Deconstruction

In Hermeneutics,[1] Stanley Porter describes deconstruction as “the theory, method, or hermeneutics for reading that seeks to uncover hidden assumptions (not necessarily meaning) and contradictions that shape texts” (Porter, 194). Deconstruction is something of a malicious enterprise insofar as its prime motivation is to demonstrate how any semblance of meaning or truth is illusionary. Deconstruction always seeks out internal inconsistencies within any interpretational construct and uses them to generate confusion, doubt and instability. From the deconstructionist perspective “there is no transcendental signified of the sort traditional metaphysics has attempted to disclose. There is only an endless ‘play’ that connects signs to other signs. Meaning is always contextual, deferred, provisional, and incomplete because it is structurally instable” (Porter, 195). Deconstruction’s main operating premise is the denial of essential truth; it is profoundly critical of the metaphysical mindset and deeply suspicious all truth claims. Deconstruction serves as a constant reminder to us that we can’t know anything absolutely. The raw material of our thought processes consist of signs (“signifiers”) that have a strictly representational value or purpose; deconstruction contends that we cannot reasonable equate these signs with the objects or concepts they signify because to do so would be to presume that we have access to the essential nature of those signified objects or concepts. Our knowledge is always limited by the fundamental disconnectedness between the signifier and the signified. For the deconstructionist, it is not so much that the signifier cannot truly equate to the signified; rather, it is that we cannot know about the true nature of this relationship since we only have access to one side of the equation, the signifier. All our intellectual constructs are merely specific configurations of the raw materials we are given to work with. We combine the various signs at our disposal to build what appear to be stable conceptual units but the deconstructionists warn us that this stability is merely an illusion because the essential nature of the building blocks themselves is not known. Furthermore, as Porter explains, “whatever defining constructs are used are themselves subject to further de-structuring, dismantling, and re-arranging to expose something else, something different” (Porter, 195). Hence, the assembled building blocks of the conceptual unit always have the potential to be configured otherwise, resulting in a different, perhaps even contradictory meaning. This in fact describes the structuralist perspective – the one according to which meaning is created from the limited inputs at our disposal and which cannot achieve an ontological or metaphysical status. The deconstructionist approach goes one step further than this, arguing that structuralism “becomes another way of making metaphysical truth claims and putting a center, order, and ground (structure) where there is none. For example, whereas structuralists view binary oppositions as stable in a more or less formal and logical structure, Derrida sees them as always unstable and unbalanced” (Porter, 197). Deconstructionists not only object to metaphysical truth claims, they also object to any kind of formal or logical structure, even if we set metaphysical considerations aside as the structuralists do. For the deconstructionists, the structures themselves are metaphysical (and therefore problematic) because they privilege a certain center and a specific order. Even if we deny the metaphysical status of the structure, the deconstructionists will argue that in merely creating these structures we are still employing the binary language of metaphysics and is so doing, legitimizing it to some extent. As Porter explains, “Derrida’s deconstructive approach attempts to first expose, then reverse, and finally subvert the use of binary systems and hidden centers (…) [Derrida] has no interest in reincorporating the binary language of metaphysics in something more critical or somehow more accurate. He is interested in exposing then subverting its either/or, showing that the “either” and “or” are always part of each other” (Porter, 199). As such, deconstruction is not about building anything at all; in fact it seems to deny the possibility of every arriving at a truly meaningful understanding of anything. It is, as Porter suggests, a “parasite” that nags on structural weaknesses – the overlooked or subverted parts of the text or tradition – in order to demonstrate the vulnerability of the overall structure. In a sense, the aim of deconstruction is to reduce all form of meaning to the level of indeterminacy and undecidability. For deconstructionists, anything is possible but nothing is knowable.

[1] Porter, S., & Robinson, J. (2011). Hermeneutics: An introduction to interpretive theory. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.

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