Sunday, December 12, 2010

QOTD: Some Self-Indulgence on Derrida

(((living impossible lives; Marco Roth's paean/elegy/no-something-else to Derrida upon the latter's death in 2004; me and Derrida and Kierkegaard -- if you don't care about either me or Derrida, you will probably find this hopelessly boring; also some Badiou)))

I just stumbled across an essay from 2004 regarding Derrida's death. It's more memoir-ish than Derrida would write, but otherwise, he makes the appropriate derridean gestures. More than that, I appreciated much of what he said about Derrida and deconstruction.

Reading this essay was the first time since a course on Postmodern Theology in grad school (where we read Heidegger, Lévinas, Derrida -- and Mark C. Taylor) that I haven't felt essentially alone in my thinking about Derrida. And in the last sentence I quote (not the last of the essay), I feel as though someone has finally explained to me why I love Derrida (and, might I add, precisely what he has in common with Kierkegaard, whom I loved first), which had been a mystery, ultimately, even to me. 

I wanted to post it here partly because I know there are a few who will appreciate it, although perhaps in somewhat different ways than I myself do. But also because I think it sets up a way of understanding Badiou as filling the gap left by Derrida and Deleuze, and also as providing important -- even if problematic -- rejoinders to their work. When I finally cottoned onto Badiou, I immediately saw his work as an extension of what I had found compelling in the work of Derrida (and Deleuze, as well, more so in some ways, less in others). Clearly Derrida and Badiou were coming closer to each other toward the end of the former's life, and there is a note about this (or anyway something close to it) in The Logics of Worlds.

There's also something to be drawn from the full essay, not quoted here, about teaching. Not just in the story of Derrida's sporadic and horribly long "lectures" at the Haute École, but in the author's observation that where or who or what Derrida was could not "be transmitted." So then one wonders what the teaching part is, and I note that it is mainly in his reflections many years later that the author comes to understand things he learned way back when. Some he got then. Some he didn't get until now. Derrida was, you might say, a certain absence of a teacher. And that's the only clichéd deconstructive move I'm going to make. I leave the rest to Marco Roth, who said it all so much better -- and so much less in strained and painful imitation of Derrida -- than I imagine myself being able to do that I can only quote him for the real substance of this note.

But now isn’t the time for such games. To do so would be disingenuous and accede too quickly to one of the charges often leveled against “Deconstruction”: sophistry, a fondness for the play of rhetoric and metaphor over truth, facts, and history. The charge, never just or fair though leveled by vocal supporters of justice and fairness, ignored that Deconstructionists were incredibly wary of saying aloud that they’d discovered a truth for fear that they’d uncovered another metaphor. The conviction that all was metaphor or trope could grow into arrogance, but more often bred a dull hesitancy about concluding. Old school literary critics always understood this, and so warned against Deconstruction as a school of resentment and its hermeneutics of suspicion. Neither poetry nor ‘hard’ philosophy, sharing aspects of both, Deconstruction is loved by neither.

[ . . . ]

The fashion for theory and the words “Orientalism” and “Deconstruction” was as much a result of intelligent, angry and alienated Americans fastening on to a promise without quite grasping the training and the commitment to lonely thinking through a fixed tradition required to make it a reality. Despite its rapid politicization, “theory” in America or la pensée 68 in France, was not going to change the world (if by world we mean government). Theory, however, could and did change individual lives. Briefly, it redeemed difficulty and especially a discomfort some people felt intuitively about subject and object, language and self. Those people who felt they stood on shaky foundations suddenly had a home for their native anti-foundationalism. They too could become theorists. Think of it as a job creation program for all intellectual nerds, outcasts and misfits, people whose kind of intelligence meant that they weren’t even comfortable around most other intelligent people. The betrayal by the American system of higher education of those who’d enrolled enthusiastically in these job placement programs is a sad but minor footnote to the history of the 1990s. I don’t mean the dwindling number of jobs for French, German, and philosophy PhDs or the corporatization of the University, although that’s part of it. The betrayal began before, when those who showed glimmers of interest in theory were led to think that their curiosity would be nurtured into knowledge by a series of occasional course offerings and visiting instructors who rarely stayed long enough to ground a program. Instead of finding themselves in an academy, however, these students found themselves in the agora, fighting for money, time, attention, and space against better organized guilds. Theory did not, in itself, corrupt the young. The siege mentality surrounding theorists and theory did.

[ . . . ]

In the institutionalization and translation of Derrida’s philosophy, something was always lost. A way of thinking that emphasized the singular and unrepeatable, the absent and the paradox could never offer the satisfaction that one was leading the good life, only that you and others were leading an impossible life. [emphasis added -- jf]