Deconstruction and the Philosophy of Culture
by Joseph Grange
Joseph Grange is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, Portland. ME 04103. Among his recent publications are "Lacan’s Other and the Factums of Plato’s Soul" (in The Question of the Other, SUNY Press. 1989) and "Normative Thinking" (in The Examination of the Intellect, USM Press, 1987). The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 141-151, Vol. 17 , Number 3, Fall, 1988. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
"Universality arising from particularity as its child and redeemer." (George Allan; IP 242)
The voices of deconstruction would have us believe that the pillars of our culture have collapsed. God is dead. The self has disappeared. History is at an end. The book is closed. The loss of these four points of reference, it is claimed, redefines the terms of the debate on value (E chs. 1-4). George Allan’s Importances of The Past is a brilliantly written, well crafted and eloquent response to these assertions.
The strategy of deconstruction begins with the charge of logocentrism whereby language and reason are impugned for their imposition of an arbitrary rationalism on experience. An indictment of Western philosophy as a futile search for the total explanation of everything then follows. It is seen as a form of hubris that undoes the foundations of the culture it seeks to establish. A gargantuan appetite for control through explanation recoils upon itself leaving culture with a set of empty abstractions. The metaphysics of presence evaporates real experience.
There is a familiar ring to all this. It was precisely the intolerable abstractness of scientific materialism evidenced by the fallacies of simple location and misplaced concreteness that led to Whitehead’s development of the philosophy of organism. There is, however, an essential difference between our cultural debate and the issues Whitehead faced in 1925 (see SMW). His major concern was with the adequacy of the abstractions dominating the general climate of opinion. Today’s critics directly attack the form of reason that Whitehead used to redirect cultural efforts. As a result, they are left either to wait with Heidegger for the authentic voice of Being or to play with Derrida in the fields of Difference.
Professor Allan chooses another path. Through a coordination of the various dimensions of the past, he directly addresses the central question: What is value and what are the terms of its achievement? In 1925 Whitehead chose the word "value" to counter the empty world of scientism. It remains a good choice. It is not grounded in an empty rationality, but is to be understood as a term of feeling. Furthermore, it describes the immediate character of experience. Being is the attainment of value and the achievement of intensity. This echoes Plato’s definition of Being as The Good. For Allan the past provides the present with spheres of relevance from which prevalent feelings of importance can be derived. Some six domains are identified: a common ground, a holy ground, a solid ground, the historical past, the mythic past, and the eternal past. Each gives to the present age a basis for choice and a ground of solidity from which to express its own unique perspective. When the present meets an appropriate past, it is suffused with a sense of depth, stability, and importance that anchors its own values. The "was" of the past suggests an "ought" in the present: this is the doctrine of internal relations expressed on personal, social and cultural levels.
But what happens if the past is no longer appropriate? This, of course, is the message behind the code word "postmodern." Suppose we grant deconstruction its claim. Is there any way in which process thought remains relevant? Though it is a simplification that stunts the varied riches of this work, The Importances of the Past answers by arguing for the insistent presence of norms in all modes of value achievement. Allan finds in the "End" of tradition continuing evidence of unvarying beginnings that confirm the presence of purpose. So, whether it is David Hall’s version of chaotic creative pluralities, or the everyday epiphanies of Auerbach’s literary vision or even Foucault’s decentered universe of subjective violence, aim, intent and purpose assert themselves. Every arche implies a telos. If desire is not an admission of worth, it contradicts itself. Action accompanies desire and every beginning confesses in a general way its end. A natural intimacy connects desire, arche, and telos and stands between us and "the solipsism of the present moment" (IP chs. 8-9).
What strikes the reader of Allan’s work is his immense respect for the achievements of the past and his equally sensitive recognition of the sheer fragility of human effort in the present. What took centuries to build cannot be undone in a frivolous instant. Temporal interweavings laboriously constructed into layers of physical, social, cultural and personal fact conspire to constrain efforts after novelty. But what happens when the cultural order no longer expresses zest, adventure and novelty? Are the deconstructionists right after all? Is this not a time for new foundations and new beginnings? After all, their work has struck an obviously raw nerve in the philosophical community.
Decay is as an inevitable aspect of process. The wasting away of traditions is part of the narrative of culture. Whitehead suggests a way of dealing with these transitions:
Order is not sufficient. What is required, is something much more complex. It is order entering upon novelty; so that the massiveness of order does not degenerate into mere repetition; and so that the novelty is always reflected upon a background of system" (PR 339/515).
The reference to massiveness and system reflect Whitehead’s sensitivity to the normative dimensions of change. A major transition alters the value of a situation by redistributing the lines of intensity that make up it axiological setting. Even when these shifts involve the vast cultural dislocations envisioned by deconstruction, neither system nor massiveness lose their importance. Without them, the desired changes degenerate into the frivolous or the trivial -- a quality, some might say, already present in certain styles of philosophical discourse. What is at stake is the quality of change, its possibilities for altering the cultural landscape in a lasting manner. Cultural transitions are not carried out by declaration. Intellectual responsibility demands that a normative sensitivity inform such activities.
In what follows I will build upon the development of process thought carried out by Robert Neville, especially in his Reconstruction of Thinking (RT). To be -- and that would include culture -- is to be a value. This achievement of worth is carried out by harmonizing the conditions that govern such attainment. In this way the massiveness of a cultural environment finds a central place in its members’ actual constitutions. Such massiveness, Whitehead tells us, results from "variety of detail with effective contrast" (AI 325). It produces a feeling of strength threading itself throughout the fabric of a culture. Such weaving can create in turn a texture of depth that welcomes new ways of expressing value.
Call this quality of tolerance for novelty the sign of an open system. An open system is one that requires a large infusion of variety for its stability. In nature such systems are a mark of ecological stability. Such adaptive responses are not a necessary feature of cultural systems. They tend to view the novel as a threat to their integrity. Nevertheless, the vigor of a culture depends on its attitude toward novelty. Following Whitehead and Neville, I would suggest that an open cultural system would express a special form of triviality, vagueness, narrowness and breadth (RI 164-165).1 Appropriate cultural coordination of these experiential dimensions provides the systematic background that Whitehead saw as necessary for the complex task of encouraging novelty and adjusting to its presence.
What specific union of massiveness and system is needed to support novel cultural transitions? Triviality marks the loss of importance. This is what Allan might call the perimeter of cultural relevance. When some semblance of order manifests itself in a commonly shared manner, vague cultural signs of identity emerge. Attention begins to be paid to these regions of mutually important experience. Out of such representative boundaries flows the possibility of strong individuality -- the narrowness that supports an enduring character distinct from the vague contours of the cultural environment. Such narrowness creates the variety of detail required to ensure the effective presence of massiveness. When a cultural background manifests sufficient systematic integrity, novelties intense by reason of their narrowness can find a place within the culture’s general aims and purposes. A culture gifted with such adaptive tolerance has attained significant breadth.
A system is a togetherness of parts that promotes the regular identification of moments of importance. This definition stresses the normative dimension of a system. There are, of course, many other ways of defining a system. An open system would be one that maintained a set of vague norms inviting further specification. Attempts at supplying that narrowness would intensify the values in question Each such attained value would in turn render the vaguely defined norms both more precise and more important. The ensuing contrast between attained specific value and the general sense of importance still clinging to the norm in question would accelerate the drive for value. When this rhythmic interchange of precision and generalization reaches a level of regularity, culture expresses a quality of breadth.2
Systematic integrity is gained when a detailed variety of values possessing fairly stringent individuality finds a supportive background. A thriving culture systematically generates novel instances of value. It is the sheltering power of a culture’s normative system that keeps this novelty from collapsing into the frivolous. A good cultural matrix does not allow its moments of value to disappear beyond the boundaries of importance. Whitehead’s "order entering upon novelty" is exemplified by the complex interactions of such an open system. What advances an open system is its lack of contentment: its achievements stir the depths of process. Such a high degree of unrest is caused by the regular presence of what Whitehead termed "Truthful Beauty." An experience, Whitehead tells us, that "lies beyond the dictionary meaning of words" (AI 334; see chs. XVI-XVIII).
In his analysis of the mythic past Allan draws on this notion of truthful beauty to explain the significance of established tales (IP ch. 5). By employing the concept of typification, he demonstrates how a person, deed or place can embody a complex web of meanings -- all of which find their appropriate niche in the enduring individuality that typifies the network of values in question. This "It," Whitehead tells us, "is one of the strongest forces in human nature" (AI 336-337; see also S). The wisdom of culture resides in its ability to set forth in regular rhythm such definitive yet expansive typifications. The diachionic pattern of the past synchronizes with the individual awarenesses of a culture. What counts in all this is not the words employed but the feelings evoked.
This understanding of the aesthetic base of a system directly challenges the charge of logocentrism that deconstruction lays on philosophy. What matters is the intensity of the feelings evoked, not the verbal formula or its rationalized explanation. Human experience is not a matter of a set of abstractions tricked up to convey a sense of continuity. Rather it is the outcome of feelings receiving harmonic intensification by reason of the massive background of an open system. The use of reason and words do not automatically diminish experience. Such loss is either the outcome of failure in the harmonic background supporting a culture’s individual achievements, or the destructive dissonance of such values.
The concept of harmony implies a normative measure. Again following Neville, a normative measure judges the way in which actual harmonies achieve their possibilities (RT 82-83). Each harmony has an ideal potential. Normative thinking evaluates the actual achievements of value in the light of what is possible for that situation, time or place. By using appropriate norms, a culture can be ranked according to the ways in which it realizes its ideals. A culture’s perspective is itself a normative measure since it provides the understanding through which expressions of importance are achieved. Therefore: such evaluations must also take into consideration the culture’s own ideals as expressed in its systematic background of importances. The point is the concept of normative measure renders concrete the abstract doctrine of harmony by allowing for the evaluation of cultures on the basis of their real achievements.
Through a structural analysis of the activities of elimination, subordination, abstraction and cumulation, Allan demonstrates the basic ways in which the past is rendered effectively present (IP 95-108). Each such activity measures in different ways the importances of the past. When accomplished, the past is thus welded to the present through levels of normative importance. Typification, the normative instrument just discussed, establishes an exceptionally strong bond because it summons up a measure of potential interpretive wealth unmatched by other means. It is the narrowness of typification exerting pressure on the vague importances of a culture that yields up the requisite breadth. Cultures weave a matrix of vague but ultimate importances around such normative measures.
In particular Allan cites three such types: person, deed or place (IP 108). Understood as normative forms, these activities summon up in a mysteriously generous way the vaguely systematic importances of a culture. They do not define history but rather establish nodes of indefinite significance that the temporal course of history proceeds to fill with meaning. Such great actions, locales and human beings are what they are by reason of their intimate connection with the systematic background of a culture. Deprived of harmonic interaction with a culture’s background, these activities become mere episodes isolated from the massive ensemble of values they both sum up and foretell.
Human memory leans on these typifications when deciding the significance of present acts. In its stress on the term postmodern, deconstruction fails to do justice to the open character of the systematic background of human value. If "postmodern" means that we are beyond the categories of history, then the term contradicts itself. There can be no present time standing absolutely outside its past. If it did, how would we know it as a form of time? A determinate time requires the existence of a difference for its own identity. Talk of the close of history may be rhetorically effective, but it is not philosophically responsible. At best, such phrases can only mean that the present has yet to create its own significance. The term postmodern is therefore a negative self-definition. The age only knows what it is not. But that tells us nothing about its character.
A much more accurate description of the character of our age is "Transition." In Process and Reality Whitehead distinguishes between two kinds of fluency (PR ch. X).3 There is the microscopic fluency internal to the genesis and perishing of actual occasions. Its technical term is concrescence. More to our concern is the macroscopic fluency characteristic of the movement from occasion to occasion. This latter type is termed "transition" and is shaped by the efficient causality massively inherited from the past. Microscopic process or concrescence transforms the conditions of its actual past world so as to achieve its own identity. In contrast to efficient causality, concrescence stresses the teleological dimension.
Pitted against the massive weight of the past, teleology appears to be a decided underdog. Recognition of the slim, frail weight of intellectual purpose is an essential part of Whitehead’s naturalism. One aspect of time in a process universe is the steady accumulation of forms of constraint. As Allan clearly demonstrates, the construction of a cultural complex is an interminably slow, intricate affair consuming vast epochs. Its failures are often as significant as its achievements. The aims and intentions of conscious entities have but a slim chance of gaining a foothold in the universe. But when with the help of a cultural order they do, the transformations of experience are startling and often amount to a complete metamorphosis.
What characterizes such transitions are shifts in the normative measures used to assess importance. What was once regarded as a manifestation of complexity suddenly turns into an exercise in simplicity. Environmental obstacles are transformed into novel opportunities. Dimensions of experience once considered essential come to be regarded as accidental. The Copernican Revolution, airplane travel and racism are obvious examples. These revolutionary transitions establish a marked change in the ways in which reality appears to human consciousness. The contrast holding Reality and Appearance together breaks down and new forms of harmonic contrast are slowly called into being. Without the strength provided by the cultural order such new visions are doomed to failure. They can only survive through cultish propaganda or enforced dogmatism. Without a background of sustaining order, such cultural novelties quickly become intellectual curios.
There is a direct relation between normative thinking and healthy cultural transition. By healthy, I mean a transition that would weave novelty onto a supportive backdrop of order. What I am suggesting is an open cultural system so sensitive to the claims of novelty that it could nourish difference inside itself.
What would such a system look like? What norms would it establish for the sheltering of novelty? Let us return to the four qualities of triviality, vagueness, narrowness and breadth. Such a system would have as its chief aim the reconciliation of opposites through breadth of vision. Also it would have to be applicable within the narrow range of human experience. Finally, it would have the ability to identify regular patterns of importance within cultural experience. I am, of course, talking about a cosmology of cultural change.
Central to such a system of cultural transition would be its attitude toward novelty. Reason would have to drop its contemporary obsession with explanation through causal observation. Deconstruction’s effort to unmask the pretenses of such forms of thinking provides a useful reminder that thought need not be driven by an unconscious lust for power. Platonic reason of the sort practiced by Whitehead and exemplified in Allan’s work has a different aim. It seeks to understand the various ways in which types of existence are intertwined so that justice can be done to their individual merits and their connections with each other. What animates this form of thought is an absolute respect for the value of the world. Its attitude toward novelty is a natural extension of its fundamental commitment to the axiological worth of existence.
But such a pattern of thought cannot be reduced to a simpleminded acceptance of whatever comes to be. Mere cultural acquiescence violates the principle norms of a process universe. Human experience necessarily involves direct assessment of the worth of the world. Judgment is built into our worldly transactions demanding an evaluation of that participation. Here even Nietzsche agrees with Plato, for despite all evasive actions, the category of obligatory valuation applies. Therefore the real question is: how shall we evaluate the world and ourselves as part of it? A responsible answer demands a recourse to norms that are public, debatable and applicable. Anything less is cute, trivial and a diversion.
The primary category governing such a normative cultural analysis would be intensity of experience. Both Allan and Whitehead share this vision. Intensity is the reward of narrowness woven into a background of vague importance. By itself narrowness simplifies the universe, edging dangerously near the Sartrean reef of solipsism. A vague sense of importance leaves the universe exactly where it started -- a complex assortment of events untouched by specific expressions of value. The achievement of intensity depends on the right mixture of narrowness and vagueness.
The measuring of such mixtures requires a set of norms that carry through any and all cultural transmutations. A cosmology is a set of interrelated generic traits acquiring specificity through application. The systematic use of categories varies the meaning of the generic traits by forcing them to exhibit their interpretive value in unique, actual settings. Thus novelty is assured a definitive place in the scheme since historical situations call forth new conditions that in turn demand new specifications of the vaguely normative categories of interpretation.
In exhibiting an alternating rhythm between the particular and the universal, this hermeneutic process constructs the massive system of background order that Whitehead thought necessary for cultural transition. The universal order shelters the novel particulars so that they contribute the variety of detail that ensures the health of the cultural system. Such a process carries no taint of dogmatism since in this system universal signifies an open pattern calling for concrete specification.4 In other words, the totalization of experience decried by deconstruction carries no weight within a properly understood cosmological interpretation of culture.
A cultural cosmology evaluates the experiential significance of the typifications that Allan describes as crucial for the construction of systems of value. It marks out for interpretation the breadth of the relevant "Its" that constitute a culture’s axiological nodes. A double normative measure applies to these enduring individual instances. In the first place, they ought to function as narrow specifications of the culture’s aims and ideals. At the same time, they must refer beyond themselves to a still unspecified domain of vague importance. The narrative of historical time then records the evolution of their significance. In this way the universal and the particular combine to express the breadth of a culture’s ideals.
When these nodes of significance elicit from the participants in a culture continuing forms of novel specification, the problem of transition becomes manageable. Given this normative analysis, there are two primary ways in which a culture can experience failure. When its systematic background no longer provides the depth necessary for the inclusion of novelty, a culture must eliminate all expressions of radical novelty. Insufficient depth signals the emergence of tyrannical means of control. Such extreme measures mark the unraveling of the background of support that tradition labored to erect. The other way by which a culture fails is when emergent novelty simply overwhelms the supportive cultural matrix. Even when this occurs, the decline of a culture is a slow, tedious affair characterized by numerous episodes of backing and filling.
If cultural transformation is as complex as this analysis suggests, one must question deconstruction’s pronouncement that philosophy is at an end. This essay began by citing deconstruction’s claim that four critical pillars of our culture have collapsed. Suppose we use the concept of an open system to examine in turn each such claim. The question to be asked is whether the pillar in question has lost its supportive capacity as a bare "It" of nodal significance. Remember it is the ability of such typifications to incorporate novel expressions of meaning that constitutes their supportive function.
The first claim is the death of God. Now what does this mean? Does it indicate a widespread atheism? Not at all. It means that the perceived cultural relevance of God no longer receives intense and unanimous consent. No informed person would deny the fact that the history of philosophy testifies to the continual reconstruction of the idea of God. But deconstruction would have it another way. The death of God means that the very boundaries of importance are obliterated. No edge separating the trivial from the significant can be spied out. As a result, all is permitted and experiment is the cultural order of the day.
Implied in this strategy, however, is a concealed norm. As Allan points out every end implies an order and every order implies a quest for the important. Presupposed in the liberation experienced by the overthrow of tyrannical gods is a substitute search for more enduring values. Whatever the particular definitions of God, there has always been implied in the concept a reference to a vast reservoir of importance awaiting realization. It is the referential significance of God that so upsets deconstruction. It is seen as the ultimate onto-theo-logical oppression strangling all human effort. The cosmology suggested here lays no such restrictions on the human race. Understood as a bare "It" requiring responsible expression throughout a culture, God is an invitation to experience, not a sign of its loss?
What threatens the deconstructionist program is the suggestion that norms exist independent of human invention. As the ground of normative experience, God is no tyrant but rather the source of the mutual relevance of such norms.6 In undermining God as the first pillar of culture, a domain for absolute subjectivity is opened up. Nothing could count against expressed values because in reality there are no values. Where there are no normative measures, there can be no means of estimating importance. What matters is that things be kept interesting. But even here a presupposed quality of importance rears its head. Surely, what is of interest strikes some axiological chord. How else would we feel its significance?
In declaring the death of God deconstruction seems to want it both ways. On the one hand it seeks a field of creativity untrammeled by normative factors. On the other hand it desires that what is created express some measure of significance. The admission of any degree of importance, even that of the merely interesting, brings in its train the complex problem of axiological reference. Bereft of any systematic supportive background, deconstruction has no philosophical resources to bring to bear on questions of importance. One cause of the sense of triviality that clings to so much of this type of thinking is precisely its lack of normative distinctions. Lacking a ground of vague importance, deconstruction is forced back into a form of verbal narrowness. The pyrotechnics of this mode of expression camouflage the obviousness of its findings. One need not be a dour moralist to take offense at the trivialization of important experience.
In dismissing the possibility of vague but important dimensions, deconstruction is forced to take up residence on the next level of the harmonic register. It is not true that the trivial is the simple. Triviality is the result of an undifferentiated complexity that offers no normative distinctions between entities. It is an ideal place to play at being serious. But no genuinely serious risks are allowed, since one quickly gets forever nowhere.
The second cultural pillar is termed the disappearance of the self by which is meant the continual fading of a permanence in the face of life’s movement. In terms of a process cosmology, a human self is the outcome of a lifetime of consistent effort to embody normative ideals. This act of self-creation structures a character that embodies the aims, intentions and achievements of the subject in question. To have a name is to be given the opportunity to express its significance.7
At first glance, there would appear to be general agreement between deconstruction and the process viewpoint. But it evaporates once the issue of norms is raised. The passage of the self in cosmological terms is marked by the presence of efforts to bring one’s conduct in line with one’s ideals. No such norms are available within deconstruction’s efforts to form a self. What one is granted is a dizzying array of symbols, metaphors, and analogies -- each bearing a "trace" of presence that is marked by an inevitable absence.8 It is not that such literary devices lack evocative power. In the hands of a skilled writer they are a remarkably resonant, but the overall effect is one of sheer transiency, an incredible airiness that glides over the serious and important achievements of human life. One result of reading Allan’s work is a sense of the immense effort involved in the creation of important values. No similar depth is felt in deconstruction’s glassy presentation of our efforts at self-making.
What is most disturbing in all this is the attempt to identify frailty with weakness. While it is true that the teleological efforts of mind are far outweighed by the massive causal efficacy of the past, the efforts involved in human experience do not perpetually go up in wispy smoke. Embedded in the past of each person are the results of efforts to achieve value. They do not disappear with the verbal announcement of a "new" self. Neither are they created by the adoption of metaphorical reference. Such selves are achieved at great cost, not the least of which is the admission of finitude in the face of infinite sources of importance. Deconstruction would have us regard that strength as weakness. It is better understood as frailty, at times capable of reaching extraordinary tensile strength.
In its attempt to reduce the gravity of importance, deconstruction runs up against a continuing series of obstructions. As a result, a certain masochistic style breaks through its effort to view culture at the breaking point. It first seeks to endorse Nietzsche’s metaphor of a horizon wiped clean of all traces of divinity. Deprived thereby of a ground of importance, it embraces a self given over to experimentation as the wellspring of value. At this crucial moment, it then sees that very self disappear leaving only semiotic traces in its wake. Desperate for further punishment, it then sets its sights on the record of human accomplishment, history itself.
One might think that this effort to deconstruct the history of Western philosophy would inevitably turn toward some kind of despair. Such is not the case. The end of history marks the start of a free zone of creativity in which the restrictions of an uptight version of reason can be shucked off. Such freedom is not without fright but in apocalypse there is the liberation of new wave thinking. Looked at soberly, what could such a declaration really mean? Has history been so destroyed that even the most obvious chronicles of good and evil no longer apply? So it would seem since this dizzying fall through time secures no landing place where history might begin again.
It is one thing to announce the end of history. It is entirely another matter to feel the sense of such an event. Allan’s work is given over to mapping the texture of the past that asserts itself in the present. He shows how the solidity of the world -- spatial, temporal, material, social, and cultural -- depends on the inclusion of past achievements in present moments. If deconstruction is correct, the present is abandoned to its own devices. Since history no longer reaches into the present, even comparative norms are missing. An existential solitariness surrounds each person. With a normless desolation shrouding the situation, even the attempt to speak of culture is evidence of misunderstanding. What is left is inventiveness and play, luck and pluck. The past supplies neither strength nor endurance. If history no longer exists, then the chilling fact is that time has ceased to flow out of a reservoir of deeds through an active present and towards an effective future.
There are deep inconsistencies in all this. It is not the case that deconstruction has an interest in banishing time. Most of its thought revolves about deconstructing time’s results. Also if history is at an end, how would one know that a new time is at hand? If only to establish its difference, the present needs the past. To proclaim the end of history is simultaneously to assert the presence of a new time. Is this time equally fated to become historical? Would that not imply that history never ends, but always waits to absorb time? But perhaps deconstruction means to say that a new form of history is in the making, one free of the taint of logocentrism.
The envisionment of a new form of history differs from the claim that there is no more history. As seen before, one of the charges that deconstruction levels against traditional philosophy is logocentrism, a form of cultural imperialism that seeks to control everything it encounters. Such control devastates the possibilities of creativity and results in our current cultural wasteland. To order its understanding a new form of history would require some use of reason. It is decidedly unlikely that normative thinking would be the type selected. In practice, deconstruction substitutes game playing for history. The banishment of plot, narrative and causal efficacy is accompanied by an invitation to play. There is only the present moment and its creative possibilities.9
Again, contradictions abound. A game is created by the use of rules. These normative measures mark out the boundaries of achievement, the standards of value. Within them all manner of variation is possible, all modalities of style encouraged: outside them, no game can be played. If the end of history marks the beginning of the game of real life, it still stands in need of norms. How else would we even know that a game was in progress? It is just not that easy to escape history.
The last cultural pillar is the "Book" which I take to signify culture as a system of norms, values and achievements. A book is a prime example of cultural hegemony enclosing within its boundaries all knowledge, all value, and all standards of excellence. The covers of the book surround in a systematic fashion the contours of experience crushing them into conformity with its categories. What is lost in the process is the depth, reach and intensity of experience. The stability promised by a book is really a symptom of incipient rigor mortis, its coherence a sign of stiffening joints no longer capable of holding the flow of expression. In its quest for a just articulation of the proper boundaries of experience, culture is labeled as antilife.
In place of the Book, deconstruction offers "writing" whose textual pleasures include punning displays of the difference that defeats every attempt at direct statement. Bristling with hyphens, parens, slashes, dashes, traces, holds, blanks and gaps, deconstructive prose tries to capture in a kind of knowing hieroglyphic the insufficiency of thought. In so doing it creates a caricature of thought, a cartoon version of abstraction that depends on squiggles and dots to convey meaning. Such writing is intended to exhibit the poverty of thought, its inability to say everything-all-at-once. For such is the perceived intention of the metaphysics of presence: the Book is simply the most tangible symbol of such outrageous ambition.
There is in cosmology a much more humane understanding of the purpose of thought and the writing of books. Abstraction does not aim at the replacement of the concrete. It seeks to protect the concrete by showing its connections, relations and interfusion with other parts of experience. A good abstraction should display the important features of experience so that continuing patterns of intensity can be encountered again and again. Over the course of a human life such experiences come to constitute the very meaning and texture of actuality.
Furthermore, cosmological thought is necessarily abstract since it seeks to draw out of the flux of experience universal and permanent aspects. If done sensitively and with due regard for existential variety, abstract thought allows the thinker to appreciate the forms of process encountered. In other words a normative form of thinking demands judgment of the worth of experience. As The Importances of The Past demonstrates, this can be done without incurring charges of cultural hegemony. In fact, Allan’s work increases respect for the enormous variety of the world’s value. Through the simple act of enlarging our appreciation of the past, a book such as this confounds deconstruction’s attack on the Book.
Two final remarks conclude this critique of the closing of the Book. First, deconstruction seems unwilling to acknowledge the term "asymptotic." Whitehead, of course, uses it to describe his attitude in framing the speculative scheme of Process and Reality.10 It means that thought can only approximate its object. The proper attitude of the thinker is one of modest corrigibility. Second, the stipulative qualities that appear in the schema are the result of attempts at precision. This precision is required since the system demands testing in real experience. A cosmology is therefore a hypothesis meant to be applied, adjusted, and revised in light of its use. This method indeed seeks a comprehensive view, but it does so in deference to value’s infinite variety. Such qualities do not resemble the totalizing, logocentric drive of a metaphysics of presence. The opposite would seem to be the case since this system makes its presuppositions public, demands that it find experiential validation and from the very start admits its limitations.
In the end deconstruction’s attack on the four foundations of our culture does not convince. It makes a crucial mistake when it neglects the bonding power of Whitehead’s "bare it." In fact, God, the self, history and the Book are typifications used by the human race to form a backdrop of support for the evolution of novel values. Each such "it" has endured countless interpretive expressions and will no doubt suffer more. As pivots of an open system of cultural reference, they outlast the obituaries prepared for them by deconstruction.
Understood as a cultural form, each expresses a potential version of the four features of harmony. A vagueness in the concept of God can receive specification through the self s narrow search for redemption. Or conversely, a narrow notion of God may specify the vague value of the self. The breadth of the various religious traditions testifies to the plenitude of this welding of vagueness and narrowness. Similarly, history’s vagueness widens in temporal depth when narrow forms of individual effort are included in it. Or it is equally possible that the vagueness of individual selves deepens through participation in historical greatness. As representative of a culture, a book is as likely to sum up an age’s specific accomplishments as it is to stir that age toward vague realms of potential importance.
We owe a deep debt of gratitude to George Allan for such an evocative work. He has succeeded in expressing the palpable importances of the past. No intellectually responsible thinker can afford to overlook this accomplishment. I began this essay by citing his words. Their full import now seems clearer. Without a sense of the transcending importance of past achievements we cannot hope to redeem their worth or beget their children. Such is the universal fecundity of bare Its.
E -- Mark Taylor. Erring. A Postmodern A/theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
IP -- George Allan. The Importance of the Past. Albany: The State University of New York Press, 1986.
RT -- Robert C. Neville. Reconstruction of Thinking. Albany: The State University of New York Press, 1981.
A concise summary of Neville’s thinking can be found in "Sketch of a System." New Essays in Metaphisics (Albany: The State University of New York Press, i987), 253-273. Whitehead’s presentation of these themes occurs in PR, Part II, ch. 4. Sections I and II.
2I am, of course, employing Whitehead’s educational rhythms. The "romantic" phase is what fuels the drive for more important instances of value. See AI, ch. 2.
3Jorge Lois Nobo’s Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Extension and Solidarity, (Albany: The State University of New York Press, 1986) shows the special merit of the term "transition." He argues effectively for the real presence of the past in the creative process itself.
4David Hall in the filth chapter of The Civilization of Experience (New York: Fordham University Press, 1973) demonstrates the value of Whitehead’s concept of abstraction for an open theory of cultural interests.
5Of course the question of God is much more complex than this. My interest here is its general cultural relevance.
6This understanding of God derives from Neville’s God the Creator (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1968) and Creativity and God (New York: The Seabury Press. 1980).
7For example, on one level the work of Jacques Lacan can be read as a sustained attempt to bring together in an intricately normative system the human subject, language, cultural systems, and the subconscious. See Lacan, Ecrits, tr. A. Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977). See also Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, Jacques Loran and the Philosophy of Psychoanlysis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986). There is no more normative concept than his development of the law of ‘the Name of the Father." See Ecrits, 65-68. 143-144.
8See E. ch. 2: "The Disappearance of the Self.’
9See E, ch. 3: ‘The End of History.’
10The first chapter of PR is a sustained defense and explanation of this type of thinking.