Social Justice Usage
Source: “Jacques Derrida.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Jacques Derrida was one of the most well known twentieth century philosophers. He was also one of the most prolific. Distancing himself from the various philosophical movements and traditions that preceded him on the French intellectual scene (phenomenology, existentialism, and structuralism), he developed a strategy called “deconstruction” in the mid 1960s. Although not purely negative, deconstruction is primarily concerned with something tantamount to a critique of the Western philosophical tradition. Deconstruction is generally presented via an analysis of specific texts. It seeks to expose, and then to subvert, the various binary oppositions that undergird our dominant ways of thinking—presence/absence, speech/writing, and so forth.
Deconstruction has at least two aspects: literary and philosophical. The literary aspect concerns the textual interpretation, where invention is essential to finding hidden alternative meanings in the text. The philosophical aspect concerns the main target of deconstruction: the “metaphysics of presence,” or simply metaphysics. Starting from an Heideggerian point of view, Derrida argues that metaphysics affects the whole of philosophy from Plato onwards. Metaphysics creates dualistic oppositions and installs a hierarchy that unfortunately privileges one term of each dichotomy (presence before absence, speech before writing, and so on).
The deconstructive strategy is to unmask these too-sedimented ways of thinking, and it operates on them especially through two steps—reversing dichotomies and attempting to corrupt the dichotomies themselves. The strategy also aims to show that there are undecidables, that is, something that cannot conform to either side of a dichotomy or opposition. Undecidability returns in later period of Derrida’s reflection, when it is applied to reveal paradoxes involved in notions such as gift giving or hospitality, whose conditions of possibility are at the same time their conditions of impossibility. Because of this, it is undecidable whether authentic giving or hospitality are either possible or impossible.
New Discourses Commentary
The term “Derridean” refers to the philosophy of the poststructural (and postmodern) French philosopher Jacques Derrida, which has had a significant influence upon the Theory of Critical Social Justice. Derrida was particularly influential on what has become Critical Social Justice in several ways, all related to his intense focus upon language, which ultimately derives and then departs from French structuralist thought; this, in short, demanded that human society and culture can only be properly understood through an intense and close analysis of the structure of language and the impacts it has on human thought and society.
Two particular elements are key to Derrida’s poststructuralism. First, Derrida believed that everything within the world of meaning is determined by the discourses in which they are embedded. Discourses, in this sense, are “ways things can be legitimately spoken about,” which is to say linguistic structures of meaning in which words (signs and signifiers, as they point to what they mean and signify) relate to one another. Derrida’s view is that all linguistic meaning exists entirely within these relationships between words.
Therefore, as the famous example goes, the idea of “dog” is not to be understood in terms of applying that noun to the canine animal but rather by showing how the word relates to other similar words like canine, animal, and living thing, especially those things it is not, like wolf, bear, cat, and rock (see also, absence and differance). Thus, a Derridean view holds that meaning of words is infinitely deferred, one word to another to another to another, and thus language cannot directly signify anything in material existence. This implies that Derrida’s philosophy of linguistics implies that meaning is only obtainable through direct lived experience, which is a fundamentally postmodern conception. This also means that a Derridean view places an extremely outsized importance on the power of language to shape and construct meaning, thus (our understanding of) reality (see also, knowledge(s)).
A Derridean view also held that language is phallogocentric, which, to generalize, implies that these relationships between words tend to construct hierarchical pairs of meaning with one term (e.g., man) being considered intrinsically related to and superior to some other term (e.g., woman). That is, a Derridean view is that systemic power is encoded into language by privileging the status of some words over others. On a structuralist view, which was imported with more criticism into a poststructuralist view, this encoded power dynamic would tend to create and reproduce social power dynamics, many of which are unjust or problematic. This led Derrida to insist that deconstruction is a necessary activity.
These ideas actually combine further in Derridean thought and hold that words, because of the way discourses, and thus meanings, are constructed, have traces of all of the meanings they have had before and even that can be imagined into them. Thus, a word that began within the context of intentional racism, like “white” and “race,” carry with them a “trace” of slavery and oppression that can never quite be undone. Further, words like “master,” because of its use in the context of slavery, always carries the trace of the slave-holding meaning, regardless of the context in which it is being used or the fact that the word was adopted into the slave-holding context because it already had a meaning that would apply in that context. In this sense, the idea of “master bedroom” becomes immediately problematic even though the phrase arose in a sales catalog in 1926 and has nothing to do with slavery at all. The “trace” of slavery in the broader discourses cannot be removed.
Derridean philosophy, as such—and this is to say nothing of his very difficult prose, especially after being translated into English, which is functionally impossible (as it relies heavily on word play and subtleties of meaning in French that do not have good translations)—gained an incredible frisson of cool with American academics, particularly feminists, beginning in the late 1970s. This was at least in some significant part because Derridean ideas of hierarchical pairs of power-encoded language meshed with similar ideas from Simone de Beauvoir, who had in the late 1940s named women “the second sex” in an incredibly influential book by that same title. It therefore became especially important in the development of activist-scholarship in women’s studies, gender studies, and eventually queer Theory. Judith Butler, one of the Theorists most central to the early development of what became queer Theory, largely combined the ideas of Derrida as such with those of Michel Foucault (see also, Foucauldian) and, notably, J.L. Austin (see also, performativity) to come up with the concepts of gender performativity and the subversive politics of parody. Her work in this line went on to be the basis for what is sometimes now called the “violence of categorization,” which results when people are put into (identity) categories they do not feel accurately represent whom they believe themselves to be.
Derridean ideas were also highly influential in the development of postcolonial Theory, and it is noteworthy that one of the key early postcolonial Theorists, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, first translated Derrida’s magnum opus, Of Grammatology, into English. For example, Spivak, though also relying significantly at times upon Foucault (see also, epistemic violence), turned to Derrida to make sense of colonialist essentialism and to develop her own concept of strategic essentialism (as an act of strategic resistance). This is a thoroughly Derridean approach to applicable deconstruction in that it seeks to identify and then maintain the hierarchical binary while reversing the power dynamic within it as a means of activism. Thus, a colonized person (see also, subaltern) who is essentialized as ignorant might be ordered to do something and then resist by responding, “I would, but I’m too stupid.” The passive-aggression in this very Derridean mode of activism is rather apparent.
The Derridean concept of absence is particularly relevant to contemporary activism in Critical Social Justice. That is, the deeper meaning implied by a text (or pretty much anything, read as a text through postmodern thought) is best discerned not so much by what the writer has written as by what the writer has not written—what’s missing tells more of the story than what’s there. This, obviously, is an extremely interpretive method for seeking to understand anything. Thus, hidden meanings can be found, even where they don’t exist, and problematics can be conjured out of thin air. The issues of diversity and representation, which are of incredible importance in Critical Social Justice analysis, can be understood under this Derridean lens.
Absence; Binary; Colonialism; Critical; Deconstruction; Differance; Discourse; Diversity; Epistemic violence; Essentialism; Feminism; Foucauldian; Gender performativity; Gender studies; Identity; Injustice; Knowledge(s); Lived experience; Performativity; Phallogocentrism; Politics of parody; Postcolonial Theory; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Power (systemic); Problematic; Queer Theory; Representation; Resistance; Social Justice; Strategic essentialism; Strategic resistance; Structuralism; Subaltern; Subversion; Text; Theory; Violence of categorization; Women’s studies
Source: St. Pierre, Elizabeth Adams. “A Brief and Personal History of Post Qualitative Research: Toward ‘Post Inquiry.’” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 30(2), 2014, pp. 4–5.
Derrida (1972 (Positions)) offered a similar approach to critique by explaining that deconstruction is not an exposure of error but a very serious, careful reading that identifies contradiction in a structure, contradiction that, he wrote, “overturns and displaces a conceptual order, as well as the nonconceptual order with which the conceptual order is articulated” (p. 329). It’s important to note that Derrida, like Foucault, included the material (the nonconceptual) as well as the discursive (the conceptual) in his description of deconstruction. The displacement of a material-discursive structure enables something else to be thought and to happen, and, in that way, deconstruction, too, can be called a practice of freedom. As I noted earlier, I argue that the structure of conventional humanist qualitative methodology is so deeply marked by contradiction that it deconstructs itself and, so, can be displaced.
So, for both Foucault and Derrida, critique does not begin with the assumption that what exists is wrong or in error; rather, critique examines the assumptions that structure the discursive and the nondiscursive, the linguistic and the material, words and things, the epistemological and the ontological in order to foreground the historicity and, so, the unnatural nature of what exists. As Rorty (1986) eloquently explained, “if we once took seriously the notion that we only know the world and ourselves under a description” (p. 48), we might choose to rewrite that description and then perhaps re-describe the world and ourselves. In other words, we could refuse to repeat the same descriptions. Perhaps we could be-do-live something different. This is the agency, the freedom of the posts, to “refuse what we are” (Foucault, 1982, p. 216), what we do, the world we create. And, as Foucault noted, once we understand that, our work becomes very urgent, very difficult, and quite possible.
Source: St. Pierre, Elizabeth Adams. “A Brief and Personal History of Post Qualitative Research: Toward ‘Post Inquiry.’” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 30(2), 2014, pp. 11–12.
But the hierarchy of the material/textual (Science/Philosophy) binary is not thinkable in the ontology of the “posts.” Woolgar and Lezaum (2013) recently responded to the “only textual analysis” critique in their ontological analysis of a newspaper article (a text) by explaining that
It is important to emphasize that the “textual” in “textual analysis” does not entail any lesser capacity for ontological enactment…some authors have been tempted to depict certain kinds of artifact as “merely” textual, or “purely” discursive, with the implication that some kinds of element could possibly be non-textual (i.e., non-interpretable). (p. 333)
But Derrida (1967/1974 (Of Grammatology)) explained this half a century ago, and his post analysis, deconstruction, is a critique of Plato’s ontology, its phonocentrism, and its privileging of presence, which grounds the “face-to-face” demands of qualitative methodology’s ontology and empiricism and thus relegates the text to secondary status. Derrida deconstructed the material/textual binary early on when he wrote, “There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte]” (p. 158). He explained as follows:
The concept of text or of context which guides me embraces and does not exclude the world, reality, history. Once again (and this probably makes a thousand times I have had to repeat this, but when will it finally be heard, and why this resistance?): as I understand it (and I have explained why), the text is not the book, it is not confined in a volume itself confined to the library. It does not suspend reference—to history, to the world, to reality, to being, and especially to the other. (Derrida, 1972/1981 (Positions), p. 137)
Derrida’s ontological comment explains that the text is always already of, with the world; it is never “just text.” Everything (including language, the text) exists at the surface, at the level of human activity, and there is no primary empirical depth we must defer to in post analyses as there is in the ontology and empiricism of conventional humanist qualitative methodology. That is, in post ontologies it makes no sense to privilege language spoken and heard “face-to-face” as if it has some primary empirical purity or value, as if it’s the origin of science. Again, this is Scott’s (1991) critique of grounding knowledge claims in lived experience.
Source: St. Pierre, Elizabeth Adams. “A Brief and Personal History of Post Qualitative Research: Toward ‘Post Inquiry.’” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 30(2), 2014, pp. 12–13.
I have already described Derrida’s response to the material/textual, material/linguistic binary in which it is clear that the lexicon of Enlightenment ontology is simply insufficient. “Everything begins before it begins,” Derrida (1993/1994 (Spectres of Marx), p. 161) wrote, overturning our conception of being. To help think this, he invented the ontological concept hauntology:
To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology. Ontology opposes it only in a movement of exorcism. Ontology is a conjuration. (p. 161)
I believe even the few quotations from Derrida’s work provided in this paper illustrate his critique of the ontological.
Revision date: 7/13/20