09 September 2005


Having studied (The Militant Pacifist is a wannabe intellectual who does not claim "scholarly" status - though he can and does read) Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Spivak, Barthes, Camus, Heidegger, Sartre, and other post-modern (or forerunners to post-modern thinking), I have been impressed with Spivak's idea that the success of deconstruction in the late 20th century is not the complete decentering of western philosophy but, rather, the “radical acceptance of vulnerability.” Friends - whether you realize it or not - we are vulnerable. We are very, very vulnerable.

To Jacques Derrida, the success of deconstruction must mean the death of dogmatism (unfounded positiveness in matters of opinion; arrogant assertion of opinions as truth). In his essay “Différance,” Derrida uses the one-word pun (the made up word “différance”) as an imaginative literary device (neither a word nor a concept) to demonstrate that when one accepts the play of language within a system of differences (structuralism), concrete meaning is deferred.

Visualizing the word différance invokes the verbs “differ” (not the same), and “defer” (to put off). This is precisely what Derrida intends as he playfully notes “in the delineation of différance everything is strategic and adventurous.” Though verbal meaning is constructed within a system of differences, ultimate (transcendent, absolute, final) meaning is deferred.

The desert oasis (mirage) which vanishes just as it appears within reach seems an appropriate metaphor. Derrida appreciates the history of Western philosophy as a quest for meaning – for ultimate meaning (for the transcendent signified). Like an evaporating oasis, just as one seems to grasp the transcendent signified, one realizes that the signified is also a sign – referring elsewhere – and deferring the sought “final” meaning. Chasing the sign to the next signified yields the same (only a “trace”) – until one becomes bored and suspects an infinite regression. With différance, Derrida shows that such is the nature of our language.

Différance at once reveals the tenuousness of the Saussurean dissociation of speech and language, and the traditional position of the archi-. The stakes are monumental metaphysical presuppositions – presuppositions of the subject’s centrality, presence and consciousness. As Derrida decenters the subject, the subject (archi-) scrabbles, grasps and claws to maintain a position of unassailability. But dogmatism is slain – the dragon of unassailability when struck by Derrida’s sword of différance has been fragmented into a million more dragons – each dead fragment asserting its own “true” dragon-hood.

Does Derrida slay the dragon of dogmatism merely to reign in its stead? Will this sword, différance, now be elevated? Absolutely not! “Différance is not…a present being, however excellent, unique, principal, or transcendent. It governs nothing, reigns over nothing, and nowhere exercises any authority. It is not announced by any capital letter. Not only is there no kingdom of différance, but différance instigates the subversion of every kingdom.” Like the proverbial tail-eating dragon - deconstruction seems to consume itself.

The deconstructive principal of différance has myriad effects and implications. In “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” Derrida turns his de(con)structive attention to the metaphysical presuppositions of the text of Western philosophy.

Underneath, behind and interwoven throughout the text(s) of Western philosophy and their metanarratives, Derrida sees the metaphysics of presence – and not only presence generally – but a certain presence. He defines “metaphysics” as “the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason.” This centered subject, the white man, has created an entire mythology (a history) in an attempt to forever cement his place within it. This masterpiece of mythology has been written in invisible ink. The palimpsest is of such quality that the reader is typically unaware of the ideological inscriptions contained within it.

The reader cannot see the inscriptions, only “that the hero of this scenario, of this narrative, has been in fact Western man.” (White man?) To object to the narrative is insanity – for it is to object to “Reason.” Derrida plays off of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote “What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymics, anthropomorphisms…”

To Derrida and deconstruction, the Western metanarratives must be seen as dogmatic political devices. If the metanarratives of Western philosophy are mere political devices, then how is one to decipher the philosophic text - or the "text of life" (e.g., Hurricane Katrina)?

In "White Mythology" Derrida notes that such a question has never been systematically answered and proposes that “…instead of venturing into the prologomena to some future metaphorics, let us rather attempt to recognize in principle the condition for the impossibility of such a project.” He then attempts a brief classification of philosophical metaphors for the purpose of revealing how unstable such a classification will be. The metaphors themselves must function within a system of differences and are dependent upon a centered subject (the philosopher) for their meanings and would necessarily “presuppose the solution of important problems, and primarily of problems which constitute the entirety of philosophy in its history.”

The resulting metaphors would be products of their system and products of philosophical presuppositions - potentially useful literary devices, but no more than a trace of that which they dogmatically propose to portray.

The post-Derridean reader’s (that's me) awareness of the slipperiness of language forever changes the comfort level with which s/he can approach a text (or an event - e.g., Hurricane Katrina). When the words (or events) in view are the important idioms of philosophical or political texts, such awareness is critical. Intellectual validity requires the softening of one’s own intransigence and awareness that dogmatic texts (and current events) must be approached with an appreciation of their acute vulnerability to deconstruction.

Job's (the biblical character) friends had it all figured out. They knew what a hypocrite they were dealing with. Obviously hidden sin was the cause of Job's calamity. But they had it almost all wrong. One thing they did understand was that God had sent the Sabeans, and the fire, and the Chaldeans, and the wind.

Can a Christian understand the meaning behind the events that God brings to pass? Maybe - sometimes!

Can a Christian benefit from an appreciation of Derrida's deconstructive apparatus? Yes! Yes! Double Yes! S/he must realize an utter dependence upon divine revelation as the basis of truth - and - the basis for textual interpretation (including life events as "texts").

Such an appreciation will humble the Christian (Christians are supposed to be humble) before a mighty God - and before His mighty Word.

So what is the meaning of Katrina? Dear reader, I hope that you will not speak too quickly!

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