Updated: Apr 22
Written and photographed by: Mark Elgersma
Deconstruction, a practice that first became popular in academia and philosophy during the second half of the 20th century, is still crazy relevant when trying to resist hierarchies and power structures around us. Although Jacques Derrida, the original theorist of deconstruction, initially used the practice to take apart a seemingly simple argument from Aristotle, its primary use as of late has been to evaluate, analyze, and finally take apart oppressive structures that are built into everyday life. Contradictions in racism, sexism, and countless other “isms” can be traced through the lens of deconstruction.
Before anything else, I want to say that this is exactly the wrong way to tell people about deconstruction or related topics. Deconstruction is all about intricacies and non-singularities, and I’m not sure how well-suited magazines are to complex subjects. We condense. So, please, see this as a very brief introduction, and if you’re interested in this concept, read more. More not by me.
One of deconstruction's presuppositions, taken from the linguist and structuralist Saussure, is that meaning is a product of differences. Let's use names as an example to show this.
My name is Mark. However, there’s no good reason that I wasn’t named “John”, “Oswald”, or “Larry”. Hell, there’s not even a good reason I wasn’t named “Boop”, “Snop”, or “Varienbilish”. None of those are traditional names, but the only thing that separates a name from a non-name is social acceptance and usage. Regardless, I still have a good amount of people tell me that I look like a Mark. But if everyone's name was Mark, nobody would look like one. We probably wouldn't even have a concept of a "Mark." It would just be reality. My looking like a "Mark" requires there to be other names and people with those names to compare it to.
Is there a point to considering this paradox? Well, I’m not named anything else, and people do have different names, so in some sense, no. But, it also shows that my name, “Mark”, isn’t inherently connected to me despite any internal perception that it is. This doesn’t make my name inconsequential by any means. Others will still use my name, refer to me by my name, and make connotations with my name. But it does make my name arbitrary, and it shows that my name's meaning arises from its difference to every other one.
So that shifts things a little. I don’t look like a “Mark”; I look like the speaker’s understanding of “Mark” in relation and as opposed to every other name. The wild thing is that this is applicable to all things that stand for another. Spoken words, writing, actions, works of art, the only reason these physical things--signifiers--mean anything is because we’ve internally assigned values and meanings to them based off the differences and systems of signs that make up communication, verbal or nonverbal.
But do these systems of differences matter?
Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher (I use this term loosely, as I think he would gag if he heard me refer to him as such), said that these systems of differences mattered more than anything else in Western thought. With these unstable systems, he said, there is no way to summon or construct a fixed meaning.
A book can't have an objective "theme," it can only have words that attempt to construct one. We can see what strategies it uses to do this, but we can’t get to the “Truth” from a book more than we can get to it from a lemon.
And, even more profoundly, that would suggest that Truth is not located in any one place. All of Western philosophy and thought has only served to try to locate and pin down something which resides in nothing and everything. Truth is not in our heads or in our hearts or in empiricism; There is no abstract truth that we’re building toward.
So when we talk about institutions and systems, we have to understand that they are closed. The only truth (note: lowercase "t") of any system or any field is the one built by it's parts and relationships, and it is constructed by the strictures and censors that already exist in that system, many scholars have said.
Some academics say that a possible way to undermine these differential systems is in signifiers that indicate difference without categorization. For instance, the term "queer," after being reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community, has not and does not feed into heteronormative othering. It is creating a non-category that allows people to look at their identities outside of a heteronormative, cis-normative culture (although this has become complicated and is somewhat double-edged as a new dichotomy has arisen).
Again, this is only a primer of a primer of a primer, but looking for strategies to take down hierarchical structures is always useful when they inhabit every aspect of our lives.I highly recommend seeking more information on deconstruction. With so many systems that impart hierarchical and imbalanced structures, learning to take things apart is vital. Truth isn't in books or articles or pictures. The only things in these (this article and accompanying pictures included) are scribbles and shapes that we call letters and words and design representing abstract thoughts. Look not at what you are being told, but how you are being told it, and what that further communicates.