The 19th Century and Us

By David Galston | 6.14.2018

Deconstruction involves the display of history. It involves demonstrating that no historical event has an absolute center or a final meaning. In place, every event everywhere is a composite, a collection, of relations and relationships. This basic insight is a departure from modernity where meaning was rooted in central identities. This insight is also Buddhist in character and expresses an East-West meeting point.

Because it is highly theoretical in expression, deconstruction needs to be explained with practical examples. It is not actually a difficult concept, but it becomes complex in its expression since deconstruction involves sinking into and taking apart reality. The complex tasks of deconstruction, though, follow from its relatively easy idea that can be expressed in examples.

Canon as example of deconstruction

One example is the idea of the canon. There is the canon of the Bible, and there is also the canon of Western literature, Western music, and Western science. The canon is composed of the standard books, theories, or key individuals of a tradition. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven belong to the canon of Western music. They are central and key individuals that define a tradition, mark an epoch, and who are must-knows for any student of Western music history. Marx, Freud, Nietzsche are other names that in philosophy also mark key ideas that defined an era. And the Bible, of course, is a canon with its set number of books regarded as sacred and authoritative. In whatever way we may discuss the notion of a canon, what we mean to identify are central measuring sticks by which the value of other, related, phenomenon are judged.

However, we all know that inasmuch as a canon includes it also excludes. The Western canon systematically excluded women for centuries; it also silenced many figures that canonical authorities marked as heretics. Other gospels, other letters, other philosophical tracts, and other forms of music, art, and literature from other countries or peoples are all at the periphery or even excluded from consideration by the power the canon can yield.

A canon marks a power center, but deconstruction is about displaying how the center is weak. It cannot hold. It can be de-centered. There can be other centers outside the canon that are even functionally better than those a canon protects. We can re-center our centers by including other elements within it. Or, put plainly, we create our centers; they are after all not self-evident.

Written text belittles oral tradition

A second example can be raised in a way written text often acts as a canon to belittle an oral tradition. This happens in biblical studies where scholars deal mainly with texts and where Form Criticism, used to trace oral precedent, is pursued with interest but ignored in consequence. The study of the historical Jesus depends on reconstructing oral tradition and honoring it with the same dignity we give the text. Even though the study is fascinating, the consequences are often rejected, chided, and even mocked.

The church certainly does not recognize oral tradition as authoritative, even when it comes to Jesus, because it is too unstable. And scholars, who likewise can see oral tradition as threatening to the Biblical canon, will turn to apology, doctrine, and authoritative texts to assure the Christian church of its beliefs.

So, in the two examples offered here, the canon excludes pluralism with its focus on accepted texts or individuals and its valuing of the written text over oral tradition. There are other examples, too, but these two can suffice to express deconstruction as the de-centering of authoritative assumptions and displaying the deception of a central canon.

21st versus 19th Century deconstruction 

The 19th Century was the height of modernity, so it is natural not to think of the 19th Century when we think of deconstruction. The 19th Century, perhaps epitomized best in the canonical philosophy with G.W.F. Hegel, was about a systematic understanding of history, its coming to fruition or actuality in dynamic forces, and its steady movement toward a goal. In this understanding of history, there were deep and mysterious essences, hidden from our view, that created ironies out of our actions.

We might inadvertently advance history toward its goal in our ignorance due to the power of history overwhelming particulars. Adam Smith build his whole notion of economics on the hidden hand of history moving through human particulars to a largely mysterious but good end. Because we are particular beings, we suffer tragedy, we operate in ignorance, and we know irony, but these particulars do not bend the overall direction of the spirit of history. They merely give the spirit its existential expression.

From the 21st Century deconstructionist point of view, the 19th Century pretty much defines exactly what we are working against. Yet, the 19th Century keeps coming back into the picture. In one way, it comes back because we like the idea of a deep mystery to the cosmos and the notion that, despite our human proclivities, the cosmos will realize its destiny. This is probably true, but this does not mean that the cosmos or human beings have particular, mysterious, and hidden meanings. It just means the cosmos will unfold as it does and there is nothing we can do about it. However, this is not the point.

19th Century tools for deconstruction

The main point is that the 19th Century gave to our time the challenge of deconstruction. Far from being the era we need to escape, we might recognize that the 19th Century gave us the critical tools to deconstruct the canons of our heritage and to raise the kinds of questions we are now very familiar with: by what right does someone or something hold authority, who is included and who is excluded, why are we giving more legal authority to documents written by white men over oral indigenous stories, why do we belittle or ignore alternative gospels and letters from the birth of Christianity, etc.?

These questions come about because of a critical regard of history, and a critical regard of history comes about because of 19th Century critical methodology. Sure, we can question, and should, how a method predisposes the user to a set of questions, discoveries, and answers, but without the critical method even the disposition that methods often assume cannot be questioned. The 19th Century gave methods of critical analysis in science, sociology, philosophy, and religion. It unearthed questions about method itself, and it often was able to distinguish between what is relatively indisputable, like evolution, from what is genuinely a human creation, like religion.

It also introduced the hermeneutical question about how the viewer influences the interpretation of what is viewed. Basically, the 19th Century set an agenda that gave rise to deconstruction and that highlighted questions that still baffle us. The best route to deconstruction is critical history because critical history displays false assumptions about history and its central claims. The 19th Century gave us the heritage of critical history and, thus, the ability to exercise deconstruction.

Can we forgive?

One of the questions that remains outstanding is whether or not 21st Century beings will both acknowledge and forgive the 19th Century. The century needs forgiveness in the sense that it justified injustice - perpetuating sexism, racism, and colonialism - and contributed in outstanding ways to basic exclusions that the Western canon assumes. But in the midst of this, there was the beginnings of acknowledging human history as a human construct evident in new forms of criticism, and there was the birth of modern science where nature is allowed to speak on its own terms outside, or at least with acknowledging, the constructive influence of human mythology.

The 19th Century set down an agenda that the 20th Century, in its return to neo-orthodoxy, at times successfully ignored. However, that agenda came back at the end of the 20th Century and into the 21st as deconstruction. It consists of at least three items: the recognition that the Western canon is a false narrative that assumes white privilege; the realization that religion, politics, and social identity are human constructs capable of alteration; and the challenge to remake the world without, or at least with admitting the propensity for, human mythology getting in the way. These three items are still there for the taking. They still mark a dialogue we need to have with a forgiven 19th Century.

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David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.