All beliefs and expressions are influenced by their speakers and cultures, undermining their claim to universal truth. This is nowhere more true than among the postmodern intelligentsia. To note that Plato, Shakespeare, Aquinas all had views conditioned by their surrounding cultures – yes, yes of course. But so too do you, my postmodernist, or marxist feminist friend. You also are conditioned by your culture. Not the Western popular culture which you so easily despise, but your culture, the ideas hidden underneath the words of your postmodernist and marxist feminist associates. You are not a prisoner of your father’s values, but of your friends’ values.
Deconstruction has a bad name in conservative circles, but we use something like it all the time. One does not have to believe that all of reality is merely a construction based on uncertain assumptions to use the techniques of deconstruction. Everyone, in fact, believes that some other people have constructed a world-view that is a house of cards. Atheists believe that of religious people. Religious people believe that of atheists. Few of us are good at deconstructing our own beliefs, though we might make attempts in limited areas.
But really, among the academics who use the tools of deconstruction all the time, which of them has deconstructed the writings of the anti-war movement? To deconstruct is to reveal the underlying assumptions* of a set of ideas. The critic reads the text noticing not only what is written, but what is left out. Say we read a history and note that there are no women mentioned. Reflecting on why the source documents don’t mention them, or why the current author did not endeavor to discover something about them, or why editors would pass over this, or your professor assign the work is to begin to deconstruct the text. Discovering hidden psychological issues, looking at words chosen and words seemingly avoided, examining how the writer believes she knows what she knows – these are all deconstructive tools. In the visual arts, examining the background, the size, the materials, the juxtaposition can all be revealing.
Elaborations on this can go far afield, noting the seeming accidental sound correspondence between words that reveal parallel or reverse meaning. Important sounds much like impotent, and a text that overuses or overemphasizes the former term may be unconsciously suggesting the latter. Objections to deconstructionist readings often fasten in ridicule on such distant associations. A deconstructionist would maintain that working often in this environment of hidden and elusive associations teaches one to perceive them more easily. The objectivist would maintain that the delicate and subtle threads of this cloth are in fact nothing at all, and that the emperor has no clothes.
I find deconstruction in the limited sense to be a useful tool for reading and understanding speech and writing. It is a type of critical reading which looks underneath, beside, behind, and in the mirror. There is something quite addictive about it, however, and the desire to see deeper and deeper into the mysteries which elude lesser mortals is quite sweet to entertain. Deconstruction can easily disintegrate into codespeak among practitioners, congratulating themselves that their opacity of expression proves their exceptional abilities of understanding.
Deconstruction is a weapon meant to be used on one’s own personal and collective beliefs, which everyone uses on others instead. Modernists and postmodernists both use it, with this difference: postmodernists claim they use it on everyone, including themselves; modernists claim they use it on no one. Both use it on the other.
Those who read around among the psychbloggers should note that deconstruction is very much what Dr. Sanity, One Cosmos, and others do. They note what things are left out of progressive arguments, what reverse or punning meanings apply, what authorities progressives “privilege” to speak, and what all this means for understanding their texts.
*Yes, that is a very simplified definition, but you’d be surprized how well it holds up in practice. There is considerable resistance to any simple definition of deconstruction, as definition itself gets caught up in frameworks of epistemology and authority. Nonetheless, however long Derrida, DeMan and their devotees go on about how elusive it is to define deconstruction, and how it is all about the conversation that one has with the texts and our viewing of them, whenever they actually deconstruct something, this is what they do.
I relate this to the Duke Men's lacrosse case here.