Deconstruction and “Ways of Talking”
Derrida denied deconstruction was of any importanceAs I’ve mentioned previously, the last time I saw Jacques Derrida, who is credited with coining the term “deconstruction,” being interviewed he was quite adamant that “deconstruction” was not a concept of any importance, not even a theory, not even a word that he used anymore. ( See "Critical Thinking Skills" and "Family Values") Nonetheless, the word has taken on a life of its own and, while it may have gone out of fashion, it is still with us and showing no signs of disappearing from the language. (See footnotes.)
Postmodernist deconstructionist smuggeryIf you have ever tried to confront a postmodernist deconstructionist by pointing out that his work was contradictory, illogical, duplicitous, nonsensical and hypocritical, you would likely find him responding with glee, “Exactly!”—as if he were personally responsible for your recent intellectual epiphany. Given the deconstructionist stance that language is guaranteed to fail and is ultimately meaningless, you might wonder why Derrida seemed so happy with the tens of books (meaningless books, obviously) he had published. Why write at all? If you asked your postmodernist deconstructionist friend that question, the conversation would inevitably lead to a tangential monologue about a recent grant application winning hundreds of thousands of dollars, an upcoming publication in a prestigious journal, a conference in Hawaii, and high expectations of promotion.
"Ways of talking" in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe ItselfSo how can we confront deconstruction? How can we address the malaise of postmodernist deconstructionist smuggery? Recently I found an answer in an unusual source, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by a physicist named Sean Carroll. The answer lies in an expression that Carroll uses quite frequently: “ways of talking.” However, before we get there we need to have a better grasp of what deconstruction is/was.
Deconstruction begins with "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"Whenever I taught deconstruction (no, I didn’t only teach the stuff I admired), I would focus on the definition that Derrida provided when he was being cross-examined after his seminal conference paper “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. (Excuse all of my ellipses which follow but I find they are necessary if you want to pick out what Derrida is saying from the obfuscating verbiage. I’ll put the full quote in a footnote, so you’ll know I’m not fudging.) Derrida said, “[. . . .] déconstruction [. . . . .] is simply a question of being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use [ . . . .].”*
Deconstruction is a very old, and not very complicated, idea
“Being alert to the historical sedimentation of language” is good advice. In fact, “being alert to the historical sedimentation of language” is exactly what generations of lexicographers and scholars have done over centuries in creating The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) since the project was first begun by Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1746. If you peruse the OED, you will notice that the meanings of words change over time, until every word in the language seems to have, on average, five or six different meanings. If you imagine a sentence in English with ten words and each of those words has five potentially different meanings, and the meaning of the sentence can be affected by connotation, figures of speech, interpretations, intertextuality, tone of voice and punctuation, you can begin to appreciate postmodernist deconstructionist claims that the language fails, that its meanings are “indeterminate,” “deferred,” even “infinite”—and therefore meaningless.
Deconstructionist ways of talking about language create meaninglessness
How do these claims work? How is it possible that this deconstructionist idea that language fails to communicate seems so logical and convincing, even though I remain absolutely confident that when I read or hear ten words of a sentence in English I understand the meaning, even if it contains some ambiguity or irony. The explanation I now see is that there are different “ways of talking” about language.
"Ways of talking" is a profound conceptCarroll’s description of that “innocuous sounding but secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole” helps us to understand how deconstructionist claims about the meaninglessness of language can be convincing even as we hold onto the strong conviction that we do manage to understand the meaning of language on a daily basis.
The "way of talking" can determine meaning or meaninglessness
The easiest and most obvious way to reflect upon different “ways of talking” is to consider that the average human being is comprised of seven billion billion billion atoms (7 followed by 27 zeros). Consider the claim that “I don’t understand Mary because she is comprised of billions of billions of billions of atoms and they are constantly changing.” It’s pretty hard to argue with the science and the logic of this claim but, at the same time, it seems obvious that this is not an appropriate or meaningful way of talking about Mary or any human being for that matter.
As Carroll explains,"There is one way of talking about the universe that describes it as elementary particles or quantum states [ . . . .] There is also another way of talking about it, where we zoom out a bit and introduce categories like ‘people’ and ‘choices’.”
Mary may, with scientific certainty, be an octodecillion of atoms and be 99% oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, but talking about her this way will certainly make her appear impossible to understand and, in fact, meaningless. In truth, I can sometimes understand Mary and may sometimes misunderstand her, but overall I know that she is comprehensible and meaningful.
Deconstructionists' "way of talking" about language makes it meaningless
Similarly, postmodernist deconstructionists’ way of talking about language reduces it to marks on the page or collections of morphemes and phonemes. This way of talking precludes understanding and meaning. To get understanding and meaning you have to use these words in the way of talking in which people--who aren't just clumps of molecules--usually use them.
*”Here or there I have used the word déconstruction, which has nothing to do with destruction. That is to say, it is simply a question of (and this is a necessity of criticism in the classical sense of the word) being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use—and that is not destructive” (Derrida in Contemporary Literary Criticism 497).