Jacques Derrida (1930—2004)
Aleppo, 13 October 2004
"Je suis en guerre contre moi-même" (Derrida)
If we were to define something as indefinable as “deconstructionism,” it would have to be something like this: each text assumes a “coherence”—the cement that brings it together into a cohesive whole—which is taken-for-granted, and which needs to be questioned, or deconstructed. The assumption towards coherence does not have to be “in” the text itself, or come from the “author”—actually, such assertions are meaningless for a pure deconstructionist—but is generally constructed by the “reader.” In other words, the assumption towards coherence is projected by a reader who is anxious to find the meaning of a text. The reader therefore comes to a text with his/her own projections and fore-meanings, assuming a degree of cohesiveness that needs to be “found” through a dedicated hermeneutical understanding. Faced with such a task, the reader might question his/her competence towards an hermeneutical historical understanding of a text, and might judge himself/herself incompetent towards such a laborious task. That’s why various civilizations have historically delegated the function of interpreting texts—and primarily religious texts—to sacerdotal classes: the Church in Christianity, the ulama in Islam, or to a well trained bureaucracy that would master the key Confucian texts. Thus, even in our secular and modern world, where belief in positivist sciences and technologies is the key to knowledge and mundane success, the aura of genuine—that is, correct—interpretation is left to the happy few who can master the elaborate process of hermeneutics. We tend to believe in historical hermeneutics, namely that the text needs to be contextualized relative to its period, on the one, and that the practice of interpretation would vary from one period to another, and from one society to another, for the same text, on the other.
The Enlightenment (Aufklärung), with its sole focus on reason, and the faculty of judgment that each individual is endowed with, thought that it would rid us of all prejudices. Ever since hermeneutics was confronted with the task of interpreting religious texts—the quintessential task of all hermeneutics—it took for granted the sacredness of such texts, their elaborate metaphorical meanings, multi-layers, different “voices” and points and views (for instance, variations among the four gospels, each one reflecting on its own—différance!—a world-view of the message of Jesus). The Enlightenment thus provided us with that awkward “modern” feeling that, as independent and free individuals endowed with the faculties of reasoning and judgment, texts—all texts, even religious texts—are “accessible” to us. In other words, texts are meant to be read—and interiorized—individually, from person to person, from author to reader, and among independent readers. There is no supreme judge in the process, no one that is supposed to impose anything arbitrarily upon us from above. Hans-Georg Gadamer (d. 2001) beautifully summarized the ethos of the Enlightenment as follows: “Have the courage to make use of your own understanding.” The motto of the Enlightenment is therefore one of understanding a text rationally and without prejudice. Rationality presupposes “the progressive retreat of magic in the world.” Left without magic and having denied the traditional authority to any sacerdotal class, the modern world has left its text at the mercy of competing readers: let us see if you can understand Plato and Heidegger on your own! But as Gadamer has pointed out, the main prejudice of the Enlightenment is that it thinks of itself as moving in a world without prejudices: “the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies tradition its power.” In other words, as it is impossible to “read what is there,” a radicalization of the Kantian message of the Enlightenment implies a reading of texts while “being aware”—deconstructing, in Derrida’s language—of the modus operandi of the historical authority that brought it into existence, and which is embedded in the meaning of a text. Ideally then, the work of deconstructionism is one that would enable us to detect that “authority” and “overhastiness” in reading texts. With the ever increasing bureaucracy of academics who claim to be endowed with such an authority, the modern reader is at the mercy of new secular sacerdotal class of interpreters, which in the final analysis contributes more in freezing our thoughts rather than liberating them. Hannah Arendt expressed that “freezing of language” as follows:
It is in [the nature of thought] to undo, unfreeze as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought—words (concepts, sentences, definitions, doctrines), whose “weakness” and inflexibility Plato denounces so splendidly. . . . The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics.
In sum, deconstructionism falls into a long tradition of the Enlightenment of reading texts, and into a radicalizing of the experience of the Enlightenment in the search for prejudices and authorities. Considering that “fore-conception of completeness” (Gadamer), Derrida would look for margins: all kinds of statements that would not fall within the “complete whole,” which readers have to assume beforehand for the text to be intelligible. Reading through those marges de la philosophie, Derrida gave an impressive opus—as much as 80 books, according to many of the Internet obituaries. Once freed from the constraints of the “complete whole,” and enjoying his task as a Socratic mid-wife, the philosopher can now freely re-discover all texts with a fresh start—without prejudices. And as if to highlight that “lack of prejudice,” a Derridean text would typically avoid offering its reader a center-point from which it would be easily trapped.
Derrida seems to have taken Heidegger’s idiom, that “language is the house of Being,” so much for granted to the point that the flux of statements, their grammar and style, or to use a cinematic metaphor, their montage, and the process of cut and paste (Derrida was fascinated by computers, which he thought rendered traditional typing and handwriting obsolete), become more crucial than the logic of ideas, or the Foucauldian rarity of statements for that matter. Derrida thus transformed philosophy into a stylistic expression, bringing it much closer to literature at large than it used to be. That’s probably why his world fame was less an outcome of his popularity in France, but rather from the departments of literary criticism and cultural studies in the United States. But that’s not necessarily a good sign, considering how little of the literary criticism of the 1960s and 1970s and later has survived to the present. I myself much prefer Barthes’ short and incisive essays on the “logic and construction of texts,” which assumed a great deal of linguistic knowledge, over the tons of literary verbiage that flooded U.S. academic circles. Certainly “reality” cannot be locked into texts—and what is “left out” from a text is definitely what matters most. To perversely paraphrase a famous Derridian idiom, tout est hors-texte.
copyright © 2004 zouhair ghazzal