I'm a little tired of the description of deconstruction as the exploding of binary oppositions. Handled correctly, this way of describing the strategy is helpful, but in most cases, it's a bit deceiving. If you read a lot of Derrida, you'll begin to wonder why this description is even used in the first place, because deconstruction really only concerns itself with singularities, and can't really be deployed, ever, by approaching singularities with this general schema. What is needed is an emphasis on how what this description describes would only be the resulting appearance of the deconstruction, its product, if you will, and could only be perceived by foregoing the deconstruction--that is, by abstraction. If this emphasis is made, the whole situation changes. Unfortunately, it often isn't.
Why this description is used in the first place, is because Derrida precisely tried to abstract and generalize about what he was doing in his texts--texts which had already been published--in an interview in 1971. There he attempts to describe deconstruction as a strategy, and comes up with the following:
...What interested me then [when he was writing "La dissémination" and "La mythologie blanche," that is, in the late 60's], and that I am attempting to pursue along other lines now, at the same time as a "general economy," a kind of general strategy of deconstruction. The latter is to avoid both simply neutralizing the binary oppositions of metaphysics and simply residing within the closed field of these oppositions, thereby confirming it.
Therefore we must proceed using a double gesture, according to a unity that is both systematic and in itself divided, a double writing, that is, a writing that is in and of itself multiple... On the one hand, we must traverse a phase of overturning. To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy... To deconstruct that opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.... [And on the other hand,] we must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new "concept," a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime.
-"Positions," in Positions, 41-42
Now, one has to, first and foremost, see this strategy as itself, in the context of the interview, at that moment in history and in the history of the intellectual scene in which Derrida was working (the Marxists, for example, were pushing him hard, for example, for some concrete political positions or at least for some relation of what he was doing to political action, as they were all recovering and assessing May '68)--one has to see this description of the strategy as itself strategically organized. Unfortunately, this didn't happen, at least here in American classrooms, where Derrida was mostly being received: all over the US the passage (or more usually only a couple sentences from the passage) was distributed by overexcited professors getting off on the thrill of doing something new. The result was that they themselves knew--or at least sensed--what Derrida was up to, and believed it was very germane to crucial tasks in the university and culture more generally (and in their works it was used to engage in these tasks, confront these problems--quite rightly, I think), but their students only got their confused descriptions of what they sensed--this description being the most succinct and (what's most important) the easiest to teach.
But why so easy to teach? As always, one has to (beyond paying attention to the context) also pay very close attention to what is said here in order to really grasp it. Especially the phrase which precedes the remarks about overturning and marking, etc.: I mean the phrase about the "double gesture," that is "itself divided." Explaining this remarks--which indeed is a bit tough, I imagine, for someone to decipher who has not read a lot of Derrida--would qualify everything that follows. For what this means is that the description of deconstruction as the overturning and marking of a binary opposition would be seen not as a step by step schema so much as an aporia. But I have never seen this part taught: only what follows gets quoted. The result is a reduction of the complicated and, one would think, extremely crucial statement to a sound bite. The reason behind this, and the result's teachability, must lie elsewhere: probably in the vividness of an idea of overturning, and the vividness of the idea of hierarchies.
Let's look for this in what gets taught. This is--instead of close attention to the crucial passage-- that Derrida is saying here 1) what gets deconstructed is a binary opposition between two concepts belonging to metaphysics, and 2) deconstruction is undergone when you overturn the hierarchy of these concepts and show their opposition in the first place to be false.
Now, think of how odd this is! But also think of how easy it would be to see the action of deconstruction actually at work: deconstruction is like an approach you take to two things that you know exist--two objects--and it is the undoing of the perception of a difference between them--or, worse, the existence of them as separate. It isn't a resolution of these things--nicely sidestepping Hegel here, and an airy idealist "all is one" conclusion--because you also show thereby that the two things were hierarchically arranged. In fact, this is the real product of deconstruction: not the undoing of the difference--who can tell what two things would be like if they weren't different? student's ask in desperation--but the revealing of the hierarchy, the exposure of an injustice, of the fact that metaphysics isn't peaceful. Deconstruction is visible, then--as violence exposed.
So the original quote gets emphasized in all sorts of wrong ways--since, to begin with, for deconstruction nothing simply exists or is there. But this is besides the point: the point is that I might have done more justice to what Derrida said just now than some teachers simply by quoting even the little bits that I did. Of course, what gets taught isn't totally false: all the words like "hierarchy" and "overturning" and "binary" that were actually in the quote get used. Or, maybe it just is false: in any other discipline than literary or culture studies in the 80's and 90's, such a skewed rendering of a set of words would indeed be called totally false. But, I don't mean to knock literary studies: Derrida wouldn't even be in the States if it was up to philosophy departments--things would have stayed nice and clean and boring as hell until the late Rorty and the late Bernard Williams (but significantly they both had heavy continental influence). The point is really that the high stakes of literary studies--the particular political and social advances it was helping to make, and, essentially, its need to show that interpretation could (with a disturbing ease) reveal violence (that is, hierarchies that needed to be overthrown)--were more important than accuracy at that time insofar as teaching was concerned. So something extremely odd got thrown about everywhere when it probably should have been brought back occasionally to the actual statements from which it originated.
Or at least, more thought given to how it was taught. If we're going to talk about binaries in the future, then, I'd recommend a stress that falls less on the individual terms of the opposition than on the opposition itself. The point is not so much to see what is opposed as to see how the opposition is necessarily going to be there even before you grasp those two things--that is, how the binary or bifurcation inhabits the perception of something to begin with. Then the problem isn't one about the relationships between the opposed things in all of their structure, but about how exceeding this opposition looks impossible. That is, it makes it seem as if another and yet another series of oppositions will just replace the first one.
And this, this is the infinite regression or interminability that is the phenomenal mark of deconstruction at work. It is this appearance of the impossibility of getting out of using oppositions that is the real problem with oppositions, and what will, in the end, allow you to--as you try and get your way out of them--in fact deconstruct the original opposition by opening it up into this infinite replacement or displacement. In short, the process here, the procedure, appears interminable, as Derrida emphasizes in The Post Card (384), and it is this apparent interminability that, when engaged with or written about, will end up deconstructing of the opposition you started with. This is really what Derrida means by a divided writing or doubled gesture: at the same time as it it writing about its own operation's impossibility, it also inscribes the binary. The result is a dual writing that brings the terms of the binary out of the realm of their merely possible effects and into the realm where they will have to reorganize themselves in order to have any effect: that is, the realm where the terms of the binary break down their opposition because they have to reform otherwise to accommodate something beyond their current possibilities--that is, the impossible.
What is crucial here is, then, that the impossibility is still only an appearance, like the interminability of the replacements. But the impossible isn't hiding a real possibility that exists. So we can't ever be sure that, indeed, the impossible will at some point become possible, at the same time as we can't be sure that the impossible will remain impossible for the binary. But what happens here is that the terms have indeed been opened onto radical alterity, and that is enough: for then we aren't dealing with the two terms as if we can control them. This makes the operation one open to the singular nature of the two as they encounter alterity, because it isn't just fitting them all into some schema. The cultivation of the uncertainty is the point. If only to make us, at some point (but how could we be certain where?), uncertain of even uncertainty. But I'll stop here. All I want to do is mark how what Derrida is saying in this interview can otherwise be described--not as the application of a schema, but as a process open to (or of opening to) singularity as the uncertain advent of alterity within a constituted set of oppositions.