“How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” has been making the online rounds for 20 years for a good reason: it’s an effective satire of writing in the humanities and some of the dumber currents of contemporary thought in academia.* It also usually raises an obvious question: How did “Deconstruction,” or its siblings “Poststructuralism” or “Postmodernism,” get started in the first place?
My take is a “meta” idea about institutions rather than a direct comment on the merits of deconstruction as a method or philosophy. The rise of deconstruction has more to do with the needs of academia as an institution than the quality of deconstruction as a tool, method, or philosophy. To understand why, however, one has to go far back in time.
Since at least the 18th Century, writers of various sorts have been systematically (key word: before the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, investigations were rarely systematic by modern standards) asking fundamental questions about what words mean and how they mean them, along with what works made of words mean and how they mean them. Though critical ideas go back to Plato and Aristotle, Dr. Johnson is a decent place to start. We eventually began calling such people “critics.” In the 19th Century this habit gets a big boost from the Romantics and then writers like Matthew Arnold.
Many of the debates about what things mean and why have inherent tensions, like: “Should you consider the author’s time period or point in history when evaluating a work?” or “Can art be inherently aesthetic or must it be political?” Others can be formulated. Different answers predominate in different periods.
In the 20th Century, critics start getting caught up in academia (I. A. Richards is one example); before that, most of them were what we’d now call freelancers who wrote for their own fancy or for general, education audiences. The shift happens for many reasons, and one is the invention of “research” universities; this may seem incidental to questions about Deconstruction, but it isn’t because Deconstruction wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t exist in the way it does without academia. Anyway, research universities get started in Germany, then spread to the U.S. through Johns Hopkins, which was founded in 1876. Professors of English start getting appointed. In research universities, professors need to produce “original research” to qualify for hiring, tenure, and promotion. This makes a lot of sense in the sciences, which have a very clear discover-and-build model in which new work is right and old work is wrong. This doesn’t work quite as well in the humanities and especially in fields like English.
English professors initially study words—these days we’d primarily call them philologists—and where they come from, and there is also a large contingent of professors of Greek or Latin who also teach some English. Over time English professors move from being primarily philological in nature towards being critics. The first people to really ratchet up the research-on-original-works game were the New Critics, starting in the 1930s. In the 1930s they are young whippersnappers who can ignore their elders in part because getting a job as a professor is a relatively easy, relatively genteel endeavor.
New Critics predominate until the 1950s, when Structuralists seize the high ground (think of someone like Northrop Frye) and begin asking about what sorts of universal questions literature might ask, or what universal qualities it might possess. After 1945, too, universities expand like crazy due to the G.I. Bill and then baby boomers goes to college. Pretty much anyone who can get a PhD can get a tenure-track job teaching English. That lets waves of people with new ideas who want to overthrow the ideas of their elders into academia. In the 1970s, Deconstructionists (otherwise known as Post-structuralists) show up. They’re the French theorists who are routinely mocked outside of academia for obvious reasons:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
That’s Judith Butler, quoted in Steven Pinker’s witty, readable The Sense of Style, in which he explains why this passage is terrible and how to avoid inflicting passages like it onto others. Inside of academia, she’s considered beyond criticism.
In each generational change of method and ideology, from philology to New Criticism to Structuralism to Poststructuralism, newly-minted professors needed to get PhDs, get hired by departments (often though not always in English), and get tenure by producing “original research.” One way to produce original research is to denounce the methods and ideas of your predecessors as horse shit and then set up a new set of methods and ideas, which can also be less charitably called “assumptions.”
But a funny thing happens to the critical-industrial complex in universities starting around 1975: the baby boomers finish college. The absolute number of students stops growing and even shrinks for a number of years. Colleges have all these tenured professors who can’t be gotten rid of, because tenure prevents them from being fired. So colleges stop hiring (see Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas for a good account of this dynamic).
Colleges never really hired en masse again.
Other factors also reduced or discouraged the hiring of professors by colleges. In the 1980s and 1990s court decisions strike down mandatory retirement. Instead of getting a gold watch (or whatever academics gave), professors could continue being full profs well into their 70s or even 80s. Life expectancies lengthened throughout the 20th Century, and by now a professor gets tenure at say 35 could still be teaching at 85. In college I had a couple of professors who should have been forcibly retired at least a decade before I encountered them, but that is no longer possible.
Consequently, the personnel churn that used to produce new dominant ideologies in academia stops around the 1970s. The relatively few new faculty slots from 1975 to the present go to people who already believed in Deconstructionist ideals, though those ideals tend to go by the term “Literary Theory,” or just “Theory,” by the 1980s. When hundreds of plausible applications arrive for each faculty position, it’s very easy to select for comfortable ideological conformity. As noted above, the humanities don’t even have the backstop of experiment and reality against which radicals can base major changes. People who are gadflies like me can get blogs, but blogs don’t pay the bills and still don’t have much suck inside the academic edifice itself. Critics might also write academic novels, but those don’t seem to have had much of an impact on those inside. Perhaps the most salient example of institutional change is the rise of the MFA program for both undergrads and grad students, since those who teach in MFA programs tend to believe that it is possible to write well and that it is possible and even desirable to write for people who aren’t themselves academics.
Let’s return to Deconstruction as a concept. It has some interesting ideas, like this one: “he asks us to question not whether something is an X or a Y, but rather to get ‘meta’ and start examining what makes it possible for us to go through life assigning things too ontological categories (X or Y) in the first place” and others, like those pointing out that a work of art can mean two opposing things simultaneously, and that there often isn’t a single best reading of a particular work.
The problem, however, is that Deconstruction’s sillier adherents—who are all over universities—take a misreading of Saussure to argue that Deconstruction means that nothing means anything, except that everything means that men, white people, and Western imperialists oppress women, non-white people, and everyone else, and hell, as long as we’re at it capitalism is evil. History also means nothing because nothing means anything, or everything means nothing, or nothing means everything. But dressed up in sufficiently confusing language—see the Butler passage from earlier in this essay—no one can tell what if anything is really being argued.
There has been some blowback against this (Paglia, Falck, Windschuttle), but the sillier parts of Deconstructionist / Post-structuralist nonsense won, and the institutional forces operating within academia mean that that victory has been depressingly permanent. Those forces show no signs of abating. Almost no one in academia asks, “Is the work I’m doing actually important, for any reasonable value of ‘important?'” The ones who ask it tend to find something else to do. As my roommate from my first year of grad school observed when she quit after her M.A., “It’s all a bunch of bullshit.”
The people who would normally produce intellectual churn have mostly been shut out of the job market, or have moved to the healthier world of ideas online or in journalism, or have been marginalized (Paglia). Few people welcome genuine attacks on their ideas and few of us are as open-minded as we’d like to believe; academics like to think they’re open-minded, but my experience with peer review thus far indicates otherwise. So real critics tend to follow the “Exit, Voice, Loyalty” model described by Albert Hirschman in his eponymous book and exit.
The smarter ones who still want to write go for MFAs, where the goal is to produce art that someone else might actually want to read. The MFA option has grown for many reasons, but one is as an alternative for literary-minded people who want to produce writing that might matter to someone other than other English PhDs.
Few important thinkers have emerged from the humanities in the last 25 or so years. Many have in the sciences, which should be apparent through the Edge.org writers. As John Brockman, the Edge.org founder, says:
The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.
One would think that “the traditional intellectual” would wake up and do something about this. There have been some signs of this happening—like Franco Moretti or Jonathan Gottschall—but so far those green shoots have been easy to miss and far from the mainstream. “Theory” and the bad writing associated with remains king.
Works not cited but from which this reply draws:
Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Paglia, Camille. “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.” Arion Third Series 1.2 (1991/04/01): 139-212.
Paglia, Camille. Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. 1 ed. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Falck, Colin. Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-modernism. 2 ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Windschuttle, Keith. The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past. 1st Free Press Ed., 1997 ed. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Star, Alexander. Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca. 1st ed. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Cusset, Francois. French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Trans. Jeff Fort. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking Adult, 2014.
* Here is one recent discussion, from which the original version of this essay was drawn. “How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” remains popular for the same reason academic novels remain popular: it is often easier to criticize through humor and satire than direct attack.