Taking the world apart

'During another bout of the blues, [Derrida] wrote to a friend from his infirmary bed, “I’m no good for anything except taking the world apart and putting it together again (and I manage the latter less and less frequently).”

That’s not a bad description of deconstruction, an exercise in which unraveling—of meaning and coherence, of the kind of binary logic that tends to populate philosophical texts—is the path to illumination. In Derrida’s reading, Western philosophers’ preoccupation with first principles, a determination to capture reality, truth, “presence,”—what he called in reference to the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl “the thing itself”—was doomed. He traced this impulse in thinkers from Aristotle to Heidegger, famously arguing, for example, that a tendency to favor the immediacy of speech over the remoteness of writing was untenable....

With the tenacity of a gumshoe, he haunted texts by Plato, Rousseau, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Marx, and Hegel, among dozens of others, exposing the ways in which the subjugated or banished half of a crucial pair—inside/outside, man/woman, reason/madness, signifier/signified—continued to plague its partner. His close readings were at once highly specific and abstract, but lent themselves to extrapolation. As the scholar Mark C. Taylor neatly put it: “The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure—be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious—that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion.” And what is excluded “does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems.”'


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