Monday, October 25, 2004

Judith Butler on Derrida

An excerpt with comments by BV. Entire piece available here.

It is surely uncontroversial to say that Jacques Derrida was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, that his international reputation far exceeds any French intellectual of his generation. More than that, his work fundamentally changed the way in which we think about language, philosophy, aesthetics, painting, literature, communication, ethics and politics. His early work criticized the structuralist presumption that language could be described as a static set of rules, and he showed how those rules admitted of contingency and were dependent on a temporality that could undermine their efficacy. He wrote against philosophical positions that uncritically subscribed to "totality" or "systematicity" as values, without first considering the alternatives that were ruled out by that preemptive valorization. He insisted that the act of reading extends from literary texts to films, to works of art, to popular culture, to political scenarios, and to philosophy itself. The practice of "reading" insists that our ability to understand relies on our capacity to interpret signs.

BV: Is this something that needs to be "insisted" on? Who would deny it?

It also presupposes that signs come to signify in ways that no particular author or speaker can constrain in advance through intention. This does not mean that our language always confounds our intentions, but only that our intentions do not fully govern everything we end up meaning by what we say and write (see Limited Inc., 1977).

BV: Suppose I write something. A reader can derive a meaning from it that I do not intend. That is trivially true. But it is false to say my intentions "do not fully govern everything" I end up meaning by my writing. What I mean is exactly what I intend to mean. I am the authority as to what I mean by a particular inscription or utterance and no one else.

Derrida’s work moved from a criticism of philosophical presumptions in groundbreaking books such as On Grammatology (1967), Writing and Difference (1967), Dissemination (1972), The Post Card (1980), and Spurs (1978), to the question of how to theorize the problem of "difference." This term he wrote as "differance," not only to mark the way that signification works, with one term referring to another, always relying on a deferral of meaning between signifier and signified, but also to characterize an ethical relation, the relation of sexual difference, and the relation to the Other.

BV: The notion that signification "always relies on a deferral of meaning between signifier and signified" is ably criticized by John M. Ellis, Against Deconstruction (Princeton 1989), p. 54 ff. Review here.

Ellis’ point is that Derrida confuses signification with the analysis of signification. From the premise that the meaning of a word involves a play of contrasts with other words, it does not follow that all the possible contrasts of a given word with other words must be understood for a user of the word to mean something definite on a particular occasion. Unpacking all those possible contrasts is a perhaps endless task of analysis; but one need not engage in any such analysis to use a word meaningfully.


And of course to bring into the mix sex, ethics, and the Other only muddies these troubled waters even more.

If some readers thought that Derrida was a linguistic constructivist, they missed the fact that the name we have for something, for ourselves, for an other, is precisely what fails to capture the referent (as opposed to making or constructing that referent). He clearly drew critically on the work of Emmanuel Levinas in order to insist upon the "Other" as one to whom an incalculable responsibility is owed, one who could never fully be "captured" through social categories or designative names, one to whom a certain response is owed. This framework became the basis of his strenuous critique of apartheid in South Africa, his vigilant opposition to totalitarian regimes and forms of intellectual censorship, his theorization of the nation-state beyond the hold of territoriality, his opposition to European racism, and his critical relation to the discourse of "terror" as it worked to fortify governmental powers that undermine basic human rights . . . .

BV: Typical. It is the "discourse of ‘terror’" that worries Derrida, not terror itself.

Derrida made clear in his small book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come.

BV: So we don’t have the concept of justice yet, but have to wait for it to arrive? What a sloppy way to write! If we don’t have this concept yet, how will we know when it does arrive? What Butler wants to say is that the concept of justice has yet to be realized. But even that is not true: the concept – assuming for the nonce that there is only one such concept – is partially realized on a daily basis. And why should we assume that there is something which is the concept of justice? John Rawls famously articulated a concept of justice as fairness, a concept that is opposed by other concepts of justice.

This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life.

BV: Derrida was CLEAR that there is no other life? No one can be CLEAR about such a thing, any more than one can be CLEAR that there is a life to come. Anyone who says that it is clear that there is a God and/or an afterlife is a bullshitter, and anyone who says the opposite is an equal, but opposite, bullshitter.

What is offensive here, and what must be opposed, is the obliteration of classical, indeed perennial, philosophical problems of enduring human concern by the arbitrary adoption of a ‘discourse’ that does not allow them to be framed.

It means only that, as an ideal, it is that toward which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realized would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed). Derrida kept us alive to the practice of criticism, understanding that social and political transformation was an incessant project, one that could not be relinquished, one that was coextensive with the becoming of life itself, and with a reading of the rules through which a polity constitutes itself through exclusion or effacement.

BV: It is just nonsense to say or imply that social and political transformation are coextensive with the becoming of life itself. This rules out by terminological fiat the very possibility of a stable political order.

Note the high-flown verbiage about a polity constituting itself. Where is this polity itself? People form a polity by their individual political actions.

How is justice done? What justice do we owe others? And what does it mean to act in the name of justice? These were questions that had to be asked regardless of the consequences, and this meant that they were often questions asked when established authorities wished that they were not.

BV: Was Derrida the first to ask these questions? I seem to remember one Socrates of Athens who asked these questions and who faced consequences far worse than any Derrida faced. Note also the typical leftist move of assuming that the "established authorities" (a pleonastic expression) cannot possibly have justice and right on their side. Of course, Butler doesn’t say this in so many words, but this is part of the game these people play. By never saying anything definite, they avoid having their claims evaluated. One cannot evaluate an indeterminate thesis. And the propounder of such a thesis can always claim he has been misunderstood thereby avoiding critique.

If his critics worried that, with Derrida, there are no foundations upon which one could rely, they doubtless were mistaken in that view. Derrida relies perhaps most assiduously on Socrates, on a mode of philosophical inquiry that took the question as the most honest and arduous form for thought.

BV: There is no doubt that Derrida borrows from Heidegger what I call a fetishization of the question. I hope to devote a separate post to this topic. Here too Derrida attempts to out-Heidegger Heidegger. The notion that endless questioning, the questioning of questioning itself, the questioning of the presuppositions of the very posing of the question about questioning itself, the endless preparing to be in a position where one can finally, perhaps, authentically pose a question about something – what is this if not the fetishization of questioning for its own sake, when questioning by its very sense is oriented toward answers? But we can never arrive at any answers or conclusions because that would involve "exclusion" of other answers as incorrect. And we can’t have that, can we?

Meanwhile the uncritical presuppositions of this deconstructionist stuff themselves go unquestioned.


It would interesting to investigate how far this fetishization of questioning, of "incessant criticism," go hand in glove with the Left’s fetishization of dissent – as if dissent were an end in itself rather than what it is, a means to an end.