Sunday, October 10, 2004

Who Deconstructs the Deconstructionists?

I have to be careful in talking about the recently-departed Jacques Derrida, because, even after five years of University literature programs, I don't really understand what deconstructionism is. I suspect that a lot of deconstructionists don't either, since if you can understand their essays -- and that's a big "if" -- they often just straightforward socio-political polemics dressed up with big words; instead of the multiplicity of viewpoints that deconstructionism is theoretically supposed to be looking for, they impose a single viewpoint on the work, and on the era in which the work was written. And of course, most critics who claim to be getting beyond "Western metaphysics" really just turn out to be imposing another set of absolute values on the text. Better to admit that you're a prisoner of the assumptions of your own culture, whichever set of assumptions you happen to choose, than to pretend you've gotten away from them.

Still, insofar as I can understand Derrida, I like some of the ideas he promoted about reading, notably the idea that you can learn something interesting by taking the conventional wisdom about a text and, basically, looking at it from the opposite angle -- everybody thinks this is about A, so I'll reverse that and say it's about B. It's not necessarily much more than a bad case of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I-ism, but in the context of a University English program, where most discussion is based not on deconstructionist theories but on older, duller theories whereby cultural and biographical issues are everything (all of Kipling's writing must be evaluated in the light of the fact that Kipling Was An Imperialist and Imperialism Sucks), the nuttiness of it all can be entertaining. In that sense, deconstructionist theory is more fun to try out than it is to read.

In the year I spent doing a Master's in English lit (which has proved so very, very useful), one of the things I wrote was a "deconstructionist love song." It was never performed and wasn't supposed to be, since it was written as a joke, but here's what I can remember of the lyrics:

A thing can't mean what it seems to mean,
Say the theorists, and I agree.
So you can't mean what you seem to mean
When you seem to mean the world to me.
When you act mean, does it mean you're mean?
Did you mean to be mean from the start?
And do you mean what you say you mean
When you say what I mean to your heart?
I can read Derrida,
But now I need a
New method of deduction.
I'm becoming leery
Of Gallic the'ry;
You're too well-constructed to stand deconstruction.
So what comes next when I'm so perplexed
By the loveliest text I've seen?
The cultural knowledge I read to get
Won't give me the knowledge I need to get:
What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean?

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