||A type of literary method most associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930- ), and used to destabilize and undercut the truth claims of any written text. On the surface, most writing appears coherent, consistent, unequivocal and about something real. Derrida\'s argument is that it is not. Applying the method of deconstruction, he shows that every written work, from the most celebrated to the most mundane, is inherently contradictory with neither final meaning nor external reference. Such problems are not the result of ad hoc bits of sloppy writing, but subsist in the very construction of all texts. In this sense, deconstruction subversively reveals what is always internally hidden, \'revers[ing] the imposing tapestry [of a text] in order to expose in all its unglamorously dishevelled tangle the threads constituting the well-heeled image it presents to the world\' (Eagleton, 1986, p. 80).
For Derrida, carrying out such subversion is necessary for philosophical and ethical reasons. The history of western philosophy, Derrida thinks, is the quest for clarity, certainty, and above all, order. It is the hope that there is some foundation to knowledge beyond which we need not go, such as rationality, logic or truth (cf. foundationalism). Derrida calls any philosophical system that has such aspirations logocentric, literally meaning \'reason centred\'. At the core of any logocentric system such as, say, positivism or phenomenology or structuralism, is some \'metaphysics of presence\', as Derrida calls it.
By metaphysics or metaphysical system is meant a set of abstract principles that allow us to address questions that cannot be answered by addressing the known empirical world using traditional scientific methods. For example, questions like \'what is essential truth?\', or \'what is the meaning of life?\', or \'what is goodness?\' are all metaphysical questions. Typically the metaphysical principles used to address those questions are messy, debatable, and subject to modification. Derrida thinks, however, that the task of western philosophy has been to sort through such metaphysical messiness to find the one principle that is self-evident, clear, and constant, that is, to find a \'metaphysics of presence\'. As Lawson (1985, p. 96) puts it, a metaphysics of presence is an \'immediately available arena of certainty\', an anchor of stability in the choppy seas of metaphysical life. In turn, it is that belief in an arena of certainty that then provides philosophers with a warrant for making claims to finality and the truth. To use the examples above: for positivists \'facts\' are the \'metaphysics of presence\', they ensure certainty and finality; for phenomenologists, though, it is interior consciousness; and yet again for structuralists it is the relationship among elements within a wider structure. Derrida\'s argument, however, is that because of the dislocating effects of language, one can always show through deconstruction that these claimed \'presences\' are not present, with the consequence that logocentric systems are left without foundation.
The details of Derrida\'s argument are complex, but the gist is that within any metaphysical system, as in the examples above, the assertion of a presence relies upon the suppression (absence) of its opposite (which together as a pair are called a binary). To assert \'facts\' as primary within positivism, for example, means denying \'values\' (its antonym), and in this case its subordinate. Now, it is quite easy to reverse this binary, and instead of asserting facts to assert values as primary. While producing a different metaphysical system, with a new \'presence\', it would nevertheless remain a metaphysical system, just a different metaphysical system. Derrida\'s goal through deconstruction, though, is more seditious than turning around binaries. It is to destabilize both parts of the binary from within, rendering any metaphysical system based upon either part problematic. To use Derrida\'s language, it is always possible to \'overturn\' any binary because of \'undecidability\' at its core. Undecidability involves finding key terms within the metaphysical system that fit neither half of the binary (the primary or the subordinate). Because such terms slip across both sides of the binary, but fit neither, the very coherence of the binary is questioned, and more generally any metaphysic constructed upon it.
Take, for example, the fact-value binary. During the 1920s and 1930s a group of philosophers (the Vienna Circle) primarily based in Vienna attempted to construct a philosophical system based upon that very binary, logical positivism. All meaningful scientific statements were either empirical (or synthetic), and could be verified against the facts of the world, or were analytical, that is, true by definition such as logic and formal mathematical theorems. Statements that were neither empirical nor analytical were metaphysical, and simply meaningless. Here, then, is a classic case of asserting the presence of one side of the binary, the part representing facts and logic, over its subordinate, the part which is absent and which represents values and metaphysics. An immediate criticism of logical positivism, though, was the justification of the empirical-analytical distinction that defined the limits of meaningful scientific statements. It was itself neither a strictly empirical statement, nor an analytical one. But it wasn\'t a metaphysical statement either because it would then be meaningless, whereas its purpose is precisely one of delimiting the meaningful from the meaningless. In short, it lies betwixt and between the binary of facts and values, between science and metaphysics, thereby rendering that very distinction problematic.
More generally, Derrida\'s strategy is always the same: to find the critical binary, and to demonstrate that it never fully determines meaning. In Derrida\'s vocabulary, signifiers are never fully structurally determined. Instead, there is only endless displacement and deferment of meaning, an eternal \'play of signifiers\' (Lawson, 1985), which consequently provide no fixed meaning. To use Derrida\'s invented term, there is only diffÃ©rance: a complicated word, but at its most basic denoting the ultimate undeniability of meaning of all signifiers.
It is important to note that in carrying out deconstruction, Derrida unsettles from within. As Lawson (1985, p. 93) writes, in deconstruction \'the text is seen to fall by its own criteria â€” the standards or definitions which the text sets up are used reflexively to unsettle and shatter the original distinctions\'. In this way, too, Derrida circumvents the charge that he is simply substituting his own metaphysical system for another; for he offers none. Second, in carrying out deconstruction Derrida necessarily adopts an unorthodox style of philosophical argument and writing. Traditional philosophers are not enamoured. Barry Smith, editor of the Monist, for example, in writing to The Times (6 May 1992) about the nomination of Derrida for an honorary degree from Cambridge University (which, after controversy, he was awarded), says that Derrida has made \'a career out of translating into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks\' with a resulting \'written style that defies comprehension\'. For Derrida, though, the reason traditional philosophy has problems is a direct consequence of its style of writing and argument. Any critique, such as his, must be expressed in different terms. Derrida writes as he does for a reason, and not because he can\'t write.
Derrida\'s ethical reason for deconstruction is to undermine any metaphysical presence that posits itself as the centre, and which in so doing necessarily creates marginality. Here, as Bernstein (1992, ch. 6) argues, it is tempting to see Derrida\'s work in autobiographical terms. As an exile, an Algerian Sephardic Jew living in France, Derrida has a personal interest in showing that \'the tactics and strategies designed to exclude, outcast, [and] silence. â€¦ have never been quite successful\' (Bernstein, 1992, p. 180). This is one of the purposes of deconstruction. It demonstrates that all assertions of a metaphysical centre necessarily unravel from within; that the distinction between centre and margin, presence and absence, is not sustainable. The implication, though, is not that all distinctions, boundaries and hierarchies are then dissolved. As Derrida recognizes, we are all implicated in logocentric projects, including him. We can struggle against them, but they can never be completely overthrown. The best we can do is maintain a perpetual state of uneasiness, of continual questioning of what we take to be our centre, our home, our place. That also is the purpose of deconstruction: to decentre, to throw off kilter any all-encompassing logocentric project that claims certainty, determinateness, and the moral privilege of a specific class, gender or race.
Deconstruction has made significant inroads across a wide range of social sciences and humanities over the last decade, and while clearly found in literary studies (Cullen, 1997), it is also carried out in economics (Amariglio and Ruccio, 1994), political science (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985), and post-colonial studies (Young, 1990). The recent interest in post-structuralism within geography has also resulted in a number of references to Derrida\'s work, and deconstruction in particular, but there are few examples of either being worked through systematically. In many ways Olsson\'s (1976) iconoclastic Birds in egg, written long before post-structuralism was ever mentioned in geography, is an exemplary deconstructive work; in his case unravelling from within the \'threads of the tapestry\' of spatial science. Harley\'s (1989) paper on \'Deconstructing the map\' is also well-known, although Belyea (1992) doubts whether he really does what he claims in his title. Doel\'s (1993, 1994) writings are perhaps the most self-consciously Derridean of anyone\'s in the discipline but, maybe inevitably, like Olsson, he has met charges of obscurantism. And recently, Barnes (1996) attempts to deconstruct geography\'s quantitative revolution, although he maintains doubts about the success of his own project. This goes to the issue of the difficulty of carrying out deconstruction, which even extends to Derrida (1991, 209) himself who once said: \'deconstruction loses nothing from admitting it is impossible\'.Â (TJB)
References Amariglio, J. and Ruccio, D. 1994: Postmodernism, Marxism and the critique of modern economic thought. Rethinking Marxism 7 (3): 7-35.Â Barnes, T.J. 1994: Probable writing: Derrida, deconstruction and the quantitative revolution in human geography. Environment and Planning A 26: 1021-40.Â Belyea, B. 1992: Images of power: Derrida/ Foucault/ Harley. Cartographica 29: 1-19.Â Bernstein, R.J. 1992: The new constellation: the ethical-political horizons of modernity/ postmodernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Â Cullen, J. 1997: Literary theory: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Â Derrida, J. 1991: The Derrida reader: between the blinds. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.Â Doel, M.A. 1993: Proverbs for paranoids: writing geography on hollowed ground. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 18: 377-94.Â Doel, M.A. 1994: Something resist: reading-deconstruction as ontological infestation (departures from the texts of Jacques Derrida). In P. Cloke, M. Doel, D. Matless, M. Phillips and N. Thrift, eds, Writing country: five cultural geographies. London: Paul Chapman, 127-48.Â Eagleton. T. 1986: Against the grain. London: Verso.Â Harley, B. 1989: Deconstructing the map. Cartographica 26: 1-20.Â Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. 1985: Hegemony and socialist strategy: towards a radical democratic politics. London: Verso.Â Lawson, H. 1985: On reflexivity: the postmodern predicament. London: Hutchinson.Â Olsson, G. 1975: Birds in egg. Ann Arbor, MI: Department of Geography, University of Michigan.Â Young, R. 1990: White mythologies: writing history and the west. London: Routledge.
Suggested Reading Barnes (1994).Â Norris, C. 1987: Derrida. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.