Thursday, May 1, 2008

Was Deconstruction a Con?

Last month Prof. Stanley Fish used his New York times blog to attempt to resurrect deconstruction. Several of his respondents mentioned that one reason deconstruction had fallen out of favor was that its founders were Nazis. One man wrote: "What does it say about Deconstruction that its most famous proponent was a hardcore Nazi sympathizer?"

In a second article Fish took up the question, but not without misstating it. His version was: "What does it say about deconstruction that one of its celebrated proponents was arguably a Nazi sympathizer?" To this he responded: "Nothing!"

See the difference. Fish has transformed a hardcore Nazi sympathizer to someone who was arguably a Nazi sympathizer? Is this kind of rewrite the basis of deconstruction?

The person referred to is Paul de Man, a professor at Cornell and Yale, who had written Nazi propaganda under the guise of literary criticism during World War II in occupied Belgium. For a full exposition of his story I recommend David Lehman's "Signs of the Times."

When I first read this question I thought the author was referring to Martin Heidegger. After all, Heidegger was the progenitor of deconstruction. The word itself is a translation from his concept of "destruktion." Does this mean that deconstruction is destruction with a con?

Is Stanley Fish trying to deconstruct us or to con us? Or is he right to say that since deconstruction involves the destruction of meaning and reference, that it cannot have political implications?

After all, you cannot make policy if language is a field of shifting meanings.

As it happens,Heidegger was an active and enthusiastic supporter of Adolph Hitler. He wrote that the Third Reich was the best embodiment of his philosophy and refused to recant his adherence to Nazism after the war. He could not, he said, repudiate his entire philosophy.

If the meaning of deconstruction is the Third Reich, that is not the same as saying that it doesn't mean anything. And even if it is not about politics, then perhaps it is about culture.

Deconstruction is a method of critical reading. It teaches people to scour literary and philosophical texts for alien elements that embody what has come to be called phallogocentrism...i.e. the privilege given to speech and meaning over the fluid activity of writing. Deconstruction proposed to rewrite classical texts in a way that removed and subverted anything smelling of fixed meanings and references.

Is this clear? Try it in a different context. In practice, substitute the word "Jewish" for phallogocentric, and deconstruction becomes a euphemism for pogrom!

It is not surprising that Heidegger was a great fan of Ernst Rohm's Storm Troopers. Weren't they cultural revolutionaries striking blows against certain alien cultural elements.

Better yet, take the fact that Heidegger believed that the source of alien Western thought was Socrates and that if we wanted to restore the purity of thought we had to go back to presocratic philosophers like Heraclitus.

This sounds innocent enough. That's what I thought until I happened on a pamphlet written by Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi propaganda minister, a man who was tried at Nuremberg and executed. In it Rosenberg explained that Socratic thought was the means through which the corrupting influence of Judaism had entered the Western world.

Does it ring a bell?

Deconstruction may not mean much, but that does not prevent it from being a con. Who but a con man is better at not saying what he means of meaning what he says?

If you want to ask who is right, Heidegger or Fish, the answer must be that Stanley fish is a dupe.

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