I've always taken it for granted that deconstruction, or post-modern non-fiction writing, is empty of meaningful content. Earlier this year I read David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and his Greatly Exaggerated essay within changed my perspective on the field.

In hindsight, I was guilty of lazy thinking. I judged something before really learning anything about it. My first encounter with deconstruction was from hearing about the Sokal affair*, and my second encounter was an online generator of post-modern nonsense. In fact, everything that I can recall naturally encountering on the internet about PoMo non-fiction has been heavily biased against it and at the time further reinforced my disdain. But let's have some accountability here: lazy thinking is the real culprit. By the way, I still know essentially nothing about any of this, but I am grateful for DFW's lucid introduction.

He sets up the issue with transparency:

If you’re not a critical-theory jockey, then to appreciate why the metaphysical viability of the author is a big deal you have to recognize the difference between a writer—the person whose choices and actions account for a text’s features—and an author—the entity whose intentions are taken to be responsible for a text’s meaning.

Later,

Axiomatic for both schools was the idea of a real author, an entity for whose definition most critics credit Hobbes’s Leviathan, which describes real authors as persons who, first, accept responsibility for a text and, second, “own” that text, i.e. retain the right to determine its meaning. It’s just this definition of “author” that Barthes in ’68 was trying to refute, arguing with respect to the first criterion that a writer cannot determine his text’s consequences enough to be really responsible (Salinger wasn’t hauled into court as an accessory when John Lennon was shot), and with respect to the second that the writer’s not the text’s owner in Hobbes’s sense because it is really critical readers who decide and thus determine what a piece of writing means.

This sounds entirely twenty-first century to me. Individuality and personal meaning are a big thing in present-day social contexts. Who cares what Melville intended to express with that sentence? Here is what it means to ME (who cares but Melville that is, and although I care less about his meaning than my own, I care strongly that his meaning was important to him).

We tend to trust speech over writing because of the immediacy of the speaker: he’s right there, and we can grab him by the lapels and look into his face and figure out just exactly what one single thing he means. But the reason why the poststructuralists are in the literary theory business at all is that they see writing, not speech, as more faithful to the metaphysics of true expression. For Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault, writing is a better animal than speech because it is iterable; it is iterable because it is abstract; and it is abstract because it is a function not of presence but of absence: the reader’s absent when the writer’s writing, and the writer’s absent when the reader’s reading.

Not only is this entirely rational and current, it is mathematical! Also computational. †

The question of meaning and meaning's representation lies at the heart of mathematical logic, and the process of iterable discovery is extremely fashionable in software development right now. It would seem that deconstruction is not empty of content but rather nearly subsumes much of what I admire in contemporary thought.


* My lazy thinking also prevented me from realizing that the hoax was not an effective criticism of an entire field of academia but merely a sign that traditional academic publishing was in need of the internet. Perhaps we need more poststructuralist theories of academic publishing?

† Leave it to DFW to describe literary criticism in a way that brings mathematical thoughts to my mind. Are those my mathematical thoughts or David's?