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.


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