Pomo polemics

Stephanie Nelson (NELSON@USCVM.BITNET)
Tue, 2 Nov 1993 08:31:02 PST

Well, John O'Brien is certainly free to declare manifestos on the death of
postmodernism if he wishes. I failed to discern any good reasons for accepting
his declarations within his post, but I'm sure he knows what he means. I
really have no strong feelings about whether pomo/decon is dead or not.
I have seen some smart people do some good work with it, and that is enough
for me. I thought the list might be interested in this piece that I picked up
from the Derrida list. As I recall, this thread began when someone asked for
undergrad material on pomo; here is one coherent explanation that I admire.

Stephanie Nelson
From: Andrew_Perry@Brown.edu (Andy Perry)
Newsgroups: alt.postmodern
Subject: Re: Deconstruction unexplained1
Followup-To: alt.postmodern
Date: 18 Oct 1993 20:28:19 GMT
Organization: Brown University Dept. of English
Lines: 151
Distribution: world
Message-ID: <Andrew_Perry-181093155259@cluster-182.cluster.brown.edu>
References: <29mt18INNocb@grumpy.symantec.com>

In article <29mt18INNocb@grumpy.symantec.com>, Scribbler <mb@Symantec.com>

> OK, OK-- I admit it. I don't know what deconstruction is.
> And I want to know. I am posting my query in this group,
> because I will get the maximum number of elegant flames,
> aphorisms, non-sequiters and reasonably responsive answers,
> of any group on the net.

I'm gonna try and keep my responses brief and bite-sized (fat chance).
Hope that makes them readable. It'll help to prevent injuring my brain, at
any rate...

> So-- What is deconstruction, anyway?

Here's one possible quick summary, with a definite cultural studies slant:

1. Meaning is constructed. This means specifically in this context that
meaning is created by silencing other dissenting voices. Everything is an
interpretation, and the only possible way to generate an interpretation as
true (according to this model) is to delicense other interpretations. The
fact that truth is always an effect of silencing other truths is captured
in the catch-phrase "epistemic violence."

2. Texts contain within themselves their own interpretations, in the sense
that there are specific meanings which are licensed and others which are
delicensed by any given text. This process is not wholely successful,
however, and all texts contain ruptures and contradictions which are
markers to the truths which have been silenced in order for other trues to
be created.

3. Deconstruction is a practice of reading these ruptures as the "returned
of the repressed," to see which meanings are necessarily precluded by the
accepted meanings. So in a sense, it is more accurate to say that a text
deconstructs itself than to say that you deconstruct it. (Here's the
cultural studies bit): These contradictions are further read as
inscriptions of larger cultural anxieties, and as such are read in terms of
the cultural work which the text does, and the meanings which it circulates
and those which it impedes from circulation.

4. An example: In _Macbeth_, Lady Macbeth says she has suckled children.
Macduff says that Macbeth doesn't have any children. This is a
contradiction, which can be traced to cultural anxieties about maternal
power and the feminine which inform the play. In other words, it is
necessary to the plot that Macbeth not have any kids, but it is necessary
to the cultural imaginary engaged by the play that Lady Macbeth be imaged
as an evil mother, so both things happen.

> What is the point of deconstructing something? What is
> the purpose of deconstructing? What am I looking for, or trying
> to prove?

Again, here is my answer, which is only one of many possible answers.

The implicit ethic informing Derridean deconstruction is self-awareness.
ALL TRUTHS are the effect of epistemic violence, including those
constructed by Derrida or any other theorist. The point is not to avoid
such violence, but to gain an understanding of what the effects and
consequences of your beliefs are. Which specific meanings does your
discourse preclude? What cultural problematics are you engaged in? These
are questions that you can only partially answer, but giving and attending
to those partial answers is admirable, in that you will no longer be
denying your effects and investments.

The other major answer to your question is "Western Metaphysics." This is
the Great Evil of deconstruction. What is it? Well, basically the
metaphysics of presence (oh that, right). Think of it in terms of Logic:
the law of the excluded middle (A and ^A and nothing in between) and the
law of non-contradiction [^(A + ^A)]. This is a way of mapping the world,
in terms of binary oppositions, which is incredibly insidious in terms of
the argument above about epistemic violence. Why? Simply because the
binary opposition is an incredibly efficient way to organize the world in a
way which seems to account for difference but doesn't. (To take a popular
current example, seeing race in terms of black and white ignores Asian,
Latino, Native American and other perspectives that don't quite fit in the
model.) Another criticism of the model is that it fails to account even
for the difference which it seems to be all about. So that in
psychoanalysis there is only one gender: male. Women are defined as
not-men, as the negative of the single term, rather than as a second
positive term.

Derrida in particular is engaged with the (a?) philosophical tradition in
order to reveal the depth metaphysics which inform all philosophy.

> What, if anything, should I select to deconstruct? Is there a
> selection criteria I should be aware of, or can I just deconstruct
> anything?

Deconstruct the things which are silencing you. Deconstruct the discourses
for which you are the other. Reveal the instances of epistemic violence
which prevent your voice from being heard.

Deconstruct the things which allow you to speak. Deconstruct the
discourses for which you are the norm. Reveal the instances of epistemic
violence which allow your voice to be heard.

> What are the rules I should follow when deconstructing something?
> What do I do first? Next? How do I tell when I have finished?
> How do I tell if I have done a good job?

Post-structuralism does not believe that there is an algorhythmic road to
truth. Ie, there can't really be any rules. That said, there is (perhaps
paradoxically) a standard methodology of deconstruction. 1. Isolate binary
oppositions within texts (good/bad, male/female, present/absent, etc) 2.
Show that one term is privileged over another 3. Flip the hierarchy and
show that the first term depends upon the second for its existence, so the
second is "really" the superior one 4. Junk the whole binary hierarchy
model by showing the fundamental instability of the terms you're looking
at. Tadaa! This, however, I would call "vulgar" deconstructionism. It
would be better to eshew this approach and just try to focus on
contradictions and make meaning out of them as best you can. It's best
(from within the discipline of English) to focus on contradictions between
the "letter" and the "spirit" of the text.

Such work is always provisional. It is never finished. This is both a
practical fact, and a statement with an ethical basis, in that unfinished
works are less likely to hide the contradictions which form them, and are
thus more self-aware.

> Is deconstruction a stand-alone process, or are there other
> tasks I must perform after I deconstruct something to finish
> the job?
> What do I do with all the little deconstructed pieces after
> I am done?

There are no little pieces left over. What is left over is the edifice you
thought you were deconstructing. This is a logical necessity. Derrida's
reinscription argument goes something like this: to deconstruct Western
Metaphysics, the concept of the sign is a necessary tool. We use it to
show the excess of meaning contained within discourse, the lack of control
of the speaker over his or her words, etc. But the concept of the sign
contains within it (analytically) the sensible/intelligible binary. This
is just a subset of the internal/external binary. The internal/external
binary *IS* Western Metaphysics. Therefore, any deconstruction of WM will
in fact strengthen WM. It goes on forever.

(Hence, Nietzsche smashes metaphysics of presence, which are found in his
discourse by Heidegger who really gets it right, until Derrida finds the
same stuff at work in Heidegger, ad nauseum, ad inifitum...)

> Your answers will help me sleep better at night.

That I doubt very much. :)

Andy Perry Struggling myself don't mean a whole lot;
Brown University I've come to realize
Dept of English That teaching others to stand up and fight
Andrew_Perry@Brown.edu OR Is the only way our struggle survives.
st001914@Brownvm.bitnet -- Sweet Honey in the Rock