The forces that are changing us – The spread of Deconstructionism (#3 of 5)
A deep dive on the forces that have upended us
I don’t know about you, but when I was at university, I loved passionate debate. I’d get all fired up and feel my heartbeat rising. I was (and still am, some will say) prone to exaggerate in order to get my point across. It was exciting because I felt enlivened by debate. I was learning in the process, forging opinions and relationships. Even in the study of Deconstructionism, I was thrilled by the intermingling of cultures and languages. However, I realize now that I was creating a veneer or an image of myself rather than truly gauging who I was. In our desire to debate and have more meaningful conversation, it really helps to know yourself better, to be able to have that added altitude and perspective. This will help us connect in with others over time.
In my article, “How have we ended up with all this divisiveness and lack of proper debate?” I laid out five forces that have changed us and on which I am expanding in five longer form articles. I’ve published the first two:
The spread of Deconstructionism (today’s post)
Socio-demographics (to come)
The arrival of the Internet (to come)
I contend that these have been the driving forces that have led us to this place of great division, where we are so deaf to one another and where dialogue is either ascetically sanitized or corrosively combative. Several of your comments have enriched my thinking and I’m very grateful for your inputs. Keep them coming! I will now expand on the third force.
(3) The spread of Deconstructionism
This is a tricky topic for me since, once again, I can say I am part of the problem. I studied Trilingual Literature at Yale University and was particularly attracted to the literary criticism of Deconstructionism as laid out by the French intellectuals Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, starting in the late 1960s. Deconstructionism, as a form of literary criticism, is an exercise in semantics. It holds that there is a meaning intrinsic to the words that is independent of the meaning intended by the author. Per a definition in Wikipedia, “Deconstruction denotes the pursuing of the meaning of a text to the point of exposing the supposed contradictions and internal oppositions upon which it is founded—supposedly showing that those foundations are irreducibly complex, unstable, or impossible.”* In our studies at Yale, which was a hotbed for Deconstructionism, we would pay particular attention to figures of speech and see how these might evolve when translated into one or other language. In essence, in our studies, we would remove a portion of the text from its host text and study the words (and their translations) independently. Put otherwise, we decontextualized.
Free from context
From the initial study of deconstructing texts, the concept of Deconstructionism has been applied to other arts, events, beliefs and disciplines. Specifically, Deconstructionism has fed into a range of studies in the humanities, from linguistics to law, anthropology and gender studies. As a result, we have given license to take speeches, texts, songs and books out of the context in which they were originally written, spoken or played. In so doing, we are recasting historical elements under today’s prisms. Without weighing in on these prisms themselves, I observe only that there has been a consequential cleavage between belief systems and a difference in and understanding of our civilization.
Leading to existential questions
When Deconstructionism is superimposed on the liberties from the 1960s, we’ve come to a place where emancipated (“liberal”) individuals are pushing the button further and further, while the more conservative elements of society try to resist in an attempt to hold on to values “of the past.” Each group is, in some ways, going through an existential experience. On the one hand, typically among the progressives, it’s about finding an identity that suits. On the other hand, typically among conservatives, it’s about defending an existing identity. In the face of the shrinking (and redefinition) of families, the high value placed on individual freedoms as well as the deconstruction of our society, the reaction on the right – or the more traditional components of society – has become proportionately stronger. Borrowing Newton’s Third Law of Motion: to every action there is a reaction.
Disconnecting from that which holds us together
In all the division, we’ve lost touch with what connects us, what we have in common. For a nation to exist long-term, its citizens must have some kind of glue. In the west, we have tended to believe in the democratic process, our laws, the judiciary and the governors of the land. Over the last years, we’ve variously seen how some of these venerable institutions have appeared vulnerable.
History as a pillar
A nation’s history is also a form of glue for its citizens. Even when there was civil war or conflict, it’s a shared history that is taught in schools as part of a core curriculum. The fact that we got through the challenge serves to bind us together. Now, to the extent that historical events are being re-evaluated out of context, based on today’s mores, it means that we are dissociating – distancing ourselves -- from our past. And the study of history itself is on the decline. In the UK, the study of History and Philosophy has fallen 17.5% over the last ten years and the number of students in the US taking a major in History is down 30% over the same period. I suspect (but didn’t research) that the same trend holds true in many western countries. As a noble friend of mine solemnly told me, to advance one must have one foot in the past and the other in the future. If you rewrite or wipe out your history, you risk losing your foundations. We cannot whitewash or gloss over our past. It’s worth recalling how South Africans decided to keep visible the reminders of their apartheid past.
No shared future vision
As a society, not only do we no longer have a shared vision of our past, we are far from having a shared future vision or direction for the future of the country. It’s become a battle of entrenched narratives. On the one side (progressives), we might talk about globalization, world trade and peace, global warming and universal basic income (UBI). On the other, we might be in support of national pride and patriotism, stronger ties to religion and upholding more traditional values. By detaching ourselves from a foundational (and shared) history, we become rootless and disconnected. Whatever your thoughts on the concept of a nation, we will struggle to cohabit together without a shared vision -- an umbrella -- under which to live, with its resident culture, history, language(s) and laws.
Understanding both sides
If I found Deconstructionism fascinating at university, it really reflected an intellectual pursuit and a love of words and languages. I was youthful and quite oblivious to what implications this school of literary criticism might have down the road. When a figure of speech (**see below for an example) took on new meanings when translated into another language, it was the deeper understanding of the other language and culture that excited me. But I also (and still) read texts in the traditional ways, including the study of the author, the narrative plots and character developments, and as a reflection on the era in which it was a written, etc. In other words, within their context. What has become patently clear to me is the need to dig in on the topics, read balanced and diverse sources in order to understand both sides of the argument, both sides of the aisle. If we can do that with a level of honest curiosity and a degree of self-awareness, then we will be better able to bridge some of the gaps. However, if we come at each topic without any of the same references, it will be decidedly difficult, if not impossible, for the divide to close.
In our desire to debate and have more meaningful conversation, it really helps to know yourself better, to be able to have that added altitude and perspective. This will help us connect in with others over time.
Your thoughts please!
Please do let me have your thoughts and reactions. I’d be happy to engage in a live debate! In my next piece, I will lay out how socio-demographics (force #4) have contributed to our situation.
**Take this extract from the poem, Ma Bohème or My Bohemian Existence, by the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud:
“– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou
Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,
Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes
De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur ;…”
Translation of this extract by Emily Ardagh:
“My stars in the sky were rustling softly
And I listened to them, sitting on the wayside,
Those good September nights, when I felt the drops
Of dew on my forehead like a fierce wine.”
The last line contains a simile. In a deconstructionist mode, we’d be exploring and dissecting the possibilities of what exactly is “a fierce wine”, starting with an exploration of the French word, vigueur, including its etymology. At the end, we might come up with an entirely different understanding of what the words are saying, entirely removed from what the author was intending.