20 April 2006

Recognising There's a Problem
or perhaps not

As is his way, TMcD's comments have been stuck in my head for the past couple of days. I feel I owe our recent exchange a fuller response, both because the topic is far from exhausted and because TMcD was kind enough to give me the nicest compliment I can ever recall receiving when he called me (again, in previous comments) 'the rational edge of the postie left'. Hell, I can't think of higher aspirations then just trying to live up to that description! Can I put it on my CV?

Anyway, TMcD called me out for my casual dismissal of ID. First, let me say that I do not wish to be one of those non-believers who plays the dogmatist when it comes to so-called secularism. Indeed, on this front I follow Connolly's recent work: the line between religious faith and secular belief is thin and fuzzy. We are all animated by some sort of 'existential faith', and the hard line defence of 'secularism' is just a dogmatic form of faith rather than a reasonable one. OK, put all that aside, because I want to get at the really interesting bit.

TMcD says:
[1]How, for example, could any structure--even one we, creatures of nature that we are, superimpose--come from shere abject randomness, or how sense out of nonsense? [...]
[2]human life is structured in a whole variety of ways, not just intellectual or even aesthetic, but "moral" as well, and these things cannot all be simply reduced to power relations.
[3]I know that you, like a lot of others with "post-mod" sympathies accept this, but often have trouble acknowledging it or explaining it. I'm thinking, in particular, about Rorty's weak attempt to chalk it all up to "the kind of people we modern liberals ARE", or maybe Derrida's contradictory (and absurd) claim that "justice is not deconstructable."
First let me do some ground clearing. I agree with #2, and embrace it wholeheartedly. As to #3, I contend (given my previous point) that I have no problem acknowledging it, but that 'explaining' it may be what we are all striving to do (or avoid doing) and which no one has much claim to having done perfectly. Next, let me say to anyone who wants to throw a 'anti-Rorty' party: please invite me!

So that just leaves us with the dismissal of Derrida and the initial claim - you see, my strategy with TMcD is just to agree with him until he and everyone else is bored with my post. Taking the last, first, I want to defend Derrida a bit. I don't think 'justice is not deconstructable' is absurd; I also don't think it's a 'claim'. That is, it's not a philosophical proposition that Derrida thinks we could prove or disprove. So, perhaps it is 'absurd' but that's very much for a reason. It's an effort to get at precisely what tmcd points to with #1: that things like morality, like the idea of justice, cannot merely be explained away or refuted. They have a quasi-transcendental status with which we must concern ourselves, but that we cannot merely deny. I take JD's sentence about justice to point to a certain ontology of immanence, but also to be precisely a rejection of nihilism.

And that gets me to the most important point, Tmcd's first point, which comes in the form of a question. And here's the thing: when I read it, when I hear it, I don't think the question has the 'hook', for lack of a better word, that tmcd expects it to. Perhaps I should be, but I'm not really all that bothered about how sense emerges from nonsense. Indeed, I think that's just how sense emerges – from nonsense. We produce meaning in the world, we read it into a world without meaning, and as Paul tells us continually, we construct narratives that give that meaning a place to rest, and a place from which to emerge. Structure emerges out of randomness (see Paul's many iPod posts); order comes from chaos. I'm OK with that.

I had a consistent argument with a good friend in graduate school, who always took the Habermas as sociologist critique of Foucault, and it always boiled down to this question: 'but how can Foucault explain the emergence and existence of society, of structures of human organisation'? And to this day, I've never fully grasped the question in the depth with which he meant it, since I just don't see the need to explain those things: society exists right outside my window, and there are all sorts of more important questions than how it came to be. Structures of meaning and rationality - and morality and justice - also exist in the world. Do we need a transcendent structure (order, God, reason) to explain them? Perhaps. Perhaps not.


sageblue said...

I'm profoundly out of my league here, but let me pipe in because, well, I can.

I cannot help but take your theoretical concerns and plunk them into contemporary political divisions, and I think once more about the truism/cliche of the right being fearful and the left being hopeful. There is a distinctly gleeful tone in this post, in part perhaps because you hope that order emanates from chaos (or don't really care about the order v. chaos cagematch), whereas others (like an ID supporter) fears that chaos leads to/is another version of order.

Now, I think the right:fear::left:hope formulation obviously has flaws (e.g. it seems that the current US administration is pinning their military goals on hoping beyond hope), but it does explain a lot, just like the Zodiac does:)

tenaciousmcd said...

Sageblue's analogy here is an interesting one, but I guess I'm most struck by how these two rival values--fear and hope--seem less the characteristics of a secular/religious divide than they are the two poles of the religious believer's experience, at least in Judaism or Xianity: "fear of the Lord," and "hope for salvation."

Although these often appear in a dialectical relationship, one related to the unresolved tension b/w divine justice and divine mercy, they also manifest themselves in an intra-Xian split. NPR recently ran a repeat of a extensive 1985 interview b/w Terry Gross and William Sloane Coffin, a well-known Xian theologian who died last week. In it, Coffin distinguished b/w "authoritarian" Xians, awed by God's power, and "humanitarian" Xians, moved by His love. WSC spoke for the latter.

Sam, I still need to think through my longer response to your argument, but I'll give you a short response on Derrida now. Although I find his claim that "justice is not deconstructable" reassuring, from a moral standpoint, it doesn't seem to make any sense in light of Derrida's usual descriptions of deconstruction: "il n'y a rien dehors la texte!" Indeed, what is Plato's Republic but a giant deconstruction of justice? And yet, somehow Plato gets held up by the posties as the inventer of a realm of absolute, abstract essences, when he's the more playful of the two. The real difference is that Plato, unlike Derrida, both deconstructs and constructs, finding order in chaos, not simply because he invents it, but because he attempts to follow nature's thread (to pick up a Derridean metaphor for an un-Derridean purpose).