POSTMODERN “THEORY” SELF-DECONSTRUCTS
(With a Little Help from an Old Western Scholar)
NOTE: The following dialog is based on a debate I actually had with a Post-Modernist friend who will remain nameless. I say this so you will know that the antagonist is not a straw man constructed by me but an actual Post-Modernist. Other than giving myself the last word (because I can—Foucalt is not completely wrong), I have not appreciably altered the dialog. This is the kind of discussion I actually have from time to time.
SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: How is it that thinkers like Jaques Derrida have become such venerated gurus in graduate English programs? Derrida couldn’t have written an intelligible sentence if his life had depended on it. He makes banal, juvenile relativism sound profound by cloaking it in jargon. And he did not even take his own ideas seriously: He proclaimed the “death of the author” in books that had his name on the spine! I can’t see why he deserves any respect at all.
POST MODERNICUS: I think you fail to understand how a scholar like Derrida asserts what he asserts. The message of his texts is not just what is written, but also how it is written. The reason his books are complex is because, were he to simply and clearly assert the point he wanted to make, he would destroy his own point.
SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Exactly. Though I think he does it quite effectively either way.
POST MODERNICUS: Besides, jargon dependence is not necessarily a sign of unclear thinking. Sometimes, you’re trying to say something that simply cannot be said using ordinary language. Do you demand that physicists use ordinary language? Then why demand it of philosophers?
SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Technical language and jargon are not the same thing. The former exists for the sake of efficiency, the latter to obscure the fact that the content is non-existent, muddy, or fatuous. What was Derrida saying except that we can’t say anything? The only way to hide the fact that it is sheer self-contradictory nonsense is to hide its emptiness under jargon.
POST MODERNICUS: But there is a difference between the nonsense that a poor freshman writer might hand in and the nonsense of a thinker like Derrida (or an author like James Joyce) puts out.
SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Yes, there is a difference. Derrida’s obscurity was intentional, and the freshman’s is not. Which simply means that Derrida had less excuse.
POST MODERNICUS: But Derridean nonsense is nonsense that makes sense — it expresses meaning in the fact that it is nonsense. It demonstrates the emptiness of logocentricity by its very being. For example, there are at least three good ways to interpret Derrida’s book Spurs. Why? Not because he is incapable of writing clearly, but because the book is meant to express the notion that a text can have more than one viable interpretation.
SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Of course a text that is deliberately written to be incomprehensible and indeterminate can mean anything. What does this prove? How does it show that any text can mean anything? How does it advance knowledge or understanding? It’s just a silly game, and a rather tedious and tiresome one at that. Why dignify it by calling it scholarship or philosophy? I still have been shown no compelling reason to do so. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “I am so dense, the things that Critics see / Are obstinately invisible to me.”
POST MODERNICUS: Do you not agree with Derrida that we cannot have a God’s-eye view of the world?
SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: No. I don’t. Contrary to Derrida, a God’s-eye view does exist. God has it, and he has shared at least parts of it with us. He did so definitively in Christ and Scripture, but also in Reason and Conscience. Again, it depends what you mean by “God’s-eye view.” When God contemplates the fact that 2 + 2 = 4, or the Law of Non-Contradiction (as in C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles), or the Law of Decent Behaviour (from Mere Christianity), he no doubt sees many more ramifications of these truths than I do. But we are contemplating the same thing; their content is no different for Him than it is for me. And, because these are things founded in his Mind, they are Reality, just as hard and unyielding as the bullet-like raindrops of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.
POST MODERNICUS: If truth comes only from Christ and scripture, do atheists then have no true beliefs?
SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: I never said “only.” Christ and Scripture are in my view the authoritative and trustworthy guides to Truth, but Scripture is not exhaustive of Truth. As Lewis said, “when the Bible tells you to feed the hungry, it doesn’t give you lessons in cookery.” Even Derrida has some true beliefs, though he does his best to suppress them.
POST MODERNICUS: I have no view of truth. I think I sometimes say true things, and that God knows all true things, but I don’t know what truth is. And neither, I would claim, does anyone else.
SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Are these statements true? How do you know? If the last two are true, then you cannot know that they are. But, then, if you are not asserting that they are true, this discussion becomes impossible, a game too trivial to be played—like reading Derrida!
POST MODERNICUS: And what do you and Lewis mean by “reason is the organ which perceives truth”? You mean we just “see” what is true?”
SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Sometimes, as with First Principles. People who try to deny them can do so only by affirming them in spite of themselves. You either see this or you don’t. Once you have seen it, it is forever after self-evident and undeniable. And the only way it can be denied is through a kind of really despicable intellectual dishonesty.
POST MODERNICUS: That doesn’t seem right. Honest and intelligent people often differ about just what the truth is. So there must be more to it than that.
SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Yes, there is more to it, but not less. I did not claim that all truth can be seen that clearly; only certain basic truths. But they are enough to cut us off from total skepticism and to serve as a foundation for other truths. The fact that people disagree about those other truths does not keep even non-self-evident truths from being either true or knowable. Truth is determined by evidence and reason, not by opinion polls.
I think it ultimately boils down to a choice offered us by Milton’s Satan (the first Post-Modernist), who claimed that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” He was claiming the right to create his own values, his own meaning, and his own view of truth in his own mind, because there is no objective reality, no Author, to which or whom he was willing to submit. Derrida is in my mind simply his most sophisticated and consistent disciple to date. Lewis was the great champion of the other choice: the mind, like everything else in the created world, is God’s place, and can therefore only find fulfillment when, instead of insisting on the right to create its own meaning/truth/values, it submits to His.*
The Satanic/Derridean way of seeing things increasingly dominates the intellectual landscape. But Lewis’s writings still incarnate the older view on almost every page. Lewis was wrong about one thing, though: he was not the last Dinosaur. I am but a tiny lizard to his T Rex, but at least I am here (and I am not alone). One of Flannery O’Connor’s characters is told, “People have quit doing that.” His response is my motto: “They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.”
*See my article “’The Mind is its Own Place’: Satan’s Philosophy and the (Post)Modern Dilemma,” Proceedings of the Georgia Philological Association 2 (December 2007): 20-34. A shorter, more popular version of the same material was published as “Devil Talk: Milton’s Post-Modern Satan and his Disciples,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 21:7 (September, 2008): 24-27. And the original article has been reprinted as a chapter in Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).
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