Deconstruction: The Language Games People Play

Everybody seems to use the term. I’ve seen it in movie reviews. “The scene was ‘deconstructed’ nicely.” But what does it really mean?

Difficulties in defining it

So let’s start with the roots, since deconstruction plays with origins.

The prefix de- means “down, away from,” and partly; “do the opposite” (e.g. devitalize or deactivate); “do reverse of” (e.g. de-emphasis); “remove” (e.g. dethrone); “reduce” (e.g. devalue); “get off of” (e.g. detrain) (Webster’s).

Of those meanings the most suitable one for deconstruction is removal and dethroning.

Construction means to build up, and de- means to tear it down at the same time. I will illustrate this, below. Deconstruction is not quite as final as destruction, but it comes close. It’s a condemned shell of a house, and hollow inside.

But to continue: with deconstruction words, especially the big and abstract ones, have no fixed referent (or thing or concept that the word refers to, like a real “tree” out in nature).

Now let’s break deconstruction down even more.

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-skepticism, because most ordinary thinkers have some level of skepticism, but most (not all) postmodernists take things to extremes. Most ordinary thinkers do not work to undermine foundations of thought in the West or elsewhere. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

What are binary or dialectical polarities? 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 then calls Derrida a revealing name: “the anarchistic Derrida calls into question the very concept of the center” (p. 946). The label “anarchist” confirms why he and his disciples should be called hyper-skeptical and hyper-radical.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Let’s focus on language games for a moment and more on Jacques Derrida, the foremost practitioner of deconstruction.

First, 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 “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)

Thus, there is 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 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.

Now what about the second interpretation? 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)

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)

A Review and Comparison

Postmodernism and its subset deconstruction share these features, with an eye on a hot topic: human sexuality, which slips ans slides around and has no fixed referent:

  • Hyper-skeptical of origins (if there are any origins, then how can we discover that, as if they can reveal anything important, so constitutional originalism is out);
  • Hyper-skeptical of essences (there is no firm definition of a thing or human, so the sexual essence of humankind is also gone);
  • Hyper-skeptical about realism (no connection between language and reality, so what is male-female sexuality?);
  • Hyper-skeptical of foundations (no truth, just interpretations, so self-identify however you want, for there is no sexual essence to being male-female);
  • Hyper-skeptical of “meta-narratives” or the Big Picture Stories (no unifying theme of humankind that can be discerned);
  • Hyper-skeptical of totalities (no  grand unifying theory that separates the sexes);
  • Hyper-skeptical of canons (no authority or yardstick by which we establish norms–certainly not sexual norms).

Here are the features that deconstruction entertains:

  • Struggle (always about the Struggle for the Left) between freeplay of meaning and traditional interpretations (so traditional marriage is gone and freeplay sexuality is in);
  • Deconstruction 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” (Derrida) (so the essence of humankind is gone, and so goes his nailed-down sexuality);
  • Words, especially the big and abstract ones, have no fixed referent (outside reality, like a tree, so longstanding human sexuality is not a fixed referent that can be referred to in dialogue);
  • Deconstruction capitalizes on ambiguity in language (and presumably in discussing sexually ambiguous feelings as well);
  • It exploits the gaps and silences of a word or text (including the story of the history of human sexuality);
  • It’s a language game (“words, words, words!” says Hamlet to Polonius);
  • Reality and the words that describe it don’t match (so how can meaning generally and the meaning of sexuality be described with certainty?);
  • Finally, rippling outward to us, deconstruction destroys the metaphysical truths that the West depends on. And when you destroy them, you destroy stability for society (one stabilizing that we depend on is the healthy, opposite-sex, biological family)


Such is deconstruction—capitalizing on ambiguity. It exploits the gaps and silences of a text. It’s a language game. The center does not hold. It’s free play.

So why not dethrone conjugal marriage (male / female) or redefine self-identify however you want? I heard an Australian journalist say, back when self-identifying was the rage, “I’m bald, but I self-identify as hairy.” His point: anything goes, even if it denies the obvious.

Rippling outward to us, it destroys the metaphysical truths that the West depends on. And when you destroy that, you destroy stability for society.


What Is Postmodernism?

Deconstruction: The Language Games People Play

Deconstructing Gender Differences

The Skeptical Sneering Age

Three Cures for the Skeptical Sneering Age!

Postmodern Roots of Leftist Policies


To see how postmodernism relates to interpretations of the Bible, you may read a series posted at between March 17, 2007 and May 12, 2007.

1. Postmodernism and the Bible: Introduction
2. The Origins of Postmodernism
3. Postmodern Truth Soup
4. Deconstruction: a primer
5. The Deconstructed Jesus
6. The De-Deconstructed Jesus
7. Alternatives to Postmodern Hyper-skepticism
8. Postmodernism and the Bible: Conclusion

You can also read how I have fun with Derrida and deconstruction, here:

Grammatologie or Gramma au logie: Gramma’s Drama?

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