Skip to comments.Deconstructing Deconstructionism
Posted on 11/28/2001 4:13:52 AM PST by shrinkermd
ONE OF THE GREAT ASSETS of the academic left is its ability to invent and teach a synthesis, a systematic distillation of leftism into a convenient package. Once mastered, this synthesis can be relied upon to give the adherent a left-wing analysis of anything from Strategic Missile Defense to poetry. Marxism once fulfilled this role for a great many, but for the past 15 years or so, the ascendant school of sophistry has been deconstructionism. So its worth getting a grip on how this philosophical con-game works and why its false.
Deconstructionism originally came from France in the 70s. It is also known as poststructuralism, but dont ask what structuralism was, as it was no better. It is based on the proposition that the apparently real world is in fact a vast social construct and that the way to knowledge lies in taking apart in ones mind this thing society has built. Taken to its logical conclusion, it supposes that there is at the end of the day no actual reality, just a series of appearances stitched together by social constructs into what we all agree to call reality. But not agree voluntarily, for society has (this is the leftist bit) an oppressive structure, so we are pressured to agree to that version of reality which pleases the people in charge. (If you specialize in studying this pressure, you are a member of the Michel Foucault school of deconstructionism.)
One of the clearest signs that deconstructionism is a con is that it is invariably expressed in the most complicated possible language, not the clearest, a sure sign that the writer is trying to sound clever rather than convey information. The summary I have just given would take months to extract from the average deconstructionist. The effort required to glean the actual meaning from their spaghetti tangles of run-on sentences, larded with a standard repertoire of tortured constructions and verbal tics, is a kind of hazing ritual required for initiation into the deconstructionist illuminati.
They have a number of these standard verbal tics by which they can be recognized. Gratuitous plurals are one, as in "homosexualities," a favorite term intended to convey the great insight that not all homosexuals are alike. But not even Jerry Falwell thinks this! When I saw the home decorating section of the New York Times Sunday Magazine headlined "domesticities" a few months ago, I knew for sure that some deconstructionist young pup had finally made it to the editorial chair.
The deconstructionist account differs from the Marxist one in that, while Marx believed that what we think is a product of our role in the economic system, deconstructionism prides itself on recognizing that there are lots of other systems besides economics forcing us to think this way and that. But in practice, it is very easy to write deconstructionist analysis that just harps on the economic angle, so much of deconstructionism is just cultural Marxism. Cultural Marxism (what Tom Wolfe calls Rococo Marxism) is to be distinguished from ordinary Marxism, which is about revolutions and socialism and boring things like that. Cultural Marxism is way too cool for that. It is popular with hip young academics who have read Solzhenitsyn, seen the Berlin Wall come down, like shopping at Crate & Barrel, but still want a philosophy that will distance them from bourgeois society and all those tasteless squares. (The sight of Marxists worrying about tastelessness would have reduced Lenin to a fit of giggles, but thats another issue.) Cultural Marxism enables one to simultaneously sneer at popular culture, satisfying ones elitist impulses, while taking a populist attitude towards it, because pop culture isnt the fault of the populace but of the Big Bad Bourgeoisie, or in a more sophisticated formulation, of the system of which the BBB is the leading element. So Marxism tends to be a toy that deconstructionists pick up and put down at will. (If you emphasize the way in which the system has a mind of its own that is bigger than the BBB who run it, you are a member of the Hardt-Negri school, as epitomized by their wildly popular new book Empire.)
You may wonder how left-wing all this is, if these people are busy critiquing our consciousness of reality rather than trying to overthrow the state or achieve equality. In fact, some deconstructionists are apolitical, and serious leftists have been known to complain about this. They accuse the deconstructionists of playing abstract intellectual games while there is revolutionary work to be done. Intelligent leftists like Alan Sokal, a card-carrying Sandalista physicist at New York University, have belligerently attacked deconstructionism because it leads, if taken seriously, to the conclusion that leftism is just another social construct to be deconstructed. It seems leftist to start with, but it eventually devours itself. The deconstructionists ran afoul of him by straying into what can only be described as the literary criticism of physics, an endeavor which ended up making physics as much a rats nest of opinion as the most gaseous poetry criticism. He got a parody of deconstructionist analysis, "The Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," published in a deconstructionist magazine, Social Text, without telling them it was a parody just to prove how stupid this all is.
Deconstructionism is obsessed with finding contradictions in our socially-constructed picture of reality. It takes these contradictions as proving that reality is a social construct, because if our picture were actually true, it wouldnt contradict. (Marxists say that contradictions in the organization of our economic system produce these contradictions in our thinking and that the process of working out these economic contradictions will eventually work out the intellectual ones.) Deconstructionists who devote themselves to ferreting out how deeply these philosophical wrinkles are embedded in the structures of thought belong to the Jacques Derrida school. Martin Heidegger (a Nazi party member and author of books with titles like What is a Thing?) makes his appearance here as the grandmaster of ferreting out deep metaphysical contradictions in our structures of thought.
All this make you dizzy? Its supposed to. Deconstructionists believe in something called the decentered subject, which is basically what you get when you treat the human self as just another social construct. Try thinking about yourself this way. See what I mean?
Deconstructionists think that they are the first people in the history of the world to see things correctly. But they arent even the first people to see things the way they see them. The Greek sophists that Plato jousted with 2,500 years ago held essentially their views; see Platos dialogue Gorgias. Michel Foucault (the bald Frenchman who died of AIDS) thought he was the first person to figure out that social order is maintained not just through "hard" coercion like the police but through an intricate web of "soft" coercions that make us behave through the pressures of conformity and culture. But does any precocious eighth grader not grasp this intuitively?
The central trick, the key sleight-of-hand, that makes deconstructionism plausible enough to fool people into believing it is this: gather up all the attributes of reality that are confusing, uncertain, controversial, or paradoxical, and claim that all of reality is this way. But the existence of gray areas does not refute the existence of black and white. Most of reality is very solid, even if there are margins that are not.
Deconstructionisms love of social constructionism creates a disdain for nature. Deconstructionists have a notoriously nerdy (this is really what it is, sorry) view of sex because they are obliged to insist that all social differences are social conventions with no basis in nature. I have heard them come dangerously close, when verbally barreling on so fast they dont have time to stop, to saying that physical sexual differences are a social construct.
Deconstructionism is notorious for lynching philosophical straw men. They love to pounce on other thinkers and say, "Aha! There you have an Enlightenment Assumption," meaning a dubious idea from the eighteenth century. But the Enlightenment was 200 years ago, and I have yet to see any dubious idea thus pilloried that people actually believe today, except for those that are baldly true.
One of the ironies of deconstructionism is that while it is obsessed with the idea of social constructs, it knows very little about actual construction of anything. I cannot help observing that the Empire State Building is manifestly a social construct, in that it was constructed by a society. This does not seem to result in its being any less real. Does it not follow, if the world is a social construct, that what we have constructed, exists?
One of the sad things about deconstructionism as a philosophy is that, to their credit, Americas actual philosophy departments in the universities arent very interested in it and tend not to teach it. Deconstructionism is big in English, anthropology, and anything else that studies culture, but not in philosophy itself. (You can verify this in the online course catalogue of your local college.) The reason, of course, is that if one is fully explicit about it as a philosophy, its problems very quickly come to the surface and it looks stupid. You have to expound it bit by bit, never getting down to brass tacks or showing the whole thing at once, for it to seem plausible. Only in the subjective thickets of the English department can it thrive, much as Marxism lives on there after having died in the Economics departments. Someone needs to tell the English departments of America to butt out of other peoples disciplines that they dont understand.
One of the most comical things one can do with deconstructionism is apply it to itself. For example, one favorite deconstructionist idea is that, to put it bluntly, words have no meaning. (They call this the infinite play of the signifier.) I like to ask them whether they think this applies to tenure contracts, specifically theirs. Or to the writing on their paycheck. If you are in college or know someone who is, try asking this question, or try having it asked, to a professor who believes in this stuff. I am collecting responses to be published in a future article.
It has been said that Deconstructionism is the opiate of an obsolete intellectual class. Non-technical intellectuals, having deliberately rejected their natural role of inculcating our cultural heritage into the next generation, have nothing to do and are frustrated at seeing that all the rewards for intellectual activity in our society flow to the technical intelligentsia and the producers of mass culture. Since they dont value our heritage as heritage, they have only two sources of satisfaction left: corrupting the young and feeling smarter than everyone else. Deconstructionism is perfect for corrupting the young because it is the ideal way to systematize the general cynicism and disrespect for authority that are the natural condition of contemporary college youth. It raises to the level of a philosophical system the intuition that everything grown-ups do is a fraud. It is the metaphysics of Holden Caulfield. It enables the practitioner to tell himself that he is among the privileged group of insiders who know that the Wizard of Oz is behind the curtain.
This is wonderful stuff to contemplate in a café in Berkeley or Cambridge with a cup of cappuccino in one hand. It suggests a whole philosophy of life, a certain attitude, even a lifestyle. It was once remarked that deconstructionist women all seem to wear no makeup and their hair tightly pulled back to embody the astringent zeal of deconstructionism and its refusal to be taken in by the surface prettiness of culture. Im not sure this is true, but deconstructionists apartments tend to be decorated with a lot of ironically vulgar things, like corny advertisements, suggesting that this object could only be here because, although worthless in its own right, its owner enjoys knowing the secret mechanism that produces it and laughs at the peasants who fall for this stuff naively. It could be my imagination, but I think I perceive the biggest vogue for deconstructionism among people who have moved to the great centers of culture from the to them hopeless heartland and whose desire to be members of the culture club is greatest. The sort of people who actually find it thrilling, rather than oddly without point, to find concepts of nosebleed levels of esotericism littering ordinary comic novels like David Foster Wallaces Infinite Jest. Its a wonder they havent perfected a secret handshake.
Deconstructionism is essential to the Left because the proposition that there is no real world is the only remaining way to save the manifold absurdities of liberalism. Forests have been leveled and careers spent in mastering this cult; their investment in it is enormous and they can ill-afford its discrediting. Conservatives must become more philosophic and undertake deliberate acts of intellectual aggression on the abstract plane. We are being attacked there, for heavens sake, so its time to fight back, particularly since our own philosophic heritage is more than strong enough to beat it. We must constantly reiterate that the intellectually-advanced opposition does not believe in a real world and that they teach this nonsense to impressionable young people. We must deprive them of the intellectual prestige of being sophisticated and of the credibility with this public that this produces. We must deprive liberal academics of their status as privileged arbiters of our culture. This really is a battle we can win if we will but make it an issue.
Note: Click here for an article about the way deconstructionism has attracted the favorable attention of some evangelical Christians for the weak reason that it deconstructs a few modern shibboleths they despise. If this is a trend, it must stop right now. I can imagine no more certain way to guarantee the intellectual suicide of Christianity in this country than to infect it with this nonsense. Under deconstructionist assumptions, Christianity is just another social construct, not the revealed truth. No amount of intellectual squirming can evade this conclusion, which is entailed by the fundamental principles of this philosophy. If sin and salvation are social constructs, God has nothing to do with them. If God is a social construct, there is no reason to worship Him.
Robert Locke resides in New York City. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Others of his articles may be found on vdare.com and robertlocke.com.
Having tied themselves into rhetorical knots, they then try to rescue their argument by casting aloof judgments and falling back on the oldest practice extant -- superiority of numbers. Believing in anything is an obsolete construct, and you're not hip if you cling to those old notions.
In fact, a lot of this claptrap is retreaded Existentialism (if you don't mind an obsolete construct) or Nihilism with a fresh coat of paint.
That's not to say there is no role or purpose to criticism. But it should be a means to some greater end. Not an end in itself. So nicely put!
I encountered postmodernism in one of graduate social science courses witout knowing what it was (as I learned later, they do that all the time: sneak into some field and hijack it; it's the only way since they failed to present themselves as philosophers). At first, there was a sustained attack on positivism that was a complete nonsense: having heard and misunderstood a few words of 18th-century physics in high school, they falsely impute to science some qualities and proceeed to criticise that nonexisting attribute. After succesfully defending the scientific method and trying to end on a good note, I asked: "Suppose it is true that positivism as the basis for scientific method is completely flawed, what should I use instead when conducting a survey or perfoming any other measurement?" I'll never forget the instructor's spirited exclamation: "I don't know; you tell me!"
As you said earlier, a couple of hours of dismantling everything that works to some degree --- in hard sciences to a great degree! --- was the end in itself. I could not anderstand the feeling at the time, but I left that discussion longing to take a shower.
Apropos of your observation about "empty content," here is an award winning sentence from a few years back by UC Berkeley Prof. Judith Butler, queer theorist and poststrucuralist extraordinaire. The award wasn't one she expected however. She received it in a Bad Writing Contest for the "ugliest, most stylistically awful sentence found in a scholarly book or article..."
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the questions of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural tonalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
The runner-up was the University of Chicago's Homhi Bhabha, who produced this remarkable sentence in his book Locations of Culture:
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate efforts to 'normalize' formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.
Amazing stuff, isn't it? Why would any author think that such obscure cant is content-rich rather than content-barren. Butler and Bhabha come from the postmodern wing of the academy, where, as Locke notes above, adherents have displayed an affinity for contorted syntax, a love of neologisms, and a weakness for the bizarre notion that to deconstruct linguistic categories is to reconstruct society.
Do you happen to remember in which of his works he said that? Please let me know if you do.
Tom Wolfe also quotes this on page 13 of "Hooking Up" A national bestseller of 2000. The first few chapters are outstanding, but the rest is a filler.
Well, I don't know about all that, bb, but I do believe there is much more involved here than academic niche building.
Nor am I attempting to construct some grand conspiracy, either; however, I would point out that one of the guiding principles of psychological warfare is that if you wish to change the behavior of a people, you first change their language. For example, you might stop talking about "personal responsibility" and instead begin talking about "self-actualization," substituting the second for the first. Once you're successful, not only have you changed the patois of the natives, as it were, you've also subtly changed how they think about their own actions. No longer do they feel personally responsible for "doing good" and avoiding "doing bad," as they did when "personal responsibility" was a common concept; now, under "self-actualization" they are beginning to look for ways to make themselves "feel better about themselves" - and if you've managed to throw in "triangulation" and other cute little "post-modernisms," if it happens that they don't feel better about themselves, it's always the fault of someone else.
And thus is a society changed.
Yes, it's easily debunked here in placed like FR, and on most college campuses and in most philosophy departments, but put into effect "among the masses" by people qualified to conduct psyops maneuvers, it's another kettle of fish alltogether.
1. Most of us on FR and in our country at large have no idea that modernism has come to an end. Most don't even know the facets post-modernism. That modernism has come to an end, in fact, is a morbid thought: the Enlightenment project has been all but buried.
2. Reactions, as in "deconstructing deconstructionism" often come from those who are left-overs of the old ideal of rationalism.
3. Reactions that are based in Christianity suffer the same criticism: most religious thinking has long ago capitulated to the modernism and they cannot distinguish between the two.
4. Belly laughs are reserved for the gods, we are obliged to understand before we dispose.
5. Esoteric writing is no excuse for dismissal; it only means the initiates should continue preparation. This is because there is no short cut to what is complex.
6. Study of the enemy can only be done by the strong and able.
We could ask Noam Chomsky. He's spent the last 20 years trying to teach dogs and monkeys to talk. Since he's got such support among the Left, I can only assume that his latter endeavor met with some degree of success.
Every now and then you crack me up. That was a good one, indeed. BTW, I read somewhere recently that all those different words for snow among the Eskimos has been discredited; unfortunately, I can't remember where I read/heard it. Your point is still valid, however, even without that example. There simply isn't any way we can be anything more than we think, and how we think is represented by how we speak; therefore, we can be either uplifted or constrained by our language. Three guesses on which way the deconstructionists want to take us (up or down)...
I hadn't heard about the "snow" story being debunked. Even our own meterologists have half a dozen different kinds of snow, so it would surprise me if the Eskimos didn't. But the point is taken ...
The iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing -- that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe -- that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms.
I am more than I think! My identity transcends what I am able to think and say about it. If it is captured, that's the end, logos. I can be managed as anyone. But no, I refuse that, because I know that being endowed by the creator is more than language can decipher. This is true human freedom (and the presupposition of choice and willing).
But then, I suspect you and I, if not only I, would in some ways do much better as hermits. ;)
Okay, but this misses the point. The thesis of scientism is that ITS object of study is the ONLY object of study.
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