the hazards of essentialist glossolalia (was: Re: Meme-set conflicts )

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Sun Dec 16 2001 - 19:14:42 MST

This is a long and somewhat difficult post, but I believe it discusses an
important issue.

At 10:00 PM 12/16/01 +0100, Amara wrote:

>For example, the Sufi traveler belongs to a 'tariqa'. This word
>means: course, rule of life, order of dervishes. The nearest
>approximation to the sense of this word is 'way' in English, the
>way of doing a thing, the way upon which a person is traveling, the
>way as an individual. But there's much more meaning to this word for
>the Sufis. The root is (TaRiQa). Now expand the TRQ root:
>TaRQ = sound of a musical instrument
>TaTaRRaQ Li = to aim at, to wish, to draw near to
>ATRaQ = to remain silent with downcast eyes
>TaRRaQ Li = to open the way to
>TaRaQ = to come to anyone by night
>TuRQaT = way, road; method; habit
>TaRIQAt = lofty palm tree
>So do you see how this 'scattering' method creates an whole
>impression on the disparate elements of the human mind?
>I think it's lovely.

and Robert added:

>I have no argument against the Sufi presentation of
>ideas and concepts. It seems not *too* different from that
>which I have experienced in various courses and seminars
>that I took in the early 1980's (quite unrelated to Sufi-ism).
>Going back to the "real" definitions of things, it seems to
>serve as a useful "grounding" perspective.

This whole approach to cognitive/emotional understanding and communication,
while immensely appealing and poetic, is also incredibly risky.

One of the great benefits of poststructuralism in the humanities during the
last few decades has been its relentlessly corrosive analysis of
`essentialist' thinking, even as it has managed to perform exactly the same
error in much of its own discourse. `Essences' are the alleged `things in
themselves', the supposed ontologically prior inward forms that precede
merely superficial or accidental approximations (things, you and me) to
these pure structures. That's too vast a topic to address in a few words,
but I'll try to convey my disquiet with a few quotes from my book THEORY

One of the attractions of rhymed verse, for instance, is the pleasure we
obtain from identifying recurrent patterns of repetition in the prosody and
the rhymed words - a satisfaction itself presumably as hard-wired in source
as a baby's fear of falling over edges, or its desire to suck. This
gratification lends itself all too readily to the erroneous theory,
endlessly adopted, that words which sound alike reflect a deeper similarity
of `essence'.
        The most curious feature of the `uncanny' tendency in avowedly
anti-essentialist theory is its devotion to puns - not merely for the
jouissance of activating this primitive categorical induction machine, but
in blurring poetical and rational procedures. The effect is numbing and
even corrupting. Theorists dote on mock-diacritical gags like (M)other,
In(ter)vention, Co-HERE-ence, and so forth. If the Hesse net model is
plausible, one can see how psychoanalytically charged puns are generated
(and perhaps repressed in self-protection). In a famous passage, Rousseau
reports how he accepted a morsel of food from his mother's mouth, at once
`foreign and indifferent (un cheveu) and his own desire (un je veux)'
(Culler, 1982, p. 105). We regard with satisfaction Rousseau's
homonymy-laden swallowing of his beloved Maman's metonymic morsel. But the
deconstructive relish for pseudo-insight spills from the poetic into the
silly when we start worrying at Hegel-aigle, the lofty philosopher eagle,
and GenÍt-genÍt, the criminal flower (p. 136).
        This preparedness to find revelations in the fall of unmotivated words can
breed witty but deeply misleading analyses.[...]

        Poisons and Parasites

Theory's premier analysts (especially Derrida, de Man, Hartman, Hillis
Miller) delight in unpicking single terms, in showing how clusters of
meanings imbricate each another: that a medicine is a poison (Derrida,
1981), that a host is a parasite (Hillis Miller, 1979). Some of these moves
are no more compelling than adolescent puns. Some uncover philological
tracks which show how metaphors pick up and draw to our attention
apparently inconsistent features of our experience, that paradoxical
conceits fade through overuse into one-sided cliche and later into
deforming reification. Others are simply culture-bound, as highly prized
`insights' from French sages can reveal, comically:

        Cixous says, `It is no accident that voler has the meanings to steal and
to fly.' But surely it is an accident, as is demonstrated by the facts that
no comparable connection exists in English. (Green, 1988, p. 146)

        Consider Derrida's famous analysis of pharmakon in Plato (Derrida, 1981).
Because the human body is a homeostatic organic system that controls its
workings largely by shunting around neurotransmitters, certain quantities
of neurotoxins of the same biochemical effectivity can assist the metabolic
cycle in a sick person or disrupt that of a healthy person. This ambiguity
of function, known in its effects to the practical Greeks, serves Derrida
nicely as he stands at the counter of Plato's pharmacy, but on his own
argument the suspicion cannot be dispelled that he himself is peddling
        Derrida's case is that philosophical language, meant to be the adjudicator
of rational debate, is not only riddled with inconsistencies - being built,
as we have agreed, of woolly bundles - but that any attempt to suppress or
sublate them serves only to mystify us. His general ground for this claim,
criticized above, is that the principle of non-contradiction is a
repressive instrument rather than, as Popper showed, a sine qua non of
discourse. In the Phaedo, taking his death by poison, Socrates asks that a
cock be sacrificed to Asclepius: a sardonic touch, one might suppose, since
this is the traditional price to the gods for recovery from mortal illness.
But, as Bertrand Russell (1961) succinctly puts it, in perishing, `Socrates
has recovered from life's fitful fever' (p. 155). Of course, as Russell
stresses, this conceit is an expression of mystical loathing for the
`slavery to the body and its needs'(p. 152) - a characteristic weakness, it
might be remarked, of philosophers, mathematicians and computer hackers. So
life is `healed' by the poison which ends it, just as a pharmakon can cure
or harm.
        This natural bipolar effect is employed by Plato's Socrates and Derrida as
a figure of ambiguity for writing: remedy for memory's failings, destroyer
of speech's supposed immediacy and presence. Beyond this adventitious pun
lie others: pharmakeus, the imprisoned wonderworker; pharmakos, the
scapegoat who carries away out of the city those corrupt elements which its
provenance at once betrays and cleanses. Pretty as these games undoubtedly
are, there is only doubtful ontological value in studying verbal
ambiguities founded in ignorance, magic and accident, beyond the necessary
reminder that our own understanding of the world (and of ourselves) is
forever provisional, incomplete, internally incoherent in ways we can never
quite identify.


Walter Kaufmann neatly summarized Heidegger's lexical approach to the
ground (Grund) of Being: `He speaks of ergrunden (fathom) and Grundung
(foundation) and distinguishes between Ur-grund (primal ground), Ab-grund
(abyss) and Un-grund (bottomlessness?)... The piling up of words with the
same root - one of the most characteristic devices of Heidegger's style -
induces a spurious sense of illumination, an unfounded conviction that
something has been explained' (Kaufmann, 1960, pp. 345-6). Unsympathetic
critics go further. George Steiner (who is more generous, for reasons that
fail to persuade me) characterizes their response to Heidegger's eccentric

        [Even] a polemical discussion of Heidegger's method is merely futile. His
writings are a thicket of impenetrable verbiage; the questions he poses are
sham questions.... To try to analyzes Heideggerian `ontology'... is to
speak, or to speak of, nonsense - non-sense, in the most drastic
connotations of the term.... [His influence] is nothing less than
disastrous, both philosophically and politically.... This is not, I repeat,
a finding that can be peremptorily dismissed or reduced to mere
professional myopia. It is a critique and counterstatement which should be
kept steadily in view, however problematic it makes the obvious dimension,
the intense presence of Heidegger's example and writings in current
reference and sensibility. (Steiner, 1992, pp. 4, 59)

        Contemporary theory, in many respects both a child of and a reaction
against Heidegger, carries over much of his method of linguistic
peregrination. To cite Steiner once more: `His punning - where "punning" is
too feeble a designation for an uncanny receptivity to the fields of
resonance, of consonance, of suppressed echo in phonetic and semantic units
- has bred, to the point of parody, the post-structuralism and
deconstructionism of today' (p. xiii).


Looking for linguistic roots (the fossils of dead theories that form the
armature of language) and then elaborating from them arguments about the
nature of reality is as dangerous as supposing that The Ancients knew
Mysteries that We Poor Moderns have Forgotten (since the fall of, you know,
Atlantis and Mu).

Damien Broderick

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