Post-Structuralist, Deconstructive Criticism

Post-Structuralist, Deconstructive Criticism is

Key Terms: Dialectic; Hermeneutics; Semiotics; Text & Intertextuality; Tone

Key TermsDefinitions
Binary Oppositiona pair of related terms or concepts that appear to be opposite in meaning (e.g. light/dark, good/evil, masculine/feminine)
Privileged Termthe preferred term of a binary opposition; the term’s connotation usually creates its privileged status
Suppressed Termthe unfavorable term of a binary opposition; the term’s connotation usually creates its unfavorable status
Hierarchiesa system in which ideas, objects, people, groups, and institutions are ranked one above the other according to privileged status or authority

Deconstruction, a theory that arose from post-structuralism, asserts that since systems are always changing, it is impossible to describe a complete system. Deconstructive criticism also explores patterns within texts, but deconstructive criticism aims to demonstrate how conflicting forces within the text undermine the stability of the text’s structure, revealing meaning as an array of undetermined possibilities. Deconstructive criticism may also focus on binaries in a text, such as good/evil, light/dark, male/female, poor/rich, linear/nonlinear, old/young, masculine/feminine, or natural/artificial, to expose one aspect of the binary as privileged and the other as suppressed.  

Post-Structuralist Criticism, Deconstructive criticism also explores patterns within texts, but deconstructive criticism aims to demonstrate how conflicting forces within the text undermine the stability of the text’s structure, revealing meaning as an array of undetermined possibilities. Deconstructive criticism may also focus on binaries in a text, such as good/evil, light/dark, male/female, poor/rich, linear/nonlinear, old/young, masculine/feminine, or natural/artificial, to expose one aspect of the binary as privileged and the other as suppressed. The discussion of deconstructionist criticism below will focus on the light/dark binary.

Jacques Derrida is the originator of deconstruction. As M.H. Abrams points out in A Glossary of Literary Terms, however, Derrida did not intend for deconstruction to serve as a method for writing literary criticism. Rather, Derrida viewed deconstruction as a technique for exposing and subverting many assumptions of Western thought in a variety of texts (59). Additionally, Paul de Man, Barbara Johnson, and J.H. Miller have all been instrumental in the development of deconstructive readings of literary texts.

Deconstruction is a type of theory that arose from post-structuralism, which asserts that since systems are always changing, it is impossible to describe a complete system, such as one that insists on the association of darkness with evil and vice versa. As such, post-structuralists also view subjects—subjects such as readers—as caught up in the forces that produce the very structures they study as objects of knowledge. Discovering Truth with a capital T is, therefore, an impossible task to carry out with deconstructive criticism.

For example, a deconstructionist critic would ask how and why more importance is placed on light versus dark in a text, thereby questioning the truth of these associations within—and even outside of—the literary text. For example, if a reader can see how a literary text intentionally correlates light with goodness and darkness with evil, a reader might begin to question the truth of these correlations. Similarly, a deconstructionist critic would point out how the construction of these contrasting forces undermine their stability.

Consider Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are you Going, Where Have You Been?” After initially reading the story, many readers associate darkness with the dangerous character, Arnold, and light with the innocent victim, Connie. And yet some astute readers have noticed the pale (light) skin that surrounds Arnold’s dark eyes. If Arnold represents evil, why are his dark eyes surrounded with pale light? Additionally, Connie attempts to get a tan in the natural sunlight, while Arnold puts on makeup to make himself appear tan. A meaningful difference between light and dark in the text is undermined by Arnold’s ability to simply paint on the type of tan that Connie strives to acquire. How can light represent goodness if a bad person can simply make himself appear light—or tan—like Connie is? The deconstructionist critic recognizes how the text plays around with the assumptions readers make based on the connotations of the words and the images they create, enhancing the tension in the story, and undermining the possibility of the text creating only one meaning. For example, Connie lives in a suburb where everyone notices that Arnold doesn’t fit in, but no one confronts him. Connie’s friends and neighbors silently consent to Arnold’s presence, leading to his eventual abduction of Connie. Oates’s story invites us to consider that her story can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Foundational Questions of Post-Structuralist, Deconstructive Criticism

  • What binary oppositions or tensions (e.g., light/dark, good/evil, old/young, linear/nonlinear, poor/rich, masculine/feminine, and western/eastern) operate in the text?
  • How does the text uphold, versus resolve, contradictory meanings, particularly as they relate to binary oppositions or tensions?
  • How do other details and aspects of the text (e.g., dialogue, denotation, connotation, allusion, and imagery) undermine or subvert tension in the text?
  • How does the text invite ambiguity versus certainty? 

Online Example: A Deconstructive Reading of George Crumb’s Black Angels

Discussion Questions and Activities: Deconstructive and Post-Structuralist Criticism

  1. Define the following terms without looking at the article or your notes: hierarchies, privileged term, and suppressed term.
  2. Explain the concept of hierarchies in your own words.
  3. Read “America” by Claude McKay. What binaries exist in the text? Do they have a stable meaning?
  4. Write a paragraph that describes how the binaries in the poem create tension for the speaker. Does the speaker resolve this tension?
  5. Does Claude McKay portray America as positive, negative, or both? Defend your perspective by citing words, phrases, and lines from the poem.

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