I am generally disappointed with what’s been written on the occasion of philosopher Jacques Derrida’s death because so much of appears to be just plain wrong or poorly informed. I’m not just talking about people who refer to his writing as “drivel” or “nonsense.” Those people are either stupid or intellectually lazy, and I’ve never been very interested in interacting with people who display those qualities. My mama didn’t raise me that way.
I would never take a strong, public stand for or against some intellectual movement about which I am not very knowledgeable. If I don’t understand something, my strategy is to defer extensive or ostensibly definitive commentary. This is what scholars are supposed to do. If you are irritated with Derrida because you read an essay or two in grad school that rubbed you the wrong way, or because someone told you what he stands for and you don’t like the sound of it, then you are not qualified to pass judgment upon his work or its influence. I am as impatient as the next person with Derrida’s often-opaque writing style, but comprehension is as much a function of the abilities of the reader as of the clarity of the writer.
If a student were to ask me to define deconstruction, the movement that Derrida is credited with founding, I would say something like this, “All seemingly coherent and self-contained systems actually contain within themselves the seeds of their own undoing. Something that seems to be one thing could actually be said to be its exact opposite.” However, I would also acknowledge that this two-sentence description is probably violently reductive, and smart people have written reams on the subject. I would then help that student find some of that writing.
Here’s something I did like, something that provides as accurate (to me) a summation of Derrida’s intellectual project as we might ask for. Scott McLemee links to a 2003 piece by Terry Eagleton, who writes:
[Derrida] did indeed comment that “there is nothing outside the text”, but he did not mean by this that Mme Derrida or the Arc de Triomphe were just thinly disguised pieces of writing. He meant that there is nothing in the world that is not “textual”, in the sense of being made up of a complex weave of elements which prevents it from being cleanly demarcated from something else. “Textual” means that nothing stands gloriously alone. He has never argued that anything can mean anything, rather that meaning is never final or stable. No system of meaning can ever be unshakeably founded. “Decentring” human beings does not mean abolishing them, but denying that they can ever be independent of the forces that went into their making. To deconstruct does not mean to destroy, but to show that terms which seem to be opposites (say, “man” and “woman”) violently suppress the ways in which they are secretly in collusion. Or, more generally, to show how every coherent system is forced at certain key points to violate its own logic. It is, Derrida has insisted, a form of political critique, not just a literary method. Indeed, he has recently described deconstruction as a kind of radicalised Marxism – a claim which is hardly likely to endear him to the killjoys of King’s Parade, but which is scarcely consistent with claiming that he believes in nothing but writing.
A commentator to the “What Remains, 1930-2004” entry authored by Matt Kirschenbaum points out that Spivak, the translator of Derrida’s Of Gramatology, gave two versions for the hors-texte statement. And it appears that Spivak’s two versions have given rise to an other alternative : “there is no outside of the text” or with another prepositional shift the English “there is no outside to the text” could capture some of the nuance of the French.
I stress the spatial and dimensional aspects of the understanding of “texte”. After all, Derrida’s first monograph was devoted to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry.
Very nice. I’m teaching a literary theory course this semester, and on Wednesday night I told them that Derrida had died–but because we haven’t gotten to poststructuralism yet, it had little meaning for them.
Would you mind if I shared this post with them in a few weeks?
George expresses disappointment about how uninformed many of the recent Derrida obituaries are. Yes. I was hoping there would be some enlightening telling of personal memory and anecdote. Instead, much was written in the tired old template of mixing a…
While I’m sympathetic to the basic thrust of your post, let me observe that there is a basic problem with the complaint you make (a complaint echoed by many commentators since Derrida’s death), namely, that without a reasonably thorough command of Derrida’s writings, one is not qualified to criticize his work or impact.
There are some simple ways we could probably agree that this is a problematic criticism. An intellectual, for example, can have an indirect impact based on inaccurate or reported readings of his/her work and yet still in some sense be the progenitor of such echoes. Marx is the most often discussed case of this: I think it’s perfectly fair to say that Stalin perverted Marx and barely understood him, and yet not fair to say that Marx and Marxism contain no causal or explanatory relation to Stalin or Stalinism.
That’s the easy point. The more complicated one native to Derrida himself is this: the only way that I can see to assert that a mastery of Derridean texts is a necessary precursor to an evaluation of Derrida’s accomplishment is by being an anti-Derridean in some important respect. In what sense does Derrida himself provide the foundation or genesis for a critical practice which would demand or rest upon mastery, or even could insist that repeated acquaintance or encounter with a given text would produce a condition of knowledge or familiarity which could be prescriptively said to be better, more desirable, more true? You have to violate some of the central tenets of Derridean thought in order to assert that repeated or comprehensive readings of Derrida produce a more desirable condition of reading–and produce an agreed-upon set of meanings or interpretations which can form the outer boundaries of a legitimate dialogue about what Derrida really meant.
This is the peril of anti-foundationalism, in the end: it recurves intellectual practice back on its institutional basis, and denies it other justifications or reasons for being. Foucault understood this much more sharply than Derrida, I think, though with no more satisfying an end result for a continued praxis of work within the academy.
Interesting, rereading George’s entry through the comments generated by Timothy Burke, it’s this phrase that catches my attention “you are not qualified” which is not the same thing to say “you are disqualified”. Reading takes place in the zone between qualification and disqualification. There is a certain humility in approaching any textual production — the not quite qualified outlook — and pride in the approach — I can learn that because I am not qualified, I am not disqualified. There is no elect. George’s reactions to reactions of others supplied for me an other occasion to dwell upon the hors-text statement. And then Timothy Burke’s take led me to reread George and to pull this phrase from his citing of Scott McLemee.
“Textual” means that nothing stands gloriously alone.
That “nothing” calls out and leads me to think that nothing is interwoven into every something that stands along the alone.
“An intellectual, for example, can have an indirect impact based on inaccurate or reported readings of his/her work and yet still in some sense be the progenitor of such echoes.” That’s true, but that doesn’t mean the hypothetical intellectual is responsible for those echoes.
I’m not really trying to make a point about Derrida. I’m trying to make a point about credibility. If all someone has to say are some generalizations about an intellectual’s impact on the humanities (and too much of the commentary on Derrida has been of this sort), it’s my opinion that they should not be taken seriously.
Sorry. There are no real sparks of brilliance flying off of me in this comment, are there?
Back to Derrida: I’ve yet to see a persuasive argument that he has had a seriously negative effect upon the study of language and literature. What would persuade me? This: What were the best features of the study of language and literature before Derrida? Where is the evidence that those features do not characterize the study of language and literature now and that Derrida and his followers are responsible for their absence? Really, that’s it.
Is there crappy criticism and scholarship now? Yes, of course, and if we are to believe someone like Alexander Pope, there has been for a long, long time. Has the proportion of crap to good stuff taken a turn for the worse as a result of Derrida or the bogeyman known as “Theory”? I don’t think so. However, I am open to being persuaded otherwise provided the persuasion is done with something other than anecdotal evidence of the “I had this professor once…” variety.
I hope that makes sense.
George, I’m not about to claim that some scholarship is not shody and some criticism is not crap. I am prepared to defend the value of shody crap. “In _L’invention intellectuelle_ Judith Schlanger suggests that noise, the sheer mass of popularisation which the French call “vulgarisation” contributes to significant breakthroughs. Each rearticulation of current knowledge is a displacing repetition and affects however slightly the paths open and opening to thinkers.” para 1(i) http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~lachance/S0.HTM
I think your reaction to the implicit and not so implicit anti-intellectualism in a certain species of reportage, if I read you correctly, is also with a politics of time and labour. It is not just that investments of time and effort in becoming acquainted with an oeuvre lend credibility to one’s pronouncements about the other, err the author,, it is that investments of labour and time are a way of being in the world. I never thought of sloth as underlying xenophobia. Thanks
More on Derrida
Here, from George H. Williams, is another useful blog entry on Derrida’s death and the inaccuracy of some of the descriptions of his work that have followed….