Critical Theory


Deconstruction (Post-Structuralism)

Modern vs. Postmodern

·        Enlightenment/Age of Reason

  • Scientific
  • Empirical
  • Rational
  • Discovery
  • Improvement
  • Morality
  • Truth/Metaphysics
  • Texts/Objects have objective reality

·        Postmodern

  • Term coined in 1930s
  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) – Thus Spake Zarathustra (1891) proclaims death of God
  • Undermines the concept of objective reality and of metaphysics
  • Map à Collage
  • Lone scholar à tolerance, understanding, and collaboration
  • Acceptance of emotion, differing (infinite number of) perspectives
  • Individual, not meta
  • Critic/Artist not necessarily separate roles
  • 1966 reads “Structure, Sign and Play” at Johns Hopkins University

Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2005)


  • General Concept: language is a fluid, ambiguous domain of complex experience in which ideologies program us without our being aware of them.
  • Sign = Signifier + Signified . . . + Signified ad infinitum
  • Chain of Signifiers
  • Mis-en-abyme



  • Language is non-referential
    • Meaning is produced by a never-ending deferralplay of signifiers. 
    • Play of signifiers leaves trace of all possible meanings and all possible opposites or differences. 
  • Différance (“to defer,” “to differ”)
  1. The play of signifiers continually defers/postpones meaning
  1. The meaning language seems to have is the result of the differences by which we distinguish one signifier from another.
  • Despite this undecidability, we use language as our tool of meaning because it is all we have.
  • But we can be aware of the pliability of language and stretch it to fit new modes of thinking – bricolage


REMEMBER – Undecidability ≠ not choosing


  • Language is always already ideological– it forms our systems of beliefs and values.
    • Language mediates our experience of ourselves and the world.
    • We cannot escape the ideological nature of language and how it forms us.
  • Binary Oppositions
    • Are always hierarchies
    • One term is always privileged
    • We must focus on the way that oppositions are not opposites – they always overlap.
    • The idea that there is a central concept (logos) that organizes and explains the world for us.
      • Structuralism is the search for this underlying structure
      • “Post-structuralism”


  • Dissemination – the dynamic instability of language scatters an infinite number of possible meanings for each utterance (written or spoken).
  • Discourse – a certain vantage point from which one can view the world.  These are multiple.
  • Decenter – to realize that there are various discourses which disseminate meaning and are always in play.
  • Traditionally identity consists of one single self
  • Deconstruction argues that humans are constructed by language
  • We, too, are texts – fragmented, in play.


Overview of Deconstruction:

  1. Language is dynamic, ambiguous, and unstable, continually disseminating meaning.
  1. Existence has no center, no stable meaning, no fixed ground.
  1. Human beings are fields of play for competing ideologies whose only “identity” is the one we choose to believe.

Deconstructing Literature

  1. To reveal text’s undecidability
  • The meaning of the text is plural, indefinite, conflicting
  • There is no “meaning” of text in traditional sense
  • “How to”
  1. Note all the various interpretations the text seems to offer
  2. Show the ways in which these interpretations conflict with one another
  3. Show how these conflicts lead to more interpretations, which lead to more conflicts
  4. Repeat steps 1, 2 and 3
  1. To reveal the complex operations of the ideologies of which the text is constructed
  • Examine the ideological assumptions of the text
  • Examine our own ideological assumptions
  • Explore how the text undermines its own ideological convictions (deconstructs itself)
  • Explore how we, and our reading, undermine our own ideological convictions (why do we care?)

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