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Deconstructionism

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Disambiguation: The term deconstructionism has two significantly different uses. In everyday use, deconstruction is a synonym for criticism, analysis, debunking, or commentary with an overtone of questioning motives, conscious or otherwise, for producing a work.

In literary criticism, deconstructionism refers to several related schools of thought. In the 1960s the term referred to a method of literary criticism in which a reader was said to be able to "deconstruct" a text and use it against itself. In contrast to classical forms of literary criticism, this set of methods holds that one not only should not attempt to discern the original intent of the author, but that one in fact cannot learn the original intent of the author. Rather, deconstructionists hold that all one can do is deconstruct a text to bring out the subjective meanings discovered by the reader.

The deconstructive approach to a "text" -- which can be a television sitcom or a roadsign as easily as an epic poem -- is to dismantle it, paying particular attention to its elitist, anti-feminist or otherwise unchic presuppositions. The enterprise is informed by a philosophy according to which the world is indeterminate until someone -- temporarily, and only after a fashion -- makes it determinate by using words to describe it. Since words are (allegedly) always shifting their meanings, no interpretation of those words is more correct than any other. The job of criticism is therefore to expose this inherent contradiction in the very idea of the "meaning" or veracity of a text. (Source: The Economist, May 18, 1991. p.95)

Since the 1980s, proponents of deconstructionism have claimed that this form of analysis is applicable to all subjects, including science, mathematics, logic, art, and history. Deconstructionist writings on these subjects have often proved controversial, sparking what many many historians refer to as a war against truth and history, and what many scientists see as a war against science and logic.

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Derrida

Much of this deconstructionism centers around the work of French writer Jacques Derrida, who since the mid–1960s has written analyses of the major works in Western intellectual culture. Because Derrida finds unresolvable contradictions everywhere in rational thought and believes that they are systematically concealed, he believes in using a variety of contrarian and tangential approaches to the discussion of any text - so that, for example, punning on the name of a poet is a good way of getting at the meaning of a poem. This effort to revive the process of thinking by violating customary ideas of relevance and coherence is deconstruction.

Deconstruction is a term popularlized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida to describe his post-structuralist project. The term was originally used, in a slightly different way, by German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Deconstruction involves a radical critique of the Enlightenment project. It is based on a close reading of founding texts by such philosophers as Plato, Rousseau, and Husserl, although Derrida's ideas have been applied to many other sorts of texts, especially to literature. Derrida has had a profound effect on literary theory.

Structuralist analysis generally relies on the search for underlying binary oppositions as an explanatory device. Such binaries are plentiful in Western culture (for example, day and night; good and bad; cowboys and Indians) but structuralists argued that such oppositions are found in all cultures, and that the device of binary opposition is fundamental to meaning.

Deconstruction challenges the explanatory value of these oppositions. This method has three steps. The first step is to reveal an asymmetry in the binary opposition, suggesting an implied hierarchy. The second step is to reverse the hierarchy. The third step is to displace one of the terms of the opposition, often in the form of a new and expanded definition.

In his book, On Grammatology, Derrida offers one example of deconstruction applied to a theory of the father of structuralism, Claude LÚvi-Strauss. Following many other Western thinkers, LÚvi-Strauss distinguished between "savage" societies lacking writing and "civilized" societies that have writing. This distinction implies that human beings developed verbal communication (speech) before some people developed writing.

Although the development of writing is generally considered to be an advance, after an encounter with the Nambikwara Indians of Brazil, LÚvi-Strauss suggested that societies without writing were also lacking violence and domination (in other words, savages are truly noble savages). He further argued that the primary function of writing is to facilitate slavery (or social inequality, exploitation, and domination in general). However, his claim has been rejected by historians as incorrect. There is abundant historical evidence that both hunter-gatherer societies, as well as later non-literary tribes, had significant amounts of violence and warfare in their culture.

Derrida's deconstruction begins with taking LÚvi-Strauss's definition of writing at its word -- what is important in writing for LÚvi-Strauss is not the use of markings on a piece of paper to communicate information, but rather the use of communication to dominate and violate. Derrida further observed that, based on LÚvi-Strauss's own ethnography, the Nambikwara really do use language to dominate and violate. Derrida thus concludes that "writing," in fact, comes before "speech." That is, he reversed the opposition between "speech" and "writing," while using an idiosyncratic definition of "writing."

Derrida was not making fun of LÚvi-Strauss. He was using his deconstruction of LÚvi-Strauss to question a common belief in Western culture, dating back at least to Plato: that interpersonal communication is somehow more natural and better than other forms of communication.

Deconstructionist tenets

  • No one can know the truth about the intentions of an author. Many deconstructionists hold that authors themselves are unconscious of their own intentions.

  • No one can know anything about the true nature of reality. Some deconstructionists write that there is no objective reality "out there", and that reality is a social construct.

  • No claim of knowledge is priviliged; no method of learning provides authoritative information.

  • Language is only a system of arbitrary symbols. Books, essays, etc., all have no meaning outside of the meaning given to them by the reader.

The major criticism of deconstructionism that the only exception allowed is works written by deconstructionists themselves. Deconstructionist writers hold they they do have specific intentions when they write, and that their own works can be read by others, and that others can gain knowledge of what they write. How, critics ask, is this possible given the tenets of deconstructionism?

Use in literary criticism

The ideal of deconstruction is to create an atmosphere in which a statement can reveal different potentials each time it's examined, and that none of these pontentials need correspond to either the author's intent, or indeed, to the meaning that seems obviously present.

Most deconstructionists believe that all writing has no meaning; rather, all books (or articles, etc.) are merely an arbitrary sequence of words (also called "linguistic signs"); and that these "signs" have no meaning to the intention of the author, and tell us nothing about the real world. Such a view is in confrontation with the entire field of literature as classical understood, and against the foundations of the entire field of history.

In his best known essay, Of Grammatology (1965), Derrida examines the basis of Aristotelian logic and claims that it suppresses discussion of the mixed, "impure" aspects of the world. Notably, Derrida believes that the law of the excluded middle implies that a concept or a thing has a simple identity with boundaries fixed. Derrida then argues that this law of logic is false, as it uses language to force a false appearance of simplicity onto a recalcitrant world. He concludes that logic, arguably one of the foundations of Western thought, involves a false metaphysics bound by language.

Much of Derrida's work bears on the problems of representation[?] that have been a central concern at least since Wittgenstein. He was influenced by the structuralism of Saussure and the idea that each language is produced by a unique structure of oppositions. For Derrida, the consequence is that meaning is parochial, untranslatable. Furthermore, each language is a trap for those who speak it—its underlying logic controls what they can say and forces them into contradictory statements.

For other thinkers, this attitude automatically raises the liar's-paradox questions that dog any proposal to derive intention from something else. It's possible to interpret such objections as ad hominem wisecracks. And people criticizing normal approaches to communication like Derrida - or Alfred Korzybski and Marshall McLuhan before him - may take their own contradictions as demonstrating that their criticisms are right.

The influence on literary studies is hard to weigh. Derrida sets himself against the structuralist position taken by followers of Saussure and Claude Levi-Strauss, but they share a good many attitudes. Derrida's habits and jargon became an influence in American universities very shortly after those of the structuralists. It is often debatable just what theory may lurk behind a given assertion in literary studies, clouding the issue of influence.

Both structuralist and deconstructionist views try to get at something outside literature exclusively by looking for patterns in the texts. Both are more or less indifferent to the declared intention of a work, believing that abstract ordering principles are the only essential subject matter.

The validity of deconstructionism is widely debated. Some claim that it is primarily a means of academic empire-building, making literary critiques seem more potent and exclusive than they would otherwise be. Even if this criticism is valid, now-discredited academic fads of the past have nevertheless produced lasting work. The application of psychoanalysis to American anthropology in the 1930s and American literary studies in the 1950s are examples.

Relation to philosophy

Most philosophers hold that deconstructionism is not a form of philosophy; indeed Derrida has stated that his work was intended to further his ideas about Marxism. However, many French and English writers believe that deconstructionism is a branch of philosophy.

Many philosophers would agree with Derrida that it is difficult to absolutely prove the existence of an objective reality; few, however, accept the now common deconstructionist belief that no such reality exists. Some deconstructionists believe that no objective reality beyond thought itself is provavble, thus no claims can or should be made about this reality. The majority of philosophers and scientists reject this view as a disguised version of solipsism.

Derrida may have a good deal to teach by example, whatever the merits of his general position. He is known as a formidably close reader of philosophic texts. His examination of what the term "nature" must mean in Rousseau, for example, brings out several inconsistent uses of the word.

Influence on other subjects

The main influence of deconstructionism on history and the social sciences is to point out that what may appear to be on the surface to be objective, immutable categories, may on deeper examination be fuzzy and ambiguous and that the boundaries of social and historical categories themselves may be complex entities worthy of study.

Deconstructionism in literary critique brings forth the concept of textuality[?]. The concept of the intentional fallacy[?], which asserts that a literary work contains meaning unintended by the author, is similar. But textuality further asserts that the meaning in a text need bear no debt to the author or his intended meaning at all. Further yet, texutality asserts that the constraints of the language of the text also do not limit the meaning. Since this would make the meaning of a piece entirely up to the reader, deconstructionist criticism is itself criticized as being entirely subjective, allowing no way for others to investigate the merit of the critique. It is largely this lack of meritability gives rise to the charge of academic empire-building.

Deconstructionism and history (to be written)

Deconstructionism and science

Weak social constructionism

Weak forms of social construction focus on the fact that science is practiced by human beings, and human beings are imperfect. This view holds that each scientist works within a culture, and is subjectivitity and bias, just as all other people are. Thus, one can expect that the development of science is affected by culture.

Some in this school of thought hold that no scientific method exists, and that scientists merely adhere to theories for subjective and irrational reasons. Many believe that Thomahs Kuhn held this view; in his later years Kuhn held that this his views on science were somewhat exagerrated and taken out of context; he now prefers using the word "arational".

Most scientists agree that one's culture and biases affect how one does one's work and can have major impact on the scientific process, particularly on what is studied, what is not, and the timing of scientific discoveries. However, they mostly also believe that objective truth exists and that cultural biases do not prevent one from discovering this truth. In the end, what matters most are replicable results, and evidence from experimentation allows unpopular theories to eventually be accept, and converses also allows popular theories to eventually be rejected.

Strong social constructionism

This is a radical and controversial point of view that the vast majority of physical scientists and historians find absurd.

"Science is a highly elaborated set of conventions brought forth by one particular culture (our own) in the circumstances of one particular historical period; thus it is not, as the standard view would have it, a body of knowledge and testable conjecture concerning the real world. It is a discourse, devised by and for one specialized interpretive community, under terms created by the complex met of social circumstance, political opinion, economic incentive and ideological climate that constitutes the ineluctable human environment of the scientist. Thus, orthodox science is but one discursive community among the many that now exist and that have existed historically. Consequently its truth claims are irreducibly self-referential, in that they can be upheld only by appeal to the standards that define the scientific community and distinguish it from other social formations." (Gross and Levitt, Higher Superstition)

MIT Linguist Noam Chomsky has written a strong refutation of deconstructionist and post-modern criticisms of science.

I have spent a lot of my life working on questions such as these, using the only methods I know of--those condemned here as "science," "rationality," "logic," and so on. I therefore read the papers with some hope that they would help me "transcend" these limitations, or perhaps suggest an entirely different course. I'm afraid I was disappointed. Admittedly, that may be my own limitation. Quite regularly, "my eyes glaze over" when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don't understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish, and I do not know how to proceed.

Noam Chomsky on Rationality/Science - From Z Papers Special Issue (http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/articles/95-science)

See also: Cultural movement -- Postmodernism -- Social construction

References

What is social constructionism? (http://www.psy.dmu.ac.uk/michael/soc_con_disc.htm)

Criticism of deconstructionist writings on science

Who Rules in Science: An Opinionated Guide to the Wars, James Robert Brown, Harvard Univ Press, 2001, ISBN 0-67-400652-6

The Flight from Science and Reason Eds. Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt, Martin W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, 1997, ISBN 0-80-185676-0

Criticism of deconstructionist writings on social and hard sciences

A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science, Ed. Noretta Koertge, Oxford University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-19-511726-3

Criticism of deconstructionist writings on history

The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past, Keith Windschuttle, Encounter Books, 2000, ISBN 1-89-355412-0

The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered By Literary Critics and Social Theorists Keith Windschuttle, Access Pub Network, 1996, ISBN 0-64-626506-7



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