"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Derrida and Deconstructionism–Poppycock and Gobbledygook

My niece went to Brown University and enthusiastically reported that she had signed up for a class that was entitled “Media, Meaning, and Culture: Queer Studies and Hollywood Myth”, and although she couldn’t really describe what it was all about, it would be a welcome change from English, Math, and Biology.

I, too, was interested in the course.  When I went to Yale the most exciting course you could find was Introduction to Psychology, commonly called ‘Nuts and Sluts’.  It was a great course because it presented all kinds of quirky aberrations, sexual deviance, modern takes on Oedipus, and gutter fantasies.  Today the course would certainly be officially called ‘Nuts and Sluts’, an insider cool reference to the New Academy who reveled in difference and diversity.  Today’s course would make no judgments as ours did – there was such a thing as mental imbalance and sexual promiscuity – and would treat the unforgettable case study of the woman who dressed in black and made sharp, military turns every ten sidewalk sections all day, every day not as a wacko but as an example of a true female (valid) restructuring of urban reality.

Introduction to Psychology was a teaser – a quick look into the lives of the Twistedly Funny to get students to enroll in the achingly boring Psychology II which was nothing but data sheets, graphs, and regression analysis.

Deconstruction promised to look at this wonderfully abnormal world in a different light. 

Deconstruction, a critical practice introduced by French philosopher and critic Jacques Derrida, ostensibly serves to interrogate the assumptions of Western thought by reversing or displacing the hierarchical "binary oppositions" that provide its foundation. In "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," a path-breaking lecture delivered at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, Derrida challenges the metaphysical premises that shape Western science and philosophy. Derrida argues that the "structure" determining these discourses (including "structuralist" theory itself) always presupposes a "center" that ensures a point of origin, meaning, being, or presence (Postcolonialweb.org)

Does that make any sense?  I didn’t think so, but the author, a Brown graduate a few years before my niece thought that he would give exposition a go.  But the whole point of deconstructionism and post-modernist theory was not to make sense, which is why reviewer of a new biography of Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionism, says:

It would be interesting to know how many of those who tried to block him in the name of rigorous scholarship had read a single book of his, or even a couple of articles.

The truth is that they did not need to. The word was abroad that this purveyor of fashionable French gobbledygook was a charlatan and a nihilist, a man who believed that anything could mean anything and that there was nothing in the world but writing. (Terry Eagleton, The Guardian 11.14.12)

About half-way through my niece’s course at Brown, I asked her to tell me what it was all about and what she had learned.  She started in and talked about texts, historicism, image and ‘the inversion sexual media’.  I understood nothing, and asked her to try again.  She laid on further references to Derrida’s “series of substitutions of center for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center".  I told her that I was more confused than when she began.  Maybe if you read my textbook, she said, you would understand.  I tried, but gave up when I got to passages like those described by the Brown student:

Derrida's distrust of the logocentric assumption of "being as presence" stems in part from his considerations of the differences that distinguish between signs within text. In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida invents the term "differance," punning upon both spatial and temporal meanings of the verb "differer"--to "differ" and to "defer." The ambiguities between these two meanings become meaningful only on the written page; as Derrida notes, in spoken French "differance" (with an "a") and "difference" (with an "e") are indistinguishable. In other words, since "differance" inheres only in writing and not in speech, Derrida's deconstructive project seeks to reverse the metaphysical presumption that speech (an indicator of presence or being) precedes the written word that approximates it.

I said that the issue was even more byzantine than ever, and that because Derrida kept on inventing terms, there was no possible reference to the intellectual history which preceded him, thus making his contentions nonsensical.

“Yes”, said my niece.  “Isn’t it wonderful? I get to invent words all the time.”

Derrida placed a lot of emphasis on ‘texts’:

Why does text come to mean the same as book? The word comes from the Latin texere, which means “to weave.” And “text” still has that meaning for us. We say textile, which is “woven” or “capable of being woven” or, as a noun, “a woven fabric,” a textile. So when we use the word “texture” we might mean one of a number of things: “something woven,” or “a web”; we might mean a certain manner of weaving or simply of connecting; the disposition of the parts of a body; or “a structural impression” which might come about through a way of combining parts of a whole, as in music, art, or writing; or, finally, it could mean the quality conveyed to the senses by woven fabrics.

Again, don’t worry too much if you don’t really get what he’s after.  No one does; but if you read enough you will understand that he believes that all ‘texts’ are equal – that a Ford Owner’s Manual is equal to King Lear or Macbeth – lines of language which if they have any meaning at all reflect social determinism (Marxism), gender (Feminism), and Queer Interpretation (Gay Academia). There is no such thing as individual creative enterprise because we are all compromised by Freud, society, and capitalism; so the only way out of the box is to read the texts only with the historically consistent perspective of determinism.

Believe it or not I sat across the dinner table from friends who shamelessly, seriously, and calmly contented that Hamlet was the equivalent of Jane Bonner’s Slave Journals. I needed to cast aside my elitist, white, male, insistent belief in the Canon, and in the ephemeral and meaningless conviction that there was such a thing as Art.

I knew then that there was no hope; and that I only had to wait until Deconstructionism met its inevitable end. 

My wait has been long.  A girlfriend of my nephew recently began her doctoral studies at Duke, and her concentration was in an area as indecipherable to the outsider as those at Brown a decade earlier.  It had something to do with Freud, Marx, and ‘psychological constructs of gender – a little like reading the New York Review of Books – but made no sense.  Post-Modernism and Deconstructionism was alive and well.  It is harder and harder to find these last redoubts of gobbledygook, but they’re there if you look for them; and unbelievably, they are well-endowed.  My nephew’s girlfriend got a free ride while he had to pay full freight to become an architect.

I would like to be generous and say that at least Derrida and his cohorts exposed us to a new and important way of perceiving and understanding the world; but they did not.  Anyone who has blubbered his way through Love Story or any one of its thousand clones knows that reality sucks.  Life would be pretty miserable if there were no surprises, no unexpected left turns, no scary corners of dark closets.  Derrida told us that reality was not only all there is, but that there is but one neutral, passionless, unremittingly social way to look at it. 

I have always been amazed that anyone ever gave Derrida more than an indifferent glance.  I am a bit surprised that he still is studied in the carrels of Duke and Brown; but I am relieved that most discerning readers dismiss him entirely.  No Kant, Heidegger,. Schopenhauer, or Kierkegaard is he.

My niece, if you are interested, had fun in her course at Brown and as far as I can tell retained nothing.  But then again, in the famous words of King Lear: “Why boy, nothing can be made out of nothing”.

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