Derrida and Deconstruction

Thursday, January 13, 2011 -- 4:00 PM
Ken Taylor

This week our topic is Derrida and Deconstruction. Derrida was one of the most widely revered and widely reviled   thinkers of the mid-to-late twentieth Century. Many people in a variety of disciplines – especially in the literary humanities --  regard him as an absolutely seminal figure.   Mark Taylor recently called him one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century --  right up there with Heidegger and Wittgenstein.  On the other hand, many philosophers would strongly disagree with that assessment (including that assessment of Heidegger and, to a lesser extent, Wittgenstein) -- especially philosophers, like John and I, who belong to the Anglo-American tradition.  In our circles, Derrida tends to be regarded as something of a fraud and a charlatan.  Moreover, folks blame him for what they often see as the  especially sorry state of literary studies.  But we question everything here on Philosophy Talk.  So in complete fairness to Derrida, we should ask ourselves whether it’s just prejudice that keeps us from appreciating Derrida’s profundity and importance.

My first reaction to that question is that it clearly isn’t just prejudice that causes him to be so reviled by so many.   I mean for a man who was deeply concerned about the nature of written language and with the interpretation of written language,  Derrida was awfully hard to read and interpret.   Of course,  you could ask whether he’s harder than Kant or harder than Hegel.  Neither of those guys is easy to read or interpret, but nobody dismisses them as frauds or charlatans.  Perhaps, though, that just shows the difference between German obscurity and French obscurity.  German obscurity can seem profound, but French obscurity is just irritating and perplexing.

But all kidding aside – and I was just kidding – I think there’s a deeper reason why Anglo-American philosophers often find Derrida so off-putting.   His work purports to undermine what he takes to be the very foundation  of everything that we do.   I’m talk here about the so-called logocentrism that Derrida perceives to be at the heart of Western Philosophy and his claim to have moved us decisively beyond it.  Since analytic philosophy claims to be the continuation of the western philosophical tradition,  it carries on the tradition of logocentrism.   To speak a little bit of Derrida-ese,  it might be said that like the logocentrics of old we anal-retentive, logo-phallo-centric philosophers privilege logos – that is,  meaning,  reason, spirit  -- and we take speech to be prior, in the order of signification, to writing.    And by privileging speech over writing, we privilege presence over absence.   We hanker after transcendental signifieds  --  signifieds that transcend all signifiers, meanings that transcends all signs.  Now I’m not sure what all that means, but it sure sounds bad.   And Derrida shows us how to get beyond all that.  That is, how to get beyond an oppressive metaphysics of presence, that excludes, marginalizes and fails to acknowledge that which is absent, that which is different and other.   Think, for example, of all the voices that were historically absent from the Western philosophical canon.  The voices of women,  blacks, gays, the poor, and on and on.   Through the canon’s privileging of presence, it fails to acknowledge what is not there, what is absent.

It sort of astounds me, though, that through the seemingly apolitical and morally innocent act of taking the spoken word to be somehow prior to the written word, we do all that nasty stuff.   I know, I know.  There’s a long story about how that works.  But thanks to Derrida there’s supposedly a way out of the mess that traditional western philosophy has gotten us into.   We execute a sort of reversal.  We privilege texts, that is, writing, over speech.  The benefit of that move is that  unlike speech  the text is constituted as much by what it excludes as by what it includes, by absence as much as presence.   Studying texts, even the texts of the canon with its oppressive metaphysics of presence,  allows us to recognize and acknowledge what is absent. 

 The way we  get at absence via the text is by deconstructing the text.  Now that doesn’t mean tearing it down and ripping it apart, sort of like tearing down a building -- at least not exactly.  Rather,   to deconstruct a text is to expose the inevitable and ineliminable contradictions and oppositions upon which it is founded, which it disguises and refuses to acknowledge,  to expose it as devoid of fixed and determinate meaning, as irreducibly complex, unstable, and, even, impossible.

That’s a mouthful. And I know I'm not up to making complete sense of it on my own.  And I doubt John is either.  We are definitely going to need some help with this one.   Luckily for us, help is on the way in the form of Joshua Kates, author of Fielding Derrida:  Philosophy, Literary Criticism. History, and the Work of Deconstruction. 

 
 

 

Comments (14)


Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, January 13, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

That Derrida, at least on some points, can achieve

That Derrida, at least on some points, can achieve writings which show him to be one who Labors, and Labors in the intellectual manner - showing the bare Language relations to the intellect which are indicators of his Frenchness and as a French Laborer... Derrida accomplishes a fundamental relation of writing to the intellect, and in what way the World is thought about.

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Guest

Friday, January 14, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I have not read Derrida. After reading your post,

I have not read Derrida. After reading your post, I am not certain that I should try to do so because I am more interested in construction than in deconstruction. I tried to read Kant and could not get it. After attempting to read Habermas, I was told he was an obfuscationist. I wondered what obfuscation had to do with philosophy, inasmuch as philosophy (I thought) was supposed to be about clarity---or, at a minimum, a search for truth(s). I don't know much about philosophers who are viewed as frauds and charlatans. Was/is Habermas classified among that group? Again, I do not know.
I may yet delve into Derrida, but there are so many others who are not frauds or charlatans. Their ideas and works seem more worthwhile. And I have much less time than I had forty years ago.
Finally, I find it ironic that philosophers, large and small, find ways to diminish each other's ideas and life works. But, after all, it is a competitive world and those engaged in the arts, letters and sciences are no less competitive than anyone else. Dogs eat dogs. Cats are undoubtedly the better for that.

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Guest

Saturday, January 15, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

It seems that much of Derrida's later theses depen

It seems that much of Derrida's later theses depend on Kristeva's intuitions of intertextuality as "borrowed" from Bahktin -- that no text exists in isolation from another. However, this also forms the krux of Derrida's disagreements with Searle as included (somewhat) in Limited, Inc. Derrida (as I read him) assumes that the metaphysics of language determine the metaphysics of space-time, whereas Searle (as I understand him) sees the metaphysics of language as determined by the metaphysics of space-time within biological/neurological constraints. What consequences might follow for something like biological naturalism (or "realism" in any of its flavors) if thinkers adopt such a paradigm of intertextuality? And why do we grant practitioners or scholars in the arts free-reign with such non-falsifiable claims, when we stipulate much more stringent guidelines for the "hard sciences"?

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Guest

Saturday, January 15, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Can I at least see one simple axample of a deconst

Can I at least see one simple axample of a deconstructed text?
I found your guest to be sincere and a good sport, but I never heard him actually deconstruct even one sentence. John Perry asked him to deconstruct the first sentence of Lincoln's 'Gettysberg Address', but he ducked it. The name 'deconstruction' itself implies there is a procedure for doing it, like an algorithm, or at least a method. So could one of you (or your guest) show me the (written) deconstruction of this (hopefully) simple example?:
"The ball is blue"
But I have my suspicions that it is impossible to actually deconstruct anything in the way that Derrida seems to be talking about. It seems like ultimately any process of deconstruction would either be circular or endlessly recursive. It almost seems like he envisions a 'holographic' explanation of language in which even the simplest statement carries within it all of the unprovable assumptions of the entire language and the culture within which it originated.
Anyway, so that's my 'Deconstruction Challenge' to Ken and John: Please deconstruct 'The ball is blue' and post the deconstruction.
ps - Can a computer do deconstruction?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 15, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

ok, screw it. I withdraw my challenge. I just

ok, screw it. I withdraw my challenge.
I just read the wikipedia entry on deconstruction (that's about as far as I'm willing to take it), and it assures me that deconstruction is 'not a method', 'not analysis', etc.
So it's pretty useless as far as I am concerned. I am interested in philosophy as a method and set of tools for understanding oneself and the world we live in - like critical thinking and the scientific method.
I do find that it is useful and essential to identify the assumptions, biases, etc. being made in any 'text' - as best as one. Particularly in America, where obliviousness, ignorance, and disingenuousness seem to have been elevated to pre-eminent virtues, but beyond that obvious point, I cannot see how Derrida's deconstruction 'event' can lead to anything but hopeless stagnation.
But someone please correct me...

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Guest

Sunday, January 16, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

THE BALL IS BLUE First, give equal significance

THE BALL IS BLUE
First, give equal significance in the process to each word.
?The? : Specifying, objectifying, inclusion (and the resulting exclusion of the ?non-the?). Think about the ways different cultures and individuals, at different times and places, use criteria for specifying, objectifying and inclusion. What methods could we use to produce understanding of how these criteria came about, and how actually impossible it is to make any real conclusions about this; but it is the process of speculating about such things that bring about an understanding of the real nature of ?the.?
?Ball? : What does the word mean? What is a ball? There are so many kinds of balls, so culturally and socially subjective. Imagine yourself trying to describe what is generic about ?ball,? in a language you don?t know, to a native speaker of that language (X). Think about looking those words up in an English/ X Language dictionary. This translation process is akin to the processing by the brain of the word ?ball.?
?Is? : Existence, truth, equivalence: Are there any more compelling philosophical issues than these? Think how culturally and socially rooted these are. All you have to do is remember Bill Clinton?s response to some inquiry about his sex life, when he answered, ?That all depends on what your definition of ?is? is.?
?Blue? : The impact of what is either (and we don?t know which) waves or particles on the retina produce a simultaneous realization in the brain that the waves or particles are impacting the same way as some memory of previous impacts. Think about the process of learning about this similarity, and then think about the range of waves or particles that will produce the ?blue? response, and where the lines between green and indigo, of blue need to be drawn, or are drawn by our brains. What cultural and historical and social forces impact on the drawing of these lines? And how does this get into our brains? Think about this: since seeing is only a mechanical process prior to involving the brain, ?blue? can be said not to really exist at all outside of one?s own consciousness: in reality, ?everything? is dark, though solid. Things are either still, or moving around and bumping off of other things, but nothing is inherently visible, or existing AS a visual thing.
As was pointed out in the show, deconstruction has two elements: 1. taking language apart in this way, and 2. when it is all stripped down, how would we build a new essential language which communicates to twenty-first century people. In the show, Ken criticized deconstruction as resulting in philosophically bad answers; Joshua defended deconstruction as asking good philosophical questions. In this way, the argument was not properly joined. Philosophy seldom concerns itself with answers (except when philosophers courageously draw lines in response to the question ?But where do you draw the line?), but relishes all methodologies of questioning. Deconstruction is just one more methodology whose process is fertile ground for exploring. It recognizes that we will NEVER achieve 2. (above), because it is impossible to reach, but the process of 1. with the object of 2., and just THINKING about and pondering the process is so much fun, and such good exercise ? doing it is ?doing philosophy? at its best.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 16, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Mr. Savinar is always thoughtful, never disappoint

Mr. Savinar is always thoughtful, never disappointing, and provides some pretty enlightening commentary. Ideal traits for an afficionado of philosophy---no so bad for philosophers, come to think of it.
Note to Heisenberg: I think the word is OBSCURANTIST, although I do not know where it came from. No matter. I have no time to try to decipher Habermas either.

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Guest

Monday, January 17, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Looking for truth? "The ball is blue" deconstruct

Looking for truth?
"The ball is blue" deconstructed:
"is"
=

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Guest

Saturday, January 29, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Please show me precisely where Derrida claims to h

Please show me precisely where Derrida claims to have 'permanently' moved the conversation beyond the central problem of logos? Because I'm pretty sure he never claims anything of the kind.... in fact, he states quite clearly that we are always imbricated in logos, in language and its strictures, and he himself says he is always delimited by the word. Please give an exact source so I can read this for myself. Thanks.

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Guest

Monday, February 7, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

A philosopher matter, when the various branches of

A philosopher matter, when the various branches of art, especially music, are being influenced by their ideas.

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Guest

Tuesday, February 15, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

"We execute a sort of reversal. We privilege text

"We execute a sort of reversal. We privilege texts, that is, writing, over speech. The benefit of that move is that unlike speech the text is constituted as much by what it excludes as by what it includes, by absence as much as presence."
This kind of reading of Derrida is ASTOUNDINGLY simplistic and truly inexcusable from professional philosophers such as yourselves. This reading, unfortunately, seems to be the dominant one among literature circles. If Derrida's work simply promoted a privileging of writing over speech, he would be a charlatan and a hack.
The part of Derrida's project being misread here is much more nuanced: the very condition of the possibility of inquiring after anything (being, for example) is simultaneously the condition of IMpossibility of ever answering that question at all (this, of course, shows the overwhelming influence of Heidegger in Derrida's thought). The point is not to undo "logocentrism" by doing the opposite--we should do away with the opposition as such.
I don't fully agree with Derrida, but his project and oeuvre are perhaps the most misunderstood in the 20th century (To be clear, I recognize the irony of even using the phrase "misunderstood" with regard to Derrida). For a credible account of Derrida's thought see Zizek's _For They Know Not What They Do_ or Rodolphe Gasche's _The Tain of the Mirror_
Finally, if adequate explanations of "deconstruction" seem absent from Derrida's work, it is because it was not central to his philosophy. Derrida himself expressed wonderment at how it came to be synonymous with his name. But, if you must have it, his best definition is: "Deconstruction, if such a thing exists, is the experience of the impossible" (I believe that's from _Deconstruction in a Nutshell_, which is an extended interview Derrida)

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 17, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I admit that it takes a lot of work to read Derrid

I admit that it takes a lot of work to read Derrida. It probably takes a lot of work to defend Derrida "against" self-proclaimed Anglo-American philosophers (although - aren't we moving past this divide, YET??). So I won't try to defend Derrida in such a short space.
I would like to say that the tone of the introduction to this podcast was incredibly off-putting. IF there is supposed to be an attempt here at doing justice to every question, foreign or familiar, "Continental" or "Analytic", then it is not enough to say, "I know, I know. There?s a long story about how [Derrida's theory] works," in one of the most pejorative and dismissive tones of voice I've heard on the radio in a while (and that's saying a lot, given the current state of the union...).
I'd like to ask, please, for a great deal more neutrality - or journalistic integrity. Especially since there are non-philosophers out there listening, who might enjoy access to new ideas. Even ideas that you don't, personally, find compelling.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 19, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

GO, KELLY, GO Methodology is everything. Here is

GO, KELLY, GO
Methodology is everything. Here is Derrida, strange sounding and difficult, but hinting at much. Philosophers should give such thinkers much consideration and leeway, because, even if they are at the very worst,"wrong," just the act of studying them and their positions will broaden our thinking, and improve our critical abilities. I follow a methodology I call "B12K1." Put yourself in the mind of the subject under study, try to understand, not by historical study, but by committing to the position, see where it leads, see how it feels: "Be One to Know One." Be a Muslim, or a Deconstructionist, or a Poet, or a Philosopher, to know how it feels. Start there.
That was the purpose of my little work on "The Ball is Blue," to illustrate the advantages of "trying" over "rejecting."

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Guest

Thursday, August 2, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Please, if you are going to

Please, if you are going to write about Derrida, read him, please, and try to read him with the rigour, respect (for tradition/context/language etc) and love that he has shown to the texts he has read and written.
Your introduction, as Ben Brewer noted, really does represent a philosophically naive reading of Derrida, that historically became 'accepted' because so called 'analytic' philosophers dismissed his work as being worthless (dismissed from a position of ignorance- not questioning thier own presuppositions and behaving much like those who gave Socrates Hemlock, certainly not behaving philosophically).
Your 'reading' of Derrida is straight out of Norris' first book or similar. If literary 'proffesors' fundamentally misread Derrida's work who is to blame, the lit proffesors or their coleagues in the the philosophy dept whos job it is, amongst other things, to clarify the sentences of science (and thus the social sciences).
"To speak a little bit of Derrida-ese, it might be said that like the logocentrics of old we anal-retentive, logo-phallo-centric philosophers privilege logos ? that is, meaning, reason, spirit -- and we take speech to be prior, in the order of signification, to writing. And by privileging speech over writing, we privilege presence over absence."
And in as much as Derrida, in Of Grammatology, seems to be 'priviliging' writing over speach he is doing the same, (which he narrowly avoids by evoking differance which is to be understood as a concept without an extension, an unsaturated concept which represnts a relationship of force, an infrastructural logic) thus he is demonstrating how the binary opposition speach/writing functions within his text, which is both a reading and a writing, and how binary oppostions function in texts generally. He does not want to critice you for taking speach as prior, he wants you to consider what in speach is 'like text', the mark etc, he is evoking contexts etc, and a world/field of refferents, hence quasi-transcendental.
Also he is not difficult, I am a 'layman' and he is perhaps harder than Ryle, perhaps easier than Wittgenstein. But more than anything he is utterly transparant, because rather than write ABOUT for instance the production of a concept he produces a concept.
Here is a clue. Much of his work is demonstrative and performative, in Of Grammatology for instance he is concerned to show his own metaphysics at work in his own text (in a sense your reading has stopped just short of understanding). You might say he leaves 'everyting as it is'.
"That is, how to get beyond an oppressive metaphysics of presence, that excludes, marginalizes and fails to acknowledge that which is absent, that which is different and other. Think, for example, of all the voices that were historically absent from the Western philosophical canon. The voices of women, blacks, gays, the poor, and on and on. Through the canon?s privileging of presence, it fails to acknowledge what is not there, what is absent."
Just read Limited Inc, and the essay 'the ends of man'.
Thank you.

 

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