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3/25/04


Home______Deconstruction As Fashionable Nonsense

As a child, I could hear fog horns on San Francisco Bay during the night. Beeee-oohhhh, they would groan in deep bass, then repeat themselves, beeee-oohhhh, until the sky cleared some time next morning. Fog was my friend, then. It made me feel warm and cozy in bed and hopeful of light drizzle on the walk to school next day. Even today I enjoy misty weather and dark pavement glistening with moisture under street lights. But, of fog, there are two kinds of atmospherics, and I have come to like the other type less as I grow older. It has to do with intellectual fog.

Recently I opened a book titled Entropy: A New World View, by Jeremy Rifikin, and read this as an application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: "Every day we awake to a world that appears more confused and disordered than the one we left the night before. Nothing seems to work anymore. Our lives are bound up in constant repair. We are forever mending and patching. Our leaders are forever lamenting and apologizing. Every time we think we've found a way ouf of a crisis, something backfires. The powers that be continue to address the problems at hand with solutions that create even greater problems than the ones they were meant to solve."

Now, that sounds quite powerful, that prose--it has a roll, and a tone, but it means nothing. If Rifkin said to the reader that he is taking license with the scientific concept, entropy, then I would string along with him. But he is quite serious in applying the Second Law where it does not belong. He says this about that: "The entropy law destroys the notion of history as progress. The entropy law destroys the notion that science and technology create a more ordered world."

Sorry, Mr Rifkin, but it does no such thing. In fact, your statement is intellectual nonsense. Entropy is a complex, and difficult concept of physics that cannot be elevated to some over-arching philosophical principle. By no stretch of the imagination can it support a theory explaining what is wrong with modern society. It offers no universal filter by which to understand history.

Such misapplication is typical of a highly fashionable form of academic criticism, Deconstruction. Although useful in some instances, it is a theory that adopts scientific concepts as attempts to pry open the workings of society, politics, and literature. Its chief practitioner, Jacques Derrida, is capable of whoppers like his essay, "Differance." Here is an excerpt, and I would like to know what it means--

"Retaining at least the framework, if not the content, of this requirement formulated by Saussure, we will designate as differance the movement according to which language, or any code, any system of referral in general, is constituted 'historically' as a weave of differences. 'Is constituted', 'is produced', 'is created', 'movement', 'historically', etc. necessarily being understood beyond the metaphysical language in which they are retained, along with all their implications. We ought to demonstrate why concepts like production, constitution, and history remain in complicity with what is at issue here. But this would take me too far today--toward the theory of the representation of the 'circle' in which we appear to be enclosed--and I utilize such concepts, like many others, only for their strategic convenience and in order to undertake their deconstruction at the currently most decisive point. In any event, it will be understood, by means of the circle in which we appear to be engaged, that as it is written here, differance is no more static than it is genetic, no more structural than historical. Or is no less so; and to object to this on the basis of the oldest of metaphysical oppositions (for example, by setting some generative point of view against a structural-taxonomical point of view, or vice versa) would be, above all, not to read what here is missing from orthographical ethics. Such oppositions have not the least pertinence to differance, which makes the thinking of it uneasy and uncomfortable."

Sorry to inflict that on you, but you see my point. Science holds that the best explanations lie with elegance and it in turn lies with simplicity of explanation. Professor Derrida's approach is not elegant, only befuddling, and is nothing new in professorial writing.* The fog factor has always been fashionable, except now it has become an entire academic school of theoretical nonsense. Then again, perhaps I'm being too harsh. After all, pretentiousness has often been a successful ploy in academe, and literature PhDs must get that promotion somehow.

* (Paul Dirac said that, for him, the truth of an equation lay in its aesthetic appeal, which is to say its simplicity. Understand that I don't disagree that aesthetics can also be found in complexity, such as poetic language. I just take issue with pretensions, particularly when language is used to disguise its own meanings, and all to support a fashionable theory that will eventually be buried next another vogue, now dead, New Criticism. Such people should instead write novels or poems, if they can.)

* ( Physicist Alan Sokal submitted an article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," to Social Text, a fashionable cultural-studies journal. In it he parodied the journal's typical contents, and filled his piece with absurdities and glaring non-sequiturs. It mocked as old-fashioned and dogmatic the standard conceptions by which scientists investigate and derive evidence, and proclaimed that both social and physical reality are socio-linguistic constructs. He intentionally made his leaps of logic obvious and arrived at the conclusion that "the [Pi] of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone."

The article was accepted and published. Not only that, it appeared in a special issue of Social Text devoted to rebutting the criticisms levelled by several distinguished scientists against postmodernism and social constructivism. Then Sokal told the editors it was all a hoax and full of gibberish. I don't know what they thought, but "shot in the foot" comes to mind.)

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