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Jacques Derrida Dismantles Modernity

Jacques Derrida revealed modernity's dirty secret: It was always just another religion . . . or rather, a series of religions, just like the Christian sects it scorned.

Pablosecca, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Steve Martin had a standup bit consisting of him giving ideas to the audience about how they can be funny, too. One of the ideas: The next time you go to a party, as soon as you arrive, throw all the food on the floor.

Martin's ironic idea is a metaphor for what Jacques Derrida did in Baltimore back in 1966, and, unlike Martin, he wasn't joking around.

Derrida was Supposed to Celebrate Structuralism. Instead, He Attacked It

In 1966, Johns Hopkins University hosted a conference on "The Language of Criticism and the Science of Man." The intent was to celebrate the arrival in America of the language philosophy known as “structuralism,” which had originated in France in the early 1900s. David Mikics, Who Was Jacques Derrida (Yale, 2009), 94.

Jacques Derrida had been given the honor of delivering the final lecture at a conference held to celebrate the coming of structuralism to America.

Instead of celebrating structuralism, Derrida demolished it. In the words of Derrida’s biographer David Mikics, Derrida effectively announced “structuralism’s death” at the event meant to celebrate its birth in America.

In his lecture, Derrida pointed out that the structuralist’s rejection of all centers (sources of meaning emanating from Plato’s form) is itself a new center. The structure is their logos: from it, they derive all meaning, just as a Christian derives all meaning from the Logos (Christ).

Derrida was effectively saying the structuralist is just as religious as the Christian; they just posited different logos. The biggest difference is, the Christian realizes he worships a logos, whereas the structuralists don’t.

Significantly, Derrida also pointed out that structuralists elevate empiricism to the status of a logos or centering force. Structuralists believe science provides the tools for studying the structure, much like Christians believe the Bible provides the tool for studying God. Derrida, who wanted to smash all logos and particularly delighted in smashing the logos of people who claimed they have no logos, said empiricism is a major problem:

Empiricism is the matrix of all faults menacing [a structuralism discourse] which continues . . . to consider itself scientific.

Derrida Killed Structuralism, Ushering in the "Post-Structuralism" ("Deconstructionist" Era)

Derrida’s lecture was apparently dazzling.

It killed structuralism immediately.

After the Johns Hopkins conference, cutting-edge academics would be “post-structuralists."

Or, to adapt the Derridean vein, they would be called “deconstructionists."

Deconstructionism Relentlessly Seeks to Kill any Binaries Before They Emerge

Deconstructionalism uses structuralism's starting point (words have no inherent meaning) and relentlessly tries to root out any speech or thought that might have a logos in it.

If a term starts to acquire, in the deconstructionist’s language, “presentness,” by, for instance, privileging itself over a binary opposite (privileging, say, “civilization” to “barbarism”), then the deconstructionist attacks it because the term could then start to serve as a source of meaning, from which other “problems,” like norms of behavior or religious-type beliefs might spring.

Deconstructionism is Kinda Like a KKK Member Accusing Someone of Racism

The problem with deconstructionism is that it hoists itself by its own petard.

If words mean nothing, then the same goes for deconstructionist texts. Deconstructionism has nothing to say about anything. It effectively shuts down the Baconian freeway by battering empiricism on grounds that it has become an outsized logocentric idea in modernity, but because it can affirm nothing objectively true, it puts all of us on the Cartesian freeway of fierce subjectivism.

But that doesn’t bother me. Sure, I can’t possibly believe in deconstructionism, but I like it.

I like it because deconstructionism dealt with the problem of modernity head-on.

Derrida Smashed the Great Baconian-Cartesian Modernity Freeway (It Had Already become Ridden with Potholes; Derrida Just Tore It Up Altogether)

Modern thought runs along the Baconian and Cartesian freeways: absolute value placed on science and on one’s own ideas. The modern mind weaves between the lanes and (this is what Derrida pointed out) isn’t even aware of it, grabbing ideas or concepts, often supposedly originating from science, and making them into mini-gods (logos) in their minds where absolute truth supposedly dwells, and then allowing their logocentric ideas to spawn privileged ideas (favored poles of various binaries).

Derrida spent his career attacking all sorts of modern logos: thoughts and ideas that, while purporting to disdain all religious (ontological) belief, adopted ideas or concepts or principles that were effectively, and obtusely, elevated to religious status. He attacked Husserl, J.L. Austin, Levi-Strauss, Hegel, even Freud (whose “unconscious” was just another logos, Derrida said).

Derrida knew modernity was nothing more than the elevation of rationalized ideals to the status of being (to the status of objective, ontological truths), and he hated it, but he preserved special animus for empiricism. He knew it had long been elevated way beyond its merits to become a centering force just like religion is (making it, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “scientism”).

Bacon and Descartes: Fathers of Modernity

Derrida and Foucault: Fathers of Postmodernity

Derrida is considered one of the two great pillars of postmodern thought. The other is Michel Foucault.

Derrida long bristled that Foucault was a darling of the Left. Derrida tried to be consistent with his deconstructionist philosophy and adopt no logos in his own life or thinking, but that meant he couldn’t believe in or advocate for anything, so when the student radicals in the United States and Europe started their agitation and got a lot of press, it was Foucault they embraced, not Derrida. Derrida eventually succumbed to the relative neglect and took on a political bent, even embracing Marxism, despite the fact that its economic structuralism is an obvious (and ruthless/relentless) logocentric idea.

Derrida Promoted Freedom and Abolition of Secular Logos

I don’t want to be too hard on Derrida. He was apparently a fairly decent guy and not a complete moral reprobate like many French thinkers of the 20th century: Althusser, Foucault, Sartre, Lacan. He was intellectually mischievous and he unleashed a barrage of problems that plague colleges and universities to this day, but he championed deconstructionism for a good purpose: he thought that, by freeing men and women of all centering forces—all logos, all metaphysics, all meaning, all notions of being—they would become absolutely free and happy. It’s a misguided notion (and arguably posits “freedom” as just another logos, thereby undercutting deconstructionism), but freedom is a good thing and such a goal admirable.

He also shined a spotlight on the hypocritically religious nature of modern thinking in general: eschewing religious logos and unwittingly adopting secular logos.

So, his intent (to give humankind freedom) and his effect (to explain the religious nature of modern beliefs) are good, but Derrida (with his relentless consistency, even if foolhardy, as evidenced by his ridiculous prose) steadfastly refused to acknowledge anything pertaining to “being” or the act of existence.

It’s a serious problem when people don’t have a proper understanding or relationship with being and the act of existence, opting instead for essences and its subparts and unwittingly elevating them to occupy the parts properly reserved for being and the act of existence.

When that happens, the world becomes populated with gods: constructs of the mind that attain deity status. That’s what Derrida showed. That wasn’t his intent, obviously, because he loathed all ideas of being, but he showed how the ideas continued to crop back into modern thinking even after Bacon and Descartes had abolished being (ontology).

Once ideas attain such deity-like status, they inspire religious-like fervor, but without the ballast provided by a proper relationship with the act of existence and being.

It’s then that the religious fervor turns deadly, "for when gods fight among themselves, men have to die." Etienne Gilson

Derrida Attacked Modernity's Logos because They Were Logos. Voegelin Attacked Modernity's Logos because They Were Fake Logos

It was one of Derrida’s contemporaries, Eric Voegelin, that explained this phenomenon. Derrida and Voegelin weren’t “fellow travelers,” not at all. In their core ideas, they are polar opposites—Derrida loathed logocentrism and Voegelin was a logocentrist; Voegelin loathed logophobia and Derrida reveled in it—but their ideas run parallel to one another.

Derrida hated modernity because it was a parade of rationalized ideas pretending to be ontological realities. Voegelin hated modernity because those fake ontological realities killed millions.

Either way, if you appreciate Derrida’s critique of modernity, you love Voegelin’s.