Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Vulgar Deconstruction

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Vulgar Deconstruction

Article excerpt

Back in the 1970s, when the humanities still set the intellectual tone for the college campus, it was common for advanced scholars to divide the personnel in two: There were those who understood High Theory and those who didn't. New ideas and methods were in the air. Leading-edge journals and symposia such as diacritics and the School of Criticism and Theory were founded. If you read Jacques Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" and couldn't figure out what "the original or transcendental signified" meant, well, that left you outside the flow of twentieth-century thought. If you hadn't worked through Derrida's forebears in phenomenology (Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger) and structural anthropology (Saussure, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss), you couldn't appreciate the breakthrough.

I was a graduate student in the 1980s, immersed in deconstruction, and it bothers me to recall that condescension. We fancied ourselves the smart ones and disdained the rest. They had no imagination for metaphysics and we did, though we didn't believe in God. When they came across Derrida's catchphrase il n'y a pas d'hors-texte, they heard only that the world is like a book, ever open to reading-hardly a novel idea. But we heard an insight into the nature of reality that put grand assumptions at risk, including "nature" and "reality." Here was a radical skepticism that didn't deny God, Being, History, and Mind. It threw them into textual conditions; the "fundamental immobilit[ies]" and "reassuring certitude[s]" (Derrida's words) dissipated in an unstable structure of signs. Truth became a high-stakes game of interpretation, and we played it with the fervor of a keen novice.

The key was difference. Hegel had started it for us, replacing the law of identity, A is A, with a dialectics of otherness and mediation that said the concrete is really the abstract, the master is really the slave, A is not A. Truth, he showed, is not the reliable sphere of the man in the street. It is the development of reflective consciousness in and through "the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative." Heidegger came along and raised thinking, genuine thinking, into an epochal activity that had to begin with the ontic/ontological difference, the difference between Being and beings. The proper way to inquire into Being, he insisted, is first to realize that our categories of description (substance, quantity, etc.) turn Being into just another being, like God as a super-large, -wise, and -powerful individual. When we forget this difference, Being withdraws and thinking collapses into empirical inquiry and unreflective faith.

That wasn't for us, who cited with surety Nietzsche's flat rule, "There are no facts, only interpretations." We wanted thought to be momentous and the world an adventurous terrain. Language, too, had to be de-naturalized, and Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist, provided a nice difference-premise for it: "in language there are only differences without positive terms." Words, that is, aren't natural and they aren't full of meaning on their own; meanings issue in and from a language system that works through the play of words off of one another. Brown signifies brown because it does not signify what red, blue, green ... signify.

Derrida consolidated these differences into the condition of existence and gave it a name, "différance." This was the source of our thrill. We had already learned to look at the world phenomenologically, its objects weakened in their solidity. We could "see" things in differential relationships. But if it were just a surface assemblage of signs, the world wouldn't be open to the fateful thinking and dramatic views we desired. There had to be a deeper element, something worthy of the life of Zarathustra. Différance was it.

What is différance? Well, for the same reason that Heidegger cannot say what Being is, Derrida can't define it. In the 1968 essay under the bare title "Différance," he acknowledges that it functions much as God does in negative theology, except that différance, though disengaged from finite categories, has no superior and ineffable character. …

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