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Thursday, July 25, 2013

 

Deconstruction means 'not a not-deconstruction'

In my last essay, I talked about the phrase 'Death of the Author', a structuralist essay that's somehow wound up a pop-culture catchphrase without retaining very much of its original meaning. Critical theories, like many other cultural movements, tend to have a trickle-down effect, and  last century's radical innovations become this century's popular conventions - or at least, an approximation of them does. But those approximations sometimes bear little resemblance to the original; so it is with Barthes, and so it is too with Derrida. Because if 'the death of the author' is a phrase much thrown around on the Internet, here's a word that's inescapable: 'deconstruction.' 

What does it mean? In its current usage, usually it means an essay, either written or spoken, usually about a work of art or a cultural phenomenon, and that takes issue with the politics or implications of that work. And as with the phrase 'death of the author', that's a very long way from where it started. 'Death of the author', in its current popular form, is an orthodoxy that attributes more than what was originally said, but 'deconstruction' is the opposite: a usage that reinscribes the very thing the word was created to subvert. If current uses of 'death of the author' involve assumptions that would have surprised its creator, current uses of 'deconstruction' involve assumptions that the author built a grand philosophy against.

'Deconstruction' is a word - an analytic and philosophical technique, in fact - pioneered by the famous critic Jacques Derrida, a man whose influence on twentieth-century cultural thought can mildly be described as 'major'. His work inspires both passionate opposition and profound devotion because it forcefully advances an entire approach to culture that is, to say the least, both widely applied and counter-intuitive, but one cannot properly discuss the history of the humanities disciplines in the twentieth century without spending a good amount of time talking about Derrida.

So, what was he getting at?

In attempting to describe what Barthes meant by 'Death of the Author', I acknowledged that it's difficult to summarise semiotics. Now, plot Barthes on a graph, move Derrida forward in time a little bit, and imagine a geometric progression of complexity between the two of them. That'll give you some idea of just how abstruse and difficult Derrida is. Derrida's systems of thought are such that he needed to invent new words to describe his ideas - made a point of it, in fact, because he was interested in freeing oneself of old ways of thinking. One cannot summarise Derrida in ordinary language without hearing him groan in his grave; however, I'm going to make a very simplistic attempt at it.

Semiotics, which is the school of thought out of which Derrida grew, is a method of studying linguistics, and one of its tenets is that words have meaning not only by what their definition includes, but what it excludes. Let's take an example; for convenience, we'll use the same word I used when talking about Barthes: 'chair'. In its primary sense, leaving aside the metaphor of 'chairing a meeting' and the euphemism of 'getting the chair' meaning getting executed, usages that derive from the primary meaning, 'chair' means a piece of furniture that can accommodate a single sitter. So, that's what the word 'means'. But it also has to not mean lots of other things if it's going to make sense: it cannot simultaneously mean a four-wheeled vehicle painted green, a crime involving the hurling of gelatine products, a phosphorescent deep-sea fish, a method of artificial insemination used upon imaginary animals and an uncut loaf of bread - or at least, not without some further distinguishing indicators. Otherwise, if someone said 'chair', we wouldn't know what they were talking about. Or, to take a less silly example: 'chair' can mean a small wooden dining chair or a broad, padded arm chair, but if a piece of furniture gets broad enough to accommodate two sitters, then it's no longer a chair but a sofa, or possibly a bench. If we're speaking to the manager of a furniture shop, it has to be understood that 'chair' means not only 'chair' but 'not-sofa' if we want to be shown to the right item.

In other words, one can look at language as a form that depends on oppositions in order to function: to understand that something is a chair, one must also accept that there is such a concept as 'not-chair'. And in fact, navigating these concepts can tell us a lot about how we navigate the world; take a semi-verbal child to the park and you may find yourself genuinely challenged when called upon to explain why this isn't a chair, it's a bench, or that isn't a door, it's a gate: to distinguish, we have to accept some quite sweeping conventions to do with usage and function - what counts as inside or outside, or what mechanical or aesthetic traditions we've inherited from our craftsman ancestors. What a word excludes, even a relatively neutral one, carries within in a great deal of conceptual history. Now, this may be a practical necessity when one is talking about furniture - but what happens when one starts talking about less concrete, more fraught concepts? When one says 'man', for instance, one is saying 'not-sofa', but one is also saying 'not-animal', 'not-boy' and 'not-woman'. And as animals, boys and women have often found to their cost, this is not a neutral distinction: throughout human history, 'man' is conceptually defined as superior to all of these 'not-man' states - and consequently, entitled to dominance over them. A dog beaten for disobedience, a boy forced through a painful rite of passage to 'manhood', a woman blamed for wearing that short skirt: all of these unfortunates are suffering from the conceptual elevation of 'man', from the fact that those who accept the dominant concepts must denigrate the 'not-man' to preserve the meaning of 'man'. And this is Derrida's point: 'In a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy.' Bigotry, by Derrida's logic, is built into the very way we define meaning: to elevate one over another is to create the preconditions without which oppression cannot take place. Conception and language are the raw materials of violence ... and yet, if we're going to distinguish between anything and anything - if language is going to have any meaning, any function at all - such betrayals are all but impossible to avoid.

This is where deconstruction comes in. The term is a translation of Heidegger's 'Destruktion', but Derrida deliberately chose to translate it (into French) as 'deconstruction' rather than 'destruction' to make it clear that the ethos was to be precision, not violence. Conceptual violence is what deconstruction exists to oppose. A deconstruction of a text identifies the opposing concepts within it and begins by overturning the hierarchy between them - not to destroy the distinctions or define new ones, because 'the hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself', but to 'mark their difference and eternal interplay'. In other words, one doesn't draw conclusions: one identifies conclusions and moves upwards into a state of mind where one can see them from the outside, see the opposition without taking sides. Derrida advanced the idea that we should defer meaning rather than differentiate - which led to some incredibly dense writing, as you can imagine - but despite the intensely academic style, philosophically it's almost Zen: one plays with opposites instead of attaching oneself, because attachment to an opposed distinction is, in Derrida's terms, inherently violent.

With me so far?

Now, this is a gross oversimplification: I am no Derridan, and he's notoriously difficult to understand and intentionally difficult to paraphrase. But as a basic introduction, let's chalk it up as a temporary meaning, since temporary meanings are probably more in his spirit than fixed ones. What does it mean in terms of writing a 'deconstruction' of a text?

Well, in these terms, 'deconstruction' is a deliberately high standard of approach. One must, in a deconstruction, identify the opposing concepts in a text and perceive the hierarchy between them ... but by close reading in the appropriate state of understanding, start to show how they unravel. A deconstruction does not merely point out the sexist, racist, classist or otherwise bigoted concepts in a work: it reads them in such a way as to find that the text 'deconstructs' itself - which is to say, simultaneously advances the opposite meaning from the one it presumably intends.

One does not surpass oppositions altogether, because without oppositions language simply doesn't work at all - try shopping in an outlet that refuses to distinguish between 'sofa' and 'not-sofa' and see where it gets you - but one notes them and sets them in tension. Derrida was careful to state (with a reliance on oppositions that one must suppose justified on the grounds that he never said oppositions should be got rid of altogether) that deconstruction was not ... well, quite a lot of things. Not a method, because not mechanical; not a critique, because one cannot entirely free oneself of the baggage of cultural dogma to the extent that would be necessary to reach the state of neutrality a critique would require; not an analysis, because that implies breaking the text into discrete units of meaning and Derrida favoured a more holistic, interrelated approach. It's just ... deconstruction, its own way, its own state of mind.

It's a profoundly difficult concept, difficult to understand, difficult to perform, difficult as all get-out to define in layman's terms. But it's also a profoundly idealistic one: rigorous, self-questioning, resistant to easy answers, exploratory, reaching for some kind of integrity in the utterly, inherently compromised human condition.
And if you're an undergraduate required to study it in all its abstraction and extremity, it can be a genuine headache or a genuine high, depending on your personal preferences. But if nothing else, it is a definite, if difficult, meaning. A 'deconstruction' is, definitionally, not a 'not-deconstruction.'

For which reason, it's rather a shame to see the word used so broadly, applied to pieces that are not, by the terms of the man who invented the word because he needed a new word for his new concept, actually deconstructions. An essay that identifies problems in a text's implications is not, by Derrida's terms, a deconstruction, because it rests on a 'violent hierarchy' of its own: the hierarchy between problematic and non-problematic. It's one thing to note that a text, say, carries some deep presuppositions about what constitutes 'man' and what constitutes 'woman'; to say that a text is wrong in how it handles gender is, by purist standards, implicitly accepting that there's a right way to handle gender. There's a new hierarchy in place: rather than positioning gender identity as a set of spinning plates, one is instead stacking them in a different order. In political terms, it may be an entirely defensible order, but it's not a deconstruction. It's a re-construction. It's perfectly okay to prefer re-construction - it certainly comes more naturally to most people's understanding, my own included - but if it were a deconstruction, those plates would still be up in the air. 

Now, you may argue that it's in the nature of language to change, that words mean only what people understand them to mean - the sign is not the signified, after all - and that a lot of people understand 'deconstruction' to simply mean 'essay', which is just how language moves. 'Decimate', in a modern context, no longer means 'kill one in ten', for instance, even though this confuses those of us who first learned the word in its original Roman context. It now has a new meaning, similar to 'devastate' (assonance with which is, I suspect, the origin of the change), but it actually has a meaning that 'devastate' doesn't quite have: 'decimate' in the modern context means 'kill everyone or nearly everyone present and/or lay waste to their environment'. It may nag at Classical purists - it certainly nags at me - but it's an entirely defensible change; the modern word 'decimate' has its own meaning for which there is no exact synonym. We have, therefore, gained a new semantic distinction. That's what language is for.

But while language flow is indeed a natural part of its process, we can still question how and why words change, and whether this is always useful. 'Infer', for instance, is often used to mean 'imply', not because of the need for a new word but because some people just don't know the difference - and that's a case where I'd argue that everyone would benefit if everyone bothered to learn the original distinction between the two words. We don't need two words that mean the same thing, and if 'infer' stops meaning 'draw an inference', we have lost not just a word but a meaning: we have no word to replace it. We are linguistically poorer for the change. Likewise, people often use 'literally' as an emphasiser when they're speaking metaphorically - 'I literally jumped out of my skin', say - and we're poorer for that change too: we have enough emphasis words to get by with already, we don't have another word that means 'in the literal sense', so we're a meaning down if that change takes permanent hold. 
Those are language changes where we wind up losing a distinction rather than gaining one, narrowing rather than expanding our ability to communicate. And that, I think, is the effect of calling any political essay that treats of fiction or culture a 'deconstruction'.

'Deconstruction' is, as I've said, a word that was specifically created because there wasn't a word for the concept, and created to demarcate a deconstruction from other forms of analytic, critical or philosophical writing. If we lose the meaning of the word, we've lost our ability to make the distinction.

And, too, considering the pains Derrida took to define what a proper deconstruction was, it's worth remembering that it's not just a definition but an accolade, a high, idealistic term created to praise a way of thought that its author considered morally necessary. Lifting an accolade isn't just inaccurate, it's appropriative. One may or may not care for Derrida's philosophy - it's a very specific taste, often a divisive one, and as with every other critical school, having both proponents and opponents probably does us the best service in the end - but it was, at least, an idealistic one, and there's something sad about employing a word specifically created to serve a set of ideals without consideration for those ideals. It's an imprecise use of a word employed to value precision, a generic use of a word employed to create and promote new and specific concepts, a no-entry-fee application of a word designed to be difficult to win in order to encourage people to reach towards a complex intellectual accomplishment. It is, ultimately, an unthinking use of a word created to push people into new forms of thought. It's a pity.

But does it benefit people re-using it? Not particularly. If all one means by it is 'a piece of writing that discusses culture and/or considers the implications of a work of art', there are already words for that meaning: essay, analysis, commentary, critique - all perfectly respectable terms used in academia, in fact, that represent no drop in status or seriousness. The more accurate term for 'question a socio-political assumption' is probably 'interrogate'; to take a well-deployed example, look at this extract from Laurie Penny's recent essay 'I Was A Manic Pixie Dream Girl':

In recent weeks I’ve filled in the gaps of classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl films I hadn’t already sat through, and I’m struck by how many of them claim to be ironic re-imaginings of a character trope that they fail to actually interrogate in any way.

Similarly, some 'deconstructions' are actually just mockeries with a political slant, and there are words for that too, like 'roast' or 'snark-fest' or 'skit'. Whatever the style or depth, there is no shortage of alternative words.

To say a piece of writing is not a deconstruction is not to say that it isn't a good essay, analysis, critique or skit, any more than it's a condemnation to say that the discovery of a new species of bird isn't a feat of geology. Distinctions are, as Derrida has it, necessary for language to mean anything, and one can identify them in a non-violent way. But language changes can destroy meanings as well as create them, and 'deconstruction' is a word deliberately invented to express a very particular philosophy ... and unless you're going to sign up for a whole lot of Derridan thought, you may want to put yourself on the non-deconstructionist side of the line. Otherwise, it's a usage that actually kills the word's intended meaning. Death of the Author, perhaps, but a death that depletes our inheritance. 

Comments:
Thank you for this. The proliferation of "deconstruction" the way it's often used online has irked me for ages. I like your word for what most of them actually are: "interrogations".

I'm really enjoying this set of blog posts, too. Makes me want to dive back into Derrida and Barthes. I sort of understood them when I was in uni, but I think I'd grasp them a lot better now.
 
Credit really must go to Laurie Penny there; I wrote this essay a while ago, but it was only when I read her piece that I thought, 'Of course, interrogation! THAT'S the word I'd forgotten!' :-)

I suspect that 'interrogation' may be less marketable than 'deconstruction', for a number of reasons:

1. It sounds more aggressive. Designedly so, at least when it comes to Derrida's choice of 'deconstruction' rather than 'destruction', but a lot of pop culture 'deconstructions' are from a feminist perspective, and using aggressive language is something that both draws more trolls (though you can hardly say anything feminist online without getting trolled), and also, I suspect, many women are still socialised to feel uncomfortable with using language that assertive.

2. 'Interrogate' is quite specific. You hear the word, you know what it involves, and it's clear even to a fairly uneducated audience whether you've actually done it or not in your essay. 'Deconstruction', on the other hand, sounds quite vague if you don't know the etymology. It lends itself to lazy use: you can write a 'deconstruction' that doesn't actually interrogate. (Particularly because 'interrogate' involves asking questions; with a 'deconstruction', you can just make pronouncements. It sounds a lot more last-wordish.) Not all 'deconstructions' are lazy, of course, even if 'deconstruction' isn't the accurate word for them, but certainly if you want to make an insubstantial piece sounds intellectually serious, 'deconstruction' is a conveniently undefined word to attach.

3. Cultural trickle-down. 'Interrogate' - or, indeed, 'essay', 'critique' , 'analysis' et al - were never associated with particular schools of thought. They're just part of the academic vocabulary. 'Deconstruction', though, has cachet.

I have to say that for my part, I didn't like having to study Derrida at university; it felt very much more to do with philosophy than literature, and I resented the degree to which it had become an orthodoxy. Which it had, in my day, though things may have moved on since then; generationally speaking, it's about due a rebellion or two.

It's also quite antithetical to my way of reading literature because it - and the whole school of thought it comes from - deliberately excludes the author, to the point where you'd think every text was written by a 'discourse' rather than a person. Which I knew, experientially, was not true, and I suspected a degree of personal interest in painting the author out of the picture; as I said about Barthes, promoting the reader at the author's expense is rather self-serving. (And certainly it often is in pop culture.) Derrida feels like the high water mark of a certain tidal pull in criticism: how much do we relate to text as text, how much as text in context, and how much as human creation? To my mind it's illogical to exclude the element of human creation, because if art were nothing but 'discourse' produced by society, everybody would create equally good art, which they don't. Barthes made an excellent point in saying that to reduce a text to nothing more than biography is wrong, but on the other hand, at least in my experience, fiction is a kind of psychic autobiography - just not in a way that critics are well placed to understand, because it's usually quite a complicated transmigration from mind into text, and a lot changes on the way.

But that said, it's excellent medicine for us to sometimes try defending a philosophy we don't personally click with; minds can often do with some expansion! And even if I'm no Derrida fan myself, I'd like to see him done a bit of justice.
 
Loved these two essays Kit. I suspect there is tension between the necessary prescision required for this sort of analysis, and the freer conversation that a good blog post examining popular culture has.

The academic precision require not only education to write, but to understand and critique, whereas a good blog post to me will feel looser, and you can respond and argue without the 3 years literature degree.

I wrote a review of sorts of China Mievilles Embassytown on my blog a year or so ago. It was thought through, and I spent time on it. However, I have written academic critiques of books, and the time required and style used were very different. The essays for my MA were less easy to read, and I suspect harder to engage with. They do different things.

I like interrogation. My antipathy to the word deconstruction had more to do with a friend explaining how Derrida and the concept of deconstruction were the guiding principles of his life. At length. During the second year of our undergraduate degrees naturally. I did not understand what the word meant from his explanations, and I suspect he didn't either. I am sure I got him back by explaining why I was a anarcho-feminist, not a syndicalist, but with Eco- feminist leanings. Or something. I feel a million years old when recalling this.
 
and the whole school of thought it comes from - deliberately excludes the author, to the point where you'd think every text was written by a 'discourse' rather than a person

When I was studying Derrida we spent an entire lecture discussing whether 'the reader' existed save as an receptor of the text. The text was valourized as if it had an identity / being separate from either author or reader.

Which can be philosophically interesting but does not help one to analyze/understand/appreciate a particular piece of text.

I like Penny's *interrogate* -- in my own sub-branch of academia we used the word *problematize* similarly.
 
RIght, very long comment coming up, split into sections because Blogger is bad:

I don't see a tension between precision and freedom, myself; in a way, being imprecise reduces freedom because vague language communicates less. It limits how much can actually be understood, and intellectual exploration doesn't do well under those circumstances. George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language' is all about how imprecise language makes people vulnerable to 'the worst follies of orthodoxy'.

To my mind, it's more a problem of catchphrases. I've noticed that sometimes if you explain what's wrong with a catchphrase, many people will respond by asking, 'Well, okay, what catchphrase should I be using then?' But catchphrases are a shortcut around thought, a way of saying something without really having to examine what you mean. And reducing thought is seldom good for freedom. I'm all for correct usage, but I'm more for the view that if you can't say it in your own words, it might not be worth saying. :-)

Regarding your Derridan friend: I'm not mad on Derrida either, and some of his enthusiastic followers - especially young people who've just encountered him and are VERY EXCITED - can be a bit much. There's a tendency in the less-bright Derridans to use 'deconstruction' as little more than an excuse to play 'Gotcha!' with a text: 'Aha, you think you're saying one thing, but I know better!' Once you've got the basic idea you can do it with anything; at its subtlest, this encourages a kind of playful detachment, but certainly some students end up thinking that Derrida is the last word on culture and everything else is merely grist to his - and now their - mill. Which again, doesn't really promote understanding of anything; it just promotes kneejerking and smugness.

There is something quite anti-art in the deconstructionist way of thinking. Any work of art represents an immense proliferation of decisions: every word one puts down, every word one chooses not to strike out, every brush stroke and note and turn, represents a choice made by an individual person. The deconstructionist idea that everything contains its opposite and that a text never says what its author intends contains a tremendous aggression towards that artistic process: it declares as a foundational principle that it counts for nothing, that it's not merely a separate issue from the finished product but that thinking of it at all is practically immoral. When used subtly it can create interesting results, but it also makes it very tempting to students who know they can't make art themselves but want to feel dominance over the artistic process nonetheless.

I also incline to feel that it's an extremely capitalist way of thinking: it relocates creativity in the act of consumption. Not in writing a text, but a text about a text, in which the way one reacts to it - without necessarily doing anything in the actual world, which is a criticism more radical thinkers often make of deconstructionism - is basically a kind of high culture connoisseurship. That's the unsympathetic interpretation, anyway. And certainly when it comes to pop culture, that's one way it's been taken: defining our identity by what we consume is a very conventional behaviour in our society, and when people define themselves by their fictional tastes, it's a strong manifestation of that convention no matter how 'unconventional' the taste. There was a short video put up on the Guardian website recently that talked about this, referring to Camden market as a place where 'one might pick one's deviancy off the peg':

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2013/jul/23/max-horkheimer-critique-instrumental-reason-video
 
Reason is the great idea of the Enlightenment. It posits that humans should use their own judgement, their own capacity to think, in order to decide what is right and what is true and what should be done. It represented a rejection of superstition and custom and reliance on the authority of church or king or feudal overlord. It sets in train the emergence of the notion of human freedom, or even in a sense the growth of the notion of the individual who is a thinking being who takes responsibility for his or her actions.

What Horkheimer perceives from this, though, is that over time, over a couple of years, reason becomes increasingly instrumentalised. Horkheimer sees the ways in which reason goes into reverse, in a sense, the ways in which Enlightenment becomes a new mythology, the way humans bow down before new deities, new gods, such as the commodity or technology or number. These abstractions that come to rule over human beings become new mythic entities for him. Horkheimer also sees through this process the emergences of the market, and the market comes to pervade everywhere ... Horkheimer had observed the ways in which the Enlightenment had brought about a growth of individuality, and by the 1940s, Horkheimer and Adorno were identifying something which they called 'pseudo-individuality', which is no sort of individuality at all.


Now, it seems unlikely Horkheimer would apply this critique to Derrida himself - both were philosophical descendants of Heidegger, so they had at least an early hymn sheet in common - but there's a modern trend towards participatory consumerism that I tend to see in both pop culture and the cruder kinds of post-structuralism that has a Horkeimian echo to it, at least in my ears. That video points out that shoppers in Camden Market may buy clothes that look very different from 'mainstream' clothes, or from each other, but have been produced in exactly the same way; I think that when one elevates the act of 'thinking or writing about a text in the right way' to a level that equals or eclipses the actual creation of the text itself, there's the same tendency to place value in the consumption rather than the production, which is influenced by some quite anti-individualist superstitions.

Certainly I think phrases like 'death of the author' are popular because raising the status of the reader is a very appealing prospect when you are a reader yourself. I remain cynical about how much freedom there is in opposition readings, though - especially when not coupled to the creation of anything, either social or artist, but oppositional readings.


 
There's an interesting set of observations made in this Amazon review [http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R2AKHI355F6CTD/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0631162941&channel=detail-glance&nodeID=266239&store=books]:

Harvey emphasizes the political-ideological consequences of the further compression of space-time resulting from the capitalist technological changes. This in turn, he suggests, produces a further individualization and fragmentation, a massive speeding up of life and a further destabilizing of fixed capital and fixed historical sense of place, so that truly "all that is solid melts into air". Postmodernism then appears as the ideology of individualism and subjectivism turned in on itself, a burrowing into the ground by the middle class now fully individualized and thrown into complete competitive uncertainty. Ironically, Harvey suggests this means the deconstructionist, localist, subjectivist, and counter-narrative projects of postmodernism all really disclose a deep longing for some manner of meaning and stability that can give a sense of place and part to the intellectuals of the Western middle classes. This is not a sneer, because it is a natural enough response, and modernism was also such an attempt in response to the rise of a fully capitalist system in the second half of the 19th century. Whenever competition and loss of symbolic and political power operate, people will seek to find a new ideological ground on which to understand their place in society.

Or, to put it more simply: In an era of mass production and consumerist culture, life becomes speeded up, dominated by ephemera and broken into small individual units rather than a broader community. Treating ideas as entirely subjective goes with a culture where there's no real commonality, and treating every cultural product as grist to the same intellectual mill goes with an attitude that everything is both consumable and disposable. When life is like this, nobody feels very stable, so occupying a position where you can 'play' with instability feels as close to safety as you're going to get.

With physical objects, this means life is filled with objects that we didn't see made and whose creators or builders we cannot know, so there's a pervasive sense of disconnection and disorientation. But with art, generally speaking the creator is easily identifiable: their name is right there on the cover. And yet critical theory of this kind is bent on making them as excluded, as forgotten, as discounted as an anonymous factory worker overseas.

And I think you can see quite a lot of that in trickle-down pomo. What is 'The Death of the Author' if not a declaration that we *ought* to consider ourselves disconnected from the means of production? There is nothing but 'the reader' - nothing but ourselves, which in our isolated capitalist state are the only things we can reliably put our hands on. Or, politically, it's simply elevating the consumer above the producer - the buyer above the worker.


 
Which becomes the more frustrating when 'deconstruction' is used so carelessly and 'the author is dead' has become a rigid orthodoxy rather than a provocative contention. People have a need for certainty, and so 'It's all subjective' and 'It's all a game' are hardening into their own unquestionable doctrines ... to the point where it's not unusual to see someone responding to a political disagreement ('I think your political interpretation is wrong because of X and Y') by simply saying, 'Well, it's all subjective and the author is dead anyway', using 'subjectivity' to defend a viewpoint that they're actually presenting as objectively correct and politically relevant. (I think there's an interesting study to be done about whether trickle-down theory tends to create different mass cultures or whether everything tends to trickle back to the same place. I really don't know.)

But in any event, that's an issue I have on aesthetic/Marxist grounds; artists are among the few people left who control their means of production, and a lot of pomo criticism and fan culture both seem quite philosophically commited to scrubbing them out of the picture. But let's at least disagree from a position of understanding. (Or at least, as much understanding as my brain is ever going to claw out of Derrida.)
 
I think it's fascinating how often literary (or general artistic) critical theory finds itself overlapping with economic / social theory, and vice versa.

Thus it was since Durkheim, or Marx, or heckopete, since Plato hisownself, in which it is hard to distinguish the oikoumene with the aesthetic sphere -- and a right hash he would have made of either.

As far as "deconstruction" goes, I have little patience for Derrida as a critical theory / method / philosophy, but rather admire it as a spur to creativity. To approach a text in the spirit of deconstruction requires an honest and rigorous grappling with the bones and sinews of a story, much like a good psychoanalysis or a proper confession (although, like either, it can and is too often shallow or abusive).

At least it works for me. Every single time I sat down and seriously tried to explain deconstructionism to myself, I always end up with a story instead of an essay -- four short stories, a novella, and a novel so far.

So my attitude towards towards Derrida wavers between irritated gratitude and embarrassed resentment...
 
That's interesting. It goes the opposite way for me: the whole process, whether in high culture or low, fills me with a sense of despair that puts me off writing at all. The academic version confuses and tires me, and the pop culture version just makes me think 'Oh, what's the point?' What would you say the appeal was for you?
 
Well, I play mostly with fairy tales and legends, so Constructionism (to which De- is mostly a response, despite Derrida's inflated claims of originality) is a useful tool (but only a tool) to drill down to the bare bones of a story, before trying on new flesh.

/Eww. Scratch that metaphor, please/

It works for me in a way similar to your essay on "werewolves", looking at the wild / civilized dichotomy.

However, that's *other people's* texts. I find it very difficult to interrogate (lovely word!) my own writing. The techniques of deconstructionism (and truly, I sometimes think of them as mental tricks more than anything) allow me to ... hmm... step outside my own words? Sort of like borrowing an alien brain for a moment, and viewing my own writing as something weird and strange and needing to construct an entire context for it? Almost even abdicating *ownership* of my own words, so I can look at them objectively?

I suspect this last must strike you as deeply irresponsible, if not horrifying; but it helps me make the vital distinction between "the value of this piece of writing" and "my intrinsic worth as an author."

The goal is, I guess, a kind of Buddhist detachment, which permits both wisdom and compassion.

I'm putting this very badly, I know. (No wonder Derrida needed to invent his own vocabulary!)

-- hapax
 
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