Smart and Not Smart: Raylan Givens as Derrida in a Cowboy Hat

Jacques Derrida has long been something of a gunslinger in the ivory tower. Recently, however, I have been made to consider what would happen if this gunslinger were to don a cowboy hat and go in, guns a-blazin’, to the poor, not-so-ivory, coal-mining towns of rural Kentucky a la Graham Yost’s Justified (2010-present).

JustifiedDerrida is, in many ways, the consummate postmodern thinker. His academic career spanned fifty years (1954-2004), and during this period he self-consciously challenged (“deconstructed”) systems of authority and power, providing willing thinkers with the theoretical tools to tear down traditional hierarchies. If postmodernism had a canonization process, Derrida might well be the patron saint of antiestablishmentarianism (though his undead soul will likely line up behind Roland Barthes in the list of dead thinkers who hate me for bastardizing their thought).

Side note: If you are thinking of reading Derrida for the first time, be warned that I he is also in line for canonization as the patron saint of annoyingly obtuse theoretical writing.

Justified: Derrida with a Cowboy Hat?

Justified tracks the story of Raylan Givens, a deputy US Marshal reassigned to his home state of Kentucky after his “old-school” methods lead to the controversial shooting of a criminal in debatably-cold blood. What I find most refreshing about Justified is the way it breaks down traditional binary oppositions. Yost’s vision of Kentucky is a world without Modernist categories and hierarchies. Here, characters are not simply good or bad; actions are not clearly right or wrong; and good guys are not annoyingly stupid just so the plot can be advanced—okay, that last one has nothing to do with Modernist categories, but it is important to my discussion.

Stupid/Smart. It is this binary opposition that first got me thinking of Raylan Givens as Derrida with a cowboy hat. Givens is refreshingly smart—if a bad guy is tailing him, Givens knows; if there is a plot against him, Givens figures it out; if there is trap in wait, Givens foresees it. Givens is one of the smartest protagonists I have ever enjoyed watching—and yet, he does some stupid things (like sleeping with the only material witness against a man that Givens put in jail—an act that leads to the murderer’s release).

Early on in the series, it is tempting to see the traditional Good/Bad dichotomy (in which good is privileged as authoritative over Bad) as being displaced by a Smart/Stupid one. In “The Collection” this opposition between smart and stupid comes to the forefront:

Art Mullen: Well, be smart, then.
Raylan Givens: Let me tell you something, there are other things than smart.
Art Mullen: Yeah, those are not smart.

Here, Raylan’s boss is, in typically Modern fashion, trying to erect a binary opposition: smart vs. stupid (with smart being the privileged option in this hierarchy). But Raylan defies such simple characterizations—he is one of the “smartest” heroes on TV, yet he clearly makes choices that correspond with Mullen’s “not smart” category. Is Raylan smart then? Is he “not smart”? Or is he one of the “other things than smart” (Justified 1.6)?

Raylan’s refusal to submit to typical binary oppositions also surfaces in the pilot episode. Twice in this episode, when questioned about the nature of his Miami shooting, Raylan resists the right/wrong categories that others try to squeeze him into; instead, when questioned he replies simply “it was justified.”

Deconstruction among Supremacists

One of Derrida’s most famous contributions to postmodern thought is deconstruction—to grossly simplify, this is a process of breaking down hierarchical binary oppositions by showing that these categories do not have inherent value in themselves, but actually only have meaning in relation to one another. For example, we can only know light because we know darkness. While we tend to privilege light over darkness, it is, in fact, true that light has no value apart from how it differs from darkness. (Derrida’s primary tool for deconstructing hierarchies is what he calls differance—in French you cannot hear the difference between difference with an a and with an e; therefore, the word itself breaks down a traditional hierarchy that privileges speech over the written word). Mullen actually highlights this fact when he refers to the “stupid” category as “not smart”–apparently, smart only exists as it is different from not smart.

Aside from Givens, Boyd Crowder may be the most intelligent character in season one. And, like Givens, he defies easy characterization in the good/bad dichotomy.

Aside from Givens, Boyd Crowder may be the most intelligent character in season one. And, like Givens, he defies easy characterization in the good/bad dichotomy.

Raylan is a character who seems to understand difference. At the least, he refuses to submit to accepted hierarchical oppositions—e.g., boss/employee, right/wrong, smart/stupid, etc. This quality is one of the reasons Justified is so fun to watch—you simply don’t know what Raylan is going to do next. At the same time, I am interested to see where the series will go—Raylan is fascinating to watch, but is a character who refuses to submit to all power-oriented binaries a recipe for disaster? Already, his refusal to submit to the bachelor/married dichotomy has cost him this marriage to a woman he truly seems to love.

The Kingdom of Differance?

For Derrida, differance is that which makes all things possible, yet he insists that it is not a thing in itself. He elevates it a god-like status—a sort of Prime-mover (127)—yet insists that he is not theologizing, for since differance is not actually a thing—i.e., it has no existence or essence (123)—it is not a god.

This leaves us with a god-like non-thing that seems to have the power to honour individuality while at the same time demolishing power structures that would use individuality as a means for subjugation. This sounds almost like the Kingdom of God from Christ’s famous “Sermon on the Mount.”  

But it is not.

Derrida wrote, “Not only is there no kingdom of différance, but différance instigates the subversion of every kingdom. Which makes it obviously threatening and infallibly dreaded by everything within us that desires a kingdom, the past or future presence of a kingdom” (135). Derrida seems intent on leaving no room for a theological borrowing of differance. For him, differance must supplant god, even though he stresses that it is not, itself, God.

Raylan’s Future

Derrida. I wonder if a pipe and white hair would make my profile look so broodingly sophisticated.

Derrida. I wonder if a pipe and white hair would make my profile look so broodingly sophisticated.

I see differance as a valuable tool for recognizing individuality, celebrating differences, and avoiding oppression and subjugation. Just this morning, my wife and I had an interesting discussion about the implications of this sort of thinking for Christian notions like “saved” and “unsaved”–I can’t help but feel that there is some room within orthodoxy for fruitful discussion on this topic. Despite the value of differance, however, I am as uncomfortable with Derrida’s god-like elevation of this term as I am with his stubborn refusal to give it deified status.

I look forward to seeing where Raylan Givens’ espousal of differance will put him. Will he continue as a devotee to the patron saint of deconstruction (and will such devotion destroy all chance of his finding happiness?), or will he have to grow in such a way that he accepts some hierarchical oppositions? Can those decisions of his that lead him into unhappiness even be chalked up to deconstruction in the first place? Only time will tell.

4 responses to “Smart and Not Smart: Raylan Givens as Derrida in a Cowboy Hat

  1. The good news is that season 2 is amazing. If you are only halfway through season 1 it just gets better

  2. Justified is definitely a really good TV series. Season 2 is as good or better than season 1, however season 3 is a bit if a misstep. Like you I like the fact that I sometimes like the bad guys (even the stupid ones) and sometime dislike the good guys (even the smart ones).

    • That’s sad to hear about season 3. I am just past the halfway mark in season 1 and I am loving the series–though it is almost inevitable in television that shows get played long past when they should end… I hope Justified isn’t one that goes that way.

      • Season 3 isn’t really a misstep. It’s more ambitious than Season 1 and 2, therefore, people like to think it crammed too many things together. But nevertheless, Season 3 is just as fascinating as the previous two seasons, if not more. And personally, I think it’s a lot more consistent in terms of quality. Both Season 1 and 2 had second halves that were fantastic(season 2’s second half is what I like to call “legendary”) but their first halves, while good, isn’t the incredible show that the second halves suggest. Season 3 on the other hand is consistently fantastic all around. All comes down to personal preference of course, but I absolutely disagree with GerryNorth.

        Season 4 though is the best season of the bunch. It’s more thematically rich and delves deeper into the connections between the people of Harlan.

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