Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Eve of Deconstruction

Image by Todd McLellan.
Philip Rucker's Bannon interview, in the Washington Post:
Atop Trump’s agenda, Bannon said, was the “deconstruction of the administrative state” — meaning a system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president and his advisers believe stymie economic growth and infringe upon one’s sovereignty.
“If you look at these Cabinet nominees, they were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction,” Bannon said.
So it's easy to laugh—obviously my first instinct. As in, too bad Jacques Derrida is dead, he would have made such a great Secretary of State. Or maybe Commerce, or the head of Faith-Based Programs.

Because it seems superficially obvious that Bannon meant to say "destruction" and used the four-syllable word instead because he's an ignorant asshole. They chose Scott Pruitt, opponent of environmental regulation (and as we now know clearly bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry) , as head of the Environmental Protection Agency because they want to destroy the EPA, and Betsy DeVos, opponent of public education, as Secretary of Education because they want to destroy that Department. They picked anti-labor agitator Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labor, though that didn't work out, and they chose Rick Perry, who explicitly announced in 2012 that he wanted to abolish the Department of Energy, though he famously couldn't remember it in one debate, as Secretary of Energy (but after he accepted the job, he had an orientation and found out what it is the Department does, and now he apparently thinks it's OK). Tom Price, who worked tirelessly through three congressional terms to throw 30 million people off of health insurance and onto the mercy of charity hospitals, is the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Ben Carson, who thinks public housing programs create a "dependency culture", is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, one of the few people alive to openly oppose the Voting Rights Act, was selected to run the Department of Justice. If these people weren't picked to destroy the agencies they're to head, what were they picked for?

And then when he does pick a candidate who's nominally on board with the department's mission, Trump may do everything he can to undermine it, making Secretary of State Rex Tillerson look like an impotent fool and upending decades of policy formation on Israel and Palestine, using John Kelly's Homeland Security to make our country less secure by manufacturing new enemies out of the otherwise well-disposed populations and governments of Mexico and the seven countries of the Muslim ban that supposedly isn't a Muslim ban, while the cabinet officials in question may helplessly snort and disagree. If they didn't mean to destroy these agencies, what did they mean?

But then again, as Vincent Leitch put it in his 1983 monograph, "deconstruction celebrates dissemination over truth, explosion and fragmentation over unity and coherence, undecidable spaces over prudent closure, playfulness and hysteria over care and rationality," so maybe there's something deeper involved.

Any of that sound familiar?

Don't Trump and his cell phone enthusiastically celebrate dissemination over truth every morning? When he broadcasts his alternative facts about a rising crime rate, or the Swedish rape crisis, or the failing New York Times, or Governor Schwarzenegger's TV ratings? Or at a press conference when he rejects questions from CNN ("Fake news!") and takes them instead from Breitbart News ("[With] all the problems that we’ve seen throughout the media over the course of the election, what reforms do you recommend for this industry here?”) or the Christianist Broadcasting Network or Townhall?

Isn't it a favoring of explosion and fragmentation when Trump starts scratching at the European Union and NATO, even as his top-ranked lieutenants disagree and suggest you shouldn't pay any attention to him? Isn't it a rejection of "prudent closure" when instead of reading about what's going on in the Muslim world or Chicago he demands to just stop everything, "until we find out just what in the hell is going on"?

Isn't "playfulness and hysteria" the most exact description of the Trump administration you've seen so far?

I'll tell you the truth right now, I'm not crazy about deconstruction as an intellectual methodology. I belong more to the party the young Derrida was opposing, the "structuralists" who believed there's an underlying coherence to culture even when you can't see it, and I prefer the old Derrida, a sweet liberal and extoller of friendship, to the young intellectual terrorist out for revenge (apparently he failed his baccalauréat and entrance exam for the École Normale Supériure more than once). And I've always been really annoyed by the conservative habit of decrying postmodernism and confusing it with "cultural relativism" or "moral relativism" without realizing that the conservative habit of kneading and shifting facts like a cat making a comfortable bed is exactly the kind of postmodernism they complain about.

Because it's such a deeply postmodern and indeed deconstructive thing to turn the obvious upside down and say, for example, like Arthur Laffer, that lowering taxes will raise government revenue, and then "demonstrate" it by drawing a curve on a napkin of what it would look like if there were any evidence it was true, which there never has been, just like Derrida's weird assertion that written language is older than spoken language and appealing to entirely irrelevant passages from Plato to show that it's true. Trumpism just carries that Derridean playfulness of traditional conservatives to amazing extremes.

And what I'm thinking is that the Trumpian program is a larger Derridean effort to deconstruct political life in the sense of turning it upside down, inverting its sound and meaning so that the sound of the words is their weight and value, and their meaning disappears, "under erasure" (sous rature). Trump and Bannon turn policy into criticism ("Bad!" "Sad!" "Fantastic!" "Pathetic!") and criticism into war. Discourse is action and action is discourse, as Trump fails to make decisions and watches television all day, in his possible but uncertain bathrobe.. Trump proclaims the instability of the sign and the ephemerality of the object! Trump turns it all upside down, to shake our perceptions and reinforce our uncertainty. Trump is the king of deconstruction, a couple of decades after it went out of fashion.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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