What is deconstruction?

Posted by jerry on March 2nd, 2006 — Posted in Journal, Writing

I can barely count the number of times that the term ‘deconstruction’ has been used – perjoratively – as a synonym for ‘destruction’. Such writers immediately mark themselves out as having not read the primary literature, or they have willfully miscast the term, or merely aped some of the poorer secondary literature.

Like energy, deconstruction is not about destruction, but rather, reconstrual (see my cheat-sheet on Derrida here). Deconstruction offers a tool that is more sophisticated than just reversing seemingly ‘natural’ binary hierarchies. It offers a way of making explicit the conditions under which such hierarchies seem to be natural, and does so without simplistic oppositional tactics that leave themselves open to the criticism that the assumptions remain the same, just the players have changed.

The value of deconstruction is that it provides a tool with which to genuinely rethink a ‘given’ order of things. And it really isn’t that difficult.

Warren Hedges provides an accessible guide to deconstruction which offers in part:
“deconstruction works “within an opposition,” but “upsets [its] hierarchy by producing an exchange of properties.” This disrupts not only the hierarchy, but the opposition itself.

For any given set of binary terms:

  • good/evil;
  • man/woman;
  • democracy/totalitarianism, and so on,

one could reverse the hierarchies to show that:

  • evil is stronger than good;
  • or women are smarter than men;
  • or that totalitarianism shows strength and resolve against the lowest common denominator of the popular vote.

But to do so leaves the binary in place, merely reversing the power structure.

One could instead deconstruct the binaries:

  • good and evil are interdependent and relative terms which cannot be defined without reference to each other and in relation to the context in which they are defined, and depending on a subjective perspective;
  • cultural differences in the way men and women are educated can lead to assumptions about intelligence being gender-based;
  • democracy and totalitarianism are two kinds of political organisation that each have strengths in different contexts.

Each of these statements addresses the opposition that it depends on, by neither reversing the opposition, nor destroying it, but instead deconstruction reveals the inherent instability of the basis on which the opposition rests.

There is a mistaken view that this approach leads to pure relativism, and that therefore there is no basis for judgement, or values. It is true that deconstruction is an aspect of contemporary sceptical philosophy, but it is relativistic only insofar as it is anti-foundationalist – that is, it rests on the assertion that there can be no absolute universal position on which to base truth claims. Deconstruction and other anti-foundationalist approaches deal with the mess of human culture here and now – embedded in history and in context.

Deconstruction sees absolute values as an abdication of human responsibility – a recourse to religious faith for absolute values is a way of not taking responsibility for one’s behaviour, but rather of deflecting responsibility to a set of ‘god-given’ rules. It avoids the need for thought and for responsible judgement. Deconstruction takes the view that values are historically and culturally determined – and essentially contested – so growth and change is possible in accordance with changes in human circumstances: the operation of historical processes. Ethics depends therefore on what is culturally appropriate at that time and in that context. But it allows for differences between cultures, and differences across time and in different contexts.

The basis for ethics and values for a deconstructionist (one who practices deconstruction) therefore lies in the sedimentation of human history and cultural circumstances. It is essentially political insofar as each person at each decision point decides to reinforce the dominant cultural practice, or to resist it – so it requires people to take responsibility for their own actions, rather than claim ‘it is written’ or ‘it is God’s will’. It also avoids the excuse some offer for not taking action, or for not taking a particular course, that ‘it is only natural’ – sorry mate: it’s only cultural and we don’t all have to agree.


Wandering Moleskine Project v.2

Posted by jerry on February 7th, 2006 — Posted in Journal, Writing

Yes it’s official – the Wandering Moleskine Project is on again, starting 1 May 2006! I was privileged to be part of the previous one – and was even quoted in the New York Times article about wandering notebooks 🙂

This is a wonderful project – bringing people together across the world


Moleskine and Waterman pen

Posted by jerry on February 6th, 2006 — Posted in Journal, Writing

waterman pen and moleskine notebook

moleskine notebooks are my constant companion – my preference always being for the squared paper pocket sized ones. And my trusty Waterman fountain pen – the ink does not bleed into the moleskine paper. And here’s the proof:

Moleskine notebook

Some people seem to have trouble with fountain pens on Moleskines – perhaps they use a really broad nib?

The other day I pulled out my pen as usual, and noticed to my horror that the pen is now looking a bit careworn. It’s only about two years old, but the enamel is starting to show signs of wear. The pen itself is still wonderful to write with – one of the few fountain pens I can trust on an aircraft not to leak – but I have to acknowledge that sometimes sharing a pocket with my keys is not a good idea!

Moleskine notebook

Ah well, it is showing its history, having been carted around folk festivals, written in my journal on the Great Wall in China, and it carries many memories in its short existence. This is the pen that wrote the entry on the Wandering Moleskine Project (Moleskine number eight), as well as the one that sketched the outline of my shed refurbishment.


The essential guide for English usage

Posted by jerry on January 28th, 2006 — Posted in Journal, Writing

I do a lot of writing, and wherever I write I always carry one indispensible grammar guide – and that is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

More concise than Fowler’s The King’s English; Clearer than the MLA guidelines, the Elements of Style is the ultimate guide to spotting split infinitives and the correct use of the apostrophe.

Strunk uses a terse declarative style which is clear and unambiguous – and there is not a single extraneous word in the whole book – and it’s all online 🙂


English embroidered book bindings

Posted by jerry on January 26th, 2006 — Posted in History, Journal, Writing

I was having a quick browse of the Project Gutenberg top 100 books for 26 Jan and came across this one not too far from the top – It is the complete “English Embroidered Bookbindings” by Cyril Davenport. This is a fascinating look at embroidered bookbindings, and includes essays on the embroidery techniques employed. The language is a bit “Mr Collins” of Pride and Prejudice – a bit on the precious side, but the articles make great reading.

Embroidered book

Davenport categories the bindings into four classes: heraldic, figure, floral, and arabesque. He further divides the figure designs into three: scriptural, symbolic, or portraits. He then also categorises them according to the material on which they are worked: canvas, velvet or satin, noting that canvas was used from the 14th to the 17th centuries, but notes that velvet was most largely used during the Tudor period, while satin was the material of choice for the early stuart period.

embroidered book

The stitching techniques are illustrated, as are examples of embroidered book bags. There is a large number of illustrations – mostly in black and white, but it is clear that there is some exquisite work in these book bindings.