Deconstructing Deconstructionism:
November 29, 2001 6:22 AM   Subscribe

Deconstructing Deconstructionism: "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 one’s mind this thing society has built." (via Reductio ad Absurdum)
posted by Steven Den Beste (46 comments total)
Set up a straw man and knock it down. Hard work!

While there are doubtless a few people who believe the sort of absurdities Mr. Locke is throwing about, its by no means the majority of the academic left (everybodies favorite scapegoat).

The point is actually very simple, maybe he's too stupid to get it, but more likely he's got a conservative agenda (surprise!). The theory is NOT that there is no reality, its that our understanding of reality is filtered through social constructs -- I'll agree with him that this isn't necessarily a brilliant revelation, but its a vital piece of information to keep in mind when everyone is insisting that their beliefs are the objective ones.

His equation of of deconstructionism as "cultural marxism" is the really telling bit -- thanks Mr. McCarthy. Let alone his comments about "nerdiness", deconstructist women, and the dismissive comments on foucault based on baldness and AIDS. I would ask exactly what it is he would want taught, but I already know the answer to that all too clearly.

All a shame, because there is a valid point in there somewhere about elitism getting mixed up with philosophies in academia, but this moron isn't the guy to effectively point it out.
posted by malphigian at 6:55 AM on November 29, 2001

Big toolbox, many tools, woe betide he who relies solely on a hammer--or refuses to use one.
posted by rushmc at 7:02 AM on November 29, 2001

Seems to me that Locke is more interested in attacking deconstructionists than deconstructionism. His argument doesn't hold up very well if all he can do is insult the people who he perceives subscribe to the theory, rather than the theory itself.
posted by mcwetboy at 7:15 AM on November 29, 2001

That is so 90s. Or even 80s. My favourite sentence: "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."
posted by Mocata at 7:22 AM on November 29, 2001

Far be it from me to deconstruct this article, but ...

C'mon. Deconstructionism may be an idea that's taken to ridiculous extremes, but last time I checked, making a selective argument which uses half truths and innuendos to make its point isn't a very sound intellectual tradition either.

I know! Marxism is a discredited philosophy! Let's thus try to tarnish decosntructionism by calling it "Cultural Marxism"! (This despite the fact that among the radical left, open warfare has occasionally erupted between the Marxists and the deconstructionists - they're not the same).

The downfall of deconstructionism is when it proceeds from the basic idea that meanings (and in particular, the meanings of words) can be indistinct, to the rather hare-brained conclusion that truth is unknowable (and even from there to the conclusion that God cannot really exist).

For every wacko-lefty who has himself convinced that truth is unknowable and words really cannot have any meaning, there's a wacko-righty that there is only one revealed truth (which just so happens to be his revealed truth), and that anyone who disagrees with him is not only manifestly wrong, but also a threat to Western Civilization.

But the existence of the wacko-right (those who have taken conservative thought to an absurd extreme) does not completely discredit conservative thought. And similarly, the existence of the wacko-left doesn't discredit the entire idea behind deconstructionism (you know, the meanings of words are indistinct and sometimes interpreted differently by different people based on their experiences - Heavens to Betsy!).

Robert Locke thus does a disservice to the philosophical arguments by portraying the entire philosophy as equal to its most lunatic fringe, and allowing his article to be hijacked by his obvious distaste for the sort of person who'd sit around discussing the nature of reality in a café in Cambridge or Berkeley.

It's interesting to me that these sorts of assaults on left-of-center philosophies are happening now - head back through the links of Steven's post, and you'll won't go too far before you find conservatives attacking professors for teaching theories that make students insufficiently patriotic. It is interesting to see the conservatives use 9/11 to make a play for discrediting any theory with which they disagree.
posted by Chanther at 7:26 AM on November 29, 2001

What malphigian, mcwetboy and Mocata said.
posted by tippiedog at 7:27 AM on November 29, 2001

Oh, and what Chanther said, too.
posted by tippiedog at 7:29 AM on November 29, 2001

This book [storming review by Dawkins] is on a similar vein, but written by people from the left (it's referred to in the article above). As a scientist who has a passing interest in philosophy, I was amazed by what I read. It's very funny, but also rather disturbing. And if it's correct, then I think Sokal and Bricmont are right to be angry: this isn't just right bashing left, but some of the left making the rest of us look stupid... (their target is mainly the French - I don't know how much of this applies to the States - and it's also pretty old now, I kind of hope things have improved).
posted by andrew cooke at 7:39 AM on November 29, 2001

Who here can define "deconstructionism" in a coherent way? I've read a fair amount of Derrida and I wouldn't really want to try. I can tell you, though, that it bears little relation to this trash:
Deconstructionism originally came from France in the ‘70s. It is also known as poststructuralism, but don’t 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 one’s mind this thing society has built.
This betrays a profound misunderstanding of the relationship of deconstruction (no ism), an analytical technique, to poststructuralism (a moment in the history of philosophy/literary theory), and little to no idea what structuralism is.

So if some stupid article incorrectly characterizes a three-decade old idea from a Algerian-French philosopher in order to create a boogie-man with which to castigate the contemporary American academy, most of whom couldn't care less about Derrida and his adherents, and most of the people debating here probably couldn't do much better, and it's all a transparent bit of political demagoguery anyway, why even bother? There's nothing there worth debating. This is like trying to discredit chemistry because some people once believed in phlogiston.
posted by rodii at 7:48 AM on November 29, 2001

As Mocata said, deconstruction as an academic phenomenon is so 80s. I don't think I even bothered reading the Jonathan Culler book that was on the crit-theory reading list. And Paul de Man, one of its chief proponenents, was such a doyenne of the intellectual left that he only happened to be a former propagandist for the Nazis in Belgium. Talk about challenging conceptual boundaries. (And yes, that form of deconstructionism as reductio ad absurdam, promulgated in the 80s, was utterly authoritarian: Thatcherite literary criticism.)

Deconstructionism originally came from France in the '70s. It is also known as poststructuralism, but don't ask what structuralism was, as it was no better.

Well, that's rather pathetic, really. It suggests, in fact, that Locke doesn't actually know the difference between the practices, and a good thing too, because that would just get in the way of his polemic. (Structuralism is to post-structuralism what musicology is to composition.) And yes, the article is a mixture of cheap, irrelevant jibes -- "Michel Foucault (the bald Frenchman who died of AIDS)" -- and misconceptions: "It takes these contradictions as proving that reality is a social construct, because if our picture were actually true, it wouldn't contradict" ... "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.)". Oh, and when in doubt, resort to cheap sexism:

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. I'm 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 was once said that writers for FrontPage fuck goats, especially the bitter old men who can't get laid otherwise. I'm not sure this is true, but its writers tend to display the sour-faced reactionary zeal of those who engage in bestiality. Heh.

Now, post-structuralism is still vibrant, and its principles have been well and truly absorbed into the humanities, because it acknowledges that social and political structures aren't pre-ordained and generative, but retroactively applied as authenticating myths of origin. (And doesn't Locke hate the fact that it's present in Hardt and Negri's Empire? Ooh, look at him squeal.) And there's a useful discipline in analysing those mythologising processes, which ties into lots of academic work throughout the 20th century, from linguistics to anthropology. Roland Barthes' S/Z is worth a read for anyone who actually wants to engage with the topic, rather than reading uninformed screeds about it. Let's just say that Locke wouldn't be mistaken for his namesake John.

Nice troll, though.
posted by holgate at 7:55 AM on November 29, 2001

Don't knock phlogiston, dude, it's what keeps us alive and breathing.
posted by Mocata at 7:56 AM on November 29, 2001

So 80s (or 90s) is right: deconstruction has long since vanished as a "dominant" critical approach in literary studies. In fact, I'd hazard that a deconstructionist would have an awfully difficult time getting a job, nowadays. I don't think I even know anyone who identifies as either deconstructionist or, for that matter, poststructuralist. Personally, I'm an old-fashioned literary historian who writes on things like Victorian evangelical fiction--there's a trendy topic for you! (I speak, by the way, as a UC Irvine graduate--the once and future home of deconstruction. I remember Derrida strolling around the campus every spring, puffing on his pipe.)

Strictly speaking, deconstruction imploded around the time of the Paul de Man controversy--not because de Man once had Nazi sympathies, but because it rapidly became clear that in order to defend either de Man or deconstruction, you had to appeal to things like "truth," "evidence," "motivation," and so forth. Locke's objection to deconstruction as "incomprehensible," however, has little to do with de Man (quite readable) or, say, J. Hillis Miller (usually writes quite nicely).

The Godwin's law link of deconstruction and Nazism has always struck me as rather bizarre, since Derrida himself is an Algerian Jew. And anything taken to its logical extreme will yield an unfortunate moral result.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:57 AM on November 29, 2001

Some links from what can only be described as the Left's response to Post Modernism and anti-rationality:

Chomsky, Albert, Ehrenreich.

Now may I start quoting creationists as typical of the Right's views? Please?
posted by talos at 8:04 AM on November 29, 2001

How neoconservatives do love to beat up on those straw critters!
posted by Carol Anne at 8:11 AM on November 29, 2001

Mocata: you rock.
posted by rodii at 8:27 AM on November 29, 2001

anything taken to its logical extreme will yield an unfortunate moral result.

Uh. No, it won't. Anything which is bad in the first place, however, will.
posted by dagny at 8:56 AM on November 29, 2001

You know how sometimes you suddenly get an email from a year earlier that was held up somewhere along the line? How does an article from 1989 suddenly appear in the same way? Not only does Locke create an 80's style straw man, but he theorizes about a "liberal" left that never existed in the way he implies at all!

Deconstruction is a bauble. A playtoy. It is fun to play with, sometimes leading to insight, but most often is just a word game to lead one to other ideas that become meaningful.
posted by fncll at 9:35 AM on November 29, 2001

Gee, I hope no one expected the writers at Horowitz's web site to be confused by facts or logic. I'm sure Horowitz and Scaife appreciate the extra hits to the site. This is much worse than linking to the Sludge Report as done at MeFi yesterday...
posted by nofundy at 9:35 AM on November 29, 2001

I remember Derrida strolling around the campus every spring, puffing on his pipe.

Color me chartreuse with envy.

How dare anyone ever suggest that our shared reality is constructed in plain language. Next they'll be denying the objective reality of Satanic Ritual Abuse!
posted by y2karl at 9:47 AM on November 29, 2001

"Pan is dead. Great Pan is dead.
Ah! bow your heads, ye maidens all,
And weave ye him a coronal."
posted by y2karl at 9:58 AM on November 29, 2001

I'm glad to see Sokal and Bricmont's book was brought up in this discussion. I picked it up as I was curious to see what they had to say about Gilles Deleuze, whom I am very interested in and have read a fair amount of.

I was shocked at the treatment they gave Deleuze (and Guitarri)'s work. They obviously took commentary out of context and recontextualized to make it seem absurd. Since when is this a hero's feat? A teenager could do such a thing to any source. I have a love/hate thing with Dawkins and found his positive review very disturbing as well.

The subtle aspects of what is wrong with Sokal and Brocmont and the linked article's view on some of the key aspects of postmodern thought are difficult to clearly outline, but the eternal argument that it reflects always seems to go something like this:

• science: science is a candle in the dark. It is the only hope. Empiricism is total and there is no knowledge that cannot be proved.

• (insert theory here) claims that scientific empiricism is a box in a bigger world and that there are realities that we cannot know from what we learn through these mechanisms alone. There are subtler aspects to out existence like language, society, etc. that shape our views on everything, even empiricism. The assertion that empirical objectivityis possible has numerous logical fallacies. Perhaps by reflecting on these we can learn more about everything.

• science: shut up! Looks at your silly theory! See how wrong it is? I think I will write a book making fun of you.

• theory: That's not what I said. You might be having a problem understanding what I said because you are in the aformentioned box and cannot see outside of yourself.

And so on. Just to clear things up I think Sokal's book is the work of either a rather stupid or a somewhat hateful mind and strikes me as the equivalent of my country bumpkin cousin going up to a Rothko and yelling about how it isn't a painting.
posted by n9 at 10:03 AM on November 29, 2001

I could have saved this guy some ink:

Deconstruction=an analytical technique so dense and incoherent that it can be used to bend absolutely anything from McDonald's cheeseburgers to quantum physics into proof of your particular viewpoint.
or alternately

Deconstruction=a nifty efficient way for Europhile, overeducated, classist PC snobs to show how superior they are to us poor dumb hicks who populate the real world.
posted by jonmc at 10:28 AM on November 29, 2001

The Dialogue of Science and Theory! I like it!
posted by Mocata at 10:36 AM on November 29, 2001

Hyuk! Good one, jonmc!

...but wait a minute. Could you define deconstruction for us, o wise one? Oh, and how does the Yale version of it differ from Derrida's version? Do you think Derrida's image of the "heliotrope" in "White Mythology" is a precursor to his treatment of the text in Of Grammatology? Um, oh, what's the difference between differance and difference again? Do you find de Man's relationship to Heidegger representative of a larger reaction to phenomenology (viz, Sartre, Derrida's "Introduction" to Husserl's Origin of Geomtery)?

I couldn't answer many of these questions, I'm just a poor dumb hick, but it's clear jonmc can--anyone with such a definitive judgment on a deconstruction clearly can back that up with immense erudition and the fruits of long, deep reflection. The world awaits your words, jonmc, and I am not oblivious to the irony of that, either.
posted by rodii at 10:42 AM on November 29, 2001

Is Sokal still the conservatives' pet leftist, as he was after the Social Text stunt? (ST deserved what it got, by the way, although I had some residual sympathy for them after working for another, far less trendy, academic journal.) I was wondering if he would remain popular with them post-Sept. 11, as he, along with Frederick Crews, promptly wrote to the NYRB attacking the USA's war stance. (Perhaps he'll experience what happened to Ward Connerly in California, once people realized that he was pro-gay rights.)
posted by thomas j wise at 10:46 AM on November 29, 2001

Noted: Robert Locke, the author of the linked piece, has written an article on the proper conservative position on evolution.
posted by snarkout at 10:47 AM on November 29, 2001

rodii-Jacques Derrida? right wing for the Boston Bruins right?
Look,I freely admit that I'm no scholar, I barely graduated high school and I work as a computer salesman.
However, I do like to think about things and every time I've tried to read Foucalt or Derrida or any of the rest of them, I've wound up giving myself a headache. Anything that takes that long to make a point and manages to leech all pleasure from whatever it's analyzing smacks strongly of bullshit.
Now, to be fair, those on the "cultural right" are equally guilty of simailar practices, viewing everything through the prism of religion or worship of the "free market(as if there were any other kind)". These people make me equally as irked as the Foucault worshippers.
So poor me, I'm a man without a country. Which is why most days, I'm a bout 2 minutes away from buying a cabin in Idaho and waiting there with a shotgun for the world to end. Or it may just make me an average American.
posted by jonmc at 11:08 AM on November 29, 2001

OK, jon, point taken. Sorry for being an asshole.

Anyway, it's more fun to slag Robert Locke. Here's his "apology" to his readers for a column he wrote that failed to blame women sufficiently. He was duped by feminists, you see. It won't happen again.
posted by rodii at 11:12 AM on November 29, 2001

From Locke's evolution-bagging article:

If nothing else, we have the opportunity to force the other side to allocate scarce resources to defending something they have no choice but to defend and which costs us little to attack.

What a wonderful philosophy. 'Hey gang! Why be a conservative creationist when you can be a conservative creationist troll?'
posted by rory at 11:29 AM on November 29, 2001

That article on how to effectively combat evolution is wrongheaded in so many ways, but it presents a pretty solid strategy for achieving the stated goals.
posted by kindall at 11:37 AM on November 29, 2001

I like this game. Robert Locke on the Nazis:

So what did the Nazis really believe in, if not the nationalism and racism that is the received explanation of the liberal historical consensus? It is arguable that what they really believed in is war. Primed by the Marxist ideal of progress only through struggle, brutalized to madness by the trenches of WWI, warped by a lumpen Darwinism, they made it their highest end.

Now that's a reading that would make Derrida blush.
posted by holgate at 11:40 AM on November 29, 2001

JohnMC --

I'm certainly glad that there are people who feel that there are pursuits worthy of a few headaches. Please respect those that work very hard. You might not get Derrida but it would be tough to call him a slouch -- the guy has written 4+ feet of books!

There are few things worth knowing that are easily taught or learned. Everything is a headache. I hope that if you ever have to have an operation that they guy with the knife didn't decide that anatomy and physiology were bullsh*t.

A good example would be Watson and Crick, who looked for and found something stupendous when they had no idea what they were looking for. Truly great thoughts and discoveries are not easily got.
posted by n9 at 12:29 PM on November 29, 2001

—anything taken to its logical extreme will yield an unfortunate moral result.

—Uh. No, it won't. Anything which is bad in the first place, however, will.

Since another part of the standard programming is the proposition that a tool (like science, say, or nuke physics specifically) isn't good or bad in itself but its uses may be, does anyone else see the contradiction here? And since everything is imperfect, isn't everything therefore bad?
posted by retrofut at 1:28 PM on November 29, 2001

his article on evolution is certainly interesting. fortunately it is so far out of step with what is known about evolution that it borders on the fraudulent.

In fact one of the big problems with the "intelligent design" theories is that they attack evolution without offering any kind of a alternative theory that could be tested . I find it quite interesting that conservatives attack evolution but not plate tectonics or images from the Hubble space telescope which are just as damaging to special creation. evolution is supported by more independent lines of evidence then the orbit of to Callisto around Jupiter. to demand a special exception for dismissing evolution while maintaining astronomy in the curriculum and can only be called fraudulent .
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:59 PM on November 29, 2001

"a nifty efficient way for Europhile, overeducated, classist PC snobs to show how superior they are to us poor dumb hicks who populate the real world."

jonmc, I don't really think anybody's bothering to make you feel inferior, you're doing it to yourself.
posted by semmi at 7:05 PM on November 29, 2001

semmi-i'm not accusing anyone here(although some MeFi'rs tend to wear their degrees on their sleeves), I actually consider myself very intelligent and well read(my apartment is covered wall to wall in books-I'm one of few people who can honestly claim to have read Infinite Jest end to end several times. I was just pointing out that a lot of academic discourse from all cultural camps is extremely condescending in tone when speaking about the average person. Maybe it's to compensate for the fact that the average person is too busy worrying about how they're gonna pay the rent to take much notice of whatever academics are babbling about.
posted by jonmc at 7:19 PM on November 29, 2001

Maybe it's to compensate for the fact that the average person is too busy worrying about how they're gonna pay the rent to take much notice of whatever academics are babbling about.

How I love those faux-populist trolls!
posted by Ty Webb at 7:25 PM on November 29, 2001

faux-populist my ass! I'm just stating that the average guy or gals response to everything and everyone in this thread(myself included) would be "What the hell are you twits arguing about?"
posted by jonmc at 7:55 PM on November 29, 2001

I'm just stating that the average guy or gals response to everything and everyone in this thread(myself included) would be "What the hell are you twits arguing about?"

But does that make them more salient? or are they simply expressing a consensual denial of structured, dedicated thought-forms through symbols of commonality? WWLSS? (What would Levi-Strauss say?)
posted by rushmc at 8:16 PM on November 29, 2001

rushmc-he'd say buy more 501's.
posted by jonmc at 8:21 PM on November 29, 2001


I defy you to intelligently interpret Infinite Jest without some sort of nod to the validity of Structuralist/Poststructuralist thought and its applicability to every day average joe-ism. The point is that there is more to life than what we see and that some folks seem to go out of their way to assert that there is not.

Also, no one is arguing that you are an average joe and that average joes don't care about this kind of thing. Maybe if you were such an average joe you wouldn't care enough to contribute strange circular commentary to this forum about how no one cares about this topic...?
posted by n9 at 9:04 PM on November 29, 2001

Maybe it's to compensate for the fact that the average person is too busy worrying about how they're gonna pay the rent to take much notice of whatever academics are babbling about.

Sounds like you're just looking at culturally "soft" targets. The average intelligent person doesn't know many details about, say, the solar neutrino deficit, or the ecosystem of the ANWR, but I doubt you'd characterize people who do study those topics, sight unseen, as willfully obscure.

And doesn't the average person "babble" at least some of the time? I don't like being talked down to either, but I don't spout jargon if I don't think it will be understood by the person I'm talking to.

ps: If you liked Infinite Jest, try Gravity's Rainbow. Not as many footnotes, but plenty other stuff there.
posted by retrofut at 11:56 AM on November 30, 2001

retrofut-I tried reading Gravity's Rainbow, but it gave me a headache. Just Kidding, I like Pynchon a lot.
As for the rest of it, well I think of a couple conversations I once had about techno music. I'm a diehard guitar-rock man so naturally I was pretty hostile to electronica. I told a freind "it just sounds like robots f***ing to me"...she said "that's cos you've only heard the bad stuff" and she played me some tunes that I had to admit were pretty good. Another person nearby said it was because I was stuck in the past and went into a diatribe about how dumb and dated punk and metal are.
Now to be fair, retrofut n9 and rushmc have behaved more like the first speaker however many academic types behave more like the second one.
Now to the average joe issue. Well, America is probably so Balkanized at this point that I doubt such a creature actually exists. But I've travelled in enough divergent circles from graduate students to supermarket register punchers to possibly qualify as the last one standing.I am happy to number both Ph. D. holders and high school dropout sewer cleaners among my close freinds and while they've all enriched my life, I've found the sewer cleaning crowd to have more sense and better senses of humor.
posted by jonmc at 12:39 PM on November 30, 2001

Now to be fair, retrofut n9 and rushmc have behaved more like the first speaker

Nah, just trying to be funny. Bad habit I have, sorry.
posted by rushmc at 6:58 PM on November 30, 2001

Johnmc --

You recontextualize your previous remarks and my own... you dismissed the work of the Continental school because it made your head hurt and was therefore bullshit. I could care less if you find my or anyone's pursuits interesting or easy. No one would attest that they should be interesting to everyone universally or that you should be anyone other than who you are.

But to say that late 20th century Continental thought is pointless or made-up or useless is another story. The World is out of balance and we must look beyond ourselves to find tools that we might use to regain balance. Focault is right: our methods of dealing with disease, insanity and disobediance contribute to our hateful worldviews and others hating us. Levi_Strauss is right: there are other valid truth conditions and kinds of knowledge than our own. Deleuze is right: our very flexible minds are the only things that can break out of the action/reaction of the physical. Eagleton might say that if we do not find methods to reveal the fallacies of our collective and individual Ideologies we cannot act for the true and the good. These folks are not bullshit artists -- thay are stupendous intelligences trying to get some folks up the hill so that they can see the view and maybe walk away better prepared to act well in the World.

Everywhere I look I see people locked into reactionary, nationalistic, territorialistic and narcissitic behavior. The US gov't, the guy kicking hte shit out of someone on the street the other day, the petty arguments in my office. In an unusal way theory is the West's only chance at enlightenment, and because of the precarious situation the West has landed us in, the World's chance at survival.

But please think what you will. BTW, johnmc: I'm funnier than hell.
posted by n9 at 12:17 AM on December 1, 2001

"Pan is dead. Great Pan is dead.
Ah! bow your heads, ye maidens all,
And weave ye him a coronal"

you been talking to Todorov...
posted by clavdivs at 8:25 AM on December 2, 2001

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