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Eric: Eels are just a pack of Historicist Bastards. It's like Post-Structuralism just didn't happen for them or something.

(From Questionable Content. Click on the thumbnail for full sized marine hermeneutics!)

Jacques Derrida died on October 8. He's one of the few people who was so important to the field of philosophical and critical thought that he was eulogized by the New York Times. He's also one of the few people eulogized by the New York Times who was so innately controversial, that thousands of people signed a letter of formal protest to that eulogy, deriding it as inflammatory, inadequate, and sacrificing the legacy Derrida left us to satisfy those academics who, in the words of Bayard Bell, wish to establish their good name by manipulating the press to sully Derrida's.

For those who know nothing about Jacques Derrida -- and my assumption is that describes every person reading my words except for five exceptions, broken down as 3 random people as tragically lit-geeky as I am, my father the Professor of English, and Wednesday White, who knows everything and yet remains the In Girl in All Situations -- was a philosopher whose work primarily centered on Continental philosophy, particularly as it related to literary criticism. While he did work in many fields over a very broad, very detailed career, he was best known for strong developmental work in Phenomenology, followed by a concentration into grammatical and linguistic theory, taking a side trip through anthropology, and becoming the founding mind behind Post-Structuralism and Deconstructionism. The last is what he is most famous for, generally among people who haven't the slightest idea what Deconstructionist theory actually is.

Of course, part of the problem is, almost no one actually does know what Deconstructionist theory is. It defies definition the way positive poles of two magnets defy touching one another. I have a degree plus significant coursework in Literary Theory, and I couldn't define Deconstructionism the same way two days running on a bet. I'm better with Post-structuralism, but then I always enjoyed the interplay of significator and significated. Deconstructionism just makes my eyes glaze over.

(And no, they're not the same thing, though one incorporates the other. There is oxygen in the water molecule, but I wouldn't recommend trying to breath it.)

But honestly, I'm not here to talk about Deconstructionism. I'm here to talk about Derrida. Because Derrida was like a depth charge into philosophical thought. He remade Criticism completely in his wake. And he expanded our lexicon to the point that his terminology is misused by everything from politicians to playwrights. In a darker note, Deconstructionist theory has been used by narrow minded people to attack academia as "ivory-towerism," as if the expansion of thought, concept and consideration -- particularly in a field of theory that exalts the marginal and defines all things in terms of struggle -- were somehow divorced from consideration of the "real world...."

But I'm ranting, and you don't care. But J. Jacques does. He managed to encapsulate the entirety of modern consideration of post-structuralism into a strip that doesn't require you to know anything at all about it. In the end, there are those who care deeply, passionately about critical thought... and everyone else just wants to eat fish. We can see in Ellen the embodied binary opposition between academia and practicality, forever entwined as they combat one another. This is echoed in the opposition of her scientific major and philosophical minor, and echoed again in her attitude toward her studies and her failure, yet the focus of her very attempt. And we yet again see opposition between Ellen, the thinker, and Dora, the doer, who takes on the aspect of the Eel, assuming its qualities and its name alike, setting herself up not as one who cares about Derrida, but instead only wishes to consume fish. In this triplication of theme, we see the core Binary Opposition between sign and significator, between term and use, between stomach and spirit.

See... I can't define Deconstructionism on a bet... but I can bring the Deconstructionism on one. Fear my power, mortals, for I graduated with Latin words after my name!

Posted by Eric Burns-White at October 29, 2004 9:47 AM


Comment from: Petie posted at October 29, 2004 11:16 AM

Count me in as one of the three random people, though my geekitude is more chemocentric. I knew Derrida from his work in Phenomenology, as one of my best friends is a Phenomenologist. Makes for interesting discussions about science.

Comment from: John Bankert posted at October 29, 2004 11:18 AM

If you aren't including me in the three lit-geeks, which I doubt you are, you'll have to expand your list to six people who know more than nothing about Derrida.

I will confess that I know little about Derrida, other than he's a) dead, b) the founder of deconstructionism and c) controversial as hell. I also know that some people way more lit-geek than me consider desconstructionalism to be a steaming pile of crap.

Oddly enough, I learned this from the LJ of st_sardonicist, who is a soon to be minted Doctor of English Lit and a bass player in a way cool rock band called Nekkid.

Comment from: Bob Stevenson posted at October 29, 2004 11:30 AM

Wonderful strip, that. I've struggled with teaching deconstruction from the art end for a while.

Two years ago, a writer from Maine (Ron, not Eric) visited us in Cyprus with money he made from his first sale. We were talking and smoking early one morning. Lots of that went on in Cyprus. He recommended "Puzzles about Art: An Aesthetics Casebook". It dances beautifully around the shallow end of the deconstructionist art pool, but a fun little splash it is, full of short little case studies for students to play with. My favorite case has to be "Erased De Kooning". It offers no definitions either, just questions.

It drives ninth grade students bananas.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at October 29, 2004 11:34 AM

Drop me in that small bucket of people who are between "something" and "nothing". Because constructivism is a major part of educational theory, I had to learn enough about deconstructionism to at least satisfy myself that while the two theoretical frameworks had some similarities, they were not the same.

Constructivism, BTW, boils down to the statement, "I understand this thing, but I cannot simply GIVE you my understanding. You have to figure it out yourself from the elements that I *can* give you." With a corollary of, "If I do the right things, I can help you construct an understanding that's close enough to mine to satisfy the requirements of teaching."

The main strawman I've seen of deconstruction (and that I believed for a while in college) was that it means "I can never make you understand what I meant, and in fact what I meant is irrelevant." A dodge for critics to be able to ignore statements by the creators. From what I've gathered since, this strawman has some basis on fact, but that basis is no longer a part of modern criticism (i.e. most people in the field gave up on the idea and moved on to something else).

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 29, 2004 11:46 AM

Mmm. It's also somewhat inaccurate.

Mind, like all good New Critics, I'm a proponent of the Intentional Fallacy theory, but for me it's because the interpretation of works should come from the text, not from extra-textual sources, not because I can't make you understand my point. However, Deconstruction, slippery eel that it is, defies such simple definitions as relationship to Author or capacity to impart understanding.

(Derrida once absolutely demolished -- brilliantly, I would add -- the very foundations of New Criticism and the Close Reading method that is its hallmark with a glorious eighty page essay analyzing Ulysses. Specifically, the eighty pages analyzed the single word 'yes,' found in said Ulysses. Satire or not -- and there is some debate -- it was a beautiful Close Reading of that single word, and at the same time struck Critical Theory like a meteor. A meteor not unlike the one that's going to kill us all now that the Red Sox have won the World Series.)

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 29, 2004 11:54 AM

Mr. Bankert -- oh, I'm on the list of people who thinks Deconstructionism is a steaming pile of crap. I can bring it, but I feel all dirty, afterwards.

It actually kept me from getting into two grad schools. They felt I didn't have a "current understanding of critical theory" because in the essays I sent I stubbornly insisted on performing close reading and subtextual analysis instead of defining my thesis in terms of marginal binary opposition. Oddly, my response to that response was "Jesus, I'm glad I didn't go there."

Comment from: John Bankert posted at October 29, 2004 12:45 PM

Mr Burns -- Frankly, the whole critical theory thing makes my head hurt. I've considered, more than once, that in my copious spare time (ha!) I should delve into the whole literary theory thingumy. Then I remembered that it made my head hurt and I have a hard enough time keeping up with own personal brand of geekery that I don't need another to fall behind on.

Maybe if I win the lottery and can retire early, I'll reconsider this stance.

Comment from: Snowspinner posted at October 29, 2004 1:05 PM

Next time you make biscuits, be sure to save yourself one. A tasty, tasty one.

On the bright side, grad schools have widened a bit. Now you can, at least, be invested in Marxist or psychoanalytic readings of texts. In fact, being a straight deconstructionist won't really get you far these days, unless you're really jumping into it Derrida-style and bringing the whole set of political investments he had. Which, I mean, nobody ever does.

Comment from: jjacques posted at October 29, 2004 3:35 PM

Bravo, Eric, and thank you!

Having neither the training nor the intellectual processor speed to be an Ellen, I'm in the Dora camp when it comes to critical theory. Having friends who are very well-equipped to both argue about Derrida and eat fish at the same time often leaves me in an interesting observational position: Imagine a Maori ethnographer doing a study on rocket scientists at Cape Canaveral and you get an idea of what I'm talking about, and hence the subconscious inspiration for this particular strip.

I keep meaning to write a long screed on my site about why Websnark is the only piece of webcomic criticism worth reading right now, but regular comic updates keep getting in the way. One of these days, one of these days.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 29, 2004 3:50 PM

Hey, the comic should always come before the screed. That's the way we do things in Northern Maine! How can you have your Screed if you won't finish your Comic, our mothers always say!

And I wouldn't say we're the only ones worth reading, because folks like Wednesday White and John Barber and Damonk and the whole crowds at the Webcomics Examiner and Comixpedia do good stuff, I think. It's just, I can be a lot less formal. (That being said, I'm working on a formal review in another window, even as we speak. But I seriously appreciate the compliment.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 29, 2004 4:33 PM

"Do good stuff" he says.

What I'm trying to say is I think they rock and I'm just trying to keep up. I realized on reread my answer takes my normal level of arrogance and ramps it up. And the engines can't take that much ego, Captain.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at October 29, 2004 5:48 PM

I am most definitely not into critical theory. More like critical experiment, to look at my online record. :)

Comment from: Eric the .5b posted at October 29, 2004 8:16 PM

"In a darker note, Deconstructionist theory has been used by narrow minded people to attack academia as "ivory-towerism," as if...[it] were somehow divorced from consideration of the "real world..."

Well, I'm not sure it's narrow-mindedness so much as simple suspicion. You have something like Deconstructionism whose proponents and aficionados can't so much as define - or agree upon a definition of - and a lot of people, aside from being in the mood for fish, suspect all of this stuff is really just a "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" debate for the sweater-wearing, latin-suffixed set.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 29, 2004 10:18 PM

Politicians (generally conservative ones) have used Deconstructionism as a justification for dismissing higher education as a whole. From Philosophy through Engineering and beyond.

This, to me, is narrow-minded. And opportunistic. Also? Stupid. But that's just me.

Comment from: Azathfeld posted at October 31, 2004 11:34 PM

In college, I was double-majored in Theater and Astrophysics.

Comment from: Steve C. posted at November 5, 2004 1:50 PM

Another EXCELLENT Derrida essay is "I have forgotten my Umbrella" where in Derrida demolishes much of Heidegar's philosophy (which is, in turn, based on a fragment from Nietzsche's "Will to Power", IIRC).

Anyway, I remember being tickled pink over it -- I was blessed with a fantastic phil professor who was one of Derrida's students at UC-Irvine (right?), so that might have influenced me.

(Not that anyone will read this comment now, but some of us only read sporadically....:P )

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