Deconstruction and the Force of Language
Ever since I finished with my graduate seminar on Derrida this past spring I've been looking quite differently at what was always at stake in "post-structuralism" - what years ago we called postmodernism in philosophy before the latter word took hold. The term "postmodernism" gained currency after Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in the mid-1980s.. In this particular seminar I had some of the best and the brightest, and a few of them in their innocent enthusiasm for exploring the giddy vastness of "Derrida-world" called my attention to some important misuses of the evolving Derridean canon that became necessary in their own right to deconstruct.
What my students showed me toward the end of the term is that we have misappropriated the fashion of "deconstructively" reading texts as some new kind of critical theory, which we regularly, and sometimes ruthlessly, apply to structures of meaning and authority as well as forms of organization. That would of course include the church, and the ongoing effort to "deconstruct" Christianity, or "churchianity", is one of the things I have in mind.
We have developed the bad habit of regarding deconstruction as an active intervention, when in fact Derrida seems to use the word all along in the intransitive sense. We confuse deconstruction with the Marxist or Freudian critique of ideology, when in fact something quite different is involved. Deconstruction is not any kind of "work" itself, like a work of art, literature, philosophy, or theology. It is always a "working through" of some thread within the text (which is what Derrida is always doing in each of his "books"), or of an indeterminate yet potentially fruitful insight. If I may paraphrase Derrida as closely as I can to one of his well-known remarks, the "work" of deconstruction is always, and has always been, at work within the work itself.
What does this mean? Put simply, deconstruction is not a methodology, or unmasking, of those ideas and assumptions which we hold dear, or by which a quotidian reverence for the "tradition" of theology and philosophy has kept us from seeing the the underlying truth. Deconstruction is no "hermeneutics of suspicion," as Paul Ricoeur once referred to critical theory. Deconstruction, insofar as it is always "at work" within the work, amounts to what in German is called a Wirkung, one common translation of which is the English word "force".
Derrida makes a lot out of the concept of "force" in his early writings, particularly those authored in the 1960s, but not translated into English until the mid-1970s. He also revived the phrase when he launched into the question of the "religious" around 1990. In many respects one can derive a sense of Derrida's whole life project from a careful reading of the very early essay "Force and Signification" (force et signification), published in 1963 and contained along with other essays in English translation under the title of Writing and Difference, which appeared under a University of Chicago Press imprint in 1978..
"Force and Signification" is a gold mine when it comes to unearthing the "roots" of deconstruction. But what is even more interesting is the way Derrida, in "inventing" deconstruction, appears early on to be re-inventing Hegel. Now that is not at all suprising since Derrida (like most of his generation in Paris) was considerably impacted by the neo-Marxian Alexandre Kojève's seminars on Hegel.
Deconstruction is often considered radically un-Hegelian, which in its outworkings it of course is. But if we inspect scrupulously what Derrida is saying in this very early article we find that deconstruction seems to be curiously birthed by, though driven in an entirely different direction from, the Hegelian dialectic itself. We can glimpse the parthenogenesis of deconstruction in the highly obscure early section of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit on the concept of force. We can also find it in Hegel's discussion of language in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on which Derrida comments extensively in the various essays he published in the 1960s.
I am developing this argument in the first chapter of a new book manuscript which I began this summer, and will not venture to lay it out in all its philosophical arcana and complexity on this blog. But the upshot is that deconstruction should not be viewed as any kind of "taking apart" of the idols of language so much as it is an ongoing, mobile disclosure of the force of language. Every moment of deconstruction is a force-event, a reading of Derrida of course that puts him closer to Deleuze than we might be accustomed to acknowledging.
Kandinsky and the Force of Art
But the purpose of this post is not to pursue some highly technical roadmap for revisionism regarding Derrida. I have realized that something even more significant might be afoot in the Hegelian/Derridean/Deleuzean concept of force after reading of the French philosopher Michel Henry's Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky, just recently translated, though it was published in French much earlier.
I acquired an interest in Kandinsky's art, and theories of art, long ago. Kandinsky, by the way, was the artist who not only set in motion the imperatives of so much of modern art, but whose radical "abstractionism" was aimed at painting the power of creativity itself. According to Henry, in Kandinsky "'abstract' no longer refers to what is derived from the world at the end of a process of simplification or complication or at the end of the history of modern painting: instead, it refers to what was prior to the world and does not need the world in order to exist." (p. 16) According to Kandinsky, the painter paints art's "inner necessity".
Kandinsky's well-known On the Spiritual in Art, which came out on the eve of the First World War, lays out the theory of painting according to the composition principles of inner necessity. The representational and reflective character of the painting, which compels us to see the visible world as it is, or as we have so far missed seeing it, must give way to the invisible force of the painting per se.
According to Henry, Kandinsky's radical abstractionism regretably failed to outlive him. So-called "abstraction" in modern and post-modern painting does not really focus on the inner necessity of the painting, but flits around the myriad pragmatic, programmatic, ideological, material, and compositional problems the artist in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has encountered - the so-called "painterly" challenges. Even if it is neither representational or figurative, art remains "pictorial", Henry tells us.
Kandinsky, however, wanted painting to "disclose the pictoriality" of the picture, as Henry expresses it, in its pure and dynamic interiority. Kandinsky was a theosophist, influenced by the writings of the Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky, as were many avante-garde artists at the turn of the century and up through World War II. Yet his project for art has stunning implications for Christian theological thinking today, especially after Derrida. It also has outsize consequences for Christian spirituality in the arts, though I like many others are reluctant to talk about "Christian art" as a whole, since the locution is really quite vapid and often connotes nothing more than the fact that certain styles, subject matters, and aesthetic methodologies find a ready audience among people who consider themselves Christians (Unfortunately, such an audience often is drawn to the uninspired, the hackneyed, or the downright kitschy).
What perhaps would a new Christian abstractionism look like? Or at least a Christian "abstract expressionism" (since Kandinsky's abstractionism and Jackson Pollock's abstract expressionism follow similar logic of the force of the painting on to the canvas)?
In the Derrida seminar one of my students, who was an art history and philosophy double major, asked me why "deconstructionism" seemed so unlike philosophy. I answered that Derrida might be compared to Pollock in some ways, whose paintings were so unlike what people took to be painting. She liked that answer, because I guess it made sense to her. Pollock called his work "gestural." The same may be said of Derrida, who even used such a word from time to time. The gestural is the revelation of the process by which the textual or the aesthetic "construct" comes to be, something akin perhaps to what Nietzsche really meant by Wille zur Macht, the "will to power", which manifests eminently in art.
Many in the abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s were fans of Nietzsche. Deleuze derived his own "expressionist" philosophy from his youthful engagement with the sage of Sils Maria, which came forward in his ground-breaking 1962 book Nietzsche and Philosophy.
A Christian Abstractionism?
I have a personal muse as well that I might share with you, as I push forward this somewhat complex analysis, hopefully to culminate in a book for which I have already churned out almost 20,000 words entitled Force of God. The tentative title of the book, as an aside, takes off from Derrida's seminal essay "Force of Law," which inaugurated in many respects his so-called "religious turn." The muse is my own wife Sunny Raschke, an artist of considerable gifts who revived a long dormant professional art career about five years ago after a hiatus of several decades.
Sunny has taught me to "see" the inner necessity of what might be termed the "force of Christ" in the creative expression of a painting. The one shown here, entitled Origin I, is currently showing in a gallery in Denison, Texas. The painting is actually three-dimensional with a kind of relief map effect that can be achieved through the use of a novel fabric hardener, invented in the Netherlands and known as Paverpol®. The cross-like, "gestural" form in the center of the painting was inspired by the Louis Giglio YouTube message on the protein molecule "laminin", which holds the structures of life together.
One is reminded of the opening hymn of Colossians, where Christ is proclaimed as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together". (Col. 1:15-17). The force of creation is expressed in the "image" of Christ, which "holds all things together", serves to connect the myriad puzzle pieces that are singular human lives as well as the quest for God, the Infinite Origin himself, overflowing the boundaries of "two-dimensional" sight, thinking, and imagination.
Derrida discerned the messianic, the avenir, the "to come", of divine justice in the "force of law." Can we discern the truly "originary", the protological, which is also the eschatological, the true "alpha and omega", in the force of art? Derrida suggests early on that there is a force of art in the sense of a "force of truth" in his work of 1978 The Truth in Painting.
In The Truth in Painting Derrida does his own deconstructive reading of Heidegger's famous essay "The Origin of the Work of Art," which binds aesthetics to ontology rather than to the "responsibility" (Derrida's term) of the artist to the force that urges him, or her, into expressive action. For Derrida, the religious is the responsible response to the force of God in our lives, the force of response we name the "force of faith." That is one way which we can cogently read Derrida's The Gift of Death, which serves as a memorial re-reading of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. In both religion and art we confront the Kierkegaardian/Derridean "secret" of the faith response, the "inner necessity" that harbors a subtle working of what is both creative and a redemptive force - Geist, the Spirit!
As the French novelist Andre Gide once wrote, "art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better." That perhaps is "deconstruction in a nutshell."
Notes on Paintings. (1) Top: Wassily Kandinsky, On White 2. (2) Middle: Jackson Pollock, The Key. (3) Sunny Raschke, Origins 1.