I had finished my coffee and found myself staring at the empty cup. My eyes fell upon the words, CAUTION HOT! What could these words possibly mean now that the paper cup no longer contained anything hot? The two words had lost their referent. I then realized that I was holding in my hand a perfect example of “deconstruction,” that austere word which has alternately inspired, intrigued, confused, and bamboozled so many people.
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida founded the school of deconstruction back in the 1960s. In his seminal work, Of Grammatology, he argues that a work (even one of two words) has no referents to anything beyond itself, it is merely a text that is exclusively self-referential. By this process of reducing a work to a text, meaning becomes, to use one of his famous terms, “undecidable”. In this way, Derrida reduces philosophy and theology to grammar. Michel Foucault argues that an author’s name should be removed from his text so that “the author-function will disappear” and that texts will then be able to “develop in the anonymity of a murmur”. If the name Shakespeare is ever to be used, it should be wrapped in quotation marks. As a result, authors become “fictive beings devoid of authority,” as one non-authority maintains.
Deconstruction quickly caught on and enlisted enthusiastic adherents, in addition to Foucault, such as Paul de Man, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jonathan Culler, and Ferdinand de Saussure. It was all good fun and gave deconstructionists a certain thrill, like the feeling a young boy has when he kicks over his brother’s tower of blocks. Traditional philosophy and theology were ripe for being deconstructed for, just as the words on my coffee cup, they were believed to have been arbitrarily constructed in the first place.
Thus, the Ten Commandments, it has been shown, deconstructs itself. For the Decalogue to have any moral force, one must credit the authority of God. The imperatives “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” have no meaning apart from God’s existence. God’s existence, therefore, precedes His commands. But if God does not exist, as various deconstructionists from Nietzsche to the present claim, then the Ten Commandments have as little meaning as do the pair of words that are printed on my empty coffee cup.
Jonathan Culler presents us with an imaginative image of deconstruction. He sees deconstruction’s procedure as “sawing off the branch on which one is sitting.” He acknowledges that this may seem foolhardy to people of common sense, but not for the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Derrida, since they suspect that if they fall, there is no “ground” for them to hit. There is, in deconstruction, no safeguard against either nihilism or despair. Nonetheless, some of its proponents view their form of nihilism as having a “happy ending”. Critic David Lehman notes the “relentless nihilistic drive of deconstruction. It asks how can we know anything and answers that we can’t—nothing can be known.” In fact, deconstruction is referred to as an end-of the wor(l)d theory, since it puts an end to both the word and the world.
Many radical feminists have rushed to embrace certain tenets of deconstructionism. Monique Wittig calls for “a political deconstruction of the term ‘woman’” in order to break free of the “myth” that has surrounded it. Julia Kristeva argues that there are no women, though we should keep the word since it provides them with political benefits. According to Judith Butler, “When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice.”
Deconstruction capitalizes on the current crisis in authority and decline of faith. It offers a radical form of skepticism that seems to suit the temper of our troubled times. Deconstruction appeals to members of a lost generation who have bought into the illusion of individual autonomy and the alleged bankruptcy of the Western tradition. It has, however, had a corrosive effect on sexual identity, as well as on marriage and the family. On the other hand, its intellectual bankruptcy should prompt people to seek more positive solutions for their existential problems. “For deconstructionists,” as one critic has remarked, “the world is made up of empty rooms, with impenetrable walls and no doors, in which individual minds are bent on reading texts with a slight smile.” One may well wonder, however, how they can occupy “empty” rooms and how they can “smile” in such a claustrophobic atmosphere.
Tomorrow I will enjoy my coffee and silently appreciate the considerate warning that was printed on the paper cup.