Language is an incredibly useful tool. I know, that seems like an obvious statement until you take a step back and look at what language actually does to us. All of human communication (even to a dog, or a computer, or the corner of your coffee table) is through some sort of language (baby talk, programming, and expletives respectively). Literature is often called the epitome of language by people that are much smarter and more dead than I am. Unlike spoken language, literature is usually polished and more eloquent. And when it’s not, it’s made into major motion pictures (I’m looking at you, 50 Shades of One-Dimensional Characters). Literature also has the luxury of lasting a lot longer than talking to your friends over white chocolate brownies and affecting the lives of more people. Because of the importance that literature carries, it’s only right that old people start talking about it, adding it to the long list of other important theoretical frameworks (along with General Relativity, and string). However, literature encompasses all of recorded human experience by definition. The only thing that all of literature absolutely has in common is that it is an expression of language. So, in order to understand it, you first have to look at what language exactly is. A very wise sperm whale once said: “I suppose I’d better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway in what for the sake of what I shall call an argument I shall call the world”. But it may as well have been said by Jacques Derrida. When talking about language, we use language, and the language we use is very important. In fact, when we talk about anything, the language we use is very important. But something of such great importance, as Derrida has so graciously pointed out, isn’t nearly as stable as it should be. You wouldn’t place your dinner on a table that was, for all intents and purposes, fluid and yet the basis of our every interaction is. Derrida’s idea of how language is actually made up is conveniently known as “deconstructionism.” It less deceptively describes the structure of language, but not in a way that we typically associate with actual structures. You see, Derrida broke words, the basic building blocks of language, into three parts. First, there is the sign. The sign is made up of two further parts, signifier and signified. The signifier is the sound that comes out of our mouth, or the shapes we put on paper, when we decide to say or write a word. For example, the word “chair” is made up of an A, a C, an H, an I, and an R (not necessarily in that order). Those are the squiggles (or “letters”, if you’re civilized) that the English speaking community has decided equate to the throat vibrations that are audible when we say: “structure”. That’s okay, you can say it out loud. The other part of Derrida’s sign is the signified. This is the mental concept that we equate to the mouth sounds and squiggles. Going back to our chair example, when you think about it you probably imagine four legs, probably wood, a back part, a middle part, maybe a soft part. Maybe you have a specific chair in mind; your favourite chair from your childhood or the chair you’re sitting in right now. Either way, butts are probably involved somewhere, along with an apparatus to hold said butt off the ground. You can probably tell by now that there is no specific chair that the mouth sound “chair” signifies. It’s just chair. And that’s the thing about Derrida’s structure: it’s pretty much completely arbitrary. What it comes down to, according to Derrida, is humanity coming together and agreeing: “Is that a good name? It’ll do… perhaps I can find a better name for it later when I’ve found out what it’s for”. The third part of the word is its referent. This is the thing that the sign refers to. Derrida went really easy on the naming of these concepts, by the way. So when you see a butt holding apparatus, like the other one in that room, your mouth barfs out “chair” and your hand scratches it into whatever surface you can find. Congratulations, you’ve identified a chair. But what about when you go back to your car after a long day of grading papers, and sit in the chair there? It’s not the chair from your office, but it’s still called “chair”. That’s part of the ambiguity Derrida explains. A sign can refer to more than one referent. But that thing in your car isn’t a chair, it’s a seat. That’s part of Derrida’s theory, too. A referent can have multiple signs as well. It gets really confusing when your language can’t help you differentiate between the two. Where does chair end and seat begin? Who knows? According to Derrida, this ambiguity spreads through all of language. So, when we have something like literary theory, that uses language to investigate language, that ambiguity is going to seep through. Without getting too Freudian, it’s safe to say that the language we use shapes our experiences, and that our experiences shape the language we use. For a very rough and tumble example, I wouldn’t use the phrase “rough and tumble” had I not been raised in the Midwestern United States, where that phrase is fairly common.