The Much Requested Short Answer to "What is Deconstuction?"

In article <19971010153301.LAA15626@ladder02.news.aol.com> jackhat1@aol.com (Jackhat1) writes:
> I dip into this thread from time to time looking for a short description of
> decontructionism. I still don’t know what it is. Does anyone have a paragraph
> or two that could help me. Thanks.
>
> Jack h

OK, Jack, I’m picking yours at random, and composing a paragraph. I will then put it on my webpage and in the future refer as many of these requests there as possible. I will also include there a bibliography, and if anyone has recommendations for it, please let me know. That goes for changes to the paragraph, too, needless to say. I don’t see why we can’t make this a group effort, and lobby to have it placed in all usenet FAQs as a space-saving measure.

It is possible to write pages and pages on this word. It is also possible to know much more about it than I do. We could trace its etymology back through Derrida and Heidegger. But the popular demand for its simple definition is no doubt the result of its widespread usage in numerous fields. Philip Johnson created the architectural term deconstructivism by combining deconstruction with constructivism. Deconstructivist architecture is great stuff, but if there is any interesting relationship between it and deconstruction, aside from a friendship between Eisenman and Derrida, that relationship will not fit into a paragraph. American English departments have developed deconstruction into a method of analyzing texts. This method, which some find formulaic and bound to be short-lived, bears a clear relationship to Derrida’s writing. Uses of “deconstruction” in political journals, on Mtv, and in trendy menus strike me as so devoid of meaning as to not be capable of filling a paragraph. In the end we need to turn to Derrida’s books. One good definition of deconstruction is just: That stuff Derrida writes. There is also the stuff American English professors write, which is in some cases quite different. I find more value in Derrida. Derrida himself will not stand still to be defined. To some degree he may enjoy not being easily understood. Much more clearly, a great many of his more enthusiastic fans enjoy failing to understand him. But that should not take away from the value of Derrida’s work which is sheer genius. I remember Rorty describing one feature of it as the application of Freudian analysis to philosophy. Derrida’s philosophical or anti-philosophical thinking has much in common with Nietzsche, Heidegger, Dewey, Rorty, Vattimo, and some of the postmodern French folks with whom he is consistently lumped – to his significant disadvantage. Derrida gives us Heidegger without much of the Platonism and longing for purity and origin-ness. He is fond of debunking dichotomies. An example would be nature-culture. Rather than stating straightforwardly that we’d be better off no longer thinking in those terms, Derrida writes a philological adventure tale demonstrating the pitfalls of those terms, and doing so with humor. Of course Derrida writes for an audience with a fairly good background in philosophy (better than mine), an audience capable of enjoying his tongue-in-cheek. And that is not always the audience he gets. Derrida plays [oops typo, but a nice one] close attention to every word he reads, and every punctuation mark. Such a technique is called close-reading. Derrida loves playing word games, one advantage of which is the break this makes with the notion of “correspondence” between words and “reality,” and with the idea that “content” matters without concern for “form.” It’s also fun. Derrida finds male chauvinism in his philosophical predecessors. He traces this to the Greeks, in contrast to the Jews. Male-female is one of the dichotomies Derrida wants to attack. Others are:
Knowldege-Opinion
Objectivity-Intersubjectivity
Permanence-Change
Reality-Appearance
Being-Neither being nor nonbeing
Light-Dark
Absolute-Relative
Certainty-Possibility of Doubt
Logic-Rhetoric
Reason-Feeling
Immaterial-Material
Non-spatio-temporal – Spatio-temporal
Necessary-Contingent
One-Many
Clean-Dirty
Sharp-Edged – Fuzzy
Hard-Soft
Eternity-Time
Up-Down
Rational-Emotional
Inside-Outside
Reason-Madness
Many of these are attacked in a way close to denying that the one on the left (certain uses of this word) “exists,” that there is any point in talking about it. But once the one on the left is gone, the one on the right changes its meaning or vanishes as well. People who agree with Derrida that we are better off dropping or radically changing certain uses of these terms are fond of using them in quotations and speaking of this as “writing under erasure.” The idea is that we cannot avoid these words while the rest of our culture is saturated with them, and we cannot question them while leaving them unspoken, but we do not ourselves want to speak them. Others of the dichotomies are simply altered in any number of ways. Some are treated in a very Freudian manner. Some are questioned as desirable imagery for thinking about thought. A number of these dichotomies place one of the terms over and around the other. Men is taken to mean both all people and non-female people. This sort of thinking comes in for heavy and humorous criticism, at least in certain cases (not in the case of something like Day-Night). In his book on Rousseau Derrida finds two such pairs: Speech-Writing and Sex-Masturbation. Derrida sees our tradition as viewing oral speech as more “authentic” than written, written as a “reproduction” of the oral. This point would be as well made without the interweaving of the stuff about masturbation, but it would be less fun, even for those of us with strong doubts about Freud and annoyance with the idea that sex-talk always brings a naughty thrill. But I am slipping into a specific case of deconstruction, and you want a simple definition. Here is what Christopher Norris says:
“In so far as one can define, explain, or summarise[sic] the Deconstructionist project, one’s account might go briefly as follows. Deconstruction locates certain crucial oppositions or binary structures of meaning and value that constitute the discourse of ‘Western metaphysics’. These include (among many others) the distinctions between form and content, nature and culture, thought and perception, essence and accident, mind and body, theory and practice, male and female, concept and metaphor, speech and writing etc. A Deconstructive reading then goes on to show how these terms are inscribed within a systematic structure of hierarchical privilege, such that one of each pair will always appear to occupy the sovereign or governing position. The aim is then to demonstrate – by way of close reading – how this system is undone, so to speak, from within; how the second or subordinate term in each pair has an equal (maybe a prior) claim to be treated as a CONDITION OF POSSIBILITY for the entire system. Thus writing is regularly marginalised[sic], denounced or put in its place – a strictly secondary, ‘supplementary’ place – by a long line of thinkers in the Western tradition, from Plato and Aristotle to Rousseau, Husserl, Saussure, Levi-Strauss and the latter-day structuralist human sciences. . .” There’s a sufficient start, I think, from one relatively ignorant on the whole topic who has read only a fraction of Derrida, to justify the following advice: read Derrida.

Some find that Derrida overstates some of his cases, that he is too “rigorous”. Such criticisms can be discussed after reading Derrida.

Thanks to Richard and Silke for comments.

Dichotomies
Writers such as Dewey and Rorty, Heidegger and Derrida, people popular (not to say worshiped) in certain sections of academia, and hated by the popular press, have attacked a great many dichotomies. Without delving into the snake-pit of attributing views to any one of these authors, I’d like to explain briefly what some of the problems are with some of these dichotomies. In many cases I’d like to see certain uses of certain words abandoned, while other uses I remain happy with. I have no use for a certain distinction drawn between nature and culture, and yet still want to describe the ingredients of yogurt and distinguish compost from plastic, etc. I want to reject certain ways in which we have long thought about the distinction between male and female, and yet still distinguish between men and women.

I do not intend here to give convincing arguments for any positions, but only to state very briefly what my positions are. My purpose is simply to produce a short document that can be used as a reply to questions such as “But do you mean that before Plato no one could tell that there were more than one star in the sky?” – a question which, if we are to assume it is asked in good faith, displays the confused idea that what has been said about “one” and “many” is that Plato invented every usage of those words.

Here is a list of dichotomies which could be easily expanded:

Male-female
Knowldege-Opinion
Objectivity-Intersubjectivity
Permanence-Change
Reality-Appearance
Light-Dark
Right-Wrong
Free-Determined
Absolute-Relative
Certainty-Possibility of Doubt
Logic-Rhetoric
Reason-Feeling
Immaterial-Material
Non-spatio-temporal – Spatio-temporal
Necessary-Contingent
One-Many
Clean-Dirty
Sharp-Edged – Fuzzy
Hard-Soft
Eternity-Time
Up-Down
Rational-Emotional
Inside-Outside
Objective-Subjective
Reason-Madness
Fact-Opinion
Science-Humanities
Philosophy-Literature
Invention-Creation
Speaking-Writing
Public-Private
Nature-Culture
Deserving-Undeserving
Moral-Prudential
Literal-Metaphorical
Difficult-Enjoyable
Content-Form
Substance-Style
Theory-Practice
Secular-Religious

Let’s take these in order.

Male-female: The trouble in this case is that we have treated the male as the norm and the female as a variation or subtype or incomplete instantiation thereof. “Men” has meant all people, AND non-female people. The woman has been both a man and not a man. This thinking should be, and is being, dropped.
Knowldege-Opinion: The trouble with this lies in the idea that there is some knowledge which is not an opinion, which is not even a very widely-held and convincing opinion, but which is something else entirely. If we drop our belief in such knowledge, even in the possibility of its “existence” which some claim to be sure of while admitting to an inability to ever verify it, then all will be opinion and the distinction will vanish. As a result, “opinion” will lose any derogatory connotations.
Objectivity-Intersubjectivity: Another term for such “knowledge” is “objectivity.”
Permanence-Change: This is a complex case. There is a sense of “permanence” that I’d like to see rejected along with knowledge and objectivity. But even then, I’d like to see less pursuit of the relatively-long-lasting. I’d like, for instance, to see us stop judging cultural creations on the basis of how long they last.
Reality-Appearance: An appearance can give way to another appearance, and this can happen again and again. But to think that this process can ever cross a line into something different, something final and unquestionable called “reality” is a mistake.
Light-Dark: The trouble with this is in particular uses of it as philosophical imagery. We prefer the light to the dark. We prefer simplistic clarity to denseness. We prefer visual to aural images. We prefer chastity to thinking too much about sex, which we see as messy. This is a gigantic topic of interweaving themes. Suffice it to say that I do not wish to abandon such statements as “Please turn on the light.”
Nor, I should note, do I wish to abandon dichotomies per se. There are a lot of good ones. There are even good ones (such as day-night) in which the first hierarchically encompasses the other (a day is the space between two nights AND the combination of a day and night).
Right-Wrong: Some actions are better than others. I would rather people be kind than cruel. To complain about the way we talk about the “right” is not to advocate rampant crime and abortion and flag-burning orgies. Rather, it is to doubt the idea of a single “right” action uncontestably identifiable as such for any actual situation. What we see as good actions is not what other cultures have seen as good actions, and not what our descendants will see as good actions.
Free-Determined: We make choices. We seem to be part of a “physical” world in which all actions are caused by other actions. The idea that there is some kind of contradiction between these two statements derives from the tradition in which God is the prime causer and in which free-will is meant to excuse God from blame for our wrong-doings. That scheme never held water.
Absolute-Relative: The idea of the “absolute” in morals is another idea to be rejected, an idea that originated in Plato’s attempt to make morality look like mathematics. But once we have dropped the idea of the absolute, “relative” will lose all its condemnatory power.
Certainty-Possibility of Doubt: We long for an unachievable certainty and finality in our morality and our science. And, since Descartes, we long for a philosophical certainty that is of no relevance to any human life, and is based on a doubting that seems phoney.
Logic-Rhetoric: We think that since there is something called “the right,” whatever it is, we ought to be able to convince anyone of it – or a least “anyone rational” (these being, by circular definition, whomever we manage to convince of it), and we ought to be able to do so according to “right” rules and reasoning. We ought to avoid any color or excitement and stick to logic. The trouble with this is that logic has nowhere to start. You cannot get an ought from an is. More people are convinced of the undesirability of war by television footage than by any words. Poetry is more moving than philosophy.
Reason-Feeling: There is no “pure logic” or “Reason,” devoid of emotion or “Feeling.” We are moved by persuasive and intelligent arguing in favor of a cause we care about. Nor is there any speech which is purely emotional.
Immaterial-Material: There are no ghosts. Our thoughts are in a certain sense, quite easily grasped, our brain-activity.
Non-spatio-temporal – Spatio-temporal: see Immaterial-Material.
Necessary-Contingent: There is no “necessary” as philosophers use the term. “Contingent” and “arbitrary” thus lose their force as put-downs.
One-Many: We long for “wholeness” and “being at one with.” We believe in essences, and strive for unified theories. We oversimplify. These habits can be diagnosed as a misplaced preference for singularity.
Clean-Dirty: see Light-Dark
Sharp-Edged – Fuzzy, Hard-Soft: These rely on belief in an impossible certainty and finality, an “objectivity.” As a result “hard sciences” are treated as different in more than degree from “soft sciences.”
Eternity-Time: “Eternity” is a useless notion.
Up-Down: See Light-Dark.
Rational-Emotional: See Logic-Rhetoric and Reason-Feeling.
Inside-Outside, Objective-Subjective: Much of this can be traced to Descartes. We think that some of our thoughts are ours alone, whereas others are not ours at all. In our science we glorify the “outside” ones, and in our art the “inside.” But we do not have either. All of our thoughts involve 1) our own contribution, 2)the culture we think them in, and 3)constraints imposed on these.
Reason-Madness: Much has been written complaining about different (mis)uses of this distinction in different epochs. The key lesson of this is perhaps that it changes considerably.
Fact-Opinion: See Knowledge-Opinion. It is further worth adding that we should stop imagining the existence of pure facts. In this regard see Inside-Outside.
Science-Humanities: Science should be seen as defined by an area of interest, not a method of work.
Philosophy-Literature: The former is a type, or several types, of the latter.
Invention-Creation: Everything is both, or neither. See Inside-Outside.
Speaking-Writing: We think of speaking as more “original” or “direct” or “natural,” we try to make our writing as close as we can to our speaking. We think of writing as a “representation of” speaking. This should be dropped.
Public-Private: We imagine some of our actions to be one, and some the other, but we have no criteria for making such a distinction.
Nature-Culture: We imagine that some actions are “natural” but have no criteria for making that distinction.
Deserving-Undeserving: We speak of “desert” but have, in most cases, established no criteria for such speech.
Moral-Prudential: We imagine that our actions can be considered from these two different points of view, as if we can be pared down to “purely self-interested” entities and then have altruism tacked on. This cannot be done.
Literal-Metaphorical: The notion of the “literal” should go the way of the “objective” and “Reason” and “Truth.”
Difficult-Enjoyable: These are not opposed to each other.
Content-Form, Substance-Style: These things just cannot be separated from each other, cannot be made sense of.
Theory-Practice: These cannot be separated.
Secular-Religious: Much of what we call secular (such as philosophical “justification” and “legitimation”) is best seen as part of our religious tradition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *