You are on page 1of 3

Deconstruction and the "Letter to a Japanese Friend"

The "Letter to a Japanese Friend" is a five page text by Derrida intended to give
some "preliminary reflections on the word 'deconstruction'"(1). Derrida wrote the
"Letter to a Japanese Friend" to try and avoid a misunderstanding of the word
deconstruction when it was being translated into Japanese by Professor
Izutsu,. It is written by Derrida as a preliminary reflection on deconstruction and
is therefore a relatively straightforward text. The short and straightforward
nature of the text makes it a valuable introduction to deconstruction for an
interested reader who is not necessarily a professional philosopher. In the letter
Derrida sets out to describe "what deconstruction is not"(1). The letter therefore
gives a negative description of deconstruction and this seems to indicates that a
positive description would be too complicated for the introductory level
description of deconstruction that Derrida proposes in the "Letter to a Japanese
Derrida asserts that deconstruction does not refer to "some clear and univocal
signification"(1). The term univocal means to say something with one voice.
When Derrida writes that deconstruction is not univocal he indicates that when
the word deconstruction occurs, it always occurs with many levels of meaning.
Derrida states that deconstruction in the American context "is already attached
to very different connotations, inflections, and emotional or affective values"(1).
Derrida therefore distances the role of the word deconstruction in his own
thought from the interpretation of the word deconstruction in the context of
American universities.
Derrida states that when he first chose the word deconstruction he "little thought
it would be credited with such a central role in the discourse that interested me
at the time"(1). Derrida implies that deconstruction has been made central to
understanding his philosophy by people trying to understand his philosophy
rather than his own intention to develop a philosophy based around this word.
Derrida states that when he first used the word deconstruction he
"wished to translate and adapt to my own ends the Heideggerian word
Destruktion or Abbau. But in French "destruction" too obviously implied an
annihilation or a negative reduction much closer perhaps to Nietzschean
"demolition" than to the Heideggerian interpretation or to the type of reading
that I proposed."(1).
The origins of the word deconstruction are therefore in Heidegger's philosophy.
The word was chosen to avoid the too obviously negative term demolition.
Derrida gives a number of pre-existing definitions for deconstruction that
influenced his choice of the word:

"Disarranging the construction of words in a sentence...To disassemble the parts

of a whole. To deconstruct a machine to transport it lose its
construction. 'Modern scholarship has shown us that in a region of the timeless
East, a language reaching its own state of perfection is deconstructed...and
altered from within itself according to the single law of change, natural to the
human mind"
Derrida notes that these definitions had an affinity with what he "meant"(2)
when he first used the word deconstruction. Derrida describes these definitions
as "models or regions of meaning and not the totality of what deconstruction
aspires to at its most ambitious"(2).
Derrida states that the "use value", of deconstruction, "had been been
determined by the discourse that was then being attempted around and on the
basis of Of Grammatology" and this suggests that Derrida absolves himself of full
responsibility for how the word deconstruction is actually used. At this point in
the letter Derrida says that he will try to "give some precision"(2) to the use of
the word deconstruction that is not limited to "some primitive meaning or
Derrida relates the word deconstruction to a context in which "structuralism was
dominant"(2) and he notes that the word "signified a certain attention to
structures"(2). Deconstruction is therefore a "structuralist gesture"(2) because it
is concerned with the structure of thought in texts but it is also an
"antistructuralist gesture"(2) because "Structures were to be undone,
decomposed, desedimented (all types of structures, linguistic, "logocentric,"
"phonocentric"-structuralism being especially at that time dominated by
linguistic models"(2). and what Derrida calls the "structural problematic"(2).
Derrida emphasises the positive aspects of deconstruction: Rather than
destroying, it was also necessary to understand how an ensemble was
constituted and to reconstruct it to this end(3).
Derrida argues that this word [deconstruction], at least on its own, has never
appeared satisfactory to me (but what word is), and must always be girded by an
entire discourse(3). this has been called...a type of negative theology(3).
Derrida states that deconstruction is neither an analysis nor a critique(3).
For Derrida deconstruction is not an analysis in particular because the
dismantling of a structure is not a regression toward a simple element, toward an
indissoluble origin(3). This statement does not necessarily mean that
deconstruction has nothing to do with analysis. Derrida is actually denying that
deconstruction is an 'analysis' in a common sense of the term. Derrida states
that deconstruction involves a certain attention to structures(2) and tries to
understand how an ensemble was constituted(3) and this implies some
variation on the kind of activity that is normally termed analysis. When Derrida
states that dismantling a structure does not lead us to a simple element or
indissoluble origin he means that there is no fundamental level that will end

the possibility of further analysis. Beneath each level of a structure that can be
deconstructed there are further structures that can also be deconstructed.
Derrida means that deconstruction is not an analysis, if analysis is
conceptualised as finite or limited.
Derrida states that deconstruction is not a critique, in a general sense or in a
Kantian sense. The instance of krinein or of krisis (decision, choice, judgment,
discernment) is itself, as is all the apparatus of transcendental critique, one of
the essential themes or objects of deconstruction(3).
Derrida notes that the motif of deconstruction has been associated with
poststructuralism (a word unknown in France until its return from the United
States)(3). It is true that in certain circles (university or cultural, especially in
the United States) the technical and methodological metaphor that seems
necessarily attached to the very word deconstruction has been able to seduce
or lead astray(3).
Derrida states that Deconstruction is not a method and cannot be transformed
into one(3). One reason for this is that it is not a mechanical operation: It is
true that in certain circles (university or cultural, especially in the United States)
the technical and methodological metaphor that seems necessarily attached to
the very word deconstruction has been able to seduce or lead astray(3).
Another problem is that deconstruction is not something that can be practiced by
an individual or collective subject who would take the initiative and apply it to
an object, a text, a theme, etc.(3). This inability to use deconstruction as a
method implies that in the same way the structure of a text exists before
deconstruction so does the possibility of deconstruction. The deconstruction is
therefore mapped in the text rather than used as a tool on the text. Derrida
argues that Deconstruction takes place, it is an event that does not await the
deliberation, consiousness, or organization of a subject(4).
Derrida writes I am only thereby increasing the difficulties...This too is what is
meant by 'deconstructs'(4).
For me, for what I have tried and still try to write, the word [deconstruction] has
interest only within a certain context, where it replaces and lets itself be
determined by such other words as ecriture, trace, differance,
supplement, hymen, pharmakon, marge, entame, parergon etc. By
definition, the list can nver be closed, and I have cited only names, which is
inadequate and done only for reasons of economy. In fact I should have cited the
sentences and the interlinking of sentences which in their turn determine these
names in some of my texts.(4/5) All these replacement terms for deconstruction
are key terms from Derrida's engagement with other philosophers. Each one is
invested with special meaning that represents the event of the deconstruction of
the philosopher in quesiton. Derrida therefore links deconstruction closely to his
own philosophical practice.