You Might Be A Deconstructionist If

One of the more amusing (to me, at least) parts of the book On The Reliability Of The Old Testament [1] that I wished to save for another post was the humorous and biting comments he made about Deconstructionist theory.  As I am quite a ferocious defender of the importance of the rights of the author of the text when they are in conflict with the rights of a mere interpreter of texts, I thought it worthwhile to examine what aspects of Kitchen’s critique of deconstructionist thought would be applicable to a wider variety of people.  After all, many people may behave or think in such a manner without realizing they are in fact Deconstructionists (or postmodernists) themselves.  So, here are six ways you may be a Deconstructionist, in the same vein of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be A Redneck If…” jokes, only a lot more scholarly.

1.  You might be a deconstructionist if you believe the author’s intention is an illusion created by readers.

This is complete nonsense.  As an author, the intention of authors actually exists (and I have never written anything without an intention–to charm some attractive young lady with romantic poetry, to expose unpleasant truths, to write about what I was doing or thinking or feeling, or any number of other intentions).  In fact, the intention of an author makes a huge difference on how we judge texts.  For example, if we judge the intention of an author to be reasonable or positive, we are likely to overlook minor flaws, but if we judge an author’s intent to be insulting or malicious, everything that author says is going to be taken in a negative way, whether it was meant in a negative way or not.  The fact that people may (and often do) mistake the author’s intention does not mean that intention is itself an illusion.  People do not write without motive.  Their motive is hugely important in understanding how successful they are in conveying their intention through their arguments.  In the absence of knowledge of motive, a reader will infer motive from what is said and how it is said, and that inference may be accurate or inaccurate.  To further complicate matters, an author may have multiple intentions with a work, and may have varying degrees of success in hiding (or revealing) those motives or in achieving them.  At any rate, though, the intention of authors is not an illusion, and it is certainly not irrelevant.

2.  You might be a deconstructionist if you believe that the text is an interpretable entity independent of its author.

Deconstructionists are fond of trying to separate texts and authors, not respecting authors as they ought.  If the author or the purpose of a work is not known, there can be no definitive interpretation of a text whatsoever.  How we judge a work depends greatly on its author and the intention of its author (see #1).  For example, The Acts of Paul and Thecla purports to be a first person account of the Apostle Paul.  Our judgment of the text would be very faulty if we assumed it to be so, because it is a known forgery and the author of the forgery was an leader in an early “Christian” church who was in fact defrocked for writing a forged account of Paul’s life.  Therefore, our interpretation of the work of The Acts of Paul and Thecla is vitally dependent on the fact that the work is a forgery.  Nor is this an isolated example.  We view the pseudonymous books of 1 and 2nd Enoch a lot differently than the Coptic Church, which considers them genuine.  Likewise, someone who believes that Solomon the Son of David wrote Ecclesiastes (presumably at the end of his long life) is going to interpret the text far differently from someone who believes that Ecclesiastes was a postexilic work written by some scribal person merely pretending to be King Solomon, bar-David.  Again, the identity of the author of a text is important in understanding that text–especially in matters where we judge the author to be different than whom the text claims the author to be.  Judging a work to be a forgery will automatically change our interpretation of that text, and therefore our judgment had better be sound, because the question of an author’s identity is not irrelevant.  We might compare this to the world of painting, where the identity of a painter is vitally important in assessing the value of a painted work.  A painting or drawing by the neo-surrealist artist Nathan Bennett Albright is not going to be worth a great deal, but if “Horse On The Moon” (an actual pencil work of mine) were assumed (falsely) to be the work of a Salvador Dali, it would be considered far more valuable, not because of the work itself (which would be bony and scrawny horse in a bizarre cubist moonscape), but because of the assumed creator of that work.  Likewise, every work has an authoritative meaning, possibly multiple layers of meaning (if the author intentionally set out to put ambiguity or multiple layers of meaning in a work), because authors have intention.

3.  You might be a deconstructionist if you believe that language is infinitely unstable and that meaning is always deferrable.

This is simply not so.  Simply because an author may make errors in grammar and spelling (this author makes a fair amount of such mistakes, for example) does not mean that languages do not have rules and order.  All languages have rules for spelling, pronunciation, and grammar.  They have such rules because they are vehicles for written and spoken communication.  These rules may be broken out of malice or ignorance or carelessness, but such rules exist.  The fact that such rules may change over time to reflect changes in the usage of languages, far from confirming that languages are inherently unstable, means that understanding the forms of a language used may greatly help us to understand when a particular text can be dated by how it is used.  The Neo-Babylonian Empire of the Chaldeans made a deliberate point of speaking in deliberately archaic forms as a way of resurrecting (in their minds) the glory of long-gone ages of Babylonian history.  Their use of language was therefore a deliberate and stable sign of their identity as the heirs of Babylonian culture and tradition extending back thousands of years (even then).  Likewise, unless an author holds pretty close to the accepted rules of grammar, spelling, and definition, misunderstanding almost inevitably results.  Likewise, people cannot understand a text properly unless they understand the rules and forms of communication that governed the behavior of the writer (this problem happens commonly with biblical texts, and is a problem that almost inevitably reflects the ignorance or perversity of the reader and interpreter of the text rather than the defectiveness of the author or creator of the text).

4. You might be a deconstructionist if you believe that one must always approach texts with a hostile suspicion, reading against the grain, denying the integrity of the text where possible in favor of dissonance and inner contradiction.

This is a mouthful, but it reflects the perverse nonsense that passes for knowledge in many graduate level programs in textual analysis.  Certainly no one ought to read my texts this way–and certainly I do not approach texts that way as a general rule.  It ought to be our first instinct to consider texts to be the legitimate reflections of the authors, unless we have reason/evidence to suggest fraud.  Our first instinct ought to be to give the benefit of the doubt to the author, to affirm the integrity and wholeness of the work (even when we recognize errors), and to assume the work is congruent and reflects intention.  This is not to deny that works may be dissonant, and that people may not be aware of their inner contradictions, but such states, if they can be found on the surface level of the text, reflect a genuine “with the grain” reading, rather than the perverse ideas of an interpreter in the absence of real textual evidence.  Let me be blunt, if there is something legitimately dissonant or unpleasant or “contradictory” in a text, that is put there because of the author, and reading with the grain will reveal it.  If we assume that an author is such a scoundrel that they cannot be read honestly, and that we must assume that everything they say is a lie, what is black is white, and what is up is down, then why are we wasting our time with such texts.  There are enough books whose worth can be appreciated without having to treat authors as if they were some kind of criminals (which is what this principle of deconstructionism does).  Read something better instead–if a work (and, by extension) its authors lacks integrity it is only worth talking about and writing about to debunk so that others will not be deceived by it.

5.  You might be a deconstructionist if you believe that all texts are incomplete, as language is unbounded.

Just because authors (myself included) regularly bite off more than we can chew and write unfinished works now and again does not mean that all texts are incomplete.  In fact, the great majority of texts that we have to read are complete (for example, this was especially true in ancient works, which typically ended very clearly in words like Amen, it is finished, from beginning to end similar to the “conclusion” section found in many contemporary works.  Simply because a work has not (and cannot) say everything that can be said about a subject does not mean that the work is incomplete.  If an author does what he (or she) sets out to do, whether that text is long or short, it is complete.  Some works (the Gospel of John springs to mind) are complete even though they themselves outright state that much more could have been written in them (see John 21:25) as they themselves complete.  Completion and wholeness does not mean exhausting a subject.  The best works always leave something more for the reader to think and muse on later.  Only the most banal and worthless of works exhaust their subject matter within their pages (the phone book, for example).

6.  You might be a deconstructionist if you believe that structure is more important than context.

You’d only believe that because you’d be an idiot.  The intentionality of texts means that they have both structure and context, both of which are vitally important.  Sometimes multiple structures can serve the same end.  For example, if I am writing a love poem, I may choose to do so in the structure of a sonnet or in a delightfully flippant limerick or in a classic ABCB quatrain with a chorus.  I may decide to write a dialogue instead, with different conventions (that of drama instead) or I may write a prose letter.  However, all of them could lead to the desired goal, the most important context being was the message of love conveyed, and was it returned by the recipient of the text?  In a similar manner, a work cannot be properly understood outside of its context, because context provides both the conventions that an author uses (or deliberately rejects) as well as the way in which language is intentionally used to get a specific point across. A work (the Bible, notably) may have a variety of contexts, as may the plays of Shakespeare, to give a couple of notable examples.  Understanding context provides the meaning of a work, its intended audience, the symbols and allusions it makes (that the audience might be expected to recognize), as well as the larger context of the society and culture in which it was written.  All of these contexts matter, and a focus on structure alone ignores all of these important elements, most of which require a great deal of research and cultural/historical knowledge.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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