A little while back I wrote this piece on how inclusivity and diversity could use more matriarchy to regenerate authentic power. I want to revisit this topic but from a slightly different though related-angle: the deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida. In so doing I want to explore what deconstruction might offer as an ongoing philosophical method but also it's limitations.
Derrida had a deep method or praxis to his philosophy. One that he was very specific about in his writings. One that has largely been forgotten both by his admirers and critics. Here’s that praxis.
Step one: read the history of Western philosophy on its own terms.
By the way, if you think Derrida was joking about that think again. Derrida was once asked why he never wrote on Wittgenstein and Derrida’s response was basically that he didn’t have the time to read everything Wittgenstein ever wrote or thought.
According to Derrida, in the first step the key is to notice that Western philosophy has created a series of binaries with one aspect always “on top of” the other. Male over female. Essence over existence, Speech over Grammar, Polis over Khora, White over Black, etc. Later Derridians added abled over disabled, straight over gay, cisgendered over transgendered, colonizer over colonized, homogenous over heterogenous, and so on.
Step 2: Invert the traditional hierarchy
In this step Derrida would take the binary as it was traditionally deployed and reverse it, putting the previously underside term into the primary (“over”) position. In so doing he would show how the previously marginalized term was actually the source of the originally dominant term.
For example: Women birth men. Woman is therefore the source of man, not man the source of woman.
The second step opens up a whole series of new ways of experiencing and seeing the world. We get “Herstory” not “History”. The voices that had previously been silenced or marginalized (“subaltern”) during the modern era have room to speak again: voices of color, aboriginal voices, gay/lesbian/trans/queer voices, non-human creaturely voices, the voice of the Earth, etc.
The power of this second step should not be underestimated. It has had and continues to have enormous impact.
And yet that wasn’t actually the end of Derrida’s philosophical process.
In his later work especially Derrida began exploring a third philosophical moment: deconstructing the deconstruction itself.
The second moment inverted the original hierarchy but left a hierarchical structure in place. It was hierarchy as such that later Derrida wanted to more fundamentally undermine. In his later works Derrida contemplated how metaphysics (and thereby hierarchy) was inherent to language and it could never been completely erased. This is a controversial and very interesting position to take. As a counterexample, for Heidegger Western onto-theology was to be supplanted by the language of Being (especially poetics), whereas for Derrida we were stuck with metaphysics and had to learn to deconstruct and reconstruct within and around and through metaphysics.
Derrida was searching for a way out of the limitations of his own postmodern philosophy. I don’t think he was ultimately successful in that endeavor but I do believe his search was genuine.
Now the reason I’m covering that is because how deconstruction has filtered down—particularly in North America and the English-speaking cyberculture—only makes it to the second step in the deconstructive process.
That is it deconstructs the existing traditional hierarchy and promotes the traditional underside “to the top”. It seeks to reverse the existing hierarchy and simply replace (consciously or unconsciously) whose benefiting from the hierarchy. It is not fundamentally undermining traditionalist hierarchies themselves.
aka: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Or to be precise: meet the new boss, pretty much the same as the old boss with only some slight differences (like XX vs. XY chromosomal structure).
The new boss may well be different in exterior form and identity but is the same in the sense of retaining hierarchical dominance. The new boss is simply switching whose on top and whose on bottom, not the problem that’s there’s people on top and bottom.
Anita Sarkeesian’s (in)famous tropes vs. women in video game culture is a classic example of this tendency. It deconstructs traditional gender philosophy in video game culture. She received (unfairly) hate and violence directed at her from those who held to the traditional patriarchal outlook. Those are individuals who were ideologically opposed to Derrida’s first and second step. They weren’t willing to look at the binaries inherent in video games nor certainly to take the next step and invert the hierarchies.
Sarkeesian, I would posit however, never deconstructed her own deconstruction.
Deconstructionists and postmodernists more generally want to emphasize historical contingency, mixed sign regimes, and social, political, and philosophical construction. There is a great deal of value from that exploration—one that is deeply missed by say a Jordan Peterson who lumps all postmodernism into its most caricatured form and throws the baby out with the bathwater.
The postmodernists however apply that constructionist and contextualist lens to everything preceding their own postmodern deconstructive process. Their own work and their own time lives in an ahistorical, timeless, immanental, non-contigent, pure (non-mixed), regime of thought.
In other words, they don’t apply their own insights to themselves.
In other other words they don’t deconstruct their own deconstruction.
They don’t see the contingent, historical, contextually situated (de)construction of their own philosophy.
The consequences of this blind spot are that groups promoting social justice under labels like diversity and inclusivity are quite often in practical terms simply inverting hierarchies. Activist spaces have previously marginalized groups now in the superior position while those from dominant positions in conventional society now in the underside position— heterosexual, cisgendered, white, male, etc.
I’m not saying that so you shed a crocodile tear for straight white dudes or whatever. Take the white dudes (or white gals) out of it. I’m saying the problem is that the original form of dominating hierarchy is often left intact.
If the problem is dominating hierarchies then having women or persons of color, or gay or lesbian or queer individuals in control of that domination does not represent a true solution. The same structural logic remains in play which runs much deeper than the superficial diversity.
Dominating hierarchies exist by creating in groups and out groups. Domination-based hierarchies work by creating artificial scarcity of power and then go about warring over that scarcity. They ostracize, silence, humiliate/shame those that dare question their ideology.
The social justice activist praxis of call out culture is a, maybe the, most obvious contemporary example of this destructive tendency. Another would be seeking to shut down and silence opposing viewpoints under the guise of them being “unsafe” or “triggering” rather than doing the old fashioned work of critiquing those views for their flaws (which would require studying them in the first place in order to demolish them, something Derrida did recall). Yet another would be the ideological abuse of privilege critique, as in, “That’s just your privilege talking”—again never engaging on its own terms with a person’s views, however mistaken or flawed they may or may not be.
In all these examples an individual from a conventionally marginalized group gains a superior position within this specific left-wing subculture and then practices the very same domination-based hierarchical tactics of the conventional society they claim to be fighting against.
The oppressed can easily slide into the role of the oppressor. The victim becomes the victimizer.
It can never been emphasized enough that the social justice warrior ethos and its social media activist leftist praxis has its roots in online troll culture. The exact same troll culture by the way that acted as the petri dish for the virulent mutation known as the alt-right.
Derrida’s point was that inverting traditional hierarchies is at best only half the story and at worst a dodge for the deepest complexity of deconstructing power-based hierarchy itself.
The other key piece to recognize here is that the postmodern turn largely elides real material historical oppression. Privilege critique is especially prone to this tendency. Endless debates about the social construction of this that or identity type keeps the conversation away from issues of late stage global capitalism and its venomous nature itself. Rather than being actually revolutionary in nature such movements are, as Frederic Jameson correctly noted, the cultural logic of late stage capitalism itself.
So if you’ve read the earlier matriarchy piece then you’ll probably have inferred by now I’m basically equating two-step deconstructionism with sustainability mindsets and approaches. In contrast, my argument about regenerative design—with its connection to some aspects of matriarchy—would be parallel to Derrida’s third step of deconstruction. Deconstructing the deconstruction and then opening up an even more liberatory possibility.
In fact I would go further and argue that regenerative processes are a concrete response to Derrida’s philosophical impasse. Where Derrida thought we had no way out of traditional Western metaphysics I think there are many other options available to us. For example increasing overall power and finding more equitable means of said distribution rather than being locked into the mindset of binaries (read: hierarchies) and being overly focused on balancing those hierarchies 50/50 (typical liberal response) or overthrowing the hierarchy only to install a new hierarchy (radical left response).*
In other words, regenerative power is not about changing who sits in the domination seat but rather growing more power to be better distributed to all involved.
Denying deconstructionism as the alt-right and many of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web do is a dodge. It inevitably ends up re-entrenching an older mindset, typically libertarian/classical liberal in nature (e.g. Peterson) or something worse (full on oppressive traditionalist patriarchal). Deconstruction or postmodernism more generally however is not itself an end or the goal but needs to deconstruct its own deconstruction leaning to potentially new theorizations and ways of thinking.
Possible viable options after post-modernism would be object-oriented ontology, Zizek & Badiou, (Meta)Critical Realism are just a few examples. These are extremely creative, rich lines of inquiry that get out of the mental, social, and ethical logjams that the dominated the landscape of social justice warriors, alt-right, (neo)libertarian free speechers, neoconservatism, social conservatism, or mainstream liberal progressivism.
*Sidenote: Another response to Derrida there—which is well beyond the scope of this piece but covered elsewhere on the site—would be to incorporate aspects of high strangeness, ontological flooding, the uncanny, and synchronicity.