'Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of the text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself.' Assess the implications of this statement.
Deconstruction, as the term implies, does not construct meaning; it simply reveals that which is already implicit, if unacknowledged. Where structuralism finds order, post-structuralism postulates that such order is merely a thin veneer overlaying ultimate chaos. This has led many to the overly simplistic conclusion that deconstruction is synonymous with destruction, with postmodernism and its related practises characterised as "an attack on reason", when it would be more correct to say that reason does not exist in order to be attacked. One must consider the alternatives which postmodernism discredits and supplants, and their agendas. Marxism, for example, is an aggressive and exclusory metanarrative which can only operate by supplanting others. The alternative to postmodernism, therefore, is to accept involuntary labelling by conflicting universalist theories as a fait accompli in each case. It follows that a great many proponents of metanarratives are decidedly hostile to a school of thought that dismisses them out of hand and facilitates the culling of many sacred cows without replacing them with anything equally iconic. One of the risks of postmodernism is that it can actually stifle debate by making such enterprise seem irrelevant and without point, and in my opinion, deconstruction as an agent of postmodern analysis cannot entirely escape the charge of aiding and abetting the rendering of analysis an impossibility. This essay will focus on the chaos emergent from acceptance that meanings are never singular, the ease by which multiplicity may be extracted from all aspects of 'reality', and crucially, the reliance popular culture has upon aporiac meaning.
All meanings exist in potential, and many of them will be grossly incompatible with each other. Which ones we observe will depend upon the breadth of our reservoir of learned meanings that we seek to see represented. What is happening when we identify the lyric "a wizard's staff has a knob on the end" as a statement of fantasy stereotype, a reference to an engorged penis, blatant double entendre, or comment about the price of fish is an interaction between the micronarrative of the text and that of our experience. To give another fairly hackneyed example, to various groups of people "faggots" may mean "homosexual men" "small wood chippings used to start fires" or "meat dish made out of the bits of an animal you'd rather not identify, usually served with gravy and mushy peas". The grammatically correct English phrase "burn the faggots, why don't you?" is therefore politically charged in at least one of its multiple meanings.
Aporia are everywhere; they are at the heart of many a stand-up comedian's set, flourish in major-league advertising (mainly as sexual suggestions), and afford critics of politicians many hours of diversion. They cannot be avoided, and in US criminal trials lives may hang in the balance because of them. Despite this, many shrink from making the intuitive leap that if more than one meaning may present itself, there might be no end to the meanings, and that therefore since anything might mean, well, anything, communication is more of a possibility than a given.
Lyotard writes of postmodernism as a condition, a title that bears decidedly negative connotations, whilst others take a more positively slanted viewpoint:
Postmodernism is a knowing modernism ... [it] does not agonise about itself ... instead of lamenting the loss of the past, the fragmentation of existence and the collapse of selfhood, postmodernism embraces these
Baudrillard offers the likewise affirming:
We leave history to enter simulation. ... This is by no means a despairing hypothesis, unless we regard simulation as a higher form of alienation ... if we leave history we leave alienation.
However, there certainly seems to be something about the interrelation of micronarratives that tends towards the production of fiction that might subjectively be judged to be negative: examples being the fragmented dystopian futures of William Gibson, and the contemporary but equally nightmarish realities of Alex Garland and Irvine Welsh. Perhaps it is the thought that:
If the worth of actions were dependent on the values acted upon, then when those values are devalued, dissolve, then reasons for performing any actions whatsoever equally disappears.
However, though postmodernism and deconstruction are closely linked, they are not synonymous. Norris sums up the difference as being that:
it is the difference between a counter-enlightenment outlook that annuls the very project of critical thought and a deconstructive attitude which calls that project into question without betraying its redemptive impulse.
It is, however, a fine line that relies on the forcefulness of the questioning, and as Eagleton notes, "any thought can be made to appear an illicit totalisation from the standpoint of some other, and so on in a potentially infinite regress."
Indeed, the term 'deconstruction' is as open to deconstruction itself as any other, something Derrida explicitly realises and builds into his argument against its definition. He resists attempts to shackle deconstruction by giving it a box to which it can be returned, taking the argument that: "definitions are reductive in the sense that they assume some ultimate, one-for-one match between signifier and signified ... [a] self-authenticating truth.", an argument essentially both postmodernist and deconstructionalist in essence.
In the face of the overwhelming spectrum of meanings offered by deconstruction, some have posited combating the depression of absent metanarratives with an 'affirmation' (related to Nietzchean 'willing'.) Unfortunately, as Bernstein observes:
Affirmation must affirm itself but it cannot select ... the difficulty of affirmation derives from having to affirm life in all its negativity ... pain and suffering included ... it may look as if in affirming negativity one is treating it as no longer negative
I also happen to agree to a great degree with his conclusion that this is "idealistic folly: overcoming nihilism simply through a changed attitude towards our willings."
There are only so many things one can say to the revelation that all one's values are illusory, "[have a drink and forget about it]" being the most common in the quick survey I carried out this amongst my flatmates and friends over the course of the last few days. Eagleton asks: "Why this remorseless urge to homogenise these diffuse, particular realities in a singular concept?", already (I believe) knowing an answer: simplification. As another one of my flatmates put it: 'people want to believe in things; they're much happier when they're lying to themselves.'
If we are to actually do anything, therefore, we are led to and through the conclusion postmodernism eventually arrives at, that "Nihilism is a crisis in values and a crisis in the possibility of valuing ... a consciousness that has no values but uses them none the less, precisely and cynically, for the sake of order and the practical" and that therefore "a certain ironic pragmatism becomes the best possible response". This best possible response manifests itself in the acceptance of the fine distinction between deconstruction and postmodernism, and the subsequently engraving of that artificial fine line approximately as deep as the Grand Canyon. Accepting this, a great part of the power of deconstruction lies in its use as a practical tool for the reinforcement of oppressed cultural groups. Being a mostly straight white Western male, however, and not feeling particularly oppressed, I intend instead to illustrate my assessment of the implications of deconstruction by examining the many examples of aporiac situations within current popular cultural literature, such as:
'We?!' said Dougal. 'If you think I'm picking mushrooms at my time of life, you're off your head.'
The above quote was taken from a beautifully surreal Magic Roundabout short story entitled "Mushrooms". It is possible to read this fiction at face value and accept that there is world of talking animals and stranger beings in which magic is a given. Equally, if you accept that certain types of mushrooms induce hallucinations, the phrase "off your head", interpretable as "crazily affected", is humorous. That the story ends: "And they left — thereby missing certain happenings..." openly invites hypothesis as to the meaning. This is a simple example; I use it merely to demonstrate that people not only expect to find dual meanings in popular culture, they derive from them entertainment and their 'value' lies in their duality. Whilst I am aware that I am generalizing, people like to feel intelligent enough to notice them... but they tend to dislike having unrecognised dualities within their own discourse pointed out to them.
A kind of relational meaning similar to the Dougal example is the Tom Swiftie: a form of subtle aporiac humour taking the form "x did y z-ly" where y and z relate to each other in multiple meanings, an excellent example of which is: "'I'm into homosexual necrophilia,' said Tom in dead earnest." All of which good-natured frivolity set me wondering exactly how much of the 'popular culture' we come into contact with on a daily basis conceals such readily available multiplicity of meaning.
I often wonder what children gain from childrens' books: manifold neuroses, at best guess, not to mention all of those mentally scarred for life by the animated adaptation of Watership Down. Here, however, I shall be dissecting Winnie-The-Pooh. Multiple meanings are highly important to the functioning of children's literature: A.A. Milne ostensibly wrote for children, but there is much to Winnie The Pooh that leaps from the page and throttles you with its direct references to meaning.
I am not sure which of the manipulative characters I have most problem with being exemplified to young children: Rabbit, the sarcastic bigot; Eeyore, who Talks Importantly in capitals; Pooh, the bear who plays dumb... incidentally, Tigger only escapes these castigations by his failure to appear until The House at Pooh Corner.
When Pooh concludes the depletion of Rabbit's larder and says that he must be leaving, the response is: "'Must you?' said Rabbit politely.", and a similar situation is presented in chapter seven: "'Pooh,' said Rabbit kindly, 'you haven't any brain.'" Now, one can either interpret Rabbit's comments as plain speaking (either frank or deliberately insulting), or sarcasm, in which case "politely" and "kindly" 'mean' the exact opposite. One of the more depressing aspects of the contemporary era is that positive comments are frequently interpretable in no other way but sarcasm, but Rabbit's seeming use of sarcasm casts everything else he says under suspicion, such as: "'It's a funny thing,' said Rabbit, 'but I've sort of forgotten too, although I did know once.'" To which one might reasonably comment: you lying little bu--nny.
Deconstruction is a far more encompassing practise than aporia, however; it is also an investigation of things that seem contradictory or concealing within a text. In re-reading Winnie-The-Pooh, I had the misfortune to encounter chapter seven, in which Rabbit convinces Pooh and Piglet to abduct Baby Roo from Kanga, for the sinister reason of running her out of the wood. Many things are at odds within this chapter: Kanga is a 'Strange Animal', yet the would-be kidnappers know her name and that of Baby Roo. Also, Kanga knows Piglet's name, and of the sway Christopher Robin holds over the others.
Most curious of all, though, is how Rabbit proposes to inform Kanga of the kidnapping. (Incidentally, this extract also points quite explicitly to Pooh's very knowing intuitive reasoning skills, which he is normally so careful to conceal.)
'We say "Aha!" so that Kanga knows that we know where Baby Roo is. "Aha!" means "We'll tell you where Baby Roo is, if you promise to go away from the Forest and never come back." ... '
Pooh went into a corner and tried saying 'Aha!' in that sort of voice. Sometimes it seemed to him that it did mean what Rabbit said, and sometimes it seemed to him that it didn't.
More insidiously, Kanga just so happens to be the only female character in the 100-Acre Wood... Rabbit's plan to expel her from the forest at first appears simply based upon her status as a newcomer, but his principle objection to her residency is that she carries her family around in her pockets and that she is a 'Strange Animal'. Now "strange" is readily interpretable as 'different', and the fact of being female is certainly different to the existing animals (all male pronouns.) Christopher Robin's reference to the pair arriving in the "Usual Way" implies that Rabbit's fought-for asexual world always already is explicitly breached by the parental relationship; in any case, sexuality may already by argued to be present in the form of Rabbit's absent "relations". Whilst this (thankfully) does not necessarily imply Rabbit as a father, families are typified as blood relations, and biological families imply reproduction. Therefore Rabbit's reaction to Kanga's presence is interpretable as species-ism, misogyny, and refusal to come to terms with his own sexual drive, etcetera.
All is then 'righted' by a throwaway final paragraph: "So Kanga and Roo stayed in the forest. And every Tuesday [the new 'great friends' paired off to spend time together.] So they were all happy again." The discrepancy between initial characterisation and furtherance of the 'plot' is extremely contradictory.
As mentioned before, there are passages dealing directly with the problems of affixing meaning; passages such as Pooh's visit to Rabbit's burrow (when he gets himself stuck): "'But isn't that Rabbit's voice?' 'I don't think so,' said Rabbit. 'It isn't meant to be.'"; which is yet another example of misdirection of signals being used to evade responsibility for one's being and actions and meaning being deliberately obscured. However, the most interesting example of confused signals and signifiers occurs later:
The Piglet was sitting on the ground at the door of his house blowing happily at a dandelion, and wondering whether it would be this year, next year, sometime or never. He had just discovered that it would be never, and was trying to remember what 'it' was, and hoping it wasn't anything nice, when Pooh came up.
It is both a rare example of blissful ignorance attending a loss of meaning, and a confusion starkly illustrative of the postmodern dilemma: the curiously hollow feeling that something distantly remembered is gone, a lost epiphany of a consciousness that cannot ultimately distance itself from its quest for truth or regard itself as anything other than an objective consciousness. It is an example of a deconstruction already performed and acknowledged: a single signifier existing as infinite possibilities, the invoker of the signifier unable to accept.
"Hope is the denial of reality. It is the carrot dangled before the draft horse to keep him plodding along in a vain hope to reach it ... I'm saying we should remove the carrot and walk forward with our eyes open."
Tim Woods, Beginning Postmodernism, (Manchester University Press, 1999)
Christopher Norris & Andrew Benjamin, What is Deconstruction? (Academy Editions London, 1988)
Eric Thompson, The Adventures of Dylan (Bloomsbury paperback, 1998)
A.A. Milne, Winnie-The-Pooh (Mammoth, 1991)
Barker, Hulme, Iversen (ed.), Postmodernism and the re-reading of modernity (Manchester University Press, 1992)
[Specific references given to the essay: Whistling in the dark: affirmation and despair in postmodernism by Jay Bernstein.]
Danuta Zadworna-Fjellestad (ed.), Criticism in the Twilight Zone: Postmodern Perspectives on Literature and Politics (Stockholm, 1990)
[Specific references given to the essay: The Politics of Postmodernism by Terry Eagleton.]
Theo D'haen & Hans Bertens (ed.), Narrative Turns and Minor Genres in Postmodernism (Amsterdam — Atlanta, 1995)
[Particular attention paid to the essay: Little Red Riding Hood Rides Again: A Reading of David Arnason's "Girl and Wolf" by Simone Vauthier.]
 Woods, p9
 Source: various Terry Pratchett novels. Where else?
 Woods, p8
 Woods, p27
 Authors of the novels Neuromancer, The Beach & Trainspotting respectively.
 Bernstein, p251
 Norris, p30
 Eagleton, p27
 Norris, p33
 Norris, p10
 Bernstein, p257
 Bernstein, p257
 Well, that's the censored version, anyway.
 Eagleton, p26
 Bernstein, p252
 Bernstein, p251
 Thompson, p83
 Thompson, p86
 Thanks to the Annotated Pratchett file for that one: http://www.lspace.org/books/apf/
 Not literally of course, since the Pooh on my shelf belongs to my girlfriend, and she would slay me.
 Milne, p23
 Milne, p83
 Milne, p110
 Milne p83
 Milne, p97
 Milne, p22
 Milne, p103
 Dragons Of Autumn Twilight, Weis & Hickman, Penguin, c.1990 (about two pages from the end)
Or alternatively, quoted at http://denyer.tripod.com/fiction/philosophy.htm (valid at time of writing)