On this episode of The Seminar Room, we discuss “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” by Jacques Derrida. As Lucas and I note in the episode, Derrida isn’t exactly the “go to” post-structuralist/critical theorist/continental philosopher of religious studies (that honor, it seems to me belongs to Talal Asad’s reading of Michel Foucault.) Derrida is a polarizing figure, often held up as the exemplar of continental “philosophizing” and incomprehensible jargon. I’m not going to defend him on that count. Derrida loved language and all the “tricks” it could play, and his writing reflects that. Still, I think there’s something valuable for religious studies in some of what he has to say, and this essay in particular picks out something important that addresses the dialogue Lucas and I have been having throughout the podcast on the question of “critical religion.”
Here’s my claim: In order to be properly post-metaphysical, one must be sufficiently post-critical, and I think critical religion (for the most part) fails on the latter (and thus the former). Derrida discusses the first part of that claim in the early part of the essay where he points out that any absolute negation of metaphysics or metaphysical concepts is doomed to trap itself within the logic of metaphysics. To announce determinatively that there is no God (or “religion”) is to say something metaphysical about God (“religion”) on Derrida’s view. But that doesn’t mean that traditional metaphysics gets to hang around or slip in through the back door. Rather, Derrida insists on the undecidability between negation and affirmation–the infinite play of the two sides which continually subvert one another. This is where a critique of power, particularly colonialism if we’re talking about religion, is absolutely necessary in order to see how negation and affirmation operate along lines of power. Or, perhaps more importantly, to identify the power relations that attempt to arrest this play for the purposes of colonial power.
In the episode, I mention a blog post by Craig Martin (found here) in which he argues that post-structural thought does not preclude the possibility of drawing a distinction between value-laden/normative and distanced/critical approaches to the study of religions. Martin argues that value-laden arguments are only acceptable in the academic study of religion if they can be intersubjectively verified. This is the closest that we can get to anything like “objectivity” (on which Martin says he’s given up because of post-structuralism.) And, perhaps most importantly, Martin thinks this will exclude most normative theological work on religion from being considered academic in the same way that “secular” religious studies scholarship is.
Derrida’s essay challenges this view, and here I want to develop the critique that we touch on a bit in the episode. At the heart of the challenge the essay poses is this: the problem isn’t with values on Derrida’s view. Rather, it’s with any attempt to anchor discourse in some kind of center. This is the point of Derrida’s discussion of the false distinction between the bricoleur and the engineer, which Levi-Strauss invokes. In invoking this distinction, Derrida says, Levi-Strauss still maintained the (false) possibility of a discourse born out of an absolute subjective origin–literally the myth of a “non-bricolaged,” non-mythic discourse–that can anchor one’s method in “something” immovable and concrete (like empirical evidence, scientific method, etc.)
And yet Levi-Strauss still recognizes that his own methodology is bricolage, making his own scholarly work akin to myth. Myth is origin-less discourse–a bricolage of other discourses, pieced together to construct a coherent theory about an absolute origin. This origin–the center–that would anchor discourse always seems to escape the structure of bricolage. Derrida goes on to argue that the reason Levi-Strauss makes this distinction is because he’s sees the impossibility of a totalizing discourse in the wrong way. For Levi-Strauss, the problem is that the field of language is infinite. This means that there will always be new evidence, new ways of describing, and so on. The engineer is the possibility of a totalizing discourse that could gather all the empirical data under one, central account. This way of thinking about totalization still maintains the structure of “center” because it is the center that can never be fully captured by language. For Derrida, however, it isn’t that the field is too big for our finite linguistic abilities. Rather, there is a no-center which keeps language in an infinite state of “play” where signifiers (words) and signifieds (their meanings) slip away from one another and toward other equally slippery possibilities. It’s that “missing piece” that is important for Derrida.
The reason, then, that normative theology, ethics, or philosophy of religion (bricoleur) and history, ethnography, anthropology (engineer) are in the same boat (on Derrida’s view) isn’t because of values. It’s because of the nature of language itself as a field of infinite play which has a no-center. Thus, Martin’s appeal to intersubjective verification, on this view, seems like an attempt to re-imagine the bricoleur as the engineer.
However, Martin’s appeal isn’t even that strong. I don’t think he would say (based on his blog post) that intersubjective verification “centers” or grounds academic discourse in any metaphysical or “objective” way. But that’s perhaps all the more reason why I don’t find the point of his argument convincing. Martin claims that this kind of verification precludes normative approaches to religion. But this kind of verification doesn’t (by definition or something) exclude the possibility of normative theological, ethical, or philosophical work being verified. How could it? I would be on board with an argument like this if Martin were saying something like “Even though everything/everyone is value-laden, and even though language is at play infinitely, there are still ways for us to adjudicate between claims about and approaches to religions and their study.” Because then he’d be on to something that needs to be said to both critics of critical theory/post-structuralism as well as a good number of its supporters. But that isn’t his point. He wants a distinction between “normative” and “non-normative” approaches to religious studies.
Part of his worry–like most of critical religion–is that without such a distinction, we’d be left with chaos with no real way to adjudicate between approaches to religion since everyone could just point to value-ladenness as justification for their (probably terrible) approach/scholarship. But that isn’t at all what post-structuralism entails. That is, the infinite play of language or the inescapability of values doesn’t mean that everything is absolutely relative, a pure chaos in which we must weigh equally the claims of fundamentalist religious adherents with “secular” religious studies scholars as if both are worthy of being called academic scholarship. Because even among “secular” scholars, we draw distinctions between good and bad work. In other words, some work is just plain garbage, and we don’t need a distinction between “real” academic scholars of religion and normative wannabes to tell us that. So-called secular scholars produce bad work that will never be intersubjectively verified, and “normative” scholars–including confessional theologians–regularly produce work that is. And very often we find that plenty of really terrible work has been intersubjectively verified for decades or longer. Intersubjective verification leaves us right back where we started–at play in a field of language with an allusive no-center.
Listen to Episode 11 here: