First, what Derrida is not saying. He is not saying “Everything is relative.” He is not saying, “There are no absolutes.” That’s what the American university professor believes, but that’s not Derrida. So in one swoop 99% of Conservative Culture Warrior criticisms of “postmodernity” are false.
French Postmodernism is not as difficult as it may appear. Derrida does a good job in defining his terms, and as long as we keep those definitions present, much of what he says is not only coherent, but quite insightful:
The Holy Grail (or Pandora’s Box) of philosophy is “being-as-pure-presence.” What does that mean? It’s hard to say. One helpful definition,
[It is a] transcendental signified” … which transcends all signifiers, and is a meaning which transcends all signs.
In other words, a Gods-eye-point of view. As finite creatures, we can never have that. But presumably that is what we want. Or so Derrida says. Outside a few gnostic hyper-Calvinists at Puritanboard, I don’t know anyone who wants that “being-as-presence.”
So for all the danger of Derrida, we are on relatively solid ground. Indeed, much of it sounds like a robust Christian hermeneutics. Mediation goes all the way down. “il n’y a pas de hors-texte.” There is no aspect of our experience that escapes the play of signifiers. Instead of a metaphysics of presence we have an ontology of quasi-trace. Reference never gets to a “pure” outside that isn’t already touched by mediation and signifiers.
Indeed, throw in some Trinitarianism where each Person infinitely defers to the Others, and we have done a complete end-run around Western metaphysics.
But that’s not what Derrida means and that’s where he runs into problems. He knows we can’t have pure presence, so any pure presence is always already supplemented with (x). And this fact of supplementation is an act of violence, for it posits nature as lacking.
Again, if we are looking at it from post-fall Christian theology, that’s true. There is no pure, good nature (in the sense of Harambe and children playing with each other). But I don’t think that is what he means.
The real villain is writing. Writing dislocates the subject that it constructs. Writing displaces speech and introduces “an economy of signs” (142). Writing means that the “representing” is the actual thing itself.
*Derrida says thought is “the blank part of a text…[meaning] nothing” (92). Presumably it functions as an empty set. But this is just not how thought and language work. Language, albeit not-yet-verbal, is what makes thought possible. Now if what he means by this is thought can never be a “transcendental signified,” fine. But I don’t think he means that.
**Let’s pretend Derrida’s analysis is correct for a moment. So what? I’ve never met a single human being who has ever thought that supplement = violence, or can even conceptualize that. Postmodernism will fail, not because it is wrong, but because no one cares whether it is right or wrong.