4 Ways to Deconstruct Writing: Are Your Words Yours or Are You Theirs?

Deconstruction is a radical critical theory popularized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. He and others after him took the analysis of language and communication deeper than it had ever gone before. In essence, they tore apart words, sentences, pieces of writing—deconstructing them—showing how all of our efforts to communicate with each other are constructions. We build narratives and dialogue, erecting buildings of words. Deconstructionists delight in making all articles, arguments or novels—just to name a few word buildings–come tumbling down like a house of cards. How do they do that? Why do they do that? I’ll discuss their methods and motives in another article. First, let’s discuss their tenets, their 4 main suppositions about language. Learning some deconstructive theory could help you become a better writer. You can never know too much critical theory.


1) Realize that there’s nothing certain in language

  • All words have radically unstable histories and meanings. Visit the dictionary and you’ll see at least a few definitions—known as denotations—for every word in there. How can that be? Then if you trace the words in each definition, you’ll find that they have several definitions, too. And if you follow their historical trail back as far as you can go, you’ll find they all started with words from other languages that themselves had many definitions. So what can truly be determined by any word? You say one thing and I hear another.
  • Words are signifiers that have no solid signified, no essential meaning. There is no right interpretation; there’s always more, an infinite loop. Think of great lawyers or politicians. They’re consummate deconstructionists. You can’t ever pin them down because they’re champions at using slippery words.
  • Our ideas, stories and articles can never be truly “original.” But our construction of those ideas, stories, and articles can be.

2) Embrace the fact that all words are metaphors

  • Language doesn’t work the way we think it works. There is no essential entity, no origin, no point “A”. Our writing always arrives at the abyss. It’s bottomless. An endless chain of signification. You can always write more; always go in a different direction or tangent.
  • Your texts always leave a residue from the past, always connect to other texts, other writers, thinkers, sources. All of your words re-present things or feelings or events or experiences or ideas. Your words are not the things, feeling, events, experiences, or ideas themselves. They are metaphors.
  • You can never fully re-present those entities in words. Your words, your articles, your novels are floating, dying, ever changing before your eyes, like the night sky. What do we see in the heavens? Stars? No. We see ancient history. We see light that has travelled for millions of years from stars that could very well be burned out and gone. We see what isn’t there anymore.
  • Writing’s the same way. We write and what’s written down refers to what isn’t there anymore. It’s either different or gone entirely.

3) The author is irrelevant

  • Do you really think that some subjective, independent, fully autonomous you is in charge of your words? Your writing writes you. Words constitute your thoughts. Words existed before you did. You just entered the earth’s atmosphere and splashed down into a swirling soup of words. Those words you write exist independently from you, the author.
  • It’s a convention of grammar to write in the syntactical subject/verb/object order. This structure asserts the authority of the author, the subject, you and me. We’re in the first position in most of our sentences. This artificial construct is an ideological position we created. We humans put ourselves first: before action, before events, before statements, before ideas, before everything else in our spoken and written communication. Rather pompous and pathetically blind to reality, actually.
  • In reality, all else came before us. Before we ever existed, countless trillions of ideas and actions and events existed and occurred that are similar to those we have and experience in our own little lives. We are nothing but conduits—cables through which the collective unconscious and the continuum of history flows.

4) The “not-said” matters even more

  • When you’re with someone or talking with someone, are there ever thoughts in your head that you don’t express in words? Only a few million in your lifetime so far, right? The same goes for your writing. In fact, there are the things you intentionally don’t write, many more things you don’t even think of writing, and—here’s the kicker—many things in your writing that you didn’t even intend to say.
  • The reader reads into your words also, reading meaning you never consciously meant to convey.
  • There’s an unconscious text inside every text. It’s an ethics of the Other: what’s excluded from the text is still in the text. It’s there by the very act of being “not-there.” Your writing contains meanings and messages that your brain never processed. They reside in the cracks and gaps, in the connotations and traces—despite your delusion that you control the cognition and communication process.
  • Words have a life of their own—whether they’re written down or not. As Heidegger posited, all writing contains the seeds of its opposite; no concept can be understood except in relation to its opposite.

Pretty radical stuff, I know. You might be saying: “What a load of crap! Is that what they teach in college?” Listen, for the decons, it’s all fun and games. They love pulling the rug out from under any book, article, or conversation. But, hey: it’s fun to play along. Wii for the mind. Just for the heck of it, why not deconstruct some of your own writing? Give it go. Gaze warily at your own words. Consider alternative ways of seeing and saying what’s ostensibly the same thing. Trace your words’ etymological roots. Engage yourself with yourself. Wonder a while: Are your words yours or are you theirs?

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