The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Perimeter Defenses

The Wikipedia entry on the late Jacques Derrida contains excerpts. For purposes of this discussion, I will focus on those from "Spectres of Marx", but any other essay would serve my purpose. They are remarkably consistent in form and presentation. Consider:
Let us take the chance, then, after so many glosses, of an ingenuous reading. Let us try to see what happens. But is this not right away impossible? Marx warns us with the first words. The point is right away to go be rid, in one fell swoop, the first glance and thus to see there where this glance is blind, to open one's eyes wide there where one does not see what one sees. One must see, at first sight, what does not let itself be seen. And this is invisibility itself. For what first sight misses is the invisible. The flaw, the error of first sight is to see, and not to notice the invisible. If one does not give oneself up to this invisibility, then the table-commodity, immediately perceived, remains what it is not, a simple thing deemed to be trivial and too obvious.

Two salient features of this snippet claim our attention. First, there is a tremendous emphasis on the process of reading, rather than on the material being read. ["Let us take the chance," indeed. Aren't we brave?] This is consistent with Mr. Derrida's theories, which consistently seek to minimize the idea of intrinsic content of a work. It also has the effect of magnifying the importance of the critic relative to the thing criticized. This obviously tends to gratify the ego of the practitioner. In addition, it authorizes the introduction by the critic of extraneous material on the grounds that it is relevant to his reading process; this abets the increase in the volume of criticism relative to that of the work being criticized, removing a potential barrier to the growth of the criticism industry.

The other noteworthy feature is the artificial signification of many phrases. To a naive reader, the idea that something "remains what it is not" is simply an obvious piece of nonsense. This is, in fact, true; but it does not mean that the phrase serves no purpose. It enables a linguistic game in which such phrases can, in fact, be granted meaning by changing the definitions of their components, and then critized in turn according to the new meanings, in the variant language created for the purpose.

This retreat from the fixed language of the non-academic world is a valuable defense for deconstructionists. Their words have meaning in a private language which is nowhere transcribed; but they can defend themselves haughtily against the charge of mere meaninglessness. This exclusion of all who demand plainer language -- i.e., of all who do not participate in the deconstructionist game -- is the first line of defense for the citadel in whose courtyard Derrida's successors continue their carefree play.