Language isn’t magic

34_derrida

Once upon a time there was a philosopher. He was a very good philosopher, and he had a lot of wonderful things to say about existence, and how it was impossible for a thing to exist entirely in itself without being connected to all the things around it. He was very worried because lots of powerful men thought it very important that things-be-only-exactly-what-they-are-and-not-at-all-dependent-on-the-things-on-which-they-are-actually-dependent. He was worried because these powerful men’s obsession was a denial of life and of death, of vulnerability and responsibility, and he thought it led to lots of violence. He thought these powerful men’s obsession made it impossible for them to care properly about other people (particularly women, and foreigners, and animals, and the planet).

Unfortunately, this philosopher – his name was Jackie – started his career by talking about words, and using words to show how things that we think have meaning in themselves only really have meaning because of the way they are connected to everything else. He called this web of connections ‘text,’ and one day he wrote a sentence in a famous book about how there was nothing outside of text. Because he thought everything existed in relation. People thought that when he said ‘text’ he meant words, and then decided that he didn’t believe in tables and chairs, and the idea that everything was made up of words got really popular and became a movement, and then it became bad to say that you thought tables and chairs were made out of wood.

Now this idea that the world is made out of words is so popular that anyone who thinks it might be more complicated is called very-old fashioned and conservative. Some new philosophers started talking about the stuff that things are made of, and some of the ones that are women about how that stuff connects with words to create meaning. But no-one is really listening to them. And a lot of people have decided that the violence that happens to people is mostly just because of the wrong words that we use to talk about them. So it has been made a kind of law that the best way to make things better is to pretend that it is already better and just change all the words so that they describe a world that we want to exist. And that people using the words to describe the world which still actually exists are doing so because secretly that is the world that they want to exist, and they are working to stop the better world from happening.

But what these people forgot was that the good philosopher never thought that tables and chairs don’t exist. He just thought that everything existed because of its connections, and he used words as kind of picture. And he also thought that all the oppositions that our minds make are impossible to escape in thought, and that words hide the connections between the both out of which the world is made. It would have been very silly of him to think that there was only words, and not the stuff of chairs and tables. Because he thought a lot about both, and how it is always both that makes the world, and about the dense connections that spin so fast our stupid little brains cannot follow them. And he thought that our job was to try as hard as we can to follow the spinning. Because it makes life. And otherwise some important part of the web of the world gets forgotten. And sometimes that is people, or women, or foreigners, or animals, or the planet. And that is bad.

We cannot get to where we want to go by just saying it so. That power is given only to God in another book of stories. We need to try to understand as best we can how where we are now arises out of the world we are in, and use the best words to describe it. Describing is not prescribing. It is the first and most important part of working out what is wrong. And what is wrong will not be made right by the might of The Word alone.

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