1.30.2004

Deconstructing Derrida Deferred to Deconfuscating

It’s hard to know to what extent one’s ideas have been manipulated to distortion. Jacques Derrida is political, yet his work isn’t driven by a political agenda. Unfortunately, deconstructionists have used Derrida to show disunity within a text so that it might dismissed for whatever blindered agenda they may have--which is not to say that texts don’t have disunity. They do. But sometimes they are intended as part of a unity to emphasize, and sometimes simply as humor. And sometimes the reasoning in a person’s literary work is truly faulty.

What I like about Derrida is his “playfulness” (which, as we just learned, is a method of coming up with advanced technological tools) and “politics” and his generally odd approach to reason. This is why I’d rather deconfuscate rather than deconstruct as the term has come to be used.

The first problem in his most famous work is his title, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”. What does he mean by “human” sciences? All sciences derived by humans? Science about humans? He may mean “social sciences." But whatever his intent, its imprecision allows the very nature of all science to be called into question. It is a pun. Puns, by nature, exist on multiple levels simultaneously until one level is invalidated by its context. The longer the pun is sustained, the better the pun. This pun, since it is never directly invalidated or addressed, is so well executed that it has led to much confusion.

Empire of Science and Reason

A similar confusion occurs with his use of “empirical” and “empiricism”:

“I have said that empiricism is the matrix of all faults menacing a discourse which continues... to consider itself scientific.... [A]n empirical essay... can always be completed or invalidated by new information.”

Such usage pulls in a number contradicting definitions and connotations: 1) a method of medical quackery, 2) our bourgeois gag-reflex of hating anything related to aristocracy, 3) a suggestion that the described is already fully known, and 4) a conclusion that is derived by too little experience or observation.

So when he calls us against the scientific method, we are already in his corner. Any human pursuit may never arrive at the goal of complete understanding of a subject. But we humans assume, when lack of full knowledge is called into question, that the knowledge is faulty. One does not need to measure every light beam to know at what speed it travels at. One does not need to know the answer to the Grand Unified Theory to understand Newton’s laws. If one’s knowledge is incomplete, it does not mean we cannot draw conclusions based upon what we do know. It is from this foundation that we confirm or invalidate the foundation and move on. Human knowledge is the edification of what is known/knowable, by building on to it and tearing out the rotten wood.

As Claude Levi-Strauss says:

“Critics who might take me to task for not having begun by making an exhaustive inventory of South American myths before analyzing them would be making a serious mistake about the nature and the role of these documents. The totality of the myths of a people is of the order of the discourse. Provided that this people does not become physically or morally extinct, this totality is never closed. Such a criticism would therefore be equivalent to reproaching a linguist with writing the grammar of a language without having recorded the totality of the words which have been uttered since that language came into existence and without knowing the verbal exchanges which will take place as long as the language continues to exist. Experience proves that an absurdly small number of sentences . . . allows the linguist to elaborate a grammar of the language he is studying. And even a partial grammar or an outline of a grammar represents valuable acquisitions in the case of unknown languages.”

And all of those in favor of reason within reason said: “Amen.” Like Zeno’s paradox, knowledge may never be completely erected, but we don’t have to, therefore, tear down all of what we do know or we’ll have no shelter to rest our heads.

Finding Center Where There Appears to Be None

Derrida writes:

“[T]he structurality of structure... has always be neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or of referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin.... [T]he entire history of the concept of structure... must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center.... Where and how does this decentering, this thinking the structurality of structure, occur? It would be somewhat naïve to refer to an event, a doctrine, or an author in order to designate this occurrence.... The discourse on the acentric structure that myth itself is, cannot itself have an absolute subject or an absolute center.”

The problem here is one of perspective. If every perspective here in Omaha, Nebraska can be moved to another perspective in Trenton, New Jersey, why then there is no good perspective at all. [This is an example of disunity used as humor--irony used to reorient us toward unity.]

It is good that Derrida calls our attention to bias. However, one can start making conclusions about humanity in Hoboeken even though there are also humans in Idaho. Idahoans can bring their potatoes to the table of discussion of humanity and spot similarities and differences with those in Hoboeken.

Drawing conclusions can be a centering problem. For instance, Ptolemy sat on Earth and concluded from observation that everything must revolve around it. After all, look at the sun. We’re standing still, and it’s moving overhead, right?

But Derrida forgets Copernicus and Kepler who lived on Earth, too, and who were able to draw conclusions about how the planets do orbit the sun. All one needs is the scientific method and careful reasoning. If it looks like you’re moving backwards when the car beside you is edging up to the stoplight, look at the ground. All you need are several reference points. You can triangulate all sorts of phenomena in this manner. One does not need to be at the absolute center to draw conclusions.

One final point we can make is that in statistics, there are degrees of freedom. We can move variables around, but only within limits of an equation or the set you’re working with. There’s much we can derive--but the values of a discourse are not infinitely variable; hence, humans are capable of communication.

Decentering may prove useful on occasion when dealing with the Ptolemys of the world, but let’s not abandon our reason and the body of knowledge available to us when doing so.

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