It’s funny how things come back to you. The last of my graduate English seminars was one called American Studies Colloquium; it featured guest lecturers from UB’s English, History, Modern Languages, and Comparative Literature departments. In theory this course might have been a good place to begin one’s graduate study, but learning to navigate one’s own chosen course of study is difficult enough, and intelligent participation in discussions outside one’s own area of expertise is only more so. It was, therefore, a nice note to end on.

One of those guest speakers was Professor David Johnson from UB’s Comp Lit department. He was not our most popular speaker no doubt in part because he openly critiqued our collective dearth of knowledge about Derrida’s philosophies. Ah, the Lilliputian world of the ivory tower, how funny in retrospect. But, I digress. This particular lecture was brought to the forefront of my memory while reading about how government subsidies brought an end to the famine in the tiny African nation of Malawi. The perversity of this situation is that in order to successfully combat the massive food shortages that lead to widespread starvation, the Malawi’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, had to ignore the advice (and therefore aid) from the United States and the World Bank. In an article published in The New York Times, reporter Celia Dugger explains,

Malawi’s leaders have long favored fertilizer subsidies, but they reluctantly acceded to donor prescriptions, often shaped by foreign-aid fashions in Washington, that featured a faith in private markets and an antipathy to government intervention.

In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the World Bank pushed Malawi to eliminate fertilizer subsidies entirely. Its theory both times was that Malawi’s farmers should shift to growing cash crops for export and use the foreign exchange earnings to import food, according to Jane Harrigan, an economist at the University of London.

As Dugger explains, by making this recommendation, the U.S. was preaching a do as I say, not as I do policy. This was ironic because much of our own agriculture is heavily subsidized by our own federal government. This brings me to Derrida.

Derrida is often referred to as the father of deconstruction, but as my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism informs me, he revived, but did not invent the term. For Derrida, deconstruction is a method of analysis that calls into question the structures that are used to explain what something is. Derrida’s analyses do not attempt to choose between two incompatible readings, but rather explore what the Norton editors call the “double blinds and tensions” present within the contradictory text. In other words, Derrida looks specifically for those linguistic markers that indicate a text has contradicted itself (1815-19).

The situation in Malawi brought Derrida to mind because deconstructive thought argues that it is impossible to ever escape the opposite of what one says. Ironically, this worked to Malawi’s benefit, though the United States surely did not have this (the opposite) outcome in mind. I’ll try to explain. Doris Sommer’s Bilingual Aesthetics* provided the background for our seminar discussion led by David Johnson. According to Sommer or Johnson, my notes fail to denote which, the best democracy is always the worst democracy because the factions that the best democratic society permits to exist will ultimately destroy the society that created them. If our society were perfect, it would be a dead society; the best democracy is one that limits freedom. This manner of thinking lends itself to Malawi’s current fiscal situation.

The United States and other donors recommended to Malawi a solution that relied heavily on free market economics. As Dugger explains, rather than support the seed and fertilizer subsidies that would permit the Malawi farmers to grow their own food, they recommended that Malawi shift its focus to growing cash crops in exchange for food to eat. Such a free-market system would permit the farmers the greatest autonomy, but the failure of this system meant they had nothing to sell or trade and no food to eat. A less pure market strategy, such as the one put into place by Malawi’s current president meant that farmers have less control over their own crops (only certain crops are subsidized), but these restrictions brought an end to starvation and even resulted in a surplus in food grown,

So, the course of action recommended by the United States inadvertently resulted in worsening the crisis in Malawi. Maybe down the road, Malawi’s farmers will be less well off because they must rely on governmental subsidies to survive, but then again, they will be alive. Derrida’s line of thinking can be absolutely maddening to one who wishes to take the right course of action. One assumes that the United States meant no harm when they recommended Malawi follow a free market strategy, but in doing so the U.S. and the World Bank failed to acknowledge the failure of such a pure system in many successful nations, including the United States. On the other hand, Malawi’s president correctly identified the contradiction inherent in such a strategy and took a risk in foregoing the aid offered by the U.S. and the World Bank to implement such a system in his own country. One assumes President Mutharika was not thinking of Derrida when he chose the course of action that lifted his country out of starvation, but neither was the United States when we chose to align ourselves with the financially motivated recommendations of the world’s largest lender. However, as our own crop surpluses demonstrate, doing the least harm may mean thinking of Derrida and taking a somewhat less idealistic course of action in such instances.

*Ironically, Johnson dismissed Sommer’s book as an inaccurate application of Derrida’s theory. Heaven only knows what he would think of my musings.


Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.