Using Derrida, from Notes to Krystalina

This is from a book-length work that I’ve been working on for many years.

2.1 Every actor has had The Actor’s Nightmare. You find yourself on stage, with a set and properties and another actor, but you haven’t any memory of how you got there or what play you’re in or who your character is, much less what your lines are. The other actor turns to you and says, “What the hell do you think you’re doin’, Matt Friedman?” and you think, Talley’s Folly. Great play, but what the hell? Did I audition for this? Do I even own a copy of the script? How come I can’t remember any of that? WTF? The other player looks at you. The audience looks at you. A looooooooooong half second goes by, and panicking, you wake up.

Like the amnesiac of The Actor’s Nightmare, you didn’t choose the play you were cast into at birth. It was already there—the set, the costumes, the characters, and a very great deal of the script—all worked out in enormous detail without your participation or consent, but you were not yet mature enough to say, WTF?, and both fortunately (for some reasons) and unfortunately (for others), you were too young and accepting to panic at this. Nor did you question the ontological commitments already made for you (ontology: the study of being, of what is). Some people never do.

2.2 Some never notice, for example, that people put the world together in terms of an enormous variety of crude, largely binary oppositions:

animal :: human
black :: white
body :: spirit
boss :: employee
owner :: worker
Classical :: Romantic
countryman :: foreigner
dangerous :: safe|
heterosexual :: homosexual
intimate :: formal
learned :: ignorant
legal :: illicit
liberal :: conservative
public :: private
Capitalist :: Socialist
natural :: artificial
lover :: friend
loyal :: disloyal
male :: female
proper :: taboo
rich :: poor
married :: single
sacred :: profane
sane :: insane
savage :: civilized
self :: other
server :: customer
thought :: emotion
work :: play
young :: old
‘Έλληνες (Hellenes, or Greeks) :: βάρβαροι (Barbarians)
κύριος (master) :: δοῦλος (slave)
nihonjin (Japanese) :: gaijin (non-Japanese)

By means of such oppositions, people structure their thinking, their institutions, their daily lives. Let’s call these binaries, for the purposes of this book which is not THE Book, “dualisms.” . . .

2.5 Culture is everything that people pass down to the next generation. MOST of what you “know” is unexamined stuff picked up from your culture. The French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser called this process of unconscious, unthinking acquisition of unexamined notions interpellation. Because of interpellation, culture really, really matters. Suppose that you live in a culture that “thinks” dry cleaning shirts really important. Gotta show up to work looking crisp and professional! VERY IMPORTANT! Of course, the solvents from that dry cleaning are dumped into rivers and aquifers and oceans where they murder salamanders and fish and the babies of deer and humans, but hey, weigh those minor matters of dead deer and babies against the importance of wearing a clean, crisp blouse to the weekly project status meeting. Professional :: Unprofessional. Have some perspective!

2.6 So, how do you subject those unexamined binary acquisitions from your culture to critique? Jacques Derrida and other Postmodernists developed a hefty toolkit of techniques for deconstruction of those. My take on a few of the possibilities:

2.6.1 Privilege the other one of the binary pair for a change. Look back over that list of binaries earlier. In each case, one has almost always been privileged. But interesting things can happen if you reverse this. In the past, in many cultures around the world, on certain holidays (holy + days), a commoner would be appointed, for a time, a Lord of Misrule, and interesting things would happen with this person in charge. As everyone knows, men have pretty much FUBARed international relations for millennia. Why not given women a shot at this for a change?

2.6.2 Invent new categories distinct from the binary. Maybe a proposed economic reform isn’t Capitalist or Socialist but just, damn it, the right thing to do. Uh, single-payer National Health Insurance?

2.6.3 Deny the distinction. How much difference is there, really, between most Congressional Republicans and Democrats? How many look a lot like Republicrats or Demoplicans? Perhaps for many of them a single term would work better: Repugnicans. Neither party seems to have the independence from their marionettists to put single-payer, national healthcare to the people, and both overwhelmingly supported the War in Iraq. Now even an arch-conservative like George Will knows how insane that was. A plague on both their houses.

2.6.4 Invent new categories that combine the two. So, for example, having to choose between being of the world or of the spirit becomes panentheism—recognizing that the world is of the spirit. Pre-conquest indigenous Americans, new lovers, early and recent Japanese Shintoists, and most other indigenous peoples, have always known this. Many established (Christianity and Islam) and recent (various New Age groups) religious cults do not. So, they have some learning to do.

And maybe instead of the Self and the Other, there is the One.

2.6.5 Recognize that the binary exists on a continuum. Are you homosexual or heterosexual? Well, maybe today you are here on that scale:

HOM . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . x . . . . HET.
And then an acquaintance touches you or you watch Piper Perabo and Jessica Pare in Lost and Delirious or Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in The Color Blue, and you take a momentary jump here:
HOM . . X! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . HET.

How sweet is that?

2.7 Submitting to critical examination one of the interpellated binaries picked up from your culture is dangerous business. It’s mental pyrotechnics—play with fireworks. And doing so should come with a warning label: “Proceed with caution! These came into being and persisted for reasons that you should stive to understand.” But if you’re careful, there’s a very good chance that you’ll be rewarded by an opening onto beauty. And you will discover that much that you thought was a given–that you thought of as THE WAY THINGS ARE–is just stuff people made up and then forgot that they did. Downside? A lot of frightened people will start treating you as though you are unsettling and uncomfortable. What if she blows up some precious preconceptions with that mind of hers?

2.8 But the tradeoff is worth it. The most important of all learning is UNLEARNING. You have to take the hero’s journey, step through the wardrobe, fall down the rabbit hole, or go through the portal in the space/time continuum to a place beyond your interpellations, beyond the collective fantasies that go by the name of common sense. Real learning requires a period of estrangement from the familiar. The upside? You return to find the ordinary transmuted—weird and wondrous. You see it anew, as on the first day of creation, as though for the first time.

2.9 Continuing, throughout your life, to live solely within the unexamined inheritances from your culture is like living in a terrarium with a few plastic plants in it, set onto the floor of a primeval, old-growth forest. Sure, the forest can be scary. There are Jabberwockies out there. But there are also inestimable learnings. Are those fireflies or fairies? Go see. Make a practice of climbing out of the terrarium frequently, as you have already often done, beloved one, and you[?] will never be the same.

Copyright 2018, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

For other essays (and cartoons!) by Bob Shepherd on philosophical subjects, go here:


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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