Before French Philosophy Launched Postmodernism, There Was ‘Green Acres’

French philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that all language is a game, but American TV was years ahead of him

Before French Philosophy Launched Postmodernism, There Was ‘Green Acres’
Cast of Green Acres Looking at Washing Machine / Publicity handout, circa 1965-1969

In our hyper-pop, postmodern reality, we can forget that Stan Lee wasn’t always iconic or that the Beatles were once dismissed by the Boston Globe as “unmusical.” It was deconstruction, a philosophy of “all meaning is relative,” that helped erase the dividing line between high and low culture. Undoing binaries like “absence” and “presence,” “male” and “female,” “high” and “low,” deconstruction leveled the cultural playing field enough that intellectuals could enjoy “Game of Thrones.”

Yet Jacques Derrida — the man who gave us deconstruction, the man who inaugurated postmodern theory and the nonstop celebration of all things popular — could be surprisingly dismissive of popular culture. Asked once to comment on “Seinfeld” as an example of deconstruction, Derrida’s response seems less like that of a cultural revolutionary and more like that of a cranky old man: “Deconstruction, as I understand it, doesn’t produce any sitcom. If sitcom is this, the only advice I have to give them is just stop watching sitcom, do your homework, and read.”

Imagine what Derrida might say, then, to the suggestion that “Green Acres” — a sitcom perhaps most famous for its television-watching pig, Arnold Ziffel — was not only practicing deconstructionism but doing it in 1965, a full two years before the publication of Derrida’s own groundbreaking trio of books, “Speech and Phenomena,” “Of Grammatology” and “Writing and Difference.”

Digesting Derrida is no easy task. Deconstruction has been the ruin of many a Ph.D. candidate. In part, that’s because Derrida’s theories disrupt the paradigms of Western thought, language and art. That can make it difficult to wrap your head around them. Derrida himself doesn’t help matters. He never defines the term or offers any instructions about how the process of deconstruction should work. He performs deconstruction, taking apart the work of others. But illustration is not the same as explanation. In fact, Derrida’s own texts also seem to come apart as we read them, unraveling at the very moments when we feel as though we were just about to make sense of them.

That’s not to say deconstruction hasn’t been defined. The grand historian of literary theory, Terry Eagleton, defines it this way: “The critical operation by which oppositions can be partly undermined, or by which they can be shown to undermine each other in the process of textual meaning.”

Still confused? Deconstruction looks for places within a text that undo that text, words and phrases that turn a writer’s meaning into the opposite of what they intend. In short, it turns out “ceiling fan” may not mean ceiling fan at all. It might just as easily mean “rare steak.”

You can see why deconstruction, like a rare steak, can be difficult to digest.

To understand Derrida’s work, we have to go back some 50 years to the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure was among the first to observe that the relationship between words (signs) and their referents (meanings) is purely arbitrary. There is no particular reason why the letters d-o-g should refer to the furry four-legged creature we like to call “man’s best friend.” We understand the word “dog” only because of its “difference” from other, similar words — “fog,” for instance, or “log” or “frog.”

Derrida pushes this idea even further, arguing that words — linguistic “signs” — can never mean anything in and of themselves. Meaning has to do with how words interact with one another, so that meaning is never absolute but always just out of our reach. One word connects us to another, which connects us to another, and another, in an endless chain. Deconstruction draws attention to that chain, and in doing so tries to dislodge meaning. Not just some meaning — all meaning.

In an essay on Michel Foucault’s “Madness and Civilization,” for example, Derrida picks on a single phrase, “the archaeology of silence,” then teases out the underlying associations we have with the word “archaeology”: “Is not archaeology, even of silence, a logic, that is, an organized language, a project, an order, a sentence, a syntax, a work?”

“Archaeology” connects us to “logic.” “Logic” leads us to additional synonyms — “language,” “project,” “order,” “sentence,” “syntax” — until at the end Derrida has managed to show us a fundamental problem in applying the word “archaeology” to “silence.” Once we follow the chain, we realize “archaeology” is the exact opposite of “silence.” The phrase, and indeed Foucault’s entire work, falls apart.

Of course, philosophy has the impossible task of explaining reality. Art merely reflects reality, which is why it is so much easier to digest. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that “Green Acres” offers up deconstruction in a form so simple, even a child could grasp it.

In one sense, “Green Acres” isn’t doing much that comedy hasn’t always done: explore life’s — and especially language’s — absurdity. Lisa Douglas’ problems with the English language made for an easy comedy target: “Hot cakes: They are little cakes. You put them on the girdle, and it makes them hot.”

Wordplay is one thing, though. It’s Shakespeare’s stock and trade: “Lady: May I lie in your lap?” Hamlet asks Ophelia, before adding, hastily, “Do you think I meant country matters?” Indeed, this kind of humor probably goes back to the origins of literature.

In “Green Acres,” what the character Hank Kimball does with language is something else entirely. In the context of the show, Kimball is the county agricultural agent who shows up occasionally to offer Oliver Douglas advice on farming. His central character trait is that every word that comes out of his mouth is undone before he reaches the end of a sentence. In Derridean terms, he “deconstructs” himself as he goes along. It’s a conceit, a humorous bit the show’s writers dreamed up to help flesh out the character. Yet it sometimes yields surprisingly sophisticated results.

When Oliver asks Kimball one morning how he’s doing, Kimball’s response is funny because it reveals the character’s dithering nature: “Fine. Well, not fine. I didn’t get any sleep last night. No, I was worried about … . What was I worried about? Well, now I won’t get any sleep tonight worrying what it was that I was worried about. But that’s no worry of yours, is it?”

The lines do more than add humor to a character, though. They interrogate the various meanings of the words “fine” and “worried.” “Fine” is a word we use in polite conversation, an empty placeholder. We say it whether or not we are actually “fine.” In questioning his own use of that word, Kimball winds up going to a much darker place. We learn that he is awake at night, worrying. The word “worry,” however, is equally slippery, and winds up taking us back to the polite conversation we began with. The meaning of “worry” shifts, from revealing this character’s psychological state to serving as another empty placeholder no different from “fine”: “That’s no worry of yours, is it?”

We see, in moments like this, just how slippery language can be. The meaning of “fine” isn’t fixed. It’s dependent on the play of other words, to the point where it can actually be twisted to mean the very opposite of what we, the character, even the writer, think it means.

In another early episode, Oliver consults Kimball about one of his cows, who has developed a taste for hot cakes. Kimball’s response works on several linguistic levels at once: “Mr. Douglas, animals do a lot of things that we in the department just don’t understand. I remember once the chief had a prize hen. … Well, not a prize hen. It just liked to lay eggs in a loving cup.”

Through a process we could call “deconstruction,” language here takes on a life of its own. As soon as he says “prize hen,” Kimball realizes the phrase is both accurate and inaccurate. He immediately begins to undo it. It wasn’t a prize hen. The truth behind the expression is that it liked to lay eggs in something given as a “prize” — a “loving cup.” Yet, the hen is special after all: What hen lays eggs in a loving cup? In this sense, Kimball winds back to his original premise — that this hen is, in fact, a “prize” hen.

The ultimate point is the very same one Derrida will make two years later using the word “archaeology”: Language is nothing more than a game, an endless play of signs. We try to use language to construct reality, often to create hierarchies among ourselves: old and young, educated and ignorant, male and female. Only when we deconstruct language do we learn the truth.

It’s great fun to imagine Derrida fuming at the suggestion that something as banal as “Green Acres” might bear a relationship to his sophisticated thought. Admittedly, though, it is more than a little unfair to confront a man who has been dead almost 20 years and who therefore has no proper means with which to respond.

Still, there are some lessons to be had in putting these two very different cultural voices into conversation.

Perhaps the most important is the one that Derrida himself made plain, even if he sometimes chose to ignore it: The distinction between “high” and “low” is entirely artificial. In fact, the real triumph of postmodernism has been to teach us how to blend the two, from Robert Venturi’s architectural exploration, “Learning from Las Vegas,” to TV fare like “Family Guy,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Community” and — with apologies to Jacques Derrida — “Seinfeld.”

So, too, the conversation reveals something about the 1960s as a particular moment in Western culture. “Green Acres” wasn’t the only cultural artifact from the ’60s exploring something like deconstruction. Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy,” written in 1962, employs deconstruction in a psychological sense. Alan Watts, the spiritual beat philosopher, made many of the same points Derrida did, though in plainer language. In his later years, Lenny Bruce looked into the meaning of comedy, reading court transcripts from his obscenity trials as part of his stand-up routines.

Around this time another important theorist, Roland Barthes, was publishing his influential “The Death of the Author.” In it, he argued that a text is “a tissue [or fabric] of quotations,” the result of “innumerable centers of culture.” Writers don’t produce novels; they record what’s happening in the culture. “War and Peace” is less the product of Leo Tolstoy’s genius than of Russian culture in the 1860s. That would mean “Seinfeld” could indeed be traced to Derrida. So, too, Derrida might be traced to “Green Acres.” One sign points us to another, and another, and another.

Derrida might not have liked where this chain of signifiers winds up, but maybe sometimes even the father of deconstruction needs to be deconstructed.

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