Saturday, September 07, 2013

Derrida in a nutshell

I don't like postmodernism, poststructuralism, or any of that nonsense. I used to like it—I used to be captivated by certain PoMo thinkers, whose thought seemed to move along the lines of Buddhism, a religion I respect and admire, and with which I largely sympathize thanks to its processual, anti-essentialistic metaphysics and compassionate ethics. It's taken years for me to deprogram myself from my grad-school hypnosis; because religion is part of the humanities, and because American humanities academe is so rife with postmodernist thought (basically, the scribblings of a bunch of French leftist males from the 1960s), I was pretty well indoctrinated in the stuff by the time I got my Master's in 2002.

But far from involving myself in an extended critique of PoMo in this post (I've already critiqued it enough on this blog), I wanted to quote a thought-experiment from an email I recently wrote to my buddy Charles. In the email, I had challenged Charles to summarize the thought of three thinkers he had mentioned in the context of literary theory: Raglan, Dundes, and Thompson. Then, to show that I was open to the challenge myself, I attempted to summarize the thought of Jacques Derrida. Again, I didn't do this out of any love for Derrida's oeuvre; I did it to test my powers of concision. Here's what I wrote:

Raglan, Dundes, and Thompson... can't say that I've heard of any of these good folks. Can you summarize these thinkers by giving me one or two Big Thoughts from each? Let me see if I can pull that stunt myself by using Derrida, whose writings, among all the PoMo writers, I know best. If I were to summarize Derrida by what are, in my opinion at least, his two Big Ideas, I'd say:

1. critique of the "metaphysics of presence"
2. the concept of "différance"

The above requires some unpacking, of course, but for (1), I'd say that Derrida felt the need to critique what he considered a certain foundationalism, essentialism, or reificationism present in much Western thought from classical Greece onward. D's contention, like that of the Buddhists (and this is why I was initially attracted to his thinking), is that it's a mistake to believe that anything boils down to anything essential: relationality, i.e., similarities, contrasts, and proximity, are how entities define themselves. This connects with Derrida's reliance upon the thought of Ferdinand de Saussure, the so-called "father of linguistics." Saussure saw units of language, such as nouns, as simultaneously affirming and negating: the moment you point at a cat and say "This is a cat," you affirm it's a cat, but the affirmation implies countless negations: to say "This is a cat" is also, at the same time, to say, "This is not a dog, not a person, not a chair, etc." All discrete entities thus possess that paradoxical quality of affirmation/negation, a semantic double valence. Derrida's thought basically riffs off Saussure's.

Which leads to (2), the concept of "différance," deliberately misspelled. This follows the Saussurean notion of language's double valence while also affirming that you can't know the meaning or function of a unit of language until you know the context. E.g., the pronunciation of the letter "c" can't be known until you see the letter in a word like "cat" or "price." Thus the "c" can't exist as an entity-in-itself (en soi, a se, an sich), à la classical Greek notions of aseity (self-being). Its meaning and power come from relationality. The French verb différer, from which Derrida derived the concept of "différance," means both "to differ" and "to defer," and the deliberate misspelling of the philosophical term is meant to keep the reader perpetually off-balance, which reflects the actual semantic reality: always off-balance and open to contextual interpretation, with "fundamental" meaning always being deferred. The themes of paradoxical double valences and relationality allow Derrida's thought to dovetail with, say, that of Foucault, who was all about power dynamics, and that feeds into the larger PoMo/leftist ideology about pairings like man/woman, oppressor/oppressed, white/black, etc., with the left-hand member of each pair somehow being more privileged than the right-hand member.

I wasn't able to smuggle in Derrida's insights on pharmakon (medicine/poison) and agios (holy/unholy), words that are practically auto-antonyms, and which illustrate very clearly the linguistic double valence that Derrida suggests lurks behind every human utterance, every human text. I also didn't get into one of Derrida's stupider metaphysical claims, that of "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" (i.e., there is no outside-of-text)—a claim from which Derrida himself later backpedaled. The phenomenological fact of pre-intellectual human experience—gut feelings, intuitions, and the like—should be evidence enough that much human experience, perhaps even most of it, is nondiscursive (and thus non-textual) in nature. But Oh Well: you can do only so much in two paragraphs. I think the above was a fairly decent attempt at a Derridean primer.



John Melvin said...

I wasn't sure there was still the heavy emphasis on PoMo in 2002. I was never rigorously trained in the philosophy, but the general literary mood of postmodernism greatly influenced me for both better and worse. At the time I was introduced to Derrida, though, it just sounded like something any bright sophomore might come up with on a night drinking too much coffee. Seemed overblown at the time. More so in later days.

Kevin Kim said...

For what it's worth, I wasn't rigorously trained in PoMo, either, but I did receive heavy doses of it, especially during a scriptural hermeneutics course.