How to deconstruct almost anything.

I Find Karma (
Wed, 4 Feb 1998 17:06:34 -0800

[Just because I'm in continual pusuit of Baudrilliardian
references... -- Adam]

by Chip Morningstar
3339 Kipling, Palo Alto, CA 94306
415-856-1130 or 415-856-8706
approx. 4200 words

"Academics get paid for being clever, not for being right."
-- Donald Norman

This is the story of one computer professional's explorations in the
world of postmodern literary criticism. I'm a working software
engineer, not a student nor an academic nor a person with any real
background in the humanities. Consequently, I've approached the whole
subject with a somewhat different frame of mind than perhaps people in
the field are accustomed to. Being a vulgar engineer I'm allowed to
break a lot of the rules that people in the humanities usually have to
play by, since nobody expects an engineer to be literate. Ha.
Anyway, here is my tale.

It started when my colleague Randy Farmer and I presented a paper at
the Second International Conference on Cyberspace, held in Santa Cruz,
California in April, 1991. Like the first conference, at which we
also presented a paper, it was an aggressively interdisciplinary
gathering, drawing from fields as diverse as computer science,
literary criticism, engineering, history, philosophy, anthropology,
psychology, and political science. About the only relevant field that
seemed to lack strong representation was economics (an important gap
but one which we don't have room to get into here). It was in turn
stimulating, aggravating, fascinating and infuriating, a breathtaking
intellectual roller coaster ride unlike anything else I've recently
encountered in my professional life. My last serious brush with the
humanities in an academic context had been in college, ten years
earlier. The humanities appear to have experienced a considerable
amount of evolution (or perhaps more accurately, genetic drift) since

Randy and I were scheduled to speak on the second day of the
conference. This was fortunate because it gave us the opportunity to
recalibrate our presentation based on the first day's proceedings,
during which we discovered that we had grossly mischaracterized the
audience by assuming that it would be like the crowd from the first
conference. I spent most of that first day furiously scribbling
notes. People kept saying the most remarkable things using the most
remarkable language, which I found I needed to put down in writing
because the words would disappear from my brain within seconds if I
didn't. Are you familiar with the experience of having memories of
your dreams fade within a few minutes of waking? It was like that,
and I think for much the same reason. Dreams have a logic and
structure all their own, falling apart into unmemorable pieces that
make no sense when subjected to the scrutiny of the conscious mind.
So it was with many of the academics who got up to speak. The things
they said were largely incomprehensible. There was much talk about
deconstruction and signifiers and arguments about whether cyberspace
was or was not "narrative". There was much quotation from
Baudrillard, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Saussure, and the like, every
single word of which was impenetrable. I'd never before had the
experience of being quite this baffled by things other people were
saying. I've attended lectures on quantum physics, group theory,
cardiology, and contract law, all fields about which I know nothing
and all of which have their own specialized jargon and notational
conventions. None of those lectures were as opaque as anything these
academics said. But I captured on my notepad an astonishing
collection of phrases and a sense of the overall tone of the event.

We retreated back to Palo Alto that evening for a quick rewrite. The
first order of business was to excise various little bits of
phraseology that we now realized were likely to be perceived as
Politically Incorrect. Mind you, the fundamental thesis of our
presentation was Politically Incorrect, but we wanted people to get
upset about the actual content rather than the form in which it was
presented. Then we set about attempting to add something that would
be an adequate response to the postmodern lit crit-speak we had been
inundated with that day. Since we had no idea what any of it meant
(or even if it actually meant anything at all), I simply cut-and-
pasted from my notes. The next day I stood up in front of the room
and opened our presentation with the following:

The essential paradigm of cyberspace is creating partially situated
identities out of actual or potential social reality in terms of
canonical forms of human contact, thus renormalizing the phenomenology
of narrative space and requiring the naturalization of the
intersubjective cognitive strategy, and thereby resolving the
dialectics of metaphorical thoughts, each problematic to the other,
collectively redefining and reifying the paradigm of the parable of
the model of the metaphor.

This bit of nonsense was constructed entirely out of things people had
actually said the day before, except for the last ten words or so
which are a pastiche of Danny Kaye's "flagon with the dragon" bit from
The Court Jester, contributed by our co-worker Gayle Pergamit, who
took great glee in the entire enterprise. Observing the audience
reaction was instructive. At first, various people started nodding
their heads in nods of profound understanding, though you could see
that their brain cells were beginning to strain a little. Then some
of the techies in the back of the room began to giggle. By the time I
finished, unable to get through the last line with a straight face,
the entire room was on the floor in hysterics, as by then even the
most obtuse English professor had caught on to the joke. With the
postmodernist lit crit shit thus defused, we went on with our actual

Contrary to the report given in the "Hype List" column of issue #1 of
Wired ("Po-Mo Gets Tek-No", page 87), we did not shout down the
postmodernists. We made fun of them.

Afterward, however, I was left with a sense that I should try to
actually understand what these people were saying, really. I figured
that one of three cases must apply. It could be that there was truly
some content there of value, once you learned the lingo. If this was
the case, then I wanted to know what it was. On the other hand,
perhaps there was actually content there but it was bogus (my working
hypothesis), in which case I wanted to be able to respond to it
credibly. On the third hand, maybe there was no content there after
all, in which case I wanted to be able to write these clowns off
without feeling guilty that I hadn't given them due consideration.

The subject that I kept hearing about over and over again at the
conference was deconstruction. I figured I'd start there. I asked my
friend Michael Benedikt for a pointer to some sources. I had gotten
to know Michael when he organized the First International Conference
on Cyberspace. I knew him to be a person with a foot in the lit crit
camp but also a person of clear intellectual integrity who was not a
fool. He suggested a book called On Deconstruction by Jonathan
Culler. I got the book and read it. It was a stretch, but I found I
could work my way through it, although I did end up with the most
heavily marked up book in my library by the time I was done. The
Culler book lead me to some other things, which I also read. And I
started subscribing to alt.postmodern and now actually find it
interesting, much of the time. I can't claim to be an expert, but I
feel I've reached the level of a competent amateur. I think I can
explain it. It turns out that there's nothing to be afraid of.

We engineers are frequently accused of speaking an alien language, of
wrapping what we do in jargon and obscurity in order to preserve the
technological priesthood. There is, I think, a grain of truth in this
accusation. Defenders frequently counter with arguments about how
what we do really is technical and really does require precise
language in order to talk about it clearly. There is, I think, a
substantial bit of truth in this as well, though it is hard to use
these grounds to defend the use of the term "grep" to describe digging
through a backpack to find a lost item, as a friend of mine sometimes
does. However, I think it's human nature for members of any group to
use the ideas they have in common as metaphors for everything else in
life, so I'm willing to forgive him.

The really telling factor that neither side of the debate seems to
cotton to, however, is this: technical people like me work in a
commercial environment. Every day I have to explain what I do to
people who are different from me - marketing people, technical
writers, my boss, my investors, my customers - none of whom belong to
my profession or share my technical background or knowledge. As a
consequence, I'm constantly forced to describe what I know in terms
that other people can at least begin to understand. My success in my
job depends to a large degree on my success in so communicating. At
the very least, in order to remain employed I have to convince
somebody else that what I'm doing is worth having them pay for it.

Contrast this situation with that of academia. Professors of
Literature or History or Cultural Studies in their professional life
find themselves communicating principally with other professors of
Literature or History or Cultural Studies. They also, of course,
communicate with students, but students don't really count. Graduate
students are studying to be professors themselves and so are already
part of the in-crowd. Undergraduate students rarely get a chance to
close the feedback loop, especially at the so called "better schools"
(I once spoke with a Harvard professor who told me that it is quite
easy to get a Harvard undergraduate degree without ever once
encountering a tenured member of the faculty inside a classroom; I
don't know if this is actually true but it's a delightful piece of
slander regardless). They publish in peer reviewed journals, which
are not only edited by their peers but published for and mainly read
by their peers (if they are read at all). Decisions about their
career advancement, tenure, promotion, and so on are made by
committees of their fellows. They are supervised by deans and other
academic officials who themselves used to be professors of Literature
or History or Cultural Studies. They rarely have any reason to talk
to anybody but themselves - occasionally a Professor of Literature
will collaborate with a Professor of History, but in academic circles
this sort of interdisciplinary work is still considered sufficiently
daring and risque as to be newsworthy.

What you have is rather like birds on the Galapagos islands - an
isolated population with unique selective pressures resulting in
evolutionary divergence from the mainland population. There's no
reason you should be able to understand what these academics are
saying because, for several generations, comprehensibility to
outsiders has not been one of the selective criteria to which they've
been subjected. What's more, it's not particularly important that
they even be terribly comprehensible to each other, since the quality
of academic work, particularly in the humanities, is judged primarily
on the basis of politics and cleverness. In fact, one of the beliefs
that seems to be characteristic of the postmodernist mind set is the
idea that politics and cleverness are the basis for all judgments
about quality or truth, regardless of the subject matter or who is
making the judgment. A work need not be right, clear, original, or
connected to anything outside the group. Indeed, it looks to me like
the vast bulk of literary criticism that is published has other works
of literary criticism as its principal subject, with the occasional
reference to the odd work of actual literature tossed in for flavoring
from time to time.

Thus it is not surprising that it takes a bit of detective work to
puzzle out what is going on. But I've been on the case for a while
now and I think I've identified most of the guilty suspects. I hope I
can spare some of my own peers the inconvenience and wasted time of
actually doing the legwork themselves (though if you have an
inclination in that direction I recommend it as a mind stretching
departure from debugging C code).

The basic enterprise of contemporary literary criticism is actually
quite simple. It is based on the observation that with a sufficient
amount of clever handwaving and artful verbiage, you can interpret any
piece of writing as a statement about anything at all. The broader
movement that goes under the label "postmodernism" generalizes this
principle from writing to all forms of human activity, though you have
to be careful about applying this label, since a standard
postmodernist tactic for ducking criticism is to try to stir up
metaphysical confusion by questioning the very idea of labels and
categories. "Deconstruction" is based on a specialization of the
principle, in which a work is interpreted as a statement about itself,
using a literary version of the same cheap trick that Kurt Godel used
to try to frighten mathematicians back in the thirties.

Deconstruction, in particular, is a fairly formulaic process that
hardly merits the commotion that it has generated. However, like hack
writers or television producers, academics will use a formula if it
does the job and they are not held to any higher standard (though
perhaps Derrida can legitimately claim some credit for originality in
inventing the formula in the first place). Just to clear up the
mystery, here is the formula, step-by-step:

Step 1 - Select a work to be deconstructed. This a called a "text"
and is generally a piece of text, though it need not be. It is very
much within the lit crit mainstream to take something which is not
text and call it a text. In fact, this can be a very useful thing to
do, since it leaves the critic with broad discretion to define what it
means to "read" it and thus a great deal of flexibility in
interpretation. It also allows the literary critic to extend his
reach beyond mere literature. However, the choice of text is actually
one of the less important decisions you will need to make, since
points are awarded on the basis of style and wit rather than
substance, although more challenging works are valued for their
greater potential for exercising cleverness. Thus you want to pick
your text with an eye to the opportunities it will give you to be
clever and convoluted, rather than whether the text has anything
important to say or there is anything important to say about it.
Generally speaking, obscure works are better than well known ones,
though an acceptable alternative is to choose a text from the popular
mass media, such as a Madonna video or the latest Danielle Steele
novel. The text can be of any length, from the complete works of
Louis L'Amour to a single sentence. For example, let's deconstruct
the phrase, "John F. Kennedy was not a homosexual."

Step 2 - Decide what the text says. This can be whatever you want,
although of course in the case of a text which actually consists of
text it is easier if you pick something that it really does say. This
is called "reading". I will read our example phrase as saying that
John F. Kennedy was not a homosexual.

Step 3 - Identify within the reading a distinction of some sort. This
can be either something which is described or referred to by the text
directly or it can be inferred from the presumed cultural context of a
hypothetical reader. It is a convention of the genre to choose a
duality, such as man/woman, good/evil, earth/sky, chocolate/vanilla,
etc. In the case of our example, the obvious duality to pick is
homosexual/heterosexual, though a really clever person might be able
to find something else.

Step 4 - Convert your chosen distinction into a "hierarchical
opposition" by asserting that the text claims or presumes a particular
primacy, superiority, privilege or importance to one side or the other
of the distinction. Since it's pretty much arbitrary, you don't have
to give a justification for this assertion unless you feel like it.
Programmers and computer scientists may find the concept of a
hierarchy consisting of only two elements to be a bit odd, but this
appears to be an established tradition in literary criticism.
Continuing our example, we can claim homophobia on the part of the
society in which this sentence was uttered and therefor assert that it
presumes superiority of heterosexuality over homosexuality.

Step 5 - Derive another reading of the text, one in which it is
interpreted as referring to itself. In particular, find a way to read
it as a statement which contradicts or undermines either the original
reading or the ordering of the hierarchical opposition (which amounts
to the same thing). This is really the tricky part and is the key to
the whole exercise. Pulling this off successfully may require a
variety of techniques, though you get more style points for some
techniques than for others. Fortunately, you have a wide range of
intellectual tools at your disposal, which the rules allow you to use
in literary criticism even though they would be frowned upon in
engineering or the sciences. These include appeals to authority (you
can even cite obscure authorities that nobody has heard of), reasoning
from etymology, reasoning from puns, and a variety of word other
games. You are allowed to use the word "problematic" as a noun. You
are also allowed to pretend that the works of Freud present a correct
model of human psychology and the works of Marx present a correct
model of sociology and economics (it's not clear to me whether
practitioners in the field actually believe Freud and Marx or if it's
just a convention of the genre).

You get maximum style points for being French. Since most of us
aren't French, we don't qualify for this one, but we can still score
almost as much by writing in French or citing French sources.
However, it is difficult for even the most intense and unprincipled
American academician writing in French to match the zen obliqueness of
a native French literary critic. Least credit is given for a clear,
rational argument which makes its case directly, though of course that
is what I will do with our example since, being gainfully employed, I
don't have to worry about graduation or tenure. And besides, I'm
actually trying to communicate here. Here is a possible argument to
go with our example:

It is not generally claimed that John F. Kennedy was a homosexual.
Since it is not an issue, why would anyone choose to explicitly
declare that he was not a homosexual unless they wanted to make it an
issue? Clearly, the reader is left with a question, a lingering doubt
which had not previously been there. If the text had instead simply
asked, "Was John F. Kennedy a homosexual?", the reader would simply
answer, "No." and forget the matter. If it had simply declared, "John
F. Kennedy was a homosexual.", it would have left the reader begging
for further justification or argument to support the proposition.
Phrasing it as a negative declaration, however, introduces the
question in the reader's mind, exploiting society's homophobia to
attack the reputation of the fallen President. What's more, the form
makes it appear as if there is ongoing debate, further legitimizing
the reader's entertainment of the question. Thus the text can be read
as questioning the very assertion that it is making.

Of course, no real deconstruction would be like this. I only used a
single paragraph and avoided literary jargon. All of the words will
be found in a typical abridged dictionary and were used with their
conventional meanings. I also wrote entirely in English and did not
cite anyone. Thus in an English literature course I would probably
get a D for this, but I already have my degree so I don't care.

Another minor point, by the way, is that we don't say that we
deconstruct the text but that the text deconstructs itself. This way
it looks less like we are making things up.

That's basically all there is to it, although there is an enormous
variety of stylistic complication that is added in practice. This is
mainly due to the genetic drift phenomenon I mentioned earlier,
resulting in the intellectual equivalent of peacock feathers, although
I suspect that the need for enough material to fill up a degree
program plays a part as well. The best way to learn, of course, is to
try to do it yourself. First you need to read some real lit crit to
get a feel for the style and the jargon. One or two volumes is all it
takes, since it's all pretty much the same (I advise starting with the
Culler book the way I did). Here are some ideas for texts you might
try to deconstruct, once you are ready to attempt it yourself, graded
by approximate level of difficulty:

Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea
Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers
this article
James Cameron's The Terminator
issue #1 of Wired
anything by Marx

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn
the Book of Genesis
Francois Truffaut's Day For Night
the United States Constitution
Elvis Presley singing Jailhouse Rock
anything by Foucault

Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
the Great Pyramid of Giza
Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
the Macintosh user interface
Tony Bennett singing I Left My Heart In San Francisco
anything by Derrida

Tour de Force:
James Joyce's Finnegans Wake
the San Jose, California telephone directory
IRS Form 1040
the Intel i486DX Programmer's Reference Manual
the Mississippi River
anything by Baudrillard

So, what are we to make of all this? I earlier stated that my quest
was to learn if there was any content to this stuff and if it was or
was not bogus. Well, my assessment is that there is indeed some
content, much of it interesting. The question of bogosity, however,
is a little more difficult. It is clear that the forms used by
academicians writing in this area go right off the bogosity scale,
pegging my bogometer until it breaks. The quality of the actual
analysis of various literary works varies tremendously and must be
judged on a case-by-case basis, but I find most of it highly
questionable. Buried in the muck, however, are a set of important and
interesting ideas: that in reading a work it is illuminating to
consider the contrast between what is said and what is not said,
between what is explicit and what is assumed, and that popular notions
of truth and value depend to a disturbingly high degree on the
reader's credulity and willingness to accept the text's own claims as
to its validity.

Looking at the field of contemporary literary criticism as a whole
also yields some valuable insights. It is a cautionary lesson about
the consequences of allowing a branch of academia that has been
entrusted with the study of important problems to become isolated and
inbred. The Pseudo Politically Correct term that I would use to
describe the mind set of postmodernism is "epistemologically
challenged": a constitutional inability to adopt a reasonable way to
tell the good stuff from the bad stuff. The language and idea space
of the field have become so convoluted that they have confused even
themselves. But the tangle offers a safe refuge for the academics.
It erects a wall between them and the rest of the world. It immunizes
them against having to confront their own failings, since any genuine
criticism can simply be absorbed into the morass and made
indistinguishable from all the other verbiage. Intellectual tools
that might help prune the thicket are systematically ignored or
discredited. This is why, for example, science, psychology and
economics are represented in the literary world by theories that were
abandoned by practicing scientists, psychologists and economists fifty
or a hundred years ago. The field is absorbed in triviality.
Deconstruction is an idea that would make a worthy topic for some
bright graduate student's Ph.D. dissertation but has instead spawned
an entire subfield. Ideas that would merit a good solid evening or
afternoon of argument and debate and perhaps a paper or two instead
become the focus of entire careers.

Engineering and the sciences have, to a greater degree, been spared
this isolation and genetic drift because of crass commercial
necessity. The constraints of the physical world and the actual needs
and wants of the actual population have provided a grounding that is
difficult to dodge. However, in academia the pressures for isolation
are enormous. It is clear to me that the humanities are not going to
emerge from the jungle on their own. I think that the task of
outreach is left to those of us who retain some connection, however
tenuous, to what we laughingly call reality. We have to go into the
jungle after them and rescue what we can. Just remember to hang on to
your sense of humor and don't let them intimidate you.


The universe consists of 5% protons, 5% electronc, 5% neutrons, and 85%