Deconstructing binary opposition by finding textual evidence that is conflicting with a works main ideological theme is the goal of deconstructive literary criticism. In doing so the reader identifies the ideologies at play within the text by identifying the binary oppositions, and more specifically which of the two is privileged. By showing how the main ideological themes of the work are contradicted by specific textual evidence the opposition deconstructs itself, or as Tyson says “we do not deconstruct a text; we show how the text deconstructs itself” (265). The Great Gatsby’s ideological theme is the condemnation of American decadence in the 1920’s, but Tyson shows how the “novel’s representation of this culture’s decadence is undermined by the text’s own ambivalence toward the binary oppositions on which this representation rests” (272).

Deconstructive critics believe that language is a dynamic, unstable, fluid, and ambiguous set of conflicting ideologies. One of the many benefits of this critical theory is in “make[ing] us aware of the oppressive role ideology can play in our lives” (249). Most people are unaware of the extent to which ideologies shape their experiences, their world, and their identity. But what is it? What is the thing that is creating the hidden ideologies that define our existence? Jacques Derrida and other deconstructive critics would argue it is language itself. They argue it is the language to which we are born that “mediates our experience of ourselves and the world. And for deconstruction, language is wholly ideological: it consists entirely of the numerous conflicting, dynamic ideologies- or systems of beliefs and values- operating at any given point in time in any given culture” (253). In other words, our world is created and constructed by language, and it is beyond our capacity to move outside of its domain.

The importance of claiming that our world is constructed by language does no less than turn all of previous Western Philosophy’s attempts at defining our grounding principle, our meaning of existence, upside down. Like Copernicus’s revelation that the sun does not orbit the earth, Derrida’s denial of logocentric philosophies removes the center of our understanding of meaning and existence and throws our world into upheaval. There is no center, rather, “an infinite number of vantage points from which to view it, and each of these vantage points has a language of its own, which deconstruction calls its discourse” (256). For the deconstructionist language is the grounding concept, and is “constantly overflowing with implications, associations, and contradictions that reflect the implications, associations, and contradictions of the ideologies of which it is formed” (255).

But what, after all, is language anyway? Structuralists believe language refers not to things themselves but to concepts of things in the world created in our consciousness. “Deconstruction takes that idea a big step further by claiming that language is nonreferential because it refers neither to things in the world nor to our concepts of things but only to the play of signifiers of which language itself consists” (252). Both critical theories claim language is nonreferential, both adhere to the sign = signifier + signified formula, but only the latter ascribes an unstable, plural, fluidity, with never ending stream of meanings to language. Again, the primary difference is that with deconstructive criticism “every signifier consists of and produces more signifiers in a never ending deferral, or postponement, of meaning: we seek meaning that is solid and stable, but we can never really find it because we can never get beyond the play of signifiers that is language” (252–253). The framework is not stable; the meaning is not fixed but dynamic.

There are two reasons to deconstruct literature: “(1) to reveal the text’s undecidability and/or (2) to reveal the complex operations of the ideologies of which the text is constructed” (259). We have already dealt with the latter, so now let’s turn our attention to what Tyson calls a text’s undecidability. Deconstructive critics believe meaning in literature is created during the act of reading a text. It is precisely while the reader is reading that “moments” of meaning are created, but inevitably give way to even more meanings, each new reading creating its own unique meaning ad infinitum. This is why Tyson says art and literature is “a seething cauldron of meanings in flux,” because there can be a large range of meanings within a text therefore the ultimate meaning is undecidable (265). “Undecidability means that reader and text alike are inextricably bound within language’s dissemination of meanings. That is, reader and text are interwoven threads in the perpetually working loom of language” (259). How can we prove undecidability? “(1) note all the various interpretations- of characters, events, images, and so on- the text seems to offer; (2) show the ways in which these interpretations conflict with one another; (3) show how these conflicts produce still more interpretations, which produce still more conflicts, which produce still more interpretations; and (4) use steps 1, 2, 3, to argue for the text’s undecidability” (259).

So now we know about undecidability and how to deconstruct literature by exposing the binary oppositions and showing how they contradict the ideological theme which provides added meaning to the never ending cycle of meanings we glean from texts, and moreover, why any of this is important at all. But deconstructive criticism and its deep implications don’t end with literature and art. “If language is the ground of being, then the world is infinite text, that is, an infinite chain of signifiers always in play. Because human beings are constituted by language, they too, are texts” (257). Deconstructive criticism tells us a lot about what it means to be human. It’s not just language that is unstable, as humans “we are multiple and fragmented, consisting at any moment of any number of conflicting beliefs, desires, fears, anxieties, and intentions” (257). And these conflicting feelings are always in flux, which might explain why people are always in search of new meaning, a new thrill, a new identity, a new love, a new outlet of expression, because just as soon as our “moment” of meaning has happened it’s gone and makes way for something else in the endless, dynamic, unstable, cycle of life.

Works Cited

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Originally published at on April 15, 2012.

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