Derri-do?

I suppose I should have figured it out long ago: even Sartre agreed that existence preceded essence and my childhood preceded who I turned out to be. Of course, in retrospect it stands to reason that spending weekends combing through the dictionary looking up unusual words to use in school would not lead to celebrity status; even my teachers didn’t seem impressed. And although the other kids thought I was just showing off, what annoyed them was my use of arcane taunts in arguments on the playground -usually as I was running away. But it was the ‘why’ questions that seemed to bother them the most, though. I had a habit of questioning belief systems I remember, and since their identity was often wrapped in a Weltanschauung with which I was seldom acquainted (or ever invited to join), I suspect I bruised their feathers.

I’d like to think I have matured since those early days, but old habits die hard, and since ‘why’ is such an important question to ask, maybe that’s why I have always enjoyed Philosophy. Alas, my more erudite friends are quick to point out that I have only picked at its calloused surface; I suspect they’re right. Still, I’ve enjoyed the company of such names as Descartes, Plato, and even Simone de Beauvoir and her paramour Jean Paul Sartre -if only scantily and rather superficially. There is a much larger list from whom I feel some tugging as well, but unless the page is open in front of me, I have trouble pronouncing their names, let alone spelling them, so I usually just stick with the ones I remember studying in university.

Some philosophers, however, were anathema at the time, so I never got much practice on them -Foucault and Derrida spring to mind. I kind of enjoyed Foucault for a while, though. I managed to make it part way through his Madness and Civilization (in translation, of course), but perhaps that was because I was going out with a rather fringe girlfriend at the time, who felt it spoke to her. She must have had really good ears because after a while I had trouble hearing it at all -her too, eventually.

But Derrida had a different voice altogether. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around his insistence on ‘deconstructing’ everything: trying to examine things by taking them apart to see if there were other ways of assembling them -sort of like taking apart a clock and then trying to put it together again differently. I mean, it’s an intriguing approach to reality -it no doubt adds a new understanding of its nature. Still, for those of us who barely knew what we were tearing apart, it seemed unsettling to disturb the order of things and to force us to accept that we had merely been floating on its surface. The need to question why, was not at all obvious -especially if we thought everything had been in working order all along.

But parts of Derrida’s philosophy, rather than simply being difficult to understand, seemed unnervingly familiar to me. It was almost as if he’d also being celebrating the ‘why’ questions – immortalizing them; realizing that what had been involved in the construction of something could be utilized to break it into its component parts: to deconstruct it. And much as I felt it was often counterintuitive to disassemble something which appeared to be working, I began to understand why he insisted on asking ‘why’: to investigate whether there might be a better way. Society evolves, so why not the doctrines and convictions it has retained from former times?

Of course any understanding of the beliefs of someone as complicated as Derrida, has been filtered through far more erudite sieves than my own, but nonetheless I sort of recognized something of my youth in him. Okay, only something… my whys were recognizably less than lofty, and certainly not spurred by any epiphany about the world -I mean for me, the questions only began in the postdiluvian Winnipeg of the 1950ies and the most profound one I ever asked was why nobody would dance with me at the school sock-hops in the gym.

For some reason, I was reminded of those events when I stumbled upon writings by the Australian writer Peter Salmon, entitled ‘How to deconstruct the world’  https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-deconstruct-the-world-by-thinking-like-jacques-derrida  Actually, I suspect the credentials to which I was attracted were those in the title of his latest book: ‘An Event Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida’.

As he suggests: ‘Part of thinking like Derrida involves taking those things we take most for granted – such as our identity, such as our language – and looking for unexplored assumptions, contradictions and absences. Thinking like Derrida is a form of close reading, not just of texts, such as those of philosophy and literature, but of everything – art, religion, politics, even ourselves.’ I don’t think I ever took it that far on the playground, though.

‘In 1967, Derrida introduced a new method to philosophy, which he called deconstruction… this is the idea that if something is constructed, it can be de-constructed. That applies to objects in the world, such as chairs, cars and houses, but it also applies to the concepts we use, such as truth, justice and God. These ‘things’, which we tend to assume are natural, are in fact culturally constructed.  There might or might not be an actual God – deconstruction has no opinion on this – but the only ‘God’ we can encounter is a culturally constructed one. As that other controversial philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it, if you want to know the meaning of the word God, look at how it is used.’ Of course, my Sunday school would have had me flogged in front of the entire congregation had I ventured to suggest that.

And anyway, as Salmon explains, ‘deconstruction is not destruction. The concept or object is still there at the end.’ My teachers would continue to have jobs -in fact they’d be rather useful for explaining Derrida and offering the available fodder. So all I’d have to do to deconstruct what I’d been told, would be to hold up my hand and simply ask ‘why?’.

Well, I suppose it wouldn’t really be as easy as that -it’s kind of a Derrida for Dummies– but it’s something which a sarcastic sesquipedalian like me might have tried.

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