I spent the mid-1980s cowering ignorantly at the back of college seminars, watching fellow students trade phrases from Foucault, Baudrillard, Lacan, Lyotard, Saussure. Later, in graduate school, I'd occasionally find myself at a cocktail party filled with humanities scholars. I'd commit a gaffe such as accidentally rolling the r's in “Derrida,” then scurry embarrassed into the street.
Life has been better for me in the real world, where survival is possible without French postmodernists watching one's every move. Still, I've long entertained a private fear that postmodernist deconstructionism would break loose from the academy, invade public life, and leave me nowhere to flee. Once again I'd be plagued by the problem of canonical social reality renormalized outside forms of the narrative space, requiring the naturalization of all phenomenology through intersubjective cognitive strategy … and be forced to cower in darkness, evermore.(1)
It appears my terror has been realized — right here in San Francisco. According to the current issue of the Village Voice, “recent events in San Francisco concerning health benefits for transsexuals have proven once again that the deconstructionists of academe have precipitated the Kulturkampf they've been planning for years.” In approving health care for transsexual employees, the S.F. Board of Supervisors has nullified the concept of “sex,” slain the precept of objective reality, elevated the French post-structuralists into a guiding position in American public life, and otherwise made things lousy for the rest of us, Voice columnist Norah Vincent appeared to suggest.(2)
My first reaction to these assertions was to examine them with a critical journalistic eye. Had the central ideas of post-structuralism — that there is no objective reality, that all meaning is fungible — really prevailed in the San Francisco Bay Area? Were we lost? Could it be?
There was only one man to consult.
I immediately phoned computer-game developer Chip Morningstar of Palo Alto, a legend in the postmodernism resentment community. In the early 1990s, Morningstar wrote the essay “How to Deconstruct Anything,” which explained how he'd pranked humanities-oriented attendees at the Second International Conference on Cyberspace into attributing actual meaning to phrases such as this: “The essential paradigm of cyberspace is creating partially situated identities out of actual or potential social reality in terms of canonical forms of human contact.” In 1996, Morningstar advised Alan Sokal before he published his famous sham paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the journal Social Text.
My questions for Morningstar were two: Had San Francisco followed the academy around the corner and over the cliff, into the watery depths of deconstructionism? And if so, I wanted to know, is it possible to re-deconstruct San Francisco, and bring ourselves back from the depths of amorphousness?
Most assuredly yes, and It absolutely is, Morningstar assured me. “One of the things that characterizes the postmodernist complex is incessant reflexivity — picking things and using them to look at themselves,” Morningstar observed, helpfully. “People in San Francisco do that a lot. They take delight in their idiosyncrasies. San Francisco invites itself to be read.”
So I memorized Morningstar's elements of deconstruction: Select a work to be deconstructed, called a “text.” Next, decide what the “text” says. (This interpretation, which can be anything you want, is called a “reading.”) Third, identify a distinction or conflict of some sort — man vs. woman, good vs. bad, etc. — and pick a side, which you'll claim the “reading” supports. Finally, derive another, different reading of the text, which proves the previous one wrong. This last part can be tricky, and is by far the most important. Once done, you'll have proved you're smarter than either “reading,” and that nothing really means anything at all.
As I was scraping about for a “text” to “read,” I learned that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had voted to postpone a vote on whether to revoke a permit allowing 44 housing units to be built near the corner of Guerrero and 19th streets. Better yet, I discovered that Supervisor Chris Daly had already conducted a postmodernist reading of this proposed housing project, a more general deconstructionist reading of housing in the Mission and elsewhere in the city, and a post-structuralist reading of the neighborhood groups that have formed to prevent housing from being built.
The background for Daly's “textual reading”: I devoted last week's column to a group of Mission NIMBYs who have banded together to prevent the construction of a much-needed 44-unit apartment complex on the site of a dilapidated warehouse torn down a half-dozen years ago. The NIMBYs got the Board of Supervisors to review the project by gathering 500 signatures from people supposedly protesting it. The project had been described by the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, an environmental and social activism group, as providing necessary, transit-friendly housing; it seemed destined to be endorsed by the board. But a decision on the matter was unexpectedly postponed three weeks, breathing life into NIMBY Nick Pasquariello's campaign to stop the apartment complex, and in the process obtain a free, lot-size back yard.
“About 30 neighbors came and testified against the project,” Daly explained. “I basically got up and said to [S.F. Planning Director Gerald Green] that I was really frustrated that planning would approve something like this when it's clear the neighbors haven't — or developers haven't sat down and negotiated with the neighbors. When 100 percent of the neighbors in the area are against the project, you know something's wrong. Certainly I don't think it would be fair to the neighbors to go bigger than they propose,” Daly said. “[For] neighborhoods in places like the Mission District — and this is part of the premise of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition — just building housing with lower levels of affordability doesn't address the housing crunch. Building market-rate housing does nothing to address the housing gap for lower-income folks, working-class folks, who have been there for some time, folks who are being evicted. It does address the gap for upper-middle-class folks. In doing that, there is gentrification in the neighborhood, and that further exacerbates the problem through gentrification, etc.
“So a case can be made that building market-rate housing in those neighborhoods worsens the problem.”
For a moment, I could do little but ponder the fearsome postmodern perfection of the notion that building housing makes a housing shortage worse. Still, I had a journalistic duty to perform, and so pressed on.
“But aren't apartments expensive because there aren't enough of them to go around?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“That's a little simple, Matt, and you're smarter than that, and you can quote me on that,” Daly explained.3 “You can't build — you can't get out of this housing crisis in San Francisco by building market-rate housing. There's politics involved. If you're interested in kicking out the elderly, Latinos, the poor, then what I'm saying doesn't make sense.”
But I don't want to do those things, I protested.
“You can say I don't think there are many market-based solutions to much of anything. I'm not a big market-based theorist. Folks who are big defense contractors aren't either,” Daly explained.
“I'm not sure I understand what you're saying,” I cried, sensing echoes of Foucault, Baudrillard, Lacan, Lyotard, Saussure.
“Folks who are big defense contractors don't believe in free markets either,” he said. “It's usually right-wing or conservative or Republican ideologues who hold these views. But it's important to note that there is some inconsistency in their views as well.”
Listening to Daly's “reading” of the situation, I felt it again, the same fear, the unmistakable thickness in my throat that I had felt while cowering in the back of college humanities seminars and graduate-school cocktail parties all those years ago. I found myself spinning, lost in a whirlpool of meaninglessness, where Absolute Reality does not exist, where life is a text that contradicts itself.
I closed my eyes and silently repeated, “Derrida, Derrida, Derrida,” taking care not to roll the r's.
Determined to deconstruct the deconstructed, and return us to something approaching normality, I called Supervisor Mark Leno, who had carried the legislation that extends medical benefits to city employees who wish to undergo sex-change procedures. The Village Voice, I told him, says your legislation has plunged San Francisco into a post-structuralist void. “Something has to be done,” I demanded.
But, according to Leno, nothing has to be done because the Voice is — could it be? — wrong.
“If they're being critical, I don't think they understand what they're doing. I think this is clearly a civil rights issue, and I don't think this will be as extraordinary as people are saying when we look back on it,” Leno said. “The nations of Canada, Germany, and Holland provide these benefits to all of their citizens, not just their employees.”
Leno's reassurances came as a great relief. The deconstructionists of academe, as it happens, had not precipitated the Kulturkampf they'd been planning for years — at least, they hadn't precipitated it here — despite the ridiculously opaque and pretentious postulations of the Village Voice.
If San Francisco has not become a postmodernist island, that leaves only one alternative: This is still a city like any other, in which Absolute Reality afflicts us all. Here, as everywhere, if you take a sharp knife and run its blade hard across your forearm, you will bleed; if you jump off a building, you will fall; during a housing shortage, prices will rise.
The postmodernist “reading” endorsed by NIMBYs and repeated by Daly — that building new housing raises housing prices by “gentrifying neighborhoods” — is, to this day, so much nonsense, no matter how deconstructionist the Village Voice says San Francisco is.
The “reading” that says housing prices don't obey the law of supply and demand here — because there isn't enough space, because demand is infinite, because understanding market mechanisms is for Republicans — is the same surrealist nonsense it ever was. The facts of San Francisco's housing market are well known among planning professionals; they are not generally considered a matter of opinion, postmodern or otherwise.
There are now around 25,000 fewer apartments than are needed to house people employed here. Planning Department data show the city could build around 80,000 units of housing without changing current zoning laws at all, and by building most of the units on vacant land. If we seize this opportunity, San Francisco can stabilize, and even reduce, residential rents at every price level. If we don't, we can't.
Anything else represents a discontinuity in the hierarchical opposition of interconnectedness, a nonlinearity in the ontological categories of physical reality, replacing these with intersubjective cognitive strategies that might collectively redefine the paradigm dialectics of metaphorical thoughts, creating a reverse homology, a transgressory hermeneutics.
In other words, anything else is bunk.
1 This sentence means absolutely nothing.
2 I've found this caveat (i.e., “appeared to suggest”) necessary for everything I have read in the Village Voice, which should bear the subtitle: America's Journal of Opacity.
3 These were impressive words coming from Daly, who has gained a reputation among journalists, public officials, and other board watchers as one of the duller knives in San Francisco's political drawer.