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October 17, 2004

More Derrida and Contingent Foundations

For some reason I keep thinking about Derrida, so . . . more links: Derrida online has collected links to obits and the Remembering Jacques Derrida page is like a who's who of rockstar academics. If you're still trying to get a grasp on why Derrida mattered, here's a highlight from a NY Times op-ed by Mark C. Taylor entitled What Derrida Really Meant, which tries to clarify what Derrida meant by “deconstruction”:
The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure - be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious - that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.
To those who think Derrida was just some nihilist/moral relativist:
This is an important criticism that requires a careful response. Like Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Mr. Derrida does argue that transparent truth and absolute values elude our grasp. This does not mean, however, that we must forsake the cognitive categories and moral principles without which we cannot live: equality and justice, generosity and friendship. Rather, it is necessary to recognize the unavoidable limitations and inherent contradictions in the ideas and norms that guide our actions, and do so in a way that keeps them open to constant questioning and continual revision. There can be no ethical action without critical reflection.
And one of the many reasons Derrida is so relevant today:
During the last decade of his life, Mr. Derrida became preoccupied with religion and it is in this area that his contribution might well be most significant for our time. He understood that religion is impossible without uncertainty. Whether conceived of as Yahweh, as the father of Jesus Christ, or as Allah, God can never be fully known or adequately represented by imperfect human beings. And yet, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped by people who claim to know, for certain, that God is on their side. Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger. As the process of globalization draws us ever closer in networks of communication and exchange, there is an understandable longing for simplicity, clarity and certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure, for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism - in this country and around the world. True believers of every stripe - Muslim, Jewish and Christian - cling to beliefs that, Mr. Derrida warns, threaten to tear apart our world. Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief - one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open.
Others have built upon Derrida's ideas in this area, including Judith Butler, who wrote a terrific argument in favor of “contingent foundations” in her contribution to Feminist Contentions. I tried to summarize that argument for a paper a couple of years ago as follows:
In arguing that all foundations are always-already contingent, Butler begins with a brief examination of the question, “What is postmodernism?” in order to discuss the value of the term to feminist social theory. That value, Butler eventually concludes, lies in the fact that “postmodernism”—or more precisely, poststructuralism—reveals the constructedness of all foundations, which are “the unquestioned and unquestionable within any theory” (39). One of the prime foundations of concern to Butler (and many feminists) is that of the “universal,” which, regardless of how it’s defined, always relies upon biased and ethnocentric assumptions. Perhaps because she was writing in the early 1990s, just after the inital Gulf War, Butler uses that conflict between the U.S. and Iraq to demonstrate the consequences of placing any premise beyond question by calling it “universal.” As Butler notes: “We have, I think, witnessed the conceptual and material violence of this practice in the United States’s war against Iraq, in which the Arab ‘other’ is understood to be radically ‘outside’ the universal structures of reason and democracy and, hence, calls to be brought forcibly within” (40). Following a lengthy (and frighteningly prescient, in our current context) dissection of the Gulf War, Butler turns to the category of gender as another example—like “democracy” and “reason”— of a category or presupposition that is constructed, and therefore neither universal nor unquestionable. Butler’s point is that “universals” simply do not exist; under no circumstances (in the real world) can there be premises or principles that are unquestioned or unquestionable. “This is not to say that there is no foundation,” Butler continues, “but rather that wherever there is one, there will also be a foundering, a contestation. That such foundations exist only to be put into question is, as it were, the permanent risk of the process of democratization” (51).
That really is an incredible essay (Butler's, not mine), both for the way it explains and justifies the idea of contingent foundations (antifoundational foundations, even!), and also for its description of the first Gulf War alone. I wonder what she's writing about this war.... When I left grad school, I was kicking around ways to sort of build a dissertation around this concept of contingent foundations coupled somehow with Frederic Jameson's idea of “cognitive mapping,” which I think I've mentioned before. (Somehow my site search function appears to be hosed; something I'll fix someday, really!) Contingent foundations could be cognitive maps in that we use those foundations to help us make sense of the world. I'm sure there's a good dissertation project in there somewhere, but it wont' be written by me. Still, the ideas fascinate me and Derrida helped bring them into being.... Note to Michelle Malkin, who was almost giddy that Derrida died: Among critical theorists there's no such thing as deconstructionism. There's just deconstruction. Full stop. An analyst or analysis can be deconstructionist, but the school of thought is called deconstruction—the “ism” is only used by those who don't understand deconstruction. On Derrida, see also: Some Simple Thoughts on Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and Using Deconstruction to Astonish Friends and Confound Enemies UPDATE 10-18-04: See also Why I won't be mourning for Derrida by Johann Hari. I haven't finished reading it, but the excerpt here suggests that it's an expression of the typical panic and jump to dystopian conclusions when anyone dares question Enlightenment teleology (which Derrida most certainly did). I don't think it's necessary to chuck the whole of Enlightenment thought into the dustbin of history, but we should recognize its flaws and omissions, as well. There's got to be a balance here somewhere... And none of this really has anything to do with what I should be thinking about and working on right now, so....

Posted October 17, 2004 05:47 PM | general politics

Michelle Malkin is a sorry excuse for a political pundit, let alone a cultural or academic pundit. She just doesn't have enough talent.

I have no problem with people who don't like Derrida; it's a testament to his success that so many people have such strong opinions.

Even if his critics are correct that Derrida didn't get it "right," his thinking was a hell of a lot more creative and inspirational than most other critics and philosophers, who remain unread, and irrelevant.

Posted by: Carey at October 17, 2004 08:31 PM

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