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Christopher

Norris Deconstruction Theory and Practice 3rd edition

London and New York


First published in 1982 by Methuen & Co. Ltd Reprinted in 1986 with a revised bibliography Revised edition first published in 1991 by Routledge 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001 Reprinted 1991, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2000 This edition first published 2002 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2004.

© 1982, 1986, 1991, 2002 Christopher Norris All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data A catalog record for this book has been requested ISBN 0-203-42676-2 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN 0-203-44064-1 (Adobe eReader Format) ISBN 0–415–28009–5 (Hbk) ISBN 0–415–28010–9 (Pbk)


60 deconstruction: theory and practice craftily disguises its workings by imputing them always to the adversary camp. Truth is simply the honorific title assumed by an argument which has got the upper hand – and kept it – in this war of competing persuasions. If anything, the sophist comes closer to wisdom by implicitly acknowledging what Socrates has to deny: that thinking is always and inseparably bound to the rhetorical devices that support it.

DECONSTRUCTION ON TWO WHEELS Nietzsche’s transvaluation of philosophy therefore demanded a return to source and an effort to deconstruct the ruling metaphors of reason itself. There is an odd but revealing parallel to this in Robert Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), where the narrative interest has more to do with Greek philosophy than with Zen Buddhism, as many readers have no doubt been puzzled to find. The central figure is a man on the verge of breakdown and despair who sets out on a coast-to-coast motorcycle trip across America in search of self-understanding. What emerges gradually in the course of this quest is a whole buried prehistory of psychic and intellectual conflict which – we come to realize – led up to the events of the novel. Through a sequence of dimly remembered episodes the narrator reconstructs a portrait of his own previous life, the last few months of which were spent as a student of philosophy at the University of Chicago. Under the pseudonym ‘Phaedrus’ – adopted for reasons which soon become clear – this doomed alter ego is shown in the process of challenging all the basic assumptions handed down by his teachers on pain of academic excommunication. When Phaedrus begins to read back into the sources, especially the texts of Plato and Aristotle, he finds their arguments not only unconvincing but deviously angled in such a way as everywhere to misrepresent their forgotten opponents. The sophists, in particular, are held up to philosophic ridicule by a method of argument which twists their case into a parody of its own just-visible outline. From Socrates down through Plato and Aristotle, the evidence points to a massive suppression and misinterpretation of everything that threatened the sovereign power of dialectical reason. Phaedrus himself is cast as a latter-day victim of this same


neitzsche: philosophy and deconstruction

‘conspiracy’, suffering the taunts of professors and students unwilling to question received wisdom. The ‘Church of Reason’ is too firmly established in Chicago, with its neo-Aristotelian stress on the virtues of clear-cut logical analysis and firmly categorical thinking. The trouble comes to a head for Phaedrus when his class is taken over – ominously – by the Chairman for the Committee on Analysis of Ideas and Study of Method. What ensues – at least in Phaedrus’s inflamed imagination – is an ultimate duel of wits between ‘dialectic’ and ‘rhetoric’, with rhetoric decisively winning the day. The turning-point comes with his realization that ‘ “dialectic” had some special meaning that made it a fulcrum word – one that can shift the balance of an argument, depending on how it’s placed’. By challenging the Chairman to explain the provenance of dialectic – its ‘genealogy’, in Nietzschean terms – Phaedrus shows it to rest on a willed and systematic forgetting of its own rhetorical origins. Reason, or the supposed self-evidence of reason, is thrown into doubt by its manifest failure to justify its methods on other than purely tautological grounds. Hence Phaedrus’s triumphant conclusion: The halo round the heads of Plato and Socrates is now gone. He sees that they are consistently doing that which they accuse the Sophists of doing – using emotionally persuasive language for the ulterior purpose of making the weaker argument, the case for dialectic, appear the stronger. We always condemn most in others, he thought, that which we most fear in ourselves. (Pirsig 1974, p. 378)

But that way madness lies. Phaedrus cannot communicate his discovery within the norms of institutionalized knowledge and ‘dialogue’ so zealously preserved by the Chicago Aristotelians. He leaves the university and suffers (like Nietzsche) a protracted – though in his case not terminal – nervous collapse. The ‘original’ Phaedrus, in Plato’s dialogue of that title, is yet another foil for Socrates, a young and vaunting rhetorician whose headlong gambits are neatly anticipated at every turn (see Plato 1973). As far as the latter-day Phaedrus is concerned, this exchange simply follows the standard pattern of an argument ignoring its own

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62 deconstruction: theory and practice complicity with the tricks and devices of which it sternly disapproves. The Phaedrus is also, as it happens, a crucial text for Derrida’s reading of Greek philosophy. It contains Plato’s most vigorous attack upon writing, couched in the same familiar terms – ‘presence’ versus ‘absence’, living speech versus the dead letter – as made up the argument of Rousseau’s essay. Writing is the dangerous ‘supplement’ which lures language away from its authentic origins in speech and self-presence. To commit one’s thoughts to writing is to yield them up to the public domain, thus exposing them to all the promiscuous wiles of interpretation. Writing is the ‘death’ that lies in wait for living thought, the subtle agent of corruption whose workings infect the very sources of truth. Plato’s case against rhetoric is therefore of a piece with his attitude to writing. Both are seen as the rebellious servant to a master (truth or dialectic) whose authority they flout by setting themselves up as alternative paths to wisdom. As Pirsig’s Phaedrus accounts for it, rhetoric was denatured and deprived of its force through being treated as merely a collection of classified devices, reducible to system and order. Aristotle brought this process to a high point of rational perfection: ‘Rhetoric has become an object, and as an object has parts. And the parts have relationships to one another and these relations are immutable’ (Pirsig 1974, p. 368). Whence, incidentally, the motorcycle connection: a machine for Phaedrus is more than the sum of its parts as laid out in a service manual. Curiously enough, the novel never mentions Nietzsche, though its manner of engaging philosophic issues is everywhere prompted by a Nietzschean spirit of critique. The crucial question Phaedrus poses – whence the authority of Socratic reason? – is posed and answered by Nietzsche in strikingly similar terms. It is rhetoric, not dialectic, which takes us back furthest toward the origin of thought in man’s encounter with experience: ‘Dialectic, which is the parent of logic, came itself from rhetoric. Rhetoric is in turn the child of the myths and poetry of ancient Greece’ (ibid., p. 391). Phaedrus is thus led back to the preSocratic philosophers, those shadowy figures whom Nietzsche admired for having the courage of their own metaphors. These thinkers had identified reality with various elemental forces in the natural world. For Thales the ‘immortal principle’ was that of water, while


neitzsche: philosophy and deconstruction

Anaximenes varied the metaphor to air, and Heraclitus – the philosopher of change and flux – saw fire as the element of all things. Their ‘explanations’ were of course a species of poetic analogy, and yield small sense to the rational (or post-Socratic) mind. But, as Phaedrus declares, ‘everything is analogy’, including the presumptive generalizations involved in dialectical argument. The difference is that the dialectician, unlike his ‘irrational’ precursor, fails to recognize this operative movement in the process of thought itself.

WRITING AND PHILOSOPHY Deconstruction begins with the same gesture of turning reason against itself to bring out its tacit dependence on another, repressed or unrecognized, level of meaning. Phaedrus’s glimpse of how the concept dialectic could be used as a ‘fulcrum’ to achieve this reversal is very much in keeping with Derrida’s textual strategies. In his texts on Greek philosophy Derrida traces some of the ruses and devices by which writing is systematically opposed to the values of truth, self-presence and origin. But why this animus towards writing? The likeliest historical explanation, adopted by many scholars, is that writing was a relatively new development at this stage in Greek cultural life, and that Plato tended to mistrust what he saw as its dangerous diffusion of knowledge and power. This argument clearly has much in common with the Nietzschean-Derridean view of Socratic reason as a tyrannizing force of repression. On the other hand it ignores the textual strategies and the deep-grained metaphysics of presence which a deconstructive reading uncovers. For Derrida the suppression of writing is no mere accident of chronology or quirk of a culture in transition. It operates, in Plato and his numerous descendants, through a mode of self-perpetuating rhetoric unglimpsed by the conventional historian of ideas. That this attitude to writing has remained deeply entrenched can be seen from a text like F. M. Cornford’s Before and After Socrates (1932), a widely read introduction to Greek philosophy and its background. Cornford shows a kind of condescending patience with the sophists, treating them as adolescent rebels on the way to Socratic wisdom and dignity. When he comes to the relationship between Socrates and Plato,

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Christopher Norris on 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' (1982)  

Norris reads Pirsig's 'Zen' as a Nietzchean-styled deconstructive critique of the 'authority of Socratic reason'...

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