Vulgar Deconstruction

By Bauerlein, Mark | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Vulgar Deconstruction


Bauerlein, Mark, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Vulgar Deconstruction
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.