“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.“
As a postmodernist, I am part of a generation that dismantled icons. Especially with classic plays, I engaged in deconstructivism, approaching plays as material to be taken apart, moved around, put onto a slant and woken up. I consciously avoided harmony, continuity and symmetry and, especially when directing from the classic cannon. I sought to include the history of the play, the baggage that it carried with it, through time and in the event of a performance. I wanted to challenge established assumptions about any subject and often my intention was to subvert the implicit meanings. I believed that a concept might be best understood in the context of its opposite. I considered each fragment of a play to be a reflection of the whole and in that spirit and I moved scenes forwards and then into retrograde, and then back again.
Deconstruction is an approach to understanding the relationship between text and meaning. The theory of deconstruction arose in the 20th century, partially as a reaction to authoritarian censorship and realism. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida developed a form of semiotic analysis that used deconstruction to challenge established assumptions, proposing that there is not any one set definition or interpretation of any concept. Instead, interpretation is reached on an individual basis, and each person comes to a particular point of view from their unique background or their own experiences. Because of this, not only are all interpretations equally right, but they are also often quite contradictory.
The Postmodernist impulse gave artists permission to topple over the sacred monolithic hierarchies of the past and sample freely from all of the other movements from throughout history. The plinths of the many other movements were fair game, including Modernism, Romanticism, Constructivism, Mannerisms, Cubism, Fauvism, Realism, Naturalism, Surrealism, Symbolism, Expressionism and so on. My own deconstructivist tendencies arose from the spirit of Postmodernism. As a theater director, being a postmodernist gave me the permission to pick and choose from whatever component that felt useful in the moment. I picked up the pieces, one by one, and examined them in a non-hierarchical manner. Space could be as important as time, which could be as important as story, or as important as gesture, and so on. In the absence of a center, of meaning, of narrative present, or a subjective self or of a narrative past we Postmodernists were led to make a very particular kind of theater.
In our current moment of cultural, social and political rupture, perhaps the deconstructivist impulse has finally outlived its usefulness. In a time of social reckoning, pandemic considerations, increased consumerism, narcissism and wildly escalating digital culture, have we deconstructed to the point of meaninglessness? Perhaps now is the time to stop taking things apart. Perhaps now is the time to re-construct and to re-discover the art of storytelling, while asking the questions: whose stories are we telling, who are they for and how are they conveyed?
John Dewey, the great American philosopher of art and psychology, suggested that education is an ongoing chain of construction, reconstruction and deconstruction. He wrote and lectured about reconstructing American democracy for greater citizen participation. In his view, as learners we are required to construct, reconstruct and deconstruct our views, the language we use, the texts that we read or the images that we see in order to move into deeper learning. But he recognized that this could not occur in school classrooms alone, but that philosophers and intellectuals needed to step forward and push for democratic changes in all areas of life. He was highly influential in the implementation of President Roosevelt’s New Deal while calling upon liberals to reassess some of their most fundamental assumptions.
The difference between reconstruction and deconstruction depends upon the end goal. To deconstruct one looks at the original premise in order to reconstruct a new solution that still fits the spirit of the original pattern. Deconstruction points out and demonstrates flaws. Reconstruction offers solutions. Perhaps a reconstruction is a deconstruction of the original deconstruction.
Watching the events of January 6th in Washington DC, a historic day in the nation’s history, I witnessed the degree of violence and destruction happening in the heart of our own democratic society. The actions of the whipped-up mob were a manifestation of frustration that then led to acts of impotent political aggression. The images of armed white men and women storming the Capitol Building carrying Confederate battle flags and other emblems, which flooded social media and television screens, make the questions that have been brewing lately even more timely and urgent: who are we together and what kind of a society to we want to become?
The insurrection, triggered by Donald Trump and his faction, is a dilemma that has taken on a political and practical urgency. Our country has a long history of authoritarianism, white supremacy and political violence. Perhaps the recent insurrection is the sad cousin of the ultimate failure of the Reconstruction movement that closely followed the Civil War, between 1865 and 1877 when attempts were made to redress the inequities of slavery and its political, social and economic legacy. It was called an experiment in interracial democracy. The nation’s laws and Constitution were rewritten to guarantee the basic rights of former slaves. Reconstruction ended the Confederate secession and abolished slavery, giving the newly freed slaves citizenship with civil rights guaranteed by three new constitutional amendments. But many white southerners responded with rage and violence to the prospect of sharing power with their black neighbors. Ex-confederates organized the Ku Klux Klan and other groups to drive black people from politics through murder, intimidation and fraud. Robert Smalls, a black Republican congressman during the Reconstruction era, estimated in 1895 that 43,000 African Americans had died in the hands of white southerners in the years following the Civil War.
Ultimately Reconstruction fell apart, officially ending in 1877 under the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes who removed the federal troops from the South. The state governments took over. While the north disavowed further national efforts to enforce the rights of black citizens, Jim Crow moved into place. Unfortunately, many of the changes to equal rights were immediately reversed.
Construction, Reconstruction and Deconstruction are found in nature’s cyclical processes as well as in the human realm of art, civics and culture. As part of a generation of Postmodern deconstructivists, I feel that perhaps we have arrived at the moment to cycle away from Deconstruction and return to Construction or Re-construction.
Immediately following the recent presidential inauguration, the newly installed President Biden, Vice President Harris and a number of past presidents, spouses and members of their families traveled across the Potomac River to the Arlington Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I watched this ritual live-streamed and with no commentary. Soldiers had been standing silently, waiting, for what seemed like a very long time when the august group arrived. Everyone stood. There was very little movement, and no one spoke for the entire ceremony. Eventually, the military band played and the soldiers holding flags moved through ceremonial gestures. I watched the way that the drummers lifted their arms before striking down on their drums, which reminded me of Japanese Kodo drummers, with a consciousness and a resistance in their bodies that made the gestures hyper visible. Kamala Harris and Joseph Biden stepped forward to touch a wreath. Biden saluted and then made the sign of the cross. Then the bugler played taps. Then the livestream shifted to the image of tens of thousands of flags waving in the National Mall standing in for those who could not be present. All of those present were standing in witness. Standing with restraint. They were standing “for.”
Watching the ceremony, this silent ritual, I felt the immensity of the occasion. The necessity to stand silently, in honor of those who have been lost, not only soldiers from previous wars but for the more than 400,000 Americans lost to Covid reflected in the 400 lights illuminated the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool. Similarly, the Field of Flags on the National Mall signified the massive crowds of people who could not be present on that day. The Inauguration Committee said that the Field of flags reflects “our commitment to an inclusive and safe event that everyone can enjoy from their home.” Yes, the ceremony honored the past and soldiers lost in previous wars, but the group of dignitaries and soldiers were also standing still for the present. For the future. For our shared future. Standing together. Silently, being present. Let us begin.