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Thursday, October 21, 2004



one of the central figures of 20th century intellectual life passed away last week. i saw very few notice.

the death of jacques derrida will not be lamented by many. incorrigible, unscientific, inscrutable -- all of these apply. yet the man was an incarnation of his age, his ideas resonating throughout modern western thought -- though few seem to understand why.

the economist has a quick life. derrida's contribution to the humanities, deconstruction, was a method of examining the language of a text in such a way as to "reveal" its "unintended" meanings. emerging from the shock and futility of world war one, deconstruction postulated that all texts were written as a set of hierarchical dualisms -- opposing ideas in conflict, a theme inherited from the trench warfare of france that has since come to dominate western conception. these dualisms were based on assumptions made unconsciously by the author; these assumptions could, once exposed, be subverted; and subsequently alternate, unintended meanings in the text could be revealed to supersede the intended ones, which were left to collapse into a useless pile of relativism.

deconstruction thus claimed that text was not representational but abstract -- and this method of abstraction was applied by derrida to all western philosophy and morality to reject a thousand years of accumulated thought and accepted interpretation. suddenly, nothing was as it was. whether or not he was correct to do so is, i think, immaterial; that derrida thought it honest to void the entire product of western intellectual life -- that is why he is important. that antifoundational nihilism (which i mean not in its perjorative sense) which deconstruction advocated is at the core of modernism and postmodernism.

but there was more. to the infuriation of critics and advocates alike, the only aspect of deconstruction that derrida ever did seem able to clearly define was that he disagreed with every definition forwarded. while deconstruction perhaps wanted to be science, and aspired to sound scientific, it clearly was not -- there was no rigor, no experiment, no definition and no rule. it was in fact irrational scientism at its height, and that satisfied him. such views showed derrida was beyond skeptical to antagonistic, and an inveterate individualist -- he did not please his critics, and did not care -- a paragon of the modern antisocial man.

moreover, much of derrida's own work is itself unreadable. given that any intentional meaning the text could impart was by definition secondary or even useless, his writings assumed an astructural character that was entirely unknown before the modern era.
... from the invisible inside , where I could neither see nor want the very
thing that I have always been scared to have revealed on the scanner, by
analysis - radiology, echography, endocrinology, hematology - a crural vein
expelled my blood outside that I thought beautiful once stored in that bottle
under a label that I doubted couldavoid confusion or misappropriation of the
vintage, leaving me nothing more to do, the inside of my life exhibiting itself
outside , expressing itself before my eyes, absolved without a gesture, dare I
say of writing if I compare the pen to a syringe, and I always dream of a pen
that wouldbe a syringe, a suction point rather than that very hard weapon with
which one must inscribe, incise, choose, calculate, take ink before filtering
the inscribable, playing the keyboard on the screen, whereas here, once the vein
has been found, no more toil, no responsibility, no risk of bad taste or
violence, the blood delivers itself all alone, the inside gives itself up and
you can do as you like with it, it's me but I'm no longer there, for nothing,
for nobody , diagnose the worst...
this is prima facie absurdity, a sort of meditational poetry -- and derrida knew it and embraced it. the meaning lay not in the words but in its unrevealed dualisms, he said -- and left interpretation to the reader, which would be different in every eye.

this validation of the absurd -- when viewed with his anticivilizational subversion of tradtional western literature and philosophy, nebulous scientism, relativistic debasing of accepted moralities, utter individualism -- make derrida completely representative of the 20th century and the modern age, just as voltaire embodies the 18th century and the age of reason.

there is always, with a man as complex as derrida, room for disagreement even among disciples. (the obit i link first refuses to call derrida a relativist.) yet some question why this man was important -- or even refute him out of hand. to do so is, i think, to misunderstand much of what is transpiring in the western world.

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