Thursday, December 18, 2014

What Is Deconstruction?

The practice of deconstruction is a way, not of reading texts, but of taking them apart. You do not deconstruct a text to see what makes it tick, but to expose the “subliminal” messages that it contains.  These messages are corrupting us by purveying the repressive values that founded Western civilization.

Deconstructionists want you to read the great books of the Western canon. But they really want you to learn how to immunize yourself against their pernicious influence. They do not want you to learn from them, but to deconstruct them.

Once you identify the alien and corrosive elements in any text you can isolate them and remove them by placing them in a new text where their influence will be neutralized.

In more general terms, deconstruction is to a text what a pogrom is to a community.

The modern founder of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida might have been shocked and seriously offended to discover that the progenitor of the practice, Martin Heidegger was a true-believing Nazi, but apparently he was so dazzled by the great ideas that he missed the most obvious point.

Surely, he did not see that deconstruction teaches you to think like an extremist… like a Nazi, if you like.

According to Derrida, Western civilization is organized conspiracy to repress writing in favor of speech. By placing special value on the speech act, it valorizes the voice and presence while repressing the visual and the absent.

The civilization places special value on the elements of a speech act, like the voice and like presence. You cannot speak to people who are not present, whether in person or on the telephone.

Also, Derrida associates speech with sameness, perhaps because when you speak to someone you occupy the same space or share the same time. Thus, it is part of a conspiracy to repress difference.

Derrida founded deconstruction when he misspelled a word: differance. He said it was about difference with an a. The difference between the two, dare I say, is something that can be seen, but not heard.

I cannot vouch for every resonance this phrase might have in French, but in English one says commonly that children should be seen and not heard. For whatever reason, this commonplace effort to repress the speech of children tells a story that contradicts Derrida.

To his mind, Western cultures repress the visual in favor of the vocal and the aural.

Since Derrida, like Heidegger and even Freud, wanted to recreate human beings as beings of desire, he believed that he needed to found his system on absence. Desire only exists when you are missing something, when something is absent. You cannot, by definition, desire something that is fully present and at hand.

And yet, a moral agent must be present to take action and to take responsibility for his action. If writing were to prevail over speech, human beings would not be held directly and personally responsible for their actions. If an individual is absent, he is being evasive, and is failing to take responsibility for his actions.

Someone might be absent because he is hiding or is being elusive. He might be trying to get away with something. He does not want to step up and take responsibility, so he makes a fetish of absence.

Obviously, when you are speaking, your conversation will be influenced by the presence of your interlocutor. Thus, you will not be saying exactly what you think. You will be keying off the facial expressions and the tone of voice of you friend. You might or might not be able to express yourself as you would have wished, but you have willingly sacrificed that goal in order to make a social connection.

Such a sacrifice, the practitioners of deconstruction would say, represses your desire. It also offers a way to avoid all responsibility for your actions—if you were absent you cannot be held accountable.

Absence is a great alibi.

Neither Martin Heidegger nor Derrida’s friend Paul de Man ever took real responsibility for their actions, not for their actions in supporting the Third Reich, and not, in de Man’s case, for abandoning wife and children, being a bigamist, a thief and a pathological liar.

When called upon to explain de Man’s moral dereliction Derrida could do no better than to offer him compassion. Then, Derrida wrote a long and detailed reading of the Nazi propaganda that de Man was churning out in occupied Belgium… the better to explain that it did not mean what it said or say what it meant.

If it’s all in the writing, to the point that there is only the activity of writing, the author, the moral agent who would be responsible for the text, is elided, you can eliminate all personal responsibility.

One hesitates to cast aspersions on such a beautifully constructed theory, or should I say, practice. And yet, if we imagine that some of these ideas mean what they say and say what they mean, surely, they are implying that writing is better than speech and that if you have to speak to people you should block out the other person’s presence and act as though you are reading from a script.

I myself once tried to converse with someone who seemed to be reading from a script. It is a disconcerting experience, one that makes you feel that you are not there. For the record, the individual with whom I had this interaction was Jacques Derrida.

But, does this theory withstand scrutiny? We might ask whether human relationships better now that people, especially young people prefer texting to talking.

Those who practice deconstruction might not accept this comparison, though their theories make it inevitable. It may be heresy to suggest that words about speech and writing mean what they say and say what they mean, but still the theorists do not own the language.

Whether Elizabeth Wurtzel was inspired by the debate about deconstruction, her recent essay on the value of talking, even talking on the telephone, draws our attention. Call it a practical application of the theory.

I suspect that those who purvey the theory of deconstruction do not believe in practical applications, but there is no reason the rest of us should submit to such willful self-blinding.

Wurtzel  explains the problem:

Who talks on the phone anymore? What is the point of my 900-minute mobile plan? It used to be not nearly enough. We have moved on to email and MMS. The world is silent with people staring hopefully at screens, waiting for something to happen. It turns out we prefer to be more impersonal and less confrontational. Given the opportunity to communicate in text, we take it. Given the chance to avoid discussing it, we are thrilled. We are lousy.

She continues:

There is nothing better than a phone call for taking care of business or creating pleasure. Our humanity is in our voices. … What will become of the hours we used to spend flirting on the phone? What will become of conversation? The ring that interrupted dinner, the nervous teenage boy on the other end who was hoping the girl might answer and then got stuck asking for her when Dad picked up, the butterflies of waiting for her to come grab the receiver, the whole wreck of courtship: It is all over. Now he sends an iMessage to her iPhone, and what’s the big deal? Spellcheck turns hello into heave-ho, but what is the worst thing that can happen?

Wurtzel is looking at a world where things get done, where people get together, where connections are made. To get ahead in the world, she says, you need to ask. And it is better to ask via the phone—or in person—to someone’s face… because that makes you a more serious individual, someone who does not cower in the corner pretending to be absent.

She makes this case:

The world works in a simple way: You get what you ask for. People will agree to the craziest hullabaloos, but you have to demand magic. You have to plead your case, courageously. It is hard to say no to a bold proposition, to an adamant plan. It is impossible to say no if you make it impossible to say no. You have to call. If you are wondering why your life is stuck and nothing ever happens, it is because you did not call.

Strangely, she emphasizes that the mania over texting and emailing allows us to waste time in frivolous pursuits. She notes that Facebook, already disparaged by David Goldman as a symptom of a cultural decline, is one of the great ways to waste time.

Going through your inbox takes time. We prefer it because we love to waste time. Facebook would not exist if we did not truly, madly, deeply love to waste time. We are surely crazy: The only thing we can’t get more of is time. Blithely unaware of our own mortality, happily forgetting the specter of death, blissfully ignoring the inevitable, we surf the Internet when we should be falling in love or making money or going for a lovely leg-stretch on a bright shiny day. We buy eye shadow we don’t need, we look at tweets that say nothing, we read about Amanda Bynes. We take the time to thumb in a message because it is still easier than calling, because, well, who needs it? What a pain to talk.


Ares Olympus said...

It does sound very complicated.

I see Wikipedia has an article: A central premise of deconstruction is that all of Western literature and philosophy implicitly relies on a metaphysics of presence, where intrinsic meaning is accessible by virtue of pure presence. Deconstruction denies the possibility of a pure presence and thus of essential or intrinsic and stable meaning — and thus a relinquishment of the notions of absolute truth, unmediated access to "reality" and consequently of conceptual hierarchy. "From the moment that there is meaning there are nothing but signs. We think only in signs."

It is curious indeed, that anything can be understood at all. It makes me sort see the idea of symbols, or emotionally-tinted meaning as flashing all over the place, and so two people can inhabit exactly the same world, see the same facts, the same symbols, yet interpret those facts and symbols in a completely different way.

It also reminds me of the habit of quoting famous people, stripping away all context, and then reading a profound statement of truth or beauty or goodness, and yet whatever you're experiencing at that moment might be completely contrary to the actual meaning or context of the original thought.

Whatever else I might gain from these difficult questions it is to accept my subjective awareness might completely dominate what I'm capable of perceiving at any given moment, although obviously if I had more direct access to the original person of a writing, and his world view, then I might have a chance of getting what he's expressing.

I might also connect this to Iain McGilchrist's "The Divided Mind", seeing the more right-brain as a more open way of experiencing the world first hand, while the left-brain tries to model known aspects of the world, but can get caught in a web of mirrors that reinforce what you expect to see, and filters out what doesn't fit your expectations.

Perhaps Descarte was the first deconstructionist, with his "I think therefore I am" and on a positive side, he only accepted as real what he could experience directly, but also wanted a mathematical world of absolute truth that reduced everything outside of one's own self-awareness to mechanical cause and effect.

So this "closed mind" view can build rockets and computers, but doesn't want to look at anything alive, or anything that is too subtle to be verified by the most primative of senses. (I work with engineers, and I see this well, and why nondeterminism isn't good for science or engineering, except to know how much you need to overengineer to be safe.)

So perhaps the literary deconstructionists took the same approach to the nth degree, and found a few insights, but lot gets lost in translation to what can be understood with the lowest level of compehension?

And in the end, if you find two deconstructionists who come up with polar opposite reductions, perhaps we'd learn something from that too, at least we'd consider they both might be wrong, and we need higher more intuitive tools to know anything, even if we can never be sure of any interpretation of anything.

Anonymous said...

Why do most of the perncious philosophes hail from France? Including Ho Chi Minh & Cambodia's Chief Killer whose name I disremember.

Rosseau is responsible for horrors that continue today. I'm a Francophile. But gee whiz. -- Rich Lara

Anonymous said...

Heidegger didn't agree with much of Nazism, and Nazis had little use for him.

Besides, Hitler certainly didn't want Mein Kampf deconstructed by anyone.

I would like to see conservatives deconstruct Political Correctness.

Horowitz did that.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Let's be serious. Heidegger joined the Nazi party in 1933. He maintained his membership throughout the war. He refused to recant his Nazi beliefs after the war. Now with the publication of his Black Notebooks we know that Heidegger was also an anti-Semite.

Many conservatives have been critiquing political correctness for years. I'm happy that Horowitz has done it, but I have been doing it for a very long time myself.