Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Deconstruction (Not What You Think It Is)


(I am trying to rescue the word 'deconstruction'.)

In her book Another Gospel Alisa Childers gives her definition of 'deconstruction.'  She writes:

"In the context of faith, deconstruction is the process of systematically dissecting and often rejecting the beliefs you grew up with. Sometimes the Christian will deconstruct all the way into atheism. atheism. Some remain there, but others experience a reconstruction. But the type of faith they end up embracing almost never resembles the Christianity they formerly knew." (Childers, Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity, p. 24).

Elsewhere she adds, "[Deconstruction] has little to do with objective truth, and everything to do with tearing down whatever doctrine someone believes is morally wrong."

That's false. 'Deconstruction' has nothing to do with "tearing down," and its antonym is not "reconstruction." Childers uses a pop-version of 'deconstruction' as dismantling or tearing down. If 'deconstruction' were but another way to say "tearing down" then its employment is uninteresting, and hermeneutically impotent. 'Deconstruction,' in the scholarly sense, is far more interesting and provocative.

Pay attention now. This is from David Gunkel's book Deconstruction.  

"If you ask someone to explain it [deconstruction], what you typically get is a rather confused shell game of word substitutions, where “deconstruction” is loosely associated with other concepts like “disassembly,” “destruction,” “reverse engineering,” or “the act of taking something apart.” 

Despite the circulation of these familiar (mis)understandings, the term “deconstruction” does not indicate something negative. What it signifies is neither simply synonymous with destruction nor the opposite of construction. As Jacques Derrida, the fabricator of the neologism and progenitor of the concept, pointed out in the afterword to the book Limited Inc: “The ‘de-’ of deconstruction signifies not the demolition of what is constructing itself, but rather what remains to be thought beyond the constructionist or destructionist schema.” For this reason, deconstruction is something entirely other than what is typically understood and delimited by the conceptual opposition situated between the two terms “construction” and “destruction.” In fact, to put it schematically, deconstruction comprises a kind of general strategy by which to intervene in this and all the other logical oppositions and conceptual dichotomies that have and continue to organize how we think and how we speak. (Pp. 1-2. Italics mine. See Gunkel's chapter on deconstruction's (Derrida's) indebtedness to Hegel.)

Let's give a hat tip to Jacques Derrida. "Deconstruction" originated with Derrida. Since then, it is used in a variety of ways that are alien to what Derrida was saying. Often, perhaps always, the more a term is used, and as it enters public domain, it becomes misused, and gets vaguer and vaguer. This is what has happened to "deconstruction," which in America, has become synonymous with "destruction."

Now...  fasten your seat belts or, perhaps, just eject...  here is one of the best explanations of "deconstruction" I have read. It's from Christopher Norris's book Derrida.

Don't be offended as I say this. If you don't have some grasp of what Norris is saying, then you don't understand deconstruction. If you don't understand deconstruction, then wisdom says don't use the word. But, alas, this is what people do. I've done it too; viz., use words that, when I am pressed, I am unable to explain.

Norris writes:

"Deconstruction is neither 'method' on one hand not 'interpretation' on the other. In fact it is not too difficult to come up with a concise formula that would make it sound very much like a 'method' and yet describe accurately some of Derrida's most typical deconstructive moves. What these consist in, very briefly, is the dismantling of conceptual oppositions, the taking apart of hierarchical systems of thought which can then be reinscribed within a different order of textual signification. Or again: deconstruction is the vigilant seeking out of those 'aporias', blindspots or moments of self-contradiction where a text involuntarily betrays the tension between rhetoric and logic, between what it manifestly means to say and what it is nonetheless constrained to mean. To 'deconstruct' a piece of writing is therefore to operate a kind of strategic reversal, seizing on precisely those unregarded details (casual metaphors, footnotes, incidental turns of argument) which are always, and necessarily, passed over by interpreters of a more orthodox persuasion. For it is here, in the margins of the text - the 'margins', that is, as defined by a powerful normative consensus - that deconstruction discovers those same unsettling forces at work. So there is at least a certain prima facie case for the claim that deconstruction is a 'method' of reading with its own specific rules and protocols. And indeed, as we shall see, the above brief account of Derrida's deconstructive strategy does provide at least a fair working notion of what goes on in his texts." (p. 19)

Let me add a teaser here. For Derrida, deconstruction considers all subject predicate sentences (of the form S is P) false. To understand deconstruction includes understanding why Derrida thinks this way. And it is to understand why, for Derrida, writing is inferior to speech. But who has time to understand such things, except for a pastor like me who only works for two hours on Sunday mornings?

(And, BTW, deconstruction, when understood, has some intractable philosophical problems. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker despise it. That's another story...)