers in the familiar manner on the untranslatably ambiguous French word fichu (n. neckerchief; adj., lost or done for). The word appears in French in a letter to Adorno’s wife by Walter Benjamin, who uses it in describing a dream where he speaks of “changing a poem into a fichu” in the first sense (neckerchief or scarf). This fichu is then associated in the dream with the letter “d”, which Derrida suggests might refer to a name Benjamin used in signing letters, or to his sister or his wife, both named Dora. Derrida then goes on to point out that “dora” in Greek can mean scorched or scratched skin, hence linking it to fichu in the second sense, but also to Auschwitz and to 9/11, which was Adorno’s birthdate (PM 164-181). In an excellent example of the deconstruction of a deconstruction, the English translator of this address inserts a footnote here to add that “dor”, meaning gift, is also part of Adorno’s given name, Theodor, “gift of the gods” (PM 203).

Derrida's Aporia

The aporia that surrounds the gift revolves around the paradoxical thought that a genuine gift cannot actually be understood to be a gift. In his text, Given Time, Derrida suggests that the notion of the gift contains an implicit demand that the genuine gift must reside outside of the oppositional demands of giving and taking, and beyond any mere self-interest or calculative reasoning, even a simple ‘thank-you’ for instance, which both acknowledges the presence of a gift and also proposes some form of equivalence with that gift, can be seen to annul the gift. The important point is that, for Derrida, a genuine gift requires an anonymity of the giver, such that there is no accrued benefit in giving. The giver cannot even recognize that they are giving, for that would be to reabsorb their gift to the other person as some kind of testimony to the worth of the self – ie. the kind of self-congratulatory logic that rhetorically poses the question “how wonderful I am to give this person that which they have always desired, and without even letting them know that I am responsible?”. He argues that a genuine gift must involve neither an apprehension of a good deed done, nor the recognition by the other party that they have received, and this seems to render the actuality of any gift an impossibility.

Derrida points out, in writing about one particular cause rather than another, in pursuing one profession over another, in spending time with one’s family rather than at work, one inevitably ignores the “other others” , and this is a condition of any and every existence. He argues that: “I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another, without sacrificing the other other, the other others”. For Derrida, it seems that the Buddhist desire to have attachment to nobody and equal compassion for everybody is an unattainable ideal. Derrida hence implies that responsibility to any particular individual is only possible by being irresponsible to the “other others”, that is, to the other people and possibilities that haunt any and every existence.


With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, "He says so and so," he always says, "You misunderstood me." But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that's not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, "What the hell do you mean by that?" And he said, "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part." And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes. Foucault was often lumped with Derrida. That's very unfair to Foucault. He was a different caliber of thinker altogether.
— John R. Searle

...anyone who reads deconstructive texts with an open mind is likely to be struck by the same phenomena that initially surprised me: the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial.
— John R. Searle

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