Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Does Derrida mean what he says?

Thinking about Deconstruction in the context of creating art objects and trying to imbue them with significance beyond that of just a nice looking object I'm struck by how fast the Deconstructive tendencies fold under their own weight on observation. Derrida's Deconstructionism is based on the idea that no symbol or idea in and of itself means what it says truly and completely. Truth, indeed, is labeled as a false strategy that gives meaning to things that are intrinsically meaningless cultural artifacts. Truth in this sense means the quest for truth or a truth within the swarm of ideas and symbols out there. But the strategy of analyzing symbols and ideas and pointing out how they all depend on and refer back to previous symbols and ideas in some way, or alternately to relations present in society, ends in a very familiar place: the ambiguity of everyday life. Yes, there are no absolutely 'true' symbols or ideas in the sense of them being absolutely solid, and indeed there are things that condition ideas.....but at this point you have to realize that the analysis of the conditioning of ideas is itself conditioned by ideas.....however this is the normal space of existence, not some otherworldly insight that's been passed down from on high. Ambiguity is in the nature of the game, any symbol or idea can be viewed multiple ways, all ideas around you can bear the trace of previous ideas that they came from, with the whole thing being a kind of ghostly miasma, yet this is the, or one of the, basic existential problems of life. Nothing is black and white, everything is a shade of grey, there are no straight lines in nature as Hegel pointed out. Navigating the mess and trying to find some conditional meaning within it is the problem that we all face.

But just because everything has an aura of ambiguity around it does not mean that the only recourse is to give up trying to imbue works of art with particular meanings. Your meaning may be derivative in a sense and your act in trying to transmit it may be presumptuous---phonocentric: stemming from the presumed forcing of meaning through speaking it, leading to phallocentric, the same unconscious intent put into Freudian terms---but that's the chance that you always take in creating something. There's no way around it and therefore it shouldn't be viewed with a total disdain, but embraced as the way that enhanced and concentrating meaning culled out of the swarm of half meanings flying around us can be produced in a unique and possibly uniquely meaningful way. It's possible to take the chaos of meaning out there and herd the cattle into a nice pattern that while still unruly and somewhat independent is cohesive.


The title of the post is a pun on Derrida's philosophy: if Derrida really meant what he said, if he imbued it with an aura of valid and pure meaning, then he would be speaking falsely according to his own rules.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While Derrida would be tickled by your pun, all joking aside, I think you're taking things a little too seriously.

Perhaps you are hinting at it (in your second paragraph), but the while point of deconstruction is not to force an existential choice between meaning or the lack thereof, but to engage playfully in the spaces between. And rejecting existentialism in favor of play can be quite liberating indeed - or not.

As for your final question, no, I think Derrida made it quite clear throughout his life that he did not really "mean" what he said at all.