Friday, October 15, 2004

From the Mail: What Derrida Really Meant

Jeff Hodges (Korea University, Seoul) writes:

Dear Bill,
Concerning your post:
What Blanshard Might Have Said to Derrida

Brand Blanshard, On Philosophical Style, pp. 52-53: "Persistently obscure writers will usually be found to be defective human beings."

I read an article in the International Herald Tribune (IHT) yesterday (October 15, Seoul time) that gives a positive view of Derrida the man. I realize that we should expect positive portraits in an 'obituary' written by a friend, but the article does give us a glimpse of the person behind the writing.Incidently, the Big Ho also gives his positive personal impression of Derrida based on an encounter in which he managed to get Derrida to sign a styrofoam cup. See the entry "Derrida is Dead" on Sunday, October 10, 2004. (Website not worksafe).

As I would put it, entry into the Big Ho's site requires proper accoutrement: gas mask on face, shovel in hand.

Anyway, the IHT article was a reprint of a New YorkTimes original, which I paste below. It's worksafe (unless you work with conservatives) but requires registration -- in case you want to go there.

Yours, Jeff
P.S. The "worksafe" expression is a joke, borrowed from those who link to sites containing (usually) sexually explicit images. This is just in case you post my email (which I'm not expecting, really).

Yes you are .

Excerpt to follow. For whole piece go here.

What Derrida Really Meant

Published: October 14, 2004

Fisking by BV.

Along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, who died last week in Paris at the age of 74, will be remembered as one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century.

That just shows what a miserable century the 20th was for philosophy. I like to say that whereas Heidegger went off the deep-end, Wittgenstein went off the shallow-end. His was a "plumber's philosophy" as J. N. Findlay once said in a seminar. "He took every wrong turn it is possible to take in philosophy." Derrida out-Heideggers Heidegger, descending into realms of obfuscation that make Heidegger appear a paragon of clarity by contrast.

No thinker in the last 100 years had a greater impact than he did on people in more fields and different disciplines. Philosophers, theologians, literary and art critics, psychologists, historians, writers, artists, legal scholars and even architects have found in his writings resources for insights that have led to an extraordinary revival of the arts and humanities during the past four decades. And no thinker has been more deeply misunderstood.

You mean there is something there to understand and misunderstand?

To people addicted to sound bites and overnight polls, Mr. Derrida's works seem hopelessly obscure.

But not only to them, unless you want to say that John Searle is addicted to sound bites and overnight polls.

It is undeniable that they cannot be easily summarized or reduced to one-liners. The obscurity of his writing, however, does not conceal a code that can be cracked, but reflects the density and complexity characteristic of all great works of philosophy, literature and art.

It is simply false that all great works of philosophy are obscure and dense. Descartes' Meditations is a prime counterexample, as are the works of Spinoza, Hume, Brentano and Husserl, to give only some examples. Consider what Blanshard has to say about Berkeley: "Berkeley proved against all the Heideggers of the world that philosophy can be written clearly, against all the Hegels that it can be written simply, against all the Kants that it can be written with grace. He was no mere popularizer; he was an acute, original, and technical thinker . . ." (On Phil. Style, p. 62)

Like good French wine, his works age well. The more one lingers with them, the more they reveal about our world and ourselves. What makes Mr. Derrida's work so significant is the way he brought insights of major philosophers, writers, artists and theologians to bear on problems of urgent contemporary interest. Most of his infamously demanding texts consist of careful interpretations of canonical writers in the Western philosophical, literary and artistic traditions - fromPlato to Joyce. By reading familiar works against the grain, he disclosed concealed meanings that created new possibilities for imaginative expression. Mr. Derrida's name is most closely associated with the often cited but rarely understood term"deconstruction." Initially formulated to define a strategy for interpreting sophisticated written and visual works, deconstruction has entered everyday language. When responsibly understood, the implications of deconstruction are quite different from the misleading clich├ęs often used to describe a process of dismantling or taking things apart.

Fine, now how should deconstruction be "responsibly understood'?

The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure - be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious - that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion.

This illustrates the very problem that many of us have with writers like Derrida. For this to be more than abstract verbiage, the reader must be told what a structure is, and what is not a structure; what it is for a structure to organize our experience; and what an act of exclusion is. The Kantian notion that categories structure our experience seems to be uncritically assumed -- why? And note how no example is provided. Nor are we told what would count as a counterexample to the thesis. What we have here is something so vague that it cannot be evaluated.

Every structure is maintained by acts of exclusion? My work environment is structured in a certain way -- which excludes other possible ways of structuring it. Is it trivilaities like this that constitute Derrida's great insights?

In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.

Yes indeed, when I made pizza last night, I left out the sparkplugs and the transmission fluid.

These exclusive structures can become repressive - and that repression comes with consequences. In a manner reminiscent of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that what is repressed does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems.

Note the slide from exclusion to repression, and now Freud is brought into the mix, and the Continental mishmash is well underway.

As an Algerian Jew writing in France during the postwar years in the wake of totalitarianism on the right (fascism) as well as the left (Stalinism), Mr.Derrida understood all too well the danger of beliefs and ideologies that divide the world into diametrical opposites: right or left, red or blue, good or evil, for us or against us. He showed how these repressive structures, which grew directly out of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, threatened to return with devastating consequences.

Now we have moved from repression in the Freudian sense (which belongs to psychology) to repression in a political sense. What are we supposed to get from the above paragraph, that totalitarian ideologies are dangerous? We already knew that. That they are repressive "structures"? No doubt. (But why 'structure' when we have 'belief system' and the like?) That they "threaten to return"? What exactly does that mean?

Note also the innuendo: These repressive "structures" "grew directly out of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition" -- the sly suggestion being that there is something deeply corrupt about this tradition. I can hear Jesse Jackson and Co. chanting in the background: "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ has got to go."

Innuendo, suggestion, rhetorical questions -- these are Continental rhetorical tricks. I want to say to these people: do you have a thesis? Then state it clearly, support it rigorously, define your key terms, and examine many examples.

At this point I stop fisking, although I did read the whole piece. It is clear that Taylor has nothing clarificatory to say.

UPDATE: Thanks to John Gallagher for sending me a direct URL to Taylor's article. I overlooked the last paragraph of Taylor's piece in praise of Derrida the man. It should be read and compared with the Blanshard quotation at the top of this post.