For those of us who think words are important, Jacques Derrida delivered what is arguably the most important lecture of the 20th century entitled "Structure, Sign, and Play" in 1966. At the end of his lecture, Derrida noted that there are two ways in which we can approach the written word: "[The] one seeks to decipher…a truth or an origin," "the other…affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond…the reassuring foundation." I have tried to create a diagram to help explain what I think he means. The top half is the first "way," the bottom half is the second:
How is this relevant to you? If you're an academic in the field of literature, it's the question of whether or not there are ever objectively better interpretations of a given work. If you're in philosophy, it's the question of whether or not the Real can ever be understood or represented in any universal fashion. If you have religious beliefs centered around a sacred text, it's the question of whether or not you can discern what the author's intended meaning was for you in your religious life.
If you answered "yes we can" to any of the questions in the above paragraph, you probably feel more comfortable with the top half of my diagram. If you answered "no we can't," you prefer the bottom. Unfortunately, Derrida claims that we can't camp out on either half. If you prefer the top half, there will always be inconsistencies, there will always be exceptions to the universal. If you prefer the bottom, you'll always be haunted by nostalgia for transcendent meaning. Unless, of course, you prefer to be blind. There are Christian fanatics who refuse to wrestle with the implications of the fact that God commanded the nation of Israel to commit genocide in Deuteronomy, or that the high priest Jesus mentions in Mark 2:26 (Abiathar) is not the same as the one mentioned in 1 Samuel 21 (Ahimelech). There are atheists who adamantly insist that all religious experiences are mass delusions, despite the fact that over 90% of the world's population adheres to one religion or another. If I may make an evaluative statement, I think this kind of blindness on both sides of the fence is naive and the source of many of the world's ills.
Derrida states that "[we] must first try to conceive of the common ground [between these two perspectives], and the difference of this irreducible difference." In describing the work of finding the common ground, Derrida does so "with a glance toward the business of childbearing." In a sense, Derrida is asking us to become champions of the middle, to become expert midwives. A good midwife knows that only the mother is capable of giving birth, that being a midwife is about setting things up, making straight the path, and waiting with hope.
This is the project I am most interested in at present. The next few notes will map out my explorations of this middle ground. I hope you'll join me in discussing whether Derrida's dichotomy is sound, whether I'm extending it appropriately, and whether or not you think people must fit in one category or the other.
5 years ago