Despite the idea of truth being relegated to personal experience, since ideas cannot be grasped in their “pure form” without the aid of an “other”, something placed in opposition to the initial concept, the search for truth is not wholly cast aside for the postmodern Deconstructionist. It is the aim of Deconstruction to move deeper and deeper into the meaning of a word, or concept, in an attempt to secure the word, or concept, in its purity. Though what the deconstructionist acknowledges is an inability to ever reach the source, or the pure form, of a concept. It is only through a system of negations that one can begin to grasp the truth behind a text. The method of negation, opposing texts and ideas to something “other” than itself, defines a term Jacques Derrida coined as différance.
The postmodern concept of différance shares many similarities with a pre-modern concept called apophatic theology. I said earlier the Eastern Orthodox Church has largely rejected systematic, or scholastic, theology; instead, they have always felt more comfortable with a theology which is negative, or apophatic, in its approach. An apophatic approach to theology is an attempt to understand the essence of God by recognizing we can never actually know the essence of God. It is a continuous process of negation which moves ever closer to God by distinguishing what He is not. For example, we say that God is not evil; He is not hate. Therefore God is love, but because our understanding of love is imperfect, we cannot say with total confidence that God is “love”—at a minimum He is Love which is incomprehensible to humans. Georges Florovsky, an Orthodox priest and theologian, said:
Our true knowledge is that we do not and cannot know because that which we seek is beyond our cognition. By its very nature the Divinity is higher than knowledge and comprehension.
Like différance, apophatic theology seeks to reach a pure concept, in this case God, through understanding what He is not, and embracing the knowledge that our mortal minds will never reach a place where complete understanding of the divine essence is possible.
God is ultimately beyond our imperfect human understanding and it is only through revelations of Himself where we can be confident in His divine characteristics. This is where apophatic theology and différance move in separate directions. Derrida always insisted that différance was not a form of negative (apophatic) theology and he is correct. Ultimately, negative theology is built around a being that exists, albeit outside of our comprehension. Deconstruction sets out to show that all concepts and ideas are merely products of a culture and ultimately do not exist. This does not mean that tangible objects are figments of our imaginations, but that what we call these objects, and how we interact with them, are constructs of a thought process which is unique to our present state. The God of Christianity is a “first cause” for all concepts and one must pursue God’s mind, or will, in all things if they are to gain an understanding of truth. Postmodern Deconstruction denies a “first cause” and therefore, any concept of truth we have is subject to endless scrutiny.
When reading a text through the eyes of a Deconstructionist, every single word we come across becomes a puzzle, an aporia which removes authorship from the one who has written the words. What Derrida was searching for was a state of total freedom from the influences of our culture. He said,
I know it is not possible to write in an absolutely naïve fashion, but that is my dream.
This catharsis of one’s culture as a means to truth, reminds me of the Hindu practice of becoming in tune with the Om, or the central vibration of universe. Except différance is the antithesis of this idea; by stepping outside the communal hum, différance searches for the autonomy of person and thought. Let me be clear though, Derrida’s aim was not a form of secular theology.
Derrida rightly reminds us, différance has no agenda, no arche, no telos, and makes no ontological claims (Rubenstein 392).
What is the impact of Derrida’s Deconstruction, and postmodern thought, for Western Civilization?
Deconstruction has set up a means to further explore the intent behind an author’s written words. It forces the reader to look at how the writer may have formed an understanding of their ideas. By looking at the author’s immediate environment, we can better understand what they are attempting to tell us. As a method of literary criticism, Deconstruction is a useful tool, though it has developed into much more. The binary oppositions which set up the Derridian concept of différance create an apophatic understanding of our entire physical (created) world; it attempts to remove all positive thoughts and language about an object or idea. By positive I do not mean, “Hooray, that idea is so great!” Positive language is language that can accurately and definitively state what an idea is; I can positively say I am writing an essay. I can also positively say that most people reading this essay have fallen asleep by now.
The tendency of Western thought to develop a systematic approach to the world around us is culminated in the binary oppositions of Structuralism. Structuralism sets up chasms by creating a dichotomy in every concept we come across. It is easy for us to see the difficulty, or damage, in viewing the world through a system of oppositions: black/white, man/woman, right/left, conservative/liberal, capitalist/socialist, pro-life/pro-choice, gay/straight, slave/free, believer/non-believer, sacred/secular, God/man, life/death. Every aspect of our lives that cannot be measured by a mathematical formula becomes a call to arms, where one must pick a side and defend that side to the death.
Perhaps Deconstruction attempts to solve this issue, but in reality in only becomes another element to the same system, and ultimately throws fuel on the fire. The first step in analyzing the binary opposition through Deconstruction is determining the dominant term, so in all aspects of life there is an oppressor and an oppressed. This may or may not help in explaining this age of constant revolution. I am not suggesting that there is no oppression or that certain parties do not act out this oppression, but when we break down the binary to its basic elements then label one part as dominant or oppressive, it infuses the ontological character of that term with an adverse distinction. This distinction becomes a cultural dogma that becomes very difficult to undermine. This is why is has become so important to identify as a victim in our society; prove your victimhood in order to bring down your opposition.
Rather than solve the opposition present in the binary created by Modernist Structuralism, Postmodern Deconstruction sends ideas and concepts into an endless spiral of irreconcilable antagonisms. Truth hinges on the cultural conditioning of the individual and can never be reached since we are all individuals who are separate and lack a collective mind or Primary Cause. Paradoxically this removes the “truth” from every person’s speech; a person no longer has access to what they perceive as truth. Access is granted only to the historians, the social-scientists, the philosophers, who are summed up properly as the intelligentsia. The truth and sincerity of even our most basic words become locked behind the walls of a neo-gnostic cult; understanding is granted only after one gains a “special knowledge”. Our perception of the world is predestined by our setting since the freedom of our will is inescapably bound by our contextual environment. Différance, which searches for the autonomy of person and thought, finally succeeds specifically in stripping the person and their thoughts of autonomy.
To be further continued…