What is deconstructionism?

I recently had a conversation about merit and I used the term objective (as in objective criteria) and I was told that the term objective was meaningless.

Apparently deconstructionism proves this but I can’t really figure out wtf deconstructionism is (at least not based on the wiki article).

It’s postmodernism.



It’s not surprising if you can’t make head nor tail of it, since much of it is impenetrable obscurantist nonsense. Clarity is anathema to postmodernists, their writing is more akin to performance art than an attempt to communicate ideas.

There’s considerable value in the idea that many things we take for granted are in fact highly subjective and arbitrary, a function of cultural and social context, and that deconstruction gives us insight to realize this. So far so good. But some postmodernists take this notion to preposterous extremes, claiming that there are no objective truths or reality at all even in the hard sciences.

Or, as Moe Szyslak put it, “Weird for the sake of weird”.

Deconstructionism is… hmmm, how to simplify… a reaction against structuralism which is the idea that ideas can rest on giant structures or narratives that underpin human existence. Deconstructionism would deny these objective narratives. Maybe an example would be a newspaper article that says ‘A white woman was raped by a black man.’ There’s a plain meaning to that, but there’s a much different narrative that underpins that. It traffics on a preconceived structure that the reader is familiar with (or perhaps not, but a deconstructionist would claim that the author is familiar with the narrative, regardless of the familiarity of the reader.) We already have an idea of what this white woman is and what this black man is as well as what the rape is (or at least the author does.) Deconstructionism would try to divorce those words from the inherent structure that comes with them. It would also claim that each of these structures is inherently subjective anyway and that they exist only in the mind of the author and reader. By deconstructing them, we end up with another text that similarly must be deconstructed. So deconstructionism takes a text and attempts to derive what it ‘really’ says or at least what the author ‘really’ wants it to say.

As an aside, deconstructionism doesn’t ‘prove’ anything, anymore than existentialism ‘proves’ something. It’s a philosophical system of thought (or more accurately a way of looking at texts) that comes to conclusions that one may or may not agree with. It may appeal to you, but it may equally be thought of as bunk by someone else. It doesn’t offer any proof as to its veracity.

I’ll give two very simple examples, which are by nature inadequate because (1) every deconstructionist knows that words are fundamentally inadequate and (2) Derrida himself wrote page after page without ever succinctly explaining what deconstructionism is.

There’s a famous painting called ‘The Treachery of Images,’ by Rene Magritte. It has a painting of a pipe along with the words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (French for “This is not a pipe.”) An observer would look at the painting and say, “What the hell is this? Of course it’s a pipe! Everyone knows what a pipe looks like!” But a deconstructionist would say, “No, it is not a pipe. It is merely paint splattered on a canvas. Not a pipe at all. The best we can say of it is that we agree - by common consent - that this particular arrangement of paint creates the illusion or semblance of a pipe.”

And the rest of us just shrug and go back to watching Netflix.

This is deconstructionism at work. It starts with the assumption that all language consists of symbols that are necessarily inadequate and unfixed in their meaning. Different people at different times will reach different interpretations based on their own understanding. A deconstructionist will look at a piece of text and deliberately question everything about it, from the meaning of words to the context in which it was written. At best, this allows us to gain new perspectives on things. At worst, it’s a bunch of self-important navel-gazing gibberish.

This is what people are (probably) talking about when they say there is no objectivity in literature or speech. It is impossible for us to really interpret what Magritte’s painting of a not-pipe what intended to communicate or what Magritte intended by it. It looks pretty darn clear that it is a pipe to me, but Magritte insisted it was not a pipe. We can only guess at and try to infer the meaning of the painting by studying the context and the background of the artist.

I’ll give a second example: I once encountered a budding young deconstructionist who said ‘Return of the Jedi’ was actually a movie about the Vietnam War, in which the Stormtroopers represented America and the Ewoks represented the Vietnamese. Clearly, in his mind, he thought that because George Lucas grew up in the Vietnam era, this was not an unreasonable interpretation of the hidden message underlying ‘Return of the Jedi.’

I mention this not because his interpretation is ‘correct,’ (in fact, I think this guy was an idiot) but rather as an example of what deconstructionists do. They try to dismantle everything to examine the core assumptions and contextual clues to arrive at new interpretations. And because everything is subjective and there is no objectivity in literature, it is impossible to prove that ‘Return of the Jedi’ is not a secret metaphor for Vietnam.

In case you were wondering, my response was: “Jesus Christ, dude. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis had his devil in “The Screwtape Letters” say:

Applying the concept to the OP’s example, you might say something like doing A has more merit than doing B, because the outcome makes more people happy. Objectivity comes from measuring and comparing happy customers from A and B. Simple.

But you’d be wrong! Deconstructing leads you to look at that scenario from different perspectives. The idea is to look hard at the assumptions underlying what seem to be obvious or self-evident concepts.

For example, maybe Option A makes people happy by paying less tax. What is not said is that others then have to take on a higher tax burden, but because we are only counting happy people, we are counting happiness as having value, whereas non-happiness is not counted and therefore has no value in our equation.

Other examples in public policy are many. The main idea is to unpack the implicit value judgements used in making decisions.

Unfortunately as others have pointed out we rapidly enter a vast swamp of obscure language and wankery once we talk about this through post-modern discourse relative to the hegemonic saliency of etc etc.

There is a lot that is good about thinking in this manner, but it could nearly all be found in a good critical thinking course, and without the waffle.

The specific example that the deconstructionist in my case was the case of test scores.

I said that test scores were objective (as opposed to letters of recommendation which are subjective).

Apparently this is not true.

The magnet schools in NYC use a standardized exam to place students in the school. The mayor is trying to add all sorts of other factors to try and make the schools more diverse (it is currently 75% Asian). He wanted to give poor kids a preference but then it turned out that Asians in NYC had the highest poverty rate of all racial groups. Then he tried to eliminate the test altogether and just go with a holistic admission process that would have cut the Asian population in half and quintupled the black and hispanic population from 9% to 45%. But it would have required a change in law. One that he could not politically achieve.

P.S. So now the mayor is trying to limit the preference to kids who go to schools where the AVERAGE student family income is lowest. Asians are frequently the poorest kids in decent school districts (a lot of the stereotypes surrounding asians as uncool comes from this fact, money can make kids “cool”).

The problem with deconstruction and related philosophies (or anti-philosophies, actually) is that there may in fact be an objective meaning —it’s just that no one can ever know that their understanding of the subject matter overlaps with objective meaning or fails to do so. “Objective” as traditionally defined invokes “what it actually is, as opposed to your slanted, subjective take on it”. A deconstruction-insights-compliant “objectivity” would be a perspective that, even given everyone’s vastly different viewing angle and different prior histories etc, is common among all people. To borrow a term from astronomy, it’s where you don’t have any parallax between one person’s subjective experience and anyone else’s subjecive experience. And, as with astronomy, you find those situations most often in cases where the subject matter is quite a ways “away” from the observers rather than being right in the midst of the zone where they themselves interact and interpret each other’s interpretations ad infinitum. Thus:

Perspectives on rules governing mathematical operations: very ‘objective’

Perspectives on what is the ideal political solution to current social problems: nowhere close

Perspectives on inorganic chemical processes: pretty ‘objective’ overall

Perspectives on organic chemical processes: somewhat less so
At its core, the notion that an ‘objective’ viewpoint exists even for all these things that we don’t agree on boils down to the story of the blind men and the elephant: if all those blind men compared notes and kept fumbling around and didn’t dismiss each other’s perspectives, they’d eventually come up with a description that would not negate anyone’s experienc of the elephant but would instead put that experience in context, a context that would include the other blind observers’ experiences.

Deconstruction as an attitude and/or pseudo-philosophy is dismissive of that possibility. I have seen it embraced and touted, and where I have seen that I have seen the participants who believe in it most strongly devolve into folks who believe that the only thing happening “socially” is a struggle to impose one’s view on others (“because there is no correct view, there’s only his view and her view and my view and your view, and hey let’s go with mine, shall we?”)

That’s not to say that there has not been a long history of people imposing views on others from the position that yes there is too an objective meaning, and it just so happens that they know what it is and if you don’t agree with them you’re wrong. Of course there has been.

But deconstruction is not much of a cure for coercion.

I would agree with all of this except for the last sentence. Deconstruction throws out the apparent structure of the text and makes its meaning contingent on nothing but the text, the intent of the author(s), and the response of of the audience(s). The conversation between the creator and listener is the only structure that matters. With regard to the text, there is no object, only the interaction of subjects.