D.A. Carson on Postmodernism
a critique and explanation
S. Joel GarverIn both The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996) and some recent articles in Modern Reformation magazine (Vol. 12, No. 4; July/August 2003), D.A. Carson interacts with and critiques postmodern thought. While I am naturally sympathetic with many of Carson's concerns, his treatment of postmodern philosophy is open to significant criticism.
In The Gagging of God Carson does a decent job of explaining "the modern," but when he turns to the postmodern, his exposition seems to forget that it is the modern against which the postmodernists are reacting. Thus, when a philosopher rejects the notion of "objective truth," Carson reads this as if it were a denial of any truth whatsoever, rather than a denial of a theory of truth that presupposes a radical subject-object dichotomy, a representationalist theory of mind, and the need for apodictic certainty in order to know anything at all.
Carson goes on to suggest that deconstructionists insist upon either absolute knowledge or complete relativism. But this is not what the deconstructionists claim. Rather, this looks to me much more like Carson's own modernist prejudices showing through, presupposing this either/or.
Far from being a relativist, Jacques Derrida considers deconstruction as a kind of ethics, the practice of justice. Indeed, Merold Westphal argues that Derrida is a sort of natural law theorist, though one who places the manifestation of justice always within particular contexts, without positing such a thing as "justice in itself."
Derrida has also spilled considerable ink on the notion of a "gift" and, while arguing that no gift is pure, he maintains that self-sacrifice is the foundation of gift-giving. Likewise, he has written extensively on forgiveness, suggesting that the truest forgiveness lies in forgiving the unforgivable. These are not the writings of a relativist, whatever problems one may have with Derrida's approach.
As for Derrida's claim that "there is nothing outside the text," Carson misunderstands this badly, thinking apparently that this means we have no way of talking about reality. Several other points are actually being made in Derrida's claim.
First, the claim needs to be understood as a rejection of modernist notions of reference couched in a correspondence theory truth tied to a respresentaionalist theory of mind.
Second, "text" here needs to be interpreted broadly so that almost anything is a text, that is, appears to us already thoroughly embedded within a system of signification — if it didn’t, it wouldn’t even reveal itself to us at all.
Finally, the claim is not a denial of the existence of things in the world, nor a denial that we have access to these things; rather it is a denial that we have any extra-linguistic (non-symbolically mediated) access to those things. As Heidegger said, "Language is the house of being."
Carson also expends a great deal of effort attempting to refute Derrida's suggestion that writing is prior to speech. Carson (and the author he quotes) unfortunately seems to be more literal than he is literary at this point, taking Derrida to claim that the practice of writing is somehow actually prior to speech in its origins in time.
Derrida's claim about speech and writing must be taken in context, however: as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response to the historical privileging of speech over writing. Traditionally, speech was considered as better since it was more immediate and connected with the personal presence of the speaker, clearly communicating his own mind, while writing was a way of preserving speech in absence of the speaker. Moreover, speech remains interior to or in the possession of the speaker, while a written text is exterior to the author and can be wrested free from his intentions.
But this privileging of speech over writing presupposes what Derrida calls a "metaphysics of presence," whether the presence of meaning to the mind (as with Descartes' clear and distinct ideas) or of objects to the senses (so the mind can transparently mirror the world). This is a desire for a "transcendental signified," something that exists outside of all signifiers and is transparently referred to by them.
According to Derrida, however, reality is constituted by what he calls "differance," a word he coins that plays on the French terms for "differing" and "deferring" — a pun, by the way, which is evident in its writing, but unnoticable in speech. Derrida uses the term, among other things, in order to suggest that for something to be what it is, it must be different from something else. Yet that difference is registered only by a trace of those things from which is different, marking thepresence of those things even in their absence. Thus there is no possibility of either absolute presence or absolute absence, leaving an interplay in which absolute presence is continually deferred.
In terms of language and meaning, part of what this suggests is that the meaning of texts is something that only arises through the articulation of difference among words and other texts. But this, in turn, indicates that meaning is never absolutely present, but is continually deferred as it plays itself out in relation to other absent texts, which are present in traces by the very registering of their absence.
Derrida's point about writing and speech is that, on the traditional picture, writing is second-rate because it is at a double-remove from ideas in the mind of its author: ideas turned into speech turned into writing. Thus writing, on the traditional view, consists merely in signs pointing to yet other signs.
But, if Derrida is correct about differance — about the nature of signs and meaning and language in general — then all language is "writing," that is, signs pointing to yet other signs. Speech cannot be privileged over writing, since even the spoken word is fully implicated within a system of signs that pre-exists the speaker. Presence and absence are at play in speech as much as in writing and meaning is deferred.
Carson's refutation of Derrida at this point entirely misses the point Derrida is trying to make, getting caught up in historical questions about the origins of writing and chiding him for misusing the term "writing," missing the irony of Derrida's remarks.
The peculiarity of Carson's critique, however, is that almost any standard secondary work on Derrida would have explained all of this, if one found Derrida's own remarks too confusing. Thus I am puzzled by Carson's apparent misunderstanding.
D.A. Carson again weighs in on postmodernism in two articles that appeared in Modern Reformation (Vol. 12, No. 4; July/August 2003), a lengthier one on "The Dangers and Delights of Postmodernism" and a brief one on "Why Should Christians Think about Postmodernism?"
Carson's first essay asserts that the primary usge of the term "postmodernism" that holds all the others together is an epistemological one (11).
One might quibble with this a bit. While certainly postmodernism is largely a reaction against modernist epistemology, one might suggest that it is also the re-emergence of an interest in ontology as complicit in any epistemology (one thinks of Derrida's early essay "Violence and Metaphysics"). While modernists certainly had ontologies, they tended to subsume them to epistemology and hide many of their assumptions. Postmodernism attempts to be more self-conscious.
Carson goes on to give a brief, and rather helpful, overview of the history of epistemology from the premodern through the modern into the postmodern (12-15). Such brief histories always have to be caricatures to a certain degree, but Carson does a good job on the whole.
I have a minor reservation, however, regarding Carson's contrast between Calvin and Aquinas, in which he says that Aquinas maintains that natural revelation could give a person "significant knowledge about God" while Calvin maintains that special revelation "was necessary for us to know anything about God in the way that we should" (12-13). Besides the problems introduced by the ways in which Carson is using the term "revelation," I'm not sure the contrast between Aquinas and Calvin is so sharp as he suggests. After all, Aquinas says, "...unbelievers cannot be said to believe in a God as we understand it in relation to the act of faith. For they do not believe that God exists under the conditions that faith determines; hence they do not truly believe in a God, since...to know simple things defectively is not to know them at all" (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q 2, a 3, ad 3).
Carson continues by assessing postmodernism, outlining what he takes to be some of its considerable strengths: its critique of modernism, its recognition of our radical situatedness, its inclusion of broader modes of knowing than just propositional and linearly rational ones, and its self-consciousness about our pluralistic world, allowing us to read the Bible afresh (15-16).
He also is concerned, however, about some of the dangers and weaknesses of postmodernism: its tendency to exaggerate differences and difficulties in communicating, its provision of a false antithesis between absolute certainty and complete relativism, its rejection of "objective truth," and, despite its rejection of modernist pretensions, its own arrogance and intolerance regarding those who believe that God has spoken (16-17).
Carson's criticisms here are, nonetheless, open to qualification, as we have already seen with regard to his earlier statements in The Gagging of God. Certainly the tendencies he outlines are at work, especially on a popular level. Yet, as Mike Horton notes in another article, postmodernists "in the academy today have a lot to teach us about the very dangers that so many popularizers of postmodernism embrace" (18). And Horton here is quite correct. Prominent academic postmodernists, on the whole, recognize or respond to most of the dangers that Carson notes.
Carson finds it ironic when postmodern philosophers "accuse their reviewers of not really reading their books closely and carefully" since that accusation seems to presuppose the very kind of theory of authorial intent that postmodernists reject. It seems to me, however, that Carson could be seen as equally guilty here, as apparently taking what he understands of postmodernist critiques of "the author" as an excuse for not trying to understand such views accurately.
The fact of the matter is, when reading a theorist like Derrida, one will quickly realize that he spends a great deal of time carefully analyzing texts, looking at their historical content, understanding the text in relation to other texts contemporary to it, and so on (look at Derrida's "Plato's Pharmacy," for instance).
The "death of the author" is not a way of getting rid of authorial intent altogether, but rather of not absolutizing intent or understanding it in subjective, psychological categories, nor requiring us "to know the author better than the author knew himself" in order to be able to understand the text. The modernist author becomes an "author-position" in connection with other texts — not so much a psychological entity composed of intentions, since meaning resides in language, not the mind, even if language is always "on the move" and final settled meaning is always deferred. But this postmodernist approach to meaning should be read more in terms of an inexhaustible plenitude of meaning and less in terms of a violent agonistics by which meaning is always subverted by power (though in a fallen world this is an ever present possibility, as some postmodernisms rightly perceive).
This brings us to Carson's second criticism, that postmodernism leaves us with an intolerable antithesis: either "we finite human beings can know things omnisciently" or we are "lost in subjectivity" as those "adrift on the sea of 'knowledge' without compass and without shore." Again, this misrepresents what most serious postmodernists are saying.
Derrida himself notes that we are not faced with an "all or nothing choice between pure realization of self-presence and complete freeplay and undecidability" (Limited Inc 115). Some interpretations are better than others and some are just wrong. Regarding the interpretation of his own texts as advocating a "skeptic-relativist-nihilist" viewpoint, Derrida says that such an interpretation is "false (that's right: false, not true) and feeble; it supposes a bad (that's right: bad, not good) and feeble reading of numerous texts, first of all mine" (146).
Regarding postmodernism's rejection of "objective truth" I suspect that Carson is still too much in the thrall of modernism himself. I frankly don't know what Carson means by the phrase "objective truth," but as that phrase is typically understood within modernist philosophy, it refers to a theory of truth in which the world and the mind are regarded as externally and extrinsically related to one another so that the world is objectified under the scrutinizing gaze of instrumental reason and registers in the consciousness through mental representations that passively appear there in mirror-like correspondence with it.
Does Carson believe that? Given his comments on modernism, I should think not. But in that case he rejects "objective truth" as well. Still, apart from offering an alternative epistemology and ontology, I'm not sure where Carson stands. If he is trying to retrieve a premodern notion of "adaequatio" between mind and thing, that is all well and good, but it is not a theory of "objective truth" since on such a view the mind and thing do not stand over against each other as subject and object.
Carson's second, briefer essay supplements the first, attemtping to glean some practical lessons from postmodernism. He begins by noting that our attitude towards postmodern philosophy should be neither one of total rejection or uncritical embrace, with which I quite agree. He goes on to note some positive contributions from postmodernism: an emphasis on authenticity, integrity, and humility that challenges sanctimonious sloganeering and pious hypocrisy; a value on "relationships over truth structures"; and a renewed attention to the Bible as narrative and not just a sourcebook for theological nuggets of timeless or moralistic truth.
Then Carson continues by noting some areas in which postmodernism needs correction and confrontation. Where postmodernism rejects metanarratives this would imply a rejection of the biblical narrative. When we embrace the biblical narrative this requires rejecting idolatry (among which, I'm supposing, he includes postmodernism). And, finally, we cannot be content to allow a postmodernist open-ended interpretation of Scripture that allows its teaching to be dismissed as "just your interpretation."
On all these points, however, I think Carson has mis-assessed the danger, even if he is not entirely wrong. I would suggest, for instance, that the postmodernist rejection of metanarratives does not necessarily entail the rejection of the biblical narrative any more than it entails the rejection of postmodernism's own narrative about the modern.
As Merold Westphal points out, the term "metanarrative" has a very specific meaning within postmodern theory, particularly as Jean-Francois Lyotard used the term in his The Postmodern Condition. There a "metanarrative" refers to a philosophy of history, a big story that encompasses our own personal stories and those of our communities. But this is not just any story: it is a story about other stories that positions those stories in relation to itself — a second-order story (whereas the Bible is a first order narrative, albeit one that narrates other narratives in relation to itself).
In particular, "metanarrative" is the Enlightenment story designed to self-legitimate the Enlightenment project of overthrowing what came before and setting up new authorities, a story of progress from superstition and ignorance to scientific truth. Also, it is a philosophical story like those of (for instance) Hegel and Marx, in the case of Hegel legitimizing the western mind and modern democratic capitalism, and, in the case of Marx, a story of oppression and liberation of the proletariat in order legitimize revolution. As such, these "metanarratives" are "totalizing" in the sense that they attempt to homogenize humanity, seeking a universalized goal, suppressing plurality and differences. Moreover, these metanarratives have their root in the autonomy of the human subject as the embodiment of truth and justice (whether the Cartesian cogito, the Lockean bearer of rights, or the Hegelian or Marxist collective).
When postmodernism proclaims the collapse of these meta-narratives, it is noting our inability to believe them anymore given that they haven't delivered the goods they promised and given our present skepticism about self-congratulatory human claims. As such, there is a lot in common between the postmodernist critique of metanarrative and the Bible's own polemic against idolatry. Indeed, this leads to Carson's second point, regarding idolatry, indicating that postmodern thought might function as an ally against such idolatrous notions of God.
When postmodern thinkers such as Heidegger, Levinas, and Marion critique "onto-theology," it is precisely idolatry they are critiquing. As Heidegger notes, onto-theology arises "only insofar as philosophy, of its own accord and by its own nature, requires and determines how the deity enters into it" (Identity and Difference, 56). Thus onto-theology has to do with positing the existence of a God in order for human reason and its philosophical projects to be able to render the whole realm of being as intelligible to human understanding. As such, postmodernism, in its critique of onto-theology, makes common cause with biblical faith.
With regard to Carson's final point on "open-ended interpretation," I think again he shows himself to remain still a bit too much within modernism, with its commitment to historico-grammatical exegesis. For modernism, such exegesis, over against medieval typological and liturgical understandings, was complicit in the political project of taming and policing religion, thereby securing a privatized "religious" realm over against the secular. As John Milbank notes, the open-ended nature of typological-liturgical exegesis entailed a continual arrival of "divine communication into the process of human historical becoming" in a way that would "forever escape from sovereign mastery" by the secular (Theology and Social Theory, 18). In this context, the biblical literalism (as well as pietistic moralism and subjectivisim) of both fundamentalism and liberalism can be seen as the flip sides of one and same thematic (see also Leithart's Against Christianity, 56-58).
Open-ended interpretation does not imply, for either the historic church or for postmodernism, an "anything goes" approach to hermeneutics (as the discussion of Derrida above should make clear). Rather, when rooted in typology and enacted sacramentally within the liturgy, it is the Bible's own way of interpreting itself and this has important implications for the church as a public entity, the "real historical institution and communion" that "was prophesied and typified under the old order" (Leithart, 58). As such, it is indispensible for Christian practice, our resistance to modernism, and for rightly appreciating what postmodernism has to offer. I wonder if Carson, as long as he remains an evangelical of the sort he is, can really extricate himself from modernism and embrace the sorts of moves I've gestured towards.