Speaking of Terror - Part II

Let us begin speaking about 9/11 with speaking about speaking itself – what can we say about 9/11? Is man to be left speechless in the face of such an event? Postmodern philosopher, Jacques Derrida, argues that 9/11 cannot be adequately spoken of, that it is beyond conceptual reach.

Derrida argues that the events of 9/11 offer opportunities for deconstructive discourse. Deconstructivism sets out to subvert the conceptual pairs which are found in general discourse. Conceptual pairs include light/darkness, male/female and good/evil. These pairs, according to Derrida, have no reason for being in the order they are nor should their alignment be taken for granted. Deconstructivism attempts to identify the conceptual construction which makes use of sets of irreducible pairs. Then it highlights the hierarchical ordering of the pairs and, finally, it seeks to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of those pairs and to subvert them.


The starting point for Derrida's project is language: “I believe always in the necessity of being attentive first of all to this phenomenon of language… To what this compulsion signifies, translates, or betrays.”1 He suggests that we must attempt to get behind language to the point at which “language and concept come up against their limits.”2

This line of thought is found in Wittgenstein's Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus: He draws a line over which language cannot extend. That which lies on the other side of the line should not be stated. On the face of it such limit-setting in language is appropriate, but we must examine the whole into which language fits. But what is that whole? If the world is as it is and is without an outside, then all statements are made within the world as it is. Nothing can be said from beyond it; nothing can really be said about it, only into it, as Derrida argues:

The place and meaning of this “event” remains ineffable... out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it's talking about. We do not in fact know what we are saying in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11.4

If 9/11 is beyond conceptual reach, then there is no adequate form of discourse with which to refer to it. Instead, says Derrida, we charm ourselves through incantation – naming, repeating and chanting.

However, our ability to know, to understand and to come to terms with 9/11 hinges on our ability to think about it conceptually. For the Christian, language has meaning only because it comes from God. Speaking has meaning because it is said in the presence of God. It describes something and refers to something because that is the purpose given to it by the one who spoke all things into being. As Marla Bevin puts it: “Language was not created and did not evolve from animal grunts or mews. God eternally has language as part of his rationality. Human beings have language because it is part of the image of God.”5

It is through the language of God that all that is, is. It is God's speech which formed the earth, gave the Law and judged the nations. As Bevin argues, discourse is prior to event in God's creative act. To see one’s language as being a constructive project is to see oneself as godlike: able to create through speech. Consequently, to see language in terms of deconstruction is to assume it was constructed by man in the first place.

Speech was not and is not a construction of man; it did not evolve; we were given it. And events are what language is designed to speak about. The first information we can derive from Scripture is that human discourse structure is about events. Genesis 1 is written by Moses in past tense about the first event in history. There is no magic about it, it is not conjured up, it is not incantation and the author most certainly knows what he is talking about.

For Derrida speech is man made. His speech, he assumes, can reach limits. If language evolved from the grunting of the less developed man, it has no choice but to return to that state when confronted with events outside its parameters. It can only attempt to conjure, to make something appear as if from nowhere, or it can incant, charm its object, cast a spell upon it. It can, therefore, only resort to a kind of witchcraft6 using thoughtforms – mental energy exerting influence through sound vibrations.

Is it not the assumption of the Christian—that language is given by God, already existing in structural discourse—that is subverted by Derrida, subverted in the way the Darwinist subverts creation? Creation, the Darwinist says, is prior to God, thing prior to word. Given that language is only made after the event, it is, in the face of event, rendered powerless, reduced to its origin, to mere sound. If, however, language is from God and is capable of describing the origin of creation (indirectly through Moses) and causing creation itself (directly by God), then it is well equipped to talk about 9/11. It is equipped with a conceptual system of pairs not constructed by man, but given by God. Derrida attempts to deconstruct that which he presumes is humanly constructed. But what if there is no construction and only a bestowal, if the system was already present, before creation, in the triune God? It is only when one believes that man is the inventor of language that we are left speechless.

1 Giovanna Borradori, Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas, Philosophy in a Time of Terror (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003), 87.
2 Ibid., 87.
3 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), 145.
4 Ibid., 86.
5 Marla Perkins Bevin, “Linguistics and the Bible” The Trinity Review No 262 (Unicoi: Trinity Foundation, 2006).
6 Gina Behrens, “Science and Christian Thought” (lecture, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, IL, February 22, 2011).

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