Deconstructionism

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In common use, "deconstruction" is a faddish synonym for criticism, analysis, debunking, or commentary. The usage often has a somewhat hostile tone but even that color of specific thought seems to be vanishing as the word pops up in advertising, political commentary, and movie reviews; like other verbal fashions -- "growing" a business, "reinventing" oneself -- it's all connotation, no reference.

However, the term "deconstruction" has a specific meaning in philosophy and criticism. It comes from the work of Jacques Derrida, who since the mid–1960s has written analyses of the major works in Western intellectual culture.

Because he finds unresolvable contradictions everywhere in rational thought and believes that they are systematically concealed, he believes in using a variety of contrarian and tangential approaches to the discussion of any text -- so that, for example, punning on the name of a poet is a good way of getting at the meaning of a poem. This attempt to revivify the process of thinking by violating customary ideas of relevance and coherence is what he calls deconstruction.

The ideal of deconstruction is to create an atmosphere in which a statement reveals different potentials each time it's examined.

In his best known essay, Of Grammatology (1965), Derrida examines the basis of Aristotelian logic and finds that it suppresses discussion of the mixed, "impure" aspects of the world. The law of the excluded middle, notably, involves the belief that a thing's identity is simple, its boundaries fixed. On the contrary, Derrida argues, this appearance of simplicity is forced onto a recalcitrant world by language. The basic methods of Western thought involve a false metaphysics.

In the English-speaking world, Derrida has had a good deal of influence in literary studies and very little in philosophy.

As to philosophy:

Much of Derrida's work bears on the problems of representation that have been a central concern at least since Wittgenstein. He was influenced by the structuralism of Saussure and the idea that each language is produced by a unique structure of oppositions. For him, the consequence is that meaning is parochial, untranslatable. Furthermore, each language is a trap for those who speak it—its underlying logic controls what they can say and forces them into contradictory statements.

For other thinkers, this attitude automatically raises the liar's-paradox questions that dog any proposal to derive intention from something else. If the behaviorist thinks that meaning is merely the result of conditioned reflexes, why does he get so red in the face asserting it? Is a deconstructionist speaking of real cases, or is he being tricked into false statements by his language? For that matter, if languages can't be mapped against each other, how were Derrida's books translated into English?

It's possible to take these objections as ad hominem wisecracks. And people criticizing normal approaches to communication like Derrida--or Alfred Korzybski and Marshall McLuhan before him--may take their own contradictions as demonstrating that their criticisms are right. But there is kernel of real argument in the irritation.

Why is so much deconstructionist labor needed to give a different meaning to a sentence each time it's read? Isn't that the usual case with sentences? Derrida thinks not, but he is making a claim that cannot be proven with his chosen tool, the analysis of the text. He is talking about how other people read the text, and it's reasonable to ask, How does he know?

So it is not entirely clear what the publication of a deconstructionist reading is supposed to accomplish. It is not clear who is supposed to be enlightened or overthrown by it.

A good part of the problem here is that many philosophers already agree with Derrida on a fundamental point: there is no inclusive and independent realm of things outside of thought, which thought must somehow represent. And yet few philosophers have found themselves crippled by this absence. The idea of a thing-represented-by-a-concept-expressed-in-a-symbol is just not as fundamental to reasoning as Derrida seems to believe.

Obviously, there is a lack here; a great deal of wind and ink has been spent trying to say just how thinking can work without an unquestioned ground beneath it. But it is not clear whether deconstruction does much more than harp on the problem, like a character out of Beckett: "I can’t go on -- I must go on."

The approach within the field has been to formalize logic, construct alternate systems, and test their implications. Two sorts of tests might be mentioned: the specialized efforts to provide foundations for coherent bodies of thought like mathematics and the more common-sense examination of how a formal statement fits with what ordinary people say and do.

Yet Derrida may have a good deal to teach by example, whatever the merits of his general position. He is known as a formidably close reader of philosophic texts. His examination of what the term "nature" must mean in Rousseau, for example, brings out several inconsistent uses of the word.

The influence on literary studies is harder to weigh. Derrida sets himself against the structuralist position taken by followers of Saussure and Levi-Strauss, but they share a good many attitudes. Derrida's habits and jargon became an influence, at least in American universities, very shortly after those of the structuralists. It is sometimes debatable just what theory is behind a given assertion.

In particular, the structuralist and the deconstructionist views try to get at something outside literature exclusively by looking for patterns in the texts. Both are more or less indifferent to the declared intention of a work, believing that abstract ordering principles are the only essential subject matter.

Now, it is obvious that such an approach has uses in academic empire-building, making critical work seem both potent and exclusive. But other academic fads have produced lasting work. In was psychoanalysis in American anthropology in the 30s and American literary studies in the 50s. So patience is advised.

See also: Postmodernism, Cultural movement


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