There must be a great sort of dissonance when you are convinced of some inner reality when others believe the exact opposite of you. Imagine being Jesus: maybe he was born with the knowledge of or experience of his own divinity (as coupled with his humanity), maybe he grew to discover it. But I suppose that neither of those axioms would really matter to you, oh Jesus.
You grow up, proclaiming things like “The Father and I are One” and insinuating that you–yes you!–are the divine one. You are the transcendent one. You–who was born of a woman, healed on the Sabbath, forgave sins, touched the unclean, cast out demons, and was crucified–are the one that the prophets spoke of???? And yet the tradition contradicts all these things! How dare you forgive someone’s sins! Touching the unclean? Go perform a cleansing ritual!! Atone for your sin of violating the Sabbath! Even the Muslims know that the Messiah of Israel cannot be crucified!! You blasphemer! Repent of your sin immediately! How dare you claim to transcend our clearly demarcated boundaries!!!!
Now imagine you are a trans woman. Maybe you were born having known or experienced your gender differently than people treated you; maybe you grew to discover it–5 years into life…14 years….21 years….50 years….80 years…. But, again, I suppose that these axioms might not matter all too much to you, oh Queer One.
You grow up and begin proclaiming things like “I am not a boy!!!” or insinuating that you–yes you!–are among those who cannot concede the gender everyone else imposes on them. You are the transcendent one. You–who was born with a specific set of genitalia, played sports, dressed in typical boyish garb, responding to your male name and male pronouns–are the one the tradition warns about. “God created them male and female!” they press. “A woman must not wear men’s clothing,” they insist, “nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this.” So you figure, “hey, maybe I’ll start wearing women’s clothes then!” Your wit does not woo the nay-sayers of life. Do not repent. You need not cleanse yourself. Christ has not atoned for you, for you have not sinned in gender. What nonsense!
Suppose that we were once wrong about Christ–we denied him. Suppose we were wrong about trans people–we denied them as well. And look what happened.
Thank you for transcending boundaries with me.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Why foundationalist logic fails at life, the true source of moral intuition does not lie in an ideological foundation that roots ethical rules in rational articulation. Rather, true morality springs directly from the heart of being itself. It is an impulse toward loving wholeness that demands the flourishing of all sentient beings in harmony. One feels this impulse. The calculation itself is secondary and contingent.
Western philosophers of the past have attempted to nail down morality by virtue of a given natural order–a transcendental moral law issued by heavenly mandate. Such a law would dictate the boundaries of transgression and permission, what is acceptable to the divine and what is not. But we live in a modern world that thrives after the death of God. We roam in a realm of mystery that recognizes the irrelevance of theistic intervention in light of technology, medicine, and contingent circumstance. It no longer makes sense to imagine the name of God in terms of an external force that issues punishment or reward according to whether sentient beings obey or reject a historically revealed transcendental moral order. In no longer makes sense to imagine the name of God as the name of a transcendent Judge and Law-giver.
The philosopher Saint Paul developed as a Jewish rabbi with a firm and rigorous interpretation of Torah. Upon his encounter of the followers of another rabbi named Jesus, he lashed back in anger and dictated persecution and murder. He was disturbed by this new movement that was predicated upon an interpretation of Torah as love-centered rather than oriented around a priestly cult of specific regulations. Later he had a mystical encounter on his way to persecute more of Jesus’ followers, directing him into a new level of consciousness. Eventually Paul woke up to a realization that true morality lied not in the “letter,” or dictated words of paper, but in “spirit,” meaning the very heart of life itself–the animating spirit of the Torah that also transcends Torah.
The break from natural law as an externally mediated moral order to ethics according to the impulse of being toward love and flourishing life constitutes the historical movement from Judaism to Christian consciousness. This does not mean that Christian consciousness was non-Jewish or anti-Jewish, but simply that it broke open the confines of religion and its legislated moral boundaries. Once the Spirit broke free, it could not be contained or controlled in the rapid expansion of Christ-consciousness, which is grace-consciousness.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida, a French Algerian Jew who knew what it meant to be marginalized and oppressed, entered the European scene to make a Pauline move: the Spirit of Justice and Love harbored by his Torah was to be set free from the constraints of Western philosophy too. Derrida argued that while the law was constructed to ensure and create justice, it had inevitably become the biggest obstacle to justice. One can see something similar in Marx’s critique of private property. While the divisions of property under law and in contract are meant to ensure that one’s property is protected, the originary act of creating property is the first act of theft. In fact, one could argue it is legalized theft. The most obvious example is when America’s European “forefathers” arrived upon these shores and stole the land from the natives already living here. The natives thought they were simply sharing and borrowing it because they did not believe in the concept of “owning land,” which they considered ludicrous.
If the law cannot ensure justice (although we need it), neither can moral calculation ensure morality. Rather morality is a fluid and uncontainable dynamic that keeps its eye on the situation–a very different reality than the blind judge of the Western legal order. It is like King Solomon when two women came before him in a dispute over a baby they both claimed was their own. Rather then applying some blind method of determination, Solomon suggested that the baby be sawn in half so that each mother would be appeased. He knew that the woman who would cry out against it, willingly allowing the other woman to take her baby, would be the true mother.
Derrida was right when he claimed that justice is incalculable. Once one begins to calculate, a violence is done to the moral impulse that is a part of the fluidity of being. Rather a better rule of thumb, if one needs one, can be found in this simple but profound statement from John Shelby Spong: “whatever diminishes life is evil, and whatever enhances life is good.”
New interestign interview with Caputo on the Times’ The Stone.
But it does beg the question, why does Gutting seem so intensely focused on neatly packing Derrida into the “atheist” box? What is to be gained by such a neat definition?
My top 13 favorite reads of 2013…
13.) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
12.) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
11.) Slavoj Žižek, Parallax View
10.) Richard Bauckaum, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses
09.) Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being
08.) Christina Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics
07.) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity
06.) Emmanuel Falque, The Metamorphosis of Finitute
05.) Slavoj Žižek, God in Pain
04.) Jacques Derrida, Given Time
03.) Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
02.) Edmund Husserl, Ideas I
And the grand finale…
01.) Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption
In After the Death of God, John D. Caputo writes that:
“Were a democracy to come–and it cannot came, that would not be possible for it to actually come–it would not be a place in which there is pure harmony or perfect “peace.” It would be a place in which there would be endless and irreconcilable differences, a profusion of differences that would be adjudicated without killing one another. “
Though an intriguing and compelling presentation of political messianism, this post will not be about democracy, nor about politics. Instead, I am here interested in the relationship between the different and the same. Caputo’s thought, and really deconstruction in general (if not all thought that takes Levinas’s philosophy of alterity as one of its founding intuitions) resists totalization, looks forward to the incoming of the other, seeks to break with the ontology of presence: simply, deconstruction is a philosophy of difference (or, perhaps better, différance). The Same is a questionable enemy, a source of oppression, violence waiting to happen. The same exludes the different, or worse, absorbs the different, destroying its alterity in a burst of assimilating power. But, it must be asked, to what extent, does this “binarity” (to use one of Caputo’s terms), re-inscribe deconstruction within the very paradigm it is trying to escape? For, deconstruction places itself in opposition to simple binary schemas of this or that, being and nothing, male and female, writing and speaking, etc, etc… . Consistency, it seems, would require that this same resistance be brought to bear on the same and the different. In Deconstruction in a Nutshell, Caputo writes:
“When presented with a neat distinction or opposition of this sort … [Derrida/deconstruction] will look around–in the text itself–for some third thing which the distinction omits, some untruth, or barely true remnant, which falls outside the famous distinction, which the truth of either separately or both together fails to capture, which is neither and both of the two.”
It must be asked, then, is the opposition between the same and the different too “neat”? How is the eternal struggle of the same and the different not precisely the sort of meta-narrative that deconstruction seeks to expose the limits of? For, as Caputo vigorously argues, every binarity can be clearly identified by its hierarchical structure, because ever binary inevitably develops into an us/them, good/bad, pure/impure, that is to say, every seemingly descriptive schema, hides an implicit normative schema. Yet, we see, in the elevation of absolute difference over the “violent” totality of the same, exactly such a hierarchy.
Should we, then, “look around–in the text itself–for some third thing which the distinction omits”?
Should deconstruction itself be deconstructed?
The contemporary “return to religion” has resulted in some seriously fecund food for thought, particularly among the philosophically-inclined theologians (of which I would count myself). Of central importance to this turn, at least in the deconstruction camp, has been the work of Jacques Derrida (on one side of the aisle) and John Caputo (on the other). Yet, I nonetheless hold considerable reservations regarding some of their postmodern variation of the themes of religion, most notably their “religion without religion.”
This structure–of the “X without X”– is a particularly common Derridean formulation . We find (in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism), for instance, a reinterpretation of Marion’s “Dieu sans l’etre” as “being God without being God.” Elsewhere, Derrida proposes a designation of Justice as a “messianicity without messianism.” This latter formulation is particularly helpful in unraveling the intention underlying Derrida’s playful disruption of the law of identity. There, Derrida wishes to maintain the forward-facing posture of messianism–understood in the modalities of hope, openness, and responsibility for the incoming other. Yet, at the same time, Derrida wishes to distance himself from the concrete messianisms of the various world religions. As Gschwandtner writes, “he refers to the messianic as a ‘general structure of experience’ concerned with the coming of the other and justice, which does not refer to any particular religion or ‘determinate revelation’.”
What we find, therefore, is a return to the pseudo-transcendentals of Heidegger. Just as the essence of truth is found in a-lethia, the uncovering or manifestation of Being, and the essence of modern technology in technicity, the reduction of all beings to “standing reserve,” Derrida here reduces the essence of messianism to the incoming of “the other and justice.” But (and I have chosen the language of “reduces” intentionally), it must be asked, what is reduced in this reduction, what is lost in the transition from the concrete messianism to the transcendental messianism? Or, returning to my initial concern, what is lost in the reduction of concrete religion to the transcendental “religion without religion.”
The answer, I might suggest, is concrete historicity. The reduction of religion to “religion without religion” seems to be an underhanded attempt to exempt oneself from the historical contingency of one’s religious traditions. For Derrida, the problem with such a move is attenuated by his own pseudo-atheism, as he writes, “I rightly pass for an atheist.” But the same can certainly not be said for Caputo, whose works are unambiguously situated in the Christian tradition. It is true that this move is situated within the context of “radical theology” and its abandonment of ontotheology, and it should certainly be applauded for that. But, by publicly distancing himself from the concrete historicity of the tradition, by advocating a “religion without religion,” Caputo is not merely abandoning a literalist or ontotheological interpretation of that tradition, but rather, seeking to whitewash his own theology, to extract his own thought from the turbulent and violent history of the tradition, while also seeking to maintain access to its riches and insights. Can we really have it both ways? Can we get the good without the bad (have our cake and eat it too)? Is it even possible to extract the good from the bad, the transcendental from the concrete, or is Caputo merely falling into the old Husserlian trap of the pure eidos?
In the end, I wonder if the deconstructed “religion without religion” might merely be the academic version of “I am spiritual, but not religious.” An academic incarnation of a Neoliberal cafeteria-style religiosity, with all of its faux-decontextualized and colonialist baggage.
The events surrounding Texas’ “Senate Bill 5” and Sen. Davis’ filibuster raise incredibly complex questions concerning the interrelationship between politics and the voice–viz. the question of the silencing of the voice.
In many respects, the entire narrative of the night’s events pivoted around this notion of silencing. From a broader political standpoint, the very nature of “Senate Bill 5” seems to emerge from a conflict of the voice, the silencing of the politically dis-empowered (women) by the politically empowered (men). Comprising a mere 21% of the Texas senate, those whose bodies were directly targeted by the bill remain essentially voiceless in response to its powers. In resistance to this inequity of power, Sen. Davis brought to bear the subversive power of the filibuster, precisely the power of the voice. Having been politically dis-empowered, Sen. Davis’ filibuster reasserted the lost voice, called out from the silence. Yet, the resistance to the voice emerged once again, redoubled through the rigorous application of the parliamentary rules (the letter over the spirit), and eventually, as desperation set in, through the bending of these rules (the abandonment of the letter and the spirit). The final postponement of the vote succeeded only when, following the final silencing of Davis’ voice, the law itself was subverted by the emergence of a new voice, the rising of a no-longer-silent minority, who overtook the chamber, drowning out the voices of the powerful.
The structure of this event clarifies an essential relationship between politics and the voice. Simply, political power is none other than the power of the voice. To be politically powerful is to be one who can drown out the voice of opposition–political power is the power to silence. Through numbers, intimidation, social engineering, financing: the essential danger of democracy is neither the power of the majority over the minority (e.g. as race theory or feminism might suggest), nor the minority over the majority (e.g. as many critics of the politics of capitalism suggest), but more fundamentally, the domination of the voiceless by the voiced. The principal tools of socio-political change, from civil rights marches to union strikes, from grassroots petitions to the filibuster, are essentially structured around the voice, they are structures which allow an unheard voice to re-emerge into public discourse.
The question then becomes, what voice is to be heard? At what point does the repression of the voice legitimate the overturning of the political? For, the events of “Senate bill 5” are not without their own ambiguities. Certainly, the GOP used parliamentary legalism to disrupt Davis’ filibuster (first two “strikes”), but the Dems similarly used this legalism to overturn the 12:01 vote. Yes, the GOP “bent” the law in their third “strike,” and again in their push for a late vote, but did the erupting balcony not similarly subvert the law? Neither side stood simply with or against the law, both used the law as a tool when expedient, and sacrificed it when necessary.
Yet, this ambiguity vis-à-vis the law does not mandate an ethical relativism, a basic valuation might still be permitted. Against the overly simplistic readings of the night by many liberal commentators, the beauty and character of the night is not found in the “overturning of GOP trickery” as some have suggested, or the “correct application of the law” as others have implied, but in the true arrival of the ethical. The lesson of June 25th is not that true justice finally emerged from politics, but the recognition that politics are secondary to the ethical, that sometimes the political, the law, must be suspended to make room for the inbreaking of justice–as Derrida writes, “Law (Droit) is not justice. Law is the element of calculation, and it is just that there be law, but justice is incalculable, it requires us to calculate the incalculable; and aporetic experiences are the experiences, as improbable as they are necessary, of justice, that is to say of moments in which the decision between just and unjust is never insured by a rule.” And what is the phenomenological form of the inbreaking of justice? Perhaps nothing other than the inbreaking of the repressed voice. Levinas’ Totality and Infinity, it should be remembered, reminds of us this intimate link between the voice and justice: “Language,” it states “institutes a relation irreducible to the subject-object relation: the revelation of the other. … Their commerce [i.e. discourse], as we shall show shortly, is ethical.” What we learn from the Texas senate is that politics and the law are a mere means toward the essentially foreign end of justice, an end which can only be glimpsed, ever so slightly, in the voice of the oppressed, the voice of the needy, the voice of the minority.
Yet, there is something explicitly anti-democratic in this emergence of the oppressed voice of the minority. If the Texas vote was easily to be passed (as both sides admit), and backed by a majority of Texans, shouldn’t the “democratic approach” be the institution of the law, not the subversion of the vote? When is it permitted for the minority to overcome the majority? The very structure of the protest movement, regardless of its democrat and “power to the people” rhetoric, appears to be an essentially anti-democratic structure, the supplanting of the majority by the minority. We see an analogous structure developing in the recent turmoil in Egypt. The ostensibly democratically elected president Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been forcibly ousted by the Egyptian military in conjunction with a massive protest movement of an unprecedented scale (the BBC estimates 33,000,000, the largest recorded protest in history). Is this protest, as well as that in Texas, an injustice?
Perhaps. Or maybe it is time to recognize that democracy is not an end unto itself. Perhaps it is simply another reiteration of politics, law, droit. Could democracy be thought as an abstraction, always secondary to the concrete oppressed other? Could we not affirm that democracy, properly thought, is always in service to something greater, something positively undeconstructible, justice-itself–and the visible image of this invisible justice, the voice of the oppressed?
I recently tasked myself, in the context of a
n argument “discussion” with drawing up a notion of “dogmatism.” Like one of Socrates interlocutors, I feel that I see dogmatism everywhere, but possess no grasp on what it is that I am seeing.
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I knew, from the start, that a definition of dogmatism should side-step the traditional “faith/reason” dichotomy in which it is often couched. For many, dogmatism is simply any proposition which is taken on faith, often to the detriment of so-called reason. A thoroughly modernist (read: Kantian) conception of dogmatism, this perspective is hugely problematized by the abandonment of traditional notions of faith, or more precisely, the recognition that the relegation of faith to “belief in what cannot be seen” is essentially vacuous. Not only, from a Christian perspective, does such a definition fail to account for the complexity of the Greek πιστις, but it is also severely limited from a philosophical perspective.
In his 1802 Faith & Knowledge, Hegel challenged this notion of faith, which for him was epitomized in the philosophies of Kant, Jacobi, and Fichte. For them, Hegel writes, “knowledge knows nothing save that it knows nothing; it must take refuge in faith.” Against this subjugation of reason by faith, Hegel argued for a more dialectical approach which might avoid this fideist hierarchy. Simply, rather than a rejection of reason in the Absolute, and subsequent necessitation of faith, Hegel argued for the Absolute as that wherein faith and reason find themselves reconciled.
“Above this absolute finitude and absolute infinity there remains the Absolute as an emptiness of Reason, a fixed realm of the incomprehensible, of a faith which is in itself non-rational (vernunftlos), but which is called rational because the Reason that is restricted to its absolute opposite recognizes something higher above itself from which it is self-excluded” (emphasis original).
Here, the “but” is essential. For Hegel, the absolute is certainly incomprehensible, but it is nonetheless “called rational.” At the apex, the distinction between faith and reason breaks down, or rather, is dialectically synthesized.
A similar disruption of the clear demarcation between faith and reason can be found in hermeneutic philosophy. In Being and Time, Heidegger writes:
An interpretation is never a presuppositionless apprehending of something presented to us. If, when one is engaged in a particular concrete kind of interpretation, in the sense of exact textual Interpretation, one likes to appeal to what ‘stands there’, then one finds that what ‘stands there’ in the first instance is nothing other than the obvious undiscussed assumption of the person who does the interpreting (Being and Time, 191-192).
For hermeneutic thought, there is no purity of reason; knowledge is always contexualized by its recipient. Or, put more challengingly, every reason is grounded in a prior faith (assumption), though of course, conversely, every faith is also grounded in a prior reason (philosophical presuppositions). These two do not stand as far apart as some might hope, but rather, are uncomfortably interpenetrating. This interpenetration is clearly marked in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where it is shown that the emergence of scientific epochs is not simply (or principally) an outgrowth of reason-proper, but more clearly the reorientation of pre-rational worldviews, such that new evidence can be exposed and old evidence reinterpreted (and of course, some old evidence discarded).
Lastly, from a theological/phenomenological perspective, Jean-Luc Marion has taken this modernist reading to task in They recognized Him; and He Became Invisible to Them.
“This argument nevertheless results in a blasphemy: first of all because it makes me, and only me, a “knight of the faith”—the singular actor, within the supposed “night” of the intelligence, of a faith without reason, who decides, by himself, on the existence of God and the truth of Christ, like a god deciding on God. Secondly, it is blasphemous because God and Christ become in this context either impotent (incapable in fact of fulfilling the Revelation that they promise), or perverse judges (who, in masking themselves, expose me to unbelief by condemning me to a faith without reason). These consequences alone should suffice to convince us of the inanity of such a definition of faith.”
Instead of the traditional distinction between faith and knowledge, as a distinction between the blind (faith lacking intuition) and seeing (reason intuiting the Truth), Marion argues for a displacement of the “lack” in faith. Faith does not lack intuition, it is not blind, it lacks concepts. The intuition of faith is a saturated phenomenon, it overwhelms any possible conceptual schema in which one might seek to place it.
“It might be that faith does not consist in the compensation of a shortage—or, perhaps, that the shortage is an entirely different one from that of the intuition, one that would instead locate deficiency in the conceptual statements. It might be that we should believe not in order to recapture a lack in intuition, but rather to confront its excess in relation to a deficiency of statements and a dearth of concepts.”
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Having thrown out the clear faith/reason distinction, the very notion of “dogmatism” becomes considerably more difficult to navigate. If it cannot be understood as the blind reliance upon faith in the face of reason (as the relation between these two is significantly more complex), than how can dogmatism be understood. Particularly, what conception of dogmatism would be sufficient to recognize not only the dogmatism of faith, but equally, the dogmatisms of “reason.” Not only do we find dogmatism in religion—fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, for example—but also dogmatic liberals, dogmatic atheists, dogmatic capitalists, and dogmatic Marxists. The tendency toward dogmatism appears to surpass every possible socio-cultural-ethnic-economic divide; dogmatism is everywhere.
Perhaps, I would like to suggest here, dogmatism is not opposed primarily to a “knowledge” or to a “seeing,” but to a recognition of an ambiguity. Dogmatism is not an absolutism despite the nothingness or lack inherent to “faith,” but an absolutism despite the irreconcilablity of ambiguity, of the antimony. Dogmatism is the tendency, not only to “take sides” in an ambiguous debate, but to fail to recognize that one is taking sides, that the debate is itself ambiguous, that one simply does not know. Dogmatism is opposed, not to reason, but to epistemic humility.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that those who attempt to articulate this ambiguity, who attempt to hold up the antimony, are attacked from both sides. Jacques Derrida, for instance, whose very philosophy of Différance sought to maintain the ambiguity and tension at the core of every identity, was targeted with astounding vitriol. As John D. Caputo writes in Deconstruction in a Nutshell:
“It is not uncommon to portray Derrida as the Devil himself, a street-corner anarchist, a relativist, or subjectivist, or nihilist, out to destroy our traditions and institutions, our beliefs and values, to mock philosophy and truth itself, to undo everything the enlightenment has done—and to replace all this with wild nonsense and irresponsible play” (Caputo, 36).
What is astounding about these condemnations is not merely their bizarre strength, but their origin. From the most rigorous analytic philosophers, to the most fundamentalist Christians, to Richard Dawkins and his cohorts. Groups which, in general, share remarkably little in common, joined together in condemnation of this lone philosopher. Cambridge philosophers sought to block Derrida’s honorary degree, Sokal sought to reveal all postmoderm thinkers as charlatans in the infamous “Sokal affair,” and Dawkins wrote his scathing (and misguided) Postmodernism Disrobed.
The strength of this condemnation reveals not simply a scholarly disagreement, but more tellingly, a great fear. What binds Richard Dawkins and the most Fundamentalist Christian? An absolute self-assurance, a rejection of ambiguity. What makes Jacques Derrida and the like so frightening, is that they refuse to close the book on these ambiguous issues. While they certainly take a side, they refuse to deny that they have taken a side. Dogmatics must anchor their thought in a Archimedean point (The Bible, the Koran, “reason,” Marx, the Free-Market), for fear of drifting eternally. When one challenges this point, the entire system begins to shake, the entire edifice begins to crumble. This is the most frightening possibility for a dogmatist, the erosion of the unifying factor, the free-fall into an ambiguous abyss.
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One reads, in the context of the abortion debate, for instance, of the “baby-killing-liberals” or of the “women-hating-conservatives.” Yet, what the extremes of both sides fail to recognize is that they are merely mirroring each others dogmatism. At the core of the question of abortion is the notion of human life, simply, “when does a fetus become a person?”. For some, the answer is found at conception, for others the third trimester, perhaps earlier, perhaps later. What both sides fail to recognize is that they are taking a side in an issue that is, at its core, essentially ambiguous. What does it mean to be a person? to be alive? Just as in the euthanasia debate, what seems like a clear cut issue, is actually quite ambiguous. Is life/personhood defined by heartbeat, viability, brain activity? It is ambiguous, yet, the choice that one makes regarding this ambiguous question makes all the difference.
I am not here advocating a quietism, the decision must be made, because these decisions are fundamentally ethical, doing nothing is not an option. Yet, I am advocating a caution, a humility. The world, particularly the ethical world, is complex and ambiguous. If we are to avoid dogmatism, then we must recognize this point and we must live in it, not in denial of it. We must attempt to walk the middle ground between a refusal to answer and an absolutist dogmatism, but this ground is fundamentally ambiguous. But perhaps, that is the point.
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I recently posted elsewhere about my love of (read: obsession with) King of the Hill, and following some positive response, thought I would put together something slightly more substantial. So here we go:
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First Level: Unity
If we begin by looking at the presentation that King of the Hill offers forward as its basic appearance, we find a sort of “back to the basics,” traditionalist, family sitcom, differentiated from others only in being a cartoon. Even the basic human competency of the father figure, Hank, sets it apart from its contemporaries (Simpsons, Family Guy) who sought to overtly undermine the traditional family structure by decentering the patriarchal power center (though ironically, these incompetent patriarchs nevertheless retain a redoubled narrative centering, most clearly in Family Guy). Prima Facie, the construction of this narrative around an all-American traditional family, and its refusal to undermine the central patriarch should point to a reactionary, even “conservative” narrative. Yet, King of the Hill is significantly more complex.
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Second Level: Dichotomy
At a deeper level of analysis, though still relatively cursory, one seems to find a principal guiding dichotomy. On the one hand we find traditionalist conservativism, epitomized most strongly in the characters of Hank and his father, on the other liberal/feminism, epitomized in Peggy, Bobby, and (with less consistency) Luanne. Watched through the lens of these two paradigms, King of the Hill appears really rather shallow and uninteresting, perhaps a meta-critique of the political climate in America, but nothing substantially more. But, I would argue, there remains a key third level, below both the traditionalism and the traditionalism v. progressivism conflict, a deconstruction of the very dichotomy presented here, and perhaps then, a deconstruction of the liberal v. conservative lens of American politics and ethics.
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Third Level: Ambiguity
The show both overtly and subtly undermines/deconstructs this principal distinction at nearly every turn. But this deconstruction can be most clearly seen by a breakdown of the principal characters.
Hank functions, as we said, as the “traditionalist.” His language and actions often reflect this perspective; he refuses to show emotion, he discourages Bobby’s attempts at non-traditional (i.e. not football or baseball) extracurriculars, and he encourages (to Peggy’s chagrin) a clear division of labor between “men’s work” and “women’s work.” Nonetheless, and most clearly at key dramatic or narrative points in the the show, Hank makes decisions directly counter to this conservative ideology. Rather than allow his friends or family to suffer, Hank overturns his own notion of the “right” or “correct” way for the world to function; at Peggy’s boggle tournament, for example, he (eventually) abandons his own desire (to check out a new lawn mower with his friends) and instead functions as a cheerleader of sorts for Peggy. More dramatically, following his close friend Bill’s mental breakdown, and cognitive split into two personalities, himself and his ex-wife, Hank dons drag in order to protect his mentally ill friend from the ridicule of his neighbors. As a Time magazine article wrote:
Hank tries to avoid both his dad’s callousness and P.C. feel-goodism while sticking to his principles of hard work in a world that rewards shortcuts.
In a similar manner, Peggy functions as a strange mix of the traditional housewife and a second wave feminist. On the one hand, it is easy to pigeonhole her as a liberal, given her obsession with women’s empowerment and similar causes. Yet, once again (and notably again at key moments) Peggy turns to the traditional family/communal structure in order to maintain her friends’ and family’s well being. Her ideological commitments only run as deep as the personal suffering of her loved ones and no further. This complexity emerges most clearly in her attempts to mediate the relationship between Bobby and Hank. On the one hand, she “plays her role” as the liberal in her interactions with Hank, encouraging him to open up to Bobby, to participate in his non-traditional (and generally “effeminate”) hobbies. Yet, she also functions as a traditionalist in relation to Bobby, often encouraging him to try sports, to participate in “boys” activities.
Luanne is similarly “contradictory,” surpassing her role as the stereotype of the “dumb, PC, liberal, white girl.” This surpassing can be seen most clearly in a subplot of the early seasons in which it is repeatedly shown that, while she is viewed as “dumb blonde” and other stereotypes, she is also the most skilled mechanic on the show, a traditionally “male” job, as well as in later seasons where it is revealed that she is a fervent evangelical Christian (even going so far as to host a Christian children’s tv show), a traditionally “conservative” religious orientation. Even her political affiliations wax and wane, supporting communism one episode and George W. Bush’s reelection the next season.
The last member of the core family, Bobby, while less dialectical than the others, also presents a starker refusal to fall into ideological traps; perhaps a motif of childhood innocence, a time before ideology, is hinted at. In a certain sense Bobby functions as a microcosm of the show itself, a direct refusal to fall into any single ideological identification, a resistance and deconstruction of what it means to be an identity. His hobbies, as we already mentioned, are not those of a traditional small town Texan boy, but he is instead obsessed with prop comedy, works as a rodeo clown, and a number of other obscure activities and jobs. He models, wears non-traditional clothing, takes women’s defense courses; as an unashamed “chubby” kid, he refuses body norms; he fails at most tasks, lacking the traditional “hard work” spirit of his father, yet still idolizes his dad as a hero; he dates Connie, a “more attractive,” more intelligent/higher achieving, girl outside of his race. He simply breaks almost every social “rule” set before him.
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The result of this constant undermining/deconstruction is that the show ends up transcending both the old “reinforce the family” sitcom of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, and the more modern “liberal tv” stereotypes of the 90’s and the 00’s. It challenges the stifling traditionalism of old-school america, while simultaneously reinforcing the actual value of family and community. It openly mocks Liberal america, while reinforcing the unique non-traditional, feminist, and “liberal” values of its characters (Bobby, with his constant challenging of gender and societal norms, basically embodies this aspect of the show). Because of this constant give-and-take, its ideological dialectic, it is likely one of the least reductive shows of the last few decades. It uniquely finds a way of simultaneously challenging the restrictive and oppressive character of traditionalist value, while nonetheless drawing out the failures of liberalism which are tied to its loss of community, and perhaps even, family. Moreover, like Jacques Derrida, who argues in “The Force of Law” that every deconstruction must be in the name of an undeconstructible, every law deconstructed in the name of justice, the ethical core of King of the Hill, the placement of its greatest subversions at moments of suffering, its commitment to place real human suffering above any ideological commitment, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, marks it as one of the most ethical shows on television, and the truest enactment of deconstruction: King of the Hill offers a radically unique and powerfully ethical Texan Ideological Deconstruction.
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Note: I am not alone in my assertion of King of the Hill‘s greatness, in 2007, Time Magazine ranked King of the Hill as one of the 100 Best Shows of all Time.