Let me state from the beginning what this post is communicating and what it is not communicating. On one hand, it is going to present my understanding of “deconstruction” as it is associated with Jacques Derrida. This does invite people to challenge my interpretation of Derrida and limited dialog regarding the implications of Derrida’s approach. On the other hand, it is not a forum for chasing the “demonic Parisian” back into his philosophical hole. In other words, I don’t care if you like Derrida or hate him (I myself am influenced more by Gadamer than Derrida), that isn’t the subject being addressed. The subject being addressed is simple: What is deconstruction?
I hope that is clear.
OK, now let me see if I have this deconstruction thing understood and I’d would greatly appreciate any insight into where I am wrong. Deconstruction, in the words of Derrida, is partially “to not naturalize what isn’t natural–to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural.” This does not mean Derrida doesn’t believe in meaning or truth. It does mean that we must not assume perspective equates to universal. We cannot assume that any human understanding is somehow transcendental. We are contextualized beings and we understand/express things contextually.
This can be understood in positive or negative terminology.
James K.A. Smith presents it positively saying that deconstruction is “a deeply affirmative mode of critique attentive to the way in which texts, structures and institutions marginalize and exclude ‘the other’, with a view to reconstructing and reconstituting institutions and practices to be more just”. (Jacques Derrida, Live Theory, 12).
As I have read Derrida this view of him that Smith presents has become more evident. It is not an appeal to some sort of moral relativism or the assertion that everything is essentially what the readers wants it to be since meaning falls apart in the end. Rather, it is an allowing of the unnatural side of things deemed natural to expose themselves by reading a text with both eyes open to possible prejudices inherit within.
As regards a negative analysis one Jack Reynolds says the following:
Deconstruction is parasitic in that rather than espousing yet another grand narrative, or theory about the nature of the world in which we partake, it restricts itself to distorting already existing narratives, and to revealing the dualistic hierarchies they conceal. While Derrida’s claims to being someone who speaks solely in the margins of philosophy can be contested, it is important to take these claims into account. Deconstruction is, somewhat infamously, the philosophy that says nothing. (See full article here)
He understands it to exist only within other attempts at metanarrative (therefore, it cannot be a metanarrative itself, since deconstruction cannot exist as some sort of free floating approach to the world). It is for Derrida the natural exposure of the internal contradictions and false assumptions buried within communicative acts (or “writing” as he calls them). Again, we must balance the act of seeing deconstruction as, yes, a slap in our epistemological face but also not pure relativism. Derrida expected to be understood. Derrida had an opinion. Derrida saw some form of right and wrong. But he knew that his views and those of others are not bullet proof and that language and communication have limits that is pressed expose inconsistencies. We must realize though that communication is still possible even as it deconstructs itself. It is just not perfect.
Very clear and unambiguous post, Brian. I think this one compliments your Rosa Parks article quite nicely.
A great example of this kind of “denaturalization” is David Paul McCarthy, “A Not-so-Bad Derridean Approach to Psalm 23,” in Proceedings of the Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies, vol. 8 (Georgetown, Ky.: N.p., 1988), 177–91, where McCarthy argues that the self-appropriated sheep metaphor that the psalmist uses at the beginning of this (ostensibly comforting) psalm carries through the whole so that the sheep ends up in the temple where, of course, sheep go to become sacrifices rather than to have themselves comforted.
I get the feeling that your definition may be a bit too general and broad because of you focusing on the naturalizing comment. I think what you describe may be one outcome of deconstruction but I think it would be helpful to look into deconstruction’s relationship to structuralism and post-structuralism otherwise its outcome could get divorced from its foundation and becomes something different from deconstruction and not all that unique.
I think I have mentioned this book before, but if you ever have time, you should check out Peter Rollins’ How (Not) To Speak of God. You can see the influence of Derrida upon his writing. I am reading it currently and hopefully will post a review in the coming weeks.
I don’t know beans about Derrida and most likely never will, but the falling snowflakes on the blog are a nice touch. Are they new or have they been there all along and I just didn’t notice them until this morning? BTW, it’s doing the same thing here in western Pennsylvania. Go Steelers, especially this coming Sunday night!!
Brian, here’s what I said in a comment to your friend, Rod, last night:
This sounds in line with Reynolds’ critique. So I agree with Reynolds.
@David: That sounds interesting! I wonder if I can find it on JSTOR or another journal site.
@Bryan: Good insight; great advise. I do need to give more attention to structuralism if I am going to understand Derrida.
@Paul: Thanks, it is an option WordPress gives users from early December to early January.
@Bobby: When I say “negative” I wouldn’t say it is a critique by Reynolds. He is emphasizing the “negative” work of deconstruction (parasitic, destroying grand narratives) rather than the “positive” work which would be exposing wrong headed prejudices and power plays.
Bobby; I disagree. In fact, I’m of the opinion that St. Paul pretty much invented deconstruction. Along with whoever wrote the book of Hebrews (who by the way presents a pretty Platonic tabernacle). The book of Romans? It deconstructs the entire Mosaic law! (deconstruction can be particularly highlighted in Romans 7) Ephesians? Deconstructs the church. Basically, I think the gospel and deconstruction can totally be amenable. Or at least, that’s what Paul’s writing style suggests.
Right on, Ishta!
@Ishta: I may add that I notice in my preparation for my thesis on Romans that Paul deconstructs the Jewish assumption that Abraham is the answer to the Adamic problem. He postulates that Abraham and his descendants still need more…Christ.
Good point Brian! Plus, I bet Derrida would have loved your blog too!
I hope so. I appreciate the outsiders like Derrida. 🙂
This might be totally off topic, but I think it’s because of all these posts about Derrida that I was able to nearly-ace my final for Media Studies. Thanks Brian!
@Jeremy: Is that because it addressed the topic of your final or because you usually read this blog but the Derrida post were uninteresting so you were able to focus? 🙂
Ishta, you’re allowed to have an opinion; that’s all blogging is after-all.
Lol, Derrida was a major part of our final and when I’d glance over all the posts, I’d see a lot of the recurring terms (i.e. deconstruction, metanarrative, epistemology, etc.). If anything, the assigned textbook we had was so terribly boring, reading short-but-sweet posts such as this made the information sink in deeper.
Given a choice between C.S. Lewis and Derrida, I’d probably choose Lewis. But since I was taking a class that talked a lot about Derrida and not at all about Lewis, reading these posts were far more interesting than our text. I think I read maybe a total of 50 or 60 pages from the 400+ page text. It was boring and made my ADD much more difficult to work around.
Yeah, Ishta, you are allowed to have an opinion, but it is not as valuable as Bobby’s. He transcends the pitiful blogosphere after all.
@Jeremy: Yes, Derrida can be hard work. There have been times where I have read him and I was nothing but baffled. He has such a broad knowledge of western philosophy and he interacts with so many people (contrary to popular opinion, he does communicate and he does interact with others) that if you don’t have as much depth as he does you will be lost. I am often lost!
If you can show me how Paul’s “deconstruction” and Derrida’s deconstruction correlate, I’m all ears. Unfortunately there are other interlocutors who get their feelings hurt if you disagree with them; and then engage in little tirades that really only make them look silly.
I wouldn’t engage Bobby. He will do the same thing as those about whom he is complaining. Read his interactions with Rod and myself. He does the same thing while pretending to rise above in his “maturity” which makes his delusional smugness even more disgusting. If you disagree with him (and you will…you won’t show him anything; you won’t convince him of anything) he will challenge your Christianity because, of course, anyone who sees things differently than he sees things doesn’t take Scripture seriously. Don’t waste your time.
I have never challenged anyone’s Christianity, Ishta; that’s just a lie.
I did misread Bobby. I apologize. Bryan pointed that out. He did not directly attack me as I thought he did.
@Ishta: I shouldn’t tell you with whom you should interact. I withdraw my statement.
@Bobby: Honest question: Why, why, why do you continue to dialog here on this blog? I don’t understand you….almost never do. I don’t think you understand me (at least your answers to various questions have caused me to think you are totally reading right over what I am writing). Every post where you comment degenerates because you don’t actually address anything related to the post which is very frustrating for a blogger. I really do not see this getting any better. I honestly think it would be better if you and I disengage. There are plenty of other blogs for you to explore (even though you seem to think blogging is a horrid thing).
@Ishta, I never even looked at Paul that way. It’s a very interesting perspective. In the past, I’ve disliked Derrida because I felt that he was anything structured. And even though he really is, I misunderstood the intent he seems to have. It’s as Brian suggests in his posts; that Derrida is in the process of searching for meaning and truth, even though his approach seems to undermine whatever truth he might find. There is value to his critique; it takes apart and separates many of the things we might assume as truths; it beckons us to critically reconsider pretty much everything. And I believe, as I’ve been learning this past term, that there is a lot of learning that can be had in this particular process (i.e. evaluating Paul’s writing with the deconstruction goggles).
[A relief for you: my last comment here, ever]
1) Let me clarify: I don’t find blogging to be a horrid thing, I’ve been blogging for 6yrs (I’ve only been “The Evangelical Calvinist” for about 2yrs and that blog only started out as a secondary blog for me); and if I thought it was a “horrid” thing I would’ve stopped along time ago. What I find problematic with blogging is that it is a place/medium that is prone toward misunderstanding, a place where nothing really substantial can be developed, yet at the same time a place where deep topics can be broached (again, though, w/o an ability to really develop anything). So I have a love/hate relationship with blogging 🙂 .
2) Well, the only reason I tried commenting again, was because I was hopeful that two Christian brothers could get a long. Obviously, it’s not going to happen.
3) I hope the rest of your time at Western Seminary is fruitful, Brian; and that your studies and research for your thesis will be a blessing for you!
I agree that blogging is a troublesome medium. It is prone to misunderstanding. It has it’s limitations for sure. But our problems seem to ne to be deeper than the blogosphere. We have seriously misunderstood each other over and over again and I find that problematic. I don’t know if our paradigms are so different that we simply can’t find a middle ground but it appears both of us experience shock at how the other interprets what is said. I don’t know to what that should be attributed.
Well done Brian! I am very impressed. Although this post on deconstruction is very cryptic it is spot on. I myself am more influenced by Derrida than Gadamer. Yes, deconstruction isn’t purely objective nor is it purely relativistic – it is something in-between.
@Ben: Thanks! I will be saying more about Derrida over the up coming days and your feedback will always be welcome!
I’ve always liked James Faulconer’s essay on deconstruction. This quote affirms what Smith wrote about deconstruction:
“I take that to be the general meaning of the word deconstruction as Derrida has used it: not just using our words and concepts against themselves, but showing what has been left out or overlooked. In fact, better: showing that something has been left out or overlooked, that omission is structural to any text — and that we can find those omissions in the structure of the text — without necessarily being able to specify what has been omitted.”
And then later:
“The point of deconstruction is to help us remember what the text calls us to remember but then forgets by its very nature. Deconstruction calls us to the act of remembering, wonder, and praise, and in that to a remembering relation to what we have forgotten rather than to the descriptions of what we have forgotten. Though ideas and words and meanings are important omissions, they are not nearly so important as are the unnameable people who are often omitted, excluded, forgotten. Deconstruction interrupts the apparent seamlessness of texts and practices so that we have some chance of noticing what makes those texts and practices possible, even if we can only notice “it” in the trace or spoor that it leaves behind. It may not be possible simply to remember what we have forgotten, but deconstruction calls us at least to remember our forgetting. “
Here’s the correct link: http://web.archive.org/web/20080417091650/http://jamesfaulconer.byu.edu/deconstr.htm
@Eric: That is a very helpful quotation. I will read the linked article. Thanks!
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