"When constructivists can think rocks into gold then we should consider their theories and methods."... ...Kevin Everett FitzMaurice
Commentary of the Day - October 31, 2004: The Death of Postmodernism? Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, died on October 8, 2004. Because he seemed to many to be such a complicated thinker and difficult writer, a good deal of ink was spent on his obituary. No doubt there are many questions yet to be answered about the shy, nearly reclusive Mr. Derrida, a man who enjoyed lecturing to audiences in the thousands, but who was very uncomfortable during a one-on-one interview. But one question, perhaps the only one that matters to academics, is this: What did Jacques Derrida mean to the American academy? And the answer is easy: a disaster. And, when I say a disaster, I mean one that spread from literary studies to nearly every academic discipline in the years between the late l960s and the early l990s.
Why so? Because Derrida set out -- and some would say, succeeded -- in so destabilizing language that the very foundations on which knowledge rested were shaken. No doubt some would argue that this is a good thing, and in other instances, academic reconsiderations and revisions are valuable. But what Derrida meant to declare, once his muddy paragraphs were decoded, was the meaninglessness of meaning. In a shot, everything connected with humanistic values and humanistic studies was rendered suspect. The "hermeneutics of suspicion," which simply meant that all intellectual arguments -- with the exception of deconstruction, of course -- should be viewed with suspicion.
During the first waves of canon busting, Derrida's assertions about meaningless joined identity politics to overturn those DWM's (dead white males) who had so dominated the great book lists for far too long. After all, who could now use words such as "better" -- much less best -- and who would want to talk about the "meaning" of King Lear when words such as "honor" or "courage" -- much less "love" -- were no longer a part of critical discourse? Besides, Shakespeare's play was, at bottom, meaningless.
Granted, some things continued to "matter" to Derrida and his followers -- a paycheck for one thing, and academic power for another. In the hey day of deconstruction, all of academia was a playground and those who knew the right "theory talk" ruled the kingdom they created. In this hot house atmosphere Derrida was the cat's meow among American academics (he was considerably less revered in France) and the "Yale school of criticism," as it then was known, made stars of literary critics such as Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and the controversial Paul de Man. Of the three, de Man was closest to Derrida, and when it was revealed in l987 (three years after de Man's death) that he had written Nazi propaganda for Belgian newspapers during the war, deconstruction began to fall out of favor. After all, if a man wanted to erase his past, and wanted to construct a series of identities, deconstruction was the perfect way to avoid both history and responsibility.
Today, the Yale school of critics has been replaced by cultural studies, as the recent symposium held at Yale on Michael Jackson makes clear. Cultural studiers, we are told, met at ivy-walled Yale to talk about the various ways that Mr. Jackson was, for these folks, a cultural icon from his music and dance steps up to his epaulets. What Derrida would have thought about this is hard to say, although I suspect that a part of him -- at least I hope a part of him -- would have seen the moment with sense of irony it deserves.
When newspapers ran accounts of the Michael Jackson conference I began wondering about the tuition-paying parents who are probably asking what their $40,000 Yale tuition is getting for their children, or for themselves. So far as I'm concerned, a liberal education fashioned along the lines of Derrida's murky thought was much, much worse because it was neither liberal nor was it an education. Rather, Derrida assumed that "meaning" had always been a mug's game, and the sooner students realized that there was no truth (except, of course, for the truth that there was no truth), the better off they were. Those who dedicate their lives to pursuing the truth are not wrong and they are certainly not self-deluded fools. Granted, pursue is the operative word, for those in higher education who go where the intellect takes them, and who will be neither surprised nor disappointed if it turns out that the "truth" always lies beyond their grasp. That is a very different thing from Mr. Derrida's meaningless of meaning and his sense that language has always been, and forever will be incapable of uttering a rock-solid, stable truth.
©2004 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is the Shadek Professor of Humanities, Emeritus at Franklin and Marshall College. He divides his time between New Jersey and Florida, with occasional diversions to the Big Apple.
The IP comments: It probably is too early to determine the ultimate worth of the contributions of Derrida to philosophical discourse; however, the IP definitely would agree with Pinsker's description of the effect that his work had on the academy during his lifetime. To a great extent this negative impact was due not so much to Derrida himself, in the IP's opinion, but to the legion of acolytes who jumped on the bandwagon of postmodernism. These folks extended the core ideas of postmodernism well beyond philosophy and literary criticism. In so doing, they sowed the seeds of their own decline. Once they began promoting the idea that the results of the hard sciences were nothing more than social constructs rather objective -- if imperfect -- descriptions of nature based on evidence and reason, cooler heads began to suspect that there was less to postmodern philosophy than met the eye.
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