This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."
Essays and Comments on Derrida's "Cogito and the History of Madness" and "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"
Summary of the Discussion, by Stephen Hicks
Derrida and Deconstruction. In Jacques Derrida’s writings we encounter the skeptical and linguistic strain of postmodernism, in contrast to the cynical power politics strain of postmodernism that we find in Foucault’s writings. Derrida and Foucault share a common heritage of the Big Name German thinkers. What differentiates them is their primary reaction to coming to think there is no truth. Foucault comes to believe there is no truth, only power, and that therefore one should become engaged politically. Derrida comes to believe there is no truth, only the flow of language, and that therefore one should play creatively with language. Foucault’s reaction to the loss of truth is to plunge into the often-brutal free-for-all that remains. Derrida’s is to retreat to an aesthetic haven of linguistic play.
In the remarks that follow, I highlight a few of Derrida’s basic themes and offer a few comments that are supplementary to those made in other posts.
Derrida is most famous for carrying on and systematizing the method of deconstruction. For our purposes of understanding deconstruction, we read his “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” the essay that, according to lore, made Derrida famous when he presented it in 1966 at the seminar on structuralism at Johns Hopkins University. And as an example of deconstructive practice, we read his “Cogito and the History of Madness,” an essay in which Derrida comments on Foucault’s commentary on Descartes’s brief mention of the mad. As an illustration of deconstructive style, Derrida never directly discusses the mad but rather nests that topic of discussion within as many other discussions as possible. The result is that Derrida doesn’t actually investigate the mad or the rational, but rather talks at maddening length about various discussants’ use of the language of “madness” and “reason.”
The Context for Deconstruction. Deconstruction is a consequence of an extreme skepticism. The skepticism is a consequence of a historical series of retreats from any sort of objective and stable foundation for the contents of our minds.
Beginning in the early modern period, the loss of God or any such super-natural grounding undermined the whole medieval structure. But that was fine, the early moderns thought, because nature provided an external grounding and science could thereby replace religion. But then, by the time of Hume, we had lost an external, causal nature as a grounding. Okay, said Kant, but then we can fall back on an internal, subjective grounding in the noumenal self’s categories and forms of sensibility. But then, by the time of Nietzsche and Freud, we had lost any sense of a coherent, rational self that could ground anything stable or objective. Okay, said the Structuralists, but then we can at least analyze language and find in it universal and necessary structural features.
The purpose of the method of deconstruction is to discredit Structuralism, the last holdout of the “centered” approach to language. All of the “centered” approaches to language--from the Logos of God to the Forms of Plato to the Nature of the Aristotelians to the Noumenal Self of Kant to the Universal Linguistic Structures of the Structuralists--have had two features in common: the belief that language is referential to an extra-linguistic reality, and the belief that language’s meanings are fixed.
Derrida takes it for granted that all of those notions have been discredited by the middle of the 20th century. So what’s left? Only the ever-changing contents of our minds--except that even to speak of something so stable as a “mind” is a discredited illusion. So what we’re left with is the flow of images, most or many of which are linguistic. As Derrida puts it in Chapter 2, “The fact of language is probably the only fact ultimately to resist all parenthization” (1978, 37). (“Parenthization” is the act of bringing something within the system of language and thus, on Derrida’s account, making it incapable of being an objective foundation.)
The history of failure provides the context for the more specific objections deconstructionists level against the centered approach to language. Speaking from the uncentered perspective that the referents of language are neither extra-linguistic nor fixed, deconstructionists object to the “centered” approach on three grounds.
1. On interpretive grounds: in its search for the one true meaning the centered approach overlooks other, equally legitimate readings.
2. On moral grounds: the centered approach marginalizes and oppresses those other readings; its doing so is based on the West’s anxious compulsion for top-down, fixed order.
3. On aesthetic/creativity grounds: the centered approach stifles further creative exploration. From these objections it follows that the positive standard driving the objections is that of unconstrained egalitarian play.
The Method of Deconstruction. The nature of the deconstructive method is to find in any text equally legitimate readings that have been marginalized. It is, by parallel, a linguistic version of those staples of the philosophy of perception, the Boring drawing of the old/young woman, the Necker cube outline, or Jastrow’s drawing of the duck/rabbit. As the usual analysis goes for those perceptual cases, there is no reality out there forcing a visual reading upon us; rather the reading is changeable and a matter of will. Similarly, deconstructionists search out examples in language to show that language’s reality is essentially indeterminate and so the readings can be as willfully changeable. Holding that there is a single correct reading of a text is no different than saying about the Boring drawing, “No, it really is a drawing of an old woman.” Only conservative old women would insist that the way they happened to see it is the only way to see it.
As some of the commentators on this list have noted, the diaphanous model is at work in Derrida’s account of language. In analyzing perception, those who hold the diaphanous model will point out that our percepts take forms that have features that are different than the reality they are of--for example, an experience of a red object has features that are different than those of the red object. The features of the experience depend in part on the nature of the subject having the experience. And so, advocates of the diaphanous model conclude, our experiences cannot be directly of external objects; at best they can be subjective representations of objects.
The same analysis holds for conceptual thinking. Conceptual thinking takes a particular form: language. Since that language has features that are different than the reality it is supposed to refer to, it is neither a diaphanous medium through which we grasp external reality nor a mirror of an external reality. Instead its different features are a product of our subjective nature, in this case our subjective choices--for example, we choose arbitrarily the symbols we use in language. And so, deconstructionists conclude, we can just as arbitrarily choose other symbols or use pre-existing symbols for new purposes. Nothing constrains us but the extent of our subjective creativity.
Deconstruction and Politics. One can arrive at deconstruction thus via the history of metaphysics and epistemology, but much of the use of deconstruction is political and psychological.
Deconstruction implies a radical egalitarianism of textual interpretations. This feature is attractive to those who dislike being told that they are mistaken or who dislike having to tell others that they are mistaken. The idea that everyone is equally right and that all opinions are equally worthy is psychologically and socially soothing to many.
For those who are primarily politically motivated and at the same time alienated in their social context, deconstruction is a way to dismiss or set aside unwelcome texts that they otherwise would have a difficult time arguing against. In the American context, deconstruction has been used mostly in legal circles against the Constitution and the body of precedent, and in literary circles against the canon of great books. This political feature explains why deconstructionists are mostly far left wing in their politics and located in America. Derrida is not esteemed in France or the rest of Europe nearly as much as he is esteemed in America. Given that America has the strongest non-left traditions of any nation, it makes sense that its left-wing intellectuals would be most alienated and most likely to need the most desperate weapons to attack it.
The idea that everyone is equally right and all opinions are equally worthy is soothing to many.
Deconstruction is also attractive to those drawn to the marginal and the bizarre. Deconstruction holds that all texts center one reading and marginalize the rest, and so makes it an imperative to seek out the marginal readings. This gives to those who like the bizarre a legitimation and a built-in defense against criticism. If their so-called bizarre readings are criticized as being just too out there--e.g., if it’s hard for a critic to swallow the idea that Shakespeare’s plays veil a misogynous penchant for crossdressing--that’s only because the critic is a fuddy duddy stuck in the straightjacket of the old centered reading.
The connection between Derrida’s politics and his advocacy of deconstruction has never been clear. On the one hand, he was a left-wing activist in his student days and supported left-wing ideas all his life, but for most of his career he never made any explicit connection between his academic work on deconstruction and his personal political views. For much of his career, Derrida was criticized not only by his political opponents but also by fellow left-wingers for the pure negativity of deconstruction. Deconstruction is so ruthless in its destruction of anything positive that it leads only to withdrawal into the academic word-games that most of Derrida’s writings illustrate.
On the other hand, though, in an interview later in his career Derrida did say, “[D]econstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, than as a radicalization, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism.” Also, beginning with the 1990s Derrida has published a series of books on political and social topics. I have read only a few excerpts and reviews of those books, but according to commentators their themes are Derrida’s attempt to find at least one value concept that escapes deconstructive analysis. His candidate is the left-wing version of justice. In order to make justice invincible to deconstructive reduction, he seems to speak of it as an infinite, indestructible idea that arrives from who knows where and which we find uncannily compelling. In other words, late in his life Derrida seems to be adopting the language of religious mysticism as an escape from the bleakness and sterility of deconstruction. This fits nicely with David Potts’s hypothesis of a central religious impulse underlying the style of the major postmodernists’ writings.
There is, finally, Derrida’s ending his “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” essay on an apocalyptic note, one that seems both purely destructive and evocative of religious eschatology. Loosing deconstruction on the world, Derrida notes, is going to be ugly. But we must resist the difficult temptation of being among those who “turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity” (293). That deconstruction.s results will be monstrous reminded me of the closing lines of W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”; after checking, however, the entire poem seemed directly relevant:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the wors
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
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