Transcendental deconstruction, transcendent justice.

Author:Balkin, J.M.


A meaningful encounter between two parties does not change only the weaker or the stronger party, but both at once. We should expect the same from any encounter between deconstruction and justice. It might be tempting for advocates of deconstruction to hope that deconstruction would offer new insights into problems of justice, or, more boldly, to assert that "the question of justice" can never be the same after the assimilation of deconstructive insights. But, as a deconstructionist myself, I am naturally skeptical of all such blanket pronouncements, even -- or perhaps especially -- pronouncements about the necessary utility and goodness of deconstructive practice. Instead, in true deconstructive fashion, I would rather examine how deconstructionists' claims of what they are doing -- which are often refused the name of "theory" or "method" -- are uncannily altered by their encounter with questions of justice. In fact, as I hope to show, when deconstruction focuses on specific and concrete questions of justice, we will discover that deconstruction has always been something quite different from what most people thought it to be.

When I first began to write about deconstruction and law, I faced the task of translating deconstructive arguments in philosophy and literature to the concerns of law and justice. In the process, I proposed an understanding of deconstruction that enabled it to be employed in a critical theory of law. I fully recognized then that, in translating the insights of deconstructionists to the study of law, I was also working a transformation -- for to translate is to iterate, and iterability alters.(1) Not surprisingly, I was subsequently accused of misunderstanding both Derrida and deconstruction, and of emphasizing a logocentric version of deconstruction that misinterpreted Derrida's texts and subverted and undermined "true" or "proper" deconstructive practice.(2)

There is a certain irony to this accusation -- the subversion of a putatively "orthodox" or properly performed deconstruction by a closet logocentrist. Yet it must be true, mustn't it, that there is a better and a worse way to engage in deconstructive argument? After all, deconstructive arguments are studied in departments of philosophy and comparative literature, and tests are given, and Ph.D. theses written, and degrees awarded, on the basis of this assumption. Aren't these tests graded as better or worse, and aren't these theses subjected to examination and sent back for revisions? How could one make sense of what deconstructionists do if there were not a better and a worse way to understand and perform deconstructive arguments? Surely it cannot be the case that "everything goes," where the determination of what is or is not a better use or understanding of deconstruction is concerned.

Nevertheless, I shall short-circuit this deconstructive quandary, which is potentially interminable. I plead guilty to the charge. If one is to adapt deconstruction to the critical study of law, the practice of deconstruction must, in fact, be altered, changed, modified, and, I would even say, improved. Certain features of Derrida's texts, for example, must be emphasized and others deemphasized and regarded as mistaken. Only in this way can deconstructive argument be made a useful tool of critical analysis. Only in this way can it escape the many criticisms of nihilism that have been leveled at it.

How logocentric of me.

So, I freely confess, I am a traitor to deconstruction. Yet, as we know, "traitor" and "tradition" come from the same root: The traditionalist hands down, while the traitor hands over. In both cases there is a passing off, a changing. (Yet the ambiguities continue: one can pass off a baton, as in a relay race, or pass off counterfeit money or goods.) The traitor-traditionalist distinction, with all of its accompanying uncertainties, is surely one of the most interesting for a deconstructionist.(3) There is an important sense in which I am continuing in the tradition of deconstructive argument even as I am insufficiently deconstructive by the standards of a purportedly "pure" "orthodox," "properly performed" deconstruction. If every traditionalist is also, in some sense, a traitor to what she preserves in the name of tradition -- by altering it, freezing it in time, sucking the life out of it, and substituting the dry husk of unthinking imitation -- might not every traitor also be, in some sense yet to be determined, a traditionalist of the first order?

As a traitor, however, I have an even greater satisfaction. As time has passed, Derrida himself has followed my perfidy. He has left the ranks of his apostles and joined the ranks of the apostates. His encounter with justice has brought him to many of the same conclusions about the meaning and use of deconstruction I have offered. So perhaps I was following him all along, in following the direction in which he later followed me. Perhaps I agreed with him all along, in agreeing with that with which he would later agree. Who is the traitor, and who the traditionalist now?

A key deconstructive idea is that iterability, or the capacity to be repeated in new contexts, results in change. Nevertheless, in examining how repetition is linked to change, we must always keep in mind two possible explanations, two different paths of explanation. The first claims that what we understand later really is different from the original and is consequently an improvement or a falling away. The second claims that this repeated thing has really always been the same; the new context has merely altered our understanding of it, with a consequent improvement or falling away of that understanding. Often it is very difficult to tell which claim we are making. It is often unclear whether we are traditionalists, who preserve the old in new guises and new understandings, or betrayers, who offer only an altered, imperfect substitute. After all, everyone is familiar with sectarian disputes between competing groups of believers -- whether religious, political, or academic -- who offer competing interpretations concerning the common object of their belief, branding their opponents as traitors while describing themselves as keepers of the faith.

It is this type of perfidy (which is at the same time a form of faithfulness), this alteration of deconstruction (which is at the same time not an alteration) that I would like to discuss here.

Of course, a deconstructionist must have texts to work with, texts to make her argument with. I take as my texts three writings by Jacques Derrida. The first is a lecture he gave in 1989 at a conference at the Cardozo Law School on "Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice." This talk was later published under the title Force of Law: "The Mystical Foundation of Authority".(4) In this address, he answered critics who accused deconstruction of nihilism or (perhaps worse) political quietism and complete irrelevance to questions of justice. Derrida replied that, far from failing to address the question of justice, deconstruction had addressed little else.(5) As evidence he listed a series of recent articles he had written that, in his opinion, concerned questions of justice.(6)

Of course, from a deconstructionist's standpoint, what might be most interesting about this list are the articles that Derrida did not choose to mention. One might think that these articles were withheld because they were wholly irrelevant to questions of justice. After all, in several of the writings that Derrida does mention, it takes quite a stretch to see them as directly addressing the question of justice.(7) A fortiori, the articles not mentioned must be even more divorced from these issues. Yet no deconstructionist worth her salt would accept such an obvious attempt at marginalization so readily; it would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Let us look, then, at the discarded, irrelevant parts of the Derridean corpus. Among them we find two substantial pieces on the controversy surrounding Paul de Man's wartime journalism.(8)

The basic story surrounding this scandal is by now well known.(9) Paul de Man, Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University, was a close friend of Jacques Derrida and one of the central figures in the development of literary deconstruction. He died in 1983, a beloved and respected teacher and scholar. In 1987, a young graduate student doing research for a thesis on de Man discovered articles de Man had written between 1940 and 1942 for the Belgian newspaper Le Soir. During the Nazi occupation of Belgium, Le Soir was seized by pro-German forces and used as a mouthpiece for pro-Nazi propaganda and antisemitic statements.(10) De Man wrote for Le Soir during that period. He was still in his early twenties. Some of his articles were exclusively literary, while others were in various degrees concerned with politics. Moreover, as Derrida himself puts it, the "massive, immediate, and dominant effect" of de Man's political articles conformed to the "official rhetoric . . . of the occupation forces."(11) And one article in particular, The Jews in Contemporary Literature, (12) is overtly antisemitic.

The revelation of these writings created a furor in the academy over de Man's posthumous reputation, the relation of his past writings to his later academic work, and the possible relationship between de Man's wartime activities and the normative claims -- or lack of normative claims -- of deconstruction. Many silly and intemperate accusations were leveled on all sides of this dispute. In the midst of this controversy, Derrida wrote two substantial articles. In the first, The Sound of the Deep Sea Within a Shell: Paul de Man's War,(13) he defends his old friend -- and deconstruction itself -- from what he regards as unjust accusation, and he tries to place de Man's life and works in their proper perspective. In the second, Biodegradables. Six...

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