I’m still on my Jacques Derrida kick! I’ve spent a week surfing his works and reading the exciting biography Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters (as recommended to me by a commenter to last weekend’s Derrida post).
I now realize how ridiculous it is that I’ve never studied Derrida or the other deconstructionists and poststructuralists before, since they cover many of the same themes I’ve been long obsessed with: ethics, language, personal identity, political activism. I now find Derrida deftly reaching the same kinds of conclusions I have been groping towards (but, I’m sure, with much less finesse and skill) in these pages. In short, I feel like I’ve been a deconstructionist/post-structuralist all my life, but I didn’t know it until now.
Years ago, I used to think about oranges, and wonder what I could do about the fact that sometimes an orange just doesn’t taste as good as an orange should taste. What is the essence of an orange? How is it possible that something could be an orange but not contain or present the essence of an orange? The more I explored this question, the more new questions it raised. Is an orange called an orange because its color is orange, or is the color orange named after the fruit? If the former, then what would we possibly call the color if the fruit didn’t exist? If the latter, then what is the meaning of the blood orange, which has a tart ultra-orange-y taste, but is a lurid red?
The taste of an orange is just as distinct as the color, but as every orange-eater knows, you sometimes pop a slice from a newly peeled orb into your mouth and feel instantly disappointed. All too often an orange tastes like nothing — flat, fibrous, chewy, watery nothing. Well, way back when I was a kid, I sometimes used to lick a spoon (disgusting, I know, but I was just a kid) and stick it into the jar of Tang orange drink powder that my Mom kept around the house for me. Now that was the essence of orange.
(Interestingly, I never really cared much to drink Tang, which tasted like Kool-Aid and didn’t have much tang at all, but I liked to lick the spoon. I would ostentatiously guzzle a glass of Tang in front of my family every now and then to make sure we kept the kitchen well-stocked, but a glass of Tang really never tasted very good, although it was cool that the Apollo astronauts drank it).
Now, many decades later, I realize that I was exploring Derrida’s concepts when I pondered all these problems. The fact that something could possibly be more orange than an orange — in the sense that a delicious layer of Tang powder clinging to a wet spoon is bright orange, and makes your mouth explode with orange flavor — points to the same indeterminacy of essence that Derrida was apparently writing about when he introduced the concept differance.
I tried to briefly describe the meaning of differance briefly in last weekend’s blog post. I didn’t do a very good job, but here’s what I wrote:
“Differance” signifies a person or thing’s difference with itself. Since we do not have intrinsic natures, we are always changing from ourselves, turning into ourselves, turning away from ourselves. (I’m not completely sure what this “differance” thing is all about, but I like it, and I think Lao Tze, Heraclitus and Nietzsche would like it too.)
Everyday life, I think, is simply teeming with differance. For instance, there are even more examples to be found in the banal childhood story above. Not only does a jar of Tang powder infringe upon the identity of orange by being perceptibly more orange than orange … it also fails to maintain its own identity!. As I mentioned above, I used to eat Tang with a spoon, because that’s how it tasted best. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person eating Tang with a spoon, either. Yet Tang is a drink powder. It manages to be something it’s not, but it doesn’t always manage to contain the essence of itself.
As I read the various works of Derrida, I find certain of his concepts very familiar from the work of other philosophers. Despite Jacques Derrida’s controversial reputation, his work seems to me to be more of a synthesis and an explication than a revolution. There seems to be a whole lot of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language theory here, as well as William James’s Pragmatism, Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenology, Jean-Paul Sartre’s urgency towards real-world engagement.
More than anything else, Derrida’s philosophy seems to me very compatible with Existentialism. As I read his words, I find myself continually intoning the Existentialist mantra in sympathetic response: “Yes, of course. Existence precedes essence”.
Since Derrida got his college education in Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it’s hardly surprising that he would be strongly influenced by Existentialism, which was fashionable in these years. It’s a bit surprising, though, that in my own fairly thorough reading of Existentialist philosophy I have seen so few references to Derrida, or to deconstruction or to post-structuralism. I’m not sure why this is.
I also find it strange that Derrida is still considered such a firebrand (or, to his detractors, such a fraud) within the contemporary philosophy establishment. The same academics who still dismiss or ridicule Derrida tend to embrace the great Existentialists who preceded and obviously informed him: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre.
The realization that Derrida’s essential messages are those that primarily characterize a different philosophy from his own is also, I suppose, an irony entirely in keeping with deconstructionism. There is is again: le differance.