[Paleopsych] WSJ: (Derrida) Roger Kimball: The Meaninglessness of Meaning
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Tue Oct 19 17:08:08 UTC 2004
Roger Kimball: The Meaninglessness of Meaning
October 12, 2004
Jacques Derrida is dead, but his baneful ideas live on.
BY ROGER KIMBALL
It's not every French intellectual whose death is commemorated by an
announcement from the office of Jacques Chirac, the French president.
But Jacques Derrida, who died Friday at age 74, was not just any
French intellectual. His work, as Mr. Chirac's office noted, was
"read, discussed, and taught around the world."
Whether Mr. Derrida was also "one of the major figures in the
intellectual life of our time," as Mr. Chirac's office asserted, is a
point that has been fiercely contested ever since Mr. Derrida burst
onto the intellectual scene in the mid-1960s.
Mr. Derrida (the name is pronounced deh-ree-DAH) was without doubt one
of the most famous intellectuals of the past 40 years. His celebrity
rivaled that of Jean-Paul Sartre. As the founder, honorary CEO and
chief publicist for an abstruse philosophical doctrine he called
"deconstruction," Mr. Derrida was celebrated and vilified in about
equal measure. Academics on the lookout for a trendy intellectual and
moral high-explosive tended to love Mr. Derrida. The rest of us
felt . . . otherwise.
What is deconstruction? Mr. Derrida would never say. It was a question
certain to spark his contempt and ire. He denied that deconstruction
could be meaningfully defined. I think he was right about that, though
not necessarily for the reasons he believed.
But even if deconstruction cannot be defined, it can be described. For
one thing, deconstruction comes with a lifetime guarantee to render
discussion of any subject completely unintelligible. It does this by
linguistic subterfuge. One of the central slogans of deconstruction is
il n'y a pas de hors-texte, i.e., "there is nothing outside the text."
(It sounds better in French.) In other words, deconstruction is an
updated version of nominalism, the view that the meanings of words are
completely arbitrary and that, at bottom, reality is unknowable.
Of course, if you put it as baldly as that, people will just laugh and
ignore you. But if you dress up the idea in a forbidding vocabulary,
full of neologisms and recondite references to philosophy, then you
may have a prescription for academic stardom.
Stock in deconstruction has sagged a bit in recent years. There are
basically two reasons for this. The first has to do with the late Paul
de Man, the Belgian-born Yale professor of comparative literature. In
addition to being one of the most prominent practitioners of
deconstruction, Mr. de Man--as was revealed in the late 1980s--was an
enthusiastic contributor to Nazi newspapers during World War II.
[101304derrida.jpg] That discovery, and above all the flood of
obscurantist mendacity disgorged by the deconstructionist
brotherhood--not least by Mr. Derrida, who was himself Jewish--to
exonerate Mr. de Man, cast a permanent shadow over deconstruction's
status as a supposed instrument of intellectual liberation.
The second reason that deconstruction has lost some sheen is simply
that, like any academic fashion, deconstruction's methods and
vocabulary, once so novel and forbidding, have gradually become part
of the common coin of academic discourse, and thus less trendy.
It is important to recognize, however, that this very process of
assimilation has assured the continuing influence of deconstruction.
Once at home mostly in philosophy and literature departments, the
nihilistic tenets of deconstruction have cropped up further and
further afield: in departments of history, sociology, political
science and architecture; in law schools and--God help us--business
Deconstructive themes and presuppositions have increasingly become
part of the general intellectual atmosphere: absorbed to such an
extent that they float almost unnoticed, part of the ambient spiritual
pollution of our time. Who can forget the politician who, accused of
wrongdoing, said in his defense that "it all depends on what the
meaning of the word 'is' is"?
Although the language of deconstruction is forbidding, the appeal of
the doctrine is not hard to understand. It is the appeal of all
Because deconstruction operates by subversion, its evasions are at the
same time an attack: an attack on the cogency of language and the
moral and intellectual claims that language has codified in tradition.
The subversive element inherent in the deconstructive enterprise is
another reason that it has exercised such a mesmerizing spell on
Deconstruction promises its adherents not only an emancipation from
the responsibilities of truth but also the prospect of engaging in a
species of radical activism. A blow against the legitimacy of language
is at the same time a blow against the legitimacy of the tradition in
which language lives and has meaning. By undercutting the idea of
truth, the decontructionist also undercuts the idea of value,
including established social, moral, and political values.
There is a lot to be said for the old adage de mortuis nil nisi bonum.
Jacques Derrida is dead. Let us not speak ill of him. But his ideas
are still very much alive. They deserve unstinting criticism from
anyone who cares about the moral fabric of intellectual life.
Mr. Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion, is author of "The
Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art"
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