[Paleopsych] WSJ: (Derrida) Roger Kimball: The Meaninglessness of Meaning

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Roger Kimball: The Meaninglessness of Meaning
October 12, 2004

    Jacques Derrida is dead, but his baneful ideas live on.

    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
    intellectual radicalism.

    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"
    (Encounter Books).

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