Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Derrida, Christ, and the meaning of the text

Derrida hurts my brain. Luckily, Yahoo Answers is there to help. Sally H asks:

When I think of the word 'dog' and have a concept of a dog in my mind - say a dog I saw yesterday, why is this not a correlation between signifier and signified for Derrida? Why is meaning deferred from signifier to signifier and where does this leave the signified? After all I still have the concept in my mind? No Derrida haters please, just a simple explanation. Thankyou x

I find this quite amusing, because my experience with Yahoo Answers until now was limited to mockery on the Never SFW Something Awful, where the questions (and indeed all SA content ever) tended less toward complex philosophy and more toward racism and comprehensive misunderstandings of how sex works.

My favorite answer to Sally H’s query begins “well, i am a ‘hater’” and ends “this guy has always confused the crap out of me.” However, if you want a decent explanation of some of Derrida’s thought, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere on the web.

How about Theoretical Semiotics on the Web? Semiotics for Beginners? There’s really no way to summarize Derrida’s ideas on semiotics. You have to get into Saussure, Plato, Lévi-Strauss; logocentrism, structuralism, deconstructionism; a whole host of complicated concepts and even more complicated chains of thought.

Like most of philosophy and literary criticism, Derrida’s theories focused on the relationship between language and thought. It’s a good place to start if you’re going to study anything in depth. Perhaps it’s just scholars making everything complicated as usual, but there’s an astounding wealth of theories about what the relationship is between language and thought, and how it works. I don’t begin to have an understanding of all these theories, but I do know that it often seems to come down to a fundamental, yet curiously modern, opposition: that of universalism vs. relativism.

Of course, I’m simplifying everything hugely, because going into detail would tax my brain beyond its limits this late at night, but it seems that the Christian is often a moral universalist, while the feminist is a moral relativist. As a Christian, one is supposed to subscribe to the notion of absolute truth; but it doesn’t take much critical thinking to reveal how many of our absolute notions are in fact the product of our culture and upbringing. Two thousand years ago, Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), and people have been asking him the same question ever since. He never answered.

I’m still figuring out my personal beliefs on the issue of universalism vs. relativism. My first two years as a Christian were spent at a conservative evangelical church, and I knew going in that I was neither conservative nor evangelical. Sometimes it feels as though life would be a lot easier if I were. Conservative evangelical Christians study the Bible a lot, but they do it from a perspective of comfortable universalism. To them, the text comes straight from God, and it is the highest authority.

To me, this viewpoint fails to take into account all the complexities of textual interpretation. To claim that the text is the highest authority implicitly assumes that the text has meaning independent of any reader’s interpretation – that there is a single correct reading of the text – and moreover that this meaning can be discovered.

I suppose I want to believe that. As things stand, I certainly don’t believe it of any text other than the Bible. As for the Bible itself, well, I’m not sure.

Christ is the text. He is the logos (John 1:1, 14). Perhaps his divinity – God’s divinity – lies in his being the one text that does have meaning independent of any reader. Perhaps that’s one definition of what God is.

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