Tradition, Betrayal, and the Politics of Deconstruction– Part II

Copyright 1998 Jack M. Balkin. All rights reserved


From the above, it should be clear that one can perform a deconstruction of Michael H. in either direction. And this brings us to the central issue in understanding the relation of deconstruction to ethics and politics, and to questions of value in general. This text–whether by “this text” I refer to the plurality opinion, the dissent, the Constitution, tradition, the family, or the history and culture of American sexual and domestic values–is potentially reinterpretable and deconstructible. And this phenomenon raises an embarrassing question for deconstruction. What can deconstruction possibly tell us about our choice of values if all texts are deconstructible, and there is nothing outside of the text? What is the relationship of deconstruction to justice, if it can be used to deconstruct (for example) both apartheid and the anti-discrimination principle? In short, what is the source of moral authority to deconstruct in one way rather than another–what tells us that we must explode the logic of Justice Scalia’s opinion but not Justice Brennan’s?

These are difficult questions for deconstructive theory. To answer them we must recall an important feature of deconstructive practice. Deconstruction poses a continuous critique of a certain metaphysical error, an error usually referred to as “logocentrism.” There are many different versions of logocentrism, but each involves a search for “presence”–for the most true, real, valuable, or appropriate. Priority and ordering, evaluation and categorization are the primordial logocentric acts. They tell us what is more real, more privileged, more valued, more important. And deconstruction intervenes in this picture to lay low what was once high, to reverse and resituate the conceptual priorities and orderings upon which all the various forms of logocentrism thrive.

Yet when we view deconstruction and its purported enemy, logocentrism, in this light, we arrive at a paradoxical conclusion. Deconstruction, in and of itself, has nothing particular to tell us about justice, or ethics, or any questions of value. For any such conclusions we might reach would be by their nature ordering, prioritizing, evaluative, in a word, logocentric. Deconstruction thus becomes important to questions of value to the extent that it is not fully deconstructive to the extent that it depends upon and nourishes itself upon some form of preexisting logocentric practice.

The best way to see this point is by asking the following question: How do we know when it is appropriate to deconstruct? After all, we deconstruct Rousseau, or Saussure, or Justice Scalia’s opinion, but we do not deconstruct laundry lists, or the backs of cereal boxes, or the instructions that the flight attendant gives you before a plane takes off. Yet, of course, as each of these are texts, they could all be deconstructed.

We deconstruct a particular text because we think that the text has a particular form of richness that speaks to us, either for good or for ill. Thus, one deconstructs Plato because Plato appears to have a vision of philosophy very different from deconstruction. One deconstructs Saussure because Saussure has got it almost right, but the point at which his theory misfires is very revealing. One deconstructs the concept of apartheid because apartheid is evil. One deconstructs Justice Scalia’s opinion because it is misguided.

What do each of these examples have in common? I believe that in each case, one deconstructs because one has a particular ax to grind, whether it be a philosophical, ideological, moral, or political ax. One does not, in contrast, have any such feelings about a cereal box. On the other hand, one might well decide to deconstruct the back of a cereal box if one had already decided that one was going to investigate the culture of mass consumerism, or the role of the child in modern American society, or what have you. In other words, even in the case in which one deals with a seemingly insignificant test, one is choosing that text for a reason, and that reason is one’s particular ax.

I should note parenthetically that having read a number of works of Jacques Derrida, I have noted that Derrida himself is quite circumspect about the texts he chooses to deconstruct, and in the way he goes about reading them. I mean this as the highest compliment. A deconstructor does not seize upon every word in the text as the source of a deconstructive reverie, nor does she choose a text at random. Yet if one always deconstructs for a reason, then there is a logos or rationale behind such a decision, a method to this textual madness. The deconstructionist may appear crazy, but she is crazy like a fox. Her practice is a logocentric practice at its inception even as it seeks to subvert the logocentrism of the particular text.

Not only does a deconstructionist begin deconstructing for a reason, she also ends her deconstruction for a reason. The reason may be complex or simple. She may stop because she has demonstrated to her own satisfaction that Justice Scalia’s opinion is incoherent, or that apartheid is evil, or because she realizes that she is beating a dead horse by looking at the back of cereal boxes. She may cease deconstructing because her editor told her that the article had to be twenty thousand words and no more, or because she has run out of bond paper, or even because she is in a hurry and needs to get to the grocery store before it closes. In theory, however, one could go on. One could go on forever. In fact, of course, we always do stop. We decide, at some point, that there is nothing more to be decided about

this undecidable text. If we always have an ax to grind when deconstructing, at some point we do find it necessary to bury the hatchet.

Thus, curiously, both the starting and the ending of deconstruction are not simply given by the act of deconstruction. But if the beginning and ending of deconstruction are logocentric, if a practice of deconstruction can only exist because of this logocentrism–this starting and this ending–then why do we think that the portion in the middle the deconstruction itself–is any less filled with, infected with, established throughout by, a certain form of logocentrism? Are we not still grinding our ax? Are we not testing the metaphors and signifiers with our instruments of deconstruction, just as a dentist might scratch the plaque of her patient’s teeth in search of a cavity or fissure that could be exposed and corrected?

We thus see that deconstruction, as a political practice, or as a pragmatics (that is, a theory of use or action) cannot avoid logocentrism, either at its beginning, its middle, or its end. To deconstruct is always to engage in a form of logocentrism. It is always to obey a certain law of where to begin and where to end, which turns of phrase to subvert and which to leave untouched. For after we have ground our ax, it directs what we shall execute with it. Moreover, each deconstruction bears the traces of the intellectual roads not taken, the metaphors and arguments not questioned. Our deconstruction of Justice Scalia’s opinion bears the traces of our failure to deconstruct Justice Brennan’s dissent, or our failure to deconstruct the previous three Supreme Court cases on the issue of parental rights, or indeed, any of the other opinions appearing in the United States Reports. Our deconstruction of apartheid bears the traces of our failure to question the anti-discrimination principle, or a libertarian conception of free speech, or of the market, and so on. Deconstruction, therefore, does not alleviate the need for the existence of a set of political commitments that preexist the deconstructive act. These commitments may change as one deconstructs, and the deconstructor may change with them–but they must already be present for the deconstruction even to get off the ground. Thus, deconstruction turns out to be instrumental, rather than a source of ethical or political value. Indeed, it would be strange if deconstruction were a source of anything.

One might object that describing deconstruction as guided by the preexisting commitments and values of the individual deconstructor mistakenly assumes a relatively autonomous subject who controls what to deconstruct and what to leave untouched.(49) Yet deconstruction also requires us to question the existence of this relatively autonomous self.(50) Perhaps, then, deconstruction has a distinctive politics which nevertheless escapes logocentrism–it would be a politics that denies the full coherence and autonomy of subjects, and sees subjects as largely or even wholly constructed by the intersection of various cultural and political forces. In contrast, viewing deconstruction as an instrument employed by a subject reasserts logocentric assumptions about the self that deconstruction is designed to explode.

Yet this is not an objection to my argument. Rather, it is my argument–that deconstruction, as actually performed by individuals, is always and already parasitic on some form of logocentric practice. This is every bit as true of critics of the autonomy of the self as it is of critics of any other subject of deconstruction. The deconstructor of the self is still picking her targets she is still writing about the illusion of the self and not about the errors of Justice Scalia’s opinion, or the wickedness of apartheid. And this choice (for we can find no other word to describe it) is still the grinding of a particular ax, whether its real motivations are conscious or unconscious, whether the self who makes this choice is wholly autonomous or wholly constructed. And the more cleverly and skillfully the deconstructor of the self argues her case, the more overtly she displays her mastery and her purposefulness in doing so–thus uncannily subverting her own position. In short, deconstructive technique must also apply to itself. Deconstruction, which seems to efface the self, ultimately depends upon what it deemphasizes or denies–that is, the self. For only selves can put the self in question–there is quite literally no one else to do it. And only selves with preexisting commitments (political or otherwise) would engage in such a project. My conclusion thus remains untouched: Without preexisting values, purposes, or commitments, deconstruction cannot begin. With them, it can never be other than logocentric.

I am sure that I am not the first person to note the curious relationship between deconstruction and an earlier French import existentialism. Both approaches envision a sort of freedom–for the existentialist it is the freedom to act, for the deconstructionist it is the freedom of the text to signify endlessly. If we see life itself as the general text, the textual freedom of the deconstructionist becomes quite similar to the pragmatic (action-oriented) freedom of the existentialist. By sufficient deconstruction one can transform the general text into what one wants it to mean, just as for the existentialist one can make one’s life mean what one wants it to mean. But in both cases there is a price to pay. For the deconstructionist, the text always means more than what one wants it to mean, just as for the existentialist one’s moral choices have consequences that one could not predict or did not wish but that one is nevertheless responsible for.

This symmetry and ultimate agreement is quite curious, because deconstruction and existentialism would appear to be based upon completely opposed theories of the thinking subject. Existentialism exalts the freedom of the subject, and deconstruction, like much poststructuralist thought, tends to deemphasize or even efface the subject. But I suggest that this similarity is really not as surprising as it might at first appear. Both approaches are seeking answers to the same set of philosophical problems, albeit from different directions. Thus, both philosophical practices end at the same point–with the need for preexisting moral and political commitment in the face of an undecidable text–the general text, the text of life in which ethical choice is inscribed.

Go to Part I
Go to Part II
Return to Writings Online


49. See Schlag, “L’hors de Texte, C’est Moi”–The Politics of Form and the Domestication of Deconstruction, 11 Cardozo L. Rev. 163 1(1990).

50. Id.