Saturday, October 1, 2011

Desire vs. Differance: A Debate Bewteen Lewis and Derrida (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

Satisfaction is fleeting. No matter how hard or how long we search hither and thither across this good earth, amassing knowledge upon knowledge and experience after experience, we never seem to "find" whatever it is that we are "looking" for. We've been often fooled. Many times we think that we have found the thing that has been driving us forward, calling us out through the various wasted realms of this world, from decadence to deprivation; but each time we reach what we think is finally the thing, the drive and the call remains. Thus, we are perpetually restless, fluttering our wings from one nest to the next.

Exactly what this phenomenon (if it even is a "phenomenon") is has preoccupied the minds of many. Two in particular have addressed it: one perhaps indirectly, while the other definitely directly. The former was French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and the latter was British scholar C.S. Lewis. Both seemed to notice the same phenomenon (in slightly different forms), and both theorized about what it could possibly mean. Exactly what their conclusions were have shaped the minds of many (whether they knew it or not) that have come after them.

The smoke-and-mirrors of words.

Derrida is famous (or infamous) for being the primary architect of the critical theory of "deconstruction," which famously asserts, "There is nothing outside the text." In the world of language, Derrida noticed that the meaning of words seems to be continually postponed: words are simply described by more words, which in turn are described by more words, which in turn are described by more words, etc. There seems no way to escape the webbing of language and get at any sort of stable, abstract meaning (i.e., an absolute reference of value) for language. Every time that we try to move past words towards their meaning, we stumble into more words. Every dictionary is filled with words describing words, while any true connection between a word and its meaning/value is not present.

This endless postponement of meaning/value in language is what Derrida called "differance" (a play on the fact that the French language uses the same word for "to defer" and "to differ"). Every word is different from its meaning/value, and thus its meaning/value is deferred; but the meaning/value seems to always be deferred. Thus, it is never reached. This raises the question of whether it is even reachable (or even exists) in the first place. Is there any way outside of "text"? Differance thinks not.

Though Derrida's point was (arguably) purely textual in nature, those that he influenced took his ideas out of the realm of language and into the realm of actual existence. All things are "text" because all things are described/defined/shaped by language. You are a person because we have a word called "person"; there is a God because we have a word called "God". Any attempt to further define either of those words will lead us, not to real personhood or the real God, but more words. In this sense, all is text; and if all is text, then there is nothing outside of that text, viz., there is no (or no knowable) stable meaning/value to existence. Any meaning/value we create is just that: a creation of our own that is simply and endlessly deferred to something else. We do not have beauty; all we have is the word "beauty" and whatever other words we use to define it. We do not have love; all we have is the word and words for "love". There is no God; there is only the word(s) "God". If things such as beauty, love, and God actually exist, they exist forever beyond us, because we cannot rise above the netting of language and reach them. We are trapped in a never-ending hall of mirrors and smoke, ever fooled and ever restless for what can never be attained, if it even exists at all.

The sting of sweet desire.

Lewis is famous (or infamous) for several different apologetic arguments across his career, such as "The Argument from Reason" and "The Trilemma". There is one, however, that often slips through the cracks, even though it was fundamental to his own conversion: "The Argument from Desire". The argument can be found in Mere Christianity, but its most fully expanded version can be found in the "Afterword" to the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress.

Lewis noted that every human being has desires. Many are relatively simple, such as hunger or thirst or sexual drive. Other, however, or more complex (or "Romantic," to use Lewis' term), such as desires for beauty or love or God. For each desire, however (no matter how simple or complex), there is an object that satisfies it. We hunger, so there is food. We thirst, so there is drink. We have sexual urges, so there is sex. The object of satisfaction does exist. It is simply a matter of finding it.

It seems, however, that only the "simple" desires have immediate objects of satisfaction. What, then, of the more "Romantic" ones? These we seem to search and search for but never actually find. We seem to catch a glimpse here or there, but never the real thing. The object(s) of our more "Romantic" desires are always fleeting and fading away, only to be picked up again at some other point by some other object. Yet though the object seems to continually change (from this man or woman to that painting to that moment in time to that piece of music, etc.), the desire itself never leaves. It is always there to sting us awake and leave us restless and running.

Lewis believed that all human desires have an object that satisfies them. He also believed that "Romantic" desires seem to transcend our immediate context: nothing on earth seems to satisfy them. What does this mean? For Lewis, the answer was simple (yet profound): if we have a desire that this world cannot satisfy, then obviously we are meant for another world. When a creature is where it belongs, they do not feel these "Romantic" desires. As Lewis himself put it: "A man feels wet when he falls into water because man is not a water animal. A fish would not feel wet." Therefore, if we are feeling the sting of "Sweet Desire" (another one of Lewis' terms), then we are obviously not where we belong. We do not belong in the tangle of the text. We belong outside, where sweet desire is at last satisfied.

Both of these positions ("Differance" and "The Argument from Desire") have their different strengths and weaknesses (from a purely philosophical point of view), and they have their various proponents and detractors. For my own part, I'll only say this: Looking at the two positions (two of many, I'm sure), which one truly satisfies you; not in heart only, but in mind as well. Which one seems to answer more (though perhaps not all) of the questions of your reason and experience? I think the answer to that will be very telling indeed, not only about yourself but also about the arguments themselves.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

1 comment:

  1. Preemptive Postscript:

    Same may object that I have "oversimplified" Derrida's position. I have no doubt that I have, mainly because Derrida's convoluted writing style left even Foucault flummoxed.

    It is true that whatever became of "differance" (and "deconstruction") went beyond what Derrida intended (he seemed to voice such a concern in Of Grammatology), but that is ultimately irrelevant. Intentions (however noble or goodhearted) do not matter anywhere near as much as actual results. Derrida's intentions with "differance" were (I've no doubt) more innocent and nuanced than his followers have let on. My only response to that is to say, "So what?" I am not interested in what was "meant" to be or "could have" been but in what is, because what is is what actually has shaped and continues to shape the world that we live in.