Be Sure to Read Part I First
WHAT IS DECONSTRUCTION SUPPOSEDLY?
1) Start with the Core Destructionist Claim: A Domineering and Violent Linguistic Hierarchy, Full of Self-Entangling Confusion, Resides at the Base of All Western Thought
Yes, begin here: According to Derrida and his followers, all language --- at any rate, in Western civilization (other civilizations are ignored or apparently don't suffer from what Derrida calls logocentrism) --- is invariably shot-through with elusive ambiguities, confusion, and self-refuting contradictions. Any text's claimed "truths" are really biased fictions . . . only (to use a confusing but typical deconstruction concept) for these fictions to have been forgotten and so figure as written-in-solid-concrete forever.
The result of all this confused, self-contradictory language and fictive true-claims, dubbed as logocentrism in deconstructionism? To put it bluntly, in standard deconstruction views, a "violent linguistic hierarchy" has allegedly prevailed in Western civilization --- used in a taken-for-granted manner ---for a good 2500 years, in other words way back to the ancient Greeks. Yes, on the Derrida-inspired view, it has prevailed in Western language-usage from the days of Plato and Aristotle on, dominating Western thought, accordingly, from the start of all European philosophy, sciences, art, and literature.
2) How Does the Violent Linguistic Hierarchy Operate in Practice?
For Derrida and his followers, all language-usage operates by means of binary word-opposites. In all Western languages, logocentrism has entailed the last 2500 years the "privileging" of a predictable set of words that the great thinkers, with few exceptions, have automaton-like employed over their opposites. Such as: logic over intuition; reason over feelings; speech over writing; man over woman; rulers over the ruled; majority European peoples over ethnic-racial minorities; bosses over employees; religious true-believers over non-believers; state-enforced religion over dissenters (say, Jews in Christian lands); intellectual conformists over dissenters; elites over the masses, and so on.
Since no thinking can be done without the use of a language, virtually all the great thinkers in Western life have done little more --- whether intentionally or more likely unwittingly --- to rationalize and justify the dominant real-life hierarchies of power everywhere in Western civilization, past or present.
That has been the case in all prevailing politics, legal systems, economic life, religious life, journalism, and all forms of education and intellectual centers. With, you understand, only a few exceptions like Socrates --- and you know what happened to him. (Remember: these are Derrida's views, not prof bug's.) Otherwise, for over two millennia, the inescapable usage of language for all manner of thought by the influential in Western life for the last two millennia-plus has spawned and sustained little more than mind-spinning, mind-controlling belief-systems and practices. The inevitable beneficiaries? The dominant elites in each every Western society over time. The inevitable losers? All the weak and helpless, power-wise . . . dubbed by deconstructionists and other post-modernists the subordinate and excluded "Other(s)"
3) Who, More Specifically, Have These Marginalized and Oppressed Inferiors Been?
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. . . For Derrida and in all postmodernist circles, the exploited inferiors are the Others . . . all those just marginalized and lorded over by the powerful from time immemorial but, in effect, essentially "excluded" from any noticeable presence in dominant Western thought and practices. Meaning, above all: women, ethnic and racial minorities, religious and intellectual dissenters, and (to repeat) the poor and weak everywhere --- including, observe quickly, in conquered colonies too. And, these days --- though hardly in ancient Greece ---homosexuals and bisexuals as well.
All these excluded and oppressed Others, recall, have been shoved virtually out of sight for the dominant groups in Western societies because the most influential thinkers in those societies have privileged the opposite words in all their linguistic usage. Or so deconstructionists contend.
4) A Key Inquiry Prompts Itself Here, Namely:
How, by itself, could customary language-usage, no matter how hierarchically organized, create and sustain the various kinds of real-life power-laden hierarchies --- and hence oppression of the excluded Others --- that have marked Western life for 2500 years?
The answer was mentioned in passing earlier. So bear with prof bug a moment or two as he tries to throw more light on the issue.
Start here: for a good century or so, most philosophers have assumed that no thinking of any sort --- yes, any sort --- can exist without the automatic resort to language for hatching thoughts and making sense of them. Even interior mental-thought has to be structured by words and grammar that are shared by all other users of the same language. (There is, in Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophical beliefs, no such thing as a private-language itself. Otherwise, our thoughts wouldn't have any meaning to us.)
The outcomes? Two are worth stressing:
* Like all institutions and hierarchies everywhere, those in Western life --- whether political, legal, economic, military, religious, social, educational, or academic --- had to have been thought up in their origins by one or more influential persons . . . just they had to be sustained, revised, and widely flourish by the thinking of other persons who lived or worked in such institutional (or structural) systems. And thinking up and maintaining, revising, or rejecting (or overthrowing) those institutionalized structures have to be anchored in language-usage. Thinking of any sort, even if kept in one's head, requires the use of a shared public language with its own words, grammar, syntax, and meaning.
* Deconstructionism is hardly innovative here. It's a Johnny-come-lately except for the extravagantly exaggerated claims it makes about its radically novel insights here, none of which are empirically grounded in bioscience, hereditary science, neuroscience, or cognitive science. Such as that . . . there is no fixed essence of human nature. It is all socially constructed. Such constructs are linguistically grounded and far from being fixed, are changeable. That means all social identity is changeable. What's more, it should change if justice is to be had and all discrimination and oppression is ferreted out and ended.
fWhat follows? The only way for this liberation to occur is for deconstructionism to subvert the dominant, power-laden linguistic hierarchy and show how its biggest fictive truth-claims have engendered and rationalized an "artificial human-essence" that has entailed the creation of hand-me-down social identities and roles. The result for the last two millennia has been to divide Western societies into the powerful and privileged on one side and on the other the weak, the ethnic and racial minorities, and all the remaining excluded and marginalized Others.
Or so deconstructionists seem to claim, with (as you'll see at the end of this buggy commentary) Derrida himself changing his mind on this score as he neared death.
A Clarification in Passing:
Recent laboratory experiments in social psychology and cognitive science --- they use monitoring machines that show changes in our brains working ---throw some doubt on whether a shared language dominates our thinking this way. Instead, our thoughts, however inchoate, arise initially as inner-workings we're not necessarily aware of in our subconscious minds. Only later, however swiftly, will these thoughts that come into our awareness ---assuming we don't just ignore them --- articulated explicitly in our conscious minds by the use of words and grammar. This is the case, these experiments show, whether or not we want to convey our self-aware thoughts to other people. (Click here for one good philosophical exchange.)
5) Enter Another Query: Given All These Claims, How Is Deconstruction Supposed to Work in Practice?
To ask this is, in effect, to ask what the other key assumptions that underpin deconstructionist aims and methods of linguistic analysis happen to be. Which usage, you understand, will allegedly allow deconstructionists to uncover the hidden multiple meanings that lurk beneath the surface in the inherently confused, self-contradictory thought found in all Western texts. With the aim of all this, recall, to ferret out and expose all the fictive, culturally biased truth-claims in dominant Western thought as dangerous and oppressive confusion . . . little else, to put it differently, than immoral rationalizations to legitimize the existing status quo in Western societies.
Wait though! A clear answer to the meaning and soundness of these deconstructionist claims is not easy to set out --- very much the contrary.
Why? Well, plain and simple, Derrida himself refused for decades --- no matter often he was asked ---, to give a clear meaning to deconstructionism, any more than he was willing to spell out how the age-old violent linguistic hierarchy could exactly be subverted and reversed in practice. On these counts, all that he and his followers have been able to do is boldly assert --- over and again, ad infinitum --- that such upturning would show, paradoxically, that the hitherto subordinate word (term) in each word-opposite would emerge as the superior. With such a reversal, those long "inferior" words for all the excluded and oppressed "Others" would be shown to alone give meaning to the 2500 year-old dominant word-usage.
In short, to bring these last few points to an end, Derrida himself always played evasive and fox-like when asked to define deconstructionism and spell out its actual methods and practice. His answer was always the same: he would tell you what deconstruction wasn't, not what it was. Might as well ask, he said at one point in an interview, what's the meaning of mathematics?
For all that, if you click on the earlier link to NYRB and read the thoughtful exchange between John Searle and Louis Mackey, you'll have at least some general sense of what deconstructionists claim to be doing and --- more important --- whether those claims seem justified or not. Oh . . . click here for a YouTube interview --- just a couple of minutes long --- where Derrida pretends to be giving a definitional meaning to deconstruction, only to resort to the usual shifty sly-fox (or just plain confused) evasions.
* Click here for the video-interview. (Keep in mind that Derrida resorts to French soon after the interview, with the interviewer doing the English translation. Good luck if you think things are clearer for you by the end.)
Some Clarifying Remarks:
* If deconstructionists, starting with Derrida, really believed that a full-tilt subversion of the alleged age-old linguistic hierarchy would entail as well the reversal of the privileged word-usage so that the hitherto "inferior" words would actually become the new superior usage --- and, simultaneously be shown to alone give clear meaning to the formerly "privileged" words in Western thought --- then we get these head-spinning paradoxes: .
" ... speech is a form of writing; presence is a certain type of absence, the marginal is in fact central, the literal is metaphorical, truth is a kind of fiction, reading is a form of misreading, understanding is a form of misunderstanding, and man is a form of woman" (Source: p. 77 in a book by a deconstructionist follower: Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction , reviewed by John Searle in the NYRB a few months earlier than his exchange with Mackey, linked to earlier here.)
* The multiplication of blustering neologism, the over-heated paradoxes, and the tangled obscurantist writing-style used by Derrida and his disciples has been the major reason why he and they have been regarded as fraudulent nonsense-dispensers, geysers of gibberish pishposh full of wildly exaggerated claims, incoherent and rambling arguments, and endlessly big-mouthed pronouncements that seem at first glance to be profound, only "under analysis (as John Searle observes) to be silly or trivial." (For the source of the last few phrases here (including one in quotes) see the earlier link to Searle's 1984 exchange with Lewis Mackey in the NYRB)
* In this connection, too, note that what has been called analytical philosophy for several decades --- in English-speaking philosophy, as well as in Scandinavia and nowadays everywhere in Continental Europe --- boils down these days to three intellectual commitments, each one of which Derrida's work and that of his devotees blatantly violate: 1) set out a cogent, logical argument in all your writings; 2) write with clarity and carefully explain and back up all key intellectual claims with solid examples or empirical evidence; and 3) be open to responding to all important criticisms that other philosophers have offered in reply to your work.
For a good survey of the traditional gulf between Continental and Analytical philosophy, now more and more blurred fortunately, click here for an easy to read blog and the comments section that follows: . And here again for a different, easily read commentary on the same gulf, click here. And the reasons so much of analytical philosophy has --- after decades of impressive work --- has seemed to slide into narrow, technical, and often boring and tedious stuff: click here
*For more on Derrida's complex circumlocutions in an interview, click here: for the video. The same evasive circumlocutions emerge when, near the end of his life, he was asked in the same interview what deconstruction is. Click here:
ONE FINAL OBSERVATION: IS DECONSTRUCTIONISM SUPPOSED TO BE LIBERATING?
Recall that we touched on this issue earlier. Derrida himself, as prof bug hinted there, expressed doubts in his early- and mid-stage publications that a liberating linguistic rescue was possible . . . any more than a fully agreed upon meaning in any one text could exist.
The chief reason: The pervasive ambiguities and self-refuting contradictions in Western languages, he lamented, couldn't ever be fully banished. They are inherent in its usage. No sooner could a dominant linguistic hierarchy that rationalized and justified the oppressive status quo in any society be subverted by deconstruction-analysis than a new hierarchy would likely occur that distinguished --- like the subverted one ---would linguistically distinguish between privileged and unprivileged and create and sustain in the process new real-life hierarchies. And on and on without respite.
But . . .
A few years before his death, though, Derrida seemed to be less skeptical here. Not fully, you understand; but less so.
In particular, he began to muse publicly in the late 1990s how deconstructionism could be liberating to one degree or another. Not entirely so, understand again. That would be impossible. There would always be a linguistic hierarchy in our lives; sooner or later it would underpin --- given its inherently inescapable confusions and contradictions --- new power-laden status-quo. Still, Derrida now implied --- only implied, please note: never with full-tilt clarity (when did he speak or write that way?) ---that deconstructionist concepts and methods could succeed at whittling away at both the dominant linguistic and real-life hierarchies. The more exposure by deconstructionists of the hidden mind-controlling power in both, the more the marginalized and oppressed in Western societies would be helped to grasp the reasons for their excluded and repressive status. And, in turn, such growing self-awareness could lead them to rebel and gain influence in our imperfect democracies recognition and new dignity and equality.
That, at least, is apparently what Derrida was trying to say in his last few years of life. But who can be certain?
Whatever you think of Derrida's work, he was at least a brave man struggling life-long with big puzzling questions about human life and our social existence, just as he was a clear fighter against discrimination of all sorts. If you want to read a summary of the similar kind of philosophical work undertaken life-long by an outstanding analytical philosopher, Prof. John Searle at UC Berkeley --- yes, Derrida's major critic ---then see his clear, highly readable and stimulating book (2010) entitled Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Click here
And Here Is the Link To
. . . the NYRB's blog on Derrida's life as a tough-minded hater of discrimination of all sorts and how that helps to account for his voluminous work that created deconstructionist theory and methods. Click now