The Nature of Deconstruction

     Usually when we think of deconstruction we’re referring to a period of deep and critical questioning wherein we reconsider everything we believe. Deconstruction is the process of uncovering false ideas to which we’ve clung for years, of figuring out how parts of our worldview just aren’t true or tenable any longer. And while this is correct, deconstruction actually refers to a process of a slightly different sort which has its original roots in literary philosophy.

     To really understand this term, we have to go back to Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who made it famous. For Derrida, deconstruction was the process by which he found loose threads in the inherent linguistic instability of texts that resulted in their own unraveling. His aim was to unpack the appearance of unity presented by texts to reveal the conflicting messages woven together within them, to show how texts have both unifying and unraveling forces which culminate in their inevitable dismantling. Now the important point here is that Derrida took this process beyond texts to the way humans think about anything, and this is how he did it.


     Derrida was essentially reacting to the whole history of philosophy. It might seem strange that he focused on the philosophy of language, but this is because an analysis of language is ultimately an analysis of truth and meaning. Derrida was questioning one of history’s most basic philosophical assumptions: that words have meaning because words refer to actual things in reality. This, he claims, is an extremely important part of western metaphysics: that in using language to express our thoughts, we are going beyond language to the ideas and realities to which language points. But Derrida argues that this is simply impossible; we never go beyond language to that of which we speak, but only to our understanding and interpretation of that of which we speak, which itself is linguistically mediated. 

     Therefore, language and words refer not to distinct entities outside of language, but only to other words. This gave rise to Derrida’s claim that “there is nothing outside of the text,” by which he meant there is no inside/outside complex; language is self-referential rather than other-referential. For that which one would claim to be referred to by language, is nothing more than more language, and not some “other thing” which can be produced outside the metaphysics of language.


     So what Derrida was trying to say is that the whole world is like a text. When he said “there is nothing outside of the text” he meant there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language. Interpretation is not something one must get through in order to understand what someone has written or spoken—rather it’s the very way in which we understand anything. 

     Take an automobile for example. We might think that in perceiving an automobile there is no interpretation at work; we simply see the car for what it is that’s all there is to it. But what would the automobile look like in the eyes of someone from a few thousand years ago? To them it would only be a random conglomerate of foreign substances, amounting to an object unidentifiable by any stretch of the imagination. There’s nothing “automatic” about an automobile being an automobile; that’s just the way we see it because of the context, history, and social setting that accompanies the experience, and the assumptions and background we bring to our perception of it. We might interpret the object before us to be an automobile so quickly that we don’t even notice we’re engaging in interpretation, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t.


     Now what does this mean for deconstruction? Well for Derrida, these conclusions mean at least two things: 

First, deconstruction is the process of revealing as naive and untenable any way of thinking that still assumes that one can transcend language to a realm of determinate meaning. 
Second, deconstruction is the process of challenging any interpretive framework that presents itself not as an interpretation but as “the way things really are.” 

     So if a text tries to establish meaning or truth by assuming that language can go beyond itself into a non-linguistic realm, which Derrida argues is impossible, then it’s contradicting itself with the very means by which it’s trying to support itself. 

     This is what’s happening with the perception of an automobile: it seems like the simple perception of an automobile is obvious and universal, but it’s actually completely dependent upon assumptions that can’t be taken for granted. These are the loose threads Derrida was always looking for. One thread in the perception says this is “just the way things really are,” but another thread says it’s only this way because of the way we see it and speak of it; revealing that these two threads fight against one another is the heart of deconstruction in practice. This is what Derrida meant by taking ideas apart and unraveling them; deconstruction is like reading an idea against itself, of showing how it holds within itself the key to its own downfall.


     Here, I’ll show you an example of how Derrida explained deconstruction when he was asked to do so in a filmed interview. This is what he said: 

    “Before responding to this question, I want to make a preliminary remark on the completely artificial character of this situation. I don’t know who’s going to be watching this, but I want to underline rather than efface our surrounding technical conditions, and not feign a “naturality” which doesn’t exist. I’ve already in a way started to respond to your question about deconstruction, because one of the gestures of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn’t natural—to not assume that what is conditioned by our history, institutions, or society is natural.”

     Do you see what he is doing? Derrida doesn’t simply define deconstruction, he performs it. Instead of simply answering the question, he locates the ideological framework behind the question, behind the circumstance of his being asked at all, and begins an archeological search for the loose threads. He’s trying to show that although the situation of the interview seems like a perfectly real and free discussion, it’s really just the result of historical and social conditioning. It isn’t natural, it isn’t normal, and any assumption to the contrary is a loose thread by which to take apart the ideology at hand.


     Alright, so how does this relate to the way we ordinarily understand deconstruction in the lives of Christians? Well though we might not ascribe to all of Derrida’s philosophical convictions, the way we deconstruct our faith looks very similar. Deconstruction is always a process of questioning assumptions, of investigating claims that seem self-justified, of challenging accounts of the world that don’t seem to hold up.

     As such, deconstruction falls into the two central tasks of philosophy: the critical task and the constructive task, and both of these are necessary. For if one is always only critical, then they’ll be aware but untrusting, and if one is always only constructive, then they’ll be confident but naive. The critical task helps us show how certain ideological systems are unsound, but if we remain in this task alone, then we’ll end up being willing to doubt everything but to accept nothing. The constructive task helps us mediate and arrange our experience and understanding of the world, but if it’s all we do, then we risk only seeking credulously for validities, blinding ourselves to our own biases and exchanging accuracy for affinity. 

     In this way, deconstruction can be a beneficial aspect of cultivating one’s faith and theology. As part of the critical task, it can help one become more discerning and perceptive, able to evaluate perspectives with greater sophistication. And leading into the constructive task, it can help liberate one from unreasonable ways of thinking. The point is that deconstruction needn’t lead to destruction; instead it can clear the way of uncritical convictions and open the way to the process of reconstruction.

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

    A number of general insights in this post are drawn from the following highly recommended sources for further reading:

Vincent B., Leitch, ed, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). 

James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic, 2006).

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