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2012 Spring Issue 3 (April 20, 2012)

Vulnerable egos and elastic verbiage

April 20, 2012
By Griffin Johnson

I’ve never read Of Grammatology. I’ve read roundtables that Jacques Derrida gave, a couple of interviews; I’ve seen part of a documentary. I’ve never actually read a book by Derrida.

I’d assume that the same goes for most people around me at Carleton. Very few people outside of philosophy ever actually get around to doing sustained readings of Derrida. It’s understandable – he’s devilishly difficult to read, and there’s very little about his work that immediately seems applicable to life. It makes perfect sense why the average reader – even the average Carleton student – would avoid Derrida.

But I still hear the word deconstruction used pretty often in humanities classes at Carleton. Now, deconstruction is an awfully complicated idea, and it’s notoriously difficult to define what it actually means. If, like myself, the average Carleton student hasn’t done serious reading of Derrida, that means that, statistically speaking, they’re probably committing some kind of terminological error – but, since few other people in my classes have any more familiarity with Derrida than I do, nobody knows enough to say anything about the error, and the word deconstruction, at least as it’s understood in the context of our classroom, loses a little of its precision, gets a little more elastic, a little more universal – which is to say, it takes one step closer to meaninglessness.

There are a lot of words like that in the humanities at Carleton: authenticity, patriarchy, pastiche. All these words are in the air at Carleton – they float from room to room in Laird and Leighton like dandelion wisps. Almost all of them have complex, theoretical definitions, and almost all of them are consistently misused in the service of a kind of obsessed one-upmanship: even if they don’t understand the precise definition of the term, an average American undergrad knows that leaning on a word like authenticity is an easy way to add a veneer of intellectual integrity to a comment or a paper. So the terms themselves lose their utility and meaning in the service of giving students a sense of philosophical depth that isn’t actually there.

Nobody is really guilty for this phenomenon. It owes something to the fact that Carleton, unlike some other liberal arts colleges in the country, doesn’t have a first-year humanities survey that gets everybody on the same page as far as terminology goes. It owes something to the fact that speaking in class is so fraught with potential for embarrassment that dressing up a comment in jargon is a good way of shielding oneself. It has something to do with the fact that we, as a culture, don’t read as much as we used to. Assigning blame to one factor or another isn’t a very productive exercise. The effect of it all is that we’re caught in a large-scale movement towards using terminology in class that doesn’t have useful, specific meaning, that serves basically to code for intelligent discourse rather than actually contributing to it.

All this means that the language we use on campus to discuss the humanities, if it isn’t sharpened and improved in methods seminars, runs the risk of becoming more or less meaningless. Deconstruction is practically there already – I won’t try to define it in an article that’s already long and wordy enough, but I will say that I hear “deconstruct” as if it meant “attack” or “unpack” more often than I’m sure Derrida would be pleased with. It’s become a way of signifying “I’m thinking critically” rather than a word used when the speaker is actually thinking critically. Too often class communally becomes about that kind of signification – about conscientiously going no further than the surface of things, in case anybody gets their feelings hurt. And I can’t imagine this lack of deep thinking doing anything but eroding the quality of discourse on campus.

There are two ways to deal with the terminology problem. One is to embrace the fact that an undergrad class isn’t always going to involve constant illumination and brilliance, that sometimes things are shallow and we’re not the stars we think we are, and to stop using words that we don’t understand. The other, of course, is to stab at thee from hell’s heart and actually read Of Grammatology. The power, as Captain Planet would put it, is yours.

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