Deconstruction, a critical practice introduced by French philosopher and critic Jacques Derrida, ostensibly serves to interrogate the assumptions of Western thought by reversing or displacing the hierarchical "binary oppositions" that provide its foundation. In "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," a pathbreaking lecture delivered at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, Derrida challenges the metaphysical premises that shape Western science and philosophy. Derrida argues that the "structure" determining these discourses (including "structuralist" theory itself) always presupposes a "centre" that ensures a point of origin, meaning, being, or presence. What troubles Derrida is that the centre determines a given systemÕs structure but is itself strangely above or transcendent of such structural analysis or scrutiny. According to Derrida, "the centre, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality" (trans. Bass, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader 150). Logocentrism, as Derrida codifies this phenomenon, establishes the metaphysical imperatives of truth, consciousness, and essence that underwrite Western literature, theology, and science. Derrida foregrounds the following paradox: any attempt to interrogate and destroy the center invariably causes the production of another center. "The entire history of the concept of structure," Derrida argues, "...must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center" (Bass 151). One consequence of deconstruction, then, is that a theorist's criticism of a given system is limited in that it is always dependent upon (and complicit with) the prevailing terms of that system. Deconstruction's suggestion of the critic's complicity with dominant social formations has translated in the decades following Derrida's work into the pedagogical responsibilities of colonial, postcolonial, and transnational cultural studies of imperialism and the struggle for decolonization. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a leading postcolonial critic, uses deconstruction to problematize the privileged, academic postcolonial critic's unknowing participation in the exploitation of the Third World.
Derrida's distrust of the logocentric assumption of "being as presence" stems in part from his considerations of the differences that distinguish between signs within text. In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida invents the term "differance," punning upon both spatial and temporal meanings of the verb "differer"--to "differ" and to "defer." The ambiguities between these two meanings become meaningful only on the written page; as Derrida notes, in spoken French "differance" (with an "a") and "difference" (with an "e") are indistinguishable. In other words, since "differance" inheres only in writing and not in speech, Derrida's deconstructive project seeks to reverse the metaphysical presumption that speech (an indicator of presence or being) precedes the written word that approximates it. In "Signature Even Context"--a paper that invited a rather mendacious reply by critic John Searle and, in turn, Derrida's subsequent counter-response--Derrida deconstructs the binary opposition of speech/writing and argues that writing precedes speech rather than being its consequence or effect. Here arises one of the central principles of deconstruction. Derrida examines a hierarchical binary opposition (in this example, speech/writing) in which one term is privileged over the other. Derrida reverses the binary opposition by re-privileging writing, but with the important caveat that this inversion is itself unstable and susceptible to continual displacement. In terms of logocentrism, to privilege writing over speech is to characterize writing as a new "centre" of meaning. Spivak, again, points toward deconstruction's limitations in conceptualizing and sustaining an engagement with the politics of domination. Since deconstruction involves the infinite displacement of hierarchical binary oppositions (rather than their tacit reversal), the postcolonial critic aiming at substantive social transformation or revolution finds herself with inadequate power to revise dominant power structures.