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Jewish World Review
Oct. 18, 2004
/ 3 Mar-Cheshvan 5765
Jacques Derrida is dead maybe
Deconstruction and the death of common sense
The protagonist of Friedrich Nietzsche's seminal work "Thus Spake Zarathustra" declares, "G-d is dead." But it was G-d, or at least nature, that had the final say in the matter.
A clever epigram puts the issue in stark relief.
Nietzsche: "G-d is dead."
G-d: "Nietzsche is dead."
Nietzsche predicted that the decline in traditional beliefs, such as the belief in G-d, would undermine the cultural foundations of morality and set mankind on an inevitable journey toward relativism and nihilism.
After Nietzsche's death, one of the great captains of that journey was Jacques Derrida, an Algerian-born French philosopher whose signal contribution to the relativistic effort was deconstruction, the theory that no ultimate truth or meaning can be found in a text or work of art.
Jacques Derrida is dead. Maybe.
The object here is not to make light of Derrida's death from a painful disease. Rather, it is to demonstrate how such transcendent events can be rendered meaningless by his own theory.
News reports suggest that Derrida succumbed to cancer this month in Paris. Yet those reports may have multiple meanings. Our traditional way of understanding an obituary may be based on false assumptions. The fact that reporters have declared Derrida to be dead may not mean that Derrida is, in fact, dead.
All this may sound like a nonsensical game of semantics to the average person. Which only demonstrates that the average person has more common sense than the great minds of academia seized by the whimsical notion that, for instance, when Thomas Jefferson wrote, "all men are created equal," he quite probably meant precisely the opposite.
Deconstruction has led to some fanciful efforts, stripping meaning from the likes of Plato and Shakespeare and adding it to indolent streams of free verse consciousness.
The prospect that one's own words could be meaningless was of particular interest to Paul de Man, a Yale University professor who was deconstruction's most ardent advocate in the United States. In 1987, four years after de Man's death, the rediscovery of pro-Nazi, pro-collaborationist and anti-Semitic articles de Man had written as a young man in Nazi-occupied Belgium created a deconstructive scandal.
That's the attraction, and the artifice, of deconstruction. On the one hand, it turns literature and literary criticism into an intellectual free-for-all where any notion, no matter how outlandish, has merit. In fact, the more outlandish, and the more peppered with sexual references and progressive political causes, the better.
On the other hand, it means as Derrida demonstrated in his defense of de Man that what you write or say ultimately has no meaning.
In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal set out to demonstrate the intellectual vacuousness of deconstruction by submitting an article intentionally devoid of any meaning to the journal Social Text. In writing "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," he sought to test whether a serious academic journal would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."
Sokal's opus sparkled with deconstructive-sounding gems: "These criteria, admirable as they are, are insufficient for a liberatory postmodern science: they liberate human beings from the tyranny of 'absolute truth' and 'objective reality,' but not necessarily from the tyranny of other human beings."
The editors of Social Text couldn't help themselves. "Transgressing the Boundaries" went to print in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue. Course descriptions in the humanities, literature and sociology to say nothing of gender and race studies at almost any university reveal the extent to which such deconstructive language is ascendant in academia.
Few intellectual movements have done more to unhinge words from meaning, ideas from philosophical foundations and art from artistry than Derrida's ghastly creation. In 1992, Cambridge University proposed giving Derrida an honorary degree. Twenty professors of philosophy objected that "semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not, we submit, sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university." In a vote of the full faculty, Derrida's supporters prevailed, 336-204.
Even Sigmund Freud, another contributor to the relativistic cause, is attributed with saying, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
Jacques Derrida is dead. Deconstruction, however, lives on, carrying forward the insidious tendency toward relativism and nihilism that Nietzsche presaged more than a century ago.
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JWR contributor Jonathan Gurwitz, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, is a co-founder and twice served as Director General of the Future Leaders of
the Alliance program at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. In 1986 he
was placed on the Foreign Service Register of the U.S. State Department. Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Jonathan Gurwitz