Monday, 17 September 2007
THE DEVIL READS DERRIDA
This is an interesting article by James Smith of Calvin College on the question 'why should Christians have any interest in "vain philosophy"? Let me know your thoughts.
Philosophers regularly have to make apologies for their profession. Very rare is the parent who erupts in joy when a daughter or son comes home at Thanksgiving announcing that he or she is going to major in philosophy. This inevitably sounds like preparation for any number of careers that involve various permutations of the question, "Would you like fries with that?" So how could philosophy have any practical relevance? And in particular, why would Christians have any interest in "vain philosophy" which the Apostle Paul warns us against in Colossians 2:8?
The answer to that question is embedded in The Devil Wears Prada, the book recently transformed into a (pretty decent!) film. In a key scene, Miranda (played so devilishly by Meryl Streep) is presiding over her entourage, trying to select just the right belt to accessorize the cover ensemble for next month's magazine. They are passionately deliberating between two belts, which, to the untrained eye, look almost identical. Her fashion-averse assistant Andy (played by Anne Hathaway) stumbles into the gathering. Growing impatient, and with a flippant disdain for fashion, she refers to the rack of designs merely as "stuff." Miranda, in that calm, satanic stare that Streep nailed so well, pauses and quietly says:
"'Stuff'? Oh, OK. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet, and you select, I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue. It's not turquoise. It's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room ... from a pile of 'stuff.'"
In this fabulous soliloquy, Miranda articulates what we'll call the "trickle-down" theory of culture. Many spheres of cultural production—such as haute couture in the arcane parlors of Paris and Milan—seem to be merely the abstractions of the bourgeoisie—flights of fancy for the well heeled who have the leisure for such play and silliness. But what does that have to do with us, down here, on the ground, schlepping to work on Monday mornings or going to worship on Sunday mornings? It has more to do with you than you might expect, because what holds true for fashion holds true for philosophy.
The same trickle-down principle (although nothing new) is the idea that current philosophical currents—which might seem arcane, abstract and strange to those of us just trying to scrape together bus fare—have an impact on the shape of cultural practices. This is perhaps crystallized in discussions about "postmodernism." Phenomena often described as "postmodern" have a genealogy, and they track back to key shifts in philosophical thinking over the past half-century.
For instance, if we take the "emerging church" as something of a postmodern phenomenon, you will find that one of the key parts of that conversation involves questions of interpretation, authority and meaning. Is there just one "right" interpretation? Can we know the author's intention when reading Scripture? Can some "authority" sanction the "one, true" interpretation of the Bible? Or are there multiple "true" interpretations? And could it be that everything is interpretation? If that's the case, what does that mean for the uniqueness of the Gospel?
These are tough questions. But these didn't just drop from the sky. In fact, they dominated 20th-century European philosophy, particularly in the work of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. And so it seems to me that if we're going to wrestle with tough questions, we also need to wrestle with the philosophical sources that put the questions on our plate.
Just as what shows up at T.J. Maxx has more to do with French fashion than we might think, so too what's discussed by the likes of Derrida and Foucault might be affecting our milieu more than we realize. If we are going to engage culture, and make culture, we will find it helpful not just to wait for things to trickle down, but to go looking for them at the source.
If diving into Derrida or Foucault straight up seems daunting at first, organize a reading group around introductory books, such as mine, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? (Baker Academic), or Crystal Downing's How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith (IVP Academic). Or check out these documentaries and discuss them with friends: Derrida (2002) and Zizek! (2005). And listen in on the conversations at www.churchandpomo.org.
James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. His most recent book is Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic). For more on his work, visit www.jameskasmith.com.