Place is nothing other than the possibility, chance, or threat of replacement.
— Jacques Derrida
When a realtor’s sign goes up in a residential neighborhood in Vancouver, BC, the sign often reads “Lot for Sale,” as if there were no house on the property. And yet the home is plainly there, contradicting the sign that seems to want to conjure it away. The house may be attractive and habitable, a well-built ‘character home,’ but it is worthless to the prospective buyer or property developer. Land value overrides all other values; the house will be demolished and replaced with something new.
At other times — more rarely — the house on the lot is not bulldozed but “deconstructed.” The building is stripped and gutted, lifted up in order to add square footage, or displaced to make room for an additional house on the lot. “Deconstruction” is a less violent option, but it still wholly disrupts the house and its setting. As for the built-in cabinets, the leaded glass windows, the door knobs, porcelain sinks and cast-iron fixtures, the modest evidence of the former residents’ habits and choices, they are junked or salvaged, carted away.
Deconstruction. What is the relationship between this dismantling of a home and the critical intervention known by the same name? Is it possible to intervene in a philosophical way on spiking real estate values and runaway gentrification? Can deconstruction undermine property speculation, evictions and rent profiteers? Can deconstruction deconstruct “deconstruction”?
Criticism and the dismantling of buildings are not unrelated, and a deconstructionist would be wrong to accuse a worker in a hard hat of abusing the philosophical term. Derrida once made this point when speaking to an audience of architects, insisting on deconstruction’s literal meaning. In so doing, however, the philosopher emphasized deconstruction’s “affirmative” nature, and as a result, the word’s meaning mutated strangely. While the primary sense of “deconstruction” clearly implies unmaking and undoing, Derrida claimed that the word refers to a creative process of rebuilding. “Between re-building and deconstruction there is no opposition, nor even any difference,” Derrida said.* The two terms, then, are equivalent and interchangeable, so you can take your choice, he claimed: “Deconstruction, or, if you like, re-building” (33).
If the two words are interchangeable, however, the negative prefix “de-” would be equivalent to the positive “re-,” and deconstruction, as a result, would equate not only with rebuilding but with reconstruction — its literal opposite. Barring sheer incoherence, how is that possible?
The key to this puzzle lies in the equivocal meanings of the prefix “re-,” which can signify either repetition, and thus a positive reiteration or addition, or else substitution, and thus a removal or usurpation. This ambiguity is captured by the word “replace,” which Derrida, insisting on the ambiguous prefix, writes as re-place. Like the word reiteration, then, a word often invoked by Derrida, re-placement destabilizes a fundamental distinction on which identity and difference is established. There is no presence and thus no identity without the repeatability of identity; but where there is repetition there is difference, and thus the undoing of presence. More concretely than this fundamental paradox of identity, re-placement however entails a literal foundation: the physical place on which anything built can stand or fall. Rather than providing a secure and solid footing, Derrida’s insight into primary substitutability considers replacement, not place, as the true ground beneath our feet, because “replacement [is] the very possibility of place.”
“Replacement … gives place to place,” Derrida asserts. “There is no placement without replacement or at least without replaceability.” Consequently, “Place is nothing other than the possibility, chance, or threat of replacement” (24). These formulations are worrying in themselves, as they undercut our confidence in space and place as stable, familiar and secure. They are also disturbing in the light of exploitative, disruptive real estate “deconstruction.” After all, if any given place is always replaced and replaceable, does this not disqualify in advance preservationist motives as nostalgic and misguided? Preservationists would be in denial of the “original replaceability” of all sites, and to militate for “non-replacement,” as Derrida puts it, would be to ignore the non-foundational “abyss” at our feet: “non-replacement is always a singular and finite response to the abyss of original replaceability, that is to say, without origin and without end.”
“All that is solid melts into air,” Marx famously claimed of the abstracting power of capital. To anyone who has witnessed the recent transformation of Vancouver, where ordinary neighborhoods of middle-class family homes are transformed into speculative financial instruments for foreign investment, Marx’s formula certainly rings true. It would be mistaken, though, to equate high-profit “shadow flipping” with Derrida’s insight into replaceability, or to accuse his philosophy of free-market insouciance. The same can’t be said of real estate “deconstruction.”
Inheritor of Heidegger’s Destruktion, Derrida’s deconstruction takes as its primary target the delusions of metaphysical thinking. As Mark Wigley points out, those lofty metaphysical delusions are often built on architectural metaphors. One can therefore discern the same pattern of abstraction in real estate speculation — its heedless privileging of money over house and home — and philosophy’s dubious sublimating tendencies: “The edifice is constructed to make theory possible, then subordinated as a metaphor to defer to some higher, nonmaterial truth. Architecture is constructed as a material reality to liberate a supposedly higher domain.”**
When a house is “deconstructed” it is often lifted onto blocks. The uncanny sight of a levitated home conveys both tendencies of metaphysical sublimation identified by Wigley: the liberation of value from the site-bound constraints of material reality, and the concomitant subordination of mere matter by the sublimating process. This twin process is a sacrificial economy, a violent denial of contingency and circumstance to the advantage of immutable presence and self-identical exchange value. In contrast, deconstruction exposes the play of difference that structures all identity, that de-structures any given structure, whose denial may well be profitable but is ultimately bound to failure.
* Jacques Derrida, “Faxitecture,” in Anywhere, Cynthia C. Davidson, ed. (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 24.
** Mark Wigley, The Architecture of Deconstruction (Cambridge, MA: 1993), 16.