Troppo has been filled with sometimes fairly arcane discussion about the merits or otherwise of postmodernism in recent days, sparked off by the Sawyer Affair (there are multiple posts but follow the links from the most recent one). I don’t want to revisit the questions of English in schools, culture wars, and the politics of education, important as they are, as they’re still being discussed but I do want to underline the fact that “deconstruction” (if there is such a thing) is copping criticism which is more a product of the mythology and the (initially) academic politics surrounding the reception of Jacques Derrida’s work than any of the evils of which it’s accused (and it’s amazing the language and the rhetoric the mention of deconstruction conjures up). Rafe Champion urged me to summarise Derrida’s work and his contribution to philosophy, a task which is probably in principle endless, particularly since it was Derrida himself who put in question the unity of the oeuvre of an author. Derrida’s work on the signature underlined the fact that every text has a context, an implied readership, and a time and a place of enunciation. Nevertheless, informed writers have often commented on the amazing consistency in Derrida’s work as it tracked a multitude of paths from phenomenology at the outset to ethics and politics at the end.
But why all the controversy?
NOTE: Picture sourced from the Rene Wellek library at UC Irvine.
What I would like to do, in a necessarily schematic way, is highlight some of the reasons why Derrida’s philosophy attracts so much controversy, and also briefly reiterate my discussion of the appropriation of his work in North American literary theory. The latter can be treated first. Derrida worked in a philosophical context denoted both by extreme rigour in the study of previous philosophers (through the method of explication du texte) and in conscious relation not just to the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl – the subject of his dissertation – but also in relation to the whole corpus of the philosophical canon. His appropriation in Departments of Literature, after the 1966 colloquium at Johns Hopkins University, was very much influenced both by the vogue for “theory” in literary studies in the 1970s and by factors such as the order in which his books were translated, and the first prominent interpretations by scholars such as Paul de Man, Fredric Jameson, and Gayatri Spivak. Rudolphe Gasche is only one writer who argued for Derrida to be understood primarily as a philosopher. As Geoff Bennington points out, this in itself is to reinscribe a division which Derrida himself questioned, but it remains true that it is unfair to judge Derrida’s work on the basis of Yale deconstructionism in literary studies. Derrida also disclaimed any intention of founding a school, and claimed repeatedly that deconstruction is neither a method nor a theory but rather a process which takes place within texts. The best source for an understanding of the appropriation and reception of his work (and its polemical critics) is Herman Rapaport’s accessible and lively The Theory Mess.
Derrida became a flashpoint for controversies over the allegedly baleful influence of postmodernism and post-structuralism on the Humanities. This is an immensely complex sociological story, which remains to be written in its entirety, but a number of factors can be isolated. First, the politicisation of the student bodies and Faculties of Western universities in the wake of the 68 events. Secondly, the linguistic turn in philosophy generally which undermined certainties and placed accepted concepts of rationality and truth under question. Thirdly, the culture wars in the United States (and now Australia) which attempted (among other goals) to shore up a sort of traditionalist and nationalist politics on campus in the wake of the challenges of identity politics and the perceived fragmentation of a common culture.
It’s also necessary to observe that Derrida did not understand himself as a postmodernist. As I argued on the previous thread, a great source of frustration to those who’ve read and applied his work is the conflations and elisions to which it is subjected, as well as a trend nicely put in The Times‘ obituary of Derrida:
The initial reception in both the UK and the US was marked either by outright hostility ¢â¬â Derrida was characterised as an obscurantist charlatan ¢â¬â or by an attempt to extract from his writings certain repeatable practices, thereby producing a theory of analysis from his work, and it is this process that has come to be termed “deconstruction”.
It’s the latter process – basically a search for a method in a field (literary studies) driven by the theory vogue but also by a search for philosophical and methodological validity which is in itself a function both of disputes over literary value internal to literary studies but also to its eclipse in prestige within the University by more rigorous social sciences – which is usually termed “deconstruction”. In fact, Derrida’s texts, though he has a common way of proceeding, do not isolate particular theses or figures within an author but rather contextualise an author and read the text as a whole paying minute attention to its own inner workings and particular the contradictions and aporias hidden and only exposed at its margins. Derrida often wrote in such away almost to insert himself into the text he was discussing as a ghost in the machine, which is also a source of confusion to interpreters, but which had a point – Derrida’s style of writing (often described as difficult) is in itself performative – that is to say the point is made by the manner of exposition as well as the argument. Derrida argues this is the case in all philosophical texts, but that he’s being upfront and self-reflexive about it. There is a growing dialogue between Derrida and analytical philosophy, exemplified in Wheeler’s book Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy, and philosophers like Wheeler have reinscribed Derrida’s arguments as syllogisms, and noted his closeness to philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Quine and Davidson.
Derrida’s work on the privileging of the voice (initially through an analysis of Husserlian phenomenology) and later – in Writing and Difference – in relation to the Western philosophical canon as a whole can be understood as a hermeneutic which seeks to unveil the conceptual and metaphysical foundations of philosophy. In particular, Derrida is sceptical of the notion of presence to oneself, which has implications for the philosophy of communication. In an analysis of the English analytical philosopher J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, Derrida criticised the notion that language could easily be circumscribed to a self-evident meaning by troubling the distinction between performative and constative statements. Later, vigorously attacked by John Searle, who saw himself as Austin’s heir in the development of Speech Act Theory, Derrida further developed his understanding of language as marked by iterability. That is to say, statements are not separable from their contexts, and are not just cited but rather iterated – that is to say, any sentence or concept inscribes itself differently with each utterance or inscription. All this is taken by Derrida’s critics for an attack on truth itself, referentiality and the stability of interpretative contexts.
Derrida himself wrote, in Limited Inc., his reply to Searle:
I have never ‘put such concepts as truth, reference and the stability of interpretive contexts radically into question’ if ‘putting radically into question’ means contesting that there are and that there should be truth, reference and stable contexts of interpretation.
So much of the angst surrounding Derrida’s work comes from a fear that he destabilises and unfixes truth and meaning. Much of this is also associated with a notion that he promotes indeterminacy in textual meaning. Derrida in fact does not so much dismiss the philosophical notion of intention (a slightly different thing from the literary notion of the intention of an author) but rather questions its logic – all our thoughts are not necessarily conscious and we can never be wholly present to ourselves. In this, Derrida is also influenced by psychoanalysis, a discourse which he seems alternatively to love and question. But he’s also making the point that texts write themselves in a sense – given that all we have are the common stock of language and that all our use of language is an echo of other prior uses – this also helps us understand what he means by iterability. But it’s crucial to note that Derrida has been very careful to point out that he never uses the term “indeterminacy”. Rather, he talks of undecideability, which I once defined as “determinate oscillation between two poles”. Let me see if I can tease that out.
Derrida often talks about how Western thought is essentially binary. We posit a series of oppositions – strong and weak, political and social, male and female, guilt and innocence and so on. Within any of these paired concepts, one is defined in terms of the other – paradoxically often the more devalued and weaker term. Thus, we can only really talk about what politics is by marking it off from the social or the private – as the endless attempts to seek the essence of the political which really make up the subject matter of political theory demonstrate. So A is defined by not A, not through any positivity, and it’s locked in a vicelike grip with A, stretched out along a tense wire, and the two terms bleed into each other once we try and mark out their boundary. What we need to do, he argues, is reverse the terms and seek the excluded third. There’s a sense here in which Derrida is also arguing against the Hegelian dialectic, which its aficionados may pick up. The classic demonstration of this “deconstruction” – which is already at work in our thought – Derrida really just points out what’s going on – is the privileging of the spoken word over the written which he first discusses in Writing and Difference and then later – through the figures of Plato and Socrates in The Post Card, which is a sort of epistolary novel in form, and incidentally, a bit of a racy read.
Now it’s fairly clear that this manner of thinking, and reading and criticising scrupulously has political implications. You can think about how the example I’ve given above – which is key to the theory of political liberalism – works in relation to the deconstruction of the political and the private. I’d actually like to talk more about Derrida and politics, a subject I’ve done some work on in my thesis and a number of papers, and which I referred to shortly after his sad death last year, but as I noted at the outset, this post is in principle endless and could be a thesis in and of itself, and I don’t want to try your patience. I’d also like to discuss Derrida’s work on ethics, which I find extroardinarily convincing. Tim Dunlop noted in the thread on “Truth, Lies and Postmodernism” that many accuse postmodernism of nihilism or quietism, and Derrida’s work on hospitality, on Europe, on the politics of friendship, on forgiveness and remembering, on the gift and exchange, in law and on justice and the foundation of states and their constitutions, on refugees, and on globalisation (which he preferred to call the Latinisation of the world), and on the politics of religion and the Abrahamic faiths – a marvellous variety of interlinked work dating from the late 1980s – belies both his characterisation as postmodern and his characterisation as nihilist. Derrida saw himself – in dialogue with an opponent of earlier times – Juergen Habermas – as within the tradition of the Enlightenment.
But I must hasten towards my end, even as I feel I haven’t begun. I had planned to write eleven theses on Derrida to answer Rafe’s question about his philosophical significance. But I find myself unable to. His thought seems to actively resist a quick summary, as The Times again notes well:
It is, however, impossible to offer a summary because, despite the views put forward in encyclopaedias, textbooks on literary theory, and in many classrooms, Derrida neither articulated nor proposed a single theory or philosophical position, even though he has formulated certain radical notions, such as “diff©rance” and “iterability”. Rather, what can be said of his work is that each publication is a singular demonstration of a patient response to the contours, rhythms and turns of the subject being addressed.
Instead I want to return to the question of the resistance and outrage his thought has inspired. It’s significant to note – and there’s a parallel – that just at the time that the culture war was getting off the ground in the US, a determined attempt was made to destroy the deconstructionists. This was assisted by the revelations that Paul de Man, a friend of Derrida’s, had written anti-Semitic articles for a Belgian newspaper during the Second World War. This was used to imply that deconstruction was marred with the brush of fascism, a suspicion enhanced by its debt to Heidegger. Ironically, Derrida himself had often been attacked by the Marxist Left, and by other Left thinkers such as Habermas, for conservatism. It’s very clear that Derrida’s politics were Left in a fairly traditional French way, and Derrida himself was Jewish, born in Algeria, and his family suffered under the Vichy regime. Derrida thought of himself as a Marrano and his unstable relation as a child and a young man to language, to place, and to national and personal identity no doubt marked his thought deeply. This topic – Derrida as a Marrano – is one I’d like to have the time someday to write on in conjunction with his thought on Judaism and the other Abrahamic faiths, as well as his thought on the inheritance of Latinity. Derrida was deeply distressed about the posthumous revelations about his friend, which he had not known about while de Man was alive, and wrote interestingly on this question in a piece called “Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War”, later included in his book Memoires for Paul de Man.
Derrida was subjected to unjustified abuse over this, and hyperbolic and untrue claims that he had justified de Man’s actions. All he in fact argued was that we needed to understand them, but we all know (from the Iraq War as a recent example) where that leads in the polemic of the new inquisitors, the politically correct warriors of the Right. Ironically, at around the same time, deconstruction within literary theory in North America came under attack from the forces of identity politics (the real targets of the cultural warriors) for privileging the Western philosophical canon. Theory was proclaimed dead in the study of English, which quickly reinvented itself as Cultural Studies or Media Studies and seemed to lose interest in philosophical questions and indeed in literary texts in favour of what Rapaport rather dismissively calls “social studies”.
Thus, the supreme irony of this discussion, which I think would have amused Derrida. The deconstructionists spend all their time commenting on Dead White Males, the philosophical canon (from Plato through Kant through Heidegger), and literary icons like Baudelaire, Mallarme, Shakespeare and Poe. The cultural warriors attack deconstructionists for destroying truth and literature and beauty while deconstruction is actually targetted for being far too close to the writers who are held to exemplify these concepts.
The other matter I’d like to comment on briefly, is how beautiful Derrida’s obituaries and thoughts on death are. This text, pronounced at the grave of Gilles Deleuze, another philosopher who saw himself in a very traditional way as a creator of concepts, is very moving, and could I think have been said of Derrida himself:
Too much to say, and I don’t have the heart for it today. There is too much to say about what has happened to us here, about what has also happened to me, with the death of Gilles Deleuze, with a death we no doubt feared (knowing him to be so ill), but still, with this death here (cette mort-ci), this unimaginable image, in the event, would deepen still further, if that were possible, the infinite sorrow of another event.
As Derrida titled this apostrophe to Deleuze, Now I’ll have to wander all alone. Derrida’s thoughts on mourning, death and friendship, collected in the recent volume The Work of Mourning are in themselves testament to the contribution he has made, for which I at least will forever be in his debt.
I was going to offer some reading suggestions in the secondary literature (though I always argue people should plunge into the works themselves), but I’m too tired now. This post has taken an hour and a half to write, and it’s after midnight. So I’ll content myself by referring readers to a brief interview with Derrida about love, and to two good links pages at The Voice of the Shuttle and Popcultures.com.
But I’d really like you to read The Times obituary, which offers an excellent overview of his life, work and thought. I’m only sorry I lack the time to write more, and to write more clearly about Derrida’s contribution. I won’t be at home much tomorrow or tomorrow night, so you’ll understand if I stay out of the comments box. I’ll leave JD with the last word, which is pretty relevant in the context of this text that I am at this moment writing:
This love means an affirmative desire towards the Other – to respect the Other, to pay attention to the Other, not to destroy the otherness of the Other – and this is the preliminary affirmation, even if afterwards because of this love, you ask questions. There is some negativity in deconstruction. I wouldn’t deny this. You have to criticise, to ask questions, to challenge and sometimes to oppose. What I have said is that in the final instance, deconstruction is not negative although negativity is no doubt at work. Now, in order to criticise, to negate, to deny, you have first to say “yes”. When you address the Other, even if it is to oppose the Other, you make a sort of promise – that is, to address the Other as Other, not to reduce the otherness of the Other, and to take into account the singularity of the Other. That’s an irreducible affirmation, its the original ethics if you want. So from that point of view, there is an ethics of deconstruction. Not in the usual sense, but there is an affirmation. You know, I often use a quote from Rosensweig or even from Levinas which says that the “yes” is not a word like others, that even if you do not pronounce the word, there is a “yes” implicit in every language, even if you multiply the “no”, there is a “yes”. And this is even the case with Heidegger. You know Heidegger, for a long time, for years and years kept saying that thinking started with questioning, that questioning (fragen) is the dignity of thinking. And then one day, without contradicting this statement, he said “yes, but there is something even more originary than questioning, than this piety of thinking,” and it is what he called zusage which means to acquiesce, to accept, to say “yes”, to affirm. So this zusage is not only prior to questioning, but it is supposed by any questioning. To ask a question, you must first tell the Other that I am speaking to you. Even to oppose or challenge the Other, you must say “at least I speak to you”, “I say yes to our being in common together”. So this is what I meant by love, this reaffirmation of the affirmation.