Dao Du Jour II, Day 32: The Meme-ing Crisis

Chapter 32: Sacred Power

“To order, to govern,

is to begin naming;

when names proliferate

it’s time to stop.

If you know when to stop

You’re in no danger.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

We used to “analyze” things. Now we “deconstruct” them. The roots of this shift in our vernacular are worth pondering. They have much to do with the so-called “meaning crisis.”

The term deconstruction entered academia through the philosopher Jacques Derrida around the 1980s, and in the halls of the ivory tower it remained for a generation or so. Derrida’s basic idea was that meaning happens through differentiation—the meaning of “this” consists in how it differs from “that,” and so the meaning of “this” is deferred from the act of saying or writing it.  Put another way, “this” does not have a clear, fixed, self-contained meaning; its meaning depends on the context. This may sound rather obvious, but the important part is that there is no end to the process: we expect this at the beginning and middle of a story, but not at the end. As one of Derrida’s interpreters, Jonathan Culler, put it, the two tenets of Derrida’s neologism differánce are that “meaning is context bound” and “contexts are boundless.” Ambiguity is an original sin stamped on the DNA of language. Though commonly understood as a form of textual interpretation, analysis, and critique—a philosophy of language and semantics—it was much more.

Since nothing really ends, deconstruction spells the end of stories. Derrida came to be associated with the movement of postmodernism. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard identified one of the pillars of the movement as a rejection of “master narratives.” The postmodern project was to deconstruct, debunk, and decolonize texts and traditions, to dismantle systems, to subvert hierarchies. This project has much to recommend it, but it didn’t know “when to stop.” And so began a proliferation of names: master narratives were just myths motored by things like “phallo-phono-logo-Euro-centrism” and the “white-cis-hetero-patriarchy.” The Great Awokening has been nothing is not a “proliferation of names.” Deconstruction contradicts an essential part of our humanity: we are storytelling animals. In this respect, it was just a more French, more pretentious, more pedantic form of Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead.” The basic bind is that we need myths, but we can no longer believe in myths.

And then something strange happened: these ideas started to seep into and structure mainstream culture; more precisely, they began to fuel what Philip Rieff called “anti-culture.” Bill Clinton’s “It depends upon what the meaning of ‘is’ is” may well mark the start of what we now call “post-truth” culture. From Richard Linklater’s Reality Bytes to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to Morpheus welcoming us to the “desert of the real” in the Matrix, the structure of feeling of the 1990s was fundamentally ironic. As Ken Wilber explains in Trump in a Post-Truth World, the postmodern condition is one of “aperspectival madness.” The design of our digital infrastructure incarnates and disseminates this idea, strip-mining meaning through the mashup, the personalized feed, the filter bubble, the echo chamber, the splicing and dicing and cutting and pasting of text. We are condemned, not to meaning, but to meme-ing. A thread runs from Clinton’s sophistry to Trump’s demagoguery. Little wonder that a mad world would find itself ruled by a mad king. As David Frum put it in reference to immigration, if liberals do not police their borders, fascists will do it for them. In this context, postmodernists love nothing more than “transgressing borders.”

The problem with differánce is not the first claim—that meaning is context bound—but the second—that contexts are boundless. When we say something is meaningful, we generally mean something like this: it is 1) internally coherent and 2) corresponds to reality. By robbing language and thought of this power, deconstruction consigns us to nihilism. Nihilism means many different things to many different people—indeed, to be logically consistent, we would have to say that it can mean anything to anyone, since the concept itself is, like all concepts, inherently meaningless—but Stanley Rosen’s formulation will serve: nihilism is the position that there is no meaningful difference between silence and speech. And people will choose empty speech over silence any day. When the social cost of false speech is low, and when confusion about what is true abounds, you will get a proliferation of false speech; more precisely, you will get lots of speech that is not so much false, but that isn’t speech in the proper sense of the term. In this kind of information ecology, language takes on a different function. It is not aimed at expressing what is true about reality, but is used to distort reality in order to augment the speaker’s real or perceived power, signal his tribal allegiance, and attack or confuse his enemies.

But this is not the way. As Jordan Peterson puts it, while there are a potentially infinite number of interpretations of the situation—and Web 2.0 creates an information ecology and permission structure that entertains all of them—there is a finite, bounded set of viable interpretations. What constrains meaning, beyond the stubbornness of facts, is the logic of meaning-making itself: how human consciousness and culture develop. And that development happens through a dialectic of transcendence and inclusion, differentiation and integration, yang and yin. These form an indestructible polarity. We are not storytelling animals through some freak accident of evolution. We tell stories because the cosmos itself is a “neverending story,” what Charles S. Peirce called an “infinite semiosis,” what Thomas Berry termed the “universe story.” While none of our narratives can master the universe, some are more true, more good, and more beautiful than others.

If names are not bound by a narrative, they spill over and pool into an ocean of noise. The sacred power of language is lost, and speech becomes cheap. A chief reason our country has become ungovernable and our democracy is in danger, why we have lost the plot, why we are polarized, is that we do not know “when to stop.” When to stop and what?


New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”