Deconstruction to some degree seems duty free. That individuals subtract parts and pieces of their lives that don’t fit and then figure out what to fill in those abscesses. As we enter into a cultural field of reconstruction (I’m hearing that word more often now) we should be asking, “what do we do with the items deconstructed? Are they just lost, forgotten? Are there still phantom pains of things we left behind?”
If fragments of belief and orthodoxy lie behind us is it only opportunity and options that lie before us? I’d like to address this specific moment of transition. There is a past we have that we can’t entirely forget and a future that has not been fully considered. It is not subtraction that is taking place in the space between deconstruction and reconstruction, but rather, transaction. This cultural and social moment is not one of opportunity and choice but rather completed transactions and trade. The question in the American Christian dialogue is not necessarily, “why are you deconstructing?” But may rather be, “what happens when we reach the end of deconstruction?” Did we get what we were hoping for?
Subtraction and Deconstruction
Deconstruction is often regarded as being primarily “subtraction.” It states that once an idea, an experience or belief, a group, is removed that thing is gone. But what happens if it is not an issue of simple subtraction? In deconstruction, something replaces them. It is not subtraction that is experienced, but transaction. There is a trade for something else. The problem is that the process between deconstruction and reconstruction doesn’t consider what these areas are being traded for.
People are shelling fragments of their lives: their rituals, communities, faith, ideologies, theologies in order to remove a conceptualization of their life they don’t think works any longer. But they are not removing things and coming out the other end free and unburdened. When individuals remove these areas they are instead replacing them. Nature abhors a vacuum and the soul is not excused.
The assumption that has been made is what Charles Taylor calls a “subtraction story” in his book, A Secular Age. Taylor states this about his understanding of substitution:
I will be making a continuing polemic against what I call “subtraction stories”. Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process—modernity or secularity—is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life. 1
We are focused on deconstructing but haven’t considered that we are actually trading, that it is a substitution for something else. This space is a gap, an opportunity, a moment of freedom where there is consideration of one thing for another. But there is a cost to that freedom that often goes unconsidered. People are not simply removing things and coming out the other end free and unburdened. When individuals remove these areas, they are replacing them with something else.
Sartre, Subtraction and Freedom
Jean-Paul Sartre calls this attempted subtraction “freedom.” There is hope to build an identity free and clear from any previous subtraction. Whatever belief has been left behind can be equally replaced with whatever choice or decision someone most hopes for and the underlying assumption is that the construction of their new identity is built from scratch.
The future, to Sartre, while unknown, is only opportunistic because existence always precedes essence.
Sartre would state that the only option is to form our identity through self-encounter to then create self-definition. We are left to our own decisions and our own understanding on how to proceed. We are the only ones capable of creating new identities and new beliefs.
This is what deconstruction assumes as a destination, that our definitions and identities form our essence more than anything else. While the possibility of shiny new futures may exhilarate, the truth is we cannot create ex nihilo: we trade. When we deconstruct, our desired upgrades can often include definitions of self we had not expected. This places us in the center of Sartre’s anguish of constant freedom.
This is the paradox of Sartre. There is no essence before us, it is entirely created in our actions. We have no choice, we are condemned to be free:
That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. 2
While Sartre points to freedom, he admits we are condemned in that freedom. If there is nothing behind us and every choice has equal bearing in the future, freedom becomes a weight we have no choice but to bear. Sartre’s freedom directs individuals to make choices in the present and maintain all the responsibility in the future. There is only an internal dialectic between the individual and the choice. There is no more than what we have in the present moment, it is flattened.
Kierkegaard, the Abyss and Hope: Or, What Happens When We Trade and Don’t Like What We Get?
This brave, new world often seems less like the subtraction view of Sartre and more the substitutionary “yawning abyss” of Kierkegaard. It is not freedom found at the end of deconstruction but the anxiety of infinite choice.
The space beyond deconstruction is where we look around and find not one thing but a depth and breadth and width before us with as many options within it. And it is not subtracting worn out beliefs, there is a trade of one option for infinite options.
This is the definition of anxiety for Kierkegaard. When we deconstruct, we are transacting for more than we bargained for. It is not with Sartre’s clarity of subtraction but rather Kierkegaard’s burden of infinite options. Kierkegaard sees freedom as “a yawning abyss,” that it does not accomplish what we desire because there are infinite options and options simply create dread and anxiety.
The question for deconstruction is where it leads us. And while hoping for new identities I fear we will eventually be led to higher anxieties. Infinite choices with nothing behind us lead to what Kierkegaard likens to dizziness.
Anxiety can be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason? It is just as much his own eye as the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. It is in this way that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom that emerges when spirit wants to posit the synthesis, and freedom now looks down into its own possibility and then grabs hold of finiteness to support itself. In this dizziness freedom subsides.3
This can often be the place of transition from deconstruction to reconstruction. A dizziness not expected. The questions being asked today are daunting, there is a perceived loss in answering them.
This is a process that had hoped for joy and freedom but delivered anxiety. Our current culture is staring into the yawning abyss, having freshly cracked open the shell of our prior beliefs in an act of deconstruction. Our journey has not resulted in the freedom we desired, but rather fear and anxiety.
Springtide Research Institute released a research project called, “The State of Religion and Young People Navigating Uncertainty.” In it the Institute asked over 10,000 young people about their future. While not every question was based on religious preferences (though many were), the result is that this generation does not feel equipped or ready for whatever comes next.
Their report stated that 57% of people ages 13-25 expected that when the pandemic ended a lot of things would be different in mostly disappointing ways.4 These are not views of fresh and new identities, but of dizzying and paralyzing perspectives which can leave them simply staring into their own abyss.
The place hoped for as a promised land of freedom reveals itself as a chasm of anxiety. Instead of the relief of a renewed life there is the weight of an infinite life. The dizziness of anxiety gives way to a recognition that an individual is not the self that they had desired to be. There may have been an anticipation of what fullness looked like but they were not able to grasp it.
Where can we go from here?
What happens if someone reaches the point of reconstruction and no longer recognizes the self they had hoped for? It turns out despair may be a solution we weren’t looking for. Anxiety, according to Kierkegaard, breeds despair. It is the tool that reminds us we are not yet where we want to be but that we desire something we can’t attain ourselves. Despair is the unlikely sign that we desire more than we can find on our own.
The path from deconstruction to reconstruction passes through anxiety into despair. And despair reminds us the way through cannot be to continue discarding and replacing with new forms of meaning. The way through is to look for more than deconstruction has left behind. If the fury of removing and replacing has only gotten us to anxiety, there is a possibility we need something more than transaction.
Simone Weil points us beyond subtraction and beyond transaction into better imagination. Past anxiety and trades into a need for something far greater. She writes of our limitations of imagination in comprehending the future, asserting that “we cannot be made better except by the influence upon us of what is better than we are” We need something more than ourselves to do everything that we hope to accomplish in deconstruction. Weil writes in her essay “The Romanesque Renaissance”,
What is better than we are cannot be found in the future. The future is empty and is filled by our imagination. Our imagination can only picture a perfection on our own scale. It is just as imperfect as we are; it does not surpass us by a single hair’s breadth. We can find something better than ourselves in the present, but mixed with the mediocre and the bad; and our discriminative faculty is as imperfect as ourselves. 5
Assembling meaning ourselves will only be acts of replacement. These trades reveal unwanted anxiety. When we create meaning ourselves we are pointing to something of value. This desire points at something worth pursuing. But when we leave the construction of meaning to ourselves, the outcome can only disappoint, we will be left with Weil’s idea of an imperfect and mediocre imagination. It will be anxiety and despair.
Deconstruction looks for meaning but the automated act of replacement will disappoint everytime. It will only ever point back to itself as its own method of recovery. It is like a thermometer: it can help to understand body temperature, but you would never swallow one to cure a fever. Replacement will only get us so far. Our imperfect picture of perfection can’t fulfill our necessary desires. But the implied good news is that there is something more and better than ourselves, any despair will point right to it, not at the abyss but beyond it, to what had been hoped for all along.
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1. Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. (Cambridge, MA: First Harvard University Press, 2007) 22.
2. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2007.
3. Kierkegaard, Soren. The Concept of Anxiety. Edited by Alastair Hannay, translated by Alastair Hannay, WW Norton, 2015.
4. The State of Religion and Young People Navigating Uncertainty. Springtide Research Center, 2021.
5. Weil, Simone. Selected Essays, 1934-1943. Edited by Richard Rees, translated by Richard Rees, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2015.