Deconstruction: Looking for Reality in Representation

When words fail to convey the thrill and excitement of a new event, people search for new words to express themselves.

In the year 2011, Puella Magi Madoka Magica has shocked the whole anime world. Never have people considered the possibility of cute magical girls being dark and edgy. And realistic. This is what would happen if magical girls exist in our own Earth, our own reality. A word begins floating about in the fanbase to explain this phenomenon of realism that they have fallen in love with.

That word is deconstruction.

Well actually, the word has appeared in fandom history before: Evangelion has been described as the deconstruction of mecha anime by its fans. The organic robots are seen as a critique of various mecha franchises like Gundam, Macross, and Ideon. It is no wonder the Eva fandom shares similar characteristics to the Madoka fandom and they overlap sometimes. For a while, Madoka was considered the Evangelion of magical girls before the comparison was seen as ridiculous by outsiders.

But you can also say that Ideon is as deconstruction of mecha too. Indeed, its creator Tomino was insane enough to show a child getting blasted onscreen. Children aren’t the heroes and future we wish them to be, despite the kid doing his best to prevent more violence. A clear critique of the narratives of a chosen boy found in Astroboy.

Actually, you could say Astroboy is a deconstruction of Pinocchio because Dr. Tenma treats his “replacement” son quite awfully.

But Pinocchio can be seen as a deconstruction of The Holy Bible because Geppetto is a realistic, dumber, and more human version of God who created his own doll and needed help from fairies to make the boy human. It is a realistic version of Genesis.

And so on.

What does the contemporary usage of the word, “deconstruction”, mean?

For that, we should look into what is considered the spawning point of the term: TV Tropes. On its Deconstruction page, it reads:

“Deconstruction” literally means “to take something apart.” When applied to tropes or other aspects of fiction, deconstruction means to take apart a trope so as to better understand its meaning and relevance to us in Real Life. This often means pursuing a trope’s inherent contradictions and the difference between how the trope appears in this one work and how it compares to other relevant tropes or ideas both in fiction and Real Life. The simplest and most common method of applying Deconstruction to tropes in fiction among general audiences and fan bases, and the method most relevant to TV Tropes, takes the form of questioning “How would this trope play out with Real Life consequences applied to it?” or “What would cause this trope to appear in Real Life?

It later suggests that deconstructions do not need to be dark or cynical. Rather, the ideas in the work need to have a dose of realism. Something that shows this theme (or as TV Tropes decides to call it, a trope) doesn’t work like that in real life. Deconstructions are all about experimenting with conventions in fiction to appear more practical in life. The consequences of being set in our world will cause grave disturbances to the accepted conventions of the work.

Scrolling down through the page, you can find what seems to be a million examples of this technique:

  • Harry Potter could arguably be seen as a deconstruction of the Kid Hero archetype (among other beloved fantasy tropes) by showing just how messed up and stressful the title character’s life would be (and the lives of his friends).
  • Zootopia is a deconstruction of the World of Funny Animals trope. The film is very in-depth, showing how such a society would work and how difficult it would be to push for equality in a world where everyone is so radically different. There’s even an alarming number of parallels to real-life prejudice.
  • Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was in many ways an attack on the narrative style of The Golden Age of Hollywood as well as several American types like the Self-Made Man and The American Dream. Namely that the idea of defining life in terms of social success and wealth ultimately makes you value people less and makes you desire to control and buy people around you. Likewise the characters are not entirely one type and single dimension, with the main character being an unpleasant, manipulative Jerk Ass who never learns his lesson even in his old age and who leaves behind several disappointed friends and broken loved ones and who eventually dies alone. The harshness of the story, the lack of easy conflict resolution and the ultimate sense of the futility of life in the wake of the passage of time was quite a contrast to the sentimental and life-affirming stories in films at the time, good films included.

These three randomly picked examples show the extent of what deconstruction can be: it could be anything if seen in a proper way. Indeed, the ridiculousness of calling Harry Potter a deconstruction when it is a typical hero’s journey story and Citizen Kane a deconstruction when in fact it is seen as the reason the film medium is taken seriously by academics should cause alarm to film and literature students.

But there is a charm to all of this: Seeing your favorite work’s logic apply to reality is a good way to explain why a certain plotline has to go that way. For example, in Madoka‘s case, Mami has to be decapitated in episode three because that’s how magical girls work in our reality. They can’t be cute in our world. They can die like anyone else. It isn’t shock horror. It is our reality.

And yet, we have to ask: did Urobuchi consider that when he wrote the script for Madoka? It’s hard to tell, but in previous works he likes to test the limits and boundaries of genres. In Kikokugai, he plays with how the hero’s journey plays out in wuxia stories and shows how ridiculous and self-serving it can be. You could argue this as a deconstruction of wuxia stories, but … is that realistic?

Certainly, we should ask ourselves what it means for a work to be realistic in order to be judged as a deconstruction. The answer seems to be extremely subjective. Heated debates can happen just from explaining how a work is realistic. People have different perspectives on things, so logically people have different realities. A work cannot conceivably be realistic in all realities. In fact, Madoka has been critiqued by magical girl fans for not being a deconstruction at all. In the end of the TV show, Homura reaffirms the same magical girl conventions the show supposedly critiques. Nothing exactly changed in the world, despite eliminating how entropy works in the world. Let’s not forget this isn’t the only dark magical girl show. Examples like Uta Kata exist. Madoka isn’t the groundbreaking deconstruction people make it up to be, according to these critics, because it hasn’t added anything new, let alone a sense of realism.

For the people who have no idea about magical girl shows before Madoka, this show is realistic. Those who have will see it as another continuation of dark magical girl shows. It is both realistic and unrealistic in the fandom.

This debate reminds me of a quote often misattributed to Adam Savage of Mythbusters but it actually comes from a 1984 budget movie named The Dungeonmaster: “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” After all, what the debate becomes is an exercise of tedium in justifying your reality and rejecting other realities in fiction.

When one reaches that point, one begins pondering how did such a weird word exist in today’s discourse in the first place.

The origin of the word “deconstruction” comes from Jacques Derrida. Derrida himself is trying to look for a word that defines the way he approaches poststructuralism that show how structuralist semiotics is actually quite silly.

In structural semiotics, everything is a sign. Let’s use the word, “gay”, as a sign. Gay by itself is three letters: “g”, “a”, “y”. There shouldn’t be any meaning with random letters together, but they do. This form of the word “gay” is what semioticians call the signifier, not to be confused with the sign. You can see the signifier as the ingredients of the word. Its meaning is the end result: the signified. Gay means “happy” or “homosexual”. If you look at the recipe of the word, “gay”, you can see how it neatly separates into three things: the sign (the symbol), the signifier (the form/ingredients of the symbol), and the signified (the meaning of the symbol). It is quite similar to content/form in that sense.

But Derrida laughs at your foolishness. How do you know gay just means “happy” or “homosexual”? Words are not fixed entities as proposed by this system. They can move about and evolve into something else. This system of semiotics is silly. A signifier (or form of the symbol) can be impossible to understand and cause different interpretations of the signified (or meaning of the symbol). The word “gay” has many “meanings” and “interpretations” thanks to how it is used over the internet. You can call a Call of Duty video “gay” for being the worst thing you ever see, just say “gay” to mean “uncool”, or you can complement a friend by saying, “I’m gay for you, Kevin”. The sign/word remains largely the same, but because we play with how it is used the meaning can change.

Derrida’s deconstruction comes from this notion that our language is riddled with these flaws and contradictions inside what is supposed to be a functional system. It untangles the signs and symbols we take for granted and shows how there are multiple, sometimes contradictory truths and meanings. Gender theory has benefited from deconstruction, for example, as it looks into gender binaries and asks what the assumptions behind masculinity and femininity are. In reality, the current conceptions of masculinity and femininity are extremes and ideals that have no place in our reality — especially in a society that is beginning to accept transgenders and transexuals. Our definitions of masculinity and femininity as a result have to change or disappear.

When applied to literature, deconstruction shows how anything can have contradictory themes and meanings. It is a reading technique that everyone actually uses. You might know the idea of “plot holes”; that is a basic example of deconstructing a text. In Angel Beats!, Tachibana Kanade has lived in purgatory for a while before her heart donor Otonashi Yuzuru goes there. Tachibana is supposedly waiting for Otonashi, despite not knowing who he is. Otonashi, on the other hand, should have saved her and therefore make her not exist in purgatory. This plot hole dismantles the whole work into an unstable entity, something Derrida would have loved if he was into anime, and the show becomes incomprehensible nonsense. Deconstruction takes what we do with plot holes to a whole new level: it does this with language and sees how words can betray the thematic elements of the work.

This is all fascinating theory and I could write about Umberto Eco’s response to deconstruction in his Limits of Interpretation, but this has nothing to do with the contemporary usage of deconstruction. It just so happens the contemporary concept of deconstruction shares the same word as Derrida’s deconstruction. So all of this is a waste of time and words.

Goes to show how signifiers (the form of the word, “deconstruction”, in this case) are actually quite problematic when it comes to the signified/meaning…

But you can see how the philosophy might be related to the way we use deconstruction today. It is all about poking holes in conventions to see how they would work in reality.

That is how John G. Cawelti sees it, but he takes it to a different approach. One that would later influence how TV Tropes uses “deconstruction” itself.

Cawelti is one of the earliest literary critics who has decided to take “genre literature” or “formulaic stories” (i.e. any work that does not fit into the stuffy white old man’s conception of literary fiction) seriously. He has a simple argument in his influential Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture: formula is art because there is a literary history of how formulas are developed.

Arguing that a lowly form of literature has a literary history much like any other literature is an endeavoring task in the world of academia. Indeed, his theories in books like the Six Gun Mystique are outdated and shoddy at best when applied. But his main appeal is that he has tracked down thematic patterns (what he call “myths”) and sees the history of it as phases.

One of my professors, influenced by Cawelti and several other thinkers, charted this to simplify the evolution of genres. The JRPG examples are by me.

Phases Original/Classic Burlesque/Parody Deconstruction Reconstruction
Definition The genre has just been created. Just trying out stuff. The genre is popular and is parodied. The parodied genre is criticized and dismantled by writers and critics in the genre. The deconstructed genre is reborn after accepting criticism.
Example Dragon Quest EarthBound NieR: Replicant Dragon Quest XI

Literature can be seen as a historical lens to reading books. There are literary traditions and histories books follow as time progresses. Books pay tribute to one another, criticize each other, and talk amongst themselves. This is the idea of intertextuality — everything in art is commentating on one another.

It just so happens with genre literature specifically — according to Cawelti — that you can divide this intertextuality into four phases. He does caution that genres don’t always go left to right as this table might misleadingly show. A burlesque work can appear in the middle of a deconstruction phase. Even a classic traditional work can surface alongside a reconstructed work. Nevertheless, the idea that you can label works with phases that describe their intertextual state (let it be Earthbound which can be seen as a burlesque of JRPGs) is incredibly helpful to describe what the work is trying to do in the genre.

If you go on TV Tropes a lot, you might go, “Hm, I think I have seen something like this before. The word ‘reconstruction’ does seem familiar.” In fact, Cawelti’s observations have made its way — albeit watered down — onto the website.

TV Tropes’s reconstruction, for the most part, has the same definition with Cawelti’s. But the approach is different because it ignores phases and labels the work without considering the history. Homages of genres and conventions — or just using them as they are — would be seen as reconstructions as in the case of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, a popular example used to compare to Evangelion.

Going on TV Tropes’s Reconstruction page will also you this gem:

Kill la Kill, made by practically the exact same people who made Gurren Lagann, serves as an enormous counter-argument to shows like Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which do nothing but Deconstruct the entire Magical Girl genre to such a point that people begin wondering why they even liked the original shows in the first place. Not only is it a Reconstruction of the incredible power of hope, friendship, family, love, acceptance, and the very idea of Order Versus Chaos with Ryuko’s rivalry against Satsuki (and later their combined rivalry against Ragyo), but it is also a Reconstruction of the very idea of Fanservice itself. It takes the ridiculously skimpy outfits most Magical Girls wear and gives a justified reason for it: The less a Kamui comes in contact with its wearer’s skin, the less likely it is to overwhelm them, thereby feeding the wearer its power instead of vice-versa, the way all other Life Fibers do. Not stopping there, the show also Reconstructs the absolute sense of feeling shame by watching something that has nudity in it. As Satsuki explains in episode three, nudity is nothing to be ashamed of as long it serves a purpose, and that to feel embarrassment from it proves nothing but a lack of conviction, which the entire rest of the show goes out of its way to justify.

There are many things wrong with this passage — it is a dubious claim to argue Kill la Kill is a reaction to Madoka Magica — but the idea of a “counter-argument” has become what Cawelti’s reconstruction in TV Tropes is.

The editors and writers of TV Tropes admit, in Decon-Recon Switch, that the idea of deconstruction and reconstruction is “lightly based on [the] Hegelian dialectic—the thesis (the trope), the antithesis (the deconstruction), and the synthesis (reconstruction and a changed trope.)” When a work plays the Decon-Recon switch according to them, it is having an argument.

In fact, every work is not just in a dialog (as intertextuality posits) but in an internet argument according to TV Tropes. They are ultimately criticizing each other for their own flaws and cleaning themselves up after a bloody fight. The usage in TV Tropes forgoes Cawelti’s observation that genre literature has a history of recognizable phases and assumes instead that the history doesn’t matter.

This is where the confusion of the contemporary usage of the word, “deconstruction”, seeps in. Can we really say, with all certainty, a work is criticizing another work for being unrealistic? And what if the work is not in any decipherable genre? What about subgenres? Subsubgenres? Subsubsubgenres? Movements? Historical connections? Cultural critiques? What is reality and what is fiction? How does anything of this have to do with what is “real” in a fictional piece? Can we actually find reality in fiction? If so, how is the word “deconstruction” going to help us?

Maybe that tangent on Derrida is relevant after all. The language of TV Tropes’s deconstruction isn’t as precise as we take it to be.

In our search for reality — or a more accurate representation of reality — in the world of fiction, we have jumped through hoops and bars to create an aesthetic based on how something “real” is.

This is an old debate between mimesis and antimimesis written in tweets and blog posts: art is all about the perfection and imitation of nature vs art is for art’s sake. Beauty is in the realism vs beauty is in the technique. We just happen to dress it up in fancier sounding terms.

Our perception of reality will always change as we mature and so do our tastes in art. Some will argue both are connected because art has always meant to represent/imitate the truths in reality. Others say they don’t. Whatever one believes in this argument, one wonders how the term “deconstruction” as it is applied today helps us get an answer in this debate.

Does a work have to deconstruct something in order to look real? Of course not, it is one means for a work to be realistic. But then, what does it mean to be realistic? If you take a photograph of the Statue of Liberty, is that realistic? Yes, because it is the Statue of Liberty. But is there any value in taking a picture of the Statue of Liberty because it is realistic?

When we say something is realistic, it doesn’t mean we are talking about how real it is but the perception of realism in said work. A picture of the Statue of Liberty will not be interesting in this aesthetics, but a love triangle that seems to have human characters hating each other would.

That’s why many people are in love with deconstruction. It is a savvy approach to look at the perception of realism with conventions, genres, and other aspects in a work. Deconstruction is appealing to many people since they can see works play with conventions and themes to be more realistic than other works.

But there is a problem with the approach. When people say their favorite works deconstruct the genre to make it more realistic, they are suggesting that the reality they live in is dark, insufferable, and painful. While it is true that not all deconstructions have to be dark and edgy, their realities are dismal. Fiction that shows pain is considered realistic to them. That’s why they reject the happy high school girl comedies because it is unrealistic to see people happy. Indeed, realism in this context can be seen as a substitute for “darker and edgier”. As far as I know, nobody has described K-ON!! as a realistic show despite having one of the most extremely realistic lighting in anime. The anime adaptation of School Days, on the other hand, is a deconstruction of the “harem” genre because it has perceived real life consequences.

I am not sure how a show about cute girls joining a band is less realistic than a guy who bangs every girl in school until people got mad at him for impregnating a girl. Or how School Days is even a critique of anything.

However, the idea persists in spite of its absurd premise: If the story is dark, it is realistic and being realistic means you have to accept its real life consequences. There are lessons to learn, so everything becomes a moral lesson.

It is an awful way to look at art because everything is all BrainPOP lessons for all we care. But people do it anyway because they are looking for reality in fiction.

There is a painting I like titled “The Treachery of Images” by Rene Magritte. Underneath the pipe in the painting is the words translated as such: “This is not a pipe.”

That statement is true. What the painting is this: a pictorial representation of a pipe. It is not the pipe itself. Whatever your beliefs are in imitation vs art for the sake of art, we can’t forget that what we are seeing is a drawing of a pipe.

Likewise, if we continue using the word “deconstruction” and its variants, we have to remember that the word is just a sign. It doesn’t evoke reality by itself — it is our usage that makes it appear so — so we don’t have to be loyal to it.

Everything in art is a representation of something. You may want to argue how realistic the representation is and how verisimilitude is an aesthetic, but it is still a representation. You have to remember the treachery of images.

Deconstructions aren’t real. They at best can be realistic, but being realistic does not mean it’s real. It is impossible to look for a reality that everyone shares in fiction.

That doesn’t mean we should see the whole venture as bad. We just need to be clearer with the words we use to express ourselves and understand what we are saying. The limits of our language is the limits of our world. The vocabulary used will be important to how our perception of reality in fiction work.

It is how we search for words, not reality, to express ourselves that makes the prospect of creating and examining art quite interesting after all.

12 thoughts on “Deconstruction: Looking for Reality in Representation

  1. Kelira Telian February 7, 2017 / 2:02 am

    I honestly think the most poisonous element of current discourse isn’t “Deconstruction” but “realism”

    Both come from a desire to have a piece of media you enjoy be objectively “good” or “better” than other, similar works. But while “Deconstruction” usually involves at least an attempt at examining why a thing works, “Realism” is just slapping an arbitrary signifier of “good” on it and calling it a day.

    And of course most things hailed as “realistic” are only “realistic” if you assume misery and death are the only “realistic” outcomes of things.

    • Kastel February 7, 2017 / 2:12 am

      Yeah, I am pretty much criticizing the fetishism for realism in the context of deconstruction.

      Realism is funny because the movement in art history dies off when people realize they aren’t being realistic. Writers like Tolstoy said some inane shit about how War and Peace or Shakespeare isn’t art because they don’t feel real enough.

      Meanwhile, both W&P and Shakespeare plays are seen as realistic depictions of the world by most people today.

      It goes to show how we don’t exactly share every characteristic of reality with one another. Reality is like taste. Your taste in anime might be similar to mine, but they aren’t exactly the same. It’s a slippery slope to suggest there is a universal objective taste and it is Judgment Day to suggest our perceptions of realities are objectively the same.

      Anyway, it’s sad that misery and death are considered realistic qualities in fiction. They are just two small things that are part of life. Cute girls are a part of life too. They should be realistic, but I guess it will take a while before Kyoto Animation controls the United States of America and dectees that cute is justice.

  2. BoukenPersocomBlues (@PunishedHag) February 7, 2017 / 2:38 am

    I love Metal Gear Solid a lot and one of the most common things you hear about it is that it’s a critique, subversion, and parody of action thrillers. The games challenge the tropes and cliches of the military/action film genre and contrivances of lone heroes altogether, and then they loop around and critique themselves and thus videogames and player ethics and politics and nations and etc etc.

    But there’s always this thing where they’re never taken seriously by mainstream people, and that’s because of perceived realism. The games are full of weird concepts and bizarre dialogue and plot twists to balance out the writing’s critical weight, and the result is a series that has something to say but doesn’t take itself too seriously. But that’s kind of a blessing in disguise because it keeps the series fresh and free of being drowned in the negative realism you’re talking about. Though the series is over and done I guess!

    Anyway really nice article, I liked it a lot! You’re pretty bold, hiding a confession in there, too!

    • Kastel February 7, 2017 / 2:40 am

      Yeah, Metal Gear Solid 2 especially is one of the most groundbreaking video games of all time for challenging so many ideas we take for granted. But it isn’t seen as a “deconstruction”, just a “postmodernist” work, because it has fat dudes rollerblading around a map throwing bombs.

      It is a good example of what we miss out when we are in search for realism. It frustrates me a lot.

  3. shadowplasm February 7, 2017 / 3:41 am

    I think an interesting thing people miss about in their pursuit of objective realities they can measure things against is not only the subjective nature of experience but also that a lot of our existence isn’t experienced in the first place. Our memories of events are a self created narrative, our understanding of the workings of the world is something we’ve built ourselves and the reality we exist in is a fiction of our own creation.

    So when they seek things like ‘realism’ in their fiction they’re not saying things that line up with their experiences, rather they’re saying things that line up with their own fictitious worlds and saying all fiction should line up with that.

  4. megmica February 7, 2017 / 5:08 am

    So, we can agree madoka is deconstruction of magical girl trope.
    what about rezero? some people said that show was deconstruction of isekai genre.

    • Cavaldiddly February 7, 2017 / 2:40 pm

      Your comment is a deconstruction of Kastel’s blog post.

  5. iblessall February 8, 2017 / 12:55 am

    This is a curious thing, as I’ve never felt I’ve heard this “deconstruction as realism” before, even if TV Tropes defines it as such. Rather, it seems to me like deconstruction generally gets simplified to “something that doesn’t engage with its tropes in the normal way.”

    Anyways realism in aesthetics is far less interesting a goal than truth in aesthetics, at least as far as I care about such things.

    • Kastel February 8, 2017 / 1:00 am

      I was using TV Tropes back in its heyday and this search for realism is what defined deconstruction. When something engages its tropes not in the typical way, that is seen as a subversion:

      This is what deconstruction has lately become when people aren’t looking for realism anymore. I will, in the future, write an article on tropes and subversion because I find them silly and not at all valid in the context of criticism in the Frye school of archetypes.

  6. chuunifuck February 8, 2017 / 2:15 pm

    >tfw you’ll never be as cool as Kastel

    On a little note, while Angel´s Beats!’s plothole basically (finished) to fuck up my experience with the show, I’ve come to understand it this way:

    Rather than seeing purgatory/afterlife as a world with its own perception of time in order to explain while Kanade’s been waiting for Yuzuru to arrive when supposedly she was saved thanks to the latter’s transplant, we have to see her desire to thank him as the reason or ‘catalyst’ that allowed Yuzuru to come back to purgatory so he would have been able to be thanked.

    Even if Yuzuru wasn’t able to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor, in the end he still made real his ulterior purpose of helping people which finally allowed him to have a fulfilled death. The way to explain the reason he is seen in afterlife is due to Kanade’s strong desire to thank him.

    The show never ended up explaining much of its internal logic (or lack of thereof), especially if we take the 5-minute epilogue as canon.

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