A few weeks ago, pawing through the online edition of The New York Times, I came across a piece written by Stanley Fish about the effects of deconstruction on thought on this side of the pond. The Times is not the most unlikely place for a longish, pop-explanation of deconstruction and its impact on disparate modes of academic theory and politics. But neither is it so high-brow of a publication; some peg it as written for a 12th-grade reading level. But I suppose that’s the joy of the internet version of The New York Times.
The first piece was so popular, says Stanley Fish in his second piece, that he received over 600 comments. I just came across number two today, little over a day after it was posted, and it was already past 200 comments.
It’s great to see a notoriously difficult yet rewarding topic discussed in such a public forum as The New York Times website. A chunk of the Kudos bar should be given to Fish for having, as one commenter puts it, the “grand cajones” to take on deconstruction and write about it concisely and accessibly. And there is a great diversity of views expressed in the comments, which are just as interesting as the initial post by Professor Fish. It’s a characteristic of deconstruction — if one must grant it an essential quality — to be so controversial. Because Derrida’s most influential writings on the subject are without an explicit central thesis, it has led both supporters and detractors of Derrida to define deconstruction how they see fit. Deconstruction is worthless, important, apolitical, radical, meaningless, and French. Or none of these. Before these posts, I think the most people I’ve seen discussing Derrida’s views at one place and time was a conference at the Ohio State University shortly after Derrida’s death. There were a handful of professors and maybe twenty-some students. The New York Times website isn’t exactly the water cooler, but it’s as close as we’re going to get.
What caught my eye in particular was Professor Fish’s connection of Derrida to St. Augustine, who “warn[ed] us against the almost inevitable sin of idolatry, the sin of mistaking a historical, limited, partial meaning for the true meaning which always escapes and exceeds its momentary instantiations.” A small but noticeable group of posters responding to the essays draw similarities between Derrida and some eastern strands of thought such as Zen Buddhism and the teachings of Nagarjuna. They all attempt to demonstrate the ultimate failure of language to apprehend the world. And they contend dualism is the root of linguistic activity in which “good” is meaningless without its opposite “bad” and both words are dependent upon a subject position. Both traditions also attempt to use language in a playful way to denaturalize words from their context because they see the impossibility of traditional language practices to obtain a transcendent truth outside of language systems. Fish, quoting a poster named Rob, puts it this way, “instead [deconstruction] alerts us to the ‘trace of the unthinkable within the thinkable.'” I like that.
As I quoted in an earlier post, Heidegger (who had a sizable influence on Derrida) writes, “The presence of gods and the appearance of the world are not merely a consequence of the actualisation of language, they are contemporaneous with it.” In the performance of original speech acts — not just in spoken or written language, but any system of signifiers and meaning — there is transcendence of dualism.
But before I get too far off topic, there’s one other thing I thought notable in Fish’s analysis and in the responses. Because of the Derrida legacy, there’s a tendency in leftist circles and especially evident in academia to use deconstruction to challenge a belief by saying, “Yeah, dude, it’s sucks — it’s totally socially constructed.” Fish (and many posters) pointed out the fallacy in this line of thinking: “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.” The proper response for a reformer is that deconstruction can point out the artificiality (the constructed nature) of the supposed authority. Once it’s clear that something is a construction and it is seen how it is a construction, then it’s possible to change it.
There are way too many interesting strands to pick up here in one post, but here’s another one for thought, brought to you by Jim Mason, in the 17th comment to the second post: “the new epistemology of the web no longer muddies a naive understanding of “facts” with self-referential political and linguistic deconstruction, but rather with appeals to the revelations offered in larger systemic network effects and so called emergent phenomena. core to this seems to be the claim that very large numbers of agents (physical or conceptual) interacting together produce products very different that the particular or just a few. and that the real deep insights are to be found not pulling apart the fuzziness of individual discrete entities, but rather in pulling apart the nature of their fuzzy combinations into massive chaotic distributed assemblies.”