Sunday, July 31, 2005

Deconstruction in the Wild

I'm gonna take a quick break from the propaganda coverage to focus on a spot of critical theory that tends to confuse many people, myself included. Deconstruction is a critical method usually relegated to recondite side rooms down the halls of the world's foremost literary/academic institutions. In essence (and this is an extemely simplified distillation), its goal is to show the inherent instability of linguistic concepts and undermine the Aristotelian conception of metaphysics that postulates an ultimate external reality to which our knowledge aspires. In other words, one of its ends is to (quoted from the link above) "show how something represented as primary, complete & originary is derived, composite, and/or an effect of something else."

The following exchange illustrates the concept beautifully, even though neither party appears conscious of it. This brief New York Times op-ed piece looks at a recent Penn State study that genetically screened 90 students to determine the ethnic makeup of their ancestry. Here's an excerpt:
Ostensibly "black" subjects, for example, found that as much as half of their genetic material came from Europe, with some coming from Asia as well. One "white" student learned that 14 percent of his DNA came from Africa - and 6 percent from East Asia. The student told The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper, earlier this year: "When I got my results I was like, there's no way they were mine. I thought it was just an example of what the test was supposed to look like. Then I was like, Oh my God, that's me."

Prof. Samuel Richards, who teaches a course in race and ethnic relations at Penn State, uses the test results to shake students out of rigid and received notions about the biological basis of identity. By showing students that they aren't what they think they are, he shows them that race and ethnicity are more fluid and complex than most of us think. The goal is to make students less prejudiced and more open to a deeper discussion of humanity. If the genetic testing fad pushes things in this direction, it will have served an important purpose in a world that too often thinks of racial labels as absolute - and the last word when it comes to human identity.

This study represents, roughly, a deconstruction of "race" that reveals it as contingent upon physical characteristics rather than irreducibly denotative. As an inherently unstable concept, it is unsuitable for use in serious scientific inquiry, since any conclusions based on it would be unreliable. This fact seems obvious until we read something like the following, taken from a reaction to the study by a DailyKos contributor:
What amazes me about this, as I was amazed by the remarks of Lawrence Summers, is that even if the racist nirvana could be achieved: that intelligence could even be reduced to a measurable concept, that it could be proven that there are genetic differences between the races and genders that lead to different intelligence aptitudes, etc. . . [emphasis mine]
What the contributor misses is the fact that the present research, along with the empirical consensus from anthropology and sociology, completely undercuts the rationale for using what we call "race" as a salient biological characteristic for any reason. If race has very little to do with genetics, as this and many other studies indicate, searching for significant differences in intelligence ratings between the races would be as fruitless as looking for (non-tautological) common public opinions across all democracies. Despite acknowledging earlier that "race is not an easily described concept genetically," the contributor nevertheless later conflates race and genes--the exact distinction the study strove to illuminate. A stronger understanding of deconstructive principles might have helped him avoid his error.