On Deconstructing Things and Terrorism

The idea of constructing things is readily understood, from joining the Lego pieces to building trust to creating a beautiful poetic verse, man has in his nature to put things together. Now comes Jacques Derrida, the Algerian-born, French intellectual who recently died at age 74, known as the father of deconstruction, the method of inquiry that asserted that all writing was full of confusion and contradiction, and that the author's intent could not overcome the inherent contradictions of language itself, robbing texts—whether literature, history or philosophy—of truthfulness, absolute meaning and permanence. Derrida’s deconstruction concept found ready setting in arts and social sciences, including linguistics, anthropology, political science, even architecture as literary critics began finding hidden meanings in written text, advocates of feminism and gay rights, and third world started digging into prejudices and inconsistencies of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Freud and other “dead white male” icons of Western culture and architects and designers began to “deconstruct” buildings by abandoning traditional symmetry and finally the filmmaker Woody Allen titled one of his movies “Deconstructing Harry,” adducing that his protagonist could best be understood by breaking down and analyzing his neurotic contradictions. Slowly the thesis of Derrida became a code word of intellectual discourse as much as were existentialism and structuralism, the two concepts, which, incidentally also emerged from France.

Many have tried to explain what Derrida meant, when he spoke of his concept of deconstruction: “Needless to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible.” Nevertheless, the “deconstruction” took off mainly in the US (not his France), partly because of Derrida’s charismatic personality and such quirks refusal to be photographed (here is his picture anyway) and statements like, “thinking is what we already know that we have not yet begun” or,“ Oh my friends, there is no friend...”

Some critics of Derrida find it disturbing to denigrate a Sophocles, Voltaire or Tolstoy by seeking out cultural biases and inexact language in their masterpieces. Comments like “Borrowing Derrida's logic one could deconstruct Mein Kampf to reveal that [Adolf Hitler] was in conflict with anti-Semitism,” says Peter Lennon or “[that the actions of Derrida leave] the impression that deconstruction means you never have to say you're sorry,” (Mark Lilla) fly around widely. Derrida's much-vaunted interpretive method of making sense out of non-sense (or vice versa) is something to ponder on as we examine our present socio-political and literary dilemmas and ironies. Deconstruction teaches us that great works of art and literature may contain ideas and assumptions that their creators may not have been entirely aware of. There is the Freudian unconscious, the Marxist theory of superstructure, the learned dissections of metaphor and allusion in literary criticism. It is difficult to argue with the cliché that things are seldom what they seem to be? According to Derrida, things can also never be what they say and any attempt to explain or reason or demonstrate or communicate already contains the seeds of its undoing; any statement must conjure up its opposite. We spend enormous energy making it clear what really cannot be made clear; one can always find a small point in the text, a paradox, an unexplained word, a knotty phrase that when properly probed can undermine the pretense, pull aside the curtain of ideology and show what indeterminacy and uncertainty lie beneath the surface. If we deconstruct the mission of present-day or the latter-day terrorists, it will all boil down to ordinary criminal behavior and nothing more. This is what made Derrida popular because this is a familiar part of our everyday life experience. Things are not what they appear to be. Two hundreds years ago, a famous poet of Urdu language, Mirza Ghalib wrote, “the stars are something else, from what they appear; they just deceive us daringly.” Perhaps this is why it is impossible to tie up all loose ends; orthodoxies have failed to organize human activities. Derrida’s also follows an orthodoxy in which rebellion is privileged over tradition and iconoclasm over authority: independence is declared, obeisance is dismissed, and autonomy is heralded. It all spells as radical anti-authoritarianism and counter-Western ideas. In the recent book, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, Derrida talks about 9/11: “We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy - a name, a number - points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.” It is easy to fill the gaping hole left by 9/11 than to deconstruct Mr. Derrida’s statement.