October 14, 2004 9:55 AM   Subscribe

The alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief - one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand, in friendship that serves to forge connections among individuals across their differences - we see deconstruction in action.
posted by semmi (19 comments total)
Althoug I've always been fascinated (in lack of a better word) by Derrida's musings, I have to deconstruct this FPP by asking: best of the web?
posted by AwkwardPause at 10:38 AM on October 14, 2004

AwkwardPause: Have something better to offer?
posted by semmi at 10:53 AM on October 14, 2004

I admit I've never actually finished any of Derrida's works, but that's mainly because he seems to be a very smart man who's wasting his time desperately grasping at straws. It's depressing.

If "truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty", then nothing can be known with certainty. And that's another way of saying that nothing can be known.

Ivan Karamazov got it right: if God is dead, then everything is permitted. Anything else that's said on the subject is the expression of personal emotion and desire, nothing more.
posted by gd779 at 11:01 AM on October 14, 2004

I don't think it's depressing, I find it freeing. Take the materials at hand and forge your own truth.
posted by rainbaby at 11:27 AM on October 14, 2004

Good linkage, semmi. Too bad the Bushinator doesn't grasp the essence of Derrida explained in the essay. To bad gd779 didn't grasp it either since the author directly addresses that misconception.
posted by billsaysthis at 11:34 AM on October 14, 2004

posted by AwkwardPause at 11:43 AM on October 14, 2004

If "truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty", then nothing can be known with certainty. And that's another way of saying that nothing can be known. (emphasis mine)

For some definitions of the word "known," sure. But I reject the dichotomy of absolute certainty vs. absolute uncertainty, and would argue that things can be known with varying degrees of certainty.

if God is dead, then everything is permitted.

"is permitted" implies someone is giving permission. Who?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:13 PM on October 14, 2004

I'd differ with him on the effect on cultural studies and gender/queer stuff. They haven't set up new dichotomies, but exposed/translated/etc the dichotomies already existing. Other than that, nice piece.
posted by amberglow at 1:55 PM on October 14, 2004

"is permitted" implies someone is giving permission. Who?

I always read the 'permitted' part as an acknowledgement of morality and ethics. When religion [which is a sort of moral and ethical code] is absent then there are no checks on what is or can be done.

Of course, this also works secularly, in that a person who refuses to participate in society [which is its own type of moral and ethical contract] is permitted to do anything that he wills.

So in both these cases, the person giving the permission is the person doing the act. That person's only moral and ethical contract is with him or herself.

Glad to see you found the article you were looking for semmi.
posted by sciurus at 2:51 PM on October 14, 2004

I always read the 'permitted' part as an acknowledgement of morality and ethics. When religion [which is a sort of moral and ethical code] is absent then there are no checks on what is or can be done.

I'd call that "not prohibited" rather than "permitted," but I'll set that aside for the sake of argument.

You acknowledge that religion is a sort of moral and ethical codes—and presumably that non-religious moral and ethical codes exist as well. I don't understand the distinction you're trying to draw between ethics based on religion and ethics based on something other than religion.

Yes, at first it might seem that a religious code of ethics provides an external "right" and "wrong," a set of "permitted actions" and "forbidden actions." I'd respond that a non-religious ethical code also proscribes right and wrong, and what the individual must permit or prohibit to himself.

The obvious objection to this—which I think is what gd779 is getting at, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong—is that different ethical codes will have different sets of right and wrong, and there is no objective way to choose one over the other. The choice comes down purely to "the expression of personal emotion and desire, nothing more." My response to that would be that there are many religions, they often differ on right and wrong, and there is no objective way to choose one religion over another—that too comes down to "the expression of personal emotion and desire, nothing more."

I think the fallacy here is in comparing a single religious-based ethical code, to the set of all possible non-religious ethical systems. Either compare a single religious code to a single non-religious ethical system (in which case both can provide clear, objective definitions of right and wrong), or compare the set of all religious codes to all non-religious codes (in which case neither one provides any objective sense of right or wrong, and ethics come down to a personal and subjective choice).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:02 PM on October 14, 2004

I don't understand the distinction you're trying to draw between ethics based on religion and ethics based on something other than religion.

My bad, I wasn't really trying to draw a distinction between the two, instead I was trying to say that the whole Grand Inquisitor sequence can be applied outside of the religious context in which it is set. That it works in non-religious ethical systems as well. Granted, it has been 3 years since I've read it, so I might be misremembering.

is that different ethical codes will have different sets of right and wrong, and there is no objective way to choose one over the other.

I think we are in agreement here, morality and ethics are not ever objective because their very nature indicates a subjective agreement between individuals. When differing 'agreements' come in contact we get the Ivan Karamazov scenario. Yet I think that a true 'everything is permitted' or 'these things are not prohibited' feeling cannot exist in a reasonable, sane human. A person to whom everything is permitted cares not a whit about permission or prohibition in the first place. They do not admit that rules apply to them or in fact that any rules exist. I almost would say that a truly amoral person would be the ultimate free individual, except that I don't think such a person would be capable of thinking of him or herself as an individual.
posted by sciurus at 4:32 PM on October 14, 2004

sciurus--the point Derrida is making is not ath we are thrown onto ourselves and our own devices when we renounce the idea of eternal, timeless, certain truth. His point, in fact, is that every truth is social--it is defined by its "differance" with other truths. And because truth is social, and relative, and enmeshed in a web of relative relationships, it has no stable meaning. It can change from one person to another, from one time to another, from one reader to another, from one mind to another. This is different from saying that we don't care about our truths or about meaning--instead, its saying that we should care about them *even more* when we realize how fragile and contingent they are, and we should ask ourselves seriously why we believe what we believe and what we can do about it.

People say that this is a made-up conceit--that the world doesn't work that way. But that's not true--in fact, deconstruction *is* how the world works. In some ways it's not an ideal world, and we do understand each idea, each person, each principle differently from one another. Derrida's point is that we *need to recognize this* in as full a way as possible, and then deal with it from as fully comprehending a standpoint as possible. His point (or one of his many points) is that to believe that your truth is obvious or self-evident is a fallacy, and a fallacy that has real consequences in the real world. This is very different from saying 'truth has no meaning,' or from saying that it's every man for himself.

I was in a seminar (I'm a graduate student in English) earlier this week, which just happened to be on Derrida anyway. Marjorie Garber, who was teaching it, said something that I think explains it pretty simply. Someone said something like:

"Truth and rules *are* obvious. If I were a schoolteacher, and I sent home a student with an assignment that was due next Tuesday, and they didn't hand it in but instead said that they 'didn't understand' what 'next Tuesday' meant, I would have a right to be mad, because that truth is self-evident."

To which she replied with the obvious: in fact, it's quite possible for the child to have misunderstood 'next Tuesday'--it happens all the time! And, when it does happen, you can have two responses: you can respond in a condescending way that assumes that your interlocutor is an idiot, or you can respond in an engaged way that assumes that communications have broken down, and tries to explain things sensibly.

The writer who brought this home for me most was Hannah Arendt. In her _Origins of Totalitarianism_, she explains what happened in the Holocaust something like this. Over the last hundred years, she says, we developed a concept of 'human rights.' This concept made us feel good about ourselves, and seemed universal, and obvious, and easily communicable. And in our community of nations, we made sure that the idea of human rights was understood.

Then, after WWI, Jews around Europe became 'stateless'--they had no home to return to and lived in ghettos around Europe. They never joined the community of people to whom 'human rights' applied. And it turned out that that supposedly universal, obvious idea didn't apply to them because they weren't in the community. No one looked out for them anymore. They were a kind of collective blind spot. And when horrible things started to happen, the concept of 'human rights' meant nothing, because it never occurred to anyone that was important wasn't *concept*, but *application.* It never occurred to people in many countries that the concept had broken down or lost its meaning until it was too late.

Now, obviously one can argue with Arendt's assessment--though, I think, only with equally vague sort of arguments--but her point is that truth, supposedly universal, just isn't universal in the real world. If you want a truth to be acknowledged as true, you have to do something about it. You have to reach out to people, bring them into your community, help them to understand with the full knowledge that their reasons for misunderstanding could be hard or impossible to, from your perspective, overcome. And you need to be open at all times to the possibility that your own ideas are being misunderstood by you--that you don't really know what you're saying.

These are all pragmatic notions that, it seems to me, really reflect the way life is lived in the real world; whereas the idea that truth is 'real,' meaning is inherent or implicit, or principles mean something has been disproven over and over throughout history. If you want something to mean something, Derrida argues, you have to do something to make its meaning real--with the knowledge that you will never succeed. And we do this in society: when somebody commits a murder, we punish them. But murder is a relative term--as in the abortion debate, or as in Peter Singer's work--and so we should be constantly examining what we mean by it, and how others interpret it. Which we do.

Anyhow: it is definitely possible to view Derrida et. al. as nihhilists who 'believe in nothing.' Their difficult writing does not help. But another view is possible and, I think, more accurate.
posted by josh at 7:53 PM on October 14, 2004 [2 favorites]

what josh said. (and tell Ms. Garber she has a fan.) : >
posted by amberglow at 7:56 PM on October 14, 2004

Excellent series of posts, semmi; and excellent comment, josh. I agree that it is quite wrong to regard Derrida as a nihilist. However, I'm not sure it is any more accurate to regard him as a relativist. In saying that differance is at the heart of things, he seems to me to be expressing something more difficult, and profound, than merely 'truth is relative'.

In The Gift of Death, he has some fascinating reflections on the story of Abraham and Isaac (when Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to God's command). It is difficult to summarise what he says, and I can't claim to understand all of it, but it is something like this: that in opening ourselves to others (whether to God, or to other people) we reach a realm beyond ethics; that the difference between ourselves and others is so vast that it cannot be bridged by ethics alone. He is not saying that 'everything is permitted' or that it is OK to kill your son if you think that God is telling you to do it. Quite the contrary, he is trying to move beyond that kind of simple-minded reading of the story. He is trying to express the gravity of what Abraham is doing; and what he is suggesting (if I have understood him correctly) is that in trying to become fully human, and laying ourselves open to demands other than mere self-interest, we enter a world of terrifying possibility.

I have noticed that Derrida tends to be despised by philosophers and admired by theologians. I find this interesting. Arguably it is because philosophers are trained to recognise bullshit whereas theologians will swallow any old rubbish (in which case I stand with the philosophers). Alternatively it is because philosophers like the rigour of a logical system whereas theologians have more tolerance for ambiguity and paradox (in which case I stand with the theologians).

Terry Eagleton has an interesting article on Derrida in today's Guardian -- though I was amused to find him repeating the canard that Derrida was turned down for an honorary degree at Cambridge. He should read Metafilter.
posted by verstegan at 4:05 AM on October 15, 2004 [1 favorite]

verstegan--very true. If I had to explain it to someone, I'd say something like this: for Derrida, truth is not 'relative' in the usual way; it's unstable not because of the way a truth relates to other truths as whole objects, but because of the way any given truth is infinitely subdivisible and explicable as the combination of other ideas of which its partisans might not be aware. And this is true not only of a concept, a reading, or an argument, but also of any object we attempt to describe in language: a person, a nation, a people.

The theological side of Derrida is often interpreted to mean that we can get 'beyond' something if we work extra-linguistically--we can get 'beyond' the structure if we forego the instigator of structure, which is language. That's what folks often say he means--but I don't think that's in his writing. At the root of his thinking is the conviction that language is paramount, fundamental, and insurmountable. Deconstruction is not getting beyond the structure, IMO--it's turning the structure from an obstacle into an opportunity for understanding, play, and beauty--which is different from getting beyond it. (Not that you're saying that--many have said that).

When I first read Derrida I was doing an undergraduate major in creative writing, and I found it so, so hard to write while reading deconstruction because it just poisoned my wriiting, I thought, by saying that language was pointless. Then I read and listened to John Cage, who said famously that we cannot create a silence--no matter how hard we try to create it, there is something to hear anyway. And I understood Derrida a lot better--Derrida never hoped to create silence, 'understanding,' whatever that is--he hoped that we would pick up, politically and aesthetically, on the music.
posted by josh at 6:05 AM on October 15, 2004

Those are great comments josh and verstegan. I just wanted to say that I wasn't trying to say anything about Derrida, instead I was just muddling through the Grand Inquisitor side-convo upthread.
posted by sciurus at 7:24 AM on October 15, 2004

Not to elaborate on what has been said, accepting them in their fullness, but to add a sliver of another possibility to it. Aside of the desire of saying something general enough to be applicable to the widest interpretation, it is, of course, told by me, and it only reflects on me this morning of an overcast sky.

In metaphor and in actuality, any actor worthy of his profession will intuitively "understand" by practice and preparation of what Derrida is talking about. Given a script, a text of words, an actor proceeds an attempt to delineate the subtext within the context of the character whom he is going to embody, who is a creature of the playwrights imagination, which is a result of the playwright's context and the playwrights reaction to it, into his own (the actor's) understanding by identification (part self-hypnosis of sorts, part physical practice), all of which ends up in a performance disseminating the interpretation the particular sets of of the varigated circumstances provided. Any variation within the complexity of circumstances will provide a different understanding, different values, and different performance. What is given are plays and various actors, with their different personal make-ups, acting out the written texts with more or less up-to-the-minute immediacy.
posted by semmi at 11:35 AM on October 15, 2004

And then there are the joys of analytic philosophy.
posted by homunculus at 2:31 PM on October 15, 2004

homunculus: I found this in the second paragraph of your link, "what have they got that we haven't? It's not the texture of their prose I shouldn't think, since most of us write better than most of them."

Attempting, unsuccesfully, to read the rest, I have to say that perhaps one of the reasons for Derrida's popularity, at least to this reader, is precisely the quality of his writing. Derrida (and Foucault and Kierkegaard and Sartre) reads something like stream of consciousness fiction where the writer's expression is in total unity with its author's integrity. In other words, it is artistically perceived and expressed philosophy that connects to the reader's subconscious, if it's made available, beyond the pedestrian polemics.
posted by semmi at 4:58 PM on October 15, 2004

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