Deconstruction is similar to a valid arguing tactic called Reductio Ad Absurdum. It takes the opponent's argument and logically follows it through to an absurd or indefensible conclusion. Schrödinger's Cat is a classic example of this.
Its meaning in contemporary literary theory can be traced to Jacques Derrida who deployed the term to describe the process by which the connotations and context behind a work are explored and analyzed in (often excrutiatingly fine) detail
In literary theory and criticism, deconstruction was proposed by Jacques Derrida as a means to settle (or rather, to permanently unsettle) the long-running debate about how to arrive at a correct interpretation of a text. Through deconstructive reading Derrida showed that one could formulate perfectly licit arguments against all other serious readings of a text, because in close analysis there will inevitably arise certain elements (aporia) in the text that have no disambiguating function within the text itself, meaning that the only way to resolve the meaning of a given text is to cite outside sources for authority, all of which would be texts themselves and thus aporetic (open to further deconstruction). This discovery gave rise to one of Derrida's most quotable quotations, "il n'ya pas de hors-texte" - there is nothing outside of the text - meaning that all texts draw their meanings from their relationships with other texts, but that ultimate meaning is ultimately elusive. Hence Death of the Author.
- Contrary to popular belief among the public and undergraduates, deconstruction does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid, or that by being sufficiently nit-picky and contentious one can prove anything. It merely means that of any attempt to reduce a text to a single ultimate, final, or true meaning that can be rigorously proven correct, one can always say that such an attempt is already doomed-to-fail by its own ambition, because meaning is not produced uniquely anew in each text but rather is drawn from the collective history of meaning embodied in human language.
- As applied to Tropes and genres, deconstruction therefore refers not merely to the attempt to be contrary or to show that a Trope really doesn't mean what it seems to means. Rather, deconstruction as applied to Tropes refers to the application of Tropes in novel ways, or to the reinterpretation (and thus reinvention) of a Trope in a way that subverts the universally accepted meaning of the Trope. The reason that adroit deconstructions such as Watchmen so thoroughly breathe life into old Tropes and genres is that they reveal exactly what made them stagnant to begin with. By showing how the universally accepted meaning of something is only one possible meaning (and perhaps not even a particularly rich or interesting meaning at that), readers are invited to expand their perspectives and imagine all the ways in which that Trope or genre could have new significance and relevance. In the references above (to deconstruction being the application of "Real Life considerations" to a Trope), Real Life stands for the broader universe of meaning and significance that exists distributed throughout human culture, and deconstruction is the practice of showing how a work can have many meanings, merely by connecting its Tropes to other possible meanings through their aporia (or unexamined, ambiguous terms).
In academic textual analysis, on the other hand, deconstruction is often taken much further, to the point of completely breaking down the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic structure of paragraphs, sentences, and individual words, as well as digging up the extended and detailed history underlying the appearance and use of symbols, ideas, grammar, and even questioning typographical and publishing conventions, in order to show that ultimately there is no single correct interpretation of the text in question.
- Back to Deconstruction
- More correctly, "deconstruction" refers to the fact that the context and connotations behind a work are necessarily contradictory and artificial, and a "deconstructive reading" is the process of demonstrating this through close analysis.
- Watchmen, for example, famously raised the idea that form-fitting spandex costumes also play a role in sex games, and that the sorts of people who disguise or outfit themselves in order to take the law into their own hands tend to be considered vigilantes at best or fascists at worst.
- In fact, it is common for a deconstructive reading of a text such as a novel or essay to be significantly longer than the text itself. Deconstruction is probably, at least in part, what helped to create the perception of literary theorists as absurd hair-splitters; though it's arguably no more absurd that building ever more powerful particle accelerators in order to focus in on the very fine physical systems that make up the world as we know it.