The following piece was written by Chip Morningstar and is used with his permission. I don't agree 100% with the opinions in this piece of satire; I think it generalizes too much about deconstruction and postmodernism and treats the humanities rather too harshly (there's quite a bit of b.s. in the sciences, too, though it has a more practical bouquet). However, a lot of the commentary on academia as a whole made glad-to-be-done-with-grad-school me giggle fiendishly and I felt compelled to contact Mr. Morningstar and node it.
"Academics get paid for being clever, not for being
-- 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. 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 on 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 then.
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 presentation.
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
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
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 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
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 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
Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea
Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers
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.