I may have mentioned this before but one of the many great qualities the Web, for me, is the possibility of finding things that are far and away from what I was originally looking for; sometimes I might not even be looking for anything in particular, and suddenly stumble upon something that sparks my interest, or makes my blood boil.
I don’t know why the latter get to me so much; the Web, even more so now than ever before, is a forum of varied opinion after all. But what really irks me is when people pontificate on a subject that they really don’t know much about, other than second hand knowledge (and biased information at that), and proceed to declare their opinion as definitive.
I refer in particular to a piece discussing Jacques Derrida, and the process of deconstruction that he helped to popularise. Now the thing about deconstruction is that it is difficult to grasp. I remember spending many a tutorial arguing with my fellow students over its merits, its purpose, how to even go about doing it. If one thing can be said about deconstruction, it would be that there is always more to it than what meets the eye; this phrase in itself could almost describe its very essence.
(Before I continue, I must state that I will not be referring to the primary source material of the aforementioned discussion, primarily because it is a rhetorical rant with a heavily subjective, conservative slant by an author responsible for some suspect literature, and as such shouldn’t be used as a basis for any valid argument; criticism of this particular piece would warrant an essay all of its own.)
It seems fair to work from the beginning, and pick out some of the main points where the author appears to be mistaken. I quote initially from the second paragraph:
>Deconstructionism is the school of thought which divorces works of art from their creators and any meaningful context, then picks them apart using, in essence, personal whim and non-sequiturs. The goal of this meaningless exercise if to show that no one thing is any more meaningful or important than anything else.
This statement, in all its superficiality, advertises the author’s ignorance of the subject. Besides the fact that he gets the name wrong (there’s no -ism), he intimates specifically that a work of art is only divorced from its creator only when someone decides to deconstruct it. If he had actually read up on the subject, he would know that any work of art, any text, is inherently divorced from its creator. (One must note that anything can be regarded as a text: a work of art, a piece of writing, an event of any significance, even a lifetime; textuality is universal.)
I will admit as much that what I am writing here is inherently divorced from myself as soon as my fingers hit the keys; there is a distinct degree of separation between the original idea or thought in my mind, and my representation of this thought in this text. What you are reading here, for instance, is but the final of many drafts of this essay; I have revised the text to compensate for mistakes I have caught myself making, whether conceptual, ideological or merely grammatical. Even the gist of what I have intended to communicate has been altered, refined for the sake of clarity. Writing is an iterative process. What is written here now is a different beast from my original thoughts.
(While we’re on the subject of iteration – which for the uninitiated simply means the fixing of semantic meaning to a semiotic symbol (a word, for example) in a particular context (which explains the concept of slang) – the author has just given a perfect example of it himself, as his post has changed from the original from which I am working.)
Continuing on, we stumble upon a remarkable declaration by the author, that “deconstructionism is mediocrity”, and his subsequent reasoning:
>Because any tangent can be used in the pursuit of tearing down a work of art, the practice requires neither careful study nor accountability.
Personally, I take deconstruction to be a form of reverse engineering. Rather than tearing down, it could better be described as stripping back the layers that hide the original context of any given text. One must note here that, despite what this author might mistakenly believe, deconstruction is not synonymous with destruction. (This is a common false step for those new to the territory.) If something has been deconstructed, or disassembled, it can be reassembled; it can be reconstructed. Conceptually, there can be no reconstruction without deconstruction, so the process of deconstruction is not inherently destructive.
Hence, it could be argued furthermore that the practice does not require careful study nor accountability for there is nothing significant to be lost in any attempt. Derrida himself concedes that not every incident of deconstruction will lead us to a more original, truthful understanding of any text – in fact, some might miss the mark entirely – but that is not to say we shouldn’t bother. On the contrary; as far as I’m concerned, mediocre is a world without deconstruction.
> And the deconstructionists – not to mention the people who listen to them – never seem to realize that if nothing is inherently meaningful, then neither is deconstruction itself. The entire school of philosophy suddenly collapses, and thousands of trite, untalented graduate students end up holding signs on street corners.
This is a vivid image, it must be said, and I am sure the author was quite proud of what he wrote here; I can even see the signs on the street corners: Will Deconstruct For Food. But what the author doesn’t seem to realise – for he brings up here one of the oldest criticisms of Derrida – is that deconstruction is not a method. If it were, it would indeed be subject to itself. Rather, deconstruction is best described as a process, one that has always been and always will be. (Of course if you get down to the nitty gritty our language doesn’t do the process any justice, for any attempt to describe it is subject to the process itself, and this presumably is what gets most peoples’ goats.)
The author makes an emotionally slanted point about the dangers of deconstruction when taken to extremes. This is a moot point, since such a criticism could be applied to any school of thought when drawn to its limits. (Marxism, anyone? Or the writings of Nietzsche?) Whether a particular school or system of thought is right or wrong is irrelevant; the party to blame in such cases is not the system itself, but those who seek to exploit it for their own ends.
We come now to the author’s “primary gripe against the deconstructionists”:
>They are so very good at destroying beautiful, worthwhile things, but they are incapable of creating.
I have already explained that deconstruction does not mean destruction, so that reasoning is obviously invalid, but something else strikes me here. Perhaps blinkered by his own emotional response to the source material discussed at this point, the author appears to be making a category mistake. He purports to attack deconstruction, but what he’s really angry about are those who would twist deconstruction to suit their own agenda (as is the wont of the more extreme groups on both side of the socio-political spectrum). Maybe his vitriol would be better targeted at the teacher, rather than the subject?
To wrap things up, a final assessment: throughout this piece the author makes the fundamental mistake of interpreting his criticisms of Derrida and of deconstruction in a polarised manner. His explanation of the American feminists’ argument is evidence of this. (Whether the feminists are correct in their reasoning is beside the point; for the record, it’s most likely their not.) It is this polarisation, this binary opposition, this violent hierarchy which justifies the process of deconstruction in the first place! Of course, the author is entitled to his opinion, but it certainly comes across as more than just an opinion.
Maybe it’s my fault, judging other people by my own standards; I might have opinions or beliefs, but they are always open to challenge or speculation, and I relish the ensuing discussions – it’s the philosopher in me; no matter how life and the world get me down, they still excite me.
And maybe this is why I feel the need to challenge others, to show where their arguments are flawed, where their logic fails, and especially where their opinions are based on one side of the story, a side that merely reinforces what they want to know about something, rather than what that something really is.