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John Deely on Deconstruction

Deconstruction, or deconstructive textual criticism, arose in the 20th century, primarily under the auspices of Jacques Derrida’s effort to destroy theories of cognition-independent meaning. The methodology is often employed to show apparent contradictions or ambiguities of meaning in various texts. It stands in radical opposition to rigid textual literalism. On the one hand, it does grasp something true about the nature of linguistic signification, and how the control we have over language allows for a certain slipperiness in our meaning. On the other hand, as John Deely here makes clear, deconstruction is a tool rather than a system, and turned into a system, becomes an absolute dead-end.

From a 2001 interview with Elliot Gaines:

…Sometimes a student asks, “What about deconstruction?” I point out to them, if you construct, say, a simple three-word sentence—kind of a caricature, but not too much so—you say something, you have an intention; you have what you say to realize that intention; and you have the aspect of the world with which the sentence connects. Now the first thing you do [in deconstruction] is you sever the author’s intention. It counts for nothing. The words, you give a life of their own. [Next] you sever the connection with whatever the words refer to. Now, you just have the three words. But it turns out you don’t just have three words, because if you look up those three words in the dictionary—let us say the first word has five definitions, the second word has nine definitions, and the third word has three definitions—now you’ve got twelve, seventeen little balloons that you can combine and re-combine in any ways that you like, and suddenly what seemed to be a straightforward statement is saying a whole bunch of things, some of which are sensible, some of which are non-sensible, and maybe almost none of which have anything to do with either the author’s intention or with the state of the world. It’s a very good way for loosening up texts. But it’s not a systematic program, because it can’t go anywhere—once the texts have been loosened up… then what? So you have an ad hoc technique.

[Transcribed from video below]

From Semiotics 2008:

Deconstruction is a project to which any and every text is thus (indeed!) a-priori liable. But, what needs to be noted—and what deconstructionist Derridean epigones so far have never noticed—is that the ultimate source of the passions in the environmental interaction (both cultural and physical) of human animals with material surroundings objectified in turn imposes indirect limits on the deconstructive process, just as more directly there is also need for consideration at times (though far from always, and deconstruction as a method marks a great advance in the understanding of this matter) of the “intentions of the author”. (Deconstruction as a process normally tends legitimately and systematically to leave out of consideration authorial intention as a factor in the construal of texts; yet there are times when such intention as textual factor cannot be omitted from consideration without some distortion of sense at critical junctures, so far as linguistic signs have not only a customary and iconic dimension but also and always a stipulative dimension as well, which is exactly what separates them within the class of “customary signs” from the purely customary signs of the “brute” animals overlapping within the semiosis of human animals, and conversely.)

Thus the omission in semiology (i.e., in the Saussurean model proposed for sign-in-general) of a signifié in the semiotic sense of “object signified”, which results in the complete elimination of things-as-they-are-in-themselves from the theoretical ambit of semiological analysis, is exactly what leads (not necessarily, but in the practice of thinkers mistakenly thinking that the Saussurean dyadic sign-conception is indeed a general model, which it is not) to the abusive and narcissistic excesses of deconstruction (mis)construed and (mis) applied as a “universal linguistic method”. This same blunder, expressed in several issues of the History and Theory journal over the last two decades, can be seen as the root of the dilemma in which some contemporary historians—falsely thinking that semiology as such is “postmodern”—find themselves unable to explain the difference between historiography and fiction. This again is a logical consequence of failing to recognize the duplicity of the notion of signifié hidden (or lost) in the dyadicity of the Saussurean proposal for the being proper to “sign”.

A valuable method and landmark contribution to the development of semiotic consciousness, deconstruction is but a tool among others for achieving textual interpretation, distortive however when it is (mis)taken for or (mis)represented as the “whole story” (or even “last word”) in the reading of texts. It is a preliminary step, more-or-less useful depending upon how rigid the reading of a given text has become or is tending to become (as, for example—to take an utmost extreme illustration—in the view of some that Koranic texts are not subject to interpretation, and so cannot even be translated into another language than their original).

Deely 2008: “Aristotle’s Triangle and the Triadic Sign” in Semiotics 2008, lxii—lxiii.

Brief Commentary

There are no signs which do not require interpretation. It is the very nature of signification that whatever object is signified, it is signified to an interpretant, and the interpretant is subsequently attuned to the object somehow from itself. This necessary interpretation does not mean that we lose the object. Rather, it means that we never receive the object purely and wholly as it is in itself. We compress, add, and relate other meanings to what we receive. I can express these modulations of meaning in new and different words. If I read something and try to say what it means in words other than those that I myself read, I am expressing an interpretation.

Put otherwise, texts are meaningful only in triadic relations. As Deely says above, there is the authorial intent, the text itself, and the aspect of the world intended. In deconstruction, we sever the text from intent and the world. This can be used to discern ambiguities or imprecision in the words, or to discover new potential connections. But, while authorial intent stands secondary in a text’s signification, it is not wholly irrelevant. Further, the connection of the text to the aspect of the world intended must be “reconnected”. Otherwise, we transgress the “indirect limits” of meaning imposed by the world itself. To posit, as I recently saw someone do, that “meaning is in the text” results in promotion of deconstructionism. Text, to be meaningful, must signify something other than itself.