I see your point about the crosses at your church. Certainly, you are not to be called violent because of someone else's sense of guilt. And that woman's anger should not be confused with feminism. Of course what she would probably argue is that a male-dominated institution making a public display out of telling women what to do with their bodies is an outrage. I suppose you would argue that what she has done is a lot more of an outrage, and I suppose at some level she knows this. I don't really see the issue here--I can put anything on my lawn that I please, and people can take a different route to work if they don't like it. People like to go through life under the illusion that they are invisible, and when you show them that you see them, they are offended. I have often had this experience teaching publis speaking. After a carefully reasoned argument the other day, Glenn seemed taken aback when I asked him why he chose to sit down rather than stand. I suppose he thought the emphasis should have been on what he'd said, or on the fact that he had done nothing wrong, not on what he did with his body--we think of the body as private, even when we're in public.Blosser:
Some nice observations here. I agree.Interlocutor:
I agree with you about the need to distinguish Derridean deconstruction from the "movement" that has spiralled out of control, but I'm not sure I'd call it a movement, though of course it called itself one. I read a fascinating book this summer, The Theory Mess, by Herman Rapaport (pictured left) -- I will lend it to you if you're interested. It's basically a history of the English Department phenomenon with emphasis and focus on all the different bends and twists in the road of complete misunderstanding of Derrida and of sloppy "theoretical" thinking generally. Turns out, according to him at least, that the only thing the different writers in this "tradition" or "movement" have in common is ignorance and sillyness. I don't know about the "impact" of this "movement," though--I have not read most of its texts, many of which were written when I was in high school, and have not been affected by them except insofar as they seem to determine peoples' preconceptions about the essays I try to write.Blosser:
The rapidity with which things have changed in English departments across the the board over the past couple of decades is nothing short of astonishing. I remember when "deconstruction" was primarily a novelty in philosophical discussions. Since then it seems to have become the animating principle in many English departments, as well as many programs in sociology and other programs of the humanities. Books could be written about it, and have been, I'm sure.Interlocutor:
On the originality of Derrida, we are in agreement, I think. Seems to me, his originality is his desire to generalize as substantive what most others have acknowledged but have tended to dismiss as accidental, inevitable, trivial, etc.Blosser:
I find Jacques Derrida (pictured right) at his most fascinating and original in the specifics of his writings, rather than in any generalities I've been able to distill from them. Whenever I try to summarize what I think can be summarized about Derrida, whatever I come up with doesn't look or sound particularly novel or interesting. But I really like to delve into his particular analyses of Heidegger or Nietzsche or Plato or whatever. There he often seems to flash with insights, or so it seems to me anyway.Interlocutor:
Also, I must admit that I have felt your characterizations of me as violent at times. I'm sure this wasn't intentional, and I'm also sure that the feeling is at some level a symtpom of some weakness residing entirely within myself. As I have said, my life was pretty out of control when I rolled into town, and it just got worse from there. Looking back, I remember things a bit differently than I then felt them -- assuming that I was relatively under control of things, you may have been trying to spur me into a healthy exchange, and I appreciate that, but I see no reason to hide the fact that I didn't always take things that way. Now that I know you better, I suppose I must have missed your irony when you proclaimed that Derrida is a vampire who sucks the life out of texts and leaves them dry, but I was at a pretty insecure and miserable place in life then, and didn't really know how to take that.Blosser:
I can't say I remember much about any of this, though it's interesting to hear you describe yourself rolling into town "out of control," or whatever. I remember when you first took the trouble to come visit me and ask me about what I thought of Kant's aesthetics. That was interesting. I also enjoyed your input into one of my classes on Derrida for a couple of sessions. I remember you mentioning the comparison of Derrida to a vampire before, though I don't remember my having ever said anything quite like that. (I could be mistaken: my memory isn't the best. But that actually sounds much too clever for me, though I'm flattered you'd attribute it to me.) Insecurities I can understand. I think we all have those -- perhaps especially those who appear most confident. But we're all in this human thing together, after all; and it's good to understand that and acknowledge it.Interlocutor:
Having said that, I'm still not sure that it makes no sense whatsoever to speak of a violence inherent in a discourse or perpetrated through discourse, and I'm not thinking only about hate speech. I think I hear you saying that, since the "violence" of "category manipulation" is inevitable, people need to just be tough and accept it as a fact of life--when it is not something that their victim mentalities are not bringing entirely upon themselves.Blosser:
It would be clearer to say, I think, that "category manipulation" is unavoidable, but it only makes sense to call it "violent" sometimes, not always. "Category manipulation" seems to me to be another (cumbersome) way of saying something like "using language to communicate." As we grow up, we learn that words have a certain semantic range of meaning: "ring" may refer to a wedding band, a circle of crud around the top of a bathtub, a sound that a bell makes, etc.; but it doesn't generally refer to sushi or wasabi paste, and so on. When we go off to college and take philosophy, we learn that terms like "materialism" also have a semantic range of meaning that goes well beyond its everyday uses, such as describing a life-style of consumerism, to embracing a metaphysical theory according to which only physical phenomena are real. This is "category manipulation" that I don't see much sense in describing as "violent."Interlocutor:
I think the discussion about "violence" surfaces over conflicting interpretations of words that are used to refer to groups of people and what they love or hate. Here I suppose we have to distinguish between the "violence" that people perceive and that which is (or is not) intended. But quite apart from these matters of intended or perceived violence, I think some sensitivity is called for to the historical development of certain semantic ranges of meaning attached to words. For example, the term "liberal" is often used today as a term of derision for those embrace maximal government "intervention," high taxation, an actively revisionist supreme court, etc. Is there "violence" involved in calling someone or being called "liberal" today? Probably sometimes. Is it a useful term in specifying "sides of the aisle" in congress, etc.? Probably so (it certainly is often used as an antonym for "conservative"), although there is a high degree of fluidity to the terms signification. One could profitably point out that the term "liberal" is used today to refer to Democrats like Kerry or Kennedy rather than Republicans like George Bush or Ronald Reagan; whereas historically it emerged in connection with a political theory stemming from John Locke (pictured left) and others which is far closer to the ideology embraces by contemporary conservatives like Jessie Helms, as well as libertarians -- both of whom stress minimal government (checks and balances of power between the three branches of government, etc.), for the sake of promoting personal liberty (steming from the historical liberal and Judeo-Christian assumption, of course, that human beings are sinful and fallen and not to be trusted with absolute power, which corrupts absolutely, etc.-- cf. Lord Acton). The term "liberal" is therefore used today very differently from how it was used classically. Is there "violence" in noting such distinctions? Not necessarily, in my opinion.Blosser:
Another term is "fundamentalist," which is widely used today as a blanket term of derision for anyone who is considered some sort of a radical or fanatic (often with accompanying appellatives such as "foam-at-the-mouth," "mealy-mouthed," or "stiff-necked," etc.). Thus we hear expressions like "Islamic fundamentalist" and "fundamentalist terrorists," etc. In fact, the term has almost come to function as a derisive term for anybody who holds firm convictins about anything. I've heard the Pope described as a "fundamentalist," or as holding "fundamentalist attitudes." Obviously, I think you'd agree, the term is intended here as a term of some opprobrium and therefore employed with some "violence." Yet one could also profitably point out that the term originally developed in the 19th century among some evangelical Presbyterians (J. Gresham Machen [pictured right], and others) who were alarmed by influences of historical criticism in biblical studies, which, having their roots in Enlightenment anti-supernaturalism (cf. David Hume), dismissed anything pertaining to the miraculous in the Bible (which would amount to 90% of it) as "myth." Hence, against these encroaching influences, these Presbyterians set forth what they called "The Fundamentals" of the Christian faith (such as belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture, the Trinity, deity of Christ, creation and fall of man, resurrection of Christ, promised return of Christ, etc.), which one could not reject and still meaingfully call himself a Christian in light of the historical creeds. Was this use of the term "Fundamentals" also "violent"? It certainly wasn't intended to be, I don't think. These people were saying: "Yes, we're fundamentalists, which means that we stand by these articles of faith that can be found all the way back to the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed, the teachings of the Apostles and Christ Himself." Did some people-- viz., those who rejected some of these "fundamental" articles -- perceive it as "violent" that they were thereby regarded as less than fully "Christian"? Certainly so. But should that mean that these Presbyterians were out-of-line in wishing to pin down for themselves the meaning of the designation "Christian" by defining the "Fundamentals" of the Christian faith? I doubt so. Where many mainline Protestants came to reject these "Funamentals" as defining the essence of "Christianity," it simply became a matter of conflicting interpretations and understandings of what it means to be a Christian. Those who rejected the "Fundamentals" may have felt "violated" at times; but those who accepted them probably felt no less "violated" when the term "Fundamentalist" increasingly came to be used as a term of opporbrium equivalent to "mindless fanatic," or "foam-at-the-mouth redneck." But I really don't see much of a way around such perceptions, except to seek charity on all sides of the debate. Do you? Beyond asking for mutual charity, it doesn't seem very helpful to me to ask people to stop defining or using terms as they wish to. Does it?Interlocutor:
I think Derrida has labored carefuly to show that beside, throughout, within, and most importantly before this projection of categories upon the outside world, there is listening, reading, reflection, and that one can proceed entirely on the basis of this quiet passivity and still be a philosopher. It doesn't sound very philosophical to hear me say it, but this is how I read him.Blosser:
Well, wouldn't Derrida admit that his "listening, reading, and reflection" is something he carries on also while writing? And don't we carry it on in this way as well, in our correspondence and in our conversations? And, if so, I wonder whether the "before" and "after" you distinguish can be divided quite so neatly.Interlocutor:
I wonder whether Derrida would deny that "category manipulation" is "not only unavoidable, but a great gift." Certainly, he has spent the last fifty years reading and copiusly commenting on all the great category manipulators, (though I must admit I have often wondered about his apparent refusal to talk about Hume). I don't think he would deny it--I think he would claim that he is practicing category manipulation in a particular way that turns that practice against itself. The "deconstruction of the subject" that I mentioned is categorically quite simple--the self that I see cannot be the self that I am when I see it. He's using terms that can be defined, employing categories, etc. First of all, what people often miss is that these are not his terms--here, he is reading a Blanchot story, and using its vocabulary--he's quite consistent in making philosophy reading, not projecting.Blosser:
I also wonder whether Derrida's own activity can be separated quite so neatly from the activity of "category manipulation." Does the fact that he reads and uses terms and categories used by others (as we all unavoidably do) prevent him from being (even if in the most positive of senses) a consummate category manipulator? Even if he's showing what others have missed or overlooked in their category manipulations, doesn't this activity itself of pointing this out involve category manipulation?Interlocutor:
And second, what he says seems quite true.Blosser:
This would depend on what you think he's saying by the "deconstruction of the subject." If our inability to humanly comprehend what we call our "self" is taken to imply that no comprehensible "selves" exist, I think those would disagree who assert that God created us and knows us as we are incapable of knowing ourselves. Further, I don't think that our inability to comprehend our "selves" fully prevents us from apprehending our "selves" adequately in proportion to our limited and fallible estate in the world; any more than I think Werner Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty in quantum theory or Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity undermines the adequacy of Newtonian physics within the limited range of our mundane perceptions. When I am drinking a glass of Guinness at McGuire's, a physicist's description of the the glass and beer as "really only atoms of varying degrees of density which takes the apparent form of solid glass and liquid" hardly diminishes the pleasure of the beer proportionate to the concrete dimension of reality that we mortals ordinarily inhabit. Aristotle wisely taught us that the methods of one science cannot be applied without violence to others (as the methods of mathematics to medicine or politics), by contrast to the temptation of reductionism that has haunted us ever since Francis Bacon reduced causality to "efficient causality" and jettisoned the other three of Aristotle's four causes.Interlocutor:
And third, the effect ought to be that such words be only used provisionally and with caution, because violence is everywhere in the world. To say that the self that I see is the self that I am when I see it is simply inaccurate, since the event of seeing myself cannot but change me. Denying that the "self" category works this way is just stubborn, and not seeing it is dull, so those are our two choices without deconstruction. Perhaps "violence" is too strong a term--not all dull and stubborn people are voilent. Maybe the term "unrefined" is better, although unrefinedness seems like a violent imposition to those of us who are defined as refined by fiat.Blosser:
I'm not sure I see the connection between the "violence" that "is everywhere in the world" and Derrida's point about the self here. If there is a connection between them that's important for me to grasp, you may wish to develop it a bit further.
As to Derrida's point about the self, I'm not sure what I can say beyond what I've said in my foregoing paragraph. Derrida's point seems like it should be "profound" in some way. I'm not sure it is. When I look into the mirror, I know I'm looking at an image of myself-- that the image that I see reflected back is not the original self looking into the mirror. But I know that Derrida's forte consists in deconstructing, or assisting the implosion of, dualities such as this one between "image" and "original." So I think he must want to go deeper than my superficial mirror analogy. He wants to show that I can't really get at the "original" self either. Okay, so it's true: even on a physical level, I've never seen myself as others can see me. I've never actully seen my back, and I never will. It's humanly impossible because our eyes are in the front of our head and are necks can't twist back far enough. But even if we could see our bodies as others can, that's still limited by the fact that perceptions are spatially and temporally profiled and partial. The point is even more profound than that: we don't and cannot know (in the sense of comprehending) ourselves. We are mysteries to ourselves. But is this something new? Walker Percy (pictured right) makes this point ingeniously, humerously, and repeatedly in his book, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. It is a continuing refrain throughout the Bible, as when Job says that we seek to grap what is too high for our understanding, or Jeremiah says that our own hearts deceive us. And even if I understand (with the help of Socrates and Jesus) that I lack self-understanding, may I not believe that God who made me understands and knows me and that my self-understanding can be deepened by seeking as best I can to understand how He perceives me? John Calvin even says there can be no self-knowledge without knowledge of God, or knowledge of God without knowledge of self -- as if that isn't a paradox!
As to "violence," I agree that the world is full of it, though I think I'm not being deceived (perhaps I'm naive?) when I encounter some individuals in whom I perceive no violence whatsoever, like the little old lady who leads the Rosary before Mass at 7:30 every Sunday morning. But perhaps it's a matter of perception, and someone (like the woman at McGuire's who had two abortions) might even perceive her as "violent," somehow. I've even seen it suggested (was it by C.S. Lewis?) that Hell may not even be a different location than Heaven, and just as attendance at an opera would be heaven for some people and hell for others, so the blazing fire of God's love in Heaven may be perceived by some as warm and pleasant by some while others perceive them as the torments of Hell. I'm hardly sure of that, but it's an interesting thought.
Thinking of people who don't get Derrida's point about the self as "dull" or "stubborn" "unrefined" makes some sense, I suppose, though I'd have to have the connections made for me to see any link to their "violence." I think I "get" Derrida's point about the self, at least on some level. But I don't think I'm being "violent" for questioning its implications. But then again -- heh -- you might persuade me otherwise.