Written in fifteen days and in considerable haste, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences”, was delivered by Jacques Derrida at John Hopkins University in 1966. Literary theorists and students of Postmodern Cultural Theory today see the essay as the inaugural moment of Deconstruction entering the premises of the academy as a strategy of re-reading and re-negotiating texts and textualizing all cultural negotiations.
In it, Derrida interrogated the innate centricities of Western systems of thought and argued against the ontology of Enlightenment logic, with its easy and almost automatic assumptions of totalizing binaries. Instead, Derrida showcased the constructed quality of such assumptions, reading those as representations; often strategic and politically motivated. Thus the realm of Law, the law of the Father, the dictum of God, were all seen as representations with their implicit constructedness that sought to pass off as natural and given. In short, the major forms of knowledge and power were revealed as constructs; historically determined and determinable, circulated through systematic strategies of representation Derrida called “discourses”. “Structure, Sign and Play” thus inaugurated a phenomenal academic study that sought to deconstruct the hegemony of the “givens”. In what was to become famous in critical parlance, Deridda coined a term by playing with the French verb différer (which means “to differ” as well as “defer”), positing the theory that meaning is infinitely and indefinitely differed and deferred from its exactitude: he named this phenomenon différance. Thus Deconstruction promoted the incessant play and slipperiness of meanings and identities so common in Postmodernist texts. Thus, in more ways than one, Deconstruction renamed what was almost always there; the tendency of meanings to slip away from the hierarchies constructed upon them, thereby revealing both the constructedness of discursive formations as well as the possibility of incessant pluralities.
One could and indeed should travel back to Nietzsche, Marx and the tenets of classical Marxism and Russian Formalism to trace a movement in which Derrida was a defining moment with its subsequent offshoots into Feminism, Queer Studies and Poststructuralism (Indeed, Derrida himself pays homage to the influences of Marx in his own philosophy in a much later work, Specters of Marx). Marx’s very famous statement “Religion is the opium of the masses” bears heavy clouds of Deconstruction for it prefigures the breaking down of the discourses performed and perpetuated by the powerful to retain its locus in the human hierarchy. Power, Marx had argued, needed to perpetuate itself through sanctions strong enough to be regarded unequivocal. And what better way to do it than to infuse a divine (and hence unquestionable) sanction into the offices of kingship, patriarchy and bourgeoisie ownership? If the illegal (aberration from the Law set by the powerful) could be transformed into the sinful, the potential for further subversion would be effectively quenched by the fear of the unknown “hell”, more effectively restraining than the human and the known “jail”.
One can clearly see the later and revisionist Marxism of Louis Althusser with his theories of ISA (Ideological State Apparatus such as family, school, church) and RSA (Repressive State Apparatus such as courts, police, military) shaping from the statements of Marx. While the police and the law courts would repress any aberration from the normative, the schools and religious institutions would strategically infuse the normative into the impressionable. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist imprisoned during the Fascist regime of Mussolini, similarly argued how power perpetuates itself through “hegemony”(domination/coercion) as well as “consent”(the wilful submission into the normative discourses). All these, along with the Nietzschean scepticism of Western Enlightenment and Heidegger’s notion of the being as a “throwness”, can be read as leading up to the Derridean Deconstruction and its performative modality. Thus, it is important, at the outset, to define and locate the historical, cultural and social conditions that pervaded the theories of Deconstruction, which are often accused of being rarefied and self-circulating strictly inside the academy. In fact, the Derridean Deconstruction is heavily loaded with the political upheavals of its times which have their obvious bearings on the epistemologies of counter-discourses. Two immediate political events that one could underline here would be the Students’ Revolution in Paris in May, 1968 and the Algerian War of Independence against the French, a phenomenon Robert Young in his White Mythologies defines as the biggest influence on Poststructuralism.
A common mistake is to read Deconstruction of a text as its “destruction”. In fact, Deconstruction works just the other way, as Barbara Johnson points out in The Critical Difference. Deconstructing a text would actually entail a teasing out of plural possibilities, a decentring of the schools of reading that usually hegemonizes heuristic disciplines. Thus, in more than one way, Deconstruction is a vital re-working of hierarchies of reading, whereby the margins of/in a text/narrative would be relocated as centres. Often this reading would take on serious political and cultural overtones. Thus a Deconstructive reading of Shakespeare’s Tempest would re-locate the figure of Caliban as somebody essentialized by the Eurocentric discourses of logic/power embodied in the play by the magician/artist Prospero. Thus the very “given” of Prospero’s power would be questioned as a discursive formation both politically motivated as well as culturally constructed. One can see how such Deconstructive reading veers easily into the Postcolonial, whereby Caliban is the classic native usurped and hegemonized by the settler Renaissance European’s “art” which becomes less and less “innocent” and “given” the more one digs it out of its depth in the text.
Today, Deconstruction has entered the academy in a way that negotiates major literary readings and cultural formations. Two obvious movements would be Queer Studies and Postmodern Feminism(s) that seek to de-essentialize the assumptions of institutional gender formations. Thus in works such as Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway which looks at a post-gender world and Gender Trouble by Judith Butler that transforms gender into a performative function and reads the word “gender” as a verb, the influences of Deconstruction are manifestly present. But Deconstruction has done more than just re-shuffling strategies of reading. Culture, as we know it today, is a complex site of negotiations and re-negotiations where meanings form only in their processes of becoming and where the Derridean différance is a ubiquitous presence.