Linked: How to Deconstruct Almost Anything

A Computer Engineer studies literary deconstruction and comes back with one hell of an essay:

The basic enterprise of contemporary literary criticism is actually quite simple. It is based on the observation that with a sufficient amount of clever handwaving and artful verbiage, you can interpret any piece of writing as a statement about anything at all.

So, so true.

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  • HP

    Maybe this is nitpicking, but deconstruction hasn’t been representative of the field since the early 90s, and even then it had plenty of opponents. New historicists and cultural materialists run things now, and as they tend to deal with history as much as literature, they get somewhat fewer incredulous glares from the outside.

    With that said — yeah, one could extrapolate from such poststructuralist realms as deconstruction and say that any text can mean anything, but that’s a gross oversimplification. Derrida himself spent most of his career rebuking people who made that assumption. Deconstruction, in fact, deals principally with the contradictions inherent to constructed things; often it doesn’t have too terribly much to do with “meaning” as generally defined (the deconstructionist would tell you that it has everything to do with meaning as defined by the deconstructionist, though). It’d be more accurate to say that the range of meanings applicable to a given text (broadly defined) is, for all intents and purposes, limitless, because the text we work with when we read is composed not so much of concrete elements as of whichever of our knowledge, experience, and assumptions those concrete elements bring to the forefront of our minds.

    In short, because of the arbitrary nature of language, texts mean different things to different people. But, for some reason, there’s a contingent of people who honestly think that the world would be better if some interpretations were by default superior to others. I’ll never understand those people.

    Bear in mind that this comes from a guy who, upon earning his MA, plans to shun literary academia proper and go into publishing — so I’m not trying to say that the field has no problems at all. That bit about “allowing a branch of academia that has been entrusted with the study of important problems to become isolated and inbred” feels painfully true to me. But not because of poststructuralism, which seems to get a bad rap for no good reason.

  • Eli James

    (A minor digression): I never fully understood the whole ‘writer is dead’ paradigm. Shouldn’t the writer’s interpretation of his own text be a better interpretation than others, by default? If he writes something to mean something particular, it’s a waste of time to argue that it really means something else.

    (This, of course, excludes where the writer is purposefully vague).

    Chomsky has a more encompassing critique of the field’s failings. I’m pretty certain that deconstruction has its place, but his argument about the field’s unclarity reads largely correct.

  • HP

    Lack of clarity is a problem, I think, and I agree, at least in part, with those who criticize deconstructionists for making a concept that really isn’t that complicated, when you boil it down, into something that only a select few jargon-wielders can do. That is one of the problems I have with the lit studies field.

    Regarding the death of the author, two things:

    Firstly, let’s say the author’s interpretation of some textual situation isn’t as relevant to your experience as an alternate interpretation you’ve come up with. Isn’t your interpretation then better for you? The fundamental assumption (once we get to Barthes, anyway) is that any interpretation is by its very nature a product of subjective experience; the interpretation lacks broad, objective value altogether, and so we can’t judge it in those terms (or, alternately, any value judgments we make in this case are ultimately arbitrary and therefore unnecessary).

    And, secondly, why limit a text’s range of possible meanings for any reason at all? Unrestrained meaning-making is one of the great things about the creative process that is reading, or so I tend to think — but then that’s just me, and different people use literature for different things…hence all that death of the author business.

    My being contrary aside, though, let me just say that I’ve followed your blog on and off for a little while now, and I’m always excited about what you’re doing here. Thanks for indulging me in these little theory rants I tend to embark upon :3