Practicing Deconstruction, Part 1

  • 3.1

We can keep the questions rolling. To ask what it is that Derrideans mean to build is to inquire about the status of deconstruction in the world. Can deconstruction without betraying itself appear in the guise of its antithesis, which is construction? Derrida never tired of saying that deconstruction was not a negative philosophy, that it was fundamentally affirmative, cultivating in its readers a capacity to greet the future (rather than to fear it) and to welcome whatever or whoever seems on first appearance outlandish and inimical: “Deconstruction always presupposes affirmation”;  “I would even say that it never proceeds without love.”[i] But let us wonder: Does the one-who-affirms also make something?—something at least semi-enduring, something that other people could also grab hold of and put to their purposes or perhaps to our now shared purposes of mutual affirmation? Which, indeed, are the practices and institutions that can foster in me what Derrida calls an “openness to the other”?[ii] And is there anything that can help me act on that aperture? Who or what are the agents and instruments of deconstruction?

All I’m trying to say is that once Derrida has helped us see that we bear the responsibility to welcome the stranger, it would also be nice to have someplace for him to sleep. It is around such questions, upon attempting to devise a deconstruction that is more than attitudinal, that Derrida’s thinking most obviously generates a series of puzzles. It is in the first instance easy enough to see why some socialists and feminists and neo-Jacobins have been drawn to deconstruction and above all to the concept of dissemination, which from one vantage is just another name for the literate multitude, die Leser aller Länder. If I start from the idea that writing always exists in many hands at once, then I am ceding the accustomed power of the philosopher (or literary scholar or Supreme Court justice) to preside over interpretation by announcing what the text really means. I am interested rather in what my unseen, inglorious fellows might be thinking or saying or arguing about that same bit of writing and trying to guess the verbal materials that might make possible the alternative practices of these many others.[iii] At the same time, however, deconstruction means to convene a cadre of expert readers who can proleptically perform the multiple meanings that would otherwise emerge but slowly and in historical time, as a given text traveled its unpredictable circuit. And Derrida insists that such reading-with-the-multitude is difficult, arduously so, probably too difficult for you: We don’t know how to read yet … Has anyone ever really read anything? … There are perhaps a dozen good readers in the world. Deconstruction posits at one and the same time the splendidly indiscriminate mass of transnational readers—the bookish mobility—and its own class of adepts, the aristocrats of écriture who are able to encompass in themselves the vastness of possible readings, to carry and indeed preempt dissemination by dint of their own resourceful verbality.

But that’s not the end of it. Deconstruction faces one kind of paradox when it settles on a fixed set of agents and another kind when it refuses thus to settle. The problem in this second case involves some of Derrida’s most characteristic formulations, all of those sans-constructions and multifarious to-comes, since it is via such phrasing that deconstruction most obviously evades the problem of its bearers and real-world deputies. We might consider again the matter of deconstruction’s “messianism without identifiable messiah,” which one leading U.S. Derridean parses like so: “Were the Messiah ever to show up in the flesh … that would be a disaster. The effect would be to shut down the very structure of time and history, to close off the structure of hope, desire, expectation, promise, in short, of the future.”[iv] What we’ll want to see is that the hatred for Jesus on display in these sentences—and this from a Christian theologian—is likewise a hatred of practice and of the completed emancipatory act. We are being requested to prefer the hope for justice to justice itself. Radical philosophers have hitherto done more than interpret the world; the point is not to change it. In 1988, Demi Moore starred in The Seventh Sign, a movie about the End of Days, in which Christ himself appears to urge his prophet to stop the Second Coming—to prevent God from redeeming the world—to perpetuate a world that the movie itself can’t help but depict as cruel and damaged and unfed. It’s a remarkable conceit: In The Seventh Sign, Jesus returns so as not to return, at which point the parousia slips into the position that action movies typically reserve for pandemics or alien invasions—the position, I mean, of the Big Threat. Hollywood, like deconstruction, can conceive of the redeemed society only as an extinction event: Jesus is coming! He must be stopped! Here’s Derrida: “I would like him to come, I hope that he will come, … and at the same time, I am scared. I do not want what I want, and I would like the coming of the Messiah to be infinitely postponed.”[v]

The important point, then, as we watch Derrida’s near-Christianity tip over into this manifestly anti-Christian position, is to see how the same reversal happens over and over again in deconstruction, and always around those without-terms. The problem is succinctly explained: A rarefied messianicity in the abstract requires us to despise any particular messiah. The Derrideans can’t afford to have that slot filled. The next step is simply to extend this point to utopias. It’s easy to imagine a Derridean utopianism without utopias, which would in practice be doggedly anti-utopian, because it would have to oppose the construction of any fair and egalitarian institutions in particular. But then one would also have to oppose all “others” on similar grounds. The messiah, indeed, is sometimes referred to as the tout autre, the entirely other, and messianicity is supposed to name the possibility of a future that will be unforeseeably unlike the present—not another time, but an othertime—so I am, in fact, only reformulating the point just made, by extending it to alterity in its ordinary, non-temporal mode. If we need a messianism without messiahs, then presumably we also need an alterity without others, too, because no particular other can maintain the purity of alterity-as-empty-slot. Any identifiable other begins shedding his or her alterity in the act of identification, starting with those possessive pronouns. If I know that the alterity in question is her alterity, then I already know too much. One could make this point dialectically; I just said “identify,” after all, and Hegelian reciprocity games quickly produce the other-as-same. But one can also make the point experientially: People don’t stay radically unknown to us. In this case, the dialectical and the experiential go together rather neatly: For me to be able to name somebody as an other, he or she has to be within my field of experience, and at that point, it is going to be difficult for the person in question to remain truly alien. My commitment to alterity thus requires me to reject all concrete others as insufficiently other, at which point the doctrine of alterity becomes just one more metaphysical system—another philosophy asking me to expel others rather than welcome them—and deconstruction hangs its head before its own wagging finger.

What, after all, are Derrideans to do, while abiding in paradox and stepping up their devotion to unrealizable hyper-abstractions? Once you’ve worked your way through Glas, how do you actively deliver yourself over to the momentum of non-presence? Those questions do, in fact, have answers. Derrida, this is to say, does finally identify at least three institutions capable of carrying non-identity into the world, however imperfectly—three vehicles of differance—and simply naming this trio will be the tidiest way of distinguishing deconstruction from negative dialectics, since none of the three serves a utopian or proto-messianic function in Adorno. They are 1) writing, 2) capitalism, and 3) empire. Let’s just take them one by one.

[i] “Deconstruction and the other,” p. 167; Points, p. 83.

[ii] ibid., p. 173.

[iii] A question in that spirit: “Why should philosophy be the preserve of professional philosophers?” See Points, p. 125.

[iv] Caputo in Nutshell, p. 163.

[v] Derrida in Nutshell, p. 24.

Comments are closed.