How to Deconstruct a Text

Deconstruction is a philosophical movement spearheaded by French thinker Jacques Derrida and other critics during the 1960s. As a literary theory, it focuses on exposing cultural biases in all texts, whether a passage in a popular book or the flashing script of a television ad. Readers engaged in deconstruction analyze words and sentences to identify inherent biases and call into question commonplace interpretations of the text. While this may sound presumptuous or cynical on the front end, deconstruction isn’t about destroying meaning. Rather, it’s about undermining ingrained assumptions to view things in a new light.

Oppose Prevailing Wisdom

The first thing you’ll have to do is question the common meaning or prevailing theories of the text you're deconstructing. When deconstructing, you need to start from a place of critical opposition. The only assumption you can make is that the meaning of the text is unstable and what others have told you about it is based on their own assumptions. In other words, you need to be skeptical from the onset. If you’re deconstructing Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 18, which famously begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” you can’t assume the poet is talking about a woman or that a woman is inherently an apt object for summery figurative language. What if the speaker of the poem is gay or is being sarcastic about an ex-lover? Unhinge yourself from traditional interpretations and dig into the specifics of the text. Like a scientist on the fringe of discovery, look for evidence to support alternative views.

Expose Cultural Bias

Practitioners of the deconstructive method refer to cultural biases in texts in a number of lofty ways, calling them "binaries" and "hierarchical oppositions." To understand these interchangeable terms, remember that certain words and the concepts they represent are often privileged, or emphasized more, than their oppposite words and concepts -- rich over poor, male over female, enlightened over ignorant. For instance, if a poet personifies everything in nature -- the sun, the moon, the sea -- as being male, you might conclude that the text has a male bias. If a novelist portrays white European culture as “learned” and “sophisticated” in contrast to other cultures of the world, you might suspect a Western, Euro-centric bias in the text. It’s your job to root out these biases.

Analyze Sentence Structure

One way to investigate underlying meaning of a text is to analyze sentence structure, specifically the arrangement of subject and object. Ask yourself if a person or thing represented as an object in the text makes it subordinate to the subject in some way. For instance, if a novel's male protagonist is always the initiator of action rather than the recipient -- “He took her to the store; he bought her earrings; he found some food she would like” -- the recurrent sentence structure may reinforce the protagonist’s power over the dependent character. Look for these patterns and determine if the points of view of other characters are limited to favor cultural bias.

Play With Possible Meanings

After you’ve analyzed the text for biases, see if your discoveries support a new interpretation. While many associate deconstruction with destruction of meaning, the opposite is true. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by assessing the biases of a given text -- the social and historical conventions that helped produce it -- you’ve opened up the words and sentences to an infinite amount of possible, if partial, readings. Returning to Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 18, the last couplet reads: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” While many have interpreted these lines to convey the eternal power of poetry, the deconstructive reader might find more irony: In his overbearing wish to immortalize his beloved, the poet has betrayed not only the futility of love poetry but the entire chivalric tradition that values youth and beauty over maturity and wisdom.

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