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Postmodernism’s Steady Deconstruction of Reality

How can we find truth when nothing is reliable?

Sometimes, you just have to try using college professors’ ideas in the real world. One such idea is “postmodernism.” Applied to communications, postmodernism teaches that whenever we read a written text, we should not try to discover what the writer intended. Instead of looking for an objective “meaning,” we should experience what the text means to us personally.

The idea goes further, urging us to start by disbelieving the text and doubting our interpretations of it, too. People with the postmodern “deconstructionist” view say, “every text deconstructs” itself, and “every text has contradictions.” Deconstruction means “uncovering the question behind the answers already provided in the text.”

Standing upon the ideas of the deconstructionist guru, Jacques Derrida, and his followers, one writer summarized:

We cannot assume that we have understood the entire meaning of the text. We have to undo what we have learned and try to feel the texture of the relations of the words to each other in the text.

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes and quotes Derrida on this view:

For Derrida … linguistic meaning is determined by the “play” of differences between words – a play that is “limitless,” “infinite,” and “indefinite” – and not by an original idea or intention existing prior to and outside language.

Putting it all together: Whenever we read a text, we need to “undo” what we know, “feel the texture” of the words, and decide upon its meaning based upon limitless, indefinite, and ultimately infinite ways to think about it. Got it?

Postmodernism in Practice

Let’s test the deconstructionist ideas in the natural foods store. Walk in and look for an Ashwagandha supplement. Ashwagandha is a “traditional” herbal remedy thought to relieve stress and insomnia. Spotting the Ashwagandha Gummies product in a small bottle, you begin to read the label:

Photo by Kiliweb with additional modifications by Chevalstar per Open Products Facts; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The label text says the gummies contain Ashwagandha along with other ingredients, such as organic tapioca syrup, sugar, and small amounts of monk fruit extract, maqui berry juice, as well as “natural flavors” and the always-satisfying carnauba wax. You have found your desired product, so you’re good to go, right?

Not if you’re a postmodernist. You have to ask: “Whose truth is that?” “What should I believe?” You need to deconstruct that label.

The postmodernists advise we look for “contradictions.” Okay. There’s one: “Purple Carrot Juice Concentrate (Color).”  Carrots are orange, not purple – that’s “our truth.” (Except purple carrots do exist, just not in our truth.)  Perhaps all the references to “organic” are contradictions of something as well?

We’re supposed to “undo what we have learned.” Okay. Let’s forget what we know about, say, tapioca, sugar, monk fruit, and sunflower oil. Hmmm. Now, as directed, let’s “feel the texture” of the words. Derrida urges playing with the words limitlessly, infinitely. Do this too vigorously and we’ll get consonant scratches and vowel burns. Do we know more about the Gummies though?

A footnoted and practical WikiHow article explains the method:

Deconstruction aims to disturb in order to discover. By deconstructing a text, you learn to read beyond a text’s straightforward content and uncover new meanings and truths.

Got it. Disturb and discover.

Check Your Privilege, Read Backwards, and Ignore The Man

The WikiHow article concisely describes 13 main steps in “deconstructing” text. One step is to read the words and phrases out of order: “Consider disrupting a linear reading of a text by skimming through it backwards.” Okay. Extract fruit monk. Juice berry macqui. Wax carnauba. (I’m still waiting for the aha! moment.)

Another step is to “resist the general, common meaning of a text, also known as the ‘privileged’ meaning of a text.” Okay. So, where the list of “other ingredients” names various elements, we readers must resist believing that the label is actually describing the ingredients. Where the label says “sugar” or “carnauba wax,” we must refuse to use a common “privileged” understanding of either item. If the ingredients’ names mean anything, we must not think they refer to what we think they refer to. Thus the question arises: Can we know the ingredients of this product by reading the label?

If you think that the product’s maker knows the ingredients accurately (and is listing them correctly), think again. The Wikihow article (emphasis added) plainly directs readers to:

Resist the temptation to look to the author of a text as the singular expert on the meaning of a given text. Tell yourself that your own readings, ideas, translations, and even your misreadings are just as meaningful as the author’s interpretation of her own work.

The postmodern deconstructionist urges readers to disbelieve the manufacturer’s claims to knowing about its own product. Instead, each reader decides what the text means – and thus decides what the ingredients are. So much for worrying about “truth in labeling.”

Bigoted Product Labeling Abounds

But wait: Do we have to deconstruct a product label’s statements of scientific facts? Isn’t sugar – sugar? Isn’t carnauba wax – carnauba wax? Isn’t the truth – the truth?

Appealing to science, using terms like “settled science” or “scientific fact,” triggers postmodernist objections. After all, a supposed statement of objective scientific fact may well be traced to racist sexist oppressor science. The WikiHow article cautions against distinguishing claims based on reason as opposed to emotion, and reminds us to believe: “language does not describe what is.”

Pointedly, one blogger put it (emphasis added):

Science is looked at as an objective pursuit of fact. However, history has shown that it tends to reinforce the beliefs and biases of the scientists. Science has historically been and continues to be dominated by a single social group, namely middle- and upper-class white males, which has led to one-sided constructions of reality.

Postmodernism says you cannot depend upon statements of fact by referring to “science.”  If you cannot rely upon the words to mean what they say, and if you cannot understand the words accurately anyway if they refer to science, then what exactly can you possibly know about the ingredients of Ashwagandha Gummies? Basically, nothing.

Deconstruction’s Disclaimer

Has this discussion of the product label shamelessly erected a “straw man” to ridicule? Hardly. Refer to the WikiHow article itself where it allows no exceptions: “deconstruction can be applied to any text or any speech act.”  

The WikiHow article sneaks out before the building collapses, however, warning everyone: “The only danger is thinking you know what deconstruction is.” But we do know: Deconstructionism makes it impossible to understand product labels – or anything else.

Richard Stevens

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Richard W. Stevens is a lawyer, author, and a Fellow of Discovery Institute's Walter Bradley Center on Natural and Artificial Intelligence. He has written extensively on how code and software systems evidence intelligent design in biological systems. He holds a J.D. with high honors from the University of San Diego Law School and a computer science degree from UC San Diego. Richard has practiced civil and administrative law litigation in California and Washington D.C., taught legal research and writing at George Washington University and George Mason University law schools, and now specializes in writing dispositive motion and appellate briefs. He has authored or co-authored four books, and has written numerous articles and spoken on subjects including legal writing, economics, the Bill of Rights and Christian apologetics. His fifth book, Investigation Defense, is forthcoming.

Postmodernism’s Steady Deconstruction of Reality