The second half of the twentieth century, with its torturous experiences of the World Wars, Holocaust and the advent of new technologies, witnessed revolutionary developments in literary theory that were to undermine several of the established notions of Western literary and cultural thought. The most prominent of them was Poststructuralism, with its watchword of “deconstructive reading” endorsed by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The theory, launched in Derrida’s paper Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences (1966), which he presented at Johns Hopkins University, had its roots in philosophy, especially in Martin Heidegger’s concept of “Destruktion”. Derrida was also influenced by Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, each of whom brought about revolutionary ways of thinking in their respective disciplines.

Derrida attacked the systematic and quasi-scientific pretensions of structuralism — derived from Saussurean Structural Linguistics and Levi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology — which presupposes a centre that organises and regulates the structure and yet “escapes structurality”. Contemporary thinkers like Foucault, Barthes and Lacan undertook in diverse ways to decentre/ undermine the traditional claims for the existence of a self-evident foundation that guarantees the validity of knowledge and truth. This anti-foundationalism and scepticism about the traditional concepts of meaning, knowledge, truth and subjectivity also found radical expression in Marxism (Althusser), Feminisms (Butler, Cixous, Kristeva), New Historicism (Greenblatt) and Reader Response theory (Iser, Bloom and others).

Poststructuralism emphasised the indeterminate and polysemic nature of semiotic codes and the arbitrary and constructed nature of the foundations of knowledge. Having originated in a politically volatile climate, the theory laid greater stress on the operations of ideology and power on human subjectivity. In deconstructionist thought, the connection between thought / reality, subject /object, self /other are viewed as primarily linguistic terms, and not as pre-existent to language. With the famous statement “there is nothing outside the text”, Derrida established the provisionality and constructedness of reality, identity and human subjectivity. Undermining “logocentricism” as the “metaphysics of presence” that  has ever pervaded Western philosophy and cultural thought, Derrida proposed the concept of “ecriture”, which is beyond logos, and characterised by absence and difference, where there is free play of signifiers, without ever arriving at the “transcendental signified”, where meanings are locked in aporias and can be located only in traces.


Paul de Man

Paul de Man in his Allegories of Reading explores the theory of figurative language, affirming that linguistic texts are self-deconstructing. Barbara Johnson in A World of Difference illustrated deconstruction in the context of race and gender. Spivak in Can the Subaltern Speak? used deconstruction to problematise the privileged, academic, post colonial critics’ unknowing participation in the exploitation of the third world.

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