[Paleopsych] Chip Morningstar: How To Deconstruct Almost Anything: My Postmodern Adventure

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Chip Morningstar: How To Deconstruct Almost Anything: My Postmodern 
1993 June
[Thanks to Davdid for finding this article.]

         "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 [2]("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 risqué 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 Gödel 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 is 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

    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 other word
    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

      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.


    1. mailto:chip at fudco.com
    2. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.01/hypelist.html

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