Language Police Blotter: Deconstruction

Maybe so many people misuse the word “deconstruction” because no one understands WHAT it means.

In the midst of a thoughtful review of Joseph Stiglitz’ latest, the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani notes that Stiglitz “deconstructs the causes of the Great Recession of 2008.”


To “deconstruct” something is to use a particular literary critical method, made famous by Paul DeMan, J. Hillis Miller etc.  Deconstruction holds, (or at least seems to hold) that there are no stable or coherent meanings to texts, at least not outside any particular interpretive community.  (I keep saying “at least” because every time you try to pin down a deconstructionist on such things, he or she will invariably tell you that you have missed some subtle complexity that few understand and has never been mentioned before). 

Kakutani really wants to say “analyze“, a perfectly good word meaning to break down into component parts in order to give close scrutiny to those parts and to better understand the whole.

Using “deconstruction” in Kakutani’s way has become fashionable, and indeed, deconstructionist literary theorists might argue that this serves as an exemplar of their method.  I’m old-fashioned enough to think that words still have meaning, though.

Of course, in a world where Newt Gingrich is thought of a “conservative intellectual” maybe we should just capitulate to the deconstructionists entirely.  Maybe we already have.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

13 thoughts on “Language Police Blotter: Deconstruction”

  1. I'm speaking out of ignorance here (as usual!), but isn't the idea of deconstructionism part of the relativist claims on meaning? That is, that meaning is only as good as the stuff from which it is built. So by truly understanding the assumptions within that meaning, not only can you understand the speaker's intent, but also a deeper understanding of the context in which the meaning was created, which may ultimately delegitimize the proposed meaning.

    If I am correct, this would allow one to make all sorts of absurd indulgences, ultimately leading to incredible feats of intellectual dishonesty. But at the same time, one could just as easily wield a profoundly effective scalpel of truth.

    So in regards to say, moral relativism, one could either use it to argue that every moral position is relative to it's creator, and thus "anything goes". Or, one could argue that indeed, even as every moral position is relative to perspective, one still has a right to define their own morality and with others define a cohesive legal system and – within that framework – be consistent in judging some things immoral.

    What all this seems for me to legitimately highlight is that while reality may be absolute, communication is a transfer of meaning from one party to another, and thus always susceptible to error.

  2. since i can't imagine using 'deconstruct' in the Theory way, this seems like a perfectly fine use of a word.

  3. Not "relativism", Eli, but the collision of phenomenological approaches with more traditional structural ones. I don't think Michael O'Hare's suggestion, although clever, is entirely correct; Derrida does write, "deconstruct" and he is referring to notions of meaning, which use structure as a governing metaphor.

    Deconstruction, as a literary method of criticism, proceeds from the idea that the author cannot competently mean what he says, or say what he means. So, instead of trying to discern, or deduce the authors' "intended meaning", the critic looks at aspects of the structuring of the message, to see how the text fails. Or, if you like, how the author fails his text, and the text fails its author. It is neither nihilism nor relativism. It is the combined confidence that the author will fail, and the failure will be interesting.

    That the N.Y. Times' longtime book reviewer can ignore the meaning of, and misapply, the eponym of one of the most famous, albeit little understood, methods of literary criticism could be termed, ironic, I suppose.

  4. French is a relatively poor language lexically and has only construire for both construe and construct (cf politique = politics/policy) so unless Derrida was writing in English and knew the distinction, I think my translation of what he meant is the right one. The active role of the audience/reader towards an artifact implied by construe and not by understand etc. is an important idea in aesthetics (but the idea that a text or any work is equally whatever anyone claims to make of it with a straight face is just silly).

  5. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists multiple meanings for 'deconstruct'.

    The first is your use–"to examine (as a work of literature) using the methods of deconstruction"

    The second is Katukani's–"to take apart or examine in order to reveal the basis or composition of, often with the intention of exposing biases, flaws, or inconsistencies"

    At a university, you probably hear the first use a lot more than the second. In my world (business), it's the other way round.

  6. pireader, dictionaries tend to be descriptive, not prescriptive. The dictionary from which you quote probably says that "hopefully" may be used to mean "one hopes," just because so many people misuse it that way.

  7. I like the image of Derrida, longtime University of California-Irvine professor, imprisoned by the paucity of the French language. My point, however, was that it was the relation of Derrida's method to "structuralism" that made the English term, deconstruction, with its structural connotations, work well as a label. Derrida was an active collaborator in the translation of his work, but I really don't think that matters — phenomenology is not a philosophy, which would encourage anyone to make a project out of investing particular terms with fine, controlled "intended" distinctions.

    ”to take apart or examine in order to reveal the basis or composition of, often with the intention of exposing biases, flaws, or inconsistencies” is actually not a bad, thumbnail summary of deconstruction as a method of literary criticism. I think Zasloff is right, though: Kukatani is not using the term in that sense. I haven't read Stiglitz's book; maybe Stiglitz did, in fact, "deconstruct" something in this book — say the Obama Administration's policy apologetics, which is something Stiglitz is inclined to do — and Kakutani originally said so, but was the innocent victim of a copy editor.

    It is not the method of deconstruction, which melts the brain; it is the methodology.

  8. I would add to Bruce's excellent precis the notion that language is not an unproblematical bearer of meaning, which anyone who's tried to write something should understand. There is no perfect transmission of meaning, much as there is no ideal price for any commodity, because meanings are always being created in the minds of other people with their own (mis)understandings, desires, etc., just as the price of a commodity depends not on itself but on what other people can do with it.

    Authors "fail interestingly" in many cases because the ambiguity of language is exploited to try to have one's cake and eat it too, to contradict oneself in a believable manner. Derrida says somewhere that coherence in contradiction implies the force of a desire, and that has always seemed to me a key insight into deconstruction, as well as one reason why deconstruction (as opposed to "deconstructionism") was never really very popular, and it was such a relief for everyone when de Man turned out to be a Nazi and one could safely forget about the whole thing.

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