Friday, April 08, 2005

Common Sense Nonsense, Part 2

One of the more disturbing elements of the media-government partnership discussed in Part 1 is that media commentators and/or political pundits are working together to attack intellectuals.

What's most objectionable is that the attacks are made as these zero-sum arguments that champion the attacking speaker rather than the ideas/position. Many of these attacks seem based on nothing more than 1) a dislike of the intellectual posture/image and, more fundamentally, 2) an unwillingness to acknowledge ideas that cannot easily be translated into sound bites, buzz words or catch phrases.

As a case in point, read below how Jonathan Gurwitz just gets Derrida and so-called “Deconstruction” wrong:

Jacques Derrida is dead — maybe
By Jonathan Gurwitz
‘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.
Make no mistake, Gurwitz has a political agenda, and his commentary springs from it. You'll recognize the agenda, it's couched as quasi-moral indignation.

Now, I am no expert in post-structuralism or in Derrida, but I have read enough Derrida to believe strongly that so-called “Deconstruction" is certainly not “the theory that no ultimate truth or meaning can be found in a text or work of art.” This is a conclusion that many try to support using so-called “Deconstruction,” but Derrida's theories really do not lead to such a conclusion, especially as it is formulated by Gurwitz.

Derrida’s theories, as I remember, assert that a text allows many meanings, sometimes conflicting meanings, to be generated. But a text is also self-enclosed. For example, a novel contains the characters “Ronald Reagan” and “Bill Clinton.” The Derridean point is that there is no necessary tie to the real 40th and 42nd U.S. presidents. In other words, the novel's Reagan and Clinton are not the real Reagan and Clinton; what's more, the novel's "Reagan" and "Clinton" do not necessarily refer to the real Reagan and Clinton. The novel's characters are not obligated to be anything like what we may call their "real-world counterparts."

A text allows one great liberty in constructing the identity tied to a name. In the novel, there’s a lot I can do with the identities of “Ronald Reagan” and “Bill Clinton”: manipulate, re-create, re-invent, distort, and so on. Gurwitz' twisting of so-called "Deconstruction" is precisely the kind of textual appropriation that Derrida theorized. But Derrida's ideas go further in suggesting that from the standpoint of my novel’s world, there are no real “Ronald Reagan” and “Bill Clinton” in another world outside. The world of the text is the world, and there is no outside-text. Gurwitz' "Deconstruction" is, within the confines of his article, so-called "Deconstruction." The use of the name is self-serving, ideological and masturbatory.

Gurwitz, I suppose, believes that we find ultimate truths and meanings in works of literature and art. At least, the Gurwitz that emerges in his article seems to have these beliefs. Personally, I think it would be more than great if we could read a book, or view a painting, or inspect a sculpture, and determine from that a final, unchanging truth or meaning that was the same for everyone in every time. But I also think that whenever we look closely at what someone calls an ultimate truth, we invariably find that this truth is a constructed thing – a manipulation, re-creation, re-invention, distortion, of something else. In other words, the ultimate truth may just be that the truth is a fiction borne of another fiction, a manufactured product of an inherited product (that was itself manufactured).

So-called “Deconstruction” did not “unhinge words from meaning.” The nature of language is to hinge words to meaning. It’s why languages are organic. So-called “Deconstruction” is not “the death of common sense.” Indeed, a little understanding of so-called “Deconstruction” helps one to see the manipulation in hinging Hannity to a U.S. flag backdrop and in hinging the secular humanist to a background of the scholar’s bookshelf. We can see the media-driven fabrication of identities, and we can see how the actual topics/issues being discussed are made to be irrelevant next to the conflict-mongering. We are being incited to pick sides, to argue only ad hominem, and to refrain from ever considering the substance of issues. There’s the death of common sense.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.