Deconstructing Deconstructionism: Exploring a philosophy that undermines itself

“The apple fell from the tree.” Do you think you know what that sentence means? Well think again. To most people, this sentence means that a pomaceous fruit produced by the flower of a tree belonging to the species Malus domestica was released from its stem and accelerated downward due to the force of gravity towards the earth’s center of mass until it was stopped by the ground. In other words, the sentence means exactly what it says: that the apple fell from the tree. But some people might disagree. According to them, this sentence could mean almost anything. While to some people it could mean what it seems to mean, to others, it might mean something completely different. To proud parents sending their son off to college, this sentence could metaphorically represent the natural process of releasing one’s offspring into the world. To those concerned about the direction our nation is headed politically, it could mean that the United States is on the verge of collapse. For some people, this sentence may be representative of the fact that European society has dominated the world primarily due to Newton’s discovery of the laws of motion. And for some people, this sentence might mean “yellow school bus”. And some people would tell you that all of those meanings are equally true, because in a sense, none of them are true. But if all meanings of a statement are true, and also at the same time untrue, where does that leave a reader trying to interpret a text? And furthermore, if two contradictory statements can be true at the same time, how are people supposed to interpret reality in general? These questions are answered by a school of thought known as deconstructionism, a philosophy with far reaching consequences in almost every area of society.

Deconstructionism is loosely defined as a style of literary criticism, but it is really more of a philosophy. Deconstructionism is built on a few simple ideas. The first is that every author writes from his or her own point of view. Of course, it doesn’t take much convincing to persuade someone of this fact. One has only to compare two editorial columns written in two separate newspapers about the exact same issue or event to see proof of this fact. The beliefs and ideals that the authors of the columns hold shape what they choose to write about, what details they choose to include or leave out, and how they decide to portray it. The result is that two columns in a newspaper describing the same event can convey two completely different messages. Obviously, this bias is not confined to editorial writing. In fact, according to deconstructionism, anything and everything that any author writes is shaped and molded by what the author believes.
The second tenant of deconstructionism is similar, but more extreme. In addition to believing that no writer is ever unbiased in his or her writing, deconstructionism also says that words have no absolute meaning. The classic illustration of this concept is that of the elephant. If I state that elephants are big, no one would argue with this fact. But they are small compared to the Empire State Building. Thus, the elephant is both big and small. How can something be both big and small at the same time? Simple. According to deconstructionism, a word by itself (the word “big” for example) has no absolute meaning. Words only have meanings when used with other words, so a word can be used to describe just about anything within the proper context.

If authors write with biases, and the words they use don’t have any real, absolute meaning in the first place, how should one go about reading and interpreting literature? Deconstructionism says that because of these ideas, each and every text has multiple meanings with multiple equally valid but also incompatible and contradictory interpretations. According to deconstructionism, when a person reads a piece of writing he must first deconstruct the piece, finding all the various possible interpretations. The reader must then reconstruct his own meaning by figuring out what the text means to him. So ten people may read the same text and come up with ten different meanings, which, according to deconstructionism, is a good thing. (Although according to some teachers, more often than not ten different students will come up with roughly the same interpretation.) Each independent interpretation is equally valid and true, while at the same time, none of them are ultimately true.

Deconstructionism may sound good in theory, but in practice it can have many negative consequences. Deconstructing the meaning of a piece of literature may indeed be fairly harmless, but this philosophy affects more than literature. Deconstructionism deconstructs all of reality, not only literature, and destroys the foundations for absolute truth. It serves to undermine truth in all of reality by depriving words of their absolute meanings.

Deconstructionism affects not only readers, but writers and artists. In previous centuries, art was an imitation of reality. Artists strove to transfer what they saw in reality onto a canvas or slab of marble. But the past century has seen an increasing amount of abstraction in literature, music, and artwork. Pablo Picasso’s impressionist artwork, “modern” music with no distinguishable melody, and Thomas Merton’s “A Festival of Rain” are all examples of deconstructionist artwork with no obvious meaning or purpose.

Some authors even go as far as to publish “non-fiction” books about events and stories that never actually happened. In her autobiographical novel, “I, Rigoberta Menchu”, Menchu tells the story of her child-hood in a poor Mayan family under oppression from western society. The novel gathered wide-spread attention, and was incorporated into the core civilization reading of many colleges. The novel even won Menchu a Nobel Prize. It wasn’t until ten years after publication that anthropologist David Stoll investigated many of the so-called “facts” about Menchu’s life and found them to be exaggerated or even fabricated in order to meet the publicity needs of the Marxist guerrilla movement. Based on over a hundred interviews with Menchu’s friends and neighbors, Stoll concluded that the accounts of poverty, deaths of siblings due to starvation and torture, lack of education, and extreme racism found in the book were either completely false or extremely exaggerated. According to a Guatemalan clerk who kept records during the time period in which Menchu’s book was to have taken place, the story was “one lie after another, and she knows it”. However, despite the evidence, the universities who had been so quick to incorporate her work did not remove the book from their curricula. Furthermore, Menchu refused to retract or revise certain clearly false parts of her book. When confronted with evidence showing that her brother had not been tortured with death by fire (an event which Menchu originally claimed to have witnessed), but had instead been executed by a firing squad, Menchu stated, “If someone will give me his body, I will change my view. My truth is that my brother Patrocinio was burned alive.” To Menchu, there is no one absolute truth. There is her personal truth, which may change from day to day, but there is not a universal truth. This may seem ridiculous, but from a deconstructionist perspective, it makes perfect sense. After all, deconstructionism says that everything is equally true, and at the same time nothing is really true. So “fiction” and “non-fiction” mean only what the author publishing the work decides they mean.

This lack of absolute truth affects every aspect of lives, from ethics to history to politics. History is open to interpretation, and one person’s interpretation of historical events is just as valid as anyone else’s, as in the case of Menchu. If the ideas found in deconstructionism are true, then our poor philosophers, whose main focus is to seek truth, are all out of a job, since in reality there is no truth. Of course, the United States Constitution is fair game for anyone who wants to decide what it means and how it applies, and one person’s interpretation is just as good as another’s. This can be seen in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ever liberal interpretations of phrases in the Bill of Rights. The phrase “the right to keep and bear arms” certainly seems to have absolute meaning, and yet depending upon the political views a person holds, that phrase can mean a myriad of things. And of course, the words “right” and “wrong” are not above other words; they too have no absolute meaning. So what is “right” and what is “wrong” also become open to interpretation. And since each interpretation is equally valid, according to deconstructionism a serial killer’s interpretations of “right” and “wrong” are every bit as valid as a priest’s. The result of this relativism is that everyone does what they feel is right rather then what is right. Taken a step further, this philosophy results in those who are in power arbitrarily deciding what is “right” based on what they feel is right. “Right” to Adolph Hitler may have meant that it was right to kill Jews. And since Hitler happened to be the person in power, he got to enforce his ideas of “right” and “wrong” on millions of innocent people. Ironically, not only does deconstructionism undermine the very purpose of many different studies (such as philosophy), but it also undermines the very reasons for studying literature. If the ultimate goal of reading literature is to construct one’s own personal meaning from another author’s work, then what is the point in reading what the author has to say in the first place? If all the reader is really after is what the reader brings to a text, then why bother reading the text to begin with?

Although deconstructionism may sound good in theory to some, it clearly has some very negative, far-reaching consequences. Unfortunately, deconstructionism as an idea has become so engrained in our culture that many people accept it as simply the way things ought to be (few people have a second thought when they are told to decide what a text “means to them”). Proponents of a deconstructionist philosophy ought to consider very carefully whether or not they are ready to face the complete ramifications of their theory. And while they’re at it, those who support the idea of deconstructionism might wish to consider the fact that their theory is self refuting. The statement “In reality, there is no truth” is completely contradictory (if there is no truth, there is no “reality”), so deconstructionism as a philosophy really destroys the foundations upon which it is built. Of course, the stalwart and steadfast amongst the deconstructionist movement ought to be perfectly thrilled about the fact that their philosophy is riddled with contradictions, since this falls right in line with their way of thinking, which states that all writing contains contradictions. In reality, most deconstructionists are not so happy when opponents of deconstructionism set out to criticize, (or “deconstruct”, so to speak), their philosophy. But, in theory at least, nothing would make a true deconstructionist happier than a literature student pondering what the question “What does this mean to you?” means to them.

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List of sources:
Derrida, J., 1983. “The time of a thesis: punctuations” from Philosophy in France Today ed. Alan Montefiore. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. p.40
TARNISHED LAUREATE: A special report.; Nobel Winner Finds Her Story Challenged by Larry Rohter, New York Times, Published December 15, 1998
http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/15/world/tarnished-laureate-a-special-report-nobel-winner-finds-her-story-challenged.html?scp=7&sq=rigoberta menchu&st=cse&pagewanted=1
Guatemala Laureate Defends ‘My Truth’ By Julia Preston, New York Times, Published January 21, 1999

My truth 🙂

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