Deconstruction Defined

John Phillips


But we do not want to get anywhere.  We would like only, for once, to get to just where we are already (Martin Heidegger).


Every system, ensemble, institution—anything, that is, which brings its elements together under a principle or set of principles—must have come about on the basis of certain conditions.  And no such ensemble would fail to produce moments when its relationship to its conditions are thematized, dramatized or otherwise represented.  These are the moments of self-identification, producing myths and fictions as factual narratives.  Such representations can always be compared with the actual conditions themselves, which are always also readable at the level of an ensemble’s performance.  Our principle of interpretation can therefore be confidently located in the space, the disjuncture or gap between the statement about and the performance of the relation between the ensemble and the conditions of its own existence. 


We have referred to this distinction in terms of the difference between the subject of the statement and the subject of enunciation.  The statement changes not a bit in its logic or grammar but dramatic differences emerge at the level of rhetoric when the enunciative level is taken into consideration.  This is especially the case when the discussion can be taken as an example of what is being discussed. 


This disjuncture or gap between statement and performance we can call deconstruction.  The conditions of deconstruction can now be reasonably clearly outlined.  The following dogmatically presented statements (my pedagogic irony is in full flow here) have been inappropriately abducted (and abstracted) from slow, patient, careful readings of texts and they are in no way meant as a substitute for that:


  1. Iterability.  The repeatability—and as an immediate consequence the differentiality—of a law, a mark of any kind, a thought, or anything else that comes into my experience, opens it to future possibilities that we nonetheless cannot entirely control—despite the fact that it is this that allows us the control we do have.


  1. Rhetoric.  A message is at bottom rhetorical.  No amount of logic, grammar, or any other formal and empirically verifiable component of a message can guarantee its meaning.  Neither can any identifiable contextual aspect assure the message of its meaning.  A message is determined in the last instance by whatever decision we make in the face of our responsibility towards it.  Archie Bunker’s response to his wife, which Paul de Man makes so much of in “Semiology and Rhetoric,” illustrates the point nicely.  She has asked, “Do you want your laces tied over or under?”  His response takes the grammatical form of the question: “what’s the difference?”  But this is not meant as a question at all (it’s a rhetorical question).  It means—there’s no difference.  Archie’s wife misinterprets him, as usual, and proceeds to try to explain, much to his frustration.  Two meanings thus emerge for the same statement, according to who is the subject of enunciation (Archie or his wife).  All very funny, but when we read a text, we become—we slide into position as—the subject of enunciation.  This is our responsibility.


  1. Decision.  We don’t often make decisions.  We often make choices of decisions that have already been made.  Such choices, especially in consumer cultures and democracies, are coded as decisions.  But a real decision would be something that did not exist as a decision beforehand.  Not one of the good or bad available choices, but rather as something more like an invention.  If the choice already existed it would not be a decision.  Shall I buy the new Mike Stern CD or the new Mercury Rev?  I’ll buy them both!  These are not decisions.  A decision (as the word implies) cuts out other choices—decides against as much as for—and strikes out a path that helps determine the future for you.  Perhaps most people do not really determine their future very much.  It is overdetermined (determined by a number of things).  If you wanted to know how to make a decision, you could do worse than put yourself in the position of a literary critic, faced with a text that has been read many times (though never exhaustively for reasons that we understand today) but which demands a reading from you.  Your reading might be based upon a decision, in which case there’d be no “proper,” “right or wrong” way to do it.  You’d be making relations where previously no relations had existed.  You’d be taking the exorbitant route—the externality without which no text would have its chance with you.  Any institution (say an institution of reading—a literary theory) that would prescribe the proper way of reading (interpreting in advance the meaning of interpretation) would be vulnerable to its own deconstruction.  Unless the openness to the other was explicitly focused upon at the level of enunciation, all texts, all readings, are vulnerable to their own deconstruction.  And they don’t want that.


  1. Repetition and Difference.  A hypothesis (or assumption): the empty, mechanical repetitions—history repeating itself, the cruise missiles arcing across the desert—that are the choices (but not decisions) of those who refuse to take a responsible stand towards their heritage and to the future must not be demonized too quickly in favor of the necessary differences (of repetitions).  Repetition and difference are one and the same—an incalculable effect that calls on responsible decisions.


  1. Not There.  The conditions, without which we’d have no decision, positivity, presence or experience at all, cannot be figured, represented, or otherwise indicated, except by subtleties of distinction and suggestion in complex or poetic argument.  This is because these conditions are simply not there.  They’re not anywhere.  You can make a decision only where there is no decision.  A repetition, thus, cunningly disguises its repeatability as an origin.  But the origin, in this case, is not there.  The repeatability of repetitions comes between them, unseen, unheard, unnoticed, unnoticeable.



Three Key Problems

1. Repetition

The key term would be repetition.  All the phenomena identified with or associated with repetition seem intrinsically connected to our most basic experiences—even if they are traditionally opposed to what is considered most basic.  Some assumptions:  Human existence implies a legacy that we inherit.  We could call this our historicity.  Historicity is not exactly the same as history.  Historicity is the condition of being historical.  One of the things we learn from our writers today is that the aim of locating and understanding conditions cannot necessarily be achieved by simply studying the phenomena (i.e., historical events) that they make possible.  In other words both Heidegger and Derrida are interested in the connection between what is necessary and what is possible (but not always necessary).  Both of them also share the conclusion that the best way forward, in any of the dimensions that we humans operate in, implies types of response to the traditions, legacies and histories that make us what we are.  That response (our responsibility—the ability to respond with a modicum of freedom to a tradition) always implies some minimal freedom.       


Martin Heidegger’s notion of “repetition,” Wiederholung (repetition/retrieval) is first properly thematized in Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, 1927) and then more fully worked out in the Kantbuch (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics).  It is worth examining there because Heidegger is seldom clearer on this than he is in the latter text.  This is his definition:

By the Wiederholung of a basic problem, we understand the opening-up of its original, long concealed possibilities, through the working-out of which it is transformed.  In this way it first comes to be preserved in its capacity as a problem.  To preserve a problem, however, means to free and keep watch over those inner forces which make it possible, on the basis of its essence, as a problem. (KB 139)

What are repeated, then, and thus preserved, are the “inner forces” that make a problem possible.  What is affirmed is the problematic.  The strategy thus involves the location of a persistent problem, the working out of its conditions and the repetition of those conditions in response as a way of perpetuating the problematic.  What can be read as a problem of metaphysics can always be interpreted as a possibility of its future.  In this way the legacy or tradition can be read in terms of its Geschick—it’s destination (destiny) as sending forth.


2. Absence and presence

The second main problematic would be the curious relations between presence and absence and the even more curious condition—that we discover animating language, for instance, that is neither simply present nor simply absent.  This middle—we could even call it a milieu—can be designated by many terms, some of which take us to the yet more curious notion of difference.  The simplest and most topical way of thinking about this notion is to think of it as a kind of interval that one does not experience as such, like the intervals between repetitions, keeping them apart but identifying them as belonging to each other.  This helps because it allows you to think of differences as the same without positing some originary notion of identity. 


3. Determination and the undetermined

The third and final distinction would be that between a determination (e.g., a meaning) and the undetermined (which would be what makes determinations possible for future events).  We are, in other words, temporal (and temporary) beings responding to a past and anticipating a future, without certainty and with unassailable limits to calculability, which compose the structural conditions for our every experience of the present.  Language in particular and writing in general, according to Derrida, provide us with the conditions of possibility and the explanations for our experiences generally.


Further Pages on Deconstruction


Derrida and Deconstruction


Deconstruction in Terms


Paul de Man


Course Webpage