I’m pleased to run this guest piece by S.D. Kelly, particularly given the direction the Trump campaign has gone in the past week.
A dozen years after his death, the ideas promoted by the historian and philosopher Jacques Derrida still wield a powerful influence. This holds true even for people who have never heard of Derrida. In fact, it might even be especially true for people who have never heard of Derrida. During his superstar academic career, Derrida wrote thousands of pages and lectured to thousands of students, dismantling the constructs of a very logocentric world through the philosophical and critical approach of deconstructionism.
Reading Derrida’s work is like going to the dentist’s office: It’s not fun while you’re in the chair, but it pays off in the end. However difficult the task of reading Derrida may be at the time, his work illuminates the concepts that animate the culture outside of academia, the place where most of us live.
Deconstructionism became an ascendant mode of analysis (however much Derrida himself resisted associating deconstruction with critique) in the last half of the last century. It is the source from which all of our subsequent -isms live and move and have their being. In a funny sort of tension, deconstructionism exists alongside, while completely undermining, the prevailing modes of literary criticism: the popular approach of reading a text as a feminist or Marxist, or within the framework of queer or gender theory.
These sorts of readings may have a certain political resonance, but even they cannot withstand the assault of deconstructionism. In the end, deconstructionism renders the text itself meaningless, never mind whether or not it is sufficiently feminist or Marxist or whatever. The deconstructionists achieve this feat by pulling apart the text itself, breaking it down into something far less than its sum, examining text word by word, and then calling into question what each word means. In this exercise, a holistic approach to a text is no longer possible, as no internal logic or structure to a text is discoverable. To paraphrase Yeats, it is not that the center of a text cannot hold, but that there is no center.
The End of Words
The stories people tell through literature are composed of words. It seems so obvious that it would seem hardly worth stating: Words are the building block of communication, whether spoken or written. As unassailable this idea may seem, however, words are precisely the base element Derrida dares to deconstruct.
According to Derrida, words—the signifiers—mean nothing apart from context, and context comes from other words, all of them subject to the same limitations of meaning. Words acquire meaning only in the negative, the opposite of what the word is saying. The word strong becomes meaningful only in relation to the word weak, and so on. Without wading too deeply into the thick swamp of semiotics, it could be said that by breaking down words into discrete signifiers, Derrida and his fellow deconstructionists have uncoupled words from meaning. To be clear, deconstructionists themselves make no such claim, and don’t consider themselves responsible for whatever happens after words are rendered meaningless.
“Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock, but thin air,” wrote the literary critic and Derrida contemporary J. Hillis Miller. So Miller, at least, is off the hook. He’s not undermining the meaning of a text; he’s just showing the rest of the world that a text can’t possibly mean anything.
But while ideas may seem harmless enough in theory, they are not so harmless in execution. Propose an idea in the vacuum of the academic world, of publishing papers and attending conferences, and it doesn’t seem to take up any air. A single proponent of a particular idea can get away with saying any old thing as long as it is demonstrated inside the vacuum.
But this is the problem with the vacuum: It doesn’t exist. Ideas matter, and the positing of an idea carries consequences. Ideas are viral. No matter how abstract, they manage to spread far outside the confines of academia, affecting the general population. The people engaged in the material work of the world, that of changing diapers, stocking store shelves, fixing cars, and so on, are not immune to whatever is cooked up in the lab by the theoreticians, even a concept as esoteric as deconstruction. The movies actually get this point right: The eggheads come up with a big idea and a scrap of DNA from a charming old fossil, and the next thing you know, regular people are being trampled by a massive genetically-engineered dinolizard.
The ideas emanating from deconstructionism go have long since escaped the laboratory of the university. College graduates, people who now comprise nearly 40% of working-aged Americans, according to the Lumina Foundation, have carried and spread the spores over the last several decades. These graduates have gone on to occupy positions of influence at every level of American society, from media to education to politics. Deconstructionism has been in the water for a while now, and Americans, no matter the demographic, are drinking from the same source.
Trump as Deconstructionist
No cultural event illustrates this more than the political ascendancy of Donald J. Trump. Much is made of the fact that his supporters are primarily working class whites without college degrees, the population that would, superficially, seem to counter the dissemination of deconstructionism and other abstractions. In fact, Trump supporters are often cited as finding their candidate to be refreshingly free of obligation to all the -isms and associated politically correct speech. Feminism, Socialism, Genderism: Trump refutes it all through plain speak, through “telling it like it is.”
This sounds great, except for the fact that—thanks in large part to the work of the deconstructionists—there is no longer an is. Americans no longer share a reality, culturally speaking. They don’t even believe in reality, except in an individual sense—the sense of personal narrative. This is why Trump can get away with saying one thing and then its opposite. What he says is true enough for a lot of people, even if what he is saying today differs from what he said yesterday. His supporters don’t care., They have come to implicitly understand that words themselves no longer signify any kind of objective reality. (In fact, they understand it better than the current denizens of academia, who have countered the chaos of deconstructionism by attempting to enforce the cultural script of gender, sexual consent, etc.)
How Trump says what he says, and how he makes you feel when he says it, is the closest listeners can come to ascribing meaning to the words that come out of his mouth. Do you listen to Trump and grow enraged? Well then, his reality is not for you. Do you listen to him and grow enamored? Well then, his reality might intersect with yours, at least in enough places to compel you toward him at a rally or in the voting booth. The meaning of the words Donald Trump actually uses matter less than the way his words make his listeners feel. This is appropriate in its way, since Trump’s speeches perfectly represent the deconstructionist zenith: the negation of words.
This is why one could read, in an attempt to figure out just what is going on in this bizarre election cycle, a hundred different insightful think pieces explaining Trump’s dominance in the Republican primary race and find that each explanation resonates as true. Trump is leading because he appeals to rage, Trump is leading because he appeals to fear, Trump is leading because he will protect Christians, because he’ll kick out illegals, because he’ll ban Muslims, because he’ll build factories, because he’s rich, because he’s a businessman, because he’s anti-establishment, because he’s a political outsider, because he is self-funded, because he’ll stop ISIS, because he’ll build a wall, because he’ll keep them out, because he’ll keep us in.
“What deconstruction is not? Everything of course! What is deconstruction? Nothing of course!” — Jacques Derrida
Trump is everything and he is nothing. What Trump says, the words he uses, are made significant only in terms of the signified, which has been reduced to Trump himself. Taken alone, his words have no fixed meaning. It should not be shocking that a candidate such as Trump emerges; he is truly a man for our time. And it should not be shocking that regular Americans support him. They are people of Derrida’s time.
Very well, Then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes, wrote Whitman, our national poet of the Self. A contemporary elaboration on Whitman might read:
Very well, then. I contradict myself. I can say whatever I want, Words don’t matter.
Trump embodies contradiction in the manner of Whitman’s multitudes: stylistically, rhetorically, physically—layer after layer, image after image. From his hair-not hair to his successful businesses-not successful businesses. He is this and he is the opposite of this. He is strong and yet does not show restraint. He utters contradictory statements so perfect in their contradiction it is as though he has created a new form: palindrome as political rhetoric.
Trump, however, is no ideologue, even if, for a moment here and there, he sounds like one. He will not demand that society conform to a particular set of ideals, a particular way of being, other than the one which he is feeling at the moment. And if his particular, momentary way of being, the fragment of the fractured whole that composes his Trumpian self, troubles you, then that is your problem.
The world is no longer logocentric, words no longer mean anything, and this is not Trump’s fault. Trump is not to be held solely responsible for the fact that, when he is front of a crowd, or in a debate, or in an interview, telling it like it is, there is no longer an is. Our politicians make a practice of speaking words into the void and seeing what happens next. If the madness that follows the political rhetoric at a rally demonstrates the dismantling of society itself, don’t blame the practitioners. Blame the theoreticians for a change. Blame Derrida.
S.D. Kelly lives with her family in coastal New England where she writes and works with a local nonprofit. Follow her on Twitter at @s_d_kelly.