Monday, March 19, 2007

Derrida presents philosophical postmodernism at its best

Gregory Desilet is author of various writings on language and culture, such as Cult of the Kill: Traditional Metaphysics of Rhetoric, Truth, and Violence in a Postmodern World and Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and the Effects of Entertainment Violence. See also:, which hosts an eulogy for Derrida. In this essay for Integral World Desilet questions Wilber's understanding of Derrida.
"Despite his sophistication, Wilber appears to have missed the point of deconstructive postmodernism." Misunderstanding Derrida and Postmodernism: Ken Wilber and “Post-Metaphysics” Integral Spirituality Gregory Desilet
At an Integral Spirituality book signing in Boulder (November, 2006) Ken Wilber and I had a brief exchange about postmodernism and specifically his understanding of Derrida. Based on comments he made during the talk prior to the signing, I was most interested in his response to the question: “Do you believe Derrida errs by offering what amounts to a false critique of absolute transcendence?” Wilber answered “Yes,” without hesitation. Derrida's approach, Wilber believes, contains a fundamental flaw in his specious critique of transcendence, epitomized in his deconstruction of the transcendental signifier/signified. Wilber claimed that Derrida himself came to understand the overstatement of his case and in an interview published in Positions (1981) reversed himself by acknowledging the transcendental signifier/signified's necessary role in language.
The relevant passage in the interview centers on the topic of translation. In Derrida's discussion he admits, according to Wilber, that the “transcendental signifier/signified” is ultimately necessary in order for translation to be possible. Since the critique of the transcendental figures prominently in the foundation of deconstruction, this admission undermines the radical thrust of Derrida's work. For Wilber, Derrida's admission marks his grudging capitulation to the inescapable role of absolute transcendence in systems of meaning. Since Derrida is famous for extending his critique of language and “the text” to include the “textuality” of Being, his deconstruction of the transcendental signifier/signified also initiates a thorough disillusionment with the possibilities for any form of absolute transcendence. These broader implications of Derrida's views explain Wilber's interest in the passage in Positions.
Being familiar with Derrida's work, I was fairly certain he did not, and would never, make any such admission or reversal as Wilber was suggesting. A few days after this meeting I located my copy of Positions and found the passage Wilber had referenced. What follows is an account of what I discovered and the conclusions that can be drawn about Wilber's reading of Derrida and the implications of that reading in relation to a more general assessment of his integral spirituality approach...
Where traditional metaphysics understands transcendence, deconstructive postmodernism understands forms of “quasi-transcendence” in the continual mitosis and reconstitution of self and awareness and the boundaries of both. The “normal self,” contrary to the assertions of integral post-metaphysics, never consists entirely of illusion but instead grounds itself upon the condition of becoming—as an unholy (unwholly) marriage of the tension between the real and the construct. This “what is” and “yet to come” everywhere constitute the structure of the self as well as the Kosmos.
With the possible exception of Gilles Deleuze, Derrida stands alone among postmodern theorists in his insistence upon the paradoxical “one that is also two” structure at the core of Being. Consequently, Derrida presents philosophical postmodernism at its best. Although offering no ultimate escape from metaphysics, Derrida's approach offers an escape from traditional metaphysics and its construction of notions of absolute transcendence that easily slide, however unintentionally, toward authorization of modes of certainty that do little more than contribute to predispositions of non-negotiation and systems of exclusionary discrimination. Based on the sobering history of human experience, these systems of exclusionary choice-making lead communities down the destructive trail of rituals of purification, often ending in deadly conflict and the violence of suicide, homicide, or genocide. This trail of death is, in itself, sufficient reason to avoid the traps of traditional metaphysics—a metaphysics that underlies most, if not all, of the world's major religions, including their mystical variations.
Derrida acknowledges that since there would appear to be no escape from metaphysics there can be no escape from violence. A measure of violence is built into the nature of what is. But the violence of transformation may be a preferable substitute for the violence of death-dealing just as the violence of translation may be preferable to the violence of book-burning. This less violent alternative metaphysical stance subverts the exclusionary structure built into the modes of absolute transcendence conjured by versions of traditional metaphysics. For this reason understanding the difference presented in Derridean deconstructive postmodernism remains crucial to overcoming the mistakes of the past and highlights the importance of avoiding the misunderstandings evident in Wilber's (and others') misreadings of Derrida.
Undoubtedly Wilber would not be happy to find his “integral” views associated in any way with “exclusionary” forms of metaphysics. Clearly he wants to dissociate himself from such traditions of thinking and spirituality. Nevertheless, attempts to depart from exclusionary forms of metaphysics cannot succeed by reaffirming orientations that give renewed meaning and prime significance to states of transcendental awareness implied in notions such as “transcendental signifiers,” “pure consciousness,” and “realizations of oneness.” The deconstructive critique of transcendence appears to be a part of Derridean postmodernism that Wilber and other integral theorists have not so much overlooked as underestimated.

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