Notes & Comments November 2004
On the unsurprisingly pious eulogizing of Jacques Derrida who died last month at 74.
When the French philosopher Jacques Derrida died last month at seventy-four, the response was loud, passionate, and predictably divided according to demographic origin. If the response came from outside the academy, it tended to be bemused or critical. If a response came from the purlieus of the professoriate, however, it was likely to be sorrowful, eulogistic, even starry-eyed.
There was nothing surprising about this. Deconstructionthe movement that Derrida created in the mid-1960s and over which he presided with tireless attention until his demisewas always a hothouse phenomenon, ill-equipped to thrive in the rough-and-tumble of what Derrida would have scorned to call the real world. Again, this was hardly surprising. It was a central tenet of deconstructioninsofar, we hasten to add, as deconstruction can be said to have entertained anything so vulgarly pedestrian as a tenetthat there is nothing outside the text: en français, il ny a pas de hors-texte. Think about that. You can see why we have always thought that Gertrude Stein admirably summarized the essential tendency of Derridas philosophy when she observed about the city of Oakland that there is no there there. Unfair to Oakland, possibly, but not, we think, to deconstruction.
The palm for the funniest eulogy of Derrida must go to the London Times, which weighed in with a leader on the question Is Derrida dead? A conceptual foundation for the deconstruction of mortality. The Times was brief, but poignant. It began thus:
Can there be any certainty in the death of Jacques Derrida? The obituarists objective attempts to place his life in a finite context are, necessarily, subject to epistemic relativism, the idea that all such scientific theories are mere narrations or social constructions. Surely, a postmodernist deconstruction of their import would inevitably question the foundational conceptual categories of prior scienceamong them, Derridas own existencewhich become problematised and relativised. This conceptual revolution has profound implications for the content of future postmodern and liberatory science of mortality.
What makes this funny instead of fatuous is the fact that the writer is engaged in parody. Can the same be said for Derridas encomium for his friend Paul de Man? Born in Belgium, de Man wound up at Yale where he emerged as the most celebrated and cerebral of literary deconstructionists. Alas, in 1987, four years after de Mans death, it transpired that the great man had written scores of articles for Nazi-controlled papers during the war. Sample from March, 1941: one thus sees that a solution to the Jewish question that envisions the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not involve deplorable consequences for the literary life of the West. Embarrassing to the deconstructionist brotherhood, that. Or so one might have thought. Although Derrida was himself of Jewish origin, he seems to have been more troubled by criticism of de Man than de Mans anti-Semitic effusions:
Unable to respond to the questions, to all the questions, I will ask myself instead whether responding is possible and what that would mean in such a situation. And I will risk in turn several questions prior to the definition of a responsibility. But is it not an act to assume in theory the concept of responsibility? Ones own as well as the responsibility to which one believes one ought to summon others?Derrida concludes his sixty-page exercise in exculpation by comparing critics of de Man to Nazi thugs:
To judge, to condemn the work or the man on the basis of what was a brief episode [in fact, it lasted from 19391943], to call for closing, that is to say, at least figuratively, for censuring or burning his books is to reproduce the exterminating gesture against which one accuses de Man of not having armed himself sooner with the necessary vigilance.OK, no one actually called for censuring or burning de Mans books. But Derrida knew that you can get a lot of rhetorical mileage out of suggesting that criticism of de Mans behavior during the war was tantamount, at least figuratively, to censuring or burning his bookswere all against that, right? And he upped the rhetorical ante even higher by using the word exterminating in the next phrase. The Nazis burned books and exterminated lots of people; the callous critics of Paul de Man somehow did the same thing at least figuratively by exposing Paul de Man.
Derridas was only one of many anguished, exculpatory responses by deconstructionists to the revelations about de Mans flirtations with Nazism. For many of us, that episode offered a graphic illustration of something that had been obvious about deconstruction all along: that it was a mendacious intellectual parlor game, completely divorced from, indeed impervious to, reality. This is something that has been pointed out early and often by critics inside and outside the academy. In 1977, for example, the philosopher John Searle wrote Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida, an attack on deconstruction that was devastatingwe would have said unanswerable, except that Derrida instantly swung into print with a tenebrous piece of sophistry that would have been funny if it had not been in earnest. (When I say that I do not know John R. Searle, that is not literally true. For that would seem to mean that I have never met him in person, physically, and yet I am not sure of that, etc., etc.)
Among other things, Derridas response to Searle illustrated the Janus-faced character of deconstruction. For Derridas followers, deconstruction was a weapon, an instrument of subversion. The statement that there is nothing outside the text was intended to throw a monkey wrench into any traditional account of truth or value. Derrida spoke in this context of the destruction, the de-construction, of traditional accounts of rationality particularly the signification of truth. But try pointing that out and you get the beneficent face of deconstruction: all he meant by il ny a pas de hors-texte, Derrida says in responding to Searle, is that there is nothing outside context. Oh. Deconstruction: bombshell or banalitydepending on whos asking.
Yet criticism, however devastating, however unanswerable intellectually, has never mattered to deconstructionists. And that is because their commitment to deconstruction is primarily one of faith, not reason. No argument can shake their embrace of the dogma because it was never argument that mattered to them. Indeed, to argue against deconstruction shows that you dont really understand iteven to ask what it might mean to understand deconstruction betrays a frame of mind unattuned to its governing protocols. Deconstruction exerted the seductive call ofno, not a religion exactly, but an ideology, a system of ideas that seemed, if only you closed your eyes and granted its premises, to explain everything and yet be beholden to nothing. In this, deconstruction resembles Hegelianism, Marxism, and Freudianism, other ideologies renowned for their imperviousness to mere facts.
This aspect of the deconstructionist creed helps explain a curious disparity. As its name impliesand as the writings of Derrida and his followers amply demonstratedeconstruction is primarily a negative enterprise. It is about subverting established meanings, exposing unacknowledged interests and intentions. Like Marxism, like Freudianism, deconstruction sets itself against inherited values. Derrida writes about Rousseau and finds himself dilating on masturbation. He writes about philosophers and their ideas but concludes that the names of author or of doctrines have no substantial value. And so on. Deconstruction is above all a disillusioning philosophy.
How curious, then, that the partisans of deconstruction were so ostentatiously pious in their responses to criticism of The Master. The New York Times runs an obituary which notes that Many readers found his prose turgid and baffling. In response, two Derrida epigoni (joined by more than 300 academics, architects, artists, musicians and writers) write a hand-wringing letter to the Times that associates Derrida with Einstein, Wittgenstein, and Heisenberg, and protests that he wrestled with central works of the Western tradition, including Plato, Shakespeare and the Declaration of Independence, none of which he slighted. (Well, a child tearing up a book hasnt exactly slighted it, either.)
For pure unctuousness, however, no one has yet topped Professor Mark C. Taylor, a well-known Derrida groupie who teaches at Williams College. Writing on the OpEd page of The New York Times, Professor Taylor also begins by invoking Wittgenstein. (How sweet it is to imagine what the man who castigated most philosophy as an idling of language would have to say about the work of Derrida!) Professor Taylor then proceeds to give us a kinder, gentler Derrida. To uncouth ignoramusespeople addicted to sound bites and overnight pollsDerridas works might seem hopelessly obscure. But we sophisticated chaps know that his famously convoluted prose reflects the density and complexity characteristic of all great works of philosophy, literature and art.
Leave aside the question of whether all great works of intellect and art really do exhibit density and complexity. (Thats the cliché, but is it true? Surely some, perhaps many, great works are great on account of their clarity and simplicity.) Professor Taylors main goal is to present Derrida as a sort of theologian manqué, preoccupied with religion, human fallibility and imperfection in all its forms, cognitive, moral, and political. Professor Taylor coyly emphasizes the political. In this uncertain, strife-torn world, he says, there is an understandable but dangerous desire for simplicity, clarity, and certainty. And this desire, Professor Taylor tells us, is responsible, in large measure, for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism. Get it? George W. Bush blurs into Osama bin Laden. Thank Godor, rather, thank Derrida, who has come to teach us about a form of belief that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In Professor Taylors hands, Derrida emerges as a messianic figure, a hybrid of Martin Heidegger, St. Francis, and Kahlil Gibran.
It is a nauseating performance, as unfair to Jacques Derrida as it is to the readers of The New York Times. Professor Taylor even supplies a homely anecdote to conclude his billet-doux, fondly recalling one time (one of many, please note!) he visited Derrida outside Paris. The Great Sage graciously insisted on picking up the Taylor family at their hotel and had toys waiting for the children when they arrived at the Derrida homestead for dinner. All true, no doubtand completely beside the point. Professor Taylor has given us a Derrida with a muzzle and with the claws removed. It makes for a more respectable figure. But it leaves entirely mysterious how such an emasculated creature could ever have seduced hundreds of politically and intellectually antinomian academics like Professor Taylor. No, it is much better to do Derrida the courtesy of taking him at his word. And then what? For our part, we think that the English philosopher Roger Scruton had it right when he observed that A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is merely relative, is asking you not to believe him. So dont.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 3, on page 1
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