Deconstruction

The extreme version of postmodernity that goes by the name of deconstruction is a metaphysical reflection on this state of affairs—a metaphysic to end all metaphysics. (For Derrida generally and what follows immediately here, see Hart, 1989, esp. pp.1-15, 2433.) Metaphysics is defined by Derrida as any science of presence—the study of the signs that are claimed to represent the wholeness and integrity of reality. For Derrida any discourse is metaphysical to the extent to which it claims that presence absolutely precedes representation. Derrida's differance means that absence is prior to presence, fragmentation prior to wholeness, disintegration prior to integration. The weight that metaphysics, including theology, places on the sign is misplaced, for the sign cannot deliver; presence cannot fulfil its promise to provide a ground for ontological security. The notion of full presence—prelapsarian (before the Fall) or eschatological (in the fulfilment of God's purposes in the End Time)—is an illusion, for it assumes that there is something outside the sign system that can escape its determination, it forgets that the ground of the sign is interpretation, the mutual mediation of the totality of signs. There is no knowledge—no revelation, we might say—that is thus unmediated.

Deconstruction challenges the theological claim that the ultimate ground of all meaning is God. Theology cannot escape the gravitational pull, as it were, of the sign system; it is trapped within it. There is no isomorphism between word and reality. An endless accumulation of words will never attain to the Word. No plethora of images, however rich and diverse, can ever reflect the Image of God. Like postmodernism generally, deconstruction's bitterest argument is with the aspiration to totality. For Derrida, any claim that a particular text can be totalised, so as to be of universal and absolute import, is theological. He regards 'God' as an instrument of totalisation. The terms 'metaphysical' and 'theological' identify a lust for totality. What then does it mean to practice deconstruction? To deconstruct a given discourse is to show, by reference to the assumptions that it makes, that it depends on prior differences that prevent it becoming a candidate for totalisation (Hart, 1989, p.67).

In her formidable After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (1998), Catherine Pickstock accepts the challenge of Derrida and deconstruction, seeing it as the outcome (not the antithesis) of premodern and modern culture. She exposes its roots in the complex of broadly rationalist and secularist ideas and practices that began to emerge in the late medieval period, were reinforced in the Reformation, acquired momentum in seventeenth-century empiricism and received ideological form in the instrumentalism of aspects of the Enlightenment. She shows how these tendencies achieved dominance in technological modernity and finally ran into the sand in the fragmentation and nihilism of postmodernism. For Pickstock, our increasingly information-based culture represents the nemesis of the domination of the world by the alienated analytical intellect, in which an original whole and integrated vision of the world is chopped up into discrete data, spread out and moved around, commodified, packaged and manipulated (for which Pickstock employs the terms 'spatialisation' and 'pure immanence'). The tyranny of the media-induced sound bite (she claims) mirrors the totalitarian pretensions of state-owned political power which began to absorb all areas of life within its control in the early modern period, and so parodied the medieval wholeness of communal life that was permeated by the sacramental structure—thus forcing religion into the private sphere of interior subjectivity.

Pickstock highlights the destructive dualisms of late modernity: the dominance of writing over conversation, of space over time and of subjectivity over objectivity. Where Derrida believes that it is writing that reveals the nature of language (and therefore of what is real), she appeals to the example of Socrates and Jesus to argue that speech is closer to reality because it is expended in passing time, invites an immediate response and is rooted in physical embodiment and the particularity of circumstance (however, this seems to overlook the crucial place of Plato's Socratic dialogues and the Gospels). The supreme instance of speech rising into transcendence and therefore putting all that is importantly immanent in its rightful place, she asserts, is liturgy. Doxology receives reality as a gift, sanctifies it through prayer and offers it back as a sacrifice. Only in total oblation to God as a living sacrifice does the worshipper unwittingly receive back self, life and the world. Liturgical action bestows meaning on the world and only in liturgy does language ultimately make sense. In other words, she accepts and glories in Derrida's accusation that talk of totality is irreducibly theological. She wants to recover a non-dualist theological paradigm in which the whole of creation and of human life is sanctified by worship.

Pickstock identifies her salutary paradigm historically in the early Middle Ages, when liturgical action was embedded in a sacramental world and ritualised culture, and paradigmatically in the Roman Rite of the Mass, which ensured an appropriate spiritual discipline by allowing for the reality of the physical and contingent, and for the hesitancy and inarticulateness of the worshippers, but at the same time leading them to the point at which they could receive a true, integrated, yet fragile identity as a gift of grace.

After Writing advocates (as does the present work) a symbolic realism in which equal weight is placed upon both halves of that term. Symbolism is crucial to its epistemology. It takes the realm of sign and figure as constitutive. 'The liturgical city. is avowedly semiotic. Its lineaments, temporal duration, and spatial extension are entirely and constitutively articulated through the signs of speech, gesture, art, music, figures, vestment, colour, fire, water, smoke, bread, wine, and relationality' (Pickstock, 1998, p.169). But Pickstock is not advocating retreat into an intranarratival enclave, a sort of fideism where the semiotic code is merely posited. Hers is a symbolic realism— linguistic, sacramental and ecclesial. 'These signs are both things (res) and figures or signs—of one another and of that which exceeds appearance' (ibid., p.170). The symbolic and the realist pivot (for her as for me) on the Christological. Reality comes closest to us in Christ-centred worship, for here language fulfils its intended purpose and makes its best sense. But liturgy is an 'impossible possibility' for fallen creatures and becomes possible only through Christ—his incarnation, sacrifice, exaltation and inspiration of the Church through the Holy Spirit. The Christological realist symbol—both immanent and transcendent, truly human and fully divine—saves us from the postmodernist trap where symbolism is all pervasive but meaningless.

In postmodernity everything has the potential to become a symbol, but nothing is a symbol of the transcendent. This pan-symbolism is purely immanent. Symbols, images and myths interpret one another, interacting immanently, but none of them points beyond the symbolic realm. They do not symbolise a reality in which they participate. Roland Barthes can include soap-powders, steak and chips, striptease, Einstein's brain and the new Citroën (the DS) in his Mythologies. Anything can become a myth. Myth, for Barthes, simply refers to a type of speech in which the mode, not the message, is dominant. Myth means the elevation of petit-bourgeois culture to the level of universal nature, depoliticising icons of capitalist society so as to distort the true representation of society (Barthes, 1972, pp.9, 109, 121f., 142f.).

George Steiner has encapsulated modern deconstructive linguistics:

There is in words and sentences no pre-established affinity with objects, no mystery of consonance with the world. No figura of things, perceived or yet to be revealed, inheres in the (purely arbitrary) articulations of syntax. No phonetic sign, except at a rudimentary level...has any substantive relation or contiguity to that which it is conventionally and temporarily held to designate. The linguistic marker is as 'coded' as the algebraic symbol.

We have become the victims of our jargon: the 'mere metaphor', the 'empty symbol' and the 'exploded myth' now comprise the postmodern linguistic universe.

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