Deconstruction Goes Pop
Wiener, Jon, The Nation
TV Guide's listings last year included a cable show on Elvis's "life and cuisine" called "The Burger & the King." The capsule description read, "Presley's tragic diet is deconstructed."
Just a few years ago "deconstruction" was the most incomprehensible term in the English language. Jacques Derrida refused to provide a definition. J. Hillis Miller, his leading American follower, said, "If you want to know what it is, read my book." Deconstructionists everywhere echoed Louis Armstrong on jazz: "If you gotta ask, you'll never know."
But today the word has entered the lexicon of daily life. A Nexis database survey of newspapers and popular magazines shows that in the past two years "deconstruction" or a variant appeared in almost 7,000 articles. Besides in TV Guide--with a paid circulation of 13 million Americans, more than any other publication except Reader's Digest--the term has appeared in publications ranging from Entertainment Weekly to The New York Times, from The American Banker to Playboy.
These articles suggest just how right Derrida was when he argued that meaning is unstable. Rock critics throw the term around. "The crazy deconstruction of `Vincent Come on Down and Kiss Me You Jacked-up Jerk' sounds like a rock `n' roll nervous breakdown," the critic for the Columbus Dispatch wrote. "Someone should get these boys some Prozac." (That's the only place I found where Prozac was recommended to treat deconstruction.) Pulp, a British group, is "led by the exquisitely unhinged, deconstructively dapper [Jarvis] Cocker," according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Village Voice described a k.d. lang song as "deconstructed into a primal anthem with a bassline that crawls up the inner thighs."
During the election year, pundits and reporters put the term to work. Lamar Alexander had a "deconstructionist approach to federal government," explained the Boston Globe. Alexander would make a good presidential candidate, USA Today declared during the primaries, "assuming that Dole deconstructs." A CNN expert discussing Dole and his "packagers" said, "He ought to sue them for malpractice.... I've never seen such a deconstruction done on one human being." Dan Rather, commenting on the weaknesses of the major parties, proclaimed that 1996 would be "a pivotal presidential election" because "this is the first time we are facing the possibility of deconstruction."
Not only pundits and pop music critics use the term; sportswriters are also fond of it. Sports Illustrated described boxer Tommy Morrison, who had tested positive for H.I.V., as "a young man who, because of a blood test, has been totally deconstructed." The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot said of another boxer, "He deconstructs professional fighters the way a 4-year-old deconstructs a bowlful of chocolate ice cream: relentlessly, and with no small amount of joy."
And business publications: Forbes referred to "The Deconstruction of the Semi-conductor Industry." The American Banker declared that banks "will have to deconstruct and reconstruct their value chain." According to the Chicago Tribune, a marketing analyst "helps clients deconstruct failed products.... That enables companies to, say, combine the appearance of one package, the label of another and the slogan of a third to make their new product."
The term is a particular favorite of The New York Times: It has appeared in 309 Times stories over the past two years--about once every other day. …