What is deconstruction? In postmodern theory, deconstruction (in a nutshell) is the undoing of an author’s controlling intentions by time and audience reception. This can only happen because texts are made of parts, not coherent wholes. Over time, parts start to do their own things, flying off in all sorts of directions. The well known opening lines of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (1919) anticipates this postmodern insight well:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold [...]
Medieval scholastics used to imagine God as outside of history, simple (not consisting of parts), one, and therefore unchanging. Texts aren’t like that. Like the falcon, they’re created things consisting of complex innards that are cast from their masters into history. This means they can fly away.
Infected parts. Jacques Derrida is the philosopher who first coined the term deconstruction. Because texts are both made of parts and are part of the flux of history, Derrida argued that they are “always already” under deconstruction. You don’t need a clever postmodern reader to deconstruct a text (written, visual, or aural). Time and audience reception are already doing it without the least help from any professor or grad student because texts aren’t little scholastic gods beyond the reach of evolution, they’re more like animals prone in their parts to sickness. Derrida wrote of his own theorizing about texts: “Everything I have done is dominated by the thought of a virus.”
The image at the top of this page is a good example of a visual text under viral deconstruction by time and audience reception. When I first saw this trippy painting by Stefano di Giovanni (also known as il Sassetta, 1392-1450) titled The Blessed Ranieri Frees the Poor from a Prison in Florence (circa 1437-1444, Louvre), I thought of Blake’s 18th century poetry of binding and loosing, “cobra pose” in yoga (the guy coming out of the wall with an arched back), Black Friday (shoppers “bookin it” across a parking lot at a Mall), Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” a helmeted astronaut, a drone hovering, and, of course, The Jetsons. I also thought of New Agey things like astral projection and alien visitations. You, as a contemporary of mine, are no doubt nodding in recognition.
The painting, in other words, is infected. Somehow, all these things have gotten into Giovanni’s painting. Having left its original perch in the 15th century artist’s studio, it has become a sick bird, and history is now the nightmare from which it is trying to awake (to echo a sentence in James Joyce’s Ulysses). By escaping the artist’s control, the painting has revealed itself to consist of parts that are tugging in all sorts of directions.
Frankenstein. Giovanni would perhaps be quite disoriented by the little Frankenstein he unleashed upon the world, for when painting it, he was no doubt thinking primarily of a miracle done by a 12th century Catholic saint renowned for his extreme asceticism and discipline in imitating Christ. Giovanni’s point of reference would have been the 15th century belief that one’s spirit can really and truly travel in dreams, doing good or evil deeds while the body sleeps. He was thus representing a liminal (boundary) realm where witches and saints contend. A serious subject. In this instance, the saint’s spirit has left his sleeping body to perform a miracle. But Trickster Time has turned Giovanni’s sober and reverential work of saint depiction into something, well, more than that; something that makes the contemporary secular viewer smile with ironies.
Here’s a sharper image of the painting:
Signifiers escape the prisons of their signifieds. One irony here is that the artist’s signifiers have gotten away from him as surely as have his prisoners from the Florentine prison. Christianity’s power to destabilize worldly power is no longer the chief thing this painting is about; it’s now about time destabilizing a Christian artist’s message; about time’s power to destabilize everything. Indeed, this painting is a sober reminder of the triumph of time over efforts at permanence. Giovanni’s tidy geometric background of gold, white, light gray, and dark gray, is coming undone. An escape is in progress. To the contemporary viewer, the gold is on fire. For our time, it’s thus perhaps better to title this painting, Time Frees the Signifiers from the Prison of Stefano di Giovanni’s Religiously Ordered Mind.
So this painting is a kind of concentrated Derrida seminar; a lesson in deconstruction. It helps us think about three broad takeaway claims frequently encountered in our postmodern era: (1) meaning is slippery; (2) a great deal happens beneath awareness; and (3) what we communicate by the words and images we put out is less in our control than we suppose. As the British literary critic Frank Kermode has noted, the central premise of all postmodern reasoning is that there is always more in a text than the author knows or intends. (And this is true because reading entails imagination.)
Nietzsche and imagination. Kermode’s observation goes well with Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” and that what we call truth amounts to no more than “a mobile army of metaphors.” Time changes our perspective, and the mind is always racing with associations. Against these, Giovanni’s intended meanings for his own painting never had a chance.
Douglas Hofstadter’s recent book, Surfaces and Essences (2013), would seem to support Nietzsche’s idea that an author’s controlling intentions can be readily killed off by time and audience, for Hofstadter also argues that the human mind functions by way of analogy (detecting signals in noise via the imaginative and conceptual power to notice that this is that). Put such an analogical power–a metaphorical power–together with time and you’ve got imaginative play, “a mobile army of metaphors.”
That’s what looking at art amounts to: lingering imagination; free association; “a mobile army of metaphors.” These are things the originator of the art can’t control. And that’s how Saint Ranieri can come to “meet George Jetson.” Dionysian time and the way the human mind works via analogy (this is that) conspire to deconstruct and digress upon all Apollonian constructions. As Blake so nicely puts it, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”
An anxious attempt at resurrecting a pillar. Deconstruction is a bit nervy, and it would be nice to recover what time has undone. That’s one way to read another painting Giovanni did that features Ranieri (see below).
In the painting, Ranieri is doing his drone-hover over a dreaming (and rather feminine-looking, even voluptuous) cardinal. The cardinal, a pillar of the church, is down. He has shown his vulnerability to time and mortality by abandoning his post and taking to his bed. As a pillar, the cardinal should be on his feet–upright, phallic–like the two hardwood ornamental protrusions atop the cardinal’s bed board (to which the saint points).
Ranieri is the hovering and governing center of the painting; the chief signal in the noise; the rebel against deconstruction; one who resurrects the sick; undoes the ravages of time; a pillar to the pillars of the Church.
He gets his power from his saintliness–his moral purity–for the two ornamental protrusions atop the bed board are also symbolic mothers–nipples. “Return to mother Church” is one connotation of this pointing; another is moral prohibition (pointing above and below implies no tit touching, no crotch touching). Ranieri, in addition to healing the cardinal, thus also functions as the cop on the beat policing his erotic dreams and any love of worldly excess in him (the saint is lean, alert, and serious; the cardinal is a bit too fat, comfy, sexual, dreamy).
As with Giovanni’s other painting, Blake infects it–in this instance, not with his poetry, but with his watercolor of the Ancient of Days (Elohim) hovering over Adam. It is an art work that Giovanni, of course, could not have known.
Hamlet’s ghost. So these two Giovanni paintings represent the anxious tensions in an artist who resists deconstruction; who seeks to maintain pillars. But deconstruction makes what was meant by the governing authority to be central, marginal; what was not present, present. Hovering is a retort to deconstruction; a deus ex machina (a god that arrives onto the stage of history by a machine, out of the rafters; out of the blue). But after the loosing of bonds, the healing, or the resurrection has happened, the deus ex machina departs again. It leaves history and goes back to the clouds or black rafters. We are left with only history and a new Hamlet’s ghost to haunt us–the hovering Derrida. Texts go back to being unstable because texts consist of parts; because time and the mind are unstable; because texts, time, and the mind reel.