Thursday, August 28, 2008

Just Good Enough to Deconstruct

John McIntyre has one of my favorite blogs on writing. Today's post looks at public apathy toward quality - in consumer products and in writing. While I agree with most of his points, I want to take issue with what he does at the end, which is take a cheap shot at deconstruction. In my view he mis-characterizes deconstruction by making it a philosophy of meaninglessness. It's rather an unfortunate cheap shot that glosses over the real insights that a deconstructive approach can yield.

Let's go through the post in sequence. He begins:

Here’s a start for a profoundly depressing day.

The estimable David Sullivan, my colleague at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has a sobering post at That’s the Press, Baby on copy editing and quality. Reacting to a section of a long analysis of American newspapering by Vin Crosbie, he explores the idea that for most readers, good enough is the only standard that matters.

Much of the video quality on Youtube is poor, he points out, but it’s good enough to amuse people; cell phones are less reliable than land lines, but they are good enough to satisfy the customers; a great deal of the writing on the Internet is less than optimal, but it is good enough for all but the most demanding readers. And it’s all free. You could pay money for a newspaper that is better edited, but why would you, if you can get basically the same information, for free and good enough.

Then he says -
It’s not hard to see where this is going. Where this has already been going, as newspapers cut back on all that expensive and time-consuming editing and give the reader the “unmediated” work of reporters, God save the mark. For the past 28 years, I have closed the day in some confidence that the next morning’s paper was better in some respects for my having been on the desk. But the number of people willing to pay for a product with some assured level of quality* — and worse, the number of advertisers confident that such a quality product is the right vehicle for their sales pitches — dwindles.
He closes out with this -

Mr. Sullivan is probably right in speculating that the novelty will begin to fade from many of the currently popular Web sites. I suspect that the great and painful sorting-out under way among American newspapers will result in products — electronic certainly, and perhaps even in print — that have readers and the revenue to support the enterprise. And somewhere in these emerging enterprises there will be a desire for accuracy, precision and clarity. That will require editing. So maybe it’s not the best idea to cut loose all the copy editors just yet.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go into the office and put out a newspaper. If I do my job properly, it will be some better than good enough.

In an interesting move, he gives not one but two footnotes, and the real action of the post - for me, anyway - happens here. The first note undercuts possible objectors:
* Before you write about all the ignorant errors you have spotted in The Baltimore Sun and whom do I think I am fooling, let me save time by giving you the answers in advance: (1) You have not seen the ignorant errors that the copy desk caught, and (2) you have not taken into account the quality of most other American newspapers.
The second note, however, goes after deconstruction. McIntyre says:
** If I can digress — and who will stop me? — I suspect that the slow seepage of deconstructionist ideas from the academy into mainstream culture over the past 30 years has contributed to the difficulties in mainstream journalism. If it is the case that any text is merely a reflection of certain interests and power relationships, and if there is no external reality to which a text corresponds, then all of us will think what we prefer to think (or what those power relationships have programmed us to think), and the mainstream media’s preoccupation with fictitious concepts such as “objectivity” is merely another sham. That this is the case may be seen plainly in political journalism, in which people read and tenaciously hold on to assertions that are demonstrably false.
Is it the case "that any text is merely a reflection of certain interests and power relationships"? Well, yes, any text reflects interests and relationships, but a text has more to it than this - so it is NOT merely a reflection. A text actively constructs such relationships. It defines them and gives them a concrete grounding visible to all in and as writing. The reflection is not derivative and it is not identical; rather it is innovative and differential, and this is the whole problem of language. Language is not backwards referential but forwards.

But then I should come back a bit because there's a fundamental quality of text that I think needs to be recognized. Text is not a thing. Just like knowledge is information put to use, text is inscription/writing put to interpretation. In other words, text consists of both the thing being read and the process of reading together. The idea that text makes the scene of (social/political/personal) interests and relationships is not deconstructionist per se. But deconstruction's proponents suggest that these interests and relationships can be inferred and that they matter - at the point(s) of writing and reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.