Fun_People Archive
21 Aug
How To Deconstruct Almost Anything

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Wed, 21 Aug 96 23:46:15 -0700
To: Fun_People
Subject: How To Deconstruct Almost Anything

Forwarded-by: Keith Bostic <>
Forwarded-by: Wendell Craig Baker <wbaker@splat.Baker.COM>

                     How To Deconstruct Almost Anything

                           My Postmodern Adventure

                             by Chip Morningstar
                            Electric Communities

         "Academics get paid for being clever, not for being right."
                              -- Donald Norman

This is the story of one computer professional's explorations in the world
of postmodern literary criticism. I'm a working software engineer, not a
student nor an academic nor a person with any real background in the
humanities. Consequently, I've approached the whole subject with a
somewhat different frame of mind than perhaps people in the field are
accustomed to.  Being a vulgar engineer I'm allowed to break a lot of the
rules that people in the humanities usually have to play by, since nobody
expects an engineer to be literate. Ha. Anyway, here is my tale.

It started when my colleague Randy Farmer and I presented a paper at the
Second International Conference on Cyberspace, held in Santa Cruz,
California in April, 1991. Like the first conference, at which we also
presented a paper, it was an aggressively interdisciplinary gathering,
drawing from fields as diverse as computer science, literary criticism,
engineering, history, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and political
science. About the only relevant field that seemed to lack strong
representation was economics (an important gap but one which we don't have
room to get into here). It was in turn stimulating, aggravating, fascinating
and infuriating, a breathtaking intellectual roller coaster ride unlike
anything else I've recently encountered in my professional life. My last
serious brush with the humanities in an academic context had been in
college, ten years earlier. The humanities appear to have experienced a
considerable amount of evolution (or perhaps more accurately, genetic drift)
since then.

Randy and I were scheduled to speak on the second day of the conference.
This was fortunate because it gave us the opportunity to recalibrate our
presentation based on the first day's proceedings, during which we
discovered that we had grossly mischaracterized the audience by assuming
that it would be like the crowd from the first conference. I spent most of
that first day furiously scribbling notes. People kept saying the most
remarkable things using the most remarkable language, which I found I needed
to put down in writing because the words would disappear from my brain
within seconds if I didn't. Are you familiar with the experience of having
memories of your dreams fade within a few minutes of waking? It was like
that, and I think for much the same reason. Dreams have a logic and
structure all their own, falling apart into unmemorable pieces that make no
sense when subjected to the scrutiny of the conscious mind. So it was with
many of the academics who got up to speak. The things they said were largely
incomprehensible. There was much talk about deconstruction and signifiers
and arguments about whether cyberspace was or was not "narrative". There was
much quotation from Baudrillard, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Saussure, and the
like, every single word of which was impenetrable. I'd never before had the
experience of being quite this baffled by things other people were saying.
I've attended lectures on quantum physics, group theory, cardiology, and
contract law, all fields about which I know nothing and all of which have
their own specialized jargon and notational conventions. None of those
lectures were as opaque as anything these academics said. But I captured on
my notepad an astonishing collection of phrases and a sense of the overall
tone of the event.

We retreated back to Palo Alto that evening for a quick rewrite. The first
order of business was to excise various little bits of phraseology that we
now realized were likely to be perceived as Politically Incorrect. Mind you,
the fundamental thesis of our presentation was Politically Incorrect, but we
wanted people to get upset about the actual content rather than the form in
which it was presented. Then we set about attempting to add something that
would be an adequate response to the postmodern lit crit-speak we had been
inundated with that day. Since we had no idea what any of it meant (or even
if it actually meant anything at all), I simply cut-and-pasted from my
notes. The next day I stood up in front of the room and opened our
presentation with the following:

     The essential paradigm of cyberspace is creating partially
     situated identities out of actual or potential social reality in
     terms of canonical forms of human contact, thus renormalizing the
     phenomenology of narrative space and requiring the naturalization
     of the intersubjective cognitive strategy, and thereby resolving
     the dialectics of metaphorical thoughts, each problematic to the
     other, collectively redefining and reifying the paradigm of the
     parable of the model of the metaphor.

This bit of nonsense was constructed entirely out of things people had
actually said the day before, except for the last ten words or so which are
a pastiche of Danny Kaye's "flagon with the dragon" bit from The Court
Jester, contributed by our co-worker Gayle Pergamit, who took great glee in
the entire enterprise. Observing the audience reaction was instructive. At
first, various people started nodding their heads in nods of profound
understanding, though you could see that their brain cells were beginning to
strain a little. Then some of the techies in the back of the room began to
giggle. By the time I finished, unable to get through the last line with a
straight face, the entire room was on the floor in hysterics, as by then
even the most obtuse English professor had caught on to the joke. With the
postmodernist lit crit shit thus defused, we went on with our actual

Contrary to the report given in the "Hype List" column of issue #1 of Wired
("Po-Mo Gets Tek-No", page 87), we did not shout down the postmodernists. We
made fun of them.

Afterward, however, I was left with a sense that I should try to actually
understand what these people were saying, really. I figured that one of
three cases must apply. It could be that there was truly some content there
of value, once you learned the lingo. If this was the case, then I wanted to
know what it was. On the other hand, perhaps there was actually content
there but it was bogus (my working hypothesis), in which case I wanted to be
able to respond to it credibly. On the third hand, maybe there was no
content there after all, in which case I wanted to be able to write these
clowns off without feeling guilty that I hadn't given them due

The subject that I kept hearing about over and over again at the conference
was deconstruction. I figured I'd start there. I asked my friend Michael
Benedikt for a pointer to some sources. I had gotten to know Michael when he
organized the First International Conference on Cyberspace. I knew him to be
a person with a foot in the lit crit camp but also a person of clear
intellectual integrity who was not a fool. He suggested a book called On
Deconstruction by Jonathan Culler. I got the book and read it. It was a
stretch, but I found I could work my way through it, although I did end up
with the most heavily marked up book in my library by the time I was done.
The Culler book lead me to some other things, which I also read. And I
started subscribing to alt.postmodern and now actually find it interesting,
much of the time. I can't claim to be an expert, but I feel I've reached the
level of a competent amateur. I think I can explain it. It turns out that
there's nothing to be afraid of.

We engineers are frequently accused of speaking an alien language, of
wrapping what we do in jargon and obscurity in order to preserve the
technological priesthood. There is, I think, a grain of truth in this
accusation. Defenders frequently counter with arguments about how what we do
really is technical and really does require precise language in order to
talk about it clearly. There is, I think, a substantial bit of truth in this
as well, though it is hard to use these grounds to defend the use of the
term "grep" to describe digging through a backpack to find a lost item, as a
friend of mine sometimes does. However, I think it's human nature for
members of any group to use the ideas they have in common as metaphors for
everything else in life, so I'm willing to forgive him.

The really telling factor that neither side of the debate seems to cotton
to, however, is this: technical people like me work in a commercial
environment. Every day I have to explain what I do to people who are
different from me -- marketing people, technical writers, my boss, my
investors, my customers -- none of whom belong to my profession or share my
technical background or knowledge. As a consequence, I'm constantly forced
to describe what I know in terms that other people can at least begin to
understand. My success in my job depends to a large degree on my success in
so communicating. At the very least, in order to remain employed I have to
convince somebody else that what I'm doing is worth having them pay for it.

Contrast this situation with that of academia. Professors of Literature or
History or Cultural Studies in their professional life find themselves
communicating principally with other professors of Literature or History or
Cultural Studies. They also, of course, communicate with students, but
students don't really count. Graduate students are studying to be professors
themselves and so are already part of the in-crowd. Undergraduate students
rarely get a chance to close the feedback loop, especially at the so called
"better schools" (I once spoke with a Harvard professor who told me that it
is quite easy to get a Harvard undergraduate degree without ever once
encountering a tenured member of the faculty inside a classroom; I don't
know if this is actually true but it's a delightful piece of slander
regardless). They publish in peer reviewed journals, which are not only
edited by their peers but published for and mainly read by their peers (if
they are read at all). Decisions about their career advancement, tenure,
promotion, and so on are made by committees of their fellows. They are
supervised by deans and other academic officials who themselves used to be
professors of Literature or History or Cultural Studies. They rarely have
any reason to talk to anybody but themselves -- occasionally a Professor of
Literature will collaborate with a Professor of History, but in academic
circles this sort of interdisciplinary work is still considered sufficiently
daring and risque as to be newsworthy.

What you have is rather like birds on the Galapagos islands -- an isolated
population with unique selective pressures resulting in evolutionary
divergence from the mainland population. There's no reason you should be
able to understand what these academics are saying because, for several
generations, comprehensibility to outsiders has not been one of the
selective criteria to which they've been subjected. What's more, it's not
particularly important that they even be terribly comprehensible to each
other, since the quality of academic work, particularly in the humanities,
is judged primarily on the basis of politics and cleverness. In fact, one of
the beliefs that seems to be characteristic of the postmodernist mind set is
the idea that politics and cleverness are the basis for all judgments about
quality or truth, regardless of the subject matter or who is making the
judgment. A work need not be right, clear, original, or connected to
anything outside the group. Indeed, it looks to me like the vast bulk of
literary criticism that is published has other works of literary criticism
as its principal subject, with the occasional reference to the odd work of
actual literature tossed in for flavoring from time to time.

Thus it is not surprising that it takes a bit of detective work to puzzle
out what is going on. But I've been on the case for a while now and I think
I've identified most of the guilty suspects. I hope I can spare some of my
own peers the inconvenience and wasted time of actually doing the legwork
themselves (though if you have an inclination in that direction I recommend
it as a mind stretching departure from debugging C code).

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. The broader movement that goes
under the label "postmodernism" generalizes this principle from writing to
all forms of human activity, though you have to be careful about applying
this label, since a standard postmodernist tactic for ducking criticism is
to try to stir up metaphysical confusion by questioning the very idea of
labels and categories. "Deconstruction" is based on a specialization of the
principle, in which a work is interpreted as a statement about itself, using
a literary version of the same cheap trick that Kurt Godel used to try to
frighten mathematicians back in the thirties.

Deconstruction, in particular, is a fairly formulaic process that hardly
merits the commotion that it has generated. However, like hack writers or
television producers, academics will use a formula if it does the job and
they are not held to any higher standard (though perhaps Derrida can
legitimately claim some credit for originality in inventing the formula in
the first place). Just to clear up the mystery, here is the formula,

Step 1 -- Select a work to be deconstructed. This a called a "text" and is
generally a piece of text, though it need not be. It is very much within the
lit crit mainstream to take something which is not text and call it a text.
In fact, this can be a very useful thing to do, since it leaves the critic
with broad discretion to define what it means to "read" it and thus a great
deal of flexibility in interpretation. It also allows the literary critic to
extend his reach beyond mere literature. However, the choice of text is
actually one of the less important decisions you will need to make, since
points are awarded on the basis of style and wit rather than substance,
although more challenging works are valued for their greater potential for
exercising cleverness. Thus you want to pick your text with an eye to the
opportunities it will give you to be clever and convoluted, rather than
whether the text has anything important to say or there is anything
important to say about it. Generally speaking, obscure works are better than
well known ones, though an acceptable alternative is to choose a text from
the popular mass media, such as a Madonna video or the latest Danielle
Steele novel. The text can be of any length, from the complete works of
Louis L'Amour to a single sentence. For example, let's deconstruct the
phrase, "John F. Kennedy was not a homosexual."

Step 2 -- Decide what the text says. This can be whatever you want, although
of course in the case of a text which actually consists of text it is easier
if you pick something that it really does say. This is called "reading". I
will read our example phrase as saying that John F. Kennedy was not a

Step 3 -- Identify within the reading a distinction of some sort. This can
be either something which is described or referred to by the text directly
or it can be inferred from the presumed cultural context of a hypothetical
reader. It is a convention of the genre to choose a duality, such as
man/woman, good/evil, earth/sky, chocolate/vanilla, etc. In the case of our
example, the obvious duality to pick is homosexual/heterosexual, though a
really clever person might be able to find something else.

Step 4 -- Convert your chosen distinction into a "hierarchical opposition"
by asserting that the text claims or presumes a particular primacy,
superiority, privilege or importance to one side or the other of the
distinction. Since it's pretty much arbitrary, you don't have to give a
justification for this assertion unless you feel like it. Programmers and
computer scientists may find the concept of a hierarchy consisting of only
two elements to be a bit odd, but this appears to be an established
tradition in literary criticism. Continuing our example, we can claim
homophobia on the part of the society in which this sentence was uttered and
therefor assert that it presumes superiority of heterosexuality over

Step 5 -- Derive another reading of the text, one in which it is interpreted
as referring to itself. In particular, find a way to read it as a statement
which contradicts or undermines either the original reading or the ordering
of the hierarchical opposition (which amounts to the same thing). This is
really the tricky part and is the key to the whole exercise. Pulling this
off successfully may require a variety of techniques, though you get more
style points for some techniques than for others. Fortunately, you have a
wide range of intellectual tools at your disposal, which the rules allow you
to use in literary criticism even though they would be frowned upon in
engineering or the sciences. These include appeals to authority (you can
even cite obscure authorities that nobody has heard of), reasoning from
etymology, reasoning from puns, and a variety of word other games. You are
allowed to use the word "problematic" as a noun. You are also allowed to
pretend that the works of Freud present a correct model of human psychology
and the works of Marx present a correct model of sociology and economics
(it's not clear to me whether practitioners in the field actually believe
Freud and Marx or if it's just a convention of the genre).

You get maximum style points for being French. Since most of us aren't
French, we don't qualify for this one, but we can still score almost as much
by writing in French or citing French sources. However, it is difficult for
even the most intense and unprincipled American academician writing in
French to match the zen obliqueness of a native French literary critic.
Least credit is given for a clear, rational argument which makes its case
directly, though of course that is what I will do with our example since,
being gainfully employed, I don't have to worry about graduation or tenure.
And besides, I'm actually trying to communicate here. Here is a possible
argument to go with our example:

It is not generally claimed that John F. Kennedy was a homosexual. Since it
is not an issue, why would anyone choose to explicitly declare that he was
not a homosexual unless they wanted to make it an issue? Clearly, the reader
is left with a question, a lingering doubt which had not previously been
there. If the text had instead simply asked, "Was John F. Kennedy a
homosexual?", the reader would simply answer, "No." and forget the matter.
If it had simply declared, "John F. Kennedy was a homosexual.", it would
have left the reader begging for further justification or argument to
support the proposition. Phrasing it as a negative declaration, however,
introduces the question in the reader's mind, exploiting society's
homophobia to attack the reputation of the fallen President. What's more,
the form makes it appear as if there is ongoing debate, further legitimizing
the reader's entertainment of the question. Thus the text can be read as
questioning the very assertion that it is making.

Of course, no real deconstruction would be like this. I only used a single
paragraph and avoided literary jargon. All of the words will be found in a
typical abridged dictionary and were used with their conventional meanings.
I also wrote entirely in English and did not cite anyone. Thus in an English
literature course I would probably get a D for this, but I already have my
degree so I don't care.

Another minor point, by the way, is that we don't say that we deconstruct
the text but that the text deconstructs itself. This way it looks less like
we are making things up.

That's basically all there is to it, although there is an enormous variety
of stylistic complication that is added in practice. This is mainly due to
the genetic drift phenomenon I mentioned earlier, resulting in the
intellectual equivalent of peacock feathers, although I suspect that the
need for enough material to fill up a degree program plays a part as well.
The best way to learn, of course, is to try to do it yourself. First you
need to read some real lit crit to get a feel for the style and the jargon.
One or two volumes is all it takes, since it's all pretty much the same (I
advise starting with the Culler book the way I did). Here are some ideas for
texts you might try to deconstruct, once you are ready to attempt it
yourself, graded by approximate level of difficulty:


     Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea

     Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers

     this article

     James Cameron's The Terminator

     issue #1 of Wired

     anything by Marx


     Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn

     the Book of Genesis

     Francois Truffaut's Day For Night

     The United States Constitution

     Elvis Presley singing Jailhouse Rock

     anything by Foucault


     Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene

     the Great Pyramid of Giza

     Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa

     the Macintosh user interface

     Tony Bennett singing I Left My Heart In San Francisco

     anything by Derrida

Tour de Force:

     James Joyce's Finnegans Wake

     the San Jose, California telephone directory

     IRS Form 1040

     the Intel i486DX Programmer's Reference Manual

     the Mississippi River

     anything by Baudrillard

So, what are we to make of all this? I earlier stated that my quest was to
learn if there was any content to this stuff and if it was or was not bogus.
Well, my assessment is that there is indeed some content, much of it
interesting. The question of bogosity, however, is a little more difficult.
It is clear that the forms used by academicians writing in this area go
right off the bogosity scale, pegging my bogometer until it breaks. The
quality of the actual analysis of various literary works varies tremendously
and must be judged on a case-by-case basis, but I find most of it highly
questionable. Buried in the muck, however, are a set of important and
interesting ideas: that in reading a work it is illuminating to consider the
contrast between what is said and what is not said, between what is explicit
and what is assumed, and that popular notions of truth and value depend to a
disturbingly high degree on the reader's credulity and willingness to accept
the text's own claims as to its validity.

Looking at the field of contemporary literary criticism as a whole also
yields some valuable insights. It is a cautionary lesson about the
consequences of allowing a branch of academia that has been entrusted with
the study of important problems to become isolated and inbred. The Pseudo
Politically Correct term that I would use to describe the mind set of
postmodernism is "epistemologically challenged": a constitutional inability
to adopt a reasonable way to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff. The
language and idea space of the field have become so convoluted that they
have confused even themselves. But the tangle offers a safe refuge for the
academics. It erects a wall between them and the rest of the world. It
immunizes them against having to confront their own failings, since any
genuine criticism can simply be absorbed into the morass and made
indistinguishable from all the other verbiage. Intellectual tools that might
help prune the thicket are systematically ignored or discredited. This is
why, for example, science, psychology and economics are represented in the
literary world by theories that were abandoned by practicing scientists,
psychologists and economists fifty or a hundred years ago. The field is
absorbed in triviality. Deconstruction is an idea that would make a worthy
topic for some bright graduate student's Ph.D. dissertation but has instead
spawned an entire subfield. Ideas that would merit a good solid evening or
afternoon of argument and debate and perhaps a paper or two instead become
the focus of entire careers.

Engineering and the sciences have, to a greater degree, been spared this
isolation and genetic drift because of crass commercial necessity. The
constraints of the physical world and the actual needs and wants of the
actual population have provided a grounding that is difficult to dodge.
However, in academia the pressures for isolation are enormous. It is clear
to me that the humanities are not going to emerge from the jungle on their
own. I think that the task of outreach is left to those of us who retain
some connection, however tenuous, to what we laughingly call reality. We
have to go into the jungle after them and rescue what we can. Just remember
to hang on to your sense of humor and don't let them intimidate you.

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