Introduction to Derrida



John Phillips




Deconstruction is the term that has been used to describe Derrida’s “method.”  If we accept this provisionally as an acceptable usage (I’ve already shown that we cannot accept it in an unqualified way) we must take note of some important features.  Deconstruction does intuitively sound like a form of destruction, of taking apart, perhaps, of undoing some construction.   Many people have agreed that some deconstruction (thought of in this way) was necessary.  The totalitarian projects of western metaphysics, the ethical, aesthetic, epistemological projects of post-enlightenment science, the imperialism of European countries as they carved out their empires throughout the colonised world, the great patriarchal domination over women--all of these structures and institutions, people agree, need to be taken down to their foundations in order to expose their contradictory logic.  But now, the argument goes, we need some reconstruction.  We need to put things together again in some new, more democratic, order.  However this consoling sense of reconstruction is anathema to any rigorous sense of deconstruction.  Deconstruction actually names the impossibility of setting up “perfect” or “ideal” structures.  That which cannot be presented for conception or perception takes its determination from things like the future now and from the radical alterity of the other (which in its permanent absent presence guarantees the particularity of all of us finite particulars).  No law could be set up to take that into its consideration—that is the very condition of the law.  Deconstruction does indicate a certain amount of what Derrida calls “de-sedimentation,” which implies undoing the work of sedimentation, the consolidation that occurs with systems of thought.  But this is not simply with the aim of destroying the systems or ensembles in question.  Rather, deconstruction implies reconstituting them according to the conditions (previously hidden or made mysterious) of their institution.   In giving an account of his use of the word deconstruction Derrida gives the following explanation: “The undoing, decomposing, and desedimenting of structures, in a certain sense more historical than the structuralist movement it called into question, was not a negative operation.  Rather than destroying it was also necessary to understand how an ‘ensemble’ was constituted and to reconstruct it to this end.”  So deconstruction names something rather more powerful than simply undoing.  It names the conditions according to which it is possible for events to occur and for institutions to be established.  Deconstruction is never the closing down of one institution in order to set up another in its place.  Rather it points to the persistent and inevitable opening up of institutions to their own alterity, towards which they might perhaps be forced to adapt.  Deconstruction names the conditions upon which it is possible for things to change.  If there is a strategy, or a method to deconstruction(ism) then it would involve opening boundaries up to an alterity—almost literally making a negative space—that welcomes the surprise of future events.  It makes or allows things to happen.  The triumphal part of, for instance, the structuralist project, hinting at its escape from the bounds of metaphysical thought, is treated with extreme vigilance by Derrida for the metaphysics tends to rush back in just when you’re least expecting it.  What kind of term can replace the recourse to metaphysical concepts?  Can you have theory, or even thought, without concepts?  The notion of alterity, the other, that “something missing,” which is obviously not a concept, can nonetheless act against the solidifying, or sedimenting of dogmatic thought. 


Alterity and Writing

Alterity is still quite a trendy word in critical discourse but not one that is always well understood.  The reason for this is not because it is particularly difficult to understand—it is not a complex concept in the theoretical sense—it is just that it is supposed to designate a structural condition that cannot in itself be made present.  Alterity designates nothing real or actual.  But as a condition we could not do without it.  The Oxford English Dictionary records the following:  Alterity: The state of being other or different; diversity, ‘otherness.’”  The word is not in every English dictionary.  But there is a more common word that seems to provide its root: alter.  We get the word alter from the Middle English, and that comes from Middle French, alterer, and from Medieval Latin alterare, and that has passed over from the Latin alter meaning other (of two) as in “this one and the other one”); akin to Latin alius, meaning other.  When I take on an alias I assume a different identity.


Thus alterity, which takes all of the above into consideration (as well, we note, as the possibility of these permutations in etymological passage), is the condition of otherness, difference, or change.  Words like this usually designate conditions that can only be grasped in terms of the effects they describe and are supposed to make possible.  So we know that texts are translatable because we have translations and can speak in more than one language.  We also know that pure or simple or literal translation is strictly impossible.  Translatability is implicated in that impossibility (because a pure or literal translation would be literally the same in the sense of being identical).  So translation implies as a basic condition of possibility a certain notion of altered-ness—the translation will be different or in some way changed from its pre-translation form.  Alterity doesn’t just mean other, then, in the Latin sense (e.g. this burger is nicer than the other one), which would imply a contrast between two actual discrete entities.  Rather it designates the conditions upon which different discrete entities can be compared and contrasted at all.  One of the basic conditions of a text (of any kind) is, then, that it can be translated into different languages (languages that its author, for instance, may not know).  The text is permanently affected by this alterity, which earlier we isolated as the “something missing” of its complete meaning (thus generating further possible contexts and translations).  It takes up the space of the otherwise absent referent, and/or sense (or signified for those who are still attached to Saussure).  It gestures forward to the future of randomly undetermined addressees, and backwards to the absent origin of the text—in so far as such an origin would be in some sense (always yet to be determined) “outside the text.”  Alterity can also be considered in this way as the always-not-yet-determined sense of a text.  The fact is, of course, that texts usually have both a sense and can be attributed with a referent (even a fictional one).  But this is only because of their essential alterity—leaving those possibilities open.  So when Saussure explains that, “language is a system of differences with no positive terms,” what he implies without actually being explicit about it is that language relies, as one of its most basic conditions of possibility, on a certain alterity—a structure that grants difference to its entities, the individual signs.


Repetition and Writing

Unlike Saussure, Derrida focuses on this sense of alterity in its relation to repetition.  In Derrida the senses of alterity and repeatability are combined to form the notion of iterability.  Iterum (likewise in Latin), which generally composes the central moment in analogical constructions also means altered.  It signifies the combination of a repetition (which implies sameness) and difference (which implies alteration).  A repetition is an altered version of that which it repeats.  Another one of the main conditions for our basic sense of writing is that it be composed of repeatable marks.  A written mark must always be identifiable as such.  Sometimes cloud formations or rock formations look as if they are composed of repeatable marks.  But for something to be considered as writing we must be able to recognise the marks (re-cognize/re-mark).  The same, rather obviously—yet the implications of this are profound—must be the case for that which the marks signify as sense, signified, referent or whatever, as and when a mark actually does signify something definite.  That definite meaning—a definition (de-fining or making temporarily finite) is provisional and, again rather obviously, made possible only by the fact that the mark of its meaning be repeatable.  The consequence is that the meaning, as a repetition of whatever minimal sense it always has, is in fact a usually slight but potentially quite extreme alteration of what it means in other repetitions, other incarnations.  So deconstruction would not concern simply all the different interpretations that clever readers can manipulate by critical reading, but—perhaps more than that—it concerns the minimal ideality of signs and texts—that which makes more or less repeatable meanings possible.  The name he gives for that possibility is iterability.  A minimal ideality ensures that a text (for instance) maintains a singularity that contests any attempt to subsume it as an example. 



So the non-present, non-absent space of possibility cannot ever be made present as such--otherwise nothing would happen.  But deconstruction is often considered as a kind of strategy (or a number of strategies occurring among many domains and dimensions) for outlining such a space.  At this stage we can turn to the issue of exemplification. 


There are two ways in which a text can exemplify deconstruction.  Both cases may be understood if we shift our focus to the level of address.


Standard (simplified) Communication Model:  

Addresser       ®        Message         ®        Addressee


A text would need to be considered not simply as a message alone, standing independently of the level of address (someone addresses a message to someone else).  Rather the level of address is a major component of the message.  A message can be regarded both at the level of statement (it says something) and at the level of enunciation (someone addresses someone else).  Most messages have both sense (they mean something) and a plane of reference (they refer to some specific thing).  At the level of address (or enunciation) a text can be analysed in its self-referential aspects, as referring to itself.  Some texts do this in obvious ways.  I borrow the following example from mainstream cinema, which can display the more complex patterns of philosophical texts in a graphic way (borrowed also from my book on Critical Theory).


The cinema release Mrs Doubtfire is a typical instance of self-conscious auto-referentiality.  The story is, at the level of its statement, a sentimental tale of a father (Robin Williams) who would do anything to carry on seeing his three children after having been estranged from them after divorce.  He takes on the persona of a female housekeeper/governess/childminder, heavily yet convincingly disguised in professional costume and make-up, and gets the job.  In the meantime he works lugging canisters of film for a TV company, though gets a break when the company director over-hears him rehearsing his ideas for an informative yet entertaining children’s show.  He is eventually found out in his Mrs. Doubtfire guise while attempting to play both roles (housekeeper at one table and aspiring TV actor at another during a restaurant farce).  So he loses access to the children but gains a job as a TV presenter in his Mrs Doubtfire role.  Needless to say he eventually returns to the kids in the role of their father as a full time carer.  The cinema rhetoric is fairly dancing all this time and issues of cross-dressing, gender and sexuality, the roles of mothers and fathers etc., intrude constantly.  It comes together at the level of enunciation, the level of address.  The lingering shots of the entertainment world, his gay brother and friend who labour to produce his Doubtfire persona, the quickfire wit of Williams in all his personae, all serve to draw attention to the fact that this is about show business and thus the address is at all times an appeal to the audience on behalf of the product itself, that is, entertainment.  The Doubtfire character 1) succeeds (where husband and wife failed) to produce fulfilled children who improve steadily at school, and 2) his programme is responsibly educational as well as being entertaining.  These dramatic presentations draw attention to the responsible yet entertaining role of the media in relation to its spectators (the children).  It is a message that builds in an evaluation of itself.  It also, in grounding the absent real as the father beneath the disguise, appeals to a transcendental concept of truth but only in so far as it is contained in the form of the product, that is, theatrical entertaining fiction.  The false persona and the real father are one and the same thing, a responsible and entertaining parent.  In this sense we should be able to see that the text attempts to legislate, in its own way, over its own conditions (of production and reception).  However the “something missing” intervenes when we see that the film operates as a consistent claim to responsibility only by inscribing its addressee—the spectator—as passive child, at the mercy of good or bad parents. 


In this case a message attempts to legislate over its own conditions.  In the second kind we would witness a message that is responsible to its own conditions (the alterity of origins and addressees).  Any example from Derrida might be said to exemplify the second kind.  In each case the message can be said to exemplify its own condition, its own laws and the rules of its constitution.   In the first case the constitution can be “deconstructed” (or more faithfully, “deconstruction applies”) and there’s barely a text that cannot.  In the second case one should be able to see, at the level of enunciation, that the text is already so constituted as to exemplify its conditions of construction.  It would in that case simulate a presentation of its own singularity, the alterity of its origin and the alterity of its addressee, with no appeal to a transcendental concept that would otherwise ground it.


This logic is intricately related to the “ideal objects” like literature and the artwork, where the examples each tend towards a powerful singularity.  In the case of literature this singularity is so powerful that it allows Derrida to formulate the questions and, thus, the laws that govern iterable singularities (the laws that govern the iterability of singularities generally--which is already a paradox).  In an interview with Derek Attridge, first published in Acts of Literature, Derrida says:


What is fascinating is perhaps the event of a singularity powerful enough to formalize the questions and theoretical laws concerning it.  [He comes back to the word power later in the interview].  The “power” that language is capable of, the power that there is, as language or as writing, is that a singular mark should also be repeatable, iterable, as mark.  It then begins to differ from itself sufficiently to become exemplary and thus involve a certain generality.  This economy of exemplary iterability is of itself formalizing.  It also formalizes or condenses history.


A text by Shakespeare or Joyce is a powerful condensation of history (i.e., an example on the paradigmatic axis) but it is also an absolutely singular event.  There is an absolutely singular and untranslatable uniqueness, which because it is iterable as such, “both does and does not form part of the marked set.”  Derrida directs the implications of this fact to science.   In learning to understand these laws (which may be something like learning to read Derrida’s texts) one ought to recognize that their formalization can never be finished, brought to an end, closed down or completed.  He points out that “to insist on this paradox is not an antiscientific gesture.”  It is done in the name of a kind of science that would refuse to ignore the paradoxes of its own common sense or reason.


The Ethics of Deconstruction (applications of the rule of the impossible)

Some recent works by Derrida at first sight suggest a move into ethical and political areas: Specters of Marx, The Politics of Friendship (on aporias of politics and ethics), The Force of Law (on the possibility of Justice), The Gift of Death (on monotheism), L’autre cap (on the paradox of Europe) and Monolingualism of the Other (which deals with questions of national identity and national language).  Undoubtedly these works are of interest to people concerned with ethical, political and religious issues, but it should be noted that the questions raised in these texts are already raised in Derrida’s earliest work and, if anything, provoke continued rereading of the now classic texts in the light of the new ones, which both repeat, continue and extend the earlier ones (though remember what I said about the impossibility of answering the question “When?” about a text).   Consistently there is vigilance against any tendency towards purification, totalization, completion and towards the transcendental.  But you will also find a consistent affirmation of what Derrida calls the undecidable. 


In L’autre Cap Derrida suggests that “ethics, politics, and responsibility, if there are any, will only ever have begun with the experience and experiment of the aporia” (LC 41).  In other words responsibility (deconstruction or justice begins in the face of an undecidable, like Europe in this context, which indicates a double injunction, a) against monopoly, and b) against dispersion.  An application conventionally implies that a decision has already been made:


When the path is clear and given, when a certain knowledge opens up the way in advance, the decision is already made, it might as well be said that there is none to make: irresponsibly, and in good conscience, one simply applies or implements a program. Perhaps, and this would be the objection, one never escapes the program.  In that case, one must acknowledge this and stop talking with authority about moral or political responsibility.  The condition of possibility of this thing called responsibility is a certain experience and experiment of the possibility of the impossible: the testing of the aporia from which one may invent the only possible invention, the impossible invention. (L’autre Cap 41)


Now an application of Derrida (commonly called a deconstruction), given the senses we indubitably associate with his name, would have to respond to the experience of the aporia and would thus be outside or beyond the program, rule or law itself.  Necessarily.  A responsibility as such must be exercised beyond the order of the possible: “when a responsibility is exercised in the order of the possible, it simply follows a direction and elaborates a program.  It makes of action the applied consequence, the simple application of a knowledge or know-how.  It makes of ethics and politics a technology ... it begins to be irresponsible” (45).  The aporia takes shape once one begins to ask “what an ethics or a politics that measures responsibility only by the rule of the impossible can be” (45).  We are apparently limited to two mutually exclusive and unsatisfying procedures: either the irresponsible application of a decision ready made, the management or administration of a theory, rule or law; or the limitation to impossible, impractical, inapplicable decisions.  For Derrida, the aporia requires “thinking differently, or thinking at last, what is announced here in the enigmatic form of the ‘possible’ (of the possibility--itself impossible--of the impossible, etc.)” (46).  Thinking differently the possibility of the impossible. 


Here, where the application faces its own law, we encounter a number of folds, tucked into the rich resources of its Latin root, plicare (to fold).  Derrida has already elaborated the interesting logic of the fold in his reading of Mallarme in “The Double Session”: “each session by itself being but the rejoinder or application of the other, its play or exercise” (Dissemination 227).  Here the fold is linked to a certain “hymen,” a gathering (almost like Heidegger’s but not quite) that is at the same time a dissemination, a joining that keeps apart, but never presents itself as such: “Along the undiscoverable line of this fold, the hymen never presents itself.  It never is--in the present—; it has no proper, literal meaning; it no longer originates in meaning as such, that is, as the meaning of being.  The fold renders (itself) manifold but (is) not (one)” (229).  So we are returned to the fascinating logic of the singular and plural: a singular fold is never itself one but makes a plurality possible.  Its singularity, like Derrida, is that it differs in itself and opens to the radical alterity of the other.


The concept of application must therefore undergo a transformation and an extension in order for theory and philosophy generally (in the often paradoxical senses that they have gathered around them since Derrida) to be “teachable.”  Perhaps only Derrida’s notion of “the text” can help to explain this situation.  The name Derrida could be added to the chain of terms différance, supplement, hymen, text, writing, trace, because each (together) reveal the structure of application itself and thus cannot simply be applied without reserve.




Bennington, Geoff. “Derridabase,” Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Beardsworth, Richard. Derrida and the Political. London: Routledge, 1996.

Carroll, David. Parasthetics: Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida. London: Methuen, 1987.

Fenves, Peter, ed. Raising the tone of Philosophy: Late Essays by Immanuel Kant, Transformative Critique by Jacques Derrida. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins, 1993.

Gasche, Rudolph. The Tain of the Mirror. Harvard University Press, 1988.

---. Inventions of Difference: On Jacques Derrida. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Hamilton, Paul. Historicism. London: Routledge, 1996.

Hobson, Marian. Jacques Derrida: Opening Lines. London: Routledge, 1999.

Judovitz, Dalia. Subjectivity and Representation in Descartes: The Origin of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Miller, J Hillis. The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James and Benjamin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

---. Topographies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Payne, Michael. Reading Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Phillips, John. Contested Knowledge: A Guide to Critical theory. London: Zed Books, 2000

Sturrock, John, ed. Structuralism and Since. Oxford: OUP, 1980. 

Taylor, Mark C, ed. Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Wolfreys, Julian, ed. Writing Performances: A Derrida Reader.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Wolfreys, Julian. Deconstruction·Derrida. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Wood, David, ed.  Derrida:  A Critical Reader. London:  Blackwell, 1992.


Derrida’s Texts

Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs.  Trans. David. B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

---. Of Grammatology  Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1974.

---. Edmund Husserl’s “Origin of Geometry”: An Introduction. Ed. David B. Allison. Trans. John P. Leavey.  Stoney Brook: Nicholas Hays, 1978.

---. Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. Trans. Barbara Harlow. Chicago: Univesity of Chicago Press, 1979.

---. “Living on/Borderlines.” Trans. James Hulbert. Deconstruction and Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom et al. NewYork: Seabury Press, 1979.

---. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge, 1980.

---. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981.

---. “My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with some Epicurean Stereophonies.” Trans. Irene Harvey and Avital Ronell. Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis and Literature. Ed. Joseph Smith and William Kerrigan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1984.

---. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass.  London: Athlone, 1987.

---. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987.

---. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Brighton: Harvester, 1988.

---. The Truth in Painting. Trans Geoff Bennington. Chicago: CUP, 1987.

---. Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

---. The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael B. Naas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

---. Aporias. Trans. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

---. Memoirs of the Blind. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

---. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. London: Routledge, 1994.

---. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

---. On the Name. Ed. Thomas Dutoit. Trans. David Wood, John P. Leavey Jr and Ian McKleod. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

---. The Politics of Friendship. Trans. George Collins. London: Verso, 1996.

---. Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. Ed. John D. Caputo. New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.

---. Resistances. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.


Introduction to Derrida: