Deconstructing Waco

Michael York

Academy for Cultural and Educational Studies


With a growing awareness of the need for a society in which everyone can participate on an equal footing, the Waco debacle involving David Koresh and the Branch Davidians fully illustrates the problems which result in a civilization that seeks to eliminate difference and assimilate everyone to a single model of conformity.  As a counter-development to this long-standing Western trend, the French theorist Jacques Derrida has pursued what is coming to be known as `the deconstructive project'. In essence, this is an attempt to rename all aspects of society in a spirit of openness. The aim of deconstructionism is to `let the other speak'. The Branch Davidians are a classic case in which the other could not speak and, if it could, could not have been heard.

Today's deconstructive enterprise seeks merely to open structures - including dominant patterns of thought - which have hitherto remained closed and, in so doing, to allow passageway to the voice of those who live on the margins of society and culture. Deconstructionism recognizes that on the social fringe, the so-called `other' is to be found - whether these others are Jews, women, people of color, the poor, the physically or mentally handicapped, or adherents of alternate religious movements. The unifying principle connecting all outcasts is simply their difference vis-à-vis the social mainstream. But because of the West's relentless drive toward assimilating one and all to an acceptable sameness, marginalized subjects have tended to become written out of history. They are traditionally ignored by the society to which they belong. Consequently, it is within the historical margins of this disenfranchizing situation that deconstruction seeks to find the inconsistencies and contradictions which appear as cracks in our official Western logic - the authoritative reasoning which endorses belief in an absolute similarity. Deconstructionism argues that by finding these gaps and opening them wider, the `space' is thereby created in which the other, the marginalized, the neglected and the misunderstood can begin to speak. Professor Bill Martin sees this as an important step in the unlocking of our jaded society's frozen structures. He argues that if we can learn to see and appreciate the neglected historical experience and viewpoints which marginal subjects possess, we might be able to launch a renewed cultural period of interaction and growth.

From an additional point of view, the same processes which diminish and eliminate human possibility ultimately have the effect of marginalizing nearly everyone. The marginal become the unnamed and ignored or, as in the case of the Branch Davidians, the misnamed and misunderstood. Our cultural society has its dominant logic of identity with its enforcing police, army and other instruments of subjugation by which people are designated and coerced as particular kinds of subjects conforming to set classifications. Language is the chief tool by which we are labelled. According to Claude Levi-Strauss, as a means of communication, writing's primary function is to make it easier to enslave other human beings. To counter this process, one might resort to what deconstructionism calls intertextual analysis. This is a penetrating examination and deciphering of language in the attempt to break-down the various fixed labels which restrict human identity, movement and expression.

The Italian theorist Theodor Adorno has pointed out that a language of sameness precludes the possibility that the other can speak in its terms. Nevertheless, Derrida's deconstruction recognizes that any established language of uniformity has cracks or inconsistencies in it. No language is monolithic and solid. Instead, it is by working in, through and around these gaps that language is able to replenish itself. The invariable inconsistencies that all languages possess, and the means which are found to circumvent them, provide a natural process through which languages can change and grow. Consequently, it is these breaks or fractures which the deconstructive strategy seeks to expose and make even bigger. A basic understanding of this philosophical approach is that truth is situational, relational and ever receding. In the historical processes of continual reinterpretation and subsequent perpetual syntheses of newer meanings, any unity of truth is, according to Nietzsche, completely indefinable. Instead, intertextual analysis chooses to concentrate upon falsity, error and self-contradiction within any given context and expose these on an ever open path to liberated understanding.

The unnaming which occurred with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas is to be found in their being labelled with what James Lewis terms the `cult stereotype'. This stereotype automatically includes assertions of irresistible and over-inflated leadership, mind-control, brain-washing, powerlessness of devotees, lack of free choice, child-abuse, weirdness, unacceptable sexual arrangements, fallacious thought, lying and even satanic evil. Through this categorization, the other - here David Koresh and his followers - could not be heard. They had no voice or a voice which could at least be understood. But by lumping any deviant or marginal expression under an erroneous and emotionally-charged designation, an accurate and legitimate understanding of the situation is routinely precluded.

Concerning the Mt. Carmel center, we are able to see the Cult Awareness Network and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms themselves playing informative and enforcing roles which were bound by the `rules' of a predominant social model of conformity. In other words, the CAN and AFT are instruments which are simultaneously both exacerbating of and victimized by a closed system of thought and language which cannot recognize let alone tolerate difference. They are themselves products of a political and socio-cultural action which brackets off spheres of meaning and truth-production as a means of marginalizing growing threats of disruption. But in its effort to expose these isolating `brackets,' the intertextual and deconstructive movement itself delivers disruptive disturbances. These last, it stresses, are part of the very cutting-edge to future social growth. Without an open and unhindered exchange of new and different perspectives, we - and our social, political and religious institutions - become our own prisoners and casualties.

In the lamentable Waco saga, the media remains the key institution through its power to confer names - including that of the `cult' stereotype with its attendant and fixed associations of brainwashing and child abuse. With the discovery of marginalized history, however, one can come to see these identical accusations being laid on the doorsteps of all fringe groups from the past: witches, Gypsies, the Knights Templar, the Jews and even the early Christians. Moreover, as another victim to its own power of naming in the Waco fiasco, the media perpetuated misinformation through its selective presentation of so-called `cult experts' - predominately drawn from the anti-cult school of thought. As Martin explains, the scriptural doctrine of clarity is not only impossible but also an undesirable quality. Nevertheless, it is under this secular banner that the unknowingly secular movement known as Christian fundamentalism flourishes. It is to the sociologist that the media must first turn, for he or she follows a discipline which in many essentials seeks, like deconstructionism, a multiple perspective and the call of the other. The grounding of sociology to the voice of the other is expressed by Bryan Wilson when he makes clear that sociologists in their study must begin with the self-interpretation of religious individuals and groups as their point of departure.

The legacy of Waco is the clearer realization that the deconstructive strategy is one which seeks to displace names, proper names and the single perspective of the proper and property. A community, including that of the Branch Davidians, is one which depends not on ownership but on the shared memory and language of a common narrative (intertexuality). Communities allow people to create shared meanings, values and ways of life. There are no guarantees, however, and cannot be in any fully open and participatory society, that what is shared is good or bad. There is no a priori formula that can dictate `proper' behavior for any particular situation. Assessments and decisions must depend instead only on the responsibility for our on-going social enterprise, but this responsibility itself depends on our being liberated from erroneous concepts and presuppositions.

To displace a name and rename without closed-off conclusions is an empowering act. The quality of caring which a truly human society requires does not arise from `knowing the truth' but from hearing the call to respect the other. Diversity precedes the postsecular community to be. This is not pluralism and eclecticism which at best call only for tolerance but not obligation. As the Russian Mikhail Bakhtin assesses, toleration of difference is not enough; we must learn instead to celebrate it. Such counter-institutions as sociology, new social movements and communities of resistance must confront those more traditional institutions (the media, executive arms of government, the anti-cult movement among them) which have been integral to the imposition of conditions in which the other is unable to speak. Martin's formulation of `intertextual materialism' which is developed from the deconstructive project of Derrida has two principles: (1) Always to support the oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized, and (2) To be open to learn from many sources. When such a strategy becomes established as the norm, the future inevitablity of the Mt. Carmel-type scenarios may no longer have to be.




Behler, Ernst (1991). Confrontations: Derrida, Heidegger, Nietzsche. Translated by Steven Taubeneck. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1976). of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins U.P.

Martin, Bill (1992). Matrix and Line: Derrida and the Possibilities of Postmodern Social Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Stam, Robert (1988). "Mikhail Bakhtin and the Left Cultural Critique." In Postmodernism and its Discontents, Theories and Practices. Edited by E. Ann Kaplan. London & New York: Verso.

Wilson, Bryan (1982), Religion in Sociological Perspective, Oxford: Oxford U.P.