Jacques Derrida: Mostly Harmless

You’d think a software engineer who believes clear communication to be the cornerstone of intellectual honesty would really have it in for Jacques Derrida, but in fact my attitude towards him is one of affection. I had a go at Of Grammatology a few years back, partly because I understood it to be about the philosophy of language and partly on general because-it’s-there principles. My first attempt at blogging was a diary of my admittedly half-hearted stab at the book, which started off snarky and just got snarkier until I gave up about a third of the way through. Still, Derrida’s okay by me. By now he’s all mixed up in the category of Things That Seemed Really Important Back in the 1980s, along with the Strategic Defensive Initiative and Pac Man. Probably overrated and definitely not worth any more of my time, but glancingly interesting, and even by philosopher standards so deep inside his own head that when you fail to follow him it’s not like you get anxious that you’re missing something that’s going to change your life. Plus Il n’y a pas de hors-texte is an excellent motto for people working in the field of natural language processing. As far as speciousness goes, he’s nothing like that sonufabitch Chomsky which like don’t get me started.

So Derrida is mostly harmless, but there’s one aspect of his work I do admire and that’s deconstruction. Maybe it’s just because I feel like I understand it, but the technique of deconstruction that Derrida lays out strikes me as meaningful outside the hothouse of his own prose. As I have gathered from my forays into the O.G. and various commentaries (primarily Arthur Bradley’s Derrida’s Of Grammatology, a supremely lucid explication that I highly recommend) deconstruction is not an theory or a claim about the world but rather a rhetorical strategy, an argument schema into which you can plug in particulars from across a broad range of domains. It consists of three steps: two sneakily innocuous setups followed by a sucker punch. I present them below in table form. The left-hand column describes the general principle of each step, and the right-hand illustrates that principle with a simple, everyday example. In laying things out so plainly I run the risk of appearing to be a dilettante who has completely missed Derrida’s point, but that is a good risk to take, because if it turns out to be the case it will be easy for someone more knowledgable to correct me. Given the choice, I prefer to be clear but naive rather than impressive but murky.

Deconstructive Principle Simple Example
1 Within a particular domain, identify a binary opposition between two concepts. There are two kinds of coffee shops: hip, funky, independent cafés and Starbucks.
2 Observe the way in which one of the two elements of the binary opposition is presented as better than the other. “Privileged” is the technical term.  It’s best if this privileging is something people don’t notice because they take it for granted. I can’t stand Starbucks because it’s so bland and corporate. I buy my coffee at the hip, funky, independent café because that’s more real.
3 Point out that the privileged element of the pair relies on the dispreferred one for its higher status. In the act of trying to separate the two, we actually emphasize their symbiotic and inextricable nature. If there were no such thing as Starbucks, how would you know that the independent café was hip and funky? They’re both just stores that sell coffee after all. You should be grateful that Starbucks exists, because it enhances your experience of an independent café by way of contrast.

What’s French for “Gotcha!”? In the O.G., Derrida runs a couple of famous thinkers through this routine. Ferdinand de Saussure’s ideas on speech versus writing get deconstructed (writing wins) as do Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas on culture versus nature (culture wins). The former is the only one I was able to follow in the original, and there Derrida lost me at step (1). His definitions of “speech” and “writing” are so idiosyncratic–so removed from either a common usage of the terms or some plausible technical definition–that they just come off as Widget #1 and Widget #2, and my reaction to his subsequent analysis was to turn away with a shrug. Also, the particulars of step (3) tend to lean so heavily on figure/ground-type distinctions that you’re left wondering if there’s less here than meets the eye, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably missing something.

And yet, and yet…The opportunity to employ this particular debating trick does keep showing up over and over again. It helps to have Derrida wrestle it down and pin a name on it. His is also an interesting methodological gambit. Instead of putting forward a particular argument, Derrida pops up a level and observes a pattern in the sorts of argument you could put forward. Pay attention, because you can do it too. (The inaugural post on this blog, for instance, was a conscious attempt at a deconstructive argument.) Deconstruction itself also invites a broad range of questions. Is it possible to deconstruct large areas of philosophy? If so, does this tell us more about the nature of philosophy or the pliability of deconstruction? Can we deconstruct anything–political campaigns, popular songs, breakfast cereal ads? Is deconstruction only one of many interesting argument schemata? Does it stand out from the others as uniquely important? Does a significant portion of human communication involve the deployment and interaction of these open rhetorical frames? My answers are “yes”, “deconstruction”, “sure–but you’ll get annoying really fast”, “yes”, “no”, and “more than any of us realize”.

This is why it’s good to make an effort to be sympathetic to ideas outside your immediate circle of belief, because even writers who you mostly take as an easy target for sarcasm can still nudge you in interesting ways. So out of grudging respect for Derrida I have a very unlinguist-like request: can everyone please stop using the word “deconstruction”? Or rather, can everyone stop using it outside of the narrow sense in which it was introduced? Because by now “deconstruction” has joined “existential” as a technical term from philosophy that has insinuated itself, kudzu-like, throughout the language. You can see why. It’s a sturdy little word. The way in which the prepending of the latinate wisp “de” transforms “construction” (think hard hats, two-by-fours, and cinder blocks–a literally concrete term) into the airiest of abstractions seems like a magic trick, and the resulting combination is pleasingly clunky on the tongue. Plus no one knows what the hell “deconstruction” means, so they can make it mean anything they want. Which is usually fine by me, but I keep hearing “deconstruct” employed when a more common expression would do. Sometimes it means to closely analyze (“The TV chef deconstructed the subtle combination of ingredients that went into the risotto”), other times to strenuously refute (“The plucky Marxist graduate student handily deconstructed the editorial policy of Fox News”). But in both these cases we’re better off just saying “analyze” or “refute” because the full bore of “deconstruct” doesn’t goose the meaning in any interesting direction, and it sounds pretentious. Kooky old uncle Jacques was actually onto something, so let’s not all go and muddy the waters.

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