In his recent post on his Think Again blog about the misappropriation of deconstruction by American academics, Stanley Fish writes:
. . .No normative conclusion — this is bad, this must be overthrown — can legitimately be drawn from the fact that something is discovered to be socially constructed; for by the logic of deconstructive thought everything is; which doesn’t mean that a social construction cannot be criticized, only that it cannot be criticized for being one.
Among literary scholars, there are many who regard works of literature as a kind of social construction. In this view, a given work cannot be granted a special status as "art" separated from history or culture, since it is permeated with both. For literary study in its historicist and cultural studies incarnations, literature gives us access to the historical/cultural forces that worked through the writer to author the work, the exposure of which forces is the most important work of academic criticism. Literary art as an autonomous accomplishment that deserves consideration in its own right is not just shunted aside, but is dismissed outright as a delusion.
Behind this rejection of the "literary" as anything other than a window on culture and beyond that mostly an imposition by overweening writers claiming an exalted power they don't ultimately possesses is an attitude that might indeed be described as "normative conclusion" as Fish uses the term. Writers are inevitably responding to the social conditions of their time; they can't escape the historical contingencies that inform their assumptions about the world; their works might help us understand how culturally-bound beliefs get circulated around and through all culturally-inscribed modes of expression, but they certainly can't be considered as distinctive aesthetic objects produced by the play of human imagination. The notion that a work of literature might, in its encounter with particular readers, transcend the conditions, contingencies, and cultural presuppositions of its creation, at least for the moment of the reader's experience, just can't be countenanced. No text can escape the confines of its social construction.
Thus all literary works are "just" social constructions. And this conclusion has become the basis of the most widely-practiced forms of academic criticism, whereby poems and stories and novels (particularly the latter) are scrutinized for their socially-constructed representations, as if they were being punished for being found complicit with all the evils with which "culture" can be charged. But, as Fish points out, a specific work can be criticized for advancing a particular socially constructed vision that might be found objectionable (which in most cases means it has failed at being art in the first place), but it can hardly be criticized for being a social construction to one degree or another. Writers are human beings, not members of some alien species, so they cannot finally escape their circumstances as human beings, their being alive at a certain time, in a certain place, with all the attendant assumptions and perspectives that time and place embody.
Thus, to say that a work of literature is inescapably a social construction is precisely to say nothing. Of course it is. How could it be otherwise? That it can also be a work of art, "art" being defined not as something insulated from history and culture, outside of time and place, but as we human beings in all our socially constructed atttitudes and expectations choose to define it as we go along, seems to me not only possible but indispensable. Sometimes writers manage to raise themselves to an awareness of the social constructedness of aesthetic conventions and conventional discourse and compel their readers to rise to such an awareness as well. Sometimes they even work toward the dissolution of certain especially noxious social constructions. They don't always succeed in these efforts to confront social constructions, because they can't. We remain blind to some of them, especially if they're constructions of which we approve or which otherwise help us get our work done. But this is no reason to hold all of literature responsible for this unavoidable human failing.