Skip to main content

Father of non-sense

A pioneer in the rejection of objective meaning succumbs to ultimate reality

Father of non-sense

A French thinker who died last month temporarily had in his sphere almost as much influence as Peter Singer in his. The man was Jacques Derrida, the "father of deconstructionism."

Who? Father of what? I wouldn't have known myself, except for the work of astute observers like Gene Edward Veith and others. A celebrity in the academic world, Derrida never tried to reach the masses; his books and articles were so obtuse it was a badge of brilliance to understand them. But, according to his own theories, there was no real point in understanding him, for deconstructionism claims that no text can communicate true meaning. When one takes apart the language of an author, one finds inherent contradictions and false suppositions that he or she was too mired in the cultural milieu to recognize. Whether the author recognizes it or not, there can be no inherent meaning in a text.

Fully launched in the 1960s, a time of riotous tearing-down, Derrida's theory fit right in, joining a current of isms that were remaking the university landscape--relative-, postmodern-, existential-, and so on. His focus was on literature and communication, and his bombshell idea exploded most effectively in literature departments, taking forms Derrida might not have intended. For once deconstructed, a work could be reconstructed to suit the reader's own mirey milieu. Thus English and victim-group "studies" classes became textual sandboxes, where Moby Dick was an examination of racism, The Merchant of Venice a searing indictment of Christian hypocrisy, Pride and Prejudice a cry for help from a subjugated woman.

Fun and games in the classroom is one thing; responding to actual events should be another. Or perhaps not. When asked about the historical significance of Sept. 11, Derrida's lengthy reply, with endless qualifiers and scare quotes, sounded like self-parody: ". . . All the philosophical questions remain open, unless they are opening up again in a perhaps new and original way: what is an impression? What is a belief? But especially: what is an event worthy of this name? And a 'major' event, that is, one that is actually more of an 'event,' more actually an 'event,' than ever? . . ."

Texts like this lend themselves more to satire than deconstruction; "Father of Deconstructionism Dies, If 'Death' Means Anything," ran the headline on the humor website Scrappleface. In some ways, Derrida outlived his times; deconstructionism was never taken seriously as a philosophy, and as a literary fad, it has run its course.

But as an intellectual virus it lingers on, doing its part to undermine the very idea of objective truth, meaning, even logic. The man or woman on the street who never heard of Derridan terms like arche-trace or differance have probably heard of legal quibbling over the meaning of the word is, or the CBS suggestion that certain documents it foolishly used were "fake, but accurate." Language has always been misused to obscure meaning rather than express it, but never in ways that challenge the very idea of meaning.

Derrida's approach to language is often described as "playful"-as if he himself knew he wasn't making sense, but that was OK because there was no sense to be made. Floundering in a linguistic mud puddle while trying to explain the significance of 9/11 was no more ridiculous than John Edwards's claim that wheelchair-bound Americans would get up and walk during a Kerry administration, or Richard Holbrooke characterizing the War on Terror as a metaphor. But Derrida wasn't running for anything; Sens. Kerry and Edwards (Mr. Holbrooke, too) were campaigning to be the chief arbiters of "major events," making their irresponsible statements an especially dangerous form of play.

It's also a degradation of the image of God, who expresses Himself in the Word and promises that "on the day of judgment, people will give account for every careless word they speak" (Matthew 12:36). Does language matter to Him, or not? When He says, "Let there be light," it happens. When He says, "Get up and walk," we do. When He calls things that are not as though they were, we can be certain that the "as though" will melt away like snow in a blazing sunrise.

What He says not only means something but is something, as certain to come to pass as these words that I'm typing on my keyboard this moment.