Deconstruction According to Lehman

The term deconstruction is commonly associated with the critic Jacques Derrida, who spearheaded the idea that all texts are ambiguous and that they are subjects for conflicting interpretations. This critical approach allows the readers to point out multiple layers of meaning at work in a language, without minding the historical contexts and the biographical background of the author. Because this approach asserts several contradictory interpretations in a single text, it supports the main thesis that language is unstable and ambiguous.

In the four essays of David Lehman which concerns about deconstruction, he presented the concept of deconstruction with finesse that a common reader would relate and understand them.

The essays started with an observation and the personal inquiry of the writer David Lehman about current issues in the humanities. It is maneuvered in a light but alarmingly tone as if inviting the readers to read on the text. The writer does not readily address his own opinion about using deconstruction as a hermeneutic approach. Here, the writer just opted to illustrate vivid, credible situational features from the issues initially presented: demoralized state of humanities, decline in the public’s ability to read and write and finally the grave issue that everybody is putting too much premium on criticizing literatures and texts rather than creating them.

Here the writer was able to present how the very act of deconstruction achieves power, widely occurring among intellectual and academic individuals. Lehman managed to include the general viewpoint of deconstruction, by presenting his general thesis statement (and this statement would definitely resonate all throughout the four essays): that deconstruction unduly dismantles texts and that it can be a ruthless, severe activity. Deconstruction approach enables critics to exercise their literary power, as they can show ‘ no reluctance to exercise the prerogatives of authority’ when cticizing a literary work.

A few critical issues are explicitly addressed in the essay: how we change our views on deconstruction over time, the overusage of the deconstruction approach, and even the deconstruction of the canonical works. Other diehard deconstructionists would also try to debunk all concepts available in their hands, but the author pointed out that not all concepts and ideas are meant to be analyzed or criticized using the deconstruction approach. One thing that I could think of that deconstructionists should not (or cannot) deconstruct is the folk literature, because they’ll be ‘attacking’ a culture from which that literature belongs for that matter. Moreover, this idea is exemplified in his statement at the later portion of the Chapter 3 of his essay, entitled “Archie Debunking” that deconstruction is “a misleading sign, a check without sufficient funds on which to draw, a linguistic ruse […]”

The writer was able to give examples of what’s a deconstructed reading like the one that’s about deconstructing the Declaration of Independence, and he was able to trace the historical development of this critical approach – that first appearance of deconstruction came from deconstructions of children’s literature.

The writer managed to explain the deconstruction’s idea of difference (language is always deferred and different) with utmost ease. Lehman also paraphrases and simplifies different statements from different well-known critics like Paul de Man, Terry Eagleton, Jacques Derrida etc.

Chapter 4 (“To The Linguistic Abyss”) has a more technical discussion of the concept of deconstruction compared to the other essays. Here, the writer does not solely discussed deconstruction, but he also discussed other critical approaches that preceeded it – like New Criticism or structuralist approach from which the deconstructionists debunked. The author explains to the readers (with utmost clarity) Saussure’s idea of language systems, his concept of ‘difference’ (which will be later contrasted with Derrida’s ‘differance’), concepts like ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’, technical terms like ‘langue’, ‘parole’, ‘semiology’, jouissance’ which is not really alien to creative writing students like us, but these terms indeed, poses a threat of ambiguity for other readers that are unfamiliar with them. The writer also explained here how structuralism seeks the same formula as that of scientific analysis wherein every ‘constants’ and ‘variables’ (words) are put into equation (binary opposition). Then this brief and concise structuralism discussion is followed by the discussion of Derrida’s deconstruction: his idea of differance, his idea of the ambiguity of the language and Derrida’s idea about linguistic loopholes from which the idea of Deconstruction sprang up. This is the part when the writer presented his main point: ‘to debunk the debunkers and deconstruction.’

The writer also explained how deconstruction is heavily laced with jargons, and then proceeded on presenting his own personal idea of his ten straightforward propositions – ‘the deconstructive decalogue’ against deconstruction. To briefly summarized his ten keypoints, he says that (1) deconstruction dismantles things; (2) writing is prior to speech, which is contrasted with Derrida’s contention that speech has always been prior to writing; (3) language controls us; (4) ‘all the world’s a text’ – his textuality concept; (5) death of the Author-God; (6) deconstructionists are absolutists in the manner of criticizing works; (7) it is grave to deconstruct empirical facts of history; (8) deconstruction destroys art and aesthetics; (9) language is power; and finally (10) that a text is self-referential.

In Chapter 5 the writer gives us ideas on how to recuperate deconstruction. Here, the author distinguishes hard core deconstruction from soft core deconstruction – hard core deconstruction is rigid and a more difficult way of approaching a literary text while the soft core deconstruction is more elastic, ‘practical’ deconstruction. The latter is also concerned with the tricky relations between language and meaning. The author further exemplified this idea by furnishing the readers more examples, few of these are the deconstructed modern films.

One thing I noted about how the writer expresses his ideas is through inclusion of brief, narrative stories, socio-political pictures and series of historical events that renders the essays not just well-informed, but interesting. These various, specific accounts are written mainly to jumpstart the discussion of difficult subject matter like deconstruction.

In a closer reading of the essays, I noticed that Lehman frequently uses figurative language such as metaphors and rhetorical devices to convey such complicated and technical subject such as deconstruction. He sometimes uses appositive sentences:

Critical theory, the new king of the academic hill, seemed […]”

in which, the highlighted phrase modifies artistically and simply, what is critical theory. In this way, readers are able to feel the tone lighthearted tone of the writer, and his style of language, which is not really bombarded with difficult words.

Another style of writing in which the writer employs is using extended descriptions to easily make the readers understand a technical term or a difficult word:

[…] that criticism could be autotelic: it needed no object of study outside of itself.”

[…] the implications for hermeneutics (that is, the interpretation of texts) struck me as elusive.”

Most of his sentences uses context clues that gives the readers ease in reading while understanding the whole text at the same time.

He also uses metaphors or imageries to explain things:

[…] Professionalism encourages obscurantism: it is easier to justify a steep medial hill when the diagnosis is vasomotor rhinitis and not common cold.”

One of my personal favorite description that he stated is about ‘jargon’ which I think achieves an equivalent effect in meaning with the usual dictionary meaning: the language esp. the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession or group. However, in Lehman’s words:

Jargon is the verbal sleight of hand that makes the old hat seem newly fashionable; it gives an air of novelty and specious profundity to ideas that, it stated directly would seem superficial, stale, frivolous or false. The line between serious and spurious scholarship is an easy one to blur, with jargon on your side.”

In his definition of jargon we can clearly see how the writer makes an artistic leap in describing the word jargon.

The inclusion of relevant statements from various critics do not only enriches the essay’s meaning but it also shows the author’s views and personal coloration about the matter. For example, Lehman included a statement by a Yale professor indicated in the chapter 2 where it says that deconstruction

[…] is like any dogma, it relieves people of the burden of having to think for themselves. And that has become a paradigm for American university teaching: you don’t have to know anything provided that you know the method.”

I agree with David Lehman’s contention that not all texts should be subjected to deconstruction, not would this approached be overused. In any case I prefer to read a deconstructed reading that enriches a literary text, rather than ‘subverting’ it.


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