This essay is a bit of a follow-up to my earlier essay, “Is Jacques Derrida Serious? or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Deconstruction.” If you are at all familiar with the contents of Derrida’s Of Grammatology, you will get the inside joke if I say that this is a supplement to that earlier post. The week after it appeared on TIC, I was invited to be part of a faculty panel at Hillsdale College, addressing the question, “Does Social Justice Exist?” Here is a slightly revised version of the comments I made there:
There are a number of things that one might mean when asking whether something exists. We might mean to ask whether there are any actual instances of a kind of thing that we could encounter in everyday life, or “the real world.” That’s what seems to be going on when we ask whether unicorns exist. We might mean, on the other hand, to ask whether some hypothetical thing is actually a substance, a substantial thing. That’s what William James meant, for example, when he asked whether “consciousness” exists, and concluded that it does not. As I’ve thought about our topic this week, I’ve found myself wondering if, whatever else might be the case, saying that something exists perhaps entails the possibility, at least, of finding it, pointing at it, grasping it, measuring it.
What about “social justice” in particular? Are there actual instances of social justice that we could encounter in everyday life? I’d guess that most of us would be tempted to answer “yes.” But being the sort of liberally educated folk we are, it would then occur to us that there must be some account of what justice is, of why it is the case that all such instances actually are instances of social justice. If we remember how Socrates is presented by Plato, we might even think that the question, “Does social justice exist?” is really asking whether or not there exists such an account (a logos) that is the right one, the correct one, the true one. In that case, we might be wondering if social justice exists as a timeless, changeless essence, whether that is understood along more Platonic or more Aristotelian lines.
Being an experimental thinker, in Nietzsche’s sense of ‘experimental,’ what I’m going to do today is not give my own decisive answer to the question. Rather, I intend to gesture in the direction of a recent philosopher who, when he made the decidedly philosophical move of expressing his belief in justice, surprised almost everyone, and probably actually shocked quite a few people. That philosopher was Jacques Derrida.
I’m going to assume that most of you have at least some notion of who Derrida was, even if you don’t know much in detail. I’m also going to assume that most of you are aware that he is credited as the founder of something called “deconstruction,” which has a reputation for seeking to overturn the entire Western philosophical tradition, undermining the very idea that words have meanings, and worst of all, causing its practitioners, even against their will, to lean politically to the left.
My experiment here is to invoke a bit of what Derrida has said about justice.
Note, please, that my comments here will not be intended as anything even close to a detailed elucidation of Derrida’s views regarding justice. In my prior blog essay, I make what I admit is a rhetorically ornery move of claiming that what Derrida was up to as a supposed “deconstructionist” was not significantly different from what Socrates was up to, as presented in Plato’s early dialogues. Here in this context, I only hope to toss out some thoughts drawn from Derrida that you may find either attractive enough, or wildly incredible enough, that you might yourself wish to explore further the possibility of confirming or refuting them.
I should also acknowledge that I’m not very worried today about the placement of the adjective social before the word justice. My sense is that when Derrida talked and wrote about justice, he was probably thinking mainly, though perhaps not exclusively, of social justice. But more to the point, if it turns out that justice in general does not exist (as my experiment here will provisionally suggest), then social justice in particular does not exist, either.
It was in 1989, after Derrida was well established in his fame as a “deconstructionist,” that he was invited to participate in a colloquium at Cardozo Law School, entitled “Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice.” The idea of deconstruction was widely understood at that point to be an insidious, limitless sort of negation or refutation, a method of unraveling texts which also presupposed that there is nothing but texts, and thus was a method for unraveling anything and everything. (This view is still widely held, but recently much less so among people who actually read Derrida’s work.) It was at that colloquium where Derrida made clear, to the dropping of a great many jaws, that not everything is vulnerable to deconstruction. His example on that occasion, of course, was justice. Law can be deconstructed, he said, but not justice.
Derrida reiterated and developed this claim in his later writings. A matter of law, a legal matter, can be decided, it can be finalized. It can be established, so that I know that I am in the right legally. I cannot know that I am just, according to Derrida; it cannot be finalized. Another way of putting this, very much in the spirit of Derrida’s writings, is that justice is not something that is simply present. It is not calculable as being here, now, to precisely this degree. If we think of something that exists as something that is present, and present to a calculable degree, then I’m afraid the bad news, at least from Derrida, is that justice does not exist.
But…as the infomercials say: Wait! There’s more! It is precisely because justice is not present, calculable, finalized, that it is not deconstructible. And Derrida claims that insofar as deconstruction is anything like a project to be undertaken, it is undertaken in the name of justice. He even goes so far as to say that deconstruction is justice! Now, if you have little clue exactly what to make of such a statement, that means you are paying attention, because Derrida (like his philosophical predecessors, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) is usually much more interested in provoking further thought than in providing answers upon which thought may stop and rest as one might rest upon one’s laurels. But it is clear in Derrida, as far as I can tell, that the non-existence (if by that we mean the non-presence) of justice does not in any way diminish the crucial significance, the centrality, the founding character of justice.
For comparison, it’s helpful to note how Derrida’s later work famously gives a similar status to democracy. Democracy is not present, for Derrida, but is “to come” (à venir). Derrida’s identity as a Jew (albeit one who, in his words, “rightly passes for an atheist”) is significant here, as he draws upon the idea of the messianic. But that something is “to come” rather than being present does not mean that it is simply absent; it’s non-presence is not simply a negation. (Might this remind us, perhaps, of Voegelin’s idea that we should not “immanentize the eschaton”?)
I quote some of my own further comments on this from elsewhere, because I’m not sure I can do much better than this wording:
Derrida… writes of friendship, community, and a democracy “to come”…. This is not to say that they are to come in a calculable future time. Rather, they are always “to come.” He is clear… that what he calls “the messianic“ is not a matter of a future coming in time, but of a coming that always remains a coming, and is never present…. This is another way to talk about what Derrida has already called différance. Derrida’s point is neither that the community to come is future in time, nor that it is never going to come in any sense at all. His point, rather, is that its coming is not a matter of presence, not a matter of totality, not a matter of everything being all sewed up and everyone living happily ever after. Just as the constant deferral of meaning, for Derrida, does not imply that there is really no meaning, so the deferral of friendship or of community does not imply that there is no real friendship or community. But they will not be totality. They will not be present.
Now, here is the heart of my experiment: Allow me to try rephrasing what I’m drawing from Derrida, in a way that might be familiar (though perhaps jarring) to those of us who are called “conservative.” We would like to say, with T. S. Eliot and Russell Kirk, that worrying about justice is a part of worrying about “the permanent things.” Consider how Derrida might be saying basically the same thing here. For Derrida, when things are fixed and finalized within a system of thought (let’s explicitly say a human system of thought), “deconstruction” means that there is always something in that system that isn’t as fixed or finalized as we think, something that seems to fit only when we aren’t paying close attention to it, but that comes “unstuck” if we do pay close attention to it (‘unstuck’ is John D. Caputo’s word).
Here’s another attempt at summarizing deconstruction by Terry Eagleton, who is of course no conservative, but who is also insistent that Derrida is no nihilist:
Deconstruction holds that nothing is ever entirely itself. There is a certain otherness lurking within every assured identity. It seizes on the out-of-place element in a system, and uses it to show how the system is never quite as stable as it imagines. There is something within any structure that is part of it but also escapes its logic.
So to talk of what is “to come,” of what is not deconstructible, is to talk of what cannot be closed into a system of thought. Here Russell Kirk might talk in terms of what cannot be fixed into an all-or-nothing ideology. Perhaps what we mean by “the permanent things” can only really be permanent when, from our human point of view, they don’t “exist” in the sense of being present. If that were true, then saying that justice “does not exist” could be a way of saying that it is much, much more important than something that “exists.”
Now, this experiment might seem like a failure if you think that justice must turn out to “exist” in the sense that one of Plato’s forms might exist, eternally and unchangingly. And of course you might be right about that. But there’s one more question I’d ask in that case: Do we want justice itself to be eternal and unchanging? When we emphasize that, are we perhaps, at least sometimes, really wanting justice according to our current system of thought to be what is eternal and unchanging?
1. Derrida’s contribution to that colloquium found its way into print as the first part of “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority'” (available in Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, ed. G. Anidjar, Routledge, 2002). Some readers of Derrida point to this colloquium presentation as a major marker of division between Derrida’s “earlier” and “later” work, though many now emphasize continuity more than discontinuity. Among several other late writings, cf. the shorter and fairly accessible works, Of Hospitality (Stanford, 2000) and On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (Routledge, 2001).
2. Peter C. Blum, For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Herald Press, 2013), pp. 118-119.
3. John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 23.
4. From Terry Eagleton’s Guardian review of Benoit Peeters’ biography of Derrida, to be found here.