When postmodern thought was applied to literary theory, it gave rise to an offshoot called deconstructionism. Recall that for postmodernism, individuals are constituted by their membership within a community. The implication is that individuals do not really have original or creative ideas but merely reflect the ideas of their communities. For example, literary critic Roland Barthes said a piece of writing is merely a “tissue of quotations” absorbed from the surrounding culture.
Barthes is best known for his slogan “the death of the author” — by which he means the death of the very concept of individual creativity. In his view, writers are akin to the bards or shamans of old, who were not inventors of their own stories so much as transmitters of the stories of their clan, tribe, or community. Jacques Derrida meant the same thing in his paradoxical statement “Texts have no author.”
Moreover, we all belong to a variety of communities based on attributes such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity — all with conflicting outlooks and interests. As a result, every author will unconsciously reflect conflicting social messages. For Barthes, a text is a mix “in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” The goal of the literary critic is to dig beneath the surface of the text to excavate and disentangle those clashing meanings.
This is called deconstructing the text — hence the term deconstructionism.
What reason does Barthes give for accepting such a theory? As Alan Jacobs writes, “As soon as deconstructionists get in the business of providing reasons, they are perforce in the business of making claims and thus are subject to their own critique.” What happens if we subject Barthes’s views to his own critique? We have to conclude that he, too, is merely a mouthpiece for social forces such as race, class, and gender. His “own” writings do not offer original or creative insights but are merely collages of conflicting quotations absorbed unconsciously from the communities to which he belongs. The “death of the author” must include Barthes himself.
In practice, the only way deconstructionists can function is to tacitly exempt themselves from the critique they apply to everyone else. They presume to stand above the fray, with unique insight to deconstruct everyone else’s statements as products of underlying interests and power struggles, while treating their own writings as immune to the process of deconstruction. They write as though they alone are able to transcend the social forces of race, class, and gender that render everyone else a victim of false consciousness. More.
Follow UD News at Twitter!