Monday, 15 December 2008

Deconstruction as Nihilism

We always had this hunch that deconstruction was a rather sophisticated game played with words, not something that had any intrinsic connection with the critical impulse - the need to engage with what feels like a social malaise - which had originally led us to philosophy, having spent some time on the barricades and been troubled by questions concerning the truth of our protest. In short, it just seemed obvious that deconstruction was a form of nihilism. So we didn't see the point in spending much time wading through the turgid Derridean monologues, and consequently never actually came up with a cogent critique.

Still, it would be nice to have a critique, which is why we were delighted to come across (14 years too late) a lovely paper by Jack M. Balkin entitled "Transcendental Deconstruction, Transcendent Justice." Balkin wants to rescue deconstruction and establish that it can be part of a movement for greater justice, and apparently it is in terms of justice that the moral/ethical/political/practical import of deconstruction can best be panned out, according to Derrida. Prior to rescuing deconstruction Balkin conveniently points out why it is need of a helping hand - and this is the bit we like.

Balkin picks up the argument in a lecture given at the Cardozo Law School in 1989, in which Derrida was responding specifically to criticisms of political quietism and irrelevance. In a nutshell, Derrida maintained that people fighting for justice were calling into question certain identities and differences in the prevailing discourse of justice enshrined in law, which is just the sort of thing deconstruction does. The deconstruction of the human/animal distinction would tie in, for instance, with the arguments and intentions of animal rights activists who want animals to be accorded rights previously reserved for persons. "Hence, Derrida wants to insist, deconstruction is relevant to justice because we can deconstruct the boundaries of who is considered a "person" or, more generally, a proper subject of justice. By challenging these boundaries, we can move from a world in which the conception of a subject of justice is wrongfully limited to one in which it receives a just expansion."

And now the criticism:

"Derrida has not shown that the only way in which these oppositions might be deconstructed leads to increasingly just results. If deconstruction calls into question the boundaries of subjects of justice, it does not follow that the only way to question these boundaries is to advocate their expansion. They may well be unstable, as Derrida insists. Yet their instability might be evidence that they are about to implode, rather than expand. Furthermore, even if there must be an expansion, one can expand the boundary in two opposite directions - by expanding the scope of what is assigned to the "human," who is a subject of justice, or by expanding the scope of what is assigned to the "nonhuman," which is not a proper subject of justice. In this way, the instability of these boundaries might well be used, as it has in the past, to show that blacks, or Asians, or women are not fully human beings, or that the distinction between women and animals, for example, is so unstable that it cannot fully be maintained.

"Indeed, one can understand the history of bigotry as the continuous deconstruction of an imagined unity of humankind. It is the perpetual claim that the unity of humankind is a pious fiction, a papered-over discontinuity and heterogeneity, and that the Other within this imagined unity must be located and understood in all of its difference and inferiority. The egalitarian claims to rediscover the true similarity of the subjects of justice by reclaiming those who were wrongly grouped with nonsubjects; the bigot claims to rediscover the true similarity of nonsubjects of justice by rejecting those who were wrongly grouped with the subjects of justice. Both deconstruct boundaries and categories, and the act of deconstruction does not decide between them."

So deconstruction is a tool that can be put in the service of both our favorite or our most hated social movements. Balkin tries to rescue deconstruction from this nihilistic conclusion by saying that both the discourse and practice of justice rely on and ultimately spring from an inchoate sense of justice - a sense that achieves its determinacy through our local cultural mediations - and this is just what the practice of deconstruction relies on and is guided by. And a deconstruction so guided could not be called nihilistic.

But this is singularly unconvincing. There are many inchoate senses - some of them nice and some not so nice - and my hunch is that deconstruction just doesn't have the resources to come down on one side or the other. The reason may be that it does not self-consciously speak out of and tie itself to a particular historical situation. A useful contrast here is with Adorno, who never hides the fact that his thinking is orientated by the experience of surviving the holocaust and of reacting to its horror. However general and philosophical the discourse becomes, Adorno insists on that connection with a particular historical situation. And Adorno continually comes back to the way philosophy is implicated in or complicit in that historical situation. There is nothing comparable - is there? - in Derrida's philosophical works.

By the way, Balkin's paper really is nice. He is sympathetic to Derrida but cuts through opaque generalities with ease and brings them face to face with the nitty gritty of trying to do justice in a court of law. He beautifully shows how the idea of an infinite responsibility to the Other, which sounds so unequivocally moral on first hearing, would promote injustice without some way of seeing that the victim is not duty-bound to see her situation from the point of view of the oppressor. This - another by the way - ties in with our immediate moral predicament of whether or not to carry on being a hunt saboteur.

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