Deconstruction is a philosophy applied to literary criticism, as well as to criticism of the other arts, which began to gain popularity in the 1980s. The field arose partially in reaction to the literary theories of structuralism, which posited that, when words could be understood within the context of a society of readers, then one could point to the specific meaning of a text. This philosophy eschewed the concept of one possible meaning for a text and instead suggested that meanings are multiple and contradictory.
Underlying a text is the subtext, a set of values that must be evaluated to see if the text is really contrary in nature and, therefore, somewhat without meaning. Deconstruction also evaluates the way in which texts in the traditional literary canon are taught to students, suggesting that traditional “readings” often ignore underlying value structures in direct opposition to what is taught.
A simple example of this is analysis of the work Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. For many years, this novel was thought to be an important work on human rights and an examination of man’s inhumanity to man. Through the eyes of Huck, the reader could see the devastation of slavery and the degradation suffered by African Americans.
Critics who use deconstruction quite logically point to the last portion of the book, in which Huck and Tom realize that Jim is a free man and no longer a slave, yet go to great lengths to pretend he is a slave. They lock him up and nearly starve him. Huck is quite willing to degrade Jim in this way, showing few moral qualms about doing so.
For those practicing this type of criticism, this bizarre chapter suggests that the so-called work about human rights is something else. The underlying values in the text are not consistent with the way it is presented to students. In a sense, the deconstructionist has taken apart the novel and its critical tradition, displaying its inconsistencies.
Many literary critics abhor this practice, stating that taking a text apart deprives it of meaning and ultimately dismisses the value of anything it touches. Those who use this method might argue “How does one define value? What is meaning?” Though this answer may frustrate critics, it points to the way in which deconstructionists see the text as a source of multiple meanings, determined very much by each reader's own subtexts and definitions. To reduce the meaning of a work may ultimately make it purposeless, say some critics. At its best, though, this philosophy can be helpful in unmasking huge contradictions present in a text.
Critics have also accused the theory of being fascist in nature, largely due to one major proponent, Paul de Man, who may have written for a magazine that had some Nazi sympathies. Paul de Man has refuted these charges, yet deconstruction seems inexorably tied to fascism in the minds of many.
It is true that reading a deconstruction of a text can be similar to attempting to decode a secret message. Deconstructionists like Jack Derrida deliberately choose confusing and lengthy words to derive a multiplicity of meanings from their interpretation. In some ways, this makes the practice elitist and inaccessible to many readers. The deconstructionist doesn't care, however, for those who are confused, and they believe that confusion should be the result.