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Understanding Derrida

To extricate our civilisation from perils of binary thinking, we need to represent heterogenous world pictures and blur boundaries. This can be done by engaging in what Derrida calls endless interpretative ‘freeplay’

Understanding Derrida

Apropos of the article ‘What Derrida means’ by Sibghatullah Khan in The News on Sunday (October 15, 2017). The writer has clearly shown how Derrida “had challenged and dismantled the metaphysics of Western Philosophy since Plato”. Building upon the argument of Sibghatullah, this article will attempt to provide the wider social context and philosophical trends within the Western society and thought that led to the emergence of thinking that is critical of subject-centred discourse of epistemology and truth of modernity.

Jacques Derrida was one of the most controversial figure of philosophy in the last century. He started writing in the post-World War II, which is the period of second disenchantment. Previously, disenchantment was created by the dominance of reason over sacred or mythical worldview. This time it was disenchantment with the reason of enlightenment, which provided philosophical foundations for the ultra-metaphysical realm of modernity.

But this is not to claim that Derrida inaugurated the moment of second disenchantment, rather the purpose is to show that his was a voice generated from the womb of failure of rationalised society, subject-centred epistemology, and disintegration of unified truth. In a nutshell, it can be claimed that the inaugural moment of discourse of the death pronounced by Friedrich Nietzsche in his famous proclamation of “death of God” culminates in Derrida with his rejection of metaphysical system laying claim to exclusive monopoly on truth.

Following Nietzsche and Heidegger, Derrida started his critical operation of Western metaphysical tradition because he thinks that it is based on binary structure where one term is privileged, while the others are suppressed.

Derrida is influenced by the thoughts of German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger who refused to go with the tide of rationality which was sweeping across the West in the wake of enlightenment. They delved deep into modern existence of mankind faced with ontological insecurity and cosmic alienation after the demise of the sacred. With psychological perspicacity, Nietzsche foresaw that ailments stem from the culture of disbelief begotten by ascendency of reason in the subjective domain and objective world.

Well before Nietzsche, his compatriot Friedrich Hölderlin poetically expressed his consternation with the silence of God about worldly and human affairs. His poem “Bread and Wine” clearly shows that gods are abandoning the earth and vanishing into another abode, thus leaving humans to face cosmic loneliness. Hölderlin writes,

“But friend, we come too late. It’s true that the gods live,

But up over our heads, up in a different world.

They function endlessly up there, and seem to care little

If we live or die, so much do they avoid us.”

There is sense of loss of old certainties, and uncertainties about the new world in Hölderlin. What was silent broodings in Hölderlin later becomes pronouncement of the death of divine in Nietzsche. His pronouncement foreboded alienation in the wake of disenchantment, and foresaw the harrowing future humanity had to face. Contrary to traditional reading of the fall of man from a status of innocence into disobedience, the modern meaning of fall is relapsing of mankind into barbarity.

The real fall of mankind from grace completed in modern age when humans have become masters of their own murder and mayhem. Previously barbarism revealed itself in brute forms, but the modern humans hide it under the veneer of civilisation and progress. Therefore, it can be stated that the edifice of modern civilisation is built on bad faith of which we are even unaware of. Nothing is more dangerous than the combination of instrumental mind and bad conscience. Perhaps this is the reason the twentieth century witnessed fermentation of ideas in tandem with social foments and cosmic violence committed in the name of absolute truths and progress.

Nietzsche wanted to liberate humanity from the morbidity of conscience, tyranny of concepts, demystify reason, and revolt against values, knowledge and language. His diagnosis of the modern civilisation convinced him that existence remains in flux but ideas remain static because they transform into transcendental truths. Ultimately, the language of truth forces life to adjust to its injunction.

According to Nietzsche, truth is “a mobile army of metaphors” created by language. “Truths” he claims, “are illusion of which we have forgotten that are illusions.” Concepts dictate our existence because their legislation also produces “the first laws of truth.” Nietzsche wanted to put existence before concepts. That is the reason Nietzsche rejects the whole metaphysical tradition starting from Plato.

Following Nietzsche and Heidegger, Derrida started his critical operation of Western metaphysical tradition because he thinks that it is based on binary structure where one term is privileged, while the others are suppressed. In the typical Cartesian idea of “I think, therefore I am” subject is invested with meaning and object is deprived of it. Derrida rejects the either/or structure of opposition which privileges subject. He thinks that the subject is an effect of culture. In other words, what we think is very much borrowed from others, the world and symbolic exchange of meaning circulating within a culture. This interface makes the world picture through which we make sense of self, society and the world. Even the very foundation of knowledge is a product of the world picture. Because of this, Derrida rejects existence of objective knowledge. For him philosophy is a kind of writing, which creates its own language games.

Derrida’s exploration of the symbolic world and binary structure of metaphysics led him into the domain of language. His analysis of signifying practices brought him to the conclusion that signifier or words we use represent things outside the world in their pure state is an illusion. Our understanding of the world stems from language games, metaphors, narratives, description etc. that are created by transcendental signified. This gives birth to transcendental truth, which appears in different forms but stem from same thinking structure. We define truth through this transcendental truth or meta-foundation that in its turn helps us to establish regimes of truth in the shape of institutional structures, and institutional and social practices.

Writing about Derrida’s critique of metaphysical systems and its manifestations, Catherine Belsey states, ‘…the foundational truth that exists beyond question and provides the answer to all subsidiary problems. Metaphysical systems of belief, laying claim to the truth, all appeal to some transcended signified. For Christianity this is God, for the Enlightenment reason, and for science the laws of nature. But if we take meaning to be the effect of language, not its cause, these foundations lose their transcendental status.”

The contemporary drive for uniformity in lifestyle and monomaniac mind after the triumph of liberalism, and wars are the results of imposing transcended truth created by humans inhabiting the earth. This is visible in epistemic regimes in academia and political domain where the binary structure of thinking is imposed in the post 9/11 world through the discourse of war on terror. Islamic fundamentalism is a myth created by the same binary mindset that needs “Other” to provide reason for its existence. Similarly, the same binary structure of thinking is at work in the narrative created by Islamism whose existence hinges on the satanic West. Seen in this way neo-liberalism and Islamism seem to be functioning under same thinking structure, and both feed on each other.

What deconstruction does is that it destroys the monocentric thought, unity of reality and totality of being by shaking its epistemological premises. By doing so it robs metaphysics of its status of transcendental truth. The detractors of Derrida accuse him of non-seriousness, lacking philosophical rigour and clarity, and failure of intellectual nerves. It is harrowing for the mindset trained in the linear notion of history, universality and foundational truth to see the theoretically unified picture of the world disintegrating well before their eyes. For the monocentric mind, humankind is pushed into a precipice of nihilism by the various trends of thoughts, including deconstruction, which is subsumed under the rubric of postmodernism.

Deconstruction opens new horizons in epistemology by collapsing the guarded boundaries of various genres and disciplines. But this very act elicited criticism from the proponents of modernity who accuse Derrida of obsfucation in his writing.

Jurgen Hebarmas and Searle accuse Derrida of not engaging in “rational debate” and embracing nihilistic worldview. What they ignore is that it enables the scholars to take multi-perspectival view of a phenomenon through combination of literature, philosophy, logic, fiction, cinema, jazz and sociology. The collapsing of genres and fusing of their horizons does not aim at forming an all-encompassing horizon. Rather it meant to clear the way for a different future, which is held in abeyance by unassailable foundations and its resultant truth. As a result, the modern mankind is engaged in endless waiting like the characters in Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” wherein they wait for a redemptory whose identity is even unknown to them. Also, it provides space for languages and world pictures that were suppressed by the theoretical unity of universal theories or ideologies.

Atheism stems from theism. Likewise, unreason stems from reason. The fear of monocentric thought emanates not from the deconstruction of the modern constructs, but from the black holes of oblivion that exist at the core of enlightenment. Nietzsche in his critique identified the dark spot or ignorance within the reason of enlightenment. He prophetically envisaged the consequences of the culture living with void within after the demise of divinity. That void would be of cosmic proportion and cannot be filled by reason for it suppresses things deemed irrational. Nietzsche prophesised that universal madness would break out in the world dominated by reason. His prophecy came true because it is only in the age of reason — twentieth century — that mankind became capable of creating the wars at world level, and destroying the world within minutes for the first time in history.

What the above discussion shows is that we live in an age where we are losing the terra firma of truth that has helped us to make sense of ourselves and the universe for last three millennia. Now reality is seeping through the pores of hands like water. In other words, meaning in contemporary world is like the water that our hands cannot hold anymore. We are living in an age where crisis of meaning and truth has reached a cosmic proportion. The crises of such magnitude demands philosophy to jettison, disintegrate, chop, suspend, and forgo those narratives or intellectual projects that demands more sacrifices from earthlings to complete it.

The kind of fear and reservations expressed by the proponent of progress are akin to one expressed by the managers of sacred when modernity was disenchanting the enchanted world of religion. Observing the death of old and absence of new in his time Hölderlin said that we are in the period of darkness between the gods that have vanished and the god that has not yet come. Enlightenment was the modern god that has also failed.

To extricate our civilisation from perils of binary thinking, we need to represent heterogenous world pictures and blur boundaries between I and thou, subject and object, civilised and uncivilised, good versus evil, and sacred versus profane. This can be done by engaging in what Derrida calls endless interpretative ‘freeplay’. Christopher Norris in his book Deconstruction and the Unfinished Project of Modernity opines that “Derrida betrays the unfinished project of modernity and opens the way to a postmodern notion of endless interpretative ‘freeplay’ where there is no longer any place for such typecast Enlightenment values as truth, reason and critique.”

With the death of transcendental truth of Enlightenment, the world has entered into a post-truth phase in its history. When the truth has passed away, then let new and marginal stories, and other world pictures to emerge in every part of the world. Emergence of myriad voices imbued in the mellowness of soil and melodious local soul, and their merging with other local voices will create a cosmic symphony not cosmic cacophony produced by monocentric thought. The various strands of deconstruction are a requiem of the dead and a symphony of the emerging new.

Aziz Ali Dad

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The writer is a researcher with background in philosophy and social science. He can be reached at azizalidad@gmail.com

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