Deconstruction: a primer

It seems that everyone in the media uses the terms "deconstruction" or "deconstruct." A film critic deconstructs a popular movie because he does not like the lighting. A book reviewer deconstructs a short story because he thinks a character is underdeveloped. The words have broad meanings, so maybe the critic and reviewer are not so far off in using them.

However, what does deconstruction mean according to the experts, particularly Jacques Derrida? Most importantly for this series, how does it influence Biblical studies? This article is Part Four in the series on Postmodernism and the Bible.

We first very briefly look at two other movements and interpretive strategies, structuralism and poststructuralism, so we can orient ourselves to understand deconstruction.

In the big picture, how does postmodernism and poststructuralism and deconstruction fit together? For our purposes, postmodernism is the biggest category, poststructuralism fits under it, and deconstruction is a poststructuralist strategy or activity. "We might say that postmodernism subsumes poststructuralism" (Stuart Sim Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, 2nd ed., ed. Sim, 2005, p. x). And I would add that poststructuralism subsumes deconstruction. Other scholars come up with slightly different classifications, but the foregoing is adequate for our series.

Following the standard procedure in the series so far, I quote extensively from the practitioners and theorists of these movements, so they can explain themselves in their own words. Along the way, we keep track of the prefix "hyper," and in one instance the theme of transmogrification is noted. Recall that the strange word has no known origins and means a great change or alteration, "often with grotesque or humorous effect." Both the prefix and the big word are threads that run throughout the series.


To understand the "post" in poststructuralism, we should briefly review structuralism.

In a highly regarded introduction to structuralism as it relates to literature or the interpretation of texts (the concern of this series is the Biblical text), Robert Scholes uses these words to describe structuralism: integrative, holistic, unification, natural ordering, systematic universalism, and universal principles or laws (Structuralism in Literature, Yale, 1974, pp. 1-12).
At the time Scholes was writing (and before), he says that structuralism has a privileged place in literary study. Why? It seeks to establish a scientific basis for the entire field of literature, not just individual works. He writes:

Structuralism . . . may claim a privileged place in literary study because it seeks to establish a model of the system of literature itself as the external reference for the individual works it considers. By moving from the study of language to the study of literature, and seeking to define principles of structuration that operate not only through individual works but through the relationships among works over the whole field of literature, structuralism has tried-and is trying-to establish for literary studies a basis that is as scientific as possible. (p. 10)
Can there be a scientific basis for interpreting literature, which is subjected to language and meaning? Postmodernists say no, and that's what this present article is about.

Thus, structuralism seeks to circumscribe an entire system for literature beyond individual works, all the way to human culture. In fact, structuralism transforms the individual parts of literature in a "concept of system." However, we saw in Part Three  that postmodernism is hyper-skeptical of totalities. And that excerpt from Scholes teaches a totalizing system.

It is the main goal of deconstruction to overturn privileged systems of discourse or communication in a variety of ways. That includes the canon of Western literature, and that includes the "privileged" Bible.


Stuart Sim says of poststructuralism:

Poststructuralism is a term that refers to a wide range of responses to the structuralist paradigm-responses such as the philosophically oriented "deconstruction" of Jacques Derrida, the various "archaeological" and "genealogical" enquiries into cultural history of Michel Foucault, and the "difference feminism" of such theorists as Luce Irigaray. Poststructuralism has been an influential part of the cultural scene since the 1960s, but nowadays it can be seen to be part of a more general reaction to authoritarian ideologies and political systems that we define as postmodernism. (p. ix-x)
Sim continues. Postmodernism is:

A broad cultural movement spanning various intellectual disciplines. . . It is to be regarded as both a philosophical and a political movement . . . Poststructuralism called into question the cultural certainties that structuralism had been felt to embody: certainties such as the belief that the world was intrinsically knowable . . .  (Sim, p. 4).
Thus, our world is unknowable. This seems Kantian. He said we cannot know a thing-in-itself without our understanding shaping it. But the most interesting aspect of those two excerpts is the political movement. This goal or outcome will be explored, in part, in the next section.  


David H. Richter put together an anthology or collection of writings by the major thinkers on interpreting texts (The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, St. Martin's, 1989). He describes the activity of deconstruction:

In its most general sense, the activity of deconstruction involves the skeptical re-examination . . . of all dialectical polarities that have formed the basis of Western culture, a re-examination searching for the point of privilege upon which standard hierarchies rest. (p. 946)
In my view deconstruction should be called hyper-skeptical, because most ordinary thinkers have some level of skepticism, but most (not all) postmodernists take things to extremes, as noted in Parts One and Three.  Most ordinary thinkers do not work to undermine foundations of thought in the West or elsewhere.

What are binary or dialectical polarities, which were a concern for structuralists? Richter explains:

We are used to arguing about various other presences and absences: art vs. genius, culture vs. nature, transcendence vs. immanence, soul vs. body, divine vs. human, human vs. animal, man vs. woman, being vs. becoming, and so on. In each case the first term denotes the presence and the second the absence of something. Derrida uses the paradoxes . . . in an effort to decenter the first term of each pair, to remove it from its privileged position relative to the second. (p. 946)
Taking his cue from that last sentence, Richter gets to the heart of deconstruction, the authority of Western culture:

To the extent that these polarities are at the heart of Western culture, deconstruction attempts to expose the illusions upon which authority in Western culture has been established. (p. 946)
Richter goes on to reference W. B. Yeats' poem "the Second Coming," which says in part, "The center cannot hold" (go to Part One  to read the whole poem). Richter then calls Derrida a revealing name: "the anarchistic Derrida calls into question the very concept of the center" (p. 946). That label confirms why he and his disciples should be called hyper-skeptical and hyper-radical.

The foremost practitioner of deconstruction was Jacques Derrida (1930-2004, go here  and here). While in America, he delivered a paper at a conference at The John Hopkins University in 1966. The paper is titled, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences." It is this talk that gave him fame in America, and Richter includes it in his anthology. The page numbers refer to it.

Before we look at a few small parts of Derrida's essay, however, it should be noted that in explaining deconstruction, scholars seem always obligated to explain the linguistic sign, page after page. It has been referred to in the previous section in the excerpts from Richter: signifier and signified. Though it is important, I will not focus on it. Rather, I simply repeat that the linguistic sign is made up of the signifier (e.g. the words on the page or the sounds of speech) and the signified (i.e. the meaning).

This binary opposition of signified / signifier, though apparently linked, is built on differences, like the letters "t" and "d," to cite these simple examples (but note where the tongue touches the roof of the mouth, as you say the letters quietly). They are distinguished from each other, so we can use language. After all, if words were made up of the same letters and sounds, we would get nonsense or non-sense or non-meaning. So far this is clear enough. But if language is based on differences in simple letters, what about heavy words like "truth" and "God"? Can their meaning be pinned down in language that is built on differences? 

It is these differences inhering in language that Derrida exploits. This takes us far from structuralism that seeks to "whitewash" these differences in a unified system of signs, at least according to the critics of structuralism. Exploiting the differences within language, Derrida goes beyond this, however, and uses these differences to unravel the notion of "presence," a word referred to by Richter in the excerpts in this section. Derrida defines it here:

The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors or metonymies [the concept of the center and origins and their ruptures]. Its matrix . . . is the determination of being as presence in all the senses of this word. (p. 960 emphasis original)
Thus, the word "presence" is shorthand for the West's confident search for transcendental truths summed up in other words that dominate Western thought, such as "essence, existence, substance, subject, truth, transcendentality, consciousness or conscience, God, man and so forth" (p. 961). Derrida equates presence with a "fixed origin" (p. 960). Recall that in Part Three, which defined postmodernism as an extra-sloshy truth soup, practitioners of this movement are hyper-skeptical of origins.

However, the search for the transcendental signifieds or ultimate meanings is subject to the differences inhering in language, which in turn is subjected to freeplay that fans out into other differences, both in the individual letters ("t" and "d") to a full book. No one can reach an ultimate, fixed meaning. Language is interlocked with ambiguity and differences of meaning. The privileged center or origin has slipped into the unprivileged absence in the binary opposition of presence / absence. Derrida writes:

....When everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum [to infinity] (p. 961).
So the transcendental signified cannot escape from a system of differences in language.

Example: Derrida knew several languages in addition to his native French, such as English, German, Greek, and Latin. And he says in our first excerpt from him, "presence in all the senses of this word." What are all these senses? The word "presence" comes from a Latin group of words that mean: to be before, to preside over, to be the chief person, to take the lead; present in space and time; here and now; at hand; immediately efficacious, effective, powerful. Thus, presence in all senses of the word contains within it the very thing that Derrida attacks: power and privilege. It is up to deconstruction to unseat or reverse the occupant of the powerful position. Traditional Biblical scholarship says that often (not always) one interpretation occupies the highest seat. Why not dethrone it, as we shall see in the next article?

But how can Derrida use language and Western concepts to deconstruct such things? Isn't he being inconsistent? In reply, why would a deconstructionist worry about inconsistency, a less privileged term than its brother / sister, "consistency"? Derrida says:

There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to attack metaphysics. We have no language -- no syntax and no lexicon -- which is alien to this history; we cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest. (p. 961)
Now we are in a better position to understand one of the concluding paragraphs of Derrida's essay. The paragraph sums up perfectly the struggle between deconstruction and the freeplay of meaning on the one hand, and traditional interpretations that seek to nail down meaning and eliminate freeplay, on the other. He says:

There are two interpretations of interpretation, of structure [recall structuralism], of [linguistic] sign, of freeplay. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from freeplay and from the order of the [linguistic] sign, and lives like an exile the necessity of interpretation. (p. 970)
The first "interpretations of interpretation" seeks freedom from freeplay. This fits standard, traditional Biblical scholarship. Now what about the second one? Derrida continues in the paragraph:

The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or onto-theology . . . has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and end of the game. (p. 970)
Earlier in his essay, Derrida cited Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger as exemplars of radical (Derrida's word) disruptors of presence (p. 961). Now Derrida returns to Nietzsche and says, as Derrida wraps up his paragraph, that Nietzsche showed the way in the second "interpretations of interpretation" (p. 970). We saw in Part Two that Nietzsche forcefully advanced perspectivism, which says that there are no facts, only interpretations. This is why postmodernists, borrowing heavily from Nietzsche and others discussed in Part Two, earn the prefix hyper, when they are contrasted with other thinkers.

What is deconstruction in a "nutshell"?

John D. Caputo ironically uses this word in his book Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (Fordham, 1997).

Deconstruction . . . is the endless, bottomless affirmation of the absolutely undeconstructible. (p. 42)
Caputo explains what this last word means:

But let us keep the metaphorics of the nutshell straight: the "undesconstructible" does not mean the "uncrackable" but, rather, that in virtue of which nutshells can be cracked, in order to make an opening for the coming of the other. The undeconstructible, if such a thing exists, is that in virtue of which whatever exists, whatever poses as assured and secure, whole and meaningful, ensconced, encircled, and encapsulated is pried open -- cracked open and deconstructed. (p. 42)
We again let Derrida reduce deconstruction to a reversal and overturning of privileged positions. He writes:

On the one hand, we must traverse a phrase of overturning. To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other . . . or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment (Positions, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago, 1971, 1981, p. 41)
The next nutshell definition by prominent literary critic Jonathan Culler agrees that deconstruction is an overturning or reversal of philosophical and discursive privilege and hierarchy (On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, Yale, 1982). Culler says:

To deconstruct a discourse [communication in a variety of ways] is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts, or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies, by identifying in the text the rhetorical operations that produce the supposed ground of argument, the key concept or premise. (p. 86)
It was noted in Part Three that postmodernism is hyper-skeptical of foundations. Deconstruction also undermines the "supposed grounds of argument, the key concept or premise."

What does deconstruction mean to the Bible?

New Testament scholar A. K. M. Adam explains, first, that there is no absolute reference point for our interpretations:

First, [deconstruction] underlines . . . antifoundationalism [see Part Three, linked below]; there can be no absolute reference point by which we orient our interpretations: not the text, the author, the meaning, the real, historical event, nor any other self-identical authoritative presence. (What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? Fortress, 1995, p. 31)
That is a heavy excerpt. No absolute reference point like the text, the author, the meaning, the real (!), the historical event? . . . Without any anchor, the best meaning of a text is lost. Thus, Whirlwind rules, as Aristophanes the fifth-century Greek comic poet says in his play Clouds.

Next, Adam says that deconstruction demystifies the kinds of unquestionable oppositions that we have analyzed above, using the example of history / fiction. "The superiority of one term to the other is built into the decision that is a distinction that makes a difference" (p. 32). So apparently it is a decision that places history over fiction, not facts or truth?

Finally, in a pun Adam says that "deconstruction suggests to us that there are no unnatural acts of textual intercourse" (p. 32).

On the whole, a deconstructive reading of the Bible transmogrifies passages that have a plain direction and flow. Often, such a reading overturns and reverses the clear role of the privileged point of view, such as that of Jesus. Some postmodernists claim that they do not preach "Anything Goes" (Monika Killian, Modern and Postmodern Strategies, Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 3, 17, 40, 144). But it is difficult to avoid the impression that this is precisely what many practice. And it is difficult to refrain from giving many of them the label of hyper-radical.


It seems, then, that the ultimate goal of deconstruction -- and postmodernism and poststructuralism -- is to undermine the foundation of the West, and one of the foundation stones of the West (and increasingly in other nations), the Bible.

But these questions need to be asked. Do other civilizations have scholars that aim to undermine their foundations? Do other civilizations -- especially the very religious ones (e.g. an Islamic one) and perhaps the very secular ones (e.g. China) -- work hard to exploit the self-destruction that the radicals or hyper-radicals engage in? To be "anarchistic" (Richter's description of Derrida) is to be heedlessly destructive. What would postmodernists like to put in place of the foundation of Western thought? Worse still, what will force its way into being the new foundation? It is difficult to find out what postmodernists are arguing for.

What comes out of the nutshell that is cracked open? Derrida sees an odd, unexplainable future, perhaps like Yeats' poem "the Second Coming" (go to Part One, linked below, to read the whole poem). Derrida writes in the last paragraph of his essay (1966):

Here there is a sort of question, call it historical, of which we are only glimpsing today the conception, the formation, the gestation, the labor. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the business of childbearing-but with a glance toward those who, in a company from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity. (p. 971, emphasis original)
Deconstruction is giving birth, but to what? In a slow way, one drop at a time on the forehead, postmodernists are destroying the very West that gives these same hyper-radicals and hyper-skeptics the freedom, prosperity, and leisure time to use their weapons against Western foundations.

The "deconstructed" irony is rich and sad.

Part One: Postmodernism and the Bible: Introduction

Part Two: The Origins of Postmodernism  

Part Three: Postmodern Truth Soup  

James Arlandson can be contacted at
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