Deconstruction initially translates a term coined by the French philosopher (and arch-deconstructionist) Jacques Derrida. Rather than its current common usage of analyzing or criticizing something intensively, deconstruction indicates arriving at a new thought or perspective by taking apart an already existing one (or taking apart an already existing one thanks to framing it through something new)—thus de-con-struction. In the anglophone context, deconstruction soon became the signature of the literary scholar and Belgian émigré Paul de Man, as well as of Derrida. Initially de Man and Derrida were predominantly read in departments of literature; consequently, deconstruction was often viewed, and sometimes still is, as a technique for reading and interpreting texts. The so-called Yale School, including J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartmann, and Harold Bloom—important scholars in their own right—were associated with literary deconstruction, though not each of them would describe his own work in this way. At this same period, along with the development of literary deconstruction, what became known as “American Continental Philosophy” arose, focusing on Derrida’s writings in particular. Though initially including a small band of researchers, today such philosophy is widespread. Derrida’s work is discussed extensively by these scholars, while it currently has less visibility in the literary context. Deconstruction and some analogue of its operation are, however, today not confined to just the fields of literature and philosophy. Sometimes under its own steam, but also in part owing to Derrida’s shifting interests, deconstruction became, and in part remains, a working approach in fields such as architecture, religious studies, law, feminist and political theory, as well as others.
Owing to its taking apart of an already existing standpoint, deconstruction, by definition, makes reference to approaches and texts other than its own. In its early stages, these precursors were largely found in philosophy (especially phenomenology) and structuralism, fields with which many working literary critics (as well as legal scholars, architects, and others) were not especially familiar. Thus the need for introductions was initially especially acute and these continue to appear sporadically, now often with the aim of including Derrida’s later writing as well as his earliest; his 1954 The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy (in which some of his axial concerns are already visible; see Derrida 2003, cited under Texts by Founders) having been published in English only in 2003 and in France in 1990. Bennington 1993, Lüdemann 2014, and Smith 2005 all focus on Derridean deconstruction, with Bennington giving a broad overview organized by topic, and Lüdemann and Smith offering more detailed textual exegesis. Culler 1982, Currie 2013, Leitch 1983, and Norris 1991 treat deconstruction’s literary avatars, as well as its philosophical ones. Leitch offers a more experimental mode of exegesis and Currie offers a general evaluation of the movement.
Bennington, Geoffrey. “Derridabase.” In Jacques Derrida. Edited by G. Bennington, and J. Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Bennington’s portion of Jacques Derrida, “Derridabase,” remains one of the best introduction to Derrida’s work in English. It presents a series of clearly written presentations of many of Derrida’s key concepts and major themes, which preserves a good deal of their complexity. (This is one of a number of volumes that Derrida has published with friends or former students, in which his contribution accompanies, but remains entirely separate from, theirs.)
Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982.
A wide-ranging introduction to deconstruction, drawing on Culler’s own extensive previous work in structuralist methodologies. It includes discussions of Derrida’s work extending up until the early 1980s as well as of other critics who take a deconstructive bent.
Currie, Mark. The Invention of Deconstruction. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Currie’s is in part a highly self-conscious retrospective intellectual history of the emergence of literary deconstruction in the United States, focusing equally on Derrida and de Man. It includes discussions of key texts as well as key concepts. Though perhaps challenging for the complete beginner, it both corrects many still common misunderstandings and supplies a wide-ranging evaluation of this project as a whole.
Leitch, Vincent B. Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Appearing a year after Culler’s work, Leitch’s is an equally broad survey, which, in part, canvasses a different set of literary critics, some affiliated with the journal boundary 2.
Lüdemann, Susanne. Politics of Deconstruction: A New Introduction to Jacques Derrida. Translated by Erik Butler. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.
A more recent introduction that canvasses both Derrida’s initial foray into deconstruction and his later, largely political works, in which he speaks of justice as indeconstructible. One highlight is its more extended and granular interpretation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology than its predecessors (see Derrida 1976, cited under Operation, Occasions, Consequences).
Norris, Christopher. Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Originally published in 1982, this is a revised edition, now containing an appendix on Derrida’s important methodological text, “Afterword.” Norris is an exceptionally clear writer who brings in moments in the history of philosophy in his treatment in an accessible way.
Smith, James K. Derrida: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2005.
Written in an almost telegraphic style, this volume provides an exceptionally clear presentation of key phases of Derrida’s thinking, including important debates and a treatment of his work’s reception.
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- Benjamin, Walter
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