• Jul 6, 2013

Practicing Non-Attachment with Language: An intro to Deconstructionism

by Maddie Gaw

“There’s this thing, called deconstructionism? It’s very boring.”—Mother, The Oldest Boy

Deconstructionism is a method of critical analysis that can be applied to any words, language or text. It was founded and popularized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the late 1960s. Deconstructionism emerged in the wake of the then-fashionable structuralism movement, and is often-times associated with post-structuralism.

Structuralism’s view is that language is a system (or structure) whose individual components (words) can only be understood in relation to the system and to each other. Each word has a definitive meaning, and thus so does the larger structure or text. While Deconstructionism also breaks down language into its individual words, it encourages us not to take a word’s meaning at face value, and posits that there is no such thing as a word’s definitive meaning. This is because language and how it’s used cannot be divorced from the political or social context in which it was created. The ability to step outside of that context and identify all of its inherent biases and assumptions in order to gain perspective on the work as a whole is similar to the Buddhist principle of non-attachment. Non-attachment doesn’t mean denying that emotions and desires exist—it means observing and acknowledging from the outside.

A principle tenet of deconstructionism is that language is always ambiguous and unstable, and that any word or sentence can have multiple meanings at once, and conflicting meanings at that. This is because a good deal of language is made up of binary oppositions: light/dark, strong/weak, man/woman, etc. While one word in each pairing is usually seen as more natural (or better) than the other, deconstructionists argue that neither word could exist without the other. For example, without weak individuals, no one would be considered strong.

When applied to works of literature, this can open up the way popular stories and narratives are read. Look at this well-known passage from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!”

The binary of light and dark is heavily in play here, as well as “light” traditionally being associated with “good” or “beautiful.” If we reverse the color scheme and imagine Juliet as a rich, darker jewel against pale skin, we demonstrate that neither color can exist without the other no matter which one is in the spotlight. We therefore also question the assumption that “dark” and “beautiful” are opposites. We can also question the assumption that “light” is associated with “good” by asking what “torches burning bright” means. Is it a torch being used to light a pathway to safety, or to start a fire against ones enemies?

A deconstructive reading of this passage allows us multiple, contradictory interpretations of Juliet’s character. The fact that all of these interpretations are allowed to exist at the same time shows how much any piece of literature or theatre is dependent on its audience. Since language has been demonstrated to be slippery in meaning, there is no definitive truth besides the one an audience makes for themselves.

An important influence on Derrida and his writings was German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who coined the term destruktion in his seminal work, Being and Time, in 1927. Unlike deconstructionism, Heidegger saw destruktion as a way to take apart modern critical and philosophical texts in order to unlock a definitive understanding and interpretation of important philosophical theories—a fixed solution grounded in assumed truths. Heidegger has remained a crucial but controversial figure in many schools of philosophical thought due to his association with the Nazi Party in Germany, which began in 1933 and continued through the end of World War II. The anti-Semitic writings of Heidegger and Paul de Man, another important deconstructionist thinker, have sparked numerous debates about whether an author’s personal beliefs can be separated from their work.